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Should the National Historic Preservation Act Have a Greater Sense of Urgency?

The following essay was published in Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation in the United States (Amherst and Boston, University of Massachusetts Press, 2016).

The National Register was developed with the notion of creating an inventory of historic assets that conveyed a sense of who we are as a nation, from the town square to the Supreme Court. Over time, it was determined that fifty years was the point at which a property or site became historic. This fit the existing paradigms of the fields that make up cultural resources: archeology, architecture, and history. Traditionally, the practitioners of those fields considered our historic past from a sober distance, giving due reverence to the grand manse of a founding father, a cradle of our democracy, or flashpoints in the crucible of our national evolution.

Light streaking across a dark background
Speed of light traveling. By Nissim Farin

But history, its effect on or how it is affected by the built environment, is upon us as quick as lightning. It unfolds with such velocity and ferocity that today it seems to occur in between breaths, not eras. This may have always been the case. We are no longer at ease to leisurely consider its impact. Perhaps we never were.

Perhaps the National Historic Preservation Act, in particular the National Register, should create a forum, a place of dialogue about our historic resources. It should engage us in a contemporary examination of what it means to be American. I suggest giving the National Register more urgency. Let’s shorten the period of historic significance and lean on the skills of journalism and public history to increase the relevance of the program to the public.

. . . properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years shall not be considered eligible for the National Register.

—Criterion Consideration G, the National Historic Preservation Act, as amended

The structure of National Register documentation adheres to a historiography that favors a long view, with well-established antecedents to guide it. Yes, certainly big “H” history—national politics, war, industrial progress, high-end architecture, famous men—but small “h” history as well—small-town main streets, rural farming, homogeneous enclaves—find ample representation in the collected American past. We should not be surprised by this. Consider it myth making: Give us all of the narratives that the nation has co-signed upon, that reify the notions of our history that we are comfortable with, and move them into our national mythology. As John Sprinkle points out in his essay featured in this book, “To Expand and Maintain a National Register of Historic Places,”, only 3 percent of the ninety thousand National Register nominations have been updated for content, a desperate requirement for the expansion of the inventory, which means that these narratives, however incomplete, become fixed. Codification creates stasis. Stasis is resistant to change, and the best way to forestall it is to make change wait. Like, fifty years.

The Historic Sites Act of 1935 initially rejected anything “after 1870” as being historic. Between the 1940s and 1950s, clarification of the fifty-year rule came through a series of discussions and documents among the National Parks System Advisory Board and staff related to the agency’s Historic Sites Survey. The issues included preference of architectural significance over historical significance, a “twenty-five-year” policy as it related to deceased individuals, and that pesky 1870 date. With that, the fifty-year rule was reaffirmed and codified.º
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The Wonder of Books, Returned


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazing piece of fiction. Diaz has spun worlds and characters in vivid colors and hues. Emotion and myth pop off of the pages amidst the history of Caribbean diaspora people.

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My wife told me about this book. Enthusiastically, she said to me, “You have to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This is a Brian book.”  When she told me this, I was wrapped up in two projects (one for work, one for my web enterprise), read almost no fiction, barely any books that didn’t related to men’s lifestyle or Latin American history and culture in the US (latinidad).

Have you ever been so caught up in what you were doing that you couldn’t see the forest for the trees? I was writing about the impacts of Latinos in America on one hand, and how to define masculinity in the on the other. My wife, my smart wife floated a book by me (that sat on the shelf for years) that addressed aspects of both, along with orishas, science fiction, vivid imagery, incredible prose, and that tingle and nausea of being slightly different in a world with a tightly prescribed set of behavioral and social norms. Growing up in an urban setting, multi-ethnic, the sounds of the streets calling, but you not knowing what to make of it. And FOOTNOTES!

Fuku wasn’t Oscar’s problem. Oscar’s problem was that he was born 10 years too early. Today he’d have a blog, with several e-books out, and a whole host of other kids just like him.


That time I almost saw Prince perform

Generatpurplerainion X, we are in mourning. David Bowie, Phife, now Prince. All impacted my view of the world through music. Seeing Bowie on Soul Train, wondering if I was the only person who didn’t know he was white and British. Phife and A Tribe Called Quest, him holding it down on Midnight Marauders’ cut “God Lives Through Music” (. . . if my partners don’t look good, Malik don’t look good . . .).  Now Prince Rodgers Nelson. The short muthafucka with the deep voice (his description).  “Adore,” “I Feel For You,” “DMSR,” “Delirious,” “Musicology,” “Gett Off,” “Pop Life,” and of course “Purple Rain.” We will never see his (or their) like again.
Obligatory Prince story: Like most every other kid in America, I’d been transfixed by seeing Purple Rain, listening to the sound track (and the B-sides!), and the ancillary related content (The Time, Apollonia 6, music videos). The theater where I watched it the first time, people were dancing in the aisles during the last 20 minutes of the movie. My high school senior class prom theme was Purple Reign. So, yeah, it was kind of a big deal.
Not actual radio. Image from Jersey Shore Pickins,
Imagine my surprise when I found 15 tickets for the Purple Rain tour at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD. My brother was moving stuff from his grad school place back home. One item was an antique radio the size of a gas oven and range. It was beautiful junk that big brother didn’t have space on his way to a new job. I hauled as much stuff as I could in my 1980 Honda Accord hatchback, including the radio. Inside the cabinet of the radio was an envelop with 15 tickets–cheap seats, but seats all the same for a series of shows that sold out in hours.
One of his roommates managed to get a block of tickets, probably put them in the cabinet for safe storage before my brother moved. Chuck (don’t remember his name) called my home asking if I could check the radio and see if the tickets were in there. I did; they were. Chuck was relieved.
I naively asked Chuck if I could get a couple (as a reward, or to buy, if necessary).  He said he’d committed the tickets to people, at what I’m sure was above face value. My brother suggested that a couple of tickets should have come up missing before I confirmed the number, but I was a straight shooter and thought I might be rewarded for my good deed. Per usual, no good deed goes unpunished and there I sat/in my lonely room/looking for my sunshine*, not at the Capital Centre wearing something ridiculous.
Eventually, I’d see Prince at the Capital Centre. I sang all of the songs (to the chagrin of my girlfriend) and was much better dressed than in 1984. Sadly, I missed him when he was in DC last. Had I known it was the last time forever, I might have tried harder.
*Lyrics from “17 Days” slightly modified.

Quick Read: The Begatting of a President


The Begatting of a President by Myron Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This arrived in my house last week. It was a gift from my late grandmother’s home in North Carolina.  One of my aunts brought it back with her from a recent visit to check on some renovations occurring on the old house. Given my background in history, she thought I might enjoy it.

For fans of late 20th century American history, this book is a lighthearted look at a most tumultuous event during a period of tumultuous events. The 1968 presidential election is amazing to think about in retrospect. Truly epic in terms of the storylines that emerged and the political machinations that played out in the public sphere. And out of that rises Richard Nixon, left for dead after the 1960 election.

The authors write the story in the style of the King James Bible, a style worthy of the events, with pen and ink satirical illustrations of the presidents and political leaders in biblical garb. If you are familiar with the Old Testament and/or the late 1960s, this will give you a chuckle, and perhaps cause you to shed a tear.

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An Evening of Whiskey and Companionship

The idea was that bunch of guys get together with the idea of tasting a few  bourbons and hanging out. We all worked in restaurants and have had our share of whiskey.  We showed up with a bottle each–something decent, maybe even good for a Thursday night. That was before Dan showed up. Dan has run several bars, been an owner in a local restaurant group, and now worked as a liquor representative.  He knows drinks and drink making. He arrived with a roller bag filled with bottles, glasses, and a ham. It got real when he pulled out the ham.

Our host Kelly found some rolls and mustard, so we started cutting up the ham and making sandwiches. Kelly rounded up his girls, who patiently let their dad get his guests settled before asking for their bedtime rituals. Most of us were dads, so we had advice on corralling the kids, except for Dan, who as their uncle, chose to let Kelly deal with it. Dan set up shop and started teaching. The first lesson was about the distilleries. That most bourbon comes from one of a dozen or more distilleries. Once you know which distilleries makes which brands, finding a bargain was a matter of asking the right question.  Armed with that knowledge, we divided the whiskies into flights (less than .5 oz per whiskey), to better discern the differences and similarities. The commentary comes from my notes.

Bottle of JW Dant Special Reserve Bourbon. From
JW Dant Special Reserve

Three 4-year, 100 proof Flight

These were high-alcohol, hot bourbons.  We got these out of the way early, to be responsible and all. JW Dant Special Reserve is hot, sweet, with a short finish; Old Fitzgerald has a surprisingly smooth finish, with a light,  sweet taste; Medley Bros., spicy, full rich with a strong finish (high barley content). The JW Dant comes via the Heaven Hill distillery.  You can get it in 1.5 liter bottles (or “handles”)for less than a shot of Willet at a bar. The Old Fitz was tasty, and Medley Brothers comes from the recently reactivated Charles Medley Distillery and made for a good mixing whiskey.
12-year, 90 proof Flight

The Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12-Year is a wheated bourbon, which means the secondary grain is wheat as opposed to rye. This means it’s softer, with fewer spice notes and less sour taste. The Old Fitz had a nose of  musty wood, with brown sugar notes, but no funk; W.L. Weller 12-year, another wheated had vanilla and light spice notes, with a long finish; Elijah Craig 12-Year had a funky sugar taste, with wood, and a subtle hint of vanilla; Old Medley was vanilla notes, with coconut-spicy finish.

WL Weller 12 year bourbon
W.L. Weller 12-Year;

Weller Flight

By coincidence, we collectively brought multiple types of the W.L. Weller line, from the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, KY.  We all found the Weller bourbons to be pretty damn good across the board. The Special Reserve 90 was fruity, filled with of spice, with a smooth finish; Special Reserve 100-10 year had brown sugar, all types of spice notes, and a woody funk (in a good way); we tried the Weller 12-year again, for continuity (see above).

In between flights, we talked about music (Kelly was a guitarist and bassist; the other guys played with him at some point, except for Dan), like the Minneapolis Sound that preceded Prince, and the DC alternative scene in the late 80s and early 90s, which ranged from Minor Threat to Bad Brains to Velocity Girl, with some go-go thrown in. It’s weird to talk about the DC music scene in the past tense. But hell, that was 20+ years ago and no one under 30 knows half of the bands or clubs we were reminiscing about.
Then, we reached the last flight, which was really interesting.
Single Barrel

Wathen’s 94 proof is made at the Charles Medley Distillery. It’s 70% corn, with a smooth

Wathen Single Barrel
Wathen Single Barrel

vanilla taste and slightly funky; McKenna 104 proof, is a Heaven Hill product that was possibly the weirdest tasting whiskey I’ve ever had and I’m not sure if I actually liked it. It had hints of pineapple/tropical fruit, and wood notes; Four Roses was a  bourbon snob’s special for a while; spicy, with  brown sugar notes, and a long finish, it was 35% rye. This  group was the weirdest just from its variety.  The lack of blending with other barrels created some singular tastes.

Eventually, the ham ran out and no amount of water was going to dilute that much alcohol, even with the 3 hours that passed since the first sip. We helped Kelly clean up, said our goodbyes, and committed to a scotch tasting before the winter. Next time, cigars and poker may be involved.

Clothes Makes the Dad?

“Dad, why do you always wear nice clothes on a Saturday? I mean, you have on a nice shirt and stuff. To go to Costco.”

This was not a compliment. It was an indictment on my personal style. See, a while back I ran a men’s lifestyle website with a good friend of mine. Our whole shtick was that most guys don’t know or care about looking good and behaving well, but should. We gave it to them as guys, not fashion gurus or former models. Care because it makes a difference; because people notice; because you might get laid. Just Be Better Guys. And while I always cared about clothes, having the business meant I had to look the part, even on weekends. Sweats and t-shirts? Only if I am heading to the gym or lounging in the morning at the house. Jeans to work? Maybe 5 times a year, usually with a move or a holiday as the excuse. It drives my wife crazy, who is an acceptably dressed, business-causal modern woman, but thinks I’m nuts. If I wear a sports jacket to party or night out, it’s too much. Why get dressed up for a movie? It’s dark anyway.

Joyne Girls in Daddys ClothesI blame my mom. I couldn’t go out to a department store or downtown without a button-down shirt and long pants, at least. For several years after, I rebelled–horrible pants known as “action slacks” around the 1980s DMV (District, Maryland, and Virginia), baseball caps with the crowns pushed in. My dad cared, but only if it was church or a special event. As long as my shoes were polished and tie was tied, I was good. He did take offense to my desire to wear shiny maroon pants to a wedding. My older brother has a nickel in this dime, too. He’s always been a clotheshorse. This is a man who hasn’t owned a pair of jeans since the Reagan administration. He worked me into some semblance of an acceptable-looking male before I took it on from there.

My own style ranges from somewhat preppy to 60s jazz crooner. I love color and would rather be a bit over the top than too understated. I’m against Crocs, the over-proliferation of plaid flannel shirts as an urbane fashion statement, suits with sneakers, people who don’t own an iron, and too much starch in your shirts. I’m a big believer in season-appropriate gear, so regardless of what my wife says, I love white pants in the summer, draw the line at the full Cleveland.

My girls have now internalized this struggle between getting dressed and dressing up. One would wear dresses and patent leather Mary Janes every day; the other prefers sweats and her Nike running shoes over anything. Both love bright colors and but are really careful about making sure their clothes match–my wife used to yell “no match!” at her dad when she was a kid, so the girls get it honestly. They seem to like dad when I “look handsome” but just not to overdue it.  Which means no poplin suit for brunch on Sunday. And I had the perfect shirt for it, too.

“This is The Life We Chose,” or Your Birthday isn’t About You

Happy Birthday!There is screaming coming from the basement. Both my wife and the 8 year-old are irate with the process of undoing her cornrows. I can’t help, because the 5-year old and I are washing her hair. This has a 50/50 chance of ending in tears and we still have nail clipping to conduct, not to mention actually styling her hair, which she wants me to understand that I will have no part in doing. This is fine by me, but given my wife and oldest are 45 minutes into what will be a 2+ hour ordeal, I’m thinking I might have to jump in, which will ensure that there will be crying. This is far from the relaxing day I had in mind.

We, using the royal “we” here but I mean me, still need to get dinner prepared, since my wife and I are going out for the evening, and although it’s only 11 am, I can see that we are rapidly running out of time. The sitter, that is my mother, has to be picked up. We have to eat a preemptive celebratory meal a sing and “Happy Birthday” with her, my sister and her kids, whom will probably be running late, because it’s my birthday.

An hour prior, I was eating home-made buttermilk biscuits, marveling at the craft birthday cards from the girls, and modeling my new watch. We hadn’t made any firm plans for Sunday morning, but my wife and I discussed taking the girls out for a bicycle ride, maybe going to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival or just walking to a park for a bit. Our evening plans won’t start until 6 pm and, while I need to swing by and see my dad, it could be incorporated into the sitter/mom pickup (they live less than 5 miles apart). It was going to be a picturesque vision of a Dad’s birthday. Adoring family, loving parents, and an opportunity to be seen by people hither and yon, awash in that birthday glory.

Fast forward 2 hours, I’m in the kitchen frying chicken (because the girls like fried chicken and rarely get it) and roasting veggies. The 8 year-old walks past me crying, with ¾ of her hair free, but a painful looking ¼ still bound tightly to her skull. Her mother curses under her breath. The 5 year-old, reading the tea leaves, decides to do her own hair and makes a half-way decent bun. Initially, I offer assistant. But I still have to shower, visit my dad, pick up Grandma, rush through the birthday crap and get back in time for a 6 pm show. “The bun looks good,” I say and I keep moving. At this point, my alternate vision of maybe an hour to myself with a cigar on the porch while the ladies run an errand is shot to hell, too.

This is the life I chose, that my wife and I chose when we decided to have children. Their hair and grooming don’t care about our birthdays, nor  being “Easy like Sunday morning.”

After another tearful visit from the 8 year-old with accusations of sadism, the rest of the hair goes quickly—washing, conditioning, and braiding are done by 2 pm. It’s apparent that my wife won’t be joining us for the family expedition. In a moment of clarity, I texted my dad and my sister to move back our anticipated arrival time. The passable job the 5 year-old did with her hair has been lost to multiple bun/ponytail attempts and now it’s all about the Doc McStuffin headband containing the lion’s mane. It’s Sunday afternoon now, and we still have to hit the road. And no sooner than we get into the car, both girls fall asleep.

Breathe Easy, Dads, That Sunscreen You Didn’t Use Sucks Anyway

sun-protection-filter-spf-word-cloud-illustration-related-to-skin-care-sunbathing-53388965I was camping at the beach this past weekend with my daughters and another dad-daughter combo for what has become an annual tradition. Did we put sunscreen on our girls? Nope, not until the latter part of day 2, after multiple hours in the sun and on the beach. Were there 3 types of sunscreens with us? You betcha!

If you’re like me, you might say something like “Who needs sunscreen any? I never used it as a kid.” This sort of logic drives my wife crazy, who would have the girls in lead shields with visors if she could. It also masks the fact that I had forgotten to apply it, not that I chose not to protect my daughters. And that my parents were a bit lax about such things–it was the 70s, they didn’t know. Please raise your hands if this sounds familiar.

Good news! It probably doesn’t matter because the Environmental Working Group just safe-chemical-free-sunscreen-kids-e1371854837383shared its list of best and worst sunscreens, with 80% of sunscreens rated as not effective at their prescribed task, protecting your skin from the sun. Chances are, you are slathering your pride and joy with one of the products in their Hall of Shame.  If you can spray it (causes damage to young lungs), if the SPF rating is over 50 (doesn’t account for the dangerous UVA rays that cause cancer), if it has oxybenzone (causes allergic skin reactions and acts like estrogen in the body), or if it has retinyl palmitate (may speed development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin), make like Steph Curry and shoot it into the basket. The wastebasket.

Then trying telling your wife, “See, I told you.”

Recycle, Repair, Reuse

dark brown suede shoes
Cole-Haan suede double monks dyed dark brown

When possible, my wife and I try to teach our girls to repair before replacing. “Let’s get new tires on your (sister’s/cousin’s) bike” before buying another. I tend to salvage things, especially things I chose and purchased before moving on to a new item. Why not exhaust all options first? This means I’ve spent many dollars repairing things like several suits, pants, sweaters, shoes, and overcoats. I have a coat that is at least as old as I am and has been refurbished at least 2 times (buttons, lining, pockets, button holes), after giving up on a coat older than that–honestly, I traded the coat for a grenadine tie before I understood what sort of magic a tailor could work. Why? Because I liked those things and my calculus said that finding a near or exact replacement was much more expensive than fixing the older one. This assumes a few things: your original piece can be salvaged–a moth infestation of our closets laid waste to several items that will never, ever, ever, get back to-gether! (Thanks, Taylor)–and that the repairs look good and not some hatchet job. No need fixing a sweater if it costs more than the sweater’s worth or if it looks like Freddy Kruger did the work.

This leads to the story of a pair of tan shoes. I bought them as a pair of non-traditional shoes for summer–a tan, suede Cole Rood Haan (their heritage vintage line within the greater Cole-Haan brand), double-monk-strap, apron-front with a rounded point shoe.  No bucks or penny loafers or driving shoes, but something to wear to work and for a night out. They were just that, except for one problem. The dye job was a bit off. Subtly, once the shoes were worn and exposed to sunlight, the monk-strap on one started to darken. It’s nearly a year before the change happened, but eventually, it became an overt sign of a defect. The problems were two: I love the shoes and now I’d had them over a year when the final change occurred. So I decided to have them dyed. Not the first time I’d done it: see, 1993, (grey penny loafers to black). I wanted them to be a dark brown for fall and winter, and because I thought a darker color would make more sense–hide my mistake in checking the details. I’ll admit, I’ve been given to an impulse buy, which I might not have been as willing to own up to at the time.

The cobbler I use has done wonders with damaged items before and is honest enough to admit when he can’t do something well. He was skeptical about getting to brown, but was willing to try, with the caveat I was OK with taking them to black if it didn’t work out. The shoes couldn’t stay tan and I’d paid more than enough to justify the investment–the dye job was less than 1/3 of what it would cost to replace the shoes. It took a while, but you can see the results. I’ll let you be the judge, but I think it worked out OK. I don’t mind the wear marks, because they were worn before the work was done. But salvaging shoes so as not to spend money to replace, or throw them out seemed to make sense. I’ve got other things to spend my money on. There are braces, dance lessons, and new bicycles in my immediate future.  Recycle, repair, and reuse.