Your Wife As Krakatoa, 1883

For today's entry of The Celestial Monochord, my heartfelt thanks to Minneapolis poet Jennifer L. Willoughby. Her first book of poems, Beautiful Zero, will be published by Milkweed Editions in late 2015. Contact her @hellowilloughby.

The Monochord has also published her poem "Thank You Mr. Sagan."

This is the eleventh installment in my mission to post one entry to The Celestial Monochord every day for the month of February.







Did you hear that ravishing blast?
That was your wife.
Her explosion shocked even the smallest Australian sheep
eating green turf over 3000 miles away.

At Western festivities
languid relatives patted her head,
thinking she was pretty and backwards,
thinking she was alcoholic and strange.

Did you see wings of independence bobbing in her shoals,
did you see infants listening while she sang about England?

She being tame as cocoa,
a little armchair nation stationed next to Java.
Gentlemen whispered, inferred frigidity.

She being a slow colonial outpost
of the spice islands, shanghaied and traded,
her pepper and cloves seasoning putrefying meat.

Your wife was the kind of woman
who wore silk and went bare foot,
plumes of juniper spiking her hair.
Pye-dogs, the wandering mutts of Asia,
followed her whistles, lapped her salty knees.

She could tell time with a shadow & a pin.
She was good at falling in love with the peacock generation.

She had a fling with the Wallace Line,
raising eyebrows over glasses of gin.
They got down to business
with the poison flowers,
the strangling weeds,
the scavenging avians.

Your wife was either a shrew or a shrewd captive of nature.

In one day,
your wife destroyed life as she knew it,
went cackling madwoman, breaking the stone gates
of her oceanic laboratory, boiling down your horded annual capital
to a glutinous stew of paper boats, torn orchids and molten bones.

No one could hold her.
The shock wave of your wife traveled the earth seven times.
Her ashes sat in the lungs of merchants in Singapore like black milk.
She hotwired barometers from Bogota to DC and flung her aerosol spray
of sapphire and emerald suns to tango with the equator.

Your wife killed 36,417 people.
Your wife sent corpses sailing to Africa on pyres of steaming pumice.
Your wife was 10,000 times as strong as Hiroshima's atomic bomb.
Your wife was the mother of it all.

Some future tourist scouring the beach
for chambered shells or shiny tiki treasures
might know nothing about your wife.

Scientists have added your wife to their alphabetical jars
of formaldehyde, saline and amber. Etched her face on a fossil.

She fooled honest men in New York and New Haven.
They drove fire trucks to quench hallucinatory afterglows
as she rouged the sedate evening with mirrors of flame.

Forget your wife.
She was not beloved.
Her unusual sunsets continued for years.






Square Dancing at Los Alamos

Higinbotham   Brode   Feynman
William A. Higinbotham, Bernice Brode, and Richard Feynman

While in Los Alamos this Christmas, I picked up Tales of Los Alamos: Life on the Mesa, 1943-1945, by Bernice Brode. It turned out to be a book in which music plays a central role.

Tales of Los Alamos is a light-hearted portrait of life as one of the Manhattan Project's young newlyweds, who lived somewhat like prisoners of war. For Brode and her colleagues, Los Alamos was like college or the military is for a lot of people — a golden time to work like hell and then explosively blow off steam. It was a safe place to get a little practice at being an adult. Really, the designers of the first atomic bomb were horny young party animals.

The average age of a Los Alamos resident was 26, according to Brode ("The Day after Trinity" says 29). The military brass tried (without success) to limit the number of babies were being born, while the single GI's on the mesa defended (with success) a prostitution ring against efforts to shut it down. Pure laboratory alcohol spiked the punchbowls.

Brode writes:

We had a good deal of music at Los Alamos, organized and unorganized. Walking along the roads in the evening, we heard the strains of Bach or Mozart that filled the air. High up in the mountains, radio reception was poor, but we had our own radio station in the last year. [The station used records from the collections of residents] and our otherwise quiet mesa was soon saturated with the world's best music.
A lot of physicists and their wives were classically trained musicians, so there were many recitals and an annual chorus Handel's "Messiah." Edward Teller's piano playing was particularly brutal on everyone's sleep cycle, with its odd hours, workmanlike style, and inclusive repertoire.

But the men and women of Los Alamos were generally too young and stressed out for much serious music. Besides, Brode writes, residents had "an instinctive knowledge that vigorous gaiety must be our tenor, and that we perhaps could not afford much emotional content and contemplation."

The mesa had a barber shop quartet and a jazz band, and the children mounted several ambitious musical revues. For one such revue, new words were set to the tune of the Marine's Hymn:

From the East Coast, from the West Coast
And the land that lies between
We arrived here at Los Alamos
Queerest city ever seen

Oh, we love our mountain stronghold
And our homes among the stars
It's the strangest story ever told
This mesa town of ours

From the plains of neighbor Texas
And the sidewalks of New York
We arrived here at Los Alamos
To learn, to play, to work

We have vision strong to guide us
Proud form of Liberty
Whatever is denied us
Is all for Liberty
When Los Alamos residents wanted to really cut loose and break a sweat, there was always square dancing. Its popularity on the mesa isn't surprising given that the dance style had been consciously popularized throughout the 1930's and 1940's by the likes of Lloyd Shaw, Benjamin Lovett, and Henry Ford. Online histories cite 1948 as the peak year of a square dancing fad in America. Apparently, the twenty-somethings of Los Alamos were only very slightly ahead of the curve.

"Calling" the square dances was initially handled by George Hillhouse, chief butcher at the Los Alamos commissary. Eventually, the job was taken over by accordion player and leader of the Electronics Division, William A. Higinbotham. His accordion playing was intensely energizing ("electric sparks went over the Lodge," writes Brode), but his square dance calling was even more compelling:

The time came when we could squeeze no more squares into the Lodge, and we reluctantly moved to the Mess Hall, a much larger floor space ... It became increasing hard for George [the butcher] to keep order in so many squares, but Willie could out-shout any disorder. He said the bigger the mob, the better he liked it.
Brode once tried to calm the nerves of a British couple who'd been having trouble adjusting to the pace of Los Alamos. She took them to the quiet ruins of Bandelier National Monument, but was surprised to find 200 members of the Electronics Division square dancing among the ruins, driven by Higinbotham.

On occasion, when strangers visited, the residents of Los Alamos staged square dance demonstrations as a symbol of their group identity, an illustration of who and what they were. A few months after Nagasaki, the mesa's Tesuque Native Americans invited a group of Los Alamos residents to visit their pueblo for a celebration. The leader of the Tesuque contingent was Popovi Da (also known as "Po"), who was also an Army technician in the lab's Technical Area.

Next, Po called on us to put on a demonstration of square dances. We formed four squares, which we had practiced ... we used our most experienced dancers to give a smooth performance and make the best impression. Most Indians had never seen square dancing before, but after we finished we asked Po to invite everyone to join in with us ... They were natural dancers.

[Afterwards, the Tesuque dancers gave a demonstration] and took hold of some of us, indicating we should shuffle around with them. Po shouted in Tewa the directions, which we gathered were for a sort of serpentine style dance game ... We formed circles and did any number of very fast movements, and, believe me, we had to keep our wits about us. The drummers went faster and faster. It seemed to be an endurance test so none of us dared give out. At the height of this excitement, with yells and shouts, Montoya [a Tesuque who oversaw care of the main Los Alamos dorm] got up on a chair and shouted above the din, "This is the Atomic Age! This is the Atomic Age!"
The stories of Richard Feynman's and Enrico Fermi's attempts to square dance at Los Alamos are fairly well known.

Feynman was the kind of physicist who could amuse classrooms by solving two complex math problems on the board simultaneously — one with the right hand, one with the left. Nevertheless, he was utterly defeated in his attempts to learn to square dance. "It's too hard, much too hard, I can't learn, I'll never learn," he said.

Fermi, on the other hand, refused to dance at all until he had spent many long hours staring intently at the steps of the dancers. Only after he had memorized even the slightest motion did he join in:

He offered to be head couple, which I thought most unwise for his first venture, but I could do nothing about it, and the music began. He led me out on the exact beat, knew exactly each move to make and when. He never made a mistake then or thereafter. I wouldn't say he enjoyed himself for he was so intent on not making a mistake, which the best of us did all the time.
After the war, square dance caller and accordionist Willie Higinbotham emerged as the leader of the segment of Manhattan Project scientists who wanted to aggressively use their new-found status for progressive politics. Their goals were to put atomic power under civilian control, prevent proliferation, and educate the public. Willie went to Washington to learn the art of lobbying. Brode writes:
By all reports, he had the Congressmen and newspapermen working so hard nights that he began to take along his "Stomach Steinway" and had them square dancing when they got tired of atoms. Willie later denied this, but those were the tales we heard [in Los Alamos] at the time.
(Incidentally, in 1958, Higinbotham created Tennis for Two, sometimes cited as the world's first video game.)

Scientists Say So

(science journalist Ira Flatow interviews penguins)


Set-up: How do you know that your son will grow up to be a scientist?

Punch-line: His first word is "So ..."
The joke here, of course, is that quite a lot of scientists seem to always begin speaking with the word "So." And not when they're giving the conclusions to an argument — they aren't using it to mean "therefore."

They just start from a dead stop with "So ... ". They seem to use it the way non-scientists might begin with "Um" or "Well". (I've heard computer professionals use "So", but I hear this as an attempt to sound more scientific.)

Because it's very common, I hate to pick on anyone in particular. In the most recent edition of NPR's Science Friday, 3 out of 5 scientists interviewed in the first hour used this kind of "So" at least once. Science journalist Ira Flatow and Dr. Tobias Brambrink had the following exchange:

Ira: Well then what goes wrong somewhere between the stem cells and the animal?

Tobias: Right, so, I think the most likely explanation lies in the mechanism of cloning. So, when you clone an embryo, what you do is you take a donor cell ...
This tic, which I'll call "The Scientist So," seems to be a recent development. I've spent 35 years listening very closely to scientists, but I first noticed it about 4 or 5 years ago. It's strange. I'd like to know why it happend, and why NOW.

And so, here are a few wild speculations:

Because it makes so little sense, The Scientist So reminds me that science is a subculture. Subcultures do develop funny tics that seem to have no practical purpose — handshakes or dreadlocks or backward baseball caps. Although such tics seem to simply exist to exist, they provide a way to identify and control membership in the group. They do a job, whether they make any sense in themselves or not. Maybe The Scientist So marks the speaker with a cultural affiliation — that of "Scientist."

In a lot of ways, over the past few years, science has been dragged against its will into the Culture Wars. Scientists themselves must be more conscious of being members of the scientific subculture. Through the The Scientist So, perhaps scientists have found a way to "sound like scientists," like an unconscious wearing of the tartan. Perhaps it's even a circling of the wagons, part of a nascent Sci-Pride impulse, a science-shibboleth.

As I hear it, some scientists do manage to make The Scientist So convey an actual meaning. It almost makes sense when some scientists say it. By training, scientists like to start at the very beginning, with first principles, and then recostruct the reasoning behind things. But journalists and other civilians like to have the final conclusions right off the bat. Cut to the chase.

Thus, I can almost hear certain scientists thinking "I'm fast-forwarding very rapidly through a line of reasoning here." They're looking for a kind of off-ramp that's near enough to the conclusion the listener is hoping for, and they want you to understand that.

In this sense, The So is an audible "therefore" at the end of an inaudible explanation that the scientist has to think through, but which he/she isn't allowed enough time to share. The So tells the listener that something really important has been skipped for their convenience.

If The Scientist So were understood this way by the general public, I think it would be a useful reminder of what they're NOT getting from their radios and TVs and newspapers.

If more scientists are having to trim their ideas down to very simple conclusions, it would make sense that the community would develop a verbal notation, or spoken emoticon, to reflect what they're doing. Just maybe, therefore, the recent development of The Scientist So is a by-product of a positive trend — scientists are trying harder to share their findings and their methods with the news media, policy makers, and the general public.

In a way, The Scientist So may be the sound of gears grinding — torque suddenly being applied — as scientists translate the way scientists think about information into the way journalists do.


My Lobotomy

Howard before his lobotomy
Howard Dully before his lobotomy


The other day, I heard one of the best stories I've ever heard on NPR — one of those stories you think about for years.

I can't say I really recommend it, since it's extremely troubling and sad, and rather rage-inducing. But when a piece of art — such as a radio documentary — is very, very well done and needs to be done, it's hard for me not to feel uplifted. Good work is rewarding, regardless.

The story is about Howard Dully, who had a transorbital lobotomy (also known as an "ice pick lobotomy") in 1960 at the age of 12, at the hands of the procedure's inventor, Dr. Walter Freeman. Howard leads the listener through his search to figure out what exactly happened, and why his father and stepmother had the procedure performed.

At one point in the documentary, Howard reads from his medical records, to which he has finally gained access:

HOWARD: It’s pretty much as I suspected ... my stepmother hated me. I never understood why, but it was clear she’d do anything to get rid of me ... Evidently she heard about Dr. Freeman and figured he could help.

DR. FREEMAN: Mrs. Dully called up to say that Howard has been unbelievably defiant with a savage look on his face and at times she is almost afraid. He doesn’t react either to love or to punishment. He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says “I don’t know.” He turns the room’s lights on when there is broad sunlight outside. He hates to wash…

November 30th. Mrs. Dully came in for a talk about Howard. Things have gotten much worse and she can barely endure it. I explained to Mrs. Dully, that the family should consider the possibility of changing Howard’s personality by means of transorbital lobotomy. Mrs Dully said it was up to her husband, that I would have to talk with him and make it stick.

December 3 1960. Mr and Mrs Dully have apparently decided to have Howard operated on. I suggested them not tell Howard anything about it.

The documentary tells Freeman's story too, and with much more sympathy than you'd expect — but with less sympathy than others seem to have. I think it's good for the mind and the soul to try to embrace, for a little while, ideas you find abhorrent ... and sympathy for Freeman is certainly a case to sharpen these skills.

Freeman did his work in a very trying era. Patients and families no longer thought of mental illness as some sort of demonic possession, or the like — they medicalized mental illness instead, which should have been a step in the right direction. But they did so before there were any real medical treatments for essentially any mental health problems. With doctors facing extremly ill patients and desparate families, and armed with virtually no treatments, the conditions were ripe for someone like Freeman to come along, with his pick and his mallet.

... well ... no, it doesn't really fly with me either ...


The Old Negro Space Program

Negro space program

My wife Jenny has just made me aware of a lost chapter of American history that is at once uplifting and downcasting, both inspiring and ... sort of ... not ... inspiring.

A new documentary by Ken Burns (or whatever) tells the story of the old Negro space program, in large part through interviews with the original Blackstronauts themselves:

A lot of people today, they don't think about it. They say "Oh, they're putting a man on the moon" or "Oh, they're putting up another space shuttle." But you see, they don't realize that in the early days of the space program, NASA was whites-only ... It was it a different time, you understand. See, in 1957 if you were black — and if you were an astronaut — you were out of work.

You can watch the nearly 11-minute film (which was excluded from the Sundance Film Festival on the pretense that it was not submitted to the Sundance Film Festival) at

Kitten Astronauts as "The Other"

Cat in space

Kitten astronaut


My cats Georgia (top) and Henry (middle) enjoy their new toy, a small fishbowl. Georgia puts her head inside while also kicking and grabbing at other toys, while Henry's more apt to just sit placidly with his head in the bowl, looking around. They stay there for long periods of time, Henry often for up to 45 minutes, his breath steaming up the glass.

I don't know why.   And so, Houston, we have a problem:

Maybe they like the sonic environment it creates — a world where the only sound is their own breathing, like nursing with their mother. On the other hand, they don't purr or knead when they do this (for a change — they are avid nursers).

Maybe the glass distorts the room, making things look "weird" — and certainly, they like their world when it's defamiliarized. Georgia, who often seems a little bored, likes touring the apartment atop my shoulders. On the other hand, she uses the bowl for shorter periods than Henry and does less "looking" while she's there. Henry, who's less bored with his surroundings, enjoys the view more.

Therefore, my pet theory (sorry for the pun) is that they're pretending that they're astronauts (e.g., John Glenn, also shown above for easy comparison). I believe they imagine themselves to be in Outer Space. They must appreciate this, as I do, as a metaphor for their status as The Other, as representatives from outside of language and discourse, emissaries from a place beyond history and culture.


Don't Say I Didn't Warn You


It's funny ... somehow, I knew New Orleans was a lake waiting to happen, but Bush seems to feel nobody could have predicted it. I was also completely unconvinced that there were WMD in Iraq, but there was no way anybody could have predicted that there wasn't. Maybe we're being lied to, I guess, but I prefer to think that I'm just incrediby brilliant and far-sighted. Yeah, I like that. I'll stick with that hypothesis ...

I have another prediction. Very bad things will continue to happen now and then — things that only Government can do much about. And those things can't be prevented, no matter how much Government is hated by ... the, uh ... current ... Government.

I don't intend to be alarmist, of course. This is only an example. But when was the last time anyone got warned about the great New Madrid earthquakes in Missouri and Arkansas? There were four quakes above magnitude 7.0 within the span of a few months, and some were powerful enough to break windows all the way over in the White House in Washington, D.C. (so maybe it got their attention). The quakes changed the course of the Mississippi River, which flowed backwards for three days.

The point is that, you know, this is not a political game. Government really does have to take itself seriously, and tax people for whatever that seriousness costs. Here's a few other big earthquakes to think about:

1983 Oct 28, Magnitude 7.0, Borah Peak

1959 Aug 18, Magnitude 7.3, Hebgen Lake

1915 Oct 03, Magnitude 7.1, Pleasant Valley
1932 Dec 21, Magnitude 7.2, Cedar Mountain
1954 Dec 16, Magnitude 7.1, Fairview Peak

S. Carolina
1886 Sep 01, Magnitude 7.3, Charleston

Math and Memory in Las Vegas

There's a place on the New Strip across from the Monte Carlo where you can get your picture taken with a big fat Elvis impersonator in front of a Model A Ford. Why a Model A Ford? I don't know. Maybe the whole of "The Past" occurred simultaneously, at least in Las Vegas, at least apparently. On the other hand, if you go to Vegas with your critical faculties intact, you miss the whole experience entirely.


Inside the Luxor pyramid, there's a booth where tourists have videos made of themselves riding a "magic carpet" in front of a bluescreen backdrop. They sit on an oriental rug and are superimposed into a pre-taped video of a rocking, reeling ride down Las Vegas boulevard, while employees shout instructions at them about how to look like they're careening around and reacting to stuff. They get to take home a video putting it all together, with a soundtrack consisting of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" (you know, "close your eyes, girl, look inside, girl ... "). All of this is entirely appropriate, of course, as you know, since there are pictographs inside the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid at Khufu in Egypt depicting tourists making a similar video.


What always amazes and attracts me about Vegas is that it's a town devoted to a branch of mathematics — statistics. The cold, objective, inescapable fact is that you will lose your money. It's as hard and as mundane a fact as any in mathematics. So, the entire city grew up around this fact, like a pearl around a grain of sand. All the lights, the sequins, the wedding chapels, the mythology and history of the place, the Brat Pack, Elvis impersonators, Elvis, Siegfried and Roy, the cheezy Waitsian low-rent romance, the fiberglass-hot-dog architecture, the access and denial-of-access to various VIP areas, the libido of the place, its boundless and peerless T&A — it's all necessitated by the very rigor itself of the logic that demands that you will lose and the house will win. As long as you're dreaming, they know you're asleep ...

Sun and Moon / Summer and Winter

The full moon in summer follows the same path across the sky as the sun in winter. The inverse is true, too. The sun in summer follows the same path across the sky as the full moon in winter.

About that full moon on hot, humid summer nights, all big and low and yellowy, Tom Waits sang, "looks like a buttery cueball moon, all melted off to one side — Parkay." I love that ... Parkay margarine starts to liquefy and skew on hot summer nights, and the moon on those very same nights looks like that — relaxed, too moist to hold its shape.

It looks like that because the full moon on summer nights rides low from east to west across the sky, down near the horizon, where you have to look through a lot of air to see it, and moist warm air at that. The further north you are, the stronger the effect.

Of course, the sun sort of looks a little like that on winter days — riding low, fuzzy, yellowish. On those days in the dead of winter, the sun streams sideways into the room and shines on parts of the house you'd forgotten the sun could ever reach. I remember that light especially well from my childhood, I suppose because it came so near Christmas and during the rest of long, house-bound winters.

Now, around midnight in those same winters, the full moon is almost directly overhead, like a bright blue eye, small and alone in the middle of the sky. It strains your neck to look straight up at the full moon in winter - it exposes your neck to the cold, and makes you a little dizzy without a horizon to keep you steady, and the moon is so stark and bright that it's a little blinding.

In that way, it's like the sun in summer, straight up and baring down on you from directly overhead around noon. No wonder people have called it merciless - bright, hot, featureless, colorless, and overhead. I think of sunshine in summer days, but not really of the sun itself - it's too high and bright and dominating to really look into and see. Hart Crane simultaneously described the Manhattan skyline and the sun above it: "a rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene."

The sun in summer follows the same path across the sky as the full moon in winter, and visa versa. I'm not sure how to explain why that's true without waving my hands and drawing a lot of diagrams, so I thought I would try to remind you that its true. Maybe you'll think about the "why" on your own. And maybe I'll think of a way to explain the geometry some other time ...

"A Talk on the World" by Clyde Lewis

In April 1967, Clyde Lewis delivered a 3-minute history of the world to a group of maybe one or two dozen spectators gathered in the parking lot of the Union Grove Fiddler's Convention at Union Grove, North Carolina. Mike Seeger was there with his Nagra portable tape recorder to capture the talk, which is now available on Close To Home, an invaluable selection of Seeger's field recordings.

The atmosphere of the parking lot is intense in the 38-year-old recording. Seeger writes that the Fiddler's Convention,

was getting huge and more than a little wild in the late 1960s. It was quite a scene. As I recall, Bessie Jones stayed in the car, probably a wise decision for an elderly Black woman ... People were playing fiddles, banjos, and guitars all over the place, some drinking, others undoubtedly taking other substances ... somebody came and got me, saying "There's somebody over here you need to hear."
Lewis' Talk on the World needs no commentary, but after several years of frequent listening, some exorcism would do me good. It's mesmerizing, in part because my father would have loved this recording more than any other I own. In the late sixties, he was delivering very similar speaches to Knights of Columbus audiences across Illinois.

Lewis begins (I should add that there are no typos in what follows):
My subject for this evening am entitled, "Whyfore, Wherefore, and How Come." But before I starts to commence to begin, there am some mighty important trifles that must be took into sideration before the main subject of the discourse am discoursed on this here elevated platform.
The character Lewis is playing stepped right out of a medicine show, like an overstuffed small-town mayor, a holiness preacher, a snake-oil salesman, or Shakespeare's Polonius. Lewis mainly lampoons the high-falutin' ways of the excessively educated and their obsession, especially at the time, with the idea of progress.

The main target for the Talk on the World is celestial navigation, long the branch of astronomy most useful to navies and corporations. Europe's global empires were built on it.
The world were always round like an apple. This epileptyc shape on account on of the axil what done perperates through the middle of the center in congestion with the latitude of the horizontal. Now then, when the solar plexus of the sun's violet rays congregate on the middle of the bisection, there am set in motion the magnetic conundrum ...
I can't help but be reminded that Lewis and his Appalachian audience — their world so deeply and brutally defined by the mining industry — know very well that the benefits of science and technology are not always evenly shared:
And in the year fourteen and ninety-two AD (AD, understand, mean After Dark), they discovered Columbus, Ohio. That's where the dark ages of history done stopped. Christmas [Columbus] done leave all his men in Ohio, he scoots back to the Queen of Spain, she done tapped him on the head with a sword and made him a knight. The men what stayed in Ohio got tapped on the head with swords and was made angels.
Lewis even reminds the attendees of this Fiddler's Convention of the dubious benefits of modern media technology:
And did you ever stop to think what a great invention the raido am to the chromonology and the welfare of the universe? Sure am a coppious invention. All you got to did am sit right at home and revolvitate the dials and the music am preambilated through the atmosphere and comes right down the chimbley onto your Aunt Emma.
It's clear from the editing of the piece that Seeger has more of Lewis and that day in Union Grove than he's provided on Close To Home, and I rack my brains trying to think of a way to get at those tapes.

Pop, Skip, Hiss and Forget the Lyrics

I've been wondering (here and there) why the records of the 1920's have been returned to generation after generation, seeming to never quit revolutionizing the way their listeners see (and hear) the world. I may never fully figure it out, but a few of the reasons are surprisingly simple.

My favorite of the old recordings might still be Charlie Poole's "White House Blues." Its effect on me is always overwhelming, but uncanny, mysterious. Let's just say it's a stunning record.

More strange still is that Charlie Poole screws up the lyrics on a dozen occasions in the short span of the record's 3 minutes. I'm even not sure what a lot of the lyrics are, they're such a mess. But this is the cut that I'd pick as The Best Song Ever.

There's a live recording of the New Lost City Ramblers from 1978, I guess, where Tracy Schwarz introduces the next song saying,

Here's a song that Henry Whitter and G. B. Grayson gave to the world, like delivering a million, million, million dollars worth of GOLD all on one side of a 78 rpm record. "I've Always Been a Rambler." As far as I'm concerned, that's about the best song they ever put out. When I first heard that, I think I'd of DIED if I couldn't have gotten at it. And here it is, "I've Always Been a Rambler."

And with that, they strike up their obsessively precise imitation of the cut on the 78. What's most surprising is that Schwarz intentionally slurs the lyrics, making them hard to understand — sometimes I wonder if even he knows what the lyrics are supposed to be. Mind you, this is the song Schwarz feels is the greatest artifact in the history of mankind.

It's clear to me that those gaps are a big part of why Schwarz and I listen to these old scratched records, which were almost always cut in one single take and then released "warts and all." Maybelle Carter used to insist on doing multiple takes until she got it perfect, and then was usually frustrated to find that record executive Ralph Peer had chosen one of the takes with a mistake on it. Peer felt that mistakes caused the listeners to lean in closer and concentrate on the record. He was right.

The effort invested by the listener counts for something toward the listener's enjoyment, and the "gaps" in the records are spaces through which the listener's imagination can insinuate itself into the aesthetic experience. In this sense, the old records act the way modern poetry, painting, dance, and other arts do — they seek to force collaboration between artist and audience by leaving open evocative gaps in their meaning. A lot of people these days think that Bob Dylan figured out a way to turn pop music into modern art after spending years straining to understand the old 78 rpm records from the 1920's.

Terri Schiavo and Science in the News

Robert Fludd

At some point during the Terri Schiavo fiasco, I saw a right-wing spokesmodel on CNN say something like, "I was in a coma once and I'm sure glad they didn't kill ME!" So, the neurologist she was debating pointed out that she didn't have the same condition that Schiavo had. CNN's host didn't bother to get this little confusion sorted out during the segment — not even close. But the science did matter, desparately.

Although the science of neurology was the core of the case, all the thousands of hours of coverage did not add up to America's education about the brain. That was a lost opportunity. A great thumbnail discussion of the science behind the Schiavo case was on NPR's Talk of the Nation's Science Friday, but I'm not sure Americans listen to NPR a heck of a lot ...

To my ears, the great unspoken core of the story was the anxiety most people seem to feel around the idea of the brain as the organ of awareness. I find most people dislike the idea that your awareness, wakefulness, personality, emotions, identity, spirituality, consciousness, and soul are all artifacts generated by the meat inside your skull. When the meat goes bad, there's no more "you." As neurology advances, I bet we're going to face increasingly counter-intuitive brain conditions and even more vexing medical and moral decisions. We better get ready, in part by facing the facts.

None of this is to say that the main conflict was between science and religion — after all, Americans of faith were mostly on science's side on this one. As I watched Shiavo's parents fight to keep Terry hanging around, I kept hearing the Carter Family sing "Don't you want to go to heaven? Don't you want God's bosom to be your pillow when the world's on fire?" Perhaps Pete Seeger's re-writing of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes might have been more persuasive, but I didn't think of it until recently.

The Train to Adler Planetarium

Adler Planetarium
Photo from Carl Zeiss AG Germany

Beginning when I was about 10 years old, I suppose, I would occasionally take the train to Chicago to see the Adler Planetarium.

I grew up in Palatine, one of dozens of small towns that grew up into suburbs along the railroad tracks running northwest from Chicago out to McHenry and Johnsburg and Harvard, Illinois. I used to lie in bed late at night in the summertime and listen to the train whistle blow in the distance, never imagining it might be a very tired old cliche. Ah, such innocent times ...

I remember my anxiety about asking the train station clerk for the ticket, even though going downtown to the end of the line was the easiest ticket to explain. My mother must've given me the cash for the trip. (Someday, I will write at great length about the countless ways she encouraged my interest in astronomy.)

My eyes never stopped studying the view from the train, which passed through the oldest parts of every town along its route, because, as I say, the towns were born along the tracks. We stopped at their turn-of-the-century depots, which apparently never got around to becoming obsolete. As a result, the picture in my mind's eye of Mount Prospect, Des Plaines, and Park Ridge is rather more charming than those towns probably are. I still don't know for sure to this day.

The end of the line was the Union Station, which was one of the old vaulted, vaunted cathedrals built when trains were the fastest, proudest vehicles on Earth. I remember walking through the station with my face turned upward, staggering slowly across the marble floor, no doubt obstructing business people late for work.

The Adler Planetarium was truly hallowed ground to me then. Its exhibits stayed pretty much the same throughout my entire childhood, so visiting them was more ritual than education for me. That's what I was looking for anyway, a place that understood and affirmed my view of the world, one that only Adler and I could see. There was no secret to it — it was simply ignored by most people. It seemed they had some sort of defect that left them blinded to it.

I was the youngest of seven children, growing up in a crowded house in a claustophobic suburb. The train to the Adler made me feel adult and free, like I owned my whole self, not just the inside of my head. I don't think I felt much like that again until I left home for Tucson, to study astronomy.


Dark Was The Night: Sleep

For about 10 years, I've wanted to write — or at least read — a good nonfiction book about Night. According to a review in the New Yorker (which seems to take all my best ideas), it looks like I've got my chance — "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past" by A. Roger Ekirch has just been published by Norton.

As I've written before, for most of human history, Night was dark. On a moonless night, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face or where your feet were stepping. In the largest capital cities in the world, the buildings around you appeared as little more than sillouettes against the stars of the Milky Way. (That is, Night in the past is something you need to research if you want to undestand it.) If and when I read Ekirch's book, I'll tell you more, but the New Yorker focuses on Ekirch's discussion of the "first and second sleeps," mentioned by writers from Plutarch and Virgil all the way through John Locke.

Through artificial lighting, we've expanded Day to encroach on Night as far as we possibly can. When we finally turn off the light and go to sleep, we insist on sleeping continuously right through to the alarm.

But people — or at the very least, Western Europeans of a certain class — used to find themselves quite in the dark as soon as the sun went down. Any light had to come from an open flame of some sort. So they would go to bed, enjoying several hours of good, deep, REM sleep and then they'd wake up around midnight or so. This was the first sleep. After one to several hours, they'd experience the second sleep, which would take them to the rooster's crow. Between the first and second sleeps, they'd get up and do chores, or talk, study, pray, reflect, or, one supposes, have sex.

The National Institute of Mental Health recently did a study in which it deprived subjects of artificial lighting for up to 14 hours for several weeks at a time. They found the subjects naturally gravitated toward a first and second sleep. The period between possessed "an endocrinology all its own," with elevated levels of prolactin, best known for stimulating lactation in nursing mothers. The period between sleeps was peaceful, restful, and reflective — and the first sleep's dreams still lingered at the edges of consciousness.

Ekirch writes, "By turning night into day, modern technology has helped to obstruct our oldest path to the human psyche."

Science Bass Ackwards

Science in the U.S. is taught backwards.

You generally start with biology, perhaps the most complex of all the sciences and the one that depends on every other science if it's to be understood.

You then proceed to chemistry, which is little more than memorization and explosions without a good knowledge of physics.

If you keep taking science classes, you may get to take some physics, which is the basis for all other physical sciences — certainly, biology and chemistry make little sense without physics.

Why is it like this? I don't really know, but I gather that the arrangement was codified in the U.S. immediately after World War Two, when physics enjoyed an unchallenged status among the sciences. Physics in the first half of the century had triumphed in the terms that science itself values most — in its predictive capacity and its ability to sort out basic questions about existence — but American culture also saw physics as triumphant militarily and politically, and as the basis for atomic power and atomic weapons.

As a result, the attitude was that little tykes were not yet fit for the revelation of such a Great Secret. And teaching little children had (and still has) a low social status. Teachers trained in physics could just as well do other high-status jobs, unlike those with training in biology who would otherwise be doing various "helping professions" (women's work, you might say). So physicists taught the young adults, and biologists dealt with the children.

Again, this is the story I've gathered. In any case, an "historical" or cultural explanation of this sort has got to be the right explanation. No more rational, functional explanation is likely, given that the current arrangement makes so little sense and its results are so damaging.

Families of Trees

Leaf shapes (don't have much to do with families of trees)

After five years of working for a professional society of plant biologists, I am finally educating myself about plants. My mother-in-law gave me The Golden Field Guide to Trees of North America. It is an excellent book, and I've spent many hours staring at the 1950's-era color drawings of trees, leaves, fruits, bark, etc.

I'm struck by the "families" of trees. You may know about the classification systems for living things — the basic level being species, such as the oregon crab apple (Malus fusca) or the Biltmore crab apple (Malus glabrata). The next highest level is genus, such as apple (Malus), ash (Sorbus), and hawthorn (Crataegus) — each having various species within them. Genus and species has always made sense to me.

The next level up (that is, the first of the "higher taxa"), the families, has always been something of a mystery to me — although I've heard of some families and I've even seen them mentioned in articles I've worked on for a living, it hasn't mattered to me what family a living thing belongs to. Now I get it, thanks to a very small amount of study.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Rosaceae, you mean it's part of a sprawling, dizzyingly varied, historically pivotal family of plants that includes more than 3,000 species and dozens of genuses, including the roses we get on Valentines Day, all apples, cherries, plums, pears, almonds, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, ashes, hawthorns, and more.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Platanaceae, you mean it's a sycamore, also known as a plane tree. The family contains only one genus (Platanus) and about six species.

Now I understand that when one biologist says that such-and-such is in this-or-that family, this may be hugely significant information to an informed listener. This confirms the assertion (of the movie Animal House) that "Knowledge is Good."

What You're Not Interested In

"It's amazing, the human capacity to not notice things that you're not interested in," Bram Gunther said. He's New York City's deputy director of forestry and horticulture and recently gave reporter Andy Young a tour of NYC's urban forest for an article in the May 23 New Yorker.

The city of New York has five million trees, a half million of which are "street trees" not associated with parks or yards. There are fowering cherry, honey locust, silver linden, pin oak, ginkgo, Japanese zelkova and pagoda, London plane, Kentucky coffeetree, dawn redwood — seventy species in all.

Beginning in June, more than 1,000 volunteer "tree stewards" — tree geeks, the article calls them — will take the first census of NYC trees in a decade. Driving along one block, Gunther points out to his reporter some of the reasons the tree population turns over so quickly: "Subway! Grate! Bus stop! Garage! Canopy! Grates! Vaults! Driveway! Awning! Light pole! Again with the canopy!" Along the way, they find injuries due to bikes chained to trunks, dog urine, lovers carving their initials, and Asian long-horned beetles.

Over the last few months, and after more than five years of working for an organization of plant scientists, I've finally begun learning to identify trees (so that's what a maple leaf looks like!). If my eye for the various species ever develops, I know it'll be one of those experiences that makes the world come alive for me all over again, much like when I learned about atmospheric optics.

I suppose learning about the urban forest has that same character that draws amateur folklorists, conspiracy cranks, poets in American, amateur scientists, certain varieties of bloggers. It's a way of turning your back on cable news, American Idol, the runaway bride, publicly-funded stadiums, Clear Channel, and inventing your own culture, your own way of seeing the world. ("There are 8 million stories in the naked city ...") It often seems that simply controlling your own attention and finding your own stories to tell is, increasingly, an act of civil disobedience.

Billboards in Space

Advertising in Earth Orbit
"Blogger Logo-rise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941"

The idea of creating very large advertisements and placing them into Earth obit has been very seriously considered. Such "space billboards," it's usually estimated, would be about the size and brightness of the full moon and would be visible for hours on end to something like a quarter or half the world's population at a time. Potentially, no sky on Earth would lack an ad for something.

Current technology is more than enough to do the trick, and actual companies have offered the service (for example, Space Marketing, Inc. of Roswell, Georgia, proposed space advertising for the 1996 Summer Olympics).

It seems that the only obstacles to actual space billboards are:

(1) Public opposition. Any company making use of such advertising would probably (or hopefully) be subject to intense and widespread public criticism. Indeed, I myself can think of few other causes for which I would be willing to go to war.

(2) National laws. At least in the U.S., a law prohibits the deployment of space advertising. Whether, and for how long, the law would stand up to challenges brought to the World Trade Organization, as well as domestic First Amendment challenges, I can't say. In any case, last week, the FAA asked Congress for the authority to enforce those existing U.S. laws (see's story in their "funny news" section). I believe this is happening now because private space ventures are making rapid progress in the U.S., and the FAA — not NASA — enforces laws relating to private space travel.

Around 1998, I toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay about an underground group that sabotages a mission to install some space advertising. They were not the bad guys, either ...

1969 and the Moon Landing
Part 2: Alice's Restaurant

Alice's Restaurant is a long, rambling, very funny song about a lot of things — particularly the absurd way that its author, Arlo Guthrie, got out of the draft.

A film version of the song was rushed to the theaters soon after the song became a hit. In Arlo Guthrie's fascinating audio commentary for the "special features" of the film's DVD, Arlo describes the writing of the song, and then its first public performance:

I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, and they said, "Oh, Arlo Guthrie, you know, aren't you Woody's kid?" And they put me out in this field — you know, I was just 18 or 19 years old, I was a real young guy — and I remember playing Alice's Restaurant standing on a box in a field with about 300 people.
They got such a response that they put me on some other program later on that afternoon with, you know, about a thousand people and that got such a respsonse that they put me on at the very end of the festival, and that evening there were probably about twenty, thirty thousand people in the audience.
They were afraid to put an unknown person like me at the end of a big festival. It'd be really chancy, I mean, what if I was terrible? What if it was horrible? ...

And so Judy Collins came out, Joan Baez came out and then other people came out, and Pete Seeger came out. And by the end of the evening, all the performers were onstage singing Alice's Restaurant.
And that was the day that Man first walked on the Moon. I remember being onstage and telling everybody, you know, "There's people walking around up there." And looking at the moon. And it was a big day. Big day for me, big day for everybody. The next day, I started getting the phone calls from all the record companies and the execs and stuff.

It's true that the song made its public premier at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1967. But "Man first walked on the Moon" two years later, in July 1969. There were no astronauts in space during the 1967 festival.

Part of what fascinates me about the film, and Arlo's commentary, is that they are both constantly haunted by endless coincidences, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and mysteries — some of which Arlo points out, and some of which he seems to miss. The moon landing the night of his great triumph at Newport, for example, happened only in Arlo's memory.

The timing of the song and the film interests me. Hollywood in the mid-60s was in pretty bad shape and the studios were desperate to get people into theaters. Bonnie and Clyde (produced by 28-year-old Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn) was a surprise success and helped encourage bolder movies by sometimes by younger artists, oriented toward younger audiences.

Alice's Restaurant was Arthur Penn's next directing job after Bonnie and Clyde, and has a disorienting strangeness that seems to come from being a weird hybrid of countercultural documentary and studio pandering. So, Alice's Restaurant feels like it catches Hollywood in mid-morph, trying to figure out how to do a new thing. The movie is one key to understanding Hollywood at that moment.

But I want to understand the year 1969 and how the The Moon Landing fit into it. One lesson of Arlo's mistaken timeline is that the recollections of the major players — whether astronauts or folksingers — are 36 year old, and are bound to be cloudy.

Certainly, any drugs used at the time are unlikely to help, but they're not the only thing that can make things "run together" — young people in 1969 had a lot on their minds, what with a draft, a war, assassinations, Nixon, and such. I often remind myself that between 1965 and 1970, there were ... well, just five years.

But the main lesson of Arlo's mistake is that it wasn't some other mistake — it was about the Moon Landing. It is testimony to the importance of the landing not just as a technological feat, but as a reflection and contributor to the headiness of the times.

The 1967 Newport Folk Festival was certainly one of the most important events in Arlo Guthrie's life. It changed everything for him, and it was inextricably wrapped up in momentous national events (just listen to the song). It really was a big day for everybody — every day seemed to be. 

So, it makes sense that memories would get pegged to Apollo 11 as a way of expressing their own intensity and, especially, to express the way those memories were shaped by various dramatic displays of American power.

Part 1


The Moon and Tom Waits: Part 2 of 2

Tom Waits Father
Tom Waits and his dad, Frank.

Ever since I first noticed in 1999 how often Tom Waits refers to the Moon, I've wondered what else could be said about it, other than Tom Waits likes to refer to the moon. At least one valiant attempt to really get something said has been made, but I don't think a "big picture" has ever been drawn. I'll give it a try.

Waits has said he likes his songs to have some weather, a map in case you get lost, and something to eat in case you get hungry. This strategy — of, sort of, getting enough furniture into his rooms that you can live them — winds up being crucial to how his fans react to his work. People who love Waits clearly love doing the work involved in sorting out his references. They ask, what's Mulligan stew? Where's Murfreesboro? What's a big black Mariah? Who's Wilson Pickett? And the moon is part of this same song writing strategy — often, Waits even gives you the phase of the moon, maybe so you can find your way around in the dark.

Reading over the list of moon references, I'm reminded of my own aim for The Celestial Monochord, which is like the challenge some artists set for themselves — if you only stick to one medium and one theme, you could explore the whole world through them. It hardly matters what you choose — you can pull the entire universe through a little buttonhole. The iterations, the returning to the subject over and over again, eventually polishes the subject into a mirror that will reflect whatever you put in front of it. The moon face is ever-changing but repetitious, and seems to invite an artistic project like that. Waits chose the moon as one of his Great Themes — but really, it could have been anything.

Waits has always been an outlandishly romantic writer. Of course, especially lately, I mean romantic in the sense that the love notes he sings to his wife Kathleen can be heartbreakingly sweet. But, especially early in his career, I also mean that other romanticism — an unrestrained belief in impractical fictions, a body-and-soul dedication to lovely baloney. For example, Waits has said that he's embarrassed by his early work, when he pursued the romance of the Great American Drunk (and he made sure that life and art did uncanny imitations of each other). And so, what could possibly be a brighter sign spelling "romance" (in both senses) than the moon? In a recent song, Waits asks, "What could be more romantic than dying in the moonlight?"

Waits is one of those musicians I mentioned earlier in the context of Mike Seeger — a middle class adventurer in revolt against his class, one who "can come most fully into possession of himself only in disguise." As a young man, in the name of searching for his own true nobility — the diamond in his mind — he fashioned himself into one of The Common Folk that lived in his imagination. He renounced his Nobility in order to find it again.

In this context, I think about a line from "Shore Leave," in which a sailor on leave writes home wondering "how the same Moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there." It's a reminder that the moon really does have a "universality" to it — it's leveling, a commonality. The very same moon has been seen by Plato, Genghis Khan, Galileo, Hitler, Shakespeare, George Bush, Regis Philbin. It's the ultimate folk image, because it's been independently, organically rediscovered by everybody who ever had eyes.

I think Waits has used the moon's commonness, it's dailiness (actually its nightliness, which suits Waits better) to insinuate himself among us, among the ordinary — something he has needed both artistically and personally. The image of the moon — with its powerful combination of romance and ordinariness — is an emblem of that transcendent quality which Waits has always sought in being just plain folk.