Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Words and phrases that will no longer be tolerated in this establishment (a running list)

--Mindset: Persons using the word Mindset will be subject to various painsets, after which they will exhibit serious injurysets.

--Skillset: You will not have agilityset to escape our wrath. We might then go after your familyset.

--That being said: That being said, we will cease speaking.

--Metric: By any metric, you talk like a cretin.

--Too much on (his) plate.

--The whole nine yards.

--At the end of the day. At the end of the day, you may have given it the whole nine yards and found you have too much on your plate. That being said, you'll have the skillset to get the right metric for the mindset of your colleagues. But that shouldn't prevent serious drinking.


Thank you, Dr. Cajka! Yes, I don't know how I could have forgotten that. Drill down will absolutely not be tolerated, unless it's the sort of drilling down that goes, for example, through the speaker's head.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Further on Ranger Road

We travel down a little road in Virginia, starting from the more-or-less known world.

We leave the historical Williamsburg, with its Governor’s Palace and its Capitol Building, and Wren Hall sitting at the end of the Duke of Gloucester Street, the oldest college building still in use in America.

We leave the tourist Williamsburg with its rentable period costumes and old English script written everywhere, and several genuinely ancient streets now filled with Brande Newe Olde Shoppes. Once out of town, the scrim of woodland crowds right up to the highway and leans over it.

For more than 300 years these have been well known boondocks, the backwoods passage from the civilization of Jamestown and Williamsburg, to the great James River plantations further west, where we’re headed. The motorist, like the horseman of three centuries ago, only hopes to get through without a breakdown.

In general, we’re heading toward Charles City County, which contains no actual city, despite what once may have been intended. It contains no solid places at all, but indefinite locales with the names of families long gone and known only to local usage--that is, except for the plantations on the James. These are very definite.

Charles City County came into being in 1619 because, even then, the restless were eager to move west. Most of them continued west—the county’s population today is about what it was in 1730. But in the remaining evidence of those settlers, it is possible to glimpse the first flourishing of an alternate America, a place Thomas Jefferson had not yet consecrated to the equality of man.

As we move west, they begin with Sherwood Forest, retirement home of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, who because he’d been “outlawed” by the Whig party, named his home to suit his status.

After that comes North Bend Plantation, and then Shirley, Evelynton, Westover, and Berkley plantations. We have to watch for the signs, usually nailed to trees, as most of these estates are still working farms; no chamber of commerce advertises them. Some still belong to the families that built them.

All of these places were designed to awe. On behalf of their owners, all of them strove toward a status that never lived long in this soil, the status of landed aristocracy, a people removed to higher concerns behind the bastion of their nobility. In a country where only the very rich and the government could build in brick, these great houses hoped to conflate those two spheres.

It didn’t work, of course. The view of an Arcadian America, stewarded by a compassionate gentry and devoted to an ideal of beautiful living, met its decisive end at Appomattox Court House. But the intimation of that vanished life steals among these woods and meadows like a mist at dawn.

Of all the great houses in this county, there is only one that speaks to us with anything like modern vitality and humor, only one I really want to see:
Westover, built in 1736 by William Byrd II.

When Byrd built this house, he was already an accomplished man, heir to a tobacco fortune his father had made. Born in America and raised in England, he came dutifully home to manage the estate upon his father’s death in 1704, but he preferred England. The coffee houses, theaters, company, and the events of great moment all suited his peculiar energies.

Here, he made the best of things by walking his grounds, reading his books, conversing with friends, and living like a biblical patriarch.

“I have my flocks and my herds, my bondmen and bond-women, and every soart of trade amongst my own servants, so that I live in a kind of independence on every one but Providence,” he wrote to his friend the Earl of Orrery. And though the life required energy and courage, he found it amusing, and a continual exercise of his patience and economy, which he enjoyed.

We drive two miles in from route 5, following the nailed-up signs, seen by and seeing no one. Even at the end of the drive: no visitors center, no visitors, no sign of current life, the only parking lot a grassy patch by some little cedars. And then, an old iron gate-- pedestrian-sized as opposed to carriage-sized—with a wooden box for donations and a sheaf of pamphlets. The quiet James commands the entire southern vista, so quiet you can hear waterbirds twittering halfway across. A brilliant, clear day.

We can’t get inside the house itself—still a private residence though no one apparently lives there—but perhaps that’s just as well. Because as we walk in at that gate, past the brick-walled garden, and then out into the front yard, watching the house materialize slowly on our left, the accumulated Georgian magnificence becomes so powerful it could knock you into the river. Nothing inside could compare to this.

For more than 200 running feet, the house presents its stupendous fa├žade to the river, no doubt to the wonder of passing boatmen. It is tall, heavy, steeply sloped in the roof. It seems to claim the same patron god that inspired the great fugues of Bach.

Here William Byrd throned in augustness and industry.

It’s too bad we get our picture of colonials mostly from dour men like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, for Byrd was the ultimate anti-dour. Where learning was concerned, he could have spotted the puritans several laps of education and still won the race.

In addition to English, he spoke French, Dutch, Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and read extensively in all of these. He amassed a library containing more than 3,600 volumes, second only to Benjamin Franklin’s in the colonies, and built a wing to his house to store them.

Byrd is often compared to Franklin, but to me he always seemed more real. He was Franklin without the registered trademarks, no seven maxims for highly effective colonials. He consistently failed in piety, and did so with appealing dismay, but neither piety nor dismay ever slowed him.

He bestrode that Virginian wilderness with seldom a stretch, crossing the Atlantic 10 times to attend the best schools in England, to conduct business, and to travel. While there he joined the bar at one of the great Inns of Court, and was ultimately inducted into the British Royal Society, one of very few Americans to receive that honor. Back home he founded Richmond and Petersburg, and personally established the southern boundary of Virginia.

But he never completely left earth. His encoded diary, discovered in the 1940s and one of the most entertaining of colonial documents, shows how much he never left earth.

July 30, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock….I read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Thucydides. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. I read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson and then took a little nap. I ate fish for dinner. In the afternoon my wife and I had a little quarrel which I reconciled with a flourish. Then she read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson to me. It is to be observed that the flourish was performed on the billiard table. I read a little Latin. In the evening we took a walk about the plantation. I neglected to say prayers but had good health, good thoughts and good humor, thanks be to God.
Byrd died in 1744 at age 70, and was buried in his garden, where his tombstone still stands—a large enough tombstone to list at least some of his accomplishments: Receiver General of His Majesty’s Revenues in Virginia, Public Agent to The Court and Ministry Of England, a 37-year member of the Council of Virginia, and president of that body for two years.
To all this were added a great elegancy of taste and life,
The well-bred gentleman and polite companion,
The splendid economist and prudent father of a family,
With the constant enemy of all exorbitant power,
And hearty friend to the liberties of his country.
For balance, we might list some of his other traits: arrogance, parsimony, contentiousness. Readers of his journals will find Byrd guilty of the usual crimes of his age, including allegiance to the oppressive patriarchy, exploitation of non-renewable resources and, certainly not least, the holding of slaves. He could be cool, he could be cruel. But if there is such a thing as expiation of sins through humor, vigor, and intelligence, I move that William Byrd of Westover be redeemed. Far, far back in the wilds of primal Virginia, he was pioneering in this land the art of enjoying oneself.