Monday, October 31, 2005

The Devil in the White City

Having been inspired by Sufjan Stevens to "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!", I have been digging (sporadically) into the historical backdrop of the album. Of particular interest is "The World's Columbian Exposition," the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and conveniently, I found on my very bookshelf a copy of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. (Thanks for the loaner, Jen. I only wish I had been aware of the loan earlier!) The book is a popular history of this fascinating segment of America's past. Larson does a fine job of giving an accessible and engaging chronicle of the Fair, with great attention to painting a detailed picture of American society at the end of the 19th century. Larson's narrative juxtaposes two very different men, both vitally connected to the fair.

Architect Daniel Burnham was the director of Works for the Fair and was ultimately responsible for its construction. In the latter half of the 19th century, Chicagoans became increasingly desperate to establish their home as a great American city, and the Fair provided the opportunity to do just that. But even moreso, the ante had already been raised by the spectacular 1889 Paris Fair, most famous for the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. Burnham faced enormous pressure to deliver something the world had never before seen for the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas, and many (especially in New York, which had lobbied to be the venue of the fair) predicted a colossal failure. Although Burnham's vision of the fair was lofty and majestic, the shortened timetable appear insufficient to turn his dream into a vast array of impressive structures and lush landscaping that would capture the hearts and minds of the world.

Although much of the work was completed by Opening Day in 1893, there was still a good deal left to complete, including George Ferris' giant wheel, an imposing structure intended to "out-Eiffel the Eiffel Tower." The lingering public perception that the fair was largely unfinished, combined with economic troubles across the nation, threatened to make the fair the ruinous disaster predicted by detractors. However, the ethereal allure of "the White City," the nickname for the impressive and classically-architectured buildings surrounding the fair's Court of Honor, combined with a blitz of savvy advertising, ultimately succeeded in bringing visitors to Chicago in record numbers. As Larson notes, the White City was characterized by clean and orderly streets, lit by abundant alternating-current lamps and surrounded by pleasant parks and gardens. Combined with the magnificent buildings, the showcases of new inventions and the entertainment opportunities from around the world, the White City offered a stark contrast to the grime, odor, danger and despair characteristic of American urban areas like "the Black City" of Chicago. The Chicago Fair would leave an impression on city planning in America for years to come.

The book's other focus is on Dr. H. H. Holmes, a sociopath and serial killer who used the Fair as a steady source of victims. Although Larson avoids the grisliest of details, Holmes' story is nonetheless chilling. Handsome and possessing preternatural powers of charm, Holmes began his criminal escapades with forgeries and fraud; however, his interest in faking deaths as part of life insurance swindles quickly turned his energies towards far darker pursuits. Holmes moved to Chicago and acquired a pharmacy, where his charms made him quite successful, particularly with the steady stream of young female customers. Acquiring more property, Holmes set out to build "The Castle," an entire city block's worth of rental spaces, shops and dwellings. Due to the proximity to the upcoming Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened "The World's Fair Hotel." Over the course of three years, Holmes would prey on an unknown number of victims, disposing of them in the soundproof vaults he had secretly constructed below the building. The exact number is unknown, although most estimates place it at a minimum of fifty. (Holmes' own confessions list twenty-seven, although as many as two hundred disappearances were traced in some degree to Holmes and "The Castle.") Ironically, Holmes' penchant for fraud (and "Holmes" was not even his given name) ultimately led to his capture, as investigations by angry creditors began to reveal something much more sinister.

I was struck by many of the similarities between Burnham and Holmes. Both were driven by relentless ambition, albeit to vastly different ends. But even more profound is how both exemplified "the Gilded Age" in which they lived. Holmes, of course, projected a charming persona -- kind, genial and caring. History, of course, would reveal that the doctor's warm facade masked cold, unparalleled cruelty bent on controlling, torturing and killing. Burnham's story also has a twist, although not so much with the architect as with his creation. The White City itself was not meant to be permanent and most of the buildings were little more than "decorated sheds" (to quote detractors) with a plaster/hemp facade instead of actual stone. Many leading designers of the day believed that the classical architecture of the fair severely stunted the growth of American development of the field. Moreover, the sheer splendor of the White City was a marked contrast to the grime, sickness and poverty that visitors to the Fair briefly left at home. This would be especially apparent when the scores of workers drawn to the temporary employment boom caused by the Fair soon found themselves jobless and forced to return to the despair of "the Black City." The Fair itself ended on a somber note, when the epic closing ceremonies were cancelled in favor of funeral proceedings for Chicago's mayor, assassinated three days prior to the closing. Prophetically, many of the Fair's creators and attendees opined that they could not bear the thought of such a magnificent spectacle falling into disuse and ruin after the fair, and Burnham even remarked that seeing it disappear in a blaze of glory would be preferable. In spring of 1894, at which time many of the abandoned Exposition structures were being used for shelter by unemployed workers, many buildings of the Court of Honor were destroyed by fires set during the Pullman Strike. The bright promise of the White City ultimately crumbled into rubble.

All in all, The Devil in the White City is a fascinating book. Although Larson has packed it with detail (and he includes a great number of anecdotes of the Fair experiences of noted Americans, including Buffalo Bill Cody, Jane Addams, and a young Walt Disney, just to name a few), his narrative is captivating and easy-to-read. Recommended reading for anyone interested -- even moderately -- in American history.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Georgia Tech Holds Off Clemson For 10-9 Win

A tense and often frustrating four quarters, but it's still a win.

EDIT: I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Georgia lost this weekend (to Florida). How 'bout them Dawgs?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Pre-order the New Eric Peters CD

Eric Peters is now taking pre-orders for his new album, scheduled for release in February 2006. Why pre-order so far in advance, you might ask? Well, for starters, the pre-order cost is a mere $10, quite a deal for such high quality tunes (TUNES!). Secondly, your early investment will help ensure that all the costs are covered to keep the release on-schedule.

Pre-orders available at the EP web store (STORE!).

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Catching up with the Boys

My tenth graders are reading A Separate Peace, and last week I read it for what I think was the second time. (If I have read it before, I didn't remember any of it.)

If you've ever read this famed coming-of-age novel about two friends at a private boys' boarding school during WWII, then you might appreciate this site.

The link above includes quotes from the book interspersed with pictures from Exeter, the prestigious school that Knowles attended and used as the model for Devon. I've had a copy since high school, but I don't think I ever actually finished it back then. We never had to read it for class, and I didn't appreciate it then since it was about boys (ew, gross). I wish I had. It's a beautiful story about friendship and betrayal at a school deeply affected by war, and it shows clearly that the enemy we are all fighting is really only ourselves.

I've also begun reading Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen. Interestingly, it, too, takes place during WWII. Sadly, it's also another high school staple that I never actually finished, but (for some reason) have retained a paperback copy of since my freshman year. I found a turned-down page last night somewhere in the first chapter.

It's sad how much good American fiction I've missed out on because I was so obsessed with Austen and other authors from across the Big Pond. Not that I think either is necessarily superior, but I've always been partial to Brit Lit, and Faulkner and Steinbeck and Cooper never really interested me. Somehow, from high school to undergrad and even up until last year in my graduate English classes, I just "skipped over" much of American lit. It wasn't until a seminar class my senior year at BSC devoted entirely to Hemingway and Fitzgerald that I began to appreciate that Yankees writers have something worthwhile to say. (I know, I know...I'm a sorry excuse for a high school English teacher. At least they didn't ask me to teach 11th Grade!) I'm slowly attempting to remedy my egregious defenciency in American classics. And I'm enjoying it immensely.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Megachurch and the Church on the Corner

The iMonk has a provocative and solid post on the harmful impact that megachurches often have on smaller churches seeking to emulate them.

"That Flushing Sound: Evangelicals Worship Till There’s Nothing Left"

Monday, October 24, 2005

No Comment

Uh oh. It looks like Haloscan is having some issues today.

UPDATE: Well, it looks like I've got comments working again, although the counter isn't updating very fast.

Friday, October 21, 2005


It's never too late to jump on the bandwagon. Check out the 8-bit majesty!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

While on the subject of all things Potter, Travis has launched his new Sword of Gryffindor site. Be sure to check it out.

Voldemort Can't Stop The Rock!

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How can I even begin describing last night's Harry and the Potters concert? I'm not sure, either, but I have to try.

The concert was definitely the loudest show I've ever seen at Eddie's Attic, which is known primarily as a "listening room" for acoustic guitar-oriented folks like Pierce Pettis, Glen Phillips and Bill Mallonee (the latter two are playing together at the Attic in November -- woo hoo!). However, Harry and the Potters stormed into Decatur in a dark cloud of wizard rock and left a trail of awesomeness in their wake. Team Redd looked a little out-of-place amidst the crowd of teens, pre-teens, pre-pre-teens and pre-schoolers, mainly since we came straight from work and were still dressed in our Muggle clothes. But we managed to rock with the best of them.

From the show-opening dance party stylings of "Voldemort Can't Stop The Rock" to the anthemic closer "The Weapon," Harry (Year Four) and Harry (Year Seven) put on quite an entertaining show. Any lack of vocal talent was more than compensated by their sheer energy and impressive stage presence. And admittedly, it appears that months of live performances have really helped to hone their singing. I can only assume that their drummer failed to receive permission to leave Hogwarts for this tour, since they had to rely on a drum machine -- but I don't think this detracted much from the experience. The crowd was really into the show and sang most enthusiastically, especially on favorites like "Wizard Chess" and "Save Ginny Weasley." They also played a couple of new songs, including a Christmas tune and a love song for Ginny which includes the line "My wizard scar still burns for you." Genius. (Sorry mark, they didn't play "These Days Are Dark.") I guess the only downside about the evening was that, because their songs are so short, the actual concert wasn't very long.

But it did leave an indelible impression on us both, like a scar or magic quill marks on the backs of our hands -- but much more pleasant.

PS Allison wanted to add some photographic documentation of the show. Thankfully, a kind soul sitting behind us sent us her pics. In this picture, Harry (Year Seven) is clambering through the audience and has decided to swipe a beverage from one of our fellow patrons. How brash!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Back in the Saddle

Tech Wrecks Duke 35-10 ...

Sure, Duke is the perennial whipping boy for ACC football, but after back-to-back losses (and a fairly miserable first half against the Blue Devils), it's nice to get another 'W' for the books.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Canticle of the Plains

Joel Garver had a good post on St. Francis the other day. About the same time, I heard a track from Canticle of the Plains while shuffling the old iPod. This convergence of events prompted me to dust off (metaphorically, of course, although the cover on my iPod does tend to attract debris) the album and give it a listen.

Canticle of the Plains is a somewhat hard-to-find album released by Rich Mullins back in 1997, the year of his tragic demise. Described as "a musical based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi by the Kid Brothers of St. Frank," the album is the brainchild of Mullins, who co-wrote all the songs with Mitch McVicker and longtime collaborator Beaker. Incidentally, Mullins is barely present on the recording, limited to sparse background vocals only. The songs were written as part of a larger musical, based roughly on the life of St. Francis (transposed to the post-Civil War Western U.S). As such, the songs are sung by different characters, and the album enlists the aid of several vocalists, including McVicker, Michael Tait and Kevin Smith of dc Talk fame, and Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer. Rich was never able to perform the musical in full, although I understand that it was performed posthumously on a few occasions. Either way, the album is fantastic and comprised of some of Rich's best writing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Musical Baton!

(received from richard - better late than never!)

I always have trouble with these type of "rate your favorite music/book/movie" questions, so these are subject to change at a whim. In fact, I was thinking about them a little too much, so I decided to go ahead and post it.

Amount of music on your computer?
Which one? I don't have any on my work computer, but that's a pretty boring answer. My iTunes folder at home is up to ~15.45 MB (though a lot of that isn't exactly "music," since I listen to a lot of lectures, sermons and the like).

Currently listening to?
Sufjan Stevens, Michigan

Five songs that mean a lot to you?
Uh ... this is tough.

"Big Mistake" - David Wilcox
"Time Stand Still" - Rush
"Close of the Day" - Sandra McCracken
"Gather 'Round, Ye Children, Come" - Andrew Peterson
"Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"

Top five albums?
Again, I always have a problem with questions like these. How to choose? For some of these, I'll list a favorite band and a great album of theirs. But even then, it's so hard to choose ...

(In no particular order)

Rush, Presto: Easily my favorite rock band. Though I've grown to appreciate all kinds of acoustic, singer/songwriter-driven music over the last several years, I still have a deep-rooted love of heavy guitars and vocal wailing. Plus, Neil Peart (though writing from a decidely humanistic perspective) is one of the most intelligent and insightful songwriters around. It's hard to pick a specific album, since they have three decades of material, with notable evolution over the years. I picked Presto because it has some great songs, like the title track, "Chain Lightning" and the cleverly goofy "Anagram (For Mongo)."

Caedmon's Call, 40 Acres: Definitely one of my biggest musical influences. I didn't listen to a lot of "Christian" music before discovering them in college. (I tried to make myself listen to popular CCM, but I just couldn't handle it.) Caedmon's helped me realize that Christians could make quality music, even if the radio didn't give them much coverage. Again, it's hard to pick a specific album. Their indie stuff, like My Calm//Your Storm, makes up for its lack of production quality with an abundance of raw awesomeness. Their latest, Share the Well, is an amazing and ambitious effort in its own right. But 40 Acres is the high water mark, I think. The album is well-produced and sounds great, with songwriters Aaron Tate and Derek Webb shining on every track. (The only low spot is a cover, and even it is fairly decent.) It was also the last album before the band started going through significant lineup changes.

Andrew Peterson, Love and Thunder: Andy is an excellent songwriter and an all-around great guy. I've seen him in concert more times (far more times) than any other artist or band, mainly because his shows always manage to make me think and to make me laugh a lot -- often within the span of a few breaths! Similar to Richard, I had a tough time choosing between this album and Carried Along, but I think the overall cohesion of L&T as an album gives it an edge.

Rich Mullins, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band: The two previous artists list Rich as one of their major influences, and rightfully so. This album is simply beautiful, with Mullins' songwriting complemented by a host of talented musicians. What more can be said?

Joe Satriani, Surfing With the Alien: Remember above, when I professed my love of heavy guitars? Satch may not have the heaviest, but he certainly plays his with the best of them. I realize that not everyone appreciates rock guitar instrumentals, but it's their loss. Although Satriani possesses superhuman technical skills, he also has a great ear for creating songs with memorable melodies (instead of just recording a bunch of guitar speed drills). Surfing With the Alien is Satch at the top of his game. Strange beautiful music, indeed.

And that's five already! If I had more space, I'd probably find a way to sneak in Eric Peters (Land of the Living), derek webb (i see things upside down), Van Halen (either the self-titled debut, or 5150 from the Van Hagar era), Randall Goodgame (Arkadelphia) and Spin Doctors (Pocket Full of Kryptonite).

Last album bought?
Sufjan Stevens, Michigan

Recent discoveries?
Harry and the Potters
Sufjan Stevens

Okay, the baton is now being passed on to:

Monday, October 10, 2005

Quarantining A Generation

Good article from Boundless about the dangers of age segregation within churches, misguided attempts at "relevance," and the fracturing effect they have on churches.

(Thanks to the BHT.)


A co-worker told me that I made an appearance in a dream she had this weekend. If that wasn't strange enough, it turns out that I showed up at a dream-land club she was visiting. Apparently, I was a rapper, secretly pursuing my dreams of rapstar-dom by night, while my co-workers and friends were oblivious. Naturally, I asked her the most obvious question: was I any good as I rapper? Yes, I was.

Maybe this is a sign for a change in career paths?

Friday, October 07, 2005

I've Got Nothing To Say

Man, I haven't had much to write about lately. I know there's been plenty of stuff going on, but I guess I haven't had much time to assemble coherent thoughts. (I could post something about the awesome Andrew Peterson show we attended last weekend at New City Cafe, but that would be way too obvious.)

Maybe I'll have more to say after the Georgia Tech - N.C. State game tonight. We're going, and there's an 80% chance of rain tonight. If that's not a recipe for fun, I don't know what is!

Nope, nothing to say. At least the rain was limited to a steady mist/drizzle throughout the evening.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Moving right along

Alastair Roberts has retired his excellent blog 40 Bicycles.

But, rising from its ashes comes alastair.adversaria, which promises to be a worthy successor. Be sure to check it out.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

How Rad!

Harry and the Potters will be playing at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, GA on October 17. And in Athens, GA the next night.