Father’s Day 2019 — via 1940

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The Watsons at the World Fair in ~1940. Left to right: my grandpa Ernest, my uncle Ernie, my dad Richard.

This is the first father’s day I’ve ever known without my father. I don’t much like it, but although Dad has been gone for months, I still feel his presence and find reminders of him at all kinds of the right moments.

Recently, I was talking with Mom about what to do with a box of Dad’s old 78 records. I love music; I love records, and these old 78s are from a special era in the 1940s when music was not as easy to come by as it is today. Songs were pressed one to a side on weighty shellac record discs which played through to a deep groovy sound we don’t hear in digital renderings today. Clearly my dad prized and loved this collection, caring for and moving the box of volumes of 78s as my family moved several times over seven decades, keeping the discs in good shape even when the instruments for playback were no longer available at home. Knowing how special these were to him (and some of these discs were also hers), Mom was having a hard time letting go of or knowing what otherwise to do with these.

I took the box with me and mulled over it for awhile. Among the professional volumes, two particular discs were out of place, set apart in a tattered old paper cover with a pencil scrawl. (“Look,” Mom said, “This one says ‘Richard’ on it.”) We had no idea what they were. The labels on these discs were plain (branded “Recordio” and “Capitol”), and a scribble on each of them in an area where contents should have been listed gave no indication what they could possibly be — except, apparently, self-recorded.

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The Wilcox-Gay Recordio: 1940 Home Recording – via http://onetuberadio.com/2015/01/28/the-wilcox-gay-recordio-1940-home-recording/

I didn’t know home-recorded records were ever a thing, but I did some research and I found out that was indeed a possibility in the 1940s. Given that my grandfather was an audio technology wizard of sorts for his time, he no doubt would have had a home recorder like the Wilcox-Gay Recordio in their home in San Mateo. Especially if these could have voices from our family’s past on them, I realized I had to find a way to listen to them.

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Unlike most of the other quality shellac 78s in the box – songs from the likes of Al Jolson, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and others – these two discs were pretty banged up. I wasn’t sure they’d be playable at all, and even so, with over 70 years of grime and scratches on them, I was not optimistic anything would be audible if they were playable. One of them, the disc with the Capitol label on it, looked like it was even fading away to some kind of strange metal underneath. And never mind that I long ago got rid of my own last phonograph. But I found a potential solution to this puzzle with Nick at a friendly and professional service across the Bay, Analog-to-Digital.net, who would give digitizing these things a try for a reasonable cost.

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The digitizations came out better than I expected. Noise, unavoidable, is reduced, and skips are all over, but the recordings are audible. I’m not sure what’s going on for a great deal of these recordings, but it is clear somewhere in all the noises, skips, pops, and hiss that here are voices from the past of my dad, his brother, maybe some friends, and even my grandparents, having a blast using a home recorder.

Nick sent me two mp3 files, one per disc. There isn’t much more than 5 minutes of recording per disc. I separated the audio files into ‘tracks’ of sorts and gave them titles reflecting my best guesses as to what’s going on in each segment. I tossed some completely unintelligible parts but liberally kept most of the action, in the order it was pressed onto each disc, and uploaded it all to two separate playlists on SoundCloud. Voila: Today’s Recordio: Voices from the Watson home in the 1940s.

I can’t help but wonder if this iteration will stand the test of time as well as heavy old 78 records to last another 70 years, until the next time this format becomes antiquated and needs to be transferred to something playable.

For now on the first Father’s Day without you Dad, I’m happy we get to join you long ago at home.

The Recordio

Capitol

Last Night on Ocean Beach

Back in ye olden days, one million years ago when the Internet was young and full of whimsey, we could do a thing called “hand-coding” HTML with any text editor, and if we had a Web server in our kitchen or knew a friend with one, or if we bought an ebusiness plan from one of the upstarts up and down Mission Street, we could upload it either via FTP or with a click of the “publish” button and voila! All the world could see what we did. Although it didn’t quite yet fuel IPOs or influence bias or elections, it was literally magic, to me.

My heroes at Monkeybrains hosted my first Web site back in those days, and in a moment of nostalgia I just went to visit it. I can’t quite convince the guys to update the certificate so that a 20-ish year-old Web site can load without complaints, so I decided to render the main poetry below via the sorcery of The Screen Grab in case it should one day vanish for good.

Of course there are hidden pages — including a collected interactive self-built resume, a love letter to and pictures of my then girlfriend and now wife, and an alternate site propped up by the thankfully forgotten architecture of frames that enable navigation through my curated list of favorite early jokes that people sent in long “FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD” email chains — but thanks to NOINDEX NOFOLLOW they shall probably remain secret like a hidden track on vinyl or even CD. And for some reason I didn’t want to lose these words below, probably because they are so impermanent, which really, isn’t everything?

Thusly without further ado, to nobody in particular just like in the olden days when it didn’t need a point, here it is: my home page, my first Web site, my …..

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A Brief History of the Potato Farl

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Lucy’s Grandma Norma, around the time that she arrived in the US from Ireland

It’s Culture Day at my daughter’s school this week, and incidentally we just celebrated St. Patrick’s day, so as much as my daughter’s culture around food usually includes anchovies, blue cheese, sushi, and Mint Confetti Ice Cream from Three Twins, she is also quite Irish indeed and it would make sense for us to bring something Irish to share at school.

After somewhat of a disagreement over whether she could bring anchovies to share with her classmates, I came across a recipe for potato farls, cooked them up, got our girl to eat one whereupon she pronounced it delicious, and Culture Day was decided.  First, I got into a little bit of historical meaning behind this food, which I bring to you now.

The potato farl is similar to a potato pancake and is made basically of fried mashed potatoes. It is highly associated with Northern Ireland, and in particular with its main city Belfast. Lucy’s grandmother Norma emigrated from Belfast with her parents when she was a teenager, so our family is strongly associated with Northern Irish culture.

The word farl is pronounced farrel and derives from the old Scots word fardel, which essentially means “a quarter.” Many types of typically irish breads and potato pancakes are round doughs cut into quarters and cooked in a skillet, which is how the farl got its name.

The potato farl’s history is tied closely together with Irish soda bread (or soda farls) for a few important reasons. Ireland’s climate lends itself to growing softer wheats, which led to a popularity of baking breads without yeast, and hence frying up soda or potato breads in a pan:

In Ireland, ‘plain’ soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it’s likely to appear at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. People in the south of Ireland tend to make cake: people in Northern Ireland seem to like farl better – though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names.

– From Peter’s Mum’s Soda Bread Recipe

But Ireland is known through the ages as a particularly poor country, and potatoes were a very economical food. ”About two-fifths of the population was solely reliant on this cheap crop for a number of historical reasons.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/. Lucy’s great-great grandmother would have cooked in a similar fashion on a hearth on Clementine Drive in Belfast.

A poor country discovered that potatoes and milk made a nutritious enough meal to exist on and you could grow more potatoes per acre than any other crop. Soda bread was probably not made as much because of this reason.

– From The History of Irish Soda Bread

That began to change from potatoes to soda bread in the year of 1845. That year, a devastating blight wiped out Ireland’s potato crop and led to many years of what was known as the famous Great Famine. “During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Without potatoes, Ireland turned more strongly back to soda breads baked with more of Ireland’s soft wheats instead of potatoes. Both soda breads and potato farls, however, share their use of baking powder (bicarbonate of soda) as leavening agent instead of yeast.

While Lucy’s grandmother’s family didn’t emigrate until a hundred years after the Great Famine, the seeds of what was a mass emigration from Ireland may have been planted at that time.

Today, potatoes have revived and are back on the table. In the US, we are lucky that we can enjoy an abundance of many different kinds of potatoes year-round, and those of us who are Irish will remember our great love of, dependence on, and recovery from the blight of the great food that is the potato, delicious in many ways.

The recipe we are using to bring to school comes from The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/14/how-to-make-potato-farls-back-to-basics. We’ll bring along a healthy slab of Irish butter just for extra decoration.

Cheers — and enjoy your culture and your food.  It’s why we’re all here!

Elizabeth Black, 1914, Belfast

Lucy’s great-great grandmother Elizabeth Black, in 1914 in Belfast, with great Aunt Nan to her left, and great grandpa Norman on her lap.  Elizabeth would have cooked potato farls on the hearth in there home on Clementine Drive.

Nations are not communities

A Peoples History of the United States

A People's History of the United States

I’m finally taking the time for a book I’ve been wanting (needing, really) to read for a long time. So rarely do I light on the cutting-edge of the latest books (witness Arthur C. Clarke…), but when the time is right for me, boy do I dive in.

In A People’s History of the United States, the venerable Howard Zinn sets up his groundbreaking approach — the reason the book’s title starts with “people” — right from the outset, in his retelling of the Columbus-Arawak genocide from the standpoint of the Arawak Indians. His fundamental viewpoint:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

And as always, when I see the word “community” I ponder how we have digitally co-opted the concept, and whether successfully or not. Perhaps with Internet communities we go beyond just the two sides – conquerors and conquered. It strikes me that “thinking people” are provided via the Internet with all opportunity to not just choose one side or the other, but to populate all of the lands between the two poles. Indeed, it seems the whole purpose of the oft-contentious “comments thread” is to voice a counter-opinion to the “memory of the state.”

It almost makes it sound like — on the Internet at least — there is no nation at all. Or am I being too idealistic? Do nations and corporations, in the end, still control the telling of the “history of a family”?

It does make me wonder how the conquest of the “Americas” would go down in history if the Internet were around as it happened.