Lock 18, The C&O Canal

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

One of the most beautiful artifacts of old D.C. is the C&O Canal (National Park Service | Wikipedia). I spent the afternoon with S. walking along the stretch of it adjacent to Great Falls. Every time I visit it, I think of this, one of my favorite poems.

Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
Patrick Kavanagh

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges —
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb — just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Tyler Durden’s House (cont.)

the hole | the offending pipe | the dirt | the tool

At some point or other in my life my living circumstances are going to reverse course and begin to tack back towards normal, but for now I’m only headed further into Tyler Durden territory (“Tyler Durden’s House,” 15 April 2007). In addition to the failings of most of the other accoutrements of modern living in this domicile, for some time now we have been noticing that the water bill has been climbing. After taking some reasonable steps to reduce water consumption, our water bill spiked to such a level where I’m surprised that DEA agents haven’t kicked in the front door, thinking they were onto our secret hydroponics lab. Last month eight people niagarously tore through 81,532 gallons of water. Next month’s bill will top $1,000. You’d think we were smelting aluminum in here or something.

So two weeks ago we had a plumber out to the house, and after a quick tour of all the places in the house where water might leak, he did the obvious thing: he turned the water off at the house main valve and then checked the meter again. Despite not a drop entering the house, the meter continued to spin like wild. “You’ve got a break between the street and the house.” He confidently reported.

Like most Southern houses, ours sits about ten feet above street level: there is a three or four foot high retaining wall at the sidewalk then a sloping garden up to the house. There is a half-flight of stairs up to a landing, then another half-flight up to the top of the garden level, then another half-flight up to the porch and a half-flight down to the basement. The main water line comes up into the basement unit (where S. and I live) behind an unheated front mud-room. And the piping is three feet below the street level. A traditional excavation was going to require moving a lot of dirt and jack-hammering out a lot of concrete. Fortunately there’s what’s called a directional bore, where they dig a pit at both ends of the pipe and bring in a machine that drills a horizontal hole connecting the two pits. The only disturbance to the surfaces is the two pits.

But the pipe comes up into the house in our basement flat, which means that one of the pits was going to be dug in our living space. But the work would only take two days we were told. The first day they would jack-hammer the concrete and dig the pits. The second day they would perform the bore and replace the pipe. The water would only be off for a few hours when they were actually performing the connections to the city meter and the house plumbing. Oh, contractors and what they tell you.

Despite the fact that by the beginning of this week everyone was aware that there was a big snow storm bearing down on D.C., John C. Flood (yep, that’s the name of the plumbing company) decided to dig on Thursday and replace the pipe in Friday, racing against the pending snow. Somehow I didn’t see a problem with a plumber scheduling a two day job the day before a major regional storm was set to hit. Of course, on Thursday two classical change conditions were revealed once excavation started. First, John C. Flood determined that they couldn’t proceed with the directional bore on Friday owing to proximity of gas and electrical lines. But that wouldn’t be a problem since not having disturbed any of the existing facilities, our water service would remain undisturbed. Except that second, upon digging a pit, it turned out that the break was close enough to the meter that water rushed through the porous substrate like a garden hose, filling the pit. So the water would have to be turned off at the meter.

And then two feet of snow fell over Friday night. I presume the equipment for performing a directional bore either is a large truck, or is mounted on some sort of trailer that is towed to the work site by a large truck. The streets throughout the neighborhood are all covered in about a foot of hard-packed snow-ice. I imagine that it will be at least mid-week before the city gets around to plowing this sector (Mt. Pleasant is a rather secluded part of town). A friend had an eight story tall tree in front of his building fall across the street and crush two cars and the city is telling him that it will be five days before they can get there with the equipment to handle it.

I already haven’t had a shower since Thursday. I don’t know what I’m going to do about work on Monday. I imagine the water is just going to be off until at least Wednesday or Thursday. But there’s talk of more snow midweek, so I have no idea when we’re going to have water service restored. Plus there’s a giant stinking wet pit in the entryway to my flat as well as a pile of the brick dust that came out of the pit. Maybe I should fill the bottom of the pit with a bunch of sharpened wooden stakes and cover it over with a mesh of sticks and some leaf litter — play a round of the most dangerous game.

We’ve filled the bathtub with water, so we’re not entirely without, but it’s amazing how being denied an unlimited supply of a resources changes your perceptions. Usually when preparing a meal I would select a number of specialized tools throughout the process. A pairing knife for some fine work, a large knife for gross reduction, a number of bowls for setting aside the prep work and ground spices, a large spoon for stirring, a small one for shoveling spice or tasting. Now that I am looking at the prospect of panning water from the bathroom tub to the kitchen sink, then boiling a portion on the stove to make it warm enough for dish washing, I suddenly find the inadequate rough chopping job of the pairing knife perfectly acceptable and place a premium on what are referred to in the literature as “one pot recipes.” I would usually wash my hands maybe ten times throughout the preparation of a meal. Since hand washing now entails a trip to the bathroom to ladle water, first over one hand, then over the other, I just have to content myself with my hands and utensils being dirty until the end. It’s like living on Arrakis. I’ve become so paranoid about every drop of water wastage that maybe I should don a Fremen stillsuit.

Anyway, it’s all just par for the course around here. The electricity is already a tangle of improvisation and work-around. Why not rip out the linoleum and concrete in favor of hardpan? Suspicious of the antiquated municipal plumbing we’ve already been having the potable water delivered, why not start carrying in the non-potable water too?

The Other Forgotten War

D.C. World War Memorial, Armistice Day, 11 November 2009

One could be forgiven for not knowing that there is a memorial to the First World War in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia | Google Maps). The first time I stumbled across it, it was as an exploration of a curiosity. I wanted to figure out what that unknown building was, barely visible through the trees along Independence Avenue. To approach the memorial is to get a sense of what it must have been like for a Renaissance-era scholar on grand tour of the continent to come to Rome for the first time, when the ruins of Rome were still that: ruins — mysterious, forgotten, pillaged, unkempt, crumbling, ignored. The First World War Memorial is lost in a grove of trees on the south side of the Mall. It’s like coming across an abandoned temple in a forest. The flagstone paving stones of the walk up to the memorial are lose, scattered, broken and on their way to gravel. The memorial itself is blackened with mildew, its marble cracked and stained. It is like a mushroom that popped up in a forest clearing after a rain. Completed in 1931, its archaic inscription simply reads “The World War.”

Our wars aren’t merely matters of fact, narratives or parables from which we are to take the vaunted historical lesson. Our wars are tropes: they represent certain touchstones of the American consciousness. The Second World War was the good war: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, proving the directionality of history. The Vietnam War is central figure in the right wing Dolchstoßlegende. They are all morality plays. The First World War is a forgotten war because it does not signify anything that fits easily into the American mythos. It is an amorality play. Its obvious meta-narratives of miscalculation, system effects, the amorality of state interest, the fleetingness of progress, the shabbiness of war, the divisions of class interest and the meaninglessness of our social conventions around war don’t figure in U.S. discourse on war. So the event is simply excised from the national consciousness, not a part of the pantheon of nostalgia writ in Neoclassical white marble in the nation’s capitol.

Fractals: It’s What’s for Dinner

Romanesco broccoli from the Mt. Pleasant farmers' market, Washington, D.C., 10 October 2009

Ever since I read that romanesco broccoli was a fractal I’ve been on the lookout for it. It finally turned up along with all the varieties of cauliflower at the Mt. Pleasant farmer’s market, so I snatched it up and tonight I broke that fractal down into-a little-a tiny cubes and fried it in olive oil, salt and pepper and white wine.

(My picture is nowhere as cool as this New York Times picture of the day from 7 October 2009)

How Hot is it in Washington, D.C. in August?

Even the buildings sweat in August, 17th and L Streets NW, Washington, D.C., 21 August 2009

So hot you have to put your entire building on a coaster. Look at the building pictured above. It’s actually so humid out and they are actually running the air conditioning so aggressively inside, that condensation is forming on the glass curtain wall of this building. It’s the case with some of the newer buses as well, that the exterior surfaces are covered in condensation.

And this has been the most mild August in my six years living in Washington, D.C.

Okay, Okay, I’ll Say Something Nice About D.C., Pt. II

Exuviae of a pupal annual cicada in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 27 August 2009

Okay, so I titled part I of “Okay, Okay, I’ll Say Something Nice About D.C.” as a part I, clearly indicating an as-yet-to-come part II. So now for the second nice thing I can say about Washington, D.C.

The second thing I really like about Washington, D.C. is the cicadas. The cicadas are part of a larger phenomenon of the District’s being environmentally a Southern city. The sweltering, energy-sapping heat of summer, the omnipresent sense of dank decay, the encroaching vegetation, the hot smell of rotting organic things, the storied and usually bloodied geography. I sometimes feel like I live in a Flannery O’Connor or a Carson McCullers novel.

I have listed tactile, thermoceptic, olfactive and neural aspects of this Southern sense. The cicadas are the primary aspect of aural Southern-ness.

Exuviae of a pupal annual cicada in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 27 August 2009

The amazing thing about cicadas is how improbably powerful they are. They sound more like a cyclotron or a tesla coil powering down than a natural creature. Pity the person who ends up with one camped out right outside their window blasting their amorous bug love song like the U.S. military trying to blast Manuel Noriega from the Vatican embassy.

There are individual bugs, then there is the entire population of cicadas in chorus. Up in my neighborhood they are so loud that you have to raise your voice to be heard outside. I don’t know whether it’s variance across species, or across individual bugs, or song phase, but when you get a lot of them together you can hear all different periods and amplitudes in their harmonics. And then the scores of different harmonics meld into a region-spanning, undulating wall of cicada sound of a sort that might induce seizures in certain youngsters susceptible to high-frequency stimulation. The omnipresent insistence of such a non-human activity makes it easy for one’s imagination to run away to visions of a primitive Potomac river valley untrammeled by human activity. Our stupid brick piles and asphalt pathways temporary intrusions on eternal nature.

Southernness is, among other things, a certain type of relation to nature.

The pictures above are the exuviae of a pupal annual cicada found tacked to a post in my backyard. My first year in D.C., a year of the seventeen-year cicadas, it seemed like these things were hanging everyplace. These pictures were taken with just a point-and-shoot, specifically my Canon PowerShot SX200 using the Super Macro setting.

Okay, Okay, I’ll Say Something Nice About D.C., Pt. I

The Washington Monument peeking out from behind the Export-Import Bank and Dana buildings, L Street NW, looking south on 15th Street, Washington, D.C., 21 August 2009

Washington, D.C. is a miserable town and I am known to go on and on over the how and why (If D.C. is so miserable, why have you persisted in living here for six years? I plead complacency). But let me set that aside and say something nice about D.C. for once.

Something that I love about Washington, D.C. is how occasionally, when I don’t expect it, if maybe I get a little turned around in a neighborhood that I know less than others, or where I don’t have its relations to the adjacent areas down quite right — and I’m not saying that it happens all that often — but occasionally, all of a sudden the Washington Monument will pop into view where it’s totally unexpected. I don’t mean something like the view down 16th Street toward the White House, with the Washington Monument slightly off center, monumental kludge, throwing off the meridians of the district. That’s too obvious. I’m not saying that it happens all the time and that you can see the thing everyplace you go in town. If fact, it’s strange for all the height limitation and surrounding hills and all, for how much of the territory of D.C. the Washington Monument is not a presence at all.

I’m thinking of the obscure, peek-a-boo moments. The picture above is one of my favorite examples. This is the view from L Street NW, south on 15th, between the Export-Import Bank building (large blank facade on the left) and the Dana building (barely showing to the right). It’s such a narrow gap through which the Washington Monument appears that walking east, you come out from behind the corner of the building, cross the south-bound monumental sidewalk, step out into the street and have cleared the parallel-parked cars and taken your first step into the first lane of traffic before it pops into view. By the time you have traversed that first automobile lane, it’s already disappeared again behind the Dana building.

I’ve never been much of a fan of any particular architecture, but the play of building on building that comes from motion through a cityscape, the conciliance of many architectures that comprises a city is wondrous to me. Amidst praise, if I may briefly tack back in the direction of disparaging Washington, D.C., this is another place where the city comes up short. That said, the Washington Monument is a fun little game element of the cityscape in D.C.