Mary: September 2003 Archives

I live just south of the Capital Beltway, the loop of freeway that wraps loosely around the Washington D.C. metro area. There are currently two major construction projects underway on the beltway, both within several miles of my home.

About four miles to the north of me the crumbling Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which crosses the Potomac River south of DC, is being replaced. The new bridge is projected to be finished in mid-2008, at a cost of just over $2.5 billion. The politics and PR of this project have been a nightmare, but it's okay now: they have a friendly website that includes a Kid's Corner, complete with games.

The WWB is the worst bottleneck on the beltway, but its awfulness is trumped by the mess about five miles west of it, the notorious Springfield Interchange, aka the Mixing Bowl, the most dangerous interchange on the beltway. The current design of the Mixing Bowl is known to be laughably, while tragically, bad. Part of the problem is illustrated by this photo:

This is the approach to the Mixing Bowl of one traveling north on 95, the highway that stretches from Miami, Florida, through Baltimore, New York, Boston, Bangor, Maine, and up into Canada. If one has good enough resolution to read the signs in this photo, one will see that the sign on the left indicates "North to Washington", the sign in the middle indicates "North to Tyson's Corner", and the sign on the right is "North to Baltimore". After a mind-boggling criss-crossing, the lanes on the left continue north, while the lanes in the middle fold over to the left, heading west, and the lanes on the right split off to the east. Before that happens more lanes merge in from both the right and the left, resulting in a panic of lane-changing and three-lane-suicide-sweeps.

Since the beltway is a loop and this is its southern tip, all three routes eventually turn north. To the uninitiated driver, the choice of "north, north, or north" can produce a "wtf?" moment, resulting in about 90 accidents per year.

This interchange is being redesigned. The eight-year project, which is about half finished, is projected to be completed by the end of 2007 at a cost of about two-thirds of a billion dollars. The raised span shown in the photo above is part of the new design, and is not yet in use. This second photo shows another new span, as yet untravelled:

Neither of these pictures shows the spans from the perspective of a motorist travelling on the existing lanes of the beltway. Seen from the beltway, these sweeping ramps rise above a background of trees and produce a striking visual image. Seeing these deserted highways against a wooded background brought to mind a vision of a far-future time, when civilization has disappeared leaving behind a silent infrastructure, covered in vines a la Logan's Run.

What will end civilization as we know it? Nuclear war? Nah-- probably a force of nature, a natural evolutionary event, or a new strain of virus-- the Cleveland Flu.

Just a few more words on this topic...

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I kind of hate to write another post about religion, but while I'm on the topic I might as well mention one commonly held belief of religious people that puzzles me.

It amazes me that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a vast segment of the populace adamantly believes that God answers prayer. I'm not talking about prayers of praise or thanksgiving; I'm talking about requests-- requests that God control specific events so as to bring about a desired outcome.

My mother is firmly in this camp, and nothing I could say would ever change her mind. I could drive her around the country from one military cemetery to another and ask her if she believes the soldiers who died were the ones whose parents didn't pray for them to come home safely. I could take her from one pediatric oncology ward to another and ask her if she believes the children who die are the ones whose parents don't pray for their recovery.

I could remind her of the 24/7 "prayer-chains" that were held all across the country after a woman drove her car into a lake with her two young sons strapped in the back seat. I could ask her if she has forgotten that the entire "religious right" prayed that Bill Clinton would lose to Bob Dole.

None of it would matter, because every time she prays for something and it happens she believes it's Proof That God Answers Prayer, while every time a prayer goes unanswered it's because It Wasn't Part Of God's Plan.

As an undergraduate in the early seventies I joined Campus Crusade for Christ. I attended the regular CCC meetings and Leadership Training Classes, and I read the popular Christian literature of the day. The man who was the leader of CCC on my campus, Elmer something-or-other, was paralyzed by severe arthritis; he had been in a wheelchair since his own college days. His wife was named Mary, and Mary was a saint if ever there were one.

I remember Mary telling of a time when the women of her church held a day-long prayer meeting in which they prayed for just one thing: for Elmer to be healed. These women knew all about prayer; they were real pros when it came to prayer. They prayed with faith and trust and confidence-- all that. They knew that if they prayed in Jesus' name God would be Bound By His Promise to answer their prayer.

Sometime during that day one of Elmer's legs trembled briefly. That was all. And Mary said she knew then that God had heard their prayers, but that being in a wheelchair was part of God's Plan For Elmer's Life. It takes dogged determination to maintain that kind of faith. It takes desire and delusion and willful denial.

That's not to say I don't think there are reasons for believers to pray. One can give thanks and praise and at the same time be aware that God isn't going to keep the car running if one never changes the oil, whether one asks Him to or not.

See? See?

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In today's Washington Post:

Vatican May Limit Girls' Role in Mass

VATICAN CITY, Sept. 23 -- Under new rules being drafted by the Vatican to crack down on "abuses" in the Roman Catholic Mass, altar boys will be given preference over altar girls, who should serve during the rites only in special cases, Vatican officials said today.

Farther down in the same article:

The new norms also would prohibit dances and applause during the mass. Ethnic dancing has been a feature of papal services during the pope's many foreign trips and applause for the pontiff when he enters and exits Mass has grown common, even in St. Peter's Basilica.

One Nation, Under Goddess

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How does that title strike you? Sacrilegious? Un-Christian? Pagan? A while ago I had a conversation with a friend that left an idea idling in the back of my mind. It is the opinion of some people, she said, that life on this planet was whacked when mankind switched from belief in a female goddess to belief in a male god.

Of course it didn't happen in quite that way, really-- it wasn't that simple. I'm no expert, but I know that generally speaking people once believed in pantheons of gods and goddesses, or spirits--call them what you will--some male, some female. I believe it was Abraham, most notably, who decided that the god he worshipped was the only god: God. I suppose in Abraham's day it was impossible to conceive of a god being neither male nor female; every god was one or the other, and Abraham's seems to have been decidedly male.

I like to think that Christ, being enlightened, believed that God was neither male nor female. I don't have a Bible handy, but I remember Christ saying something about people not being married in heaven, but being "like the angels". I interpret this to mean that angels are neither male nor female, and it seems reasonable to infer that the God Christ spoke of was likewise not limited to one set of characteristics or the other.

Unfortunately, in the retelling and translating this tidbit has been drowned out by the writings of Paul, who was probably referring to his wife when he wrote of the "thorn in his side". It was Paul who wrote that women should keep their mouths shut in church, not adorn themselves, and be submissive to their husbands, men being the head of the family as "God the Father" is head of the church. And so the Christian God became most emphatically a male god.

And then there's Allah-- it's hard to imagine a more male god than Allah. Considering the restrictions placed on women in Islamic societies, it's laughable to entertain the notion that Allah could have a feminine side.

So the problem isn't that the major religions today all believe in male gods-- it's that they believe in only male gods. There is no balancing feminine diety; for a couple of thousand years there has been no feminine face of God. Something irreplacable has been lost by this lack of worship of any goddess. The belief in only male gods has denigrated all feminine qualities and wrought havoc on mankind.

I like the new theory that stonehenge was constructed to represent female genitalia. That's the idea-- celebrate birth, not death. Enough already with crusades and suicide bombings.

Let There Be Light

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Exactly as I predicted. Power was on again off again Thursday evening until 9:30 pm, when it went out and stayed out. And as I write this from the computer in my office, the power is still out at the house.

Also as I predicted, the novelty wore off very quickly. Having been without power for 84 hours, I've discarded almost everything that was in the refrigerator, run out of AA batteries for my Mighty Bright (TM) reading light, and am running out of clean clothes.

Knowing that Isabel was on the way, I did a couple of things that seemed kind of silly at the time, but which I am now happy to have thought of. On Thursday morning I ground enough coffee for several days, since my coffee grinder is electric, and I ran the dishwasher, so as not to have dirty dishes ripening inside of it. On the other hand, there were things I could have done but did not do that would have been Very Good Ideas. I could have done my laundry. I could have bought several bags of ice and filled coolers. This last item is the one thing I really do wish I had done. All of the stores sold out of ice before it occurred to me to buy some. The power company handed out free 5 lb. blocks of dry ice for which people stood in line for up to four hours, but I did not take advantage of their generosity.

On the way home tonight I'll pick up some batteries; I've discovered that while it's possible to sit at a table and read by candles arrayed near the book, it isn't possible to lounge on a sofa and read by the light of a candle, oil lamp, or lantern that is three feet away.

I've made something of a study of lighting with candles and whatnot over the past three days. Not all candles are equally effective at lighting a room. The best, I've discovered, are tapers-- tall, slender "candlelight dinner" candles. A large portion of wick stands above the wax, resulting in a large flame. The worst are the small votive candles, which suffice as night lights but are useless otherwise, since a pool of melted wax quickly forms that covers all but a small portion of wick.

Oil lamps, those made by inserting a wick holder into a wine bottle, are adjustable by the user; the size of the flame depends on the amount of exposed wick. But the best lamp of all is the kerosene lamp given to me by my grandmother some 35 years ago. I believe it was already something of an antique back then; it is the genuine article, used for light before electricity. This lamp has a woven cloth wick approximately three-quarters of an inch wide, and it produces a correspondingly large flame. To my delight, I discovered several years ago that it's still possible to buy wicks for this lamp, as well as various replacement parts.

It's possible to get sketchy information regarding the status of one's electricity by phoning the power company and listening to the recorded message. My power company, Dominion Virginia Power, uses caller ID to identify a caller's location, and after verifying ("Press one now...") that one is calling from the affected location, a message plays that is more or less discouraging. The worst message is something like: "...damage was severe, and repairs will continue over several days." Translation: "Die, sucker-- you're not even on the schedule." A somewhat more encouraging message says that a crew has been sent to your area to assess the damage. This translates as: "We don't have any idea what's wrong in your neighborhood, but we're going to take a look at it today. No estimate as to when repairs will occur." Finally, the most encouraging recording one can hear is the one I heard this morning: "A crew is scheduled to make repairs in your area today; power is expected to be restored by 11pm."

So, my ordeal may be over soon. I haven't had it as bad as some; I still have water, since my water doesn't come from a well that requires an electric pump. In fact I have hot water, since my water heater is gas. And I can light the gas burners on the stove with a match. And I have a battery-operated radio. Still, the list of things I've been without is a long one: the computer, the TV, air conditioning, or even a fan, the refrigerator and freezer, the microwave, the clothes washer and dryer, the dish washer, the blow dryer, the vacuum cleaner, the alarm clock (this is a bonus, actually), and of course light.

Under the Weather

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If a sailor's station is at the weather bow, he may become tired of the pitching of the boat and the constant spray blown into his face. He will most certainly be under the weather. Sailing Terms Explained For 'Lubbers

The wind is starting to blow here, and it's raining. Nothing very bad, but it's only about 1pm. Hurricane Isabel is still down off Cape Hatteras, a couple hundred miles south of here, so I'm seeing just the leading edge of an outer band. The strongest wind and the heaviest rain aren't expected here until around midnight.

A few minutes ago I got this IM from one of my coworkers: "cape hatteras ob has gone missing. maybe the ASOS blew apart."

3:10pm. I'm about to set out on the craziest trip I've ever taken. I just got an IM from my son, a student at UVA, and all of his friends have deserted the campus, and classes are cancelled for the next two days, and he's bored, and I said "Want me to come and get you?" and he said "Would you?" so I'm outta here...


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Battening Down the Hatches

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"And if it also comes on to blow and rain uncommon hard, we take battens, stout laths of wood, that fit against the coaming, the raised rim of the hatchway, and so pin the tarpaulin down drum tight." Patrick O'Brien, The Truelove.

Hurricane Isabel is heading in this direction.

I work with meteorologists (I'm the only mathematician in the group), and they are all abuzz. The weather models are converging on a track that shows hurricane Isabel coming up the Chesapeake Bay. It will begin to tear itself apart along the North Carolina Outer Banks and the southern part of Virginia before it reaches us, but it is still expected to be a Very Big Storm when it gets here, sometime after midnight on Thursday night.

I don't know why this is exciting, but it is. Unless Isabel changes direction, I'm 100% guaranteed to lose power at my house, and the novelty of being deprived of all forms of entertainment save reading by candlelight wears thin very quickly.

Nevertheless, waiting for a major storm is exciting. I know there is a possibility that my roof will blow off, or one of the oak trees in my front yard will fall over, or some other catastrophe will occur, and in fact, on the other side, there is nothing good that can possibly result. So it makes no sense at all to be excited about an approaching hurricane. And yet, I'm not alone in my excitement.

Three Sheets to the Wind

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"On a small boat there are three sheets that control the sails. The Main Sheet controls the mainsail, and two sheets that control the headsail the Windward Sheet and the Leeward Sheet. So a person that has three sheets to the wind means that the sheets are flying with the wind i.e. you do not have control of the boat." Nautical Expressions in the Vernacular

-or is it-

"On land, windmills have four sails. The sails are covered with sheets of fabric. The windmill turns at full speed with four 'sheets' (sails) exposed to the wind but will work more efficiently in brisk winds with only two 'sheets'. If you put up three sheets to the wind the windmill will be unstable, wobbling on its axis like a drunken sailor." Sailing Terms Explained For 'Lubbers

It's Friday. I've fixed myself a cocktail, which is something I only do on Fridays or Saturdays, and then only when I'm in a good mood, which I usually am on Fridays, just because. At other times I might have a beer or a glass of wine, but never a cocktail. Mixing a cocktail is a Fun Project, a celebration of something or other, even if it's only the end of the workweek. Making a margarita from a mix just doesn't do it; I have to squeeze fresh limes and measure lots of stuff and make a mess for it to count.

My cocktail of choice these days is the Suffering Bastard, which can be found listed among the "Polynesian" cocktails in the menus of some restaurants, but isn't really Polynesian at all. [Aside: most of them aren't. Most of them were created by one of two men: a Texan named Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, rumored to have been a bootlegger, who moved to Los Angeles, changed his name to Donn Beach but called himself Don the Beachcomber, and, in 1934, opened a 25-seat bar on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and McCadden Place, followed in 1937 by a restaurant; or Victor Bergeron, who was so taken with Don the Beachcomber's restaurant that in 1938 he changed the name of his own rib shack in Oakland to Vic's Trading Post, in which he recreated Don the Beachcomber's exotic decor.] According to Beachbum Berry's Grog Log, by Jeff Berry and Annene Kaye, to whom I owe thanks for my knowledge of this erudite topic, the Suffering Bastard was first served at neither of those establishments, but rather at Shepherd's Hotel in Cairo, Egypt, circa 1950. It was christened Suffering Bastard when "some British officers misheard the bartender's comment about his 'poor, suffering bar steward'."

The first time I ordered a Suffering Bastard in a restaurant I was served a sweet cocktail in a tall Tiki mug. I have no idea what was in it. It certainly wasn't the drink described in Beachbum Berry's Grog Log, for which the recipe is:

-- 1 ounce of bourbon
-- 1 ounce of gin
-- 1 ounce of fresh lime juice
-- 4 ounces of ginger ale
-- dash of bitters

This is not quite how the drink was made at Shepherd's Hotel. There, brandy was used instead of bourbon and ginger beer instead of ginger ale. Made to the above recipe, the drink is too sour for me, so I add simple sugar syrup. The first time I served one to my friend Liz Danforth she christened it a "Sweet Suffering Bastard". Although originally served in a large cocktail glass, I drink mine out of a tall Tiki mug, just because.

Chewing The Fat

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"Before refrigeration, food was preserved in brine within wooden casks. In time, the salt-hardened fat on the meat, became stuck to the sides of the barrel. But the cook would not waste this and could often be seen scraping the barrel whilst the crew impatiently waited and chewed the fat." Sailing Terms Explained For 'Lubbers

9/11. Those of us living in the Washington D.C. area don't get the sympathy that New Yorkers get on this day, but we know that we, too, are living in a ground zero zone. We all remember waiting for yet another shoe to drop on that day. We've been waiting ever since, more or less haphazardly. Following government recommendations I've stored a few cans of food and some water in the laundry/storage room in my basement, where I would go if, say, a nuclear bomb were to be dropped on the Capitol. So in case of such an event, being about twelve miles from the Capitol I would die well-fed. The room is cool, having cinderblock walls, and I have a wine rack down there, so I wouldn't even have to die sober if I didn't want to. (Note to self: put a spare corkscrew in the store room.)

No no no, that isn't the real Plan. Yes, we have A Plan, although it is so unlikely to be of any use as to be laughable, still, as a parent I felt it would be irresponsible for me not to have A Plan.

So this is The Plan agreed upon by myself and my son, who was a junior in high school on 9/11/2001: If you see a mushroom cloud over DC, get in the car and drive. Don't wait to hear from me; don't take the time to call me. Get on 66 West or 95 South, whichever is closer. Assuming you are one of the first million or so people with the same Plan, and you are not stuck hopelessly in a massive traffic jam, take 66 West to 29 South, or 95 South to 3 West to 29 South, and meet me at Krispy Kreme on Emmett Street in Charlottesville. That's it; that's The Plan.

Now that my son is a student at the University of Virginia the Krispy Kreme on Emmett Street is conveniently close, but he's no longer living in a ground zero zone. There's irony in there somewhere.

That Foundering Feeling

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Founder: to fill with water and sink

I don't want this to be a political blog-- I have too many other things to chatter about. I hope this will be my last political entry.

It's just that there's this one thing, this one thing I can't get past. I keep going over it and over it, and I just can't figure out what role Bush plays in the Bush administration.

The press skipped lightly over this event I'm thinking of, the one I just can't get past. It was the July 14th press conference, the one with Kofi Annan, in which Bush said "The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power..."

As I remember, these are the events that preceded the war: There was a victory for the UN when Saddam caved and let the inspectors back in. And Hans Blix said he was getting access, but he couldn't find anything. And there was some discussion of whether or not the US was withholding intelligence concerning the WMD, because we knew they were there, and Blix couldn't find anything. And I remember that the main issue at the UN was, should the inspectors be given more time? And the administration decided that Blix had had quite enough time. I remember a snatch of another press conference in which an administration official was asked if the UN inspectors would be given advance notice of an attack so they could clear out, and the answer was "Of course" and when the time came, they cleared out.

So Bush's statement at the press conference revealed that he had forgotten this sequence of events; he had forgotten the sequence of events that led to the decision to go to war.

Here's what I just can't get past: If you made the decision to go to war, would you FORGET what led to that decision? Would you FORGET? I mean, wouldn't you go over it, and over it, and over it, in your mind? Wouldn't you dwell on it? Wouldn't you remember every detail of it for the rest of your life? I know I would.

So the first step in this mental exercise is the easiest: Bush doesn't make the big decisions. But even if Cheney and/or Rumsfeld and/or Rice made the decision, if you were president, wouldn't you be so concerned about going to war that you would make them explain every nuance of the situation? And then make them explain it all over again? And then... WOULD YOU FORGET WHAT THEY HAD SAID? Even the conclusion that Bush doesn't make the big decisions fails to explain his cluelessness.

It seems that Bush doesn't even concern himself, really, with the big decisions. He has so much confidence in Cheney et al. that he just doesn't dwell on serious matters of state. So what does he concern himself with? Getting re-elected? No wait. That's Karl Rove's job. What else is there? Daily workouts and clearing brush on the ranch?

Listing to Port

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Listing: Leaning to one side when not underway
Port: The left side of the boat when facing the bow

For my first attempt to imbed an image in an entry, my complements to the folks at


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Cruise: Voyage made in varying directions. To sail in various directions for pleasure, in search, or for exercise. (The Modern Mariner Glossary)

Welcome aboard.

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