Thursday, August 31, 2006

On The Internet, It's Always The Depression


Advertising ebbs and flows. It's a rough science, little understood by even its practitioners. And how about us? The folks it's aimed at?

I know you, dear reader. You think that you're immune to advertising. All intelligent people think advertising is aimed at other, less discerning people. I used to think that. But advertising is a fire hose. That information is coming out of it under a lot of pressure. Now some people drink from that hose, some people bathe in that hose, and some people wash their clothes in that hose, and some stand clear, bemused, but they get caught in the overspray whether they like it or not. I'll use myself as exhibit A.

I wasn't joshing a couple of days ago when I told you I don't watch television. I know you were suspicious of my claim, as you think I'm sorta normal and normal people watch television. Normal people say they don't watch television - just those PBS shows. And the History Channel. Oh yes, the Oscars. And figure skating if it's on. Of course you have to watch the news to stay informed, but that's not watching television, of course, really; oh, and Desperate Housewives because I know it's all nonsense but how will I know what people are wearing if ...

You get the picture. But I'm that rarest of things, it's true: I don't watch and I don't care I don't watch, so I don't lecture. People should enjoy themselves. But I get a perspective you don't, that generally only kidnap victims... scratch that - they're tied up, but I imagine they watch all day; I dunno- let's say I get the perspective that millenarian cultists or Seventh Day Adventists or something get.

Anyhow, I know that "Will and Grace" exists. How can that be? Somebody told me somewhere. Now he/she might be the best or the worst advertiser in the history of the world, it depends on your perspective. Either they're the best in the world because they've managed to alert people as far removed from the scene as me that "Will and Grace" exists, or they're the worst, because busying yourself notifying persons like me that "Will and Grace" is on the TV I'm not watching is kind of a waste of time. I think. I imagine no matter what we think, the advertiser is drawing a fat six figures due to the fire hose method of getting your message out.

Look at the picture I offered. Back when people fought like tigers if two of them simultaneously found a smokable cigar butt in the street, advertising was a riot. Every available surface was covered with it. Barn roofs, sandwich boards and everything in between. And there was so much of it because it was cheap to get it out there- anybody would do anything to make a buck; and the need was there because everybody had to fight tooth and nail for economic survival. After a while, when economic conditions got less ferocious, advertising got more sophisticated and started going for certain segments of the population to maximize return, and people could be just as easily peeved by being assaulted by advertising as enticed to respond kindly.

That wall up there is the internet right now. It won't last. You go to the average blog, and there's a riot going on. There are 35 little ads for every durn thing, and little virtual tschotchke stands, and after you've surfed past the vast panorama of cajoling, and the tiny portion of stolen opinions, there's generally a real depression touch: out and out begging. They call it a tip jar, but a tin cup is more like it. It's 1931 on the internet, and we're all Bill Murray waking up to the sounds of "I've Got You Babe" one more time.

I've seen the vestigal remains of hundreds of depression era "bright ideas" designed to make a couple of bucks. I drive past christmas tree farms gone to seed. Chicken coops rotting on their punky sills, producing only spider's eggs now. I can still see the ghostly remnants of whisky ads clinging tenaciously to battered brick walls. Kudzu, anyone? When the leaves fall, I can spy a "Red Coach Grille" billboard falling to pieces out in the woods near a highway, disintegrating like a cadaver, its painted raiments falling in tatters and its offer of hospitality in a place that hasn't existed in thirty-five years ringing hollow. It calls to me, but not in the way they first envisioned. No matter; that ad-man cashed his last check long ago. The billboard was pointed at a different highway anyway; the one I'm on is newer than the sign.

There are mighty places on the internet where many congregate. Their wake alone would swamp such as my little rowboat.

If they charged $15.00 a year to read them, they'd all be mowing my lawn.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Good Morning, America, How Are You?


Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.

All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Dealin' card games with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor.
And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.
Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness Rolling down to the sea.

And all the towns and people seem To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

lyrics: The City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman ©1970, 1971 EMI U Catalogue, Inc and Turnpike Tom Music (ASCAP)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Watching Michelangelo Grind Pigments



I don't care what the Dixie Chicks think about George Bush. But then again, I don't care what the Dixie Chicks think about much of anything, now that you mention it. Let's take it to the limit, and mention I don't care what the Dixie Chicks think about the Dixie Chicks themselves, or music in general.

My point is: people like them are no more likely to have a useful opinion than anybody you find in the phonebook; and if my experience with musicians is anything to go by, their opinion is much more likely to be worthless than that held by your average stevedore. People who have their M&Ms sorted aren't living in a anything like the real world. They think they were made wealthy because they are wonderful -- not odd, or weird, or unusual, or simply pushier than most -- and think that wonderfulness seeps into all matters.

I've singled out the Dixie Chicks for calumny only because they're most prominent in my mind right now for shooting their mouths off over things they know little about. You could insert almost any celebrity in there and say the same thing. But if you wade past their wild ideas about politics and how the average person should order their affairs, the part that really makes you laugh is how little they know about their own craft. I swear the reason they talk about genocide in Darfur at the drop of a hat--it's really bad, you know, and they're really against small children being chopped up with machetes willy-nilly-- is that they really have little to offer on the walk of life they inhabit, and try to play sleight of hand with opinions to throw you off the scent.

Steely Dan is a favorite around here, and has been for thirty years or more. And I'm very interested in hearing about how they assemble the music they make. And so this video finds me fascinated.

I'm a half-assed musician. I have no pretensions. I was as successful as I cared to be, and never aspired to be interviewed in Rolling Stone about how crummy Darfur is. I don't wish that I was the guys in the video playing in Steely Dan. I wish to be the guy watching this video.

Those fellows are professional musicians, like a sort of hired assassin, and have devoted their lives to learning their craft and cultivating relationships with influential musical people. They have talent, and they have cultivated that talent in a very organized and scholarly way. They deserve a certain amount of respect that some that are more famous for more trivial reasons do not. These are not a collection of haircuts. They do not appear on magazine covers naked to gain notoriety. They are musicians and scholars of a sort, not solely attention mongers.

Steely Dan is essentially Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two fellows you see sitting at the mixing board, and a revolving bunch of studio musicians. I'd be hard pressed to point to two other people that did whatever the hell they felt like in popular music, as they did, and were successful over the long haul. Most pop artists minutely gauge the public's taste and pander to it. It apparently dawned on Becker and Fagen that they could never pander to anybody's taste anyway; might as well be strange -- and wonderful.

I have a feeling that in a few decades, no one will remember people like the Dixie Chicks or anyone else you could name in pop music much, or their opinions, but combos in lounges will still open up whatever wonderful version of music books they have in the future, and play Josie, or Green Earrings, or Peg, or Aja, or any one of a number of sublime and interesting songs that Steely Dan wrote.

And for a change, people who know what they are talking about, talk about what they know, with a camera pointed at them.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Deoohaorr



We went walking in Newport Rhode Island yesterday. It rained pretty good for the greater part of it, and it's a testament to the charm of the place and our hunger to leave our premises that we spent all afternoon there.

Grandma had kidnapped the larger one, so we had to amuse only the three year old. That's simpler, but more energetic. He wants to see things. Almost anything. But there's a crisp definition of where you must not go to see interesting things: inside. So we saw many things throught the lens of intermittent rain.

Newport is an old city, and mostly made of wood, so I like it greatly. It has that nobility of utility too; people still live and work in what look like museums elsewhere. And the museums look like houses.

There was a magnificent life-size statue of George Washington on a five foot pedestal in front of the old library, a magnificent Palladian temple. There are two truly enormous trees standing athwart the spot, and they make a fantastic sort of bower for George to stand in, and the library behind. George made my little boy nervous.

He ran to the sidewalk, hid behind the enormous bole of one of the trees, and peered at George like he was some sort of wraith. He's seen George many times of course, in different settings, but this iteration had him spooked.

It's harder to make the big brother laugh now than the little one. Bad jokes require a punchline to get a rise out of him. You can't just mugg at him anymore. But the little one's still easy.

Let this serve as a declaration and confession to the citizens of and the visitors to Newport: I was the guy seen repeatedly sneaking up ninja-style on a statue of George Washington in broad daylight, reaching out a trembling forefinger to touch the toe of George's bronze boot, and running away willy-nilly in a vaguely serpentine fashion while a very intimate crowd of small children and pretty women laughed at me.

Then that boy looked across the street, and I was yesterday's newspapers. Like an oasis in the desert, a little shop that had dozens of miniature houses on display in the window appeared.

I've walked big dogs that have got a notion to get in motion all of a sudden, and they've got nothing on a three year old that wants to get across the street in a hurry. The dog doesn't know how to turn his arm inside out to break your wrist and escape; the dog just puts all of his pounds to pulling. A three year old is a wily adversary.

Anyhow, we escaped calamity and made it across the street, and that boy looked in that window for ten minutes by the clock. He was like an astronomer discovering worlds. It was gloriously closed, to spare us the spectre of him traveling the length and breadth of it like Godzilla, and if they send me a bill for removing all the noseprints from the glass, including the larger ones up high, I will pay it gladly in exchange for the pleasure we had watching our son pick out his favorite one, the one with the little version of our own front entryway, and say in his little voice: "Deooharr!"

Why settle for one syllable, when you can make a whole sentence out of it?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

How The Other 1% Lives


A Jehovah's Witness came to my house yesterday. Two, actually; a man and his wife. They don't remember, but they walked up my driveway over ten years ago when I was building my house. It took me a long time to get rid of them last time, as I had no door to close, just a hole where it would be placed when it arrived. And if you've ever attended Catholic school, you know that you are forever incapable of brusqueness towards much of anybody. Kinda funny, when you think about it; nuns taught me to be so unfailingly polite that I stand there listening to a spiel about another religion. Well, not listening exactly; waiting.

Anyway, I knew exactly how to get rid of them this time. They asked me a question about something or other topical, and I mentioned to them that I have no television. They gave one another knowing looks and fled. When Jehovah's Witnesses think you're an odd waste of time, you've accomplished something heroic, as I see it.

I know, you don't see it that way. You figure I'm normal and I lied. But it's the truth. I've seen about twenty five hours of television in the last calendar year.

Did you flee when you read that? There's only two explanations if you stuck around:

1. You're one of these "Kill Your Television" types, always lecturing how the "them" sucks your minds out through the tube and yokes you to their hellish vision of mindless consumerism shackled to the death machine of the government. You spray-paint slogans on highway abutments to signal your displeasure and alarm the populace, who disappoint you by becoming alarmed only by the prevalence of graffiti, but keep watching Survivor and buying elaborate station wagons. If you're one of these types, I guarantee you you watch a lot more television than I do. Your hatred of television is the hatred of the "stop me before I kill again" variety. We're all supposed to stop because you can't. Me? I just don't watch.
2. You want to look at the weirdo that doesn't watch television and try to pick up subtle clues about what sort of blunt trauma I suffered and maybe learn what sorts of activities to avoid, that I favor, that will safeguard you from missing figure skating or lively talk shows or effeminate furniture re-arrangers or whatever.

Well, I'm unable to help either subset, because I don't watch television because I really don't care what's on it. That's it. There's no deeper meaning here, and I'm not giving a lecture about it. I don't like guacamole, either, as it has those mushy green things in it, what do you call them? See? If I watched Nigella Lawson I'd know those were avocados. [Insert obvious joke about Nigella's melons here.]

At any rate, we can't even do it if we want, more or less. When we moved here, there was no cable TV. I don't know much about broadcasting television, but the one direction no one broadcasts much is towards me, or Portugal and ships at sea, which is the next thing you'll hit after me. I got used to snow on TV year round, and when cable came through here I'd long since lost interest and it passed us by.

I wanted to watch the Patriots game last night. Here's what I had to do:
1.Find out if it was being broadcast here. It isn't always, anymore, what with all the pay TV people that broadcast things now. It was on broadcast TV, but the numbers don't signify on my TV. I'd have to look for a Fox station up around the dog whistle end of the spectrum. And I had to find the listing on the internet, my beloved internet, and the TV page on my service provider's site was terrifying to navigate. You guys watch all that? Must keep you busy.
2. Now for the French Underground radio operator portion of the exercise: Disconnect the 15 dollar bent stalks and doughnut antenna from the FM tuner. Take the cable from the wall plug and attach it to the rabbit ears. Put the whole mess atop the armoire the screen's in, near the window or you get nothing. The cable I disconnect is there to allow us to have the signal from the DVD player go to a second screen in the house. The house is wired for cable. You can go yell in the other end, hanging on the pole near the street, if you want to talk to me.
3. Say two Hail Marys, in case there's a god. Hail Marys are good for football games even if there isn't.
4. Ah, channel 120 out of Providence, Rhode Island. Well, it's in color, that's good. We have to rely on the commentators to tell us who caught the ball, as we can't always make it out in the snow. The snow is not in Foxboro, it's just in our set, by the way. When it snows a little in Foxboro, there's a blizzard in our set. It stinks to rely on the broken down steroid case and newsanchor also-ran on the broadcast, as they have no idea they could still be talking to people in my situation, and instead of saying anything of use to me, they just keep ejaculating things like: "Look at that!" Did you see that!" and: "Watch this!"

The Patriots disassembled the Washington Redskins into their component parts and stomped on the pieces, and I was sanguine. According to the advertising I was subjected to, no one has a car, an erection, or cable tv, and they've got just the things I need to remedy those deficiencies.

I'm all set on all counts, thanks; I've got two of the three, and the other I can do without.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Little Ones Come


The little ones come. They range around the yard, and the invisible curtain of the shaggy edge of the grass holds them captive. Their voices are like the waves at the beach. There is an ebb and flow, regular but not rigid; the occasional roar, the sizzle of the receding push, the intermittent quiet pause before the next little assault.

They tackle one another like linebackers. The one that gets the worst of it always seems not to notice; the one that delivers the blow cries. It passes the moment the action risks beginning again without the one with the quivering lip. The only fatal sin is missing out.

A fork is a rake and a cup is a bucket; a hamburger is an ottoman. They show at the rudely made table from the eyes up only, and the evidence of their efforts are identically parsed between their interior and their exterior. Nothing is wasted if one bit of it manages to get inside them.

Their lilting, ill-formed words tinkle in the warm breeze, like a nursery rhyme sung in some sublime opera. Their gestures are as broad and expressive as anybody who has trod the music hall floorboards. They furtively search the crowd of adult faces, congregated to the side, looking for mother -- like a performer looks in the audience for the critic. They run like madmen from a doctor.

They run out of gas, long after you do, and find some niche that fits their mood and size. They sleep the sleep of physical exhaustion and mental freshness. The difference between eyes open and shut is tiny. Everything is wonderful.

Why do I love them all so? I don't know. Do you?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Put A Sock In It, Chicken Little


I don't want to hear a word about any housing bubble. Not one more word.

I've been forced to listen to people that have no idea what they're talking about talk about a housing bubble for... well...

There never was a boom, according to the Bubblers. Their switch only has two positions: Bust and Bubble. Well, people who work on Wall Street know that advice that has no basis in time is worthless. I'll trump that and say it's not worthless; it's actively bad.

I'm not going to bother to direct you to an article about the "Housing Bubble.
Google it. 8.4 million hits. Help yourself. For balance, you could Google "Housing Boom." You'd get 15 million hits for that. Of course, the most cursory inspection of those reveals that every damn one of them covers the topic of why the boom that never existed is now going bust.

I lied. They do, why shouldn't I? I am going to direct you to an article outlining an opinion about The Housing Bubble, from one year ago. I wrote it. And in it, I mentioned that one Fed chief ago, I had been listening to years of housing bubble talk ad naseum and no one had any idea what they are talking about. And they still don't. They're a busted clock, and they seem to think that since they've been telling you for ten years that houses will become next to worthless overnight, they're right now. And please notice, my only advice to avoid losing all your money in real estate overnight was to never buy any in a place where corrupt or incompetent local governance could make your house worthless overnight. Paging Ray Nagin. And I wrote that before Katrina. What did those soothsayers at CBS say back then, I wonder?

Well, I read CBS Marketwatch --oops I lied again-- as they had the most gratifying end-of-the-world-overmortgaged-smoking hole headline. CBS Marketwatch.

They mention all sorts of things that are meaningless things, if you're talking about a "bubble" instead of the normal workings of supply and demand:
"Sales of new homes dropped 4.3% in July "- There is not an everlasting supply of persons that do not have a house. If home builders keep building units for imaginary persons, they will indeed go out of business. I think that would apply in any business, though. Maybe they'll build or do something else when they get these signals. Just a hunch.

"The July sales pace was the lowest since February's 1.038 million."
Like I said, I've been in this business for a long time. I remember the fervent prayers of the building industry to crawl over the million unit threshold, just once in their lifetime. I distinctly remember Builder magazine discussing 900,000 units as a sort of "happy days are here again."

"New-home sales are down 21.6% in the past year, the biggest drop since late 1994. "
How exactly does comparing this year to last year have anything to do with 1994? I was in the business in 1994, (and 1984 too, by the way) and I can tell you lots of capital was fixing to run down a rathole in 1994, and it wasn't a housing rathole.

Housing was in the toilet in 1994, and every day since I've been warned to stay out of the housing market. FYI geniuses: If I had listened to you, and rented in the interim, I would have had to come up with the 497.75% of extra appreciation my property would cost since then. Read that number again after I tell you I'm not joking or exaggerating, that's exactly the appreciation in the value of my property, including what I've "lost" in this bubble. I lived in it while it appreciated, too. Try that with your Exxon stock. The chairs in Exxon's lobby are uncomfortable to sleep on, anyway. CBS Marketwatch says home sales in my neck of the woods are down 43%. I'm sure they can point me to lots of investments that return 497% in 12 years. Is my house overvalued now, or was it undervalued then because people read the newspapers back then too, and listened to people like you? Try building one down the street like mine for less than mine would sell for. Good luck getting a building permit for your non-existent lot. Hint: this isn't Holland, and we're not making additional land here to compete with mine.

You'll have to come up with every penny I mentioned to get me to sell. Even then I wouldn't, come to think of it. It's my home, you schmucks. And if it loses 10% of its value I'm not going to move in the swamp out back and leave it for the bank because it only appreciated 487.75%, not 497.75%. The horror! Please, continue reading while I knit myself a noose.

Don't invest in Pulte, Centex or Toll Brothers if you're afraid there are no more housing customers. Seems prudent, as it appears the boom that never happened is now over before it starts, or something. I wouldn't open a Real Estate office this week either, unless you like to work real hard for your dough. Like the rest of us.

But I'd invest in every single one of them, before I'd invest in CBS or the New York Times.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Marvelous Milo


We celebrate the older son's birthday today. He's eleven.

I feel like a successful human being because I've managed to get him this far. I tried mightily to harm him at various playgrounds over the years, though not purposely, of course. He escaped with a stitch here and there and bumps on his noggin. And we've muddled through. His little brother is too tough to harm in any way, so my cares are not increased by the simple arithmetic of a brother added.

My son has that thing... a sort of internal glow that even others see emanating from his innards. His heart is good, and that trumps all other concerns. I will be pleased and sad to spring him on the world undiluted by supervision in a few years. The glow looks vaguely like the one that attracted me to his mother.

There will be little skinny friends frolicking by the dozen, smeared with cake and bug spray, and little cousins to tag along or sit padded by their diapers, watching. Aunts and Uncles and neighbors will gossip and attempt to allow things to happen, and grandmothers will dote and receive obeisance. The day will be a fabulous blur for him, and just a blur for his parents.

And then the clock will return to its quotidian desultory ticking, ever closer to the detonation of the bomb that all we parents set, that will blow our lives all to heck when he leaves us to be a man.

Happy birthday Milo.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Das Internet Boot


My mind is a cobwebbed thing. When I was young, I was like a human filing cabinet. You could ask me almost any obscure worthless thing and I'd trot it out rat-a-tat. The Lusitania's sister ship. The manufacturer of Richtofen's plane. Churchill's mother's name. Who played Agarn on F Troop. The chemical name for silicone.

I'm not like that anymore, and I don't want to be. It's tiresome for everyone involved to be a Jeopardy contestant out on the street. No one knows very much, really; most people don't know much of anything.

I now know the joy of "Not Going." By that I mean, I am not willing to subject myself to the exertions of chasing the trivial I'm not interested in. I have no interest in many things others commonly do, and I've lost the desire to manufacture that interest or feign the concomittant enthusiasm. It's certainly not any form of elitism. I have the most profound disdain for the supposedly highfalutin'. I still watch football on television. If you think I'm going to sit still and have Katie Couric read me a bad newspaper every evening, you're nuts. And I'll read Twain ten times before I'll read ten sentences of Norman Mailer. And I'll only read the ten sentences as a sort of chore, to allow me to mention he's a lousy writer and a defective thinker over dinner, if called upon.

I'd rather watch SpongeBob -again- than Sixty Minutes, anytime. SpongeBob is rooted in reality, after all; there are sponges at the bottom of the sea. Mike Wallace is unmoored from reality, and what reality he has is of his own invention. He wants to give me an impression -- and he does --just not the one he's aiming at. They both make me laugh, but only one pleasantly.

The internet is a most dangerous and magical sea for us to navigate. I swim through it, and let its atoms wash over me, and get a kind of impression from it, like the ocean. Warm. Cold. Tepid. Dangerous. Limpid. Every sort of thing.

It is said that most people have their minds made up, and simply cast about for information that gibes with their static worldview. The internet is perfect for them, as there is no thing too lame or outrageous that you can not find it by the metric tonne, footnoted. And defended to the death elsewhere in the primordial soup, to the very horizon and beyond, if need be.

I am not a utilitarian. I have no ends, so I seek no means. I swim through the vast thing -- the muck, the weeds, the pale green still water, the rush of the waves and the pounding of the hurricane -- and it washes all around me and gives me an impression. Or more accurately --an ongoing impression.

There is a kind of bloodsport being played in the internet world, and I think people are getting way ahead of themselves in their assessment of how important they are in the scheme of things. They are like sailors in a leaking tin tube creaking with the pressure, sweating and whiffing stale air and listening to pings on the hull, all the while thinking they've got it all figured out. The game is played so ferociously because the stakes are so small. Me? I can't help but notice that Neither Ned Lamont nor Joe Lieberman is Julius Caesar.

My cobwebby mind betrays me again. A tidbit comes to mind. Is it Paul Johnson? William Manchester? Paul Johnson writing about William Manchester? Manchester writing about Churchill? I think it's Paul Johnson writing about Manchester writing about Churchill, but to tell you the truth, I don't care. I could find it on my shelf, but not on the internet, and so it does not exist, according to many.

Anyway, one of them went into the heart of northern India after the British decided to skedaddle and let Gandhi do it. A million persons lost their lives then, give or take, as that simmering pot was unlidded. The vestiges of the Mughul Empire showed right through the modern fabric. Anyway, the assignment was to go to remote parts of India, and ask the man in the unpaved street if it was a good or a bad thing that the British Empire had left India.

They did not even know that the British had come.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Old-Fashioned? Me? Nope- I Drink Gin, And Love YouTube And MySpace

Time marches on. I've got no use for nostalgia. Check that. I've got the proper use for nostalgia, I hope. But I get tired of old thinkers. I like to acknowledge what was good in the framework of what was possible at the time. And when you look at what's going on, right now, it's much harder to determine what's Good and what's Bad and what just comes under the heading of What's Possible. That's why everybody's always Monday morning quarterbacking people like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. It's easier when you're in the stands and not on the field. "That's not the way I would have founded the most successful political entity ever to exist on the face of the earth, by beating the then current greatest political entity on the face of the earth. You're doing it all wrong, George and Tommy. My mother's basement or my rent controlled apartment gives me the perspective you two so obviously sorely lacked."

I'm not buying.

These new technologies are a fact, and must be dealt with. If you haven't picked up on it by my endless fascination with YouTube here, I'll tell you straight out: I'm fascinated with YouTube. It's the most democratic of mediums. There's lots of chaff, but what the hell, the things it competes with, in my humble opinion, are getting to be all chaff. I've seen plenty of YouTube. I haven't seen television since the Superbowl.

Look what you can find on YouTube. You can find...jaysus! That's my nephew!:


And look what you can find on MySpace. You can find... jaysus! That's my friend Steve's son and his friends, who might as well be my nephew. And look, he's stolen my little story of his first paying gig and posted it on MySpace without asking. Why, I'd sue, if I wasn't dumb enough to be flattered by their interest in it. Make sure and click on D'yer Mak'er. It's better than the original. And yes, that's them playing the Fox Sports Theme when you open the page. They're really good

Our children. Better than the... ahem... Originals. Yeah baby! Yeah!

Monday, August 21, 2006

I Watched An Adult Movie Last Night -- With My Mother


What are you thinking? What's wrong with you people? Are you the few --or the many; how would I know? --that actually respond to viagra spam? Are you the folks that pay to watch a scrawny hotel heiress have desultory congress on a cameraphone? I'd better explain, I guess.

I am the parent of two small children. An "adult" movie has at least one adult in it. That's it. No sponges. No rabbits. No Sneetches. Adult persons talk to one another and do things that adults would do with a camera pointed at them and David Mamet telling them what to say. That's an adult movie.

That's a rare thing at my house. I do not understand persons that watch adult things in front of their children. Self-abnegation for the sake of others is the hallmark of adults. You really must look into it. My ten year old can recite every thing he's ever heard or seen verbatim, with accents, so I know they're paying attention. He's going to hear enough dopey things at school. I'm not going to make it worse by watching Reservoir Dogs while he does his spelling homework.

My relatives are visiting from California, and we've done everything relatives do, but after all the frosting and bug juice and basketball and playgrounds and croquet and Playstation and Spongbob and bubbles and ice cream and hot dogs and Monopoly, I decided that all the adults could sit in my living room and watch a movie with a few expletives in it. And a big honkin' bear.

The Edge is David Mamet making an action picture. For those of you who don't know, David Mamet is a playwright, and a screenwriter, and a regular old writer too. Off the top of my head Mamet is:

The Verdict
Glengarry Glenross
The Edge
The Winslow Boy
The Spanish Prisoner
Happy Texas
State and Main

Anyway, he's got that knack of putting words in people's mouths that sound like people would say them, but seem to encapsulate world views and themes and conflict and, and, and... compare and contrast Mamet's prose style with the style of Cheryl Printup's short story...

I'm sorry, I lapsed into a college writing class. I didn't like those. For me, college writing class, for as long as it lasted, consisted of me and twenty-nine girls, sitting there reading Emily Bronte or some other girl that could use a stiff drink and a boyfriend with a tattoo, and them nattering among themselves about that tripe until they got to the part where the heroine is walking through the dewy garden barefoot with Heathcliff or whatever the closet fruit's name was and there was a lot of scattershot adjectives about burgeoning stamens and dripping pistils and men in a boat and ripe fruit, and the female teacher would invariably turn to me in the back row and ask: "What do you feel this imagery is driving at, Mr. Sullivan?" while the twenty nine ingenues turned and glared at me.

Lady, she should have shoes on and run off with a gardener and be done with it. The Chatterley broad did. Leave me alone.

Give me something... adult. Give me Mamet.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Pfffftttpppfffharharhoho


I am luckier than you. It is not in my nature to gloat, of course; I wish to share the wealth a bit.

I am in possession of a captivating miniature human being. He actually says: "Tee Hee."

I'm not joking. He actually says it. He is amused, and says, quite distinctly: "Tee Hee."

It's not an approximation of the sound of Tee Hee. We regular mortals snort and guffaw, and burst out laughing, and shriek with delight, and make a sort of sound that authors try to convey by writing Tee Hee into their text.

But he actually says: "Tee Hee."

You need to make yourself a home and find a mate and produce a human that utters, unironically, in a moment of mild amusement: "Tee Hee."

They are indispensable for making you say: "Pfffftttpppfffharharhoho."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Let's Play Two...Twice



(Editor's Note: Oh dear. Amba over at the erudite and occasionally eristic Ambivablog likes allegories with baseball in them. Who knew? She's accused me of bringing something new to that hoary old table. If she knew me better, she'd know I bring nothing to the table. And I steal salt shakers when I leave. But I live to amuse her now, so my life has a certain meaning. Here's some baseball writing from a year ago or so. Let me know if awl de werds are spelt wright, so I can fix them before Amba sees them. I think she's un eddoortore, and I here tell there fussie)

(Author's note: There is no editor.)


Now when I was a kid, baseball was different. I'm not ancient, so you'll be relieved to know there'll be no talk of stickball in a Brooklyn street or Ty Cobb's sharpened spikes. The players we admired on our playing cards are coaches now, not dead. And the playing cards we had were worthless, and the gum was precious, thank God, so we enjoyed them, and flipped them for Face up/Facedown on the bus seats on the way to school, or lined them up against the old brick wall in the playground and played Knockdown. And we gave shopping bags and shoe boxes filled with them to our cousins and younger brothers when we came of age, and laugh when we think of the fortune just one of those cards commands from memorabilia freaks now.

We did not have uniforms. We played with baseballs that looked much older than us, and cracked wooden bats with electrical tape holding them together, and had to mow the field before we could play on it. There were never enough of us, so we pitched to our own team members, and right field was an out. Period. And more often than not, right field went unmowed, too. We played in jeans and canvas sneakers, and a hole in the knee of your pants wasn't yet stylish - it was a calamity when you had to face your mother, who knew what they cost. And we played until we heard our mothers yell our names for the second time like a town crier, and hurried home to a scolding for tarrying, and dinner.

All of that is gone now, like so many things, changed by time, and prosperity, and other things. Our mothers thought nothing of turning us out of doors at daylight in the summer, though we were but small, because forty years ago, someone who would hurt a child would have more problems in this world than registering at the police station and paying their lawyers. And we mowed the grass ourselves, with a mower that shot gravel out the unbaffled chute at our confederates, and we could barely reach up to the handle to push it, but we didn't maim ourselves, or sue anybody, that I recall. And we settled the rules first and our disputes later among ourselves without the guiding hand of our parents, except what little sense they had managed to get into our heads, and rarely resorted to knuckles. Funny that. We had it sorted out in 1965, when we were but children, but forty years later we assault the umpires at our children's games. Something was there, and has slipped away, I think.

I remember lots of things about that little diamond, carved out of the trees as an afterthought by the developer of our little neighborhood, long before the word "developer" became an epithet hurled at conservation committee meetings by people who live in houses made by a "builder." The builder and the developer look identical to the unaided eye, but people who already have a house have a different perspective, and thesaurus, than those that need one.

And I remember Cookie. Now, our children should be collecting Cookie's rookie trading cards, to put them through college when they sell them on ebay - and not community college either. But it was not to be. Because Cookie, although the greatest baseball player I ever saw, didn't want to be a professional ballplayer. He wanted to be a barber.

Now that last sentence clanged to the floor at your house, and you thought: He's kidding, or he's nuts. Well, I'm not kidding, anyhow. Cookie wouldn't have it if it was offered.

Now, Cookie was a little older than us, and that brought out the Paul Bunyan side of it a little I'm sure. Remember when you thought your father could lift a car, or paint the house by having you hold the brush while he moved the house up and down? Later you found out he was just another middle aged guy that emitted an audible gasp every time he sat down. Well, I'm sure that entered into it a little, that perspective from down where the little kids are, looking at big Cookie, but that wasn't all of it. He really was a wonder, I think.

Cookie would show up when we had been playing all day, and to this day I don't know his last name, or where he came from, or where he went to after he was done. But every time he came, we stopped whatever we were doing, and Cookie put on a Ruthian barnstorming exhibition. The biggest kid among us would pitch to Cookie, and the rest of us would scatter into the woods beyond the field, and wait for the balls to rain down on us. Because Cookie was a machine for hitting home runs. If the pitcher would wince during his delivery, human nature being what it is, knowing the ball might be coming back those 60' 6" in a big hurry- he'd maybe sail the ball wide and three feet off the plate. It didn't matter. Cookie would step on the plate, and lean over, and flick his wrists, and it would rain down into the woods, every time.

And with Cookie, right field was in play for once, after a fashion. We'd grow tired of fishing our precious baseballs out of the oaks and poison ivy in center field, and beseech Cookie for a real show, and he'd get up lefty, his switch hitting a revelation to us, and hit it out over the unmowed grass. Right field had no natural end, so the balls would roll when they hit, like cannonballs that had missed their fortress, but occasionally Cookie would clear the whole distance, and hit the pavement at the foot of the road that entered the field. And we'd ululate like madmen, and didn't care our precious baseball was no longer round. We adored him.

Cookie even sort of looked the part, if I recall correctly. The major leagues were filled with midwestern farmboy looking lummoxes like Mantle and Killebrew back then, and Cookie had the rangy frame, reddish blond stubble head, loping strides and laconic demeanor of our icons.
But with glasses. But not coke bottle glasses. Those wouldn't have brought a billboard into focus for Cookie. Cookie had the sort of glasses that seemed like the windows on a deep sea submarine. It was disorienting just to look at him, and if the barbering trade didn't fly, I imagine mesmerism would have been a cakewalk for him.

And perhaps Cookie knew what we, in our innocence, did not; that his eyesight would forever make him an also-ran, and it was best not to dream overmuch and better to make use of your gifts to amuse your neighbors and spice your life than to try to squeeze every drop of mammon from them. Maybe. But I really think that Cookie didn't care if he became what was to us an exalted thing: A big league ballplayer. He wasn't interested. He wanted to be a barber, and that was that.

I recall reading a story about Eisenhower when he was young and a cadet at West Point, and not yet the general who beat the Axis armies or the President who presided over my birth, though perhaps he did not notice it. He was no longer a "plebe" then, and was allowed to order the newcomers around, and haze them, as he had been hazed the year before. And for amusement, he picked out a goofy looking recruit, and made him stand at attention in front of his peers, and lambasted him, for no good reason, simply because it was expected of him. And he wrote in his memoirs, that he always remembered, to his shame, that as a capstone to his string of abuse, he asked the plebe what he did in his civilian life before he entered West Point, because he seemed such a numbskull that he couldn't be more than a barber. And the man, showing no emotion, but feeling some, no doubt, answered that he was indeed a barber in his short pre-military working life.

Eisenhower wrote that he had never known real shame before that, and he remembered that moment for the rest of his life, when he had disparaged the honest toil and effort of his fellow man. And he said he owed that man a great debt, though he couldn't remember his name, and he never again wanted to look down his nose on any man.

Cookie, if you're listening. I'm sure you're a terrific barber.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ten Things That Passed Me Right By


In the spirit of yesterday's post, and to form a more perfect union...

Wait a minute, there's no union here. Let me think if I can name ten things that I never paid any attention to, that disappeared from prominence before I knew they were important. This list is likely to be defective, as many things come and go of course, and I can't talk about what I don't know. Others may still be wildly successful although I figure they're about as popular as "Maude," because I'm not paying attention

Maude's still not on TV, is she?

Anyway, no wagering.

10. Britney Spears
I'm using her for a sort of shorthand for a certain kind of entertainer. They're all washed up before I ever know what the hell is up with them. By the time I got a look at Britney, she was a doughy matron who dropped her kids occasionally. She was famous for kissing a stringy, even older matron on TV a few years back, but I missed out on that too. Apparently a Back Street Boy also announced he was gay, and was no longer a boy, last week. Insert obvious jokes here.
9. That all meat diet.
It is a testament to the veracity of my professed profound ignorance of things average that I can't for the life of me remember the name of this diet, although for a while it was more important and far reaching than peanut butter and jelly or potable water ever was. Pass the butter.
8. Survivor.
Trust me when I tell you, the very first person voted off all of those islands was me, by the unanimous vote of me. Not one of those "survivors" could last until noon the first day working for my uncle the mason contractor. The rest is conversation. And not a very interesting one.
7. Star Trek without Kirk
This is also a kind of shorthand. Star Trek had forty five iterations on little and big screen alike. And you can throw Star Wars in here too. It's all the same. If it didn't have James T. Kirk humping green chicks while Spock played chess on an etagere and a drunk Scotsman stripping nuts with the wrong wrench on the warp drive, I'm not interested.
6. Titanic
I'm told that this is the most popular movie ever. I never saw it, because from what I know of the persons depicted and the persons that portray them, I'm as likely as not to root for them to be drowned long before any iceberg shows up.
5. Tattoos
When I was young, every third ex-marine had a blurry splotch on their arm that said: "Born To Raise Hell." They were "Born To Raise Children," and do precisely what their wives instructed them to do, in my experience. But in their defense, they participated in ritual scarification while part of a gladiatorial organization. What's the clerk in the Abercrombie and Fitch's excuse?
4. Metrosexuality
Soap. Head and Shoulders. Baby Powder. Crest. We're done here.
3. Ringtones
There is a formula that is as important and far reaching as The Theory of Relativity: The importance of any phone call is inversely proportional to the complexity of the ring that announces it.
2. Viagra
I do not understand this substance. I do not understand why everyone who is not from Nigeria, and some who are, wish to sell it to me every day, all day, on the internet. If girls don't give you erections, try boys; it seems as likely as chemistry to solve your problems.
1. The i-pod
Let me get this straight. I'm supposed to have an enjoyable time with two earwax smeared things jammed in my head, held together with a sort of gossamer dog collar, which allow me to ensure that in all the spare moments the world is not inflicting bad, old rock music on me ambiently, I can inject it directly into my cranium.

For this, as well as all the others, I say: I remain unconvinced.

(UPDATE: Commenter tcd's internet goes to eleven! She picks out one that absofreakinglutely passed me by:)

11. Watching people play poker on TV.

I can see watching darts on TV, as they're likely drunk and might accidentally fire one into their opponent, lending a kind of drama to the proceedings. Until they find some way of adding "defense" to poker, it shouldn't be televised.

Give them all guns. Then I'll watch.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The World Passed Me By, By Such A Margin, I'm Ahead Again



Over at the Ambivablog, I've been described as the place "where nostalgia makes love to the future." I don't really know the proprietor of Ambivablog, although I've been reading her page for a while. I'm grateful for the attention of course, but that's not the part we're going to talk about. I get "attention" from people that e-mail me and tell me to "die in a fire" over some perceived, if not to say totally imaginary, slight. The purpose of writing is to make your thoughts available to strangers - and to ensure you have milk, if your list is handy when you're in the market. But the corollary to making your thoughts available to strangers is having strangers understand what you're driving at. That's rarer, and piquant when it rears its head.

Well, assessments like Amba's are double edged swords. Nostalgia is fun, but it risks being a navel-gazing affair. If I were nineteen years old, and a guy that was nineteen with twenty-nine years experience at being nineteen told me that Weezer sucked but Bachman Turner Overdrive was like Mozart and Elvis and Free Beer, I'd tell him to shove it. And the old fellow would say the same to his elders about Perry Como. Nostalgia is a church where no one converts and the parishioners slowly die off. But Amba gave me more credit than that. I appreciate it, because she's correct in her assessment. It doesn't stop there for me.

I like things, often, that are anachronisms. Traditions are interesting, serve useful purposes, and have a tendency to breed such anachronisms. You can never improve on a wooden baseball bat. It's not possible, because to tinker with it is to destroy it. The clink an aluminum bat makes when you hit the ball has no oompah. It's got no anima. It's got no whatsis. The meaning in the thing is lost. Why not use a mortar or a bazooka and be done with it? To suggest that children should eschew aluminum bats for the traditional wood meets with blank stares or acrimony now. "Do you know what a wooden bat costs, and how many we'd break?" is flung at you by persons who think such handwaving arithmetic is dispositive to those of us that can't help but notice their children are wearing $200.00 sneakers.

Yes, I know. That wooden bat would seem...precious, wouldn't it?

And yet if I bought a baseball bat tomorrow, I'd buy one of those magnificent dyed and lacquered maple affairs that have come into popularity recently. An old fashioned Hillerich and Bradsby Louisville Slugger is made from Ash. Ash is a stringy, dense, heavy, stiff wood that has a long and storied history of being made into axe handles.

An axe handle. A plow handle. An adze. A grub hoe. Think of the iconic status of the baulk of wood itself before it becomes that same utilitarian thing fashioned to bring the joy of the physical test to the user and the audience alike.

But someone said: Maple. Lighter, but harder. Smooth. Chastely grained, not the big roping sawtooth whorls of the Ash. They made a bat from Maple and said: I've made it better but I did not destroy the meaning of the thing.

A handful of people, who you and I will never meet -- and trust me, we're not them --will bring change to things so profoundly that something useful or amusing will be entirely superseded. You're wasting your time-maybe, but our time-certainly, if you're telling us you're going invent the Next. Big. Thing. There's never any talk in it.

Don't interfere if you've got nothing but ideas on how things should be "different." "Different" is not the operative and essential part of "good." It's as likely to be good's enemy as not. Don't make it worse, if you can make it as good. Generally, that just takes a certain amount of effort, and a little judgement.

Make it better, without destroying the meaning of the thing. If you can.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Explaining Sippican --A Little


(Editor's Note: I've caught a few of the readers performing amateur psychoanalysis on the your humble narrator recently. I guess that's part of the charm of writing it down and spraying it out into the ether. Well, I'm a conundrum wrapped in an enigma rolled up in a quesadilla buried in a sweatsock in the back yard, as they say. Kinda. But this thing I wrote a year ago explains a lot. Or a little. Or nothing much.)

(Author's Note: There is no editor.)


Hola amigos.

I'm rereading a book about houses in 18th Century Williamsburg. Strangely enough, it's called "The Eighteenth-Century Houses of Williamsburg." by Marcus Whiffen. If it was published today, it would have a cover that said something like:

"Torn From Yesterday's Headlines-The Exciting True Story of the Heat and Passion of our Passionate Hot Forefathers and Mothers:""The Desperate Bodice Stitchers of Williamsburg!"


Or something.

It was published in 1960, so they just told it like it was. I'd rather read one book like this than a metric tonne of fiction anyday. The only bodices that get ripped are because they caught them on a stray nail while burning quicklime in a brick kiln, but I can do without the "excitement." It's interesting enough as it is.

Colonial Williamsburg seems like an interesting place, one that I might like to visit. I've been to Washington DC's monuments, and Mount Vernon and so forth, but never Williamsburg. We'll have to wait until the Wee One is a little older, I think, as he will no doubt try to single-handedly re-enact the sack of Washington by the British during the War of 1812, and discommode the passersby, but we'll get around to it eventually.

John D. Rockefeller Junior bankrolled the collection and restoration of the houses there, if I recall correctly, and good for him. I always insist that the history that truly matters is not military history, but the march of events in the life of the great mass of citizens of a great nation that defines its progress. The clashing armies are important in that they define the ability and willingness of a society to defend itself, and its will to do so. What they are defending is just as interesting to me.

How did people live? Dress? Labor? Raise children? Learn? What did they sit on, and what kind of dwelling did they live in? Places like Williamsburg catalog just these quotidian details, and bless them for it.

Really dry books like "Houses of Williamsburg" have the scholarly details that lend perspective to our own lives, when we see how far we have come, but also how much we still retain. I found one particularly telling detail in it. It's a contract for Indenture between an orphaned boy and a bricklayer. Here it is:

This Indenture Witnesseth that John Webb an Orphan hath put himself, and by these Presents doth voluntarily and of his own free Will and Accord. put himself apprentice to William Phillips of Williamsburg Bricklayer to learn his Art, Trade, and Mystery: and after the Manner of and Apprentice to serve the said William Phillips from the day of the date hereof for and during and unto the full end and Term of five Years next ensuing during all which Term, the said Apprentice, his said Master faithfully shall serve, and his Secrets keep, who's lawful commands at all Times readily obey; He shall do no damage to his said Master, nor see it to be done by others, without giving Notice thereof to his said master. He shall not waste his said Master's Goods nor lend them unlawfully to any...

To the modern eye, this looks like two paces from slavery. But not to the modern tradesman's eye. Because what you just read was essentially the same as the situation my peers and I entered into when we entered the building trades in the seventies. It wasn't written down, but it was spoken, or understood. I'll serve you faithfully if you teach me a trade is the bargain we all struck with someone older, wiser, and more experienced, but didn't mind having a seventeen year old around to pick up the 90 pound sacks of cement for him. And the only two questions asked of the prospective applicant were: Will you work hard? and: Will you stick around long enough to make my investment in your learning pay off? Answer yes, and you'd be pointed to a stack of something heavy that very minute.

In a very real way you were adopted like this fellow was. You were talking to the tradesman in the first place because you were his child, or nephew, or neighbor, or the son of a fellow churchgoer or lodge member. Somebody had vouched for you before you ever got to stand nervously in front of the guy, while he wondered if those little arms of yours could lift what he needed lifted.

"Art, Trade, and Mystery" is wonderful. I've never heard it described better. Good construction work is an art, and so many poor souls flounder around these days because they learn the "art" in a desultory fashion, get stars in their eyes, and go out on their own without learning the "Trade" which refers to the business end of the deal. "Mystery" is the magnificent capstone to the trio of benefits. Specialized skills and knowledge are the heart of any trade, and customers know better than anyone that hiring a tradesmen to do anything for you is a descent into mystery. The plumber knows the mystery of making the contents of the toilet bowl disappear, and for that mystery you're glad to pay him.

There's sound advice for the young man later in the deed, (it is a deed we're reading from, just like title to a piece of property) although it's more than just advice in a contract like this:

He shall not committ Fornication, nor contract Matrimony within the said term. At Cards, Dice, or any other unlawful Game he shall not play whereby his said master may have damage...He shall not absent himself day or night from his said Master's Service, without his leave, nor haunt Alehouses, Taverns, or Play Houses, but in all Things behave himself as a faithful Apprentice ought to do...

If I had a nickel for every fellow tradesman I knew, whether working alongside me or employed by me, that had ignored exactly this kind of advice and ruined their lives, I'd be rich as Croesus. Tweak it a bit, and make it the first week of instruction in Vocational High School, and you'd have my support.

What's in it for the Apprentice?

...said Master shall you the utmost of his endeavors to teach, or cause to be taught or instructed the said Apprentice in the trade or Mystery of a Bricklayer and procure or provide for him sufficient Meat Drink Cloaths, Washing and Lodging fitting for an Apprentice during the said term of Five Years...

So at the end of five years, the young man would know everything he needed to know to be his own man, and be able to go out in the world and make his living. It's interesting to note that he's promised what is essentially a living wage for single young person and an education, nothing more, but nothing less either. He's not promised the 1700's version of and I-pod, or bachelor pad, or a bitchin' truck, or a sports car, or Nike shoes, or restaurant meals, thrice a day.

The employer has some serious obligations as well, alike in kind and importance to the contract. And I doubt the interdiction against gambling, booze and monkeyshines with girls is prudery, it's probably rooted in the knowledge that your clumsy efforts won't support that kind of easy living for a long time yet, or egads, not a wife and family yet, so knock it off.

Anyway, there were no snout houses at Williamsburg, and no public welfare housing for people on the dole. Both the plans for the houses and the contracts for the workmen were drawn up by amateurs, not professionals, and they're ten times better than what we have for the same things now, drawn up by legions of professionals and lawyers.

There's a lesson in that somewhere. I'm not exactly sure where. I'm an amateur philosopher, not a professional. But I assure you, in 1975, I would have signed that document, and been the better for it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Languor; Then, Who Knows?

Every night I hear the coyotes ranging around the swamp. They make a dreadful sound. There's nothing of the quaint forlorn Hollywood howl to it. They sound like landgoing sharks ripping things to pieces and exulting in the spray of foam on their muzzle. And every night Momo the cat looks at me, and begs to be let out.

Momo was feral. he came out of those same woods, years ago, and it took my wife a year of patient coaxing to get him to set foot in the house. He is as gentle as any kitten despite his wildness, and has allowed two children to tug on his tail without protest now. He has that rarest of attributes for a cat- gratitude.

But he goes out. The other cat sleeps on the cushions all night, and Momo goes into the night. Every night I figure he won't come back. Every morning he's at the door.

We smoke. We ride motorcycles without helmets. We skydive. We drive and eat sandwiches simutaneously. We swim in oceans filled with sharks. We climb mountains. We minister to the dreadfully ill and infectious. We climb trees. We ingest things we bought on a streetcorner. We drink from a still. We join armies, sometimes out of patriotism, sometimes on a lark, and kill and risk being killed in turn. We put on helmets and collide for amusement. We reach under the mower. We pump gasoline into our car with the bald tires with a cigarette dangling lit from the corner of our mouths. We pick fights with strangers in bars. We fight with strangers when they pick fights with us. The gutters need cleaning. We travel to the moon.

Momo goes out.

Monday, August 14, 2006

What I Learned Over The Weekend

  • Small children like bubbles.
  • Large children like bubbles but are loathe to admit it.
  • I like bubbles.
  • Cobwebs turn to a piquant glaze when they reach just the right temperature on the grill.
  • A grill that is not a fire hazard makes bland food.
  • If there's a nastier creature on the planet than a horsefly, I haven't seen it.
  • Crabgrass is green too.
  • You can buy white phlox all you want, but half their children turn out magenta and that's that.
  • They tried machine guns, razor wire, high voltage, concrete, and enormous heaps of glass shards to keep those poor people from escaping from East Germany back in the day. I could have mailed them one poison ivy plant. They could have eaten twice a day instead of once with the money they saved.
  • I can still beat my 11 year old in a foot race. Barely.
  • I like football. It's the only thing I watch on television. So I get a fresh perspective on things when I tune in. I have only two questions: Doesn't anyone already have a car? Can't anyone get an erection?
  • A cicada buzzes exactly like the doorbell transformer in the utility room. I like the cicada sound better. This points to some failing in my constitution, I imagine.
  • St Francis is surely a patient and loving man, to let all the birds crap on him like that.
  • A rose, like a marriage, is a demanding thing to cultivate. The thorny part always grows great, but it takes a lot of effort to coax the bloom out. You must immediately cut the bloom and give it to your beloved, if you want another to grow.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

I'm Not Aesop, Lapsed Catholics Don't Know About Golems, So I'll Just Tell It

If a bee or wasp stings me, I'll die almost immediately. I don't care about that.

My neighbor, who likes cutting things down on a good day, counseled, unwonted, that I should razor all the shrubs down to the ground outside my door, so as not to attract such insects, just as he had done. They'll come right in the house when you open the door, he said.

I told him I was unaware that he was also allergic to the venom of stinging insects; it seems like such rarified air I breathe. He said he was not.

The flowers stayed.

Some fears are worse than the perils they stem from. I decided not to pay much attention to it, and get on with my life. I am not reckless about it; I no longer cut down trees until the frosts have come, and other gentle nods to reality. But it does not define me. That would be worse than death.

Many persons find it odd and disquieting to see me ambivalent about this danger. They spot any flying insect and want to evacuate me like some gradeschooler during the blitz. There is an odd possibility that I'm about as cautious about being stung as I was before it became a lethal happenstance. It still hurt back then, after all; I'm not impervious to the logic of avoiding pain.

Six Flags Over Marion, we call the jumble of plastic and wood and sand and accoutrement we've assembled in a corner of the yard for the tot to play in. He contents himself merrily on the little slide and the ladder, and buries his troubles and his army men in the sandbox it leads into. My wife can see him from the house there, and he can play there alone or with his big brother. But it is on the edge of the wood, and the woods are not an urban abstraction here. We see things come out of those woods from time to time, and some are not suitable for children to encounter. And so we do watch. Who does not watch over their children? I don't know them.

My wife was stung by a wasp or bee while sitting with the small child in the yard. She wept and was confused a bit; unsure where it came from. It left a formidable welt on her arm which is still clearly visible some two weeks later. I am an old hand at these sorts of things and put a paste of baking soda on the welt, and then some ice. We forgot all about it, except the itching.

A few days later, the small one was discomfited in some way. He seemed confused and hurt, though he did not cry. He is stoic that one, and rarely speaks anyway. We looked him all over and found a welt on his leg. We couldn't tell what it was. Horsefly? Bee? Hornet? He sat quietly while we applied a poultice and he seemed hurt in multiple ways. I think it was the first time that the yard had ever betrayed him. We forgot about it.

Should I have forgotten about it? Does inuring yourself to some little creeping dread to the point of ambivalence taint your judgement? Is it worse or better than you treat it? I don't know.

We were in the yard yesterday, and the little one came running and wailing from Six Flags Over Marion.

I've heard genius is a kind of intuition. Lots of people know lots of things, but they never assemble them into the whole required to see around the corner. It is said that people like Mozart look at a piano, and it makes perfect sense to them right away.

We all have moments of clarity I suppose, we regular people. You know many things, some barely impressions, and they coalesce occasionally into hard, fast, ideas. And I saw that child and saw what I should have seen before it happened this last time. There was a frame for the picture, and everything in it.

His little ear was the size of a saucer. Stoicism only gets you so far when you're barely three, and he wept the tears of the disappointed and hurt. And I tended to him as I had been taught, imperfectly, by my ancestors. Draw it out with baking soda and bleach, and then the ice. Sit still and be calm. He sat and watched Clifford with his mother.

And then I went outside and I tore that plaything apart and found those wretched things I knew were there and poisoned them and crushed them and crushed their lairs like an archangel and a devil combined, and afraid only that I would not get a chance to kill every one.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Saturday Melange

Here's a picture of the United First Parish Church of Quincy, the "Church of the Presidents," taken from the sidewalk in front of the Old Burial Ground. It doesn't have the delicacy of churches in Europe made from marble or sandstone. It looks like the granite it's made from.

In the comments, tjl mentions the long tradition of quarrying granite in Quincy. It's over now, the quarrying, but every once in a while my firefighter cousin has to fish dead swimmer's bodies or abandoned cars out of the defunct and flooded granite quarries.

There are other notable things about Quincy, too. One of the first, if not the first railway in the country was built to take Quincy granite to Boston. The first Dunkin' Donuts is there, too, which is much more essential to my worldview than any stone quarry. My father recalls that Dunkin' Donuts was a fellow with a canteen cart selling coffee to workers at the Quincy shipyard. He decided to make donuts and sell them too.

The shipyard is a parking lot now. Dunkin' Donuts is a multinational corporation. Such is life.

The statue of Abigail Adams is dappled by the big shade tree you see on the left in the picture. It a busy corner. If you look right instead, this is what you see:

Quincy has just the right amount of bustle for an urbanish place. The critical mass required to host ne'er do wells isn't there, and everyone looks like they have something legal to do and somewhere to go when they pass you by. I didn't lock the car when I got out to snap the pictures. Quincy was a Yankee place, and then a sort of Irish place, and now has a decided Southeast Asian vibe present as well. When you call the local hospital, you can press one for Mandarin Chinese, for instance. There are a fairly large population of Vietnamese here now. There's a substantial middle class African-American contingent here too.

In short, it's what everybody's always jawing about, and never quite getting around to trying: a safe, salubrious, interesting --but not too interesting-- place for the average person to live and work.

I bet Abigail would like that.

In the comments, where I find all sorts of unwarranted praise, I've discovered two other people talking about this topic. Here's Stubborn Facts riffing on our little corner of Quincy. All the words are spelled correctly, and they do not appear to be agitating for the repeal of universal suffrage, and I suspect they are kind to children and dogs and listen politely while their mothers speak to them, so why not give them a look? What could be the harm?

Also, commenter Jack seems to be enamored of this little corner of Quincy as much as I am. I clicked on his name and followed it back, and look: he's writing about it over here. Jack claims to be the same age as me in his bio, but I know it's not possible to get that smart that fast, so be on the lookout for any tall stories over there.

We wrote about the effects of anti-sprawl legislation, and the cognitive dissonance between trying to micromanage growth joined to the hip with a distaste for uniformity, and how it shakes out in those sprawly suburbs. Our friends over the formidable Ann Althouse's blog visited and opined in the comments here, and there. Well, we not only know everything, here at the Sippican Cottage, we predict it in advance.

Here's what Sippican said:

Because the thing they are trying to achieve isn't allowed, and you can't plan that which must arise spontaneously.My neighbor builds dock platforms in a barn and in his yard. I hear him banging away over there occasionally, or the sizzle of a welder. At night, I hear the coyotes ranging through the woods; but I also hear the pumps in the not-too-distant cranberry bogs. My neighbor grows herbs for sale to restaurants and a small local clientele. We're too spread out to comprise any sort of village, but the mixed use part is there, if imperfectly.Someday, somemone will complain about all that stuff, and zoning laws will be enforced, and the NIMBYs will triumph; and this place, where people say 24/7 they don't want sprawl, will have nothing but.Because they won't allow anything else to happen.

And here's the news story from today, from a few hours west of here in the Hartford Courant:

Town Gives Teen's Worm Business The Hook

It's useful when the world proves you right, in just the right measure, right away, so you can put down the burden of walking around with unrequited correctness and get on with your life immediately.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Across The Street and Three Centuries

If you cross the street from Abigail Adams, you can look back at the First Parish Church she adorns from the sylvan vantage point of the old burial ground. It has the calm of a spot of extreme age, well tended. There are no hard edges remaining, even on the hardest of original edges displayed there.

These were austere and uncompromising men and women that were buried here. Life was not a bowl of cherries for anybody three hundred years ago, as the mute evidence of the numerous tiny nameless markers at the foot of the parent's graves testify. No man should bury his children, it is said. I suspect it was said recently.

The various inscriptions about the denizens here are very chaste in their praise. It was enough, apparently, to commemorate their importance to the town and the country, to single them out for mention. There are two bronze plaques from the 1920s which list the names of the local inhabitants that participated in the Revolutionary War, flanked by another listing those first hardy souls that founded the city.

The founder's plaque has but a few names: Hancock, Adams, Quincy, Hoar. They are the ancestors of the men of those names we learn of in the history books. Hoar was a doctor, and the third president of Harvard University. The boneyard itself was set aside in 1640.

Henry Adams was born in 1583. It is useful to put that in perspective. William Shakespeare baptized his first daughter in 1583. Michelangelo was still painting the back wall of the Sistine Chapel just forty years before that. Andrea Palladio, that most influential of architects, whose Four Books Of Architecture that church was most surely based upon, was still alive in1580. When I first began working in the 1970s, I worked with people whose experience went back to before the Depression. Henry Adams and his neighbors rubbed elbows with the Middle Ages.

The inscription on the lovely gate leading into the burying ground reads: "The Mortal Shall Put On Immortality."

Certainly that. There's also a kind of fame, made indistinct by the passage of time, which fertilizes the grass here. We are watching the proceedings from the stands, mostly. These are the men and women who strode into the arena, and slew the beasts.

Whatever rest they've gotten, they earned.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Look Who I Bumped Into


I've only been to Europe once, but Europe is not obscure to me. In the same way that cultivated persons once used to learn French, and those of a scientific nature German, I was taught about European things while being educated. I knew how to find my way from Brunelleschi's dome to the foot of David without directions. And yes, I know that's a copy standing there now outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

Sometimes it seems like Europe has nothing but history. It occurs to me from time to time that most of Europe is just living in the wreckage of an earlier civilization's works, waiting...

Never mind. I'm an American. We're not waiting for anything. Now, it might appear to many persons in this big country of ours that nothing's very old here. There's no Collosseum in Quincy, where the picture is taken, after all. But just because you live in a suburb where the trees are still staked and no one's house has been repainted yet, doesn't mean the whole enchilada is like that. Sometimes the old sneaks up on you; you bump into it right on the street.

That's Abigail Adams right there. That's a monument to her outside the First Parish Church of Quincy, Massachusetts. She is that rarest of things -- both the wife and the mother of an American President. But America is old enough at least to have produced two such women. That church in the background was established in 1639. Quincy is not new.

It wasn't Quincy then, of course. It was part of Braintree, which is still right down the street if you're interested. The city of Quincy was named for Abigail Adams' grandfather Colonel John Quincy. And so the town is her family home, really, not those prickly men she cared for.

John Adams was not a lovable fellow, though Abigail surely loved him. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, who readers of this page know is my kind of guy, John Adams was: "Honest, intelligent, and sometimes out of his mind." His son John Quincy Adams was about as uncompromising and hard-nosed as his old man, and gathered a few detractors himself when his presidential campaign included saying unkind things about his opponent Andrew Jackson's wife.

Jackson's wife died right after the election, the slur still in her ear, and it hardened Andrew Jackson's heart; and he was already about as ornery a man as you could find in American history. I think this monument is really there to remind us how dour our lives would be without women in them, and to remind us how to behave towards each other.

They made a movie about John Quincy Adams succesfully arguing the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court. It was a worthwhile endeavor, but it would take Lincoln to free the slaves ultimately; perhaps John Quincy should be remembered for the two most earthshattering changes he brought to the presidency: he wore long pants, and went to the bathroom indoors.

I think it's great to happen upon Abigail right there in the street, when you're hurtling past on the way to some hurried quotidian appointment. She personifies the importance of being well regarded as well as being respected -- or feared -- plus the need to cultivate as well as harvest your notoriety. And old things encountered in a new and bustling setting are terrific for framing a perspective on the trajectory of things; birth, education, toil, joy, death, legacy.

John Hancock was born across the street, two blocks down. I didn't run into him.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A Midsummer's Day's Dream



What sort of a day is it out, Jeeves?

Extremely clement sir; with the promise of more fine weather to come.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Whither?


It's in the bones somewhere. I cannot picture my forbears in any but urban circumstances; still...

I can picture some greatgrandfather in Cork, hand hammered hobnails gently scraping the cobbles, reading the paper with a pot of tea on the table in front of him. I can dream up the vision of his continental counterpart, kid boots on the pietra dure underfoot, sipping espresso and packing his pipe. They are not farmers. They are not fishermen. But...

There are few of my relatives anywhere I can name that live anywhere flat and dry. The blue thing or the green thing is always at the end of the street. I don't know why, exactly.

I am not a born sailor. The ocean seems like a foe, more or less. It's full of things that wish to sting me or eat me or annoy me. I rarely swim in it. And yet...

I can't swim properly. I learned with all my compatriots, as a child, at the town pool. Old dour Mrs. Metcalf's booming voice still rings in my ears: "Roll over and KICK!" I learned like I learned differential equations. It was required. In some tight spot it might be useful. I couldn't picture the topic coming up all that much.

There is a restaurant across the street from the scene pictured above. It is very old, though it has changed hands many times in just the last fifteen years. They screened in the front porch, and you can idle an hour or two with a Black and Tan and a companion there. The crisp breeze off the afternoon water mixes with the variegated scents of the windowboxes and the benignant aromas of the kitchen roll forward to mix with them. The ocean only whispers at 150 yards.

If by some miracle you could bring my great great grandparents -- or their great grandparents --back from their blessed oblivion, and plunk them down within ten miles of the spot pictured above, and told them in their own foreign tongues that their descendant was around here somewhere, I guarantee you they would show up at that table and say:

I knew I'd find you here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

It's Like Bottling Water And Selling It!

We loves YouTube, if you hadn't figured it out yet. But we have a nagging suspicion that YouTube, and many of its brethren, are not going to look like they do for very long. Because YouTube is that rarest of commodities -- something that arose spontaneously while no one was paying attention much. Those people not not paying attention quash such innovations, if they can. Do you think the yeoman farmers and the landed gentry in England would have allowed the Industrial Revolution to happen if they'd have seen it coming? I imagine there were lots of suits at IBM chuckling over the dorky college dropout kid selling them software for their computers twenty five years ago.

Fame and fortune of the popular entertainment kind are exactly like a teeter-totter. There is a tipping point, and there really are only two sides of the fulcrum. On the low side, where all the wannabe and never-was and trying-desperately-to-get-back-in-the-limelight has-beens live, you try anything to attract attention to yourself. Anyone that pays attention to you is great. Set your hair on fire and and play the accordion and juggle and have cellphone camera sex and post it on every possible venue you can find.

A few make it to the high side of the teeter-totter, and oh how things change. The same person who would wax your car if you'd let them borrow your movie camera wants ten dollars for an autograph now. Copyrights magically appear important, and enforceable. Look at me! becomes: Look at my lawyer!

I can't imagine that the following mash-up of Beatles song, photoshoppped pictures, and animations is legal if anybody wishes to push the matter. The Beatles haven't said "look at me for free" for forty years now. But I can tell you, the following little images yoked to that delightful song has captivated my three year old for many a pleasant moment:

I Feel Fine.

Sooner or later, it's the artists that have to ask themselves: how much is enough? And would I have the nerve to try to pry a penny from a toddler's hand, if I was on the bottom of that see-saw?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Mennonite Dopers And Other Discontents


Be careful of the headline boys and girls.

That's always sound advice these days. I'm beginning to think the "news story" that follows the headline is a form of packing material --like the foam nuggets that spill out when you open your packages- only tangentially related the headline, if not reality itself.

Floyd Landis won the Tour de France. Or he didn't. Because he cheated. Or he didn't. Just like everybody else. Or no one. Or most. Or some. Or something.

It seems that the smoking gun in the evidence is that very elaborate parsing of Mr. Landis'... hmm; how do we put this genteelly? Um... output! shows that he is... excessively masculine. More male than an extra in Gladiator.

Me, I have no opinion. Floyd is sponsored in the event by The United States Postal Service, and I am simply gratified to learn that he didn't pull out a gat at the 20th mile marker and start greasing his competition. Although perhaps the tour could stand a bit of ...defense.

The headline is not interesting, or is the only thing interesting about the story -- you tell me. But it occurs to me that when Mennonite bike racers are accused of being dopers, it shows the world has changed in profound ways, very quickly, and we don't know how to deal with it just yet. Since the world in the past has not always been a tea party for four fifths of the population, I'm all right by the change part, generally. I usually just scan the newspapers for the folks that want to change things back, and then fashion dolls that look like them and grab the knitting needles.

The Tour de France is that most interesting of things: an up-to-date anachronism. Like wooden bats on a jumbotron, and eye black on a three hundred pound defensive lineman faster than your average sprinter, and soccer hooliganism coordinated by text messaging, it's a throwback and cutting edge at the same time. So's Landis, apparently.

Come to think of it, most of Europe is an up-to-date anachronism. Let's watch the Tour de France and listen to Kraftwerk, and watch the Mennonite American doper (do I have to put "alleged" in there, or can he get a Wiccan lawyer and sue me?)beat all the smelly european guys with the shaved legs and the chafed testicles.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

In The Garden



My wife pointed this out to me. It captured her imagination, apparently. It's on Benefit Street in Providence, like all the others from this week.

We garden poorly here at the Sippican Cottage. We have our successes of course; but they remind me of bad wine on the list in a good restaurant. They are familiar, so they get ordered more than the exotic.

We stick to the familiar here. Rhododendrons and azaleas, euonymous and pachysandra, geraniums and tall phlox; a rose or two. We arrange them inexpertly, and tend them intermittently, and mourn our losses as regularly as any undertaker.

Somehow, because we do not lift our sights up too high, and never strain too hard to put on a show, the yard creeps about into the aspect of a barely tended glade. That's when our inattention yields its dividends. Give people the sense that they are entering something, like this gate does, and then let all get out happen inside, a kind of controlled madness -- and you have done your job.

Our lawn needs mowing. It does not require paving.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Disciplined Abandon



I know you're not going to believe me, but this sort of thing used to come right out of the radio.

Not XM radio. Not subscriber radio. Regular radio. You could listen to harmless rock, and mindless bubblegum pop, and gossamer bouncy Motown and Atlantic soul, and crossover country, and Broadway numbers barely disguised, and innumerable big budget buskers; but I'm telling you -- Steely Dan used to come right out of the radio along with them.

The motorheads liked them because they rocked hard, or seemed to. Reelin' in the Years comes right after Born to be Wild and no-one noticed the difference between them was a chasm. The chicks like them because they thought Rikki Don't Lose That Number was about a future date and not a stoned Rick Derringer. If you were from the Rabelais/Baudelaire/Byron school of morose teenage angst, Steely Dan was just the ticket - like a vampire in the bloodbank. The Mahavishnu Orchestra types would make cassettes with the overtly jazzy stuff like Josie sandwiched between Wheels of Fire and a Sugarloaf cut. And if you were from New York or Jersey, well, faghettaboutit.

Funny that last bit. They always seemed L.A. to me. Cool dark studios in the valley and parties in the canyons at night. But they always gravitated back to New York, the only place big enough and strange enough to hold them. You listen to the words and wonder after each line: have those words ever been used in that order before?

It's funny to see Donald Fagen doing his Ray Charles meets Jerry Lewis act at the keyboard. I'm not sure it's an affectation. He might literally be trying to wrest the stuff out of his corpus, and it's stuck in there a bit. He is the finest of that common commodity these last twenty or thirty years; the songwriter that knows exactly how to sing but has no voice to speak of. He sings his own compositions because he thinks his understanding of their meaning and merits trumps any other's talent. Fifty years ago he'd be nothing but a name on the sheet music.

Walter Becker, the guitar player who looks like he left a soldering iron on a bench somewhere to come to the show, was always even more enigmatic to me. Fagen was the public face, more or less. But I watch Becker and wonder: will he ever run out of inventive things to play? Is there any permutation of notes he doesn't consider? Does he ever repeat himself? Has he ever been outdoors?

Steely Dan is that rarest of things -- stuff you liked thirty years ago that doesn't make you slightly sheepish to enjoy now.

It's sophisticated, I think. Like Jack The Ripper zonked on laudanum and champagne sitting at a table with Toulouse Lautrec at the Folies Bergere, waiting for the girls to get off work.

Scary sophisticated.