Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Ten Fingers

Hello, dear readers-
I'm busy night and day making furniture, and haven't written like I should. Mi dispiace.

I wrote this story about a piece of furniture. It's about America, really. It encapsulates to me a feeling about patriotism and family that I find to be missing here and there in recent days. I hope you enjoy it:

An older brother is sacred thing, my Father told me. Just so. But he don't know the half of it. Father's older brother went west on him, and disappeared. Maybe he's in Californy. He don't know. But he says he cares.

I care about Noah. He's mine. Older brother I mean. Mother says he was born in 1845, in the biggest thunderstorm ever, and Mother knew he'd be taciturn, for he didn't say a word that day. Sometimes I think Mother is pullin' on my leg.

But Noah don't talk much around father. Mother says the oldest is the wisest. Maybe so. I talk all the time she says, even when I'm sleeping, but I wouldn't know. And when I'm gettin' switched for begging boiled sweets at the store, or pokin' at the pigs through the rails, or hidin' in the smokehouse when we play Red Rover, or hidin' checkers from my sister in my cheeks and puttin' 'em back on the board when she aint lookin', Noah just smiles and carries on, quiet like. I think he's always talkin' to himself in his head, so the words don't build up, and cause a jam.

Noah knows I'm little. I don't think Father knows. 'Cause Father tells me to do things, and turns his back to me, and goes back to what he was doing. But Noah turns my head around to the place Father told me to look, when I get distracted, and not with the cuff Father thinks I need. And when I was awful sick, and Father was away to Lafayette, Noah carried me all the way to the doctor's brick house, 'cause the fever made Mother worry so. Noah's always carrying me, it seems. 'Cause he knows I'm little.

Father works too hard. He takes the trees, one by one. There ain't but one gnarly tree left in the barnyard. And all the branches hang too high for me to reach. I ask Father, but he don't seem to listen always, but I never have to ask Noah. He never says a word, neither; he just sees me there, and finds a way to pass by, no matter what, and give me the "ten fingers" to the branch that's lowest.. And he never says nothing, he just does it, and walks on, wordless, and I bet Father don't even know he does it. But I know.

I asked Mother why Father don't always hear me, but Noah hears me before I talk, I think. Don't Father care for me, Mother?

She said hush, Father made Noah for you, he loves you so much, to give you the ten fingers without askin'.

How Father knew I'd need ten fingers, before I was even born, well, Mother didn't say. I don't dare ask Father. He's a good man, my Father, I guess, but why does he have to take all the climbin' trees?

Noah came to me and said: I have to go now. Just like that.

Where do you have to go? To Lafayette?

No. To the war, down South, to do my part.

But you can't go. who'll give me the ten fingers?

There's others, brother, that need my ten fingers now. I'll go and give it to them. And then I'll come home, I promise. Maybe you won't even need the ten fingers then. But I got you this, from the Shakers, to give you ten fingers when I'm gone.

And he gave me my little wooden steps, to reach the branch, and the bed, and the wash bucket.

Father cried when Noah left, already dressed in his blue uniform, to give the southern man ten fingers. I never seen Father cry before. I think it's because he ain't got no brother, to give him the ten fingers.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Music Hath Charms…

The larger son came home from school today, and made an unusual request: “Dad, can we get your trombone out of the attic? I want to learn to play it.”

Glenn Miller notwithstanding, the trombone’s not where it’s at. It’s plumbing, not music, as I used to say. I played it thirty years ago, and haven’t touched it in twenty years. How he even remembered I had one is beyond me. He’s probably seen it once since he was born, and then just in the case while we looked for something else, something useful, in the attic.

He’s back in the public school after four years in private school, and every kid in his fifth grade class but one is playing an instrument. And he’s crazy enough to want to try playing the trombone.

Telling the story of how you ended up playing the trombone is like pointing to a spot on a map where you caught dengue fever. “Avoid that spot” is the moral of the story, every time.

Like my son, I went from parochial school, where scholarship was king but physical education was tag in the schoolyard and music was hymns, to public school where they had a band and an orchestra. The intercom voice intoned: Anyone who wishes to learn a musical instrument, report to the music room after school. My older brother was, and is, an accomplished musician, and I noticed that it didn’t hurt him any, at least when he played Stones covers at the high school dances and had girls camping out on our doorstep. He’d play Vivaldi on the gut string guitar for our Aunts in their parlors in their three decker flats in Roxbury and Dorchester too, and they’d drink it in and exclaim: “He’s got the gift, surely.” So he does.

So off to the music room I went, and the Music Teacher, who looks up in the assembled throng and asks me, the new guy, what do you want to play?

Why, the drums, sir.

How hard could it be? I wondered to myself. No sheet music-- so I thought-- sit in the back, beat the skins and Rock on! Of course I’d have to suffer through some strictly squaresville music teacher stuff first, but I’d have a big ‘fro and be playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida in no time.

The music teacher looked at me like I had just soiled the carpet, and he didn’t have a rolled up newspaper handy to swat my nose.

“See those kids over there?” He asked the way drill sergeants ask questions-- like he’s daring you to answer, with extra abuse for a dumb or wiseguy remark.

I looked over and saw over a dozen sullen 7th and 8th graders lined up against the back wall, trying to avoid eye contact with me, the teacher, and each other, which didn’t leave many places to look.

“Well, they all want to learn to play the drums too, and after two tympani, a set of crash cymbals, and a triangle, it’s gonna be “Lord Of The Flies” with the rest of them. Go in the closet and pick out something else.”

I go in there, and the place is wiped out. All the boys had grabbed the trumpets, all the girls took all the clarinets and flutes, and that was about it. I started opening the remaining cases, and tried to figure out what the hell kind of sounds the disassembled pieces would make if I could put them together, which I couldn’t.

Even a boy of my tender years and sheltered background knew the sousaphone was something people would be assigned as a punishment. I had no idea what a baritone horn was. Glockenspiel? I think not. French Horn? You jam your hand in the bell of the French horn for a reason: It’ll have to do until you find a seat cushion to stuff in there. The only thing left was the trombone.

“This, you want to play this?” His incredulity gave away my error. “Suit yourself. No one wants to play that, it’s hard.”

I brought the thing home, clutching sheet music that might as well have been driving directions to Mecca in Sanskrit. My mother was very pleased, thinking classical music was a worthwhile endeavor, and would no doubt be better than the Turtles covers my older brother’s rock band had blasted in the basement a few years earlier.

Wrong, so wrong, Mom.

My first assignment was to try to get a note out of it. Any note. “Make a fart sound with your lips, and blast away until you get a note” were his instructions. There’s a “spit valve” on the end of the slide that toggles open to let the condensation that a stream of warm, moist air causes when blown through a long metal tube. That’s if you know what you’re doing; it’s plain spit if you don’t, and I didn’t, and that sent mom packing.

The house I grew up in was about the size of a trailer home. My mother wouldn’t think of discouraging me from sticking to it, but that house was one area code too small for that noise. And being fifteen, there was no power on earth that could dissuade me from endlessly playing glissandos-- mindless penny-whistle slides up and down the scale-- and never quite learning to make a pure note.

I can picture it now, me banished to the basement, the nails slowly working their way out of the siding from the din, and my mother upstairs, ironing the clothes and eying the steak knives.

Anyway, my large child took quite a bit of dissuading, and his stoic refusal to consider another instrument reminded me that no matter what you say, your children watch you and mimic you. Dad played the trombone, and I’m gonna too.

Music’s a lovely thing, it’s true, and the scarcity of people who can play a tune on an instrument these days is a shame. People my parent’s age generally had many friends that could bang out a popular tune on the piano, while their friends gathered around, Highballs and Seven and Sevens in hand, and sang along. My mom still can do it.

Rock music killed all that. It seems counterintuitive, but the idea that a few people with some simple cheap instruments could bang out a tune is all a sham with Rock. It’s all ‘tude, and attitude doesn’t often carry over into amateur hour. Amateur –hell, professional-- rock musicians can’t play much of anything, and few can accompany themselves on a guitar and sing a simple song. If you doubt me, go to a music store. There’s a reason why almost every one has a sign that says: “No Stairway to Heaven.” Everyone in the store loves that tired anthem, but they can’t stand to hear little bits of it butchered over and over again.

Someday the big one will learn to play popular music on the guitar, bass, or drums, as I did, and that’s fine; but we measured him for a violin, because we want to give him a chance to play a melody first, a real melody, in a small room with a sweet tone. He can mimic the snarling lament of talentless, rapidly aging adolescents who think becoming billionaires without ever rising before 1:00 in the afternoon “is a drag, man” later.

To lure him away from the trombone, I had to tell him that the violin bow was made from Mongolian horsehair, and that was deemed appropriately exotic and downright dangerous sounding enough to get him to forget the HVAC piping masquerading as a musical instrument that is the trombone.

But a little music in your life is lovely, isn’t it? Not the recorded kind, but sitting and listen to someone conjure sounds out of an instrument right in front of you.

Every night at bedtime I still sing and play a little nursery rhyme for my big son I cobbled together, on a cheap spanish guitar. He will always be a boy, my boy, even when AARP has him on their mailing list. And tonight, sitting in the darkness, broken only by the feeble light from the nightlight, I played the halting pizzicato notes and open strummed chords, my voice whispering the singsong rhymes that send him to sleep knowing that his father loves him-- the loveliest ritual of my entire life-- when who appears but my little son, just two years old and long since asleep, slowly turning the knob, entering his big brother’s room, closing the door, and standing sleepy and serene, transfixed by the music. When I finished he left as noiselessly as he came, and went back into his bedroom to sleep.

That’s why you learn son. Nothing much, just three chords and a little melody, and you’re the piper, the wizard that draws life in the air with sounds that blesses and embellishes the day in your own rude way, like a peasant that can’t read or write, but carves stones for a cathedral.

Just not the goddamn trombone, okay?

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Most Expensive Sock Drawer in the World


Hello all. My mind started wandering far afield this morning, and I got to wunnering, as they say in the vernacular. I was wunnering about furniture, as I often do. And the thought struck me: I wunner what the most expensive piece of furniture in the world is?

Now, one of the reasons I make reproductions of antique styles of furniture for you lovely people is that there isn't anything close to an adequate supply of the real article available to the public. Furniture meets with an untimely demise... Wait, strike that thought, anything made of wood, that fires consume and beetles eat, really shouldn't be expected to last longer than your average empire in any great quantities. Michaelangelo's David is made from stone. That's pretty sturdy, even if carrerra marble is soft as stones go; it's still made of rock. But somewhere along the way, even something like that, which was pretty much considered a big deal on the day it was finished, and didn't need 250 years of fingerprints and household dust on it to seem valuable, once had its right hand busted up when someone threw a big old bench out a third story window of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence during some disagreement over which set of Vandals was going to burn Florence to the ground that particular day. You can still see where they glued his fingers back on, if you look closely at his hand, instead of squinting to see his little winkie, and making jokes.

So the fact that any of this stuff is hanging around for a long period is a testament to our interest in it, and the labors of their makers.

Well, it wasn't hard to find out what the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold is. It's something called the "Badminton Cabinet" and looks like it should cost a pile.

You can click on the picture to read the Washington Post article about it. It sold last December for $36,700,000.00, just in time for Christmas, wrapping extra. Ha Ha.

Now, 36 million would keep my wife in shoes for decades, so we're talking real money here. The article goes to great pains to explain what an extravagance it is, and so forth.

But I got to thinkin' about it. $36 mil. Hmm.

The cabinet uses a technique called pietra dure, which is fancy english, or plain italian, for setting colored stones in a mosaic, generally on furniture. The article spells it "pietra dura." Believe who you want, but I have relatives in Florence, and they told me pietra dure is correct. They told me pietra dura refers to the stones they pave the roads with. You decide who knows what they're talking about. And don't bother looking it up in the dictionary. One way, it's "stone hard," and the other way, it's "hard stone." At any rate, I've been to Florence, and there's a whole neighborhood there to this day, with guys making this stuff, usually very big, gaudy tabletops. And they've lost nothing off their fastball since the Third Duke of Beaufort breezed into town in 1726 and ordered this thing to put his underwear and socks in.

And forgive me, dear reader, I wunnered if he got his money's worth, and if the clown prince of Lichtenstein ( I may have misread his title, but got the reality of it, if you know what I mean) got his money's worth when he laid out over $36 mil for it last year. Let's do the math, something NO ONE in the newspaper business EVER does.

Now Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke, kept good records, so we know what he paid for it: 500 Pounds, in 1726, plus 94 pounds in export duties. Now anyone that's paid a "Value Added Tax" in Europe lately knows the 94 pounds was a bargain, as the current rate of taxation in Europe would probably swap the numbers, and 1726 Pounds would be the tax on a 94 Pound purchase; but that's their problem.

We also know that it took 30 people 6 years to make the thing. Now, artisans in the 1700s aren't like lawyers are now. They didn't feel comfortable billing the customer for just thinking about their badiminton cabinet when they were in the privy, reading a vellum broadsheet about the soccer scores, because the penalty for overbilling a Duke in those days likely involved dungeons and racks and whatnot, with some distant cousin of the offended party as the judge, jury and executioner; so let's take them at their word. And remember, they didn't stop working after forty hours each week, either.

Get out the calculator. 30 people, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, 50 weeks a year (vacations were in short supply back then, but let's assume the occasional bout of cholera or plague or rickets or something brought a welcome diversion and a few weeks off a year to our trusty artisans), for 6 years. What should we use for a wage? How about $50.00 an hour, in today's money? After all, these weren't guys they just grabbed off the street, just look at that cabinet. The pietra dure tabletops I saw in Florence weren't, ahem, how do I put this, in our price range, so I figure these guys make as much as a bad plumber here in the states.

That's $27,000,000.00

Now, you're looking at that number like a homeowner who just got a jaw dropping estimate to reface your kitchen cabinets, and the salesman, who hasn't yet picked up on his imminent ejection from your home, with a handful of the back of his collar in your fist, and his feet barely touching the ground, blithely says:

"Plus material"

Oh yes, we forgot. The thing is encrusted with all rare, some semiprecious, stones. And the cabinet itself ain't made of particle board. So I guess our Lichtensteinian friend who purchased the thing last year isn't a complete schmuck. At least on this score.

But what about our friend, the Duke? How'd he make out? I mean he's dead and all, that stinks, but he did keep his socks in it for a while, and I assume the assorted dukelets and dukesses through the ages got some use out of it.

The British are nothing if not polite, unless you're in the stands at their soccer match with the opposing team's jersey on, I mean. Quite. Anyway, those crumpet eating Irish annoyers have been keeping pretty good records of the worth of a Pound Sterling, since about 1750. That's close enough to the 1726 origin year to make a judgement. The graph they so politely supplied me on the internet makes interesting reading. The Pound was worth about the same for almost 200 years. By "the same," I mean "a lot." Then, 75 years ago or so, those Welsh worriers and Scots stabbers in London ran it right into the ground, and it was devalued to 1/700 of its value.

And in 2004 money the 594 pounds the Duke blew on this thing is about $133,650.00 in US dollars. So it sounds like it's the Duke that got the bargain. But as I said, the newspaper men never do the arithmetic, but we do.

Let's assume that the Duke wouldn't have buried the money in the yard in coffee cans if he didn't spend it on the furniture. The 1700's were not prehistory, after all, and you could invest money even then, and it would bring a return on your investment. What if he invested it?

So we go to our humble savings calculator, supplied with our crummy Accounting software, which the Duke couldn't buy with all the money in christendom, and we got for forty bucks. Let's be conservative here, and figure the Duke, not having mutual fund brokers down the street, wouldn't have spectacular gains on the money. That is to say, he probably could have bought Canada with it, but nothing valuable. So let's give him a modest 3% return, after taxes. We'll leave inflation out of it, because we figured it in already in the money valuation.

So let's see, 133 large, for 278 years, at 3% per. Whoah. Criminey. Smoke is coming out of the back of my computer, trying to calculate it. Let's take off three zeroes, and add them back after, so the computer doesn't get a hernia.

$127,375,000.00

Now, the Duke might have to borrow money from a Powerball winner from time to time, but that 127 mil would get you by if you clipped coupons and turned off the lights in the rooms in the castle you weren't using.

Now where's the humor in this, you're asking? When's he going to tell a joke? Well, I'm not sure it's funny, exactly, but when I typed "the most "expensive piece of furniture in the world" into Google, the paid ads at the top of the page were: "Cabinet Refacing from Home Depot" and "Affordable Furniture- Great Values on sofas, loveseats, dining tables, and more."

And more, indeed.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Here’s Your Housing Bubble

It’s trying being right all the time. It’s a curse really. Generally, it takes weeks and years to be proved right. Last week, it took two days.

Here’s what I wrote in my last essay,
Greenspan’s Got His Head up His Housing Bubble:

5. Some people are going to get killed in the housing market.

They always do. And some lenders will take it on the chin. But how does that have anything to do with rising home values? People are investing exorbitant amounts in their homes in places where their homes can become almost worthless, but that’s not a housing bubble. Spendthrift and/or corrupt public administrations, who overregulate business and building but take a laissez faire attitude towards criminals, all the while jacking up taxes inexorably, are far more likely to make people overpaying for property regret it eventually. But that’s politics, not banking.



If that’s not a precise description of what happened in New Orleans last week, I don’t know what is. It’s jarring to read it now and consider that many literally got killed.

How’s your investment in real estate in New Orleans looking now? The hurricane didn’t kill it, the local and state government did. And if you owned property there, after the mayor and the governor and the police chief were done letting it be ransacked for valuables, they turned it into a grave marker for a city.

If the hurricane had gone through there, and done its worst, but the mayor had followed the evacuation plan for the city, and the governor had delared an emergency and called out the national guard and secured the city, New Orleans would be a big fat FEMA disaster check from being rebuilt and going back to the way it was before. Probably better.

Now, a big fat check times ten or one hundred or a thousand is certainly going to be written, no doubt, but will anyone be foolish enough to return to that city?

New Orleans was already shedding population, one of the few areas of the south to do so, because of the municipal corruption and crime that plagued it, since, well… since Jefferson bought it. Actually, it was a sewer of corruption when the French still owned it, so I guess you’d have to go back to Indians to find a square dealer in the area. Hell, who knows about them? Maybe it’s in the water. And there’s always been a lot of water.

A lot of the gainfully employed people in that town got out on their own, and I don’t think they’ll clamor to return any time soon after watching what one heavy rainstorm turns the town into. And many of the poor souls left behind are on public assistance or medical disability, and when you think about it, they can live anywhere. They don’t own the property they live in, generally, and
since New Orleans will be uninhabitable for months, perhaps years, they’ll likely grow accustomed to the places they are relocated to, and think to themsleves: what could make me want to go back to a place where the mayor sends me to languish in a football stadium without food, water, medicine, sanitation, or security, until I die or am rescued by the federal government?

I have family in Biloxi, Mississippi. Many forget that it was Biloxi, not New Orleans that got creamed by the hurricane, a direct hit. When I finally saw the pictures of Biloxi, I was stunned. The entire beachfront, and block after block of adjacent buildings, was squashed flat like an atom bomb test site. I feared the worst for them. They called, after a day or so, and got a message to my father that they were all right, and had taken in their neighbors who had lost the roofs on their houses, as they has luckily kept theirs.
I wanted to write about that, the relief you felt when a loved one is found safe from a calamity, and share it with the world. So I did a search for a particularly compelling picture I had seen on the news of a few school buses in Mississippi, literally floating about like children’s toys, like fishing bobbers. I never found the picture.

I found this instead:


http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/050901/480/flpc21109012015

Those buses were parked in downtown New Orleans. Others (not so’s you’d notice it on the regular news, but it’s everywhere on the internet now) have picked up on this theme. Using a satellite image, they showed that there are over 220 buses parked in this one lot. Others found more nearby lots with many more buses available. You can also see the Superdome is less than a mile away. In a pinch, you can jam up to 100 people into one of these buses. That’s fifteen or twenty thousand people who could have been evacuated from that mess, in one trip. That’s pretty much all the people stuck in the superdome, by the way. And how many trips could have been made before the hurricane hit? How many more between the time the hurricane passed and the levee broke?

Both the the governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans have the right, and according to the hurricane preparedness plan for the city, the obligation, to use those buses to evacuate the city, and can even use force, including lethal force, if need be, to compel the citizens to leave. He also has the authority to authorize the police to sieze and distribute anything else in the city, like food and water, that the public needs. The public doesn’t need dvd movies looted from the Wal*Mart, mayor, and neither did your police force. How much food and water left in that city was grabbed and hoarded, instead of being distributed by the police? Re-enacting” Lord of the Flies” is no way to run a city, Mr Mayor.

But there the buses sat. Insult to injury, they’re now leaking petroleum into the fetid water, making a bad situation just that much worse.

Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco have escaped any criticism for their negligence by pointing their fingers and screaming. I doubt their attempt to escape the calumny and shame they deserve will work much longer. Too many of us know what a school bus is, how easy it is to operate, and can do arithmethic.

Someone named Jabbar Gibson knew better than to rely on people like Mayor Nagin, and found a bus in New Orleans and loaded up as many people as he could find and drove them to Houston. You can read about the resourcefulness, neighborliness and courage of 20 year old Jabbar and his renegade bus in the Houston Chronicle here:

http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/topstory2/3334317

You’ll have to wait to pin a medal on him, at least until the police drop the criminal charges they were considering against him for commandeering the bus . Apparently he should have looted a Wal*Mart alongside a New Orleans policeman if he wanted to be treated “fairly.” Saving seventy five people while the Mayor dithered didn’t impress anybody right off. I’m sure they’ll come around eventually.

Perhaps the cell they considered setting aside for Jabbar Gibson could be better used to house Mayor Nagin for not allowing the hundreds of other buses in the city to be “commandeered”in the same fashion.

Housing bubble. It never occurred to me until this very moment that that seems like a bad pun too. I didn’t mean to make light of all that misery. But I suggest that if you’d like to avoid being caught in a housing bubble, you know, the financial kind, not just the one with bubbles coming out of your house , I’d stop listening to doom and gloom in the media about the inevitablility of Housing Bubbles based solely on the infantile knee-jerk assumption that what goes up, must go down. Simply avoid living in places administrated by people like Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco.

If I were you, when the authorities let Jabbar go, I’d follow him, and move in next door. You’ll be fine.