Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Cure For The Black Dog


Winston Churchill was a very great man. But far better, he was an interesting man. His life was so grand, and vast, and fraught with peril and adventure, and his wit was so engaging, and his intellect so profoundly capable and cultivated that he can stand almost endless scrutiny. And when you're done reading all about him, you can read the books he wrote about everybody else.

He was funny, too. And like many men afflicted with humor, he got depressed from time to time. Not down in the mouth depressed, no; the kind of mental anguish that makes a man eye the kitchen knives while holding a tumbler of scotch. He called it his "Black Dog." He knew it would present itself from time to time, and he would get past it by doing something else. Now, doing something else for him meant throwing himself into painting landscapes in the south of France, or building a brick cottage on his country estate, brick by brick with his own hands, or any one of a hundred interesting things that presented themselves to a person of his influence and capacity. And he'd refresh himself by tiring himself out, and get back to yanking on the levers of power in the British Empire.

The Black Dog haunts me too. It comes generally in the late winter. I range around the house, unable to sleep, dogged by some lingering catarrh, bored, and greedy for the sunshine that never seems to come back after Columbus Day. What sleep there is is death, not rest. And you remind yourself that there are others with real problems, and yours don't compare. It doesn't make you feel better, generally, but it keeps you from taking poison.

I was outside yesterday. It was clement. The breeze didn't feel like a knife, or a fish to the face, the sky wasn't crowded with scuds the shade of dishwater, and the sun began to warm to its task a bit and shooed the thermometer into the fifites. Woodpeckers banged their stupid happy heads against the trees behind the shed, an osprey kited over, silent, cruising the edge of the treeline for a rodent foolish enough to look both ways but not up. Oak leaves began to flutter down from the branches they had grimly hung on to all winter, rattling and writhing through the snows and winds, now gently set adrift by the birth of their replacements. I could smell things. Things that smelled faintly like life.

And then I heard it. The peepers. It's such a pleasant little flourish they blow, indistinct, happy, variable. It's such a part of the aural wallpaper after a while you don't pick up on it right away. We've had people stay over our house who remarked in the morning that the peepers sounded like a jet engine outside the window -- they were urban folk and preferred to be lulled to sleep by the quotidian sounds of the odd distant four alarm fire and the delivery truck -- we barely noticed them.

Their little trill -- the thrill of picking up on it for the first time -- the ticking off in your mind of the first in the long litany of Nature's To-Do-List: new mown grass; the crack of the ball on the Hillerich and Bradsby; the glory of fireflies in June; daylight at 9:00 at night; the languid drone of the cicada; rich warm breezes coming in the window as you enjoy the slumber of the sunburned and contented -- it's all there -- if you'll let your mind wander a bit to the end of the road the peepers are paving for you right now.

The Black Dog plays in the swamp, and is consumed.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Heroic and the Sublime


It's interesting to watch your children grow up. They are you, of course, but only so much. The rest is in play, and infinitely changeable and interesting. People often live vicariously through their children, it is said, but I think that's really less prevalent than conventional wisdom allows for. They are an extension of you, perhaps, at least for a time, but the world is not often a little fishbowl, it is a whole ocean, and your little kivvers are going into it sooner or later on their own. All you can do is teach them to wiggle their fins as best you can and then wonder where they might go. The idea that you could micromanage them for your own benefit or amusement seems comparable to flying a kite in a whirlwind. To build the kite sturdy enough, it would no longer fly. People still try occasionally to yoke their children to their own ambitions, but it's generally a fool's errand. If you succeeded, all you'd end up with is Michael Jackson or the Olsen Twins or similar misanthropes. A decent, well rounded, and happy person is unlikely to result. And so we raise them as best we can, and hope for... well, we hope.

" David53" commented on an earlier post about my older son's baseball adventures, and shared his recollections of his own son's. He talked about his son's surprising ability to act as well, and how neither David nor his wife had any footing in understanding in their son's facility at something mysterious to them personally. The athletics they understood, as they were similarly inclined when younger, but by acting in Tartuffe, their son was on his own, and his parents could only watch, and marvel.

My son is no athlete. He participates, and his father is proud of him, but only because of the way he comports himself. He's not bad, exactly, but it shows that it's not his raison d'etre, unlike many of his peers for whom physical activity bounded by lines is the entire universe.

He performs music too, and chose to play the trombone like his old man did, even though I told him Hell was a bellows attached to a trombone. Son, a trombone is worse than a bagpipe, in that in addition to sounding like what it is, you can pinch your finger in it too. It's a trumpet with emphysema. Son...

He doesn't listen. Like all humans, he watches, and learns all by seeing that what people do trumps what people say, every time. Why was there a trombone still in the attic, if I hated it so?
David's comment made me think of the two strains of the human condition we are watching played out with our boys: The Sublime, and the Heroic.

Music, acting, painting, humor, and writing and so forth, are all attempts to approach the sublime in humanity. When your loved one is dressed as a carrot in the school play, and has no lines, but is simply chased back and forth by third grader dressed as a bunny with spectacles, it may not seem, well, sublime exactly, but I suspect it is, in essence if not in degree. To observe, and distill, and portray, and express, and delight, and inform, and dazzle and disgust perhaps, can be as clarifying as any sermon. We examine ourselves, and reveal our thoughts to others. The trick is to paint the hands without making them look like catchers mitts, or to keep from eating the scenery in the play because the othere kids have the good lines, or whatever the minutiae of your proposed genre might be.

Sports are a representation of the heroic in humans. We strive, and test ourselves, and compete, and keep score, and live with the losses as well as the victories as best we can. The audience is different at a sporting event than at an opera, or at least it should be. It can be the same people, of course, but they must be there to see what is played out before them in a different way. How will your champion's mettle be tested? Will they triumph? Will they acquit themselves nobly while winning, or perhaps, in defeat?

It's fashionable fun these days to make entertainment that should be sublime, and coarsen it with competition. I don't want to watch people sing and choose which gets fed to the lions, like some Broadway Caligula. It makes the art less artisitic, and the audience less in tune with the essential humanity of the performance, to keep score on the stage. Hold the auditions before the performance, please.

There is also the drive to make the heroic in sports into something less prominent, and the outcomes less harsh. No one can win, because someone might lose. It diminishes the meaning of the thing itself, and so is counterproductive. People milling around without a purpose, even if it is on a lovely grass field, isn't heroic. Let them go at each other, and shake hands when it is done, and say, "better luck (or we'll get 'em) next time.

It has been likewise observed, that the money paid to professionals is ruining the ideal of sports for the amateur. It's not helping, but the money alone does not taint it; it's money given irrespective of effort or achievement that is the toxin, the tapeworm in the body heroic, and has made professional basketball and baseball and other sports diminished in stature and importance, because we are watching checks being cashed, not heroic competition. Figure skating and baseball with no-cut contracts are exhibitions, not sports. I don't care if they keep score. If the participants don't have to try if they don't want to, or if someone "decides" who won, it's not a sport.

Our children will likely never cash the checks at the stadium or the opera house; few ever do. But all humans need to sort out their approach, their affection, and their admiration and interest in the sublime and the heroic.

They're going to watch a lot of it on TV.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Joy in Mudville




Greetings, all.

I don't follow baseball closely; never have. I seem to write about it a lot, though. I'm not sure what that means, exactly. I never played organized baseball, but I played most every summer day with my neighborhood friends when I was a child. It was funner, somehow, than the "all children as an organized minor league for professionals" vibe I get from my children's baseball league. They don't send home do-it-yourself steroid kits for the grade schoolers yet, and for that I am grateful. And so our older boy participates, as will his brother in his turn. I trust he'll get what he can from it, be it fun or something as simple as learning to show up somewhere and cooperate with strangers.

I spent the afternoon on Saturday inside a gym watching him try out for the teams with his brethren, and it never occurred to me to bring a newspaper; I might have brought one to pass the time to a professional ballgame, but not to a series of drills performed by rail thin grade schoolers with jack-o-lantern smiles. As the cowboy narrator in "The Big Lebowski" says, it was just "so durn innerestin'."

I wrote about his adventures last year; perhaps you'd be interested in them this year too:

Joy in Mudville

Friday, March 17, 2006

Happy "The Artist Formerly Known As Succat" Day

I'm of Irish extraction, somewhat. Suilleabhean, with a bunch of accents and so forth I don't know how to code in html and too lazy to learn. The Irish are an interesting people. There is a long and fairly well defined way an Irishman tells a story, and I wish I was better at it than I am. Still, I must soldier on, and have bangers and mash and a "black and tan," or a "half and half" if the "tan" reference grates on ye nerves.

Here's a little Irish Story about a piece of furniture we make over at Sippican Cottage Furniture, called Sinead O'Leary's Settee. Cead Mil Failte, everyone, everywhere.

Her Uncles had found her alone, a little girl sitting quietly in her family home in the county of Mayo. For the Irish, the famine was just the last straw; they had a litany of Cromwell's leftover reasons to leave anyway. And so they left in their thousands. Sinead O'Leary was no different; first to Liverpool, then to Canada, on to Boston. When she finally moved to New York City, now a grown woman and married, she rechristened it New Cork, and no-one she knew dared disagree. She made it so.

She simply refused to remember anything unpleasant, and seemed to forget nothing else. She regaled her children and grandchildren with stories of Cuchulain, and Medb, and faeries and wee people, a living encyclopedia of fun and fantasy.

She saved what little money came her way, and she bought and sold things. Her long lost relatives would send her this and that from the Auld Sod, and she'd sell them to Yankees who collected such as her family had, as if the Irish were as exotic as Babylonians, not right across the Irish Sea from their own forefathers.

One fine spring morning, she opened a bible box her uncle had sent her. Inside, sheepskin glowed with monastic filigree. She knew the Lord's word was on those Latin pages. Oh yes, she knew. She was wise enough to know also: There was a devil of a ransom in it from a collector too. And when a trim woman appeared at her door, sent by her employer, the Colossus of Finance, to buy it for that mausoleum of manuscripts he was constantly stoking on Fifth Avenue, Sinead was ready. He wanted it like the damned wanted icewater. Sinead knew how long to hold out before acquiescing.

Into real estate the money went. Then her son invested it for her in the stock market. Soon the simple woman, who still retied her own lace when it frayed, was rich. She always was, if you asked her, even though her Uncles could have told you they had found her alone in that stone cottage, all those years ago, because her parents were dead and gone, outside the door, their mouths green from trying to eat grass when the potatoes failed.

She was very old when that awful day christened "Black Friday" took her fortune, just like the famine had taken her family those many years ago. Her son sat with her on the simple wooden settee she still favored. "It has St Patrick?s clover in it, and to put a cushion on it would be extravagance itself!"

He gently told her that he had lost her money, over a million dollars, in one afternoon.

"What a blessing!" she said.

Her son, now grown grey himself, and ruined along with his mother, couldn't comprehend.

"How kind of the Lord to wait until I could afford to lose a million dollars. Imagine what a blow it would have been to lose such a sum when I was poor!"

Her son burst out laughing. And he knew then, that his beloved mother was placed on this earth for a reason. And they would rise again. Surely.

"Besides," she said, "I have three more Bible Boxes"

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ha Ha Bleeping Ha

Hi everybody.

I've examined the subject of humor over at my one of my other haunts, Old School at HotHardware.com. The Internet is making humor more accessible, and less funny, I think. Some have gone as far lately as to posit that the whole idea of "the joke" is dead. If that's true, I hope I don't get blamed for killing it. I just walked in and found "the joke" slumped over the desk, honest, officer. I had nothing to do with it. I think that Seinfeld guy did it.

Ha Ha Bleeping Ha, Or: The Problem With Humor.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sometimes Peace Activists Have Muskets



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.

(Painting by Eastman Johnson 1863. Visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and see it.)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Confectionary Season


Southcoast Massachusetts enjoys the most benevolent climate in New England. We don't get that much snow, and winter arrives later for us than inland because the ocean stays warmer than the land, and Autumn lasts a good long time. I went sailing in Sippican Harbor in December last year, and it seemed balmy.

Conversely, the ocean remains cooler than the land in the spring. One hour west of here, the sun can make it seem downright hot in March and April, while hereabouts it's overcast and leaden, cool and gray. It never really gets hot until July, usually.

Late in the Winter season is when we get the snow, if we're gonna get it. And last week, we got eight inches while folks North and West of here got next to nothing.

It's not enough snow to bother you much, and sweeping the stairs is all that's really necessary, and the shovel will slumber uninterrupted throughout the whole season. It's like a lovely glaze on everything, and it amplifies and redistributes the light so it makes the most pleasant aspects from even mundane views, and the contrast with the cobalt sky makes even the eastern desert sky at nightfall jealous.

You can see the trees' shadows reaching out to caress the side of the house, and the phalanx of pines stand guard to the North to redirect the wind up and over roof, and allow such as we to dwell in peace, and keep the drifts away from the back of the house when the Nor'easters howl.

The house tries not to be at war with its surroundings. It is made to look smaller than it is. It has quiet, if not somber colorations. The red door isn't any gaudier than the barberries at the corner of the house, after all; they'll draw flocks of fat robins to flutter outside the window and poach their berries, and remind us inhabitants that Spring is on the horizon.

It's delicious to step out into the warm sun, with no coat necessary -- finally -- and form a snowball with your bare hands and fling it at any target to amuse the two year old.

Sometimes Nature has no teeth when it smiles. We smile back.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Same As It Ever Was



I've been hanging around the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with bad intent. Well, it seems that way, a little, as I'm peeking in on this poor woman in her reverie. The picture is called "Leisure," and it was painted in 1910 by William Worcester Churchill.

I feel a little better knowing that she must be dead. That didn't sound quite right. I meant, I'm glad she's achieved a kind of immortality by posing for this picture, at least until the oil in the paint flakes off the canvas or the Museum burns down; and I'm glad I can't disturb her, because she looks comfortable.

In 1910, leisure was a newfangled concept to most of the people that trod the earth. The idea of a "weekend," a rest from the work week, was just about to be invented in Britain, but for the aristocracy only. You didn't get a day off at all if you were a beater for some viscount on a quail hunt on Sunday.

Look closely at the painting. The room is spare, but not barren. It looks urban outside the window, and the room looks small and cosy. To the right, there's a screen in the corner to allow a modicum of privacy when dressing, and there's a brass tub on the floor that looks like our heroine just used it to soak her feet. She's propped comfortably on a divan, and reads the newspaper by the light of the window, and the leaf on the floor hints she's had a minute to enjoy it already. A book and perhaps a folio stand by on the table if she wants to continue her bluestocking afternoon.

It's been almost a hundred years, what's changed? Well, everything, of course, but what about the idea -- the idea of leisure?

Her surroundings are not drab. She has a modicum of privacy. She has time to herself. She has donned informal and comfortable clothing. the divan looks comfortable to perch upon, and allows a great deal of motility; that is to say, she can shift her position in it to various postures to avoid becoming cramped or stiff. She has something to occupy and stimulate her mind. She has likely performed her ablutions as part of a salubrious and languid ritual we might all enjoy after a hard day.

I don't know Churchill's work from a hole in the wall. But he knew his business. He showed us a person, and an appealing idea, and intimated to us something about himself too, by the composition of the painting and its subject. And he gave us the gift of understanding another person's point of view, and perhaps seeing something of ourselves in it; something familiar but interesting.

She has no telephone. No radio. No television. The candle on the table might be for more than mood lighting. She could catch polio. Her dentist might work on horses too.

None of that matters when she was captured there by the window. We all need what she's got. A cushy spot to rest our bones. Something to occupy our mind. Time to yourself. A little privacy. A little elegance.

Same as it ever was.