Wednesday, January 31, 2007

No, No FiOS. Not Yours.


No, there wouldn't be any high-speed fiber-optic communications today. Why would I think that?

Look, there's not going to be any whining here. Verizon was very organized and efficient, in a very organized and inefficient way, and the fiber optic installer tried mightily to get the thing done. It was not practical, so he folded his tent and went into the... afternoon. He'll be back eventually, and I will get what I desire. But his efforts in vain were instructive nonetheless. I gleaned information about the zeitgeist for people in a manual/technical trade.

I used to manage rather a lot of them, but I'm out of the loop. Half a decade is a long time in that sort of field. The 'tude of your average worker bobs like a cork on the wave of what's possible and what's required. You can gauge the current by watching them.

He was on time. He was polite and deferential, but very interested in stopping talking to the customer as soon as possible, and working on the installation. All customers are obstacles to work. It was ever thus.

He knew what he was doing. He answered my technical questions without hesitation. He only faltered when he was asked about procedural difficulties with the home office. There was a deficiency on the paperwork he was clutching. It was at odds with what I desired. This was a real problem.

Nothing else was a problem for him. He was equipped properly by the same persons who stymied him with protocol when there was a deviation from the norm. He knew what to do. He even knew what had to happen for my little problem to go away. But he stood in the cold for over a half an hour by the clock, waiting on hold while a faraway clerk tried to find a keystroke somewhere to bless the whole procedure. And I realized that the little problem had intruded onto the part of the relationship between the customer and the company that involved being a government regulated utility. There were a lot of rules, most obscure to him, that added up to: Stop. Ask for permission, big time. He bore this with with equanimity, and a kind of fatalism I've seen often before.

There is a scale of alacrity, generally. From go-getter to stasis, this is how it goes:

Individuals
Small businesses
Big businesses
Unionized businesses
Government regulated businesses
The government

Nothing much, or conversely, all sorts of things but nothing that makes sense, happens at the end of that scale. I'm referring to the cold, dead hand of the frameworks involved. Individuals labor to make the best of all situations, but we are all susceptible to the manifold signals we get from our surroundings, and we act accordingly eventually. We can only swim upstream for so long; we all inevitably decide to drift with the current. Or find another ocean to swim in.

In my former life, I'd ask people for herculean efforts, and they'd deliver nine times out of ten. They'd overcome all sorts of problems in the field where is was often difficult and tiring, and sometimes dangerous. But there was one way to make everything stop. The government. Any government functionary, low to high, could make you stop everything and stand around while they figured out if they wanted to let you do something, and especially while they figured out if they felt like figuring anything out for a good long time.

In this passion play, the scrap of paper he clutched was his government. He knew what to do. He knew how to do it. He had the resources and the time to accomplish what he wanted to do. But he didn't know if he was allowed to do it. He knew it was a formality, a little error somewhere, easily rectified. But he would not, dared not proceed until he was assured it was OK down to the last jot and tittle.

I've seen people do foolish and destructive things when left to their own devices. But it's rarer than you might think. Productive people are generally very smart about their own affairs.

I study people that do things, that make the world go around, very carefully. It is interesting always to see exactly how much of their mental and physical energy goes towards figuring out what's allowed, and how much towards what's possible.

It's about fifty-fifty. Your move.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Be Vewwy, Vewwy Qwiet... I'm Hunting FiOS


I've always used the most mundane and utilitarian version of just about everything. "Eschew surplusage," says the guy that should eschew using the words "eschew" and "surplusage," and just tell you to stop flapping your gums. It's good advice for anyone.

Well, it's the surplusage of god**** !@#$%&ing bleeping @#!$!% goldurned $%#&&$ time I'm forced to spend staring at a frozen screen that I'm interested in eschewing. And I can eschew muttering to myself for a good long while, before exploding in a rage and throwing the mouse at the wall, too, when all I'm trying to do is look at a two minute low resolution video clip but my intertubes are all clogged up with interwebbage already. Why? Because they're made of copper they can't even be bothered to put in a penny anymore.

If it doesn't work, and all that fiber-optic goodness they're supposedly bringing me today doesn't get me off the low-grade DSL schneid I'm trapped in, you're going to hear me --old school analog screaming style-- from your house, even if your windows are closed.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Butter And Egg Man


Pa was dead, that much was for sure.

Pa was a grand man. When I was small fry, I'd poke my finger in the ratty holes of his tweed coat.

"I'm always watchin' over you, buddy. Even my elbow is looking at you. Never forget that."

Pa was going to be a big butter and egg man, he always told us. "We've nothing but the meat from the shin of a sparrow today, but tomorrow, we'll have the cream."

Beltaine didn't come early enough for pa. He was buried in his coat; no flowers. Ma said he had the dark eye, that's why she cared for him. Now his eye was closed, as the box would be. His elbow was still looking at me.

Ma got hard. There were a lot of us. She was like granite after that. She'd never sing the songs any more. No, that's not right. I'd hear her clatter in the sink when she thought we were asleep, and murmur while the cold tap ran over the plates:

I want my butter and egg man
From way out in the west
'cause I'm getting tired of working all day
I want someone that wants me to play
Pretty clothes have never been mine
But if my dream comes true
The sun is going to shine
When I find my butter and egg man


I sold the papers in the traffic. A man, with a real topper, pressed the coin in my hand. "Give me The Globe, you little arab."

My face was red with the warp spasm. I gave him the paper. His companion, with a topper too, gave me the bun he was eating. "You need this more than I do, I expect." They laughed together and drifted off the curb into the street.

I threw it at them.

I'm a butter and egg man now.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Noticing Things


The wee one.

He's still three. I see him all the time of course, and so it takes a moment of detachment to notice a change in him. This picture is -- was -- such a moment.

His brother was playing the trombone in the auditorium. There was a lot of dead time while various permutations of performers set up, so the little guy roamed. And when he hit the gym -- look out.

There was a giggle, and a moment of decision, and then he lit out across the floor like a rocket.

The floor is that all purpose, vaguely rubbery skin that makes for excellent footing. And to a little dynamo, months into weather enforced interior seclusion, the prospect of wide open spaces in which to run was irresistible.

I laughed and chased him a bit, and we had a grand time. I didn't notice it until I looked at the pictures, though.

Look at the picture. Look at his foot. Look at the angle of his ankle. Look at the lean of his body as he runs around the corner. Look at the swinging of his arms, caught in digital amber. He's really running.

He's not bouncing like a homeless jack-in-the-box, his arms flailing around him like a chimpanzee trying to keep his balance. His feet aren't landing flat. He's not running in straight wandering line. He's running like a sophisticated coordinated human being.

And what that means, to his old man, is that part of his life is dead and buried, never to be seen again.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The World's Greatest Plumber

My oldest boy plays the trombone. Just like his old man did. I abandoned it for electrified instruments a long time ago, but kept the nasty brass pipe in my attic. My son found it a few years ago, and was transported with the idea of it. We were pleasantly surprised that the elementary school in our town had a very good music instruction program, and sure enough, the boy brought home the news: "I'm going to play the trombone."

He's pretty good, too. It helps that the woman who runs the program, Hannah Moore, is a trombone player herself, and my boy's lessons are informed by the particular knowledge of the instrument she wields. We went to see the sixth graders play the other night, and my boy walked to the front of the stage, and played a little solo in the middle of "Night Train.' Of course the batteries in my camera had died 5 seconds before that. Oh well. The ephemeral is still important.

I wanted to show my boy someone playing the instrument in an engaging way, so he could see that it's not a dead end if he doesn't want it to be. I was once asked to play in the Westboro Symphony Orchestra, back when I still played. I sat down next to the other trombone dude. I opened the music. It had a big black bar atop the page, with a "134" atop it. It meant I was supposed to count 134 measures rest before playing. Then there was about twenty five notes. Then there was another big black bar. Classical music doesn't have much use for the trombone in general. The other trombonist said: "Do you mind counting the measures? I'm going to read." He had brought "War and Peace" to the rehearsal. I bought an electric guitar the next day.

So I scoured YouTube, trying to find something as cool as the four Scottish women playing The Stars And Stripes Forever, so my boy would know that there's a place in the world for anybody that masters his instrument. I wasn't disappointed. I found the greatest plumber on YouTube -- Nils Landgren:

Friday, January 26, 2007

Big Chill


It's insanely cold outside the window today.

The rhododendrons tell you all you need to know, there's no need for a thermometer. The elegant, bronzy leaves of the miniature variety of rhody that peeks endlessly into our living room windows have winced into tight little curls until they look like pine needles. It's winter, baby.

Winter is always late coming along the coast here in Massachusetts. The ocean water stays warm for a good long time. I've gone sailing in December in Sippican Harbor, and since the air and water temp were close together, there was nothing of a test of hardihood about it. Just a pleasant, windless sail.

The ocean ain't warm anymore, and the weather we're getting now wouldn't care if it was lava. The earth turns and cools, and the polar weather comes down like an invasion; it pushes any last vestige of mildness in front of it like a plow, and shoves it to Portugal, for all I know -- I know it ain't here. I tried opening the door that faces northwest today to let the shivering cat in, and I had to push hard against the air to let it in. It wasn't wind, it was pressure, pure and simple. An invisible glacier, moving implacably.

The interior delights trump all now. A fire in the evening. A pool of light under the swing arm lamp. A club chair and a little table, warm with the glow of the woodgrain itself, the sunlight of the tree's life captured and held in its medullary rays. A hot cup of something on a little missal of a book. The tick of the baseboard heat.

Late at night, if you awaken, you can hear the not-too-distant bog groan as it tries to shoulder the load of ice it's inherited. The moonbeams come in the window, and you can feel the cold of outer space on them. They illuminate, but do not warm, like a candle in a crypt. Then there is the faint sigh of the one you're devoted to; or the indistinct rustle of the hot little heads that dream down the hall, as they shift in their nests of blankets, snug amongst their stuffed talismans of childhood.

It's delightful to be warm in a cold world

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Gypsy Davey

"The sun's gonna pass the light at the point, and it's still hot as August. Let's have another song to chase the afternoon away, Davey."

"I don't know all those songs, the ones you want. I got one's too long, but I'll run at it.

Come all ye young sailormen listen to me, I'll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we're bound to the southward, so steady she goes.
Oh, first came the whale, he's the biggest of all, he clumb up aloft, and let every sail fall.
Next came the mackerel with his striped back, he hauled aft the sheets and boarded each tack.
The porpoise came next with his little snout, he grabbed the wheel, calling "Ready? About!".
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we're bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

" Oh, that's grand, Davey, keep on in."

Then came the smelt, the smallest of all, he jumped to the poop and sung out, "Topsail, haul!".
The herring came saying, I’m king of the seas! If you want any wind, I’ll blow you a breeze.”
Up jumped the tuna saying, "No, I am the king! Just pull on the line, and let the bell ring."
Next came the cod with his chucklehead, he went to the main-chains to heave to the lead.
Last come the flounder as flat as the ground, saying, “Damn your eyes, chucklehead, mind how you sound!”
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we're bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

"Oh, there's a clincher comin', I can feel it."

Then, up jumps the fisherman with a big grin, and with his big net he scooped them all in.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we're bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

"Oh Davey, that is grand. Sing one for the girl. She's got the moon and stars in her eyes, and you in her hair. Her father's off the banks, and won't be home for days. Give her one to keep her here or it's all buoys and no gulls. "

"É bonita, para certo. Mas um pai pode ver sobre um oceano."

"Sing it, we'll watch for the sails. If he's riding low, he'll have fish, and then money; and he'll buy us all a round. If he's riding high at the gunnels, it won't matter if you're friend or foe. He'll have the olho evil. Sing it."

It was late last night when the boss came home
askin' for his lady
The only answer that he got:
She's gone with the Gypsy Davey
She's gone with the Gypsy Dave

Well I had not rode to the midnight moon
When I saw the campfire gleaming
I head the notes on the big guitar
And the voice of gypsies singing
That song of Gypsy Dave.

There in the light of the camping fire,
I saw her fair face beaming
Her heart in tune with the big guitar
And the voice of the gypsy singing
That song of Gypsy Dave.


Have you forsaken your house and home?
Forsaken you your baby?
Have you forsaken your husband dear
To go with Gypsy Davey?
For the song of Gypsy Davey?


Yes, I've forsaken my husband dear
To go with Gypsy Davey
And I've forsaken my mansion high
But not my blue-eyed baby.


She smiled to leave her husband dear
And go with Gypsy Davey;
But the tears come trickling down her cheek
To think of the blue-eyed baby-
The pretty blue-eyed baby.

Take off, and leave your buckskin gloves
Made of Spanish leather
Give to me your blonden hair
And we'll ride home together
We'll ride home again.

No I won't take off the buckskin gloves,
Made of Spanish leather
I'll go my way from day to day,
And sing with Gypsy Davey

"I've noticed Davey, that the girl never ditches a gypsy and runs off with any bankers in your songs. "

"Someday maybe I'll buy a pencil, or get some money, and it'll all be different."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I Looked Down, And There It Was

It's a hoary old joke my friend tells. The man of few words, in a restaurant slightly more elegant than he's used to. The waiter asks: "How did you find your meal?" He answers: "I looked down, and there it was."

Everything appears now, through a process so complex that no one can fully understand even a small portion of it. Persons that say they understand the machinations necessary to place the most mundane thing in front of a great many people well enough to regulate the whole affair, with an eye towards improving everything, are spouting nonsense. If a man walked up to you and confessed he didn't know your name, but claimed he could list all the atoms in your body, would you hand him your wallet? How about your skin? All day long, I hear the groundskeepers telling me they should be the quarterback. And I can't help noticing the grass has gone to seed, and the hash marks are crooked.

You look down, and there it is, all day long. There is a large chance that if you're reading this, you have never participated in the actual making of anything in any meaningful way. And as the world gets more complex, we all get further and further removed from the ultimate source of all of our prosperity. How far removed? To the point where it gets obscure enough that it can be blithely strangled in its crib, on the supposition that it can be improved by infantile wishing, followed by fiat.

See the man on the sleigh, bringing the sap back to the shed to boil? He knows the tree like a brother. He knows the woods like a mother. He knows fire like a caveman. He knows commerce like a loanshark. He knows cold like a gravedigger. He knows sap like you know the alphabet. And he doesn't have the slightest idea what you're about, because you labor in a vineyard far removed from his -- where the meaning of your efforts is likely always obscure, as all intellectual pursuits must be.

Remember always what you don't know about him, lest one day, you look down, and there it ain't.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Read Here


Can you tell me the way to Hope Street?

They tell me the road to hope is long, and fraught with peril, sir.

(Stunned silence. A moment of recognition. Wry smile.)

Yes, but at least it's paved now.

The cobbles are made from the hearts of policemen, sir. They are only mortared loosely with good intentions.

You have the gun, so I defer to your judgement. The way?

Go back up the hill and turn right, if you want to find Hope. Abandon hope, all ye who stand here in the middle of the street with a policeman in the sleet.

Would you like a cup of coffee, officer?

I'd like a gold-plated Republican job and a roast turkey with a side order of another roast turkey, and a whiskey and an upholstered woman with a fireplace and access to more whiskey, thank you. But I'll settle for a cup of coffee, if that's what you meant.

I'll need to cross the street to get it. Will you stop the traffic?

Sir, I'll hold them here until the ammo runs out, then go hand to hand with the stragglers, if you'll bring a sinker with the joe.

Done, and done.

Are those your lawyers, sir?

Spring is coming, officer, if we keep this up.

Go. I'll cover you.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Robert Gordon Orr Oh Yeah

Football's on today. I like football. I used to like hockey.

Sports are gladiatorial and gentlemanly at the same time. At least they're supposed to be. The professionalisation of all manner of athletic endeavor has corroded the meaning of them in large measure. You can get rich riding a bike now. Skiers in "amateur" athletics have to pee in a cup, because the pile of money they can grab for simply wearing a patch on their clothing makes even a mundane competition worth cheating at to win. All children's leagues are de facto minor leagues for paying athletic gigs at this point.

The idea that a few extraordinary talents might scratch out a living at doing what they did anyway for the love of sport and competition is in the rear view mirror, and back over the horizon. If you want to find inspiration, and perhaps discern the framework of a worthwhile worldview in sports now, you're going to have to fashion it yourself out of the few scraps of decency and effort you might be able to glean from any particular tilt. It was not always so.

All things have a trajectory. They develop, then fade away, or perhaps ebb and flow over and over. But sometimes there is an apogee, and you can see it right away -- this is it, it's all downhill from here-- and you know you're looking at the pinnacle of the thing.

We need something Scandinavian for this guy, when he goes. Some sort of pyre, made from the remnants of the sport he was unarguably the best at ever. They really should have just given up trying after he retired, because we will never see his like again. And he's as pleasant a person as any walk of life has ever produced.

Despite the choice of music, the fellow that made this mashup did a great job, and we need to forgive him for the Carly Simon - he's trying to make a point here.

I saw Bobby Orr play dozens of times live, and hundreds of times on a dreadful black and white television the size of a porthole. I felt like a Free French fighter listening to Churchill on the wireless. Orr will save us.

People still try to tell me from time to time, that _________ was a better hockey player than Bobby Orr. I try to explain to them, that Bobby Orr isn't the greatest hockey player that ever lived. He is the greatest athlete to ever participate in any organized competition. It's kinda pointless to tell me about another hockey player. Orr is playing in a Pantheon league, and winning in it. His competition is Thorpe, and Brown, and Ruth, and Robinson, and a few others who aren't just great; they define whole swathes of the landscape in and out of their sports. He's like walking into a pawn shop and seeing the Statue of Liberty in there.

He was better than everybody else at everything. Look at the picture at the top. The series was a rout -- four straight against the Saint Louis Blues. It was a foregone conclusion with him on the ice. Bobby Orr scored the goal, and the defenseman seen behind him sent him flying through the air, Orr's face aglow with the instant recognition of the top of the mountain.

There was nothing left to do, for all the rest, but to try to trip him. He's never faltered, though.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

I Singe The Body Electric

The local utility company -- who shall remain nameless, lest by calling out their name I remove some portion of the hex/evil eye/blackcatbone/curse I've called down on their heads -- has seen fit to disconnect me from the world of electrons for a portion of the day. This missive might disappear without notice when halfway complete; if you're not reading this, now you know why.

I went out into the street, and followed the trail of folderol to the fellow on the pole, who I discovered somewhat less ebullient than the fellow in the picture. He grunted about the dark and bloody secrets of unannounced transformer replacement scheduling. In my mind's eye, he was involved in terrible sort of PCB basting mishap; but of course he's just doin' his job. It's me that's not doing mine. I'm surprised he didn't scold me for being idle, while he was laboring so steadily, and on a Saturday, yet. Something in my expression counseled the wisdom of taciturnity to him, and the efficacy of remaining in a bucket well overhead, perhaps.

You-- you got what I need. In the name of all that's right and holy, turn it back...

Ah there it is. Everything's beeping now. Me too.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Warm Love Friday


Hey everybody. It's raining, and thinking about snowing, here in Southcoast Massachusetts.

I saw one of my neighbors, a carpenter, working outside yesterday. He's tougher'n me. Buildng construction, which is my background, used to have a more seasonal framework to it. Tools, equipment, transportation and communication have improved, and guys just blaze away all year round at almost everything now. I'm glad to be in out of the weather now, the silky baulks of Tiger Maple gliding through my fingers across the blades, my feet warm and dry.

Winter used to have a more interior feel to it. The roads weren't as safe after a snow or rain, more places were closed due to inclement weather, more people shut themselves in for months to wait for the first crocus to pop out of the receding snow. Now we all go everywhere and do everything all the time.

You used to be able to visit the local pub, the glass sweating with shared respiration, laughter and conversation banging like a tropical cyclone against the rimed windowpanes, the trusty barkeep genially pulling the tap over the fabulous golden or brown pints like a priest over a host, coats strewn on every surface, and spilled beer whipped to a foam on the grimy hardwood floor by the dancers. Sunday is for church. Saturday is for chores. Friday night is for fun.

Get your pubstyle Irish R and B frenzy here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Not Lonely. Alone.


I delivered some millwork I fabricated to a nearby jobsite. It's a marvelous shingle style rehab of an older house in the town I live in. A friend of mine owns it, and is his own architect. Another of my dearest friends is the general contractor. I dropped off the final piece of a railing I'd made, and the only person at the job was the general contractor's brother, a finish carpenter. And he shouldn't be alone.

Not because he doesn't work when he's alone. Not because he needs help, either. He's managing fine. He shouldn't be alone because it doesn't suit him.

He's the gregarious sort. He's got a sunny, chatty disposition. And he's rattling around in there by himself.

I don't know what happened to laconism. It used to be very common in the building trades. I met dozens of men who communicated, as Calvin Coolidge's biographer once described the president's conversational ability, by the "ugh ugh of the Indian." Real quiet like would be the Okie version of that. Anyway, they were not prone to running their mouths. I think they're all dead now. I bet the undertaker pinched them all before screwing the lids down, too, just to make sure they weren't just being real quiet like.

Most contractors used to be Henry Fonda. Now they're all Eldon the Painter. I'm not sure what happened.

I work alone most of the time. I am, as they say, a yammering Mick. And being half Sicilian in the bargain, I'm a yammering Mick that talks with his hands. Terrifying to behold.

Anyway, as I said, I work alone a lot, and it suits me somehow. I think it has to do with the nature of your employment.

The clock and the calendar hang on the wall, glaring at me the whole time. Every day is too short, and every week is shorted a few days. There literally never be enough time for me to accomplish what I'm trying to do. I can never make a to-do list that makes any sense; each tick mark suggests ten others.

When you work for wages, your attitude changes. You have surrendered a sort of autonomy, and gained another kind. The clock and the calendar are Newtonian, not Quantum based measurements of time. And so the day is never too short, no matter how fine an employee you make. When it's over, it's over. The boss signed up to worry at 2 am on Sunday. You didn't. You just worry every once in a while if you picked the right boss.

My friend, the lonely carpenter, picked the right boss. His brother is a hardworking and determined fellow, and worries a great deal so his brother does not have to. But he's overlooked one aspect of the equation. Loneliness.

I'm not lonely, when I'm alone. The frantic never are.

Monday, January 15, 2007

It's Not Easy Being____________

I'm too old for Sesame Street. I was eleven before it showed up. To be eleven is to be at the end of your childhood. I didn't need the letters to get up and dance any more.

But who's too old for that?

Joe Raposo is the fellow who wrote it. He was born right down the street from here, in Fall River, Massachusetts. He's been dead a while now.

He was part of a little clique while he attended Harvard, and fell into music work, if not notoriety, exactly. He was never as snide as his friend, Tom Lehrer, but in his way, he was more sophisticated.

I've seen all sorts of people that performed music on Sesame Street, much of it delightful. Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Herbie Hancock, well... you probably know the list better than I. It's a captivating scene to make, and everybody wants to make it. It is a testament to its original kind intent.

Joe Raposo and Dr Suess. I conflate them in my mind, but I don't know that they ever had anything to do with one another. When I read my little son the thrilling, trilling words of Theodore Geisel, I'm never bored. Those men understood children, which means they understood people. A children's book has devolved over time to mean: I can't write properly -- I'll write a children's book. It was not always the way. It's much harder to write a child's story, I think. Properly, anyway. Doubly hard to set it to music. Suess kept up by drawing.

My son sat in my lap in rapt attention as the little frog --fwog-- ruminated wistfully on the nature of being mundane and wonderful. Joe Raposo could sing to a little one and his father at the same time, and lose neither of our interest.

I used to sing and play the guitar for my boys when I put them to bed. It was peaceful, and there was a poignant moment when the gentle sigh of the sleeping boy would overtake the gut string sound. The big one don't want it any more. All I've got is the toddler now.

GarGar sails on the deep blue sea
GarGar sails with Miles and me
Sky of blue sea of green
Bluest sky he's ever seen

GarGar swims in the deep blue sea
GarGar swims with Mom and me.
Scares away the sharks and such
They don't nibble GarGar much.

Puts a worm upon his hook
Five minutes flat that's all it took
Fry that fish in the big black pan
GarGar you're a fisherman

When the fish refuse to bite
Paddles home in the pale moonlight.
To dream about ocean blue
GarGar daddy sure loves you

I can't watch the football game with my eleven year old. Every time the action stops, there is a commercial that shows one eviscerated corpse after another; one abducted child after another. They're displayed as a fun sort of puzzle for the entertainment of people inured to what's tantamount to the lionization of monsters. No one is green on television anymore--easy or no-- only harvested or picked over to taste.

But I can watch Kermit sing Joe Raposo's little tin pan triumph with my three year old. I want for him to know the same things I'd like to know. We search for them together.

Happy MLK Monday


I was very small, but I remember the man fairly clearly. I recall that his message seemed universal. Many try to claim his legacy to beat their foes over the head with it. I'm not interested.

It is useful to reflect where that man came from, and what was the driving force that informed his crusade. And while he succumbed to the temptations that notoriety brings, such things are extraneous details. He was just a man, after all. It was his message that was divine.



Don't bother yourselves with those who try to pull such a man like taffy, trying to fashion a coat of his skin to hide their predations. Listen to the man. I did, and was convinced.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

I Want You To Be Happy

I want you to be happy. Al Green wants you to be happy. YouTube wants you to be happy. Reverend Al Green's God wants you to be happy.

Press the button. Be happy.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

No Joke

I doubt this clip is all that obscure. The statistics for it says it's been viewed a quarter of a million times. That's a lot for YouTube. It was one of those things that appeared when I was looking for something else. It's funny. But it's also instructive.

The reason it's funny is not simple. The reason it's funny is because it's not a joke.

Jokes are not really funny. Jokes are a sort of catalog of shared foolishness. They're a kind of checklist. The laughter at the end is either perfunctory, a roar of a mob with a shared worldview that generally approaches received-knowledge-psychosis, or a nervous reaction to the mildly disconcerting.

Perhaps I shouldn't be using the word "funny" anyway. It's "humor" we're after, and that video has it. Why? Because it's a story told in a humorous way, not a joke.

It's much harder to tell a story in a humorous way than to tell a joke. Look at a young Kevin Spacey do two dead-on imitations in that thing, and the other fellow doing Richard Dreyfuss, and picture the amount of time spent watching the subject of the mimicry and then standing in front of the mirror to get it right. It would have been a lot easier to write a sentence or two that relied on R2D2's height in relation to C3PO's crotch and be done with it. But you'd just hear that once, titter a little --maybe-- and then the thing is dead for long enough to forget the punch line.

There's a kind of wonder you get from watching the distillation of a handful of absurdities into a little shot of humor, that gives the finished product a kind of half-life a joke never has. Until the people and the subject matter become obscure, you could watch that over and over.

Tell a story in a humorous way. Skip the joke.

(Update: The always culturally astute commenter Ruth Anne has pointed out the "other fellow" is Darrell Hammond.)

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Cobbler's Children. Er....Wife


I gave my wife a piece of furniture for Christmas. Am I a great guy, or a jerk?

People often remark to my wife that our home must be swimming in fine furniture, since I have a furniture business. A look comes over her face that's somewhere between bemused, and Where are the big knives?

You see, when you're running a business, especially one involved in making things, you are not your customers. Your customers generally have more money than you. If you make the mistake, as many contractors do, that the things you see in the houses you build are appropriate for your own life, you can get in a lot of trouble. I've seen many such cases.

If I make a piece of furniture and sell it (I do) I get money to buy things. One of those things might be furniture, it's true. But I'd like for us to be eating twice daily, four and a half days a week before I go splurging on the meubles. I'll leave it to you to determine why one of the other definitions of meuble is "unstable," and what that says about me.

Anyhow, when I'm makin' that copie de meuble ancien, I have to sell it to make the argent. And so my wife does get furniture -- rather a lot of it-- but there's a problem.

She gets the whoopsies. She get the prototypes that were a little too proto. She gets the one that I made while the Patriots were on the radio, beating the Steelers in the playoffs --off-tackle at the forty...the forty five... fifty... forty five... one man to beat...
Whoah... the sander!

She never complains much, my wife. I have to figure it out on my own. And so before Christmas, I rationed out a little time from the meager supply left after being the president and the janitor of Sippican Cottage Furniture, and Ernest "Goes To Camp" Hemingway, and somebody's father, and made her something that isn't made out of packing crate lumber, or has an odd number of legs, or any other thing that would make it hers normally.

I think she likes it.

I think she likes me.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Not Fat Elvis


You see them at every Tennessee Titans game. Every Vegas shindig. Every Halloween and costume Karaoke. Fat Elvis.

He's iconic in that iteration. You could draw it from memory unless you've been under a rock for thirty years; the white spangled jumpsuit, the prop guitar, the greasy piled up pompadour and the sideburns. Glasses that could stop gamma rays with frames that could stop a sequin bullet--and have. It's been odd to see that version of Elvis become the default, because I was alive then, watching him on TV in the late sixties and early seventies, sweating gravy and mumbling a handful of lounge numbers while doughy matrons with bad teeth and beehive hairdos in some Vegas audience threw their granny panties at him. He was a joke. A bad joke. And when he finally died, his heart hopping out of his chest after only forty two years, bloated and drugged in his bathroom, I figured he'd go away and stay there. Wrong.

The Fat Elvis costume has become as recognizable as Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. Hell, Uncle Sam. It screams: AMERICA. And not fussy America, or political America, or The New York Times Book Review America, either. He's strip mall/chrome fin/corn dog/hayseed/ghetto blaster/swimming hole/fried chicken/AM radio/concrete block church/Vegas whore America. He's the whole damn thing in Jesusland.

But I knew Elvis because I knew rockabilly. And Elvis Presley invented that. He personified that. He was the sun around which Sun records revolved in the fifties. Long before Elvis become the guy that showed up and was Elvis, he was great. Not just great. Important.

I knew those records, right from "That's All Right." Scotty Moore's clean and nimble guitar, Bill Black's percussive upright bass -- it was the most insistent thing I ever heard. Elvis was great, and a good singer, and an important synthesizer of styles. But he was much more than that, long before he became a caricature of himself. He was not a caricature, but a comic book super hero, simultaneously absurd and wonderful. He was vital.

I got Image/SOFA Entertainment's 3 DVD set of Elvis' appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it's wonderful. I began watching it thinking it would be a kind of dumb fun -- the best kind-- but I realized I was watching something else too; something that I never would have seen because I wasn't alive yet. I saw America and the world's odometer turn over.

The DVDs are the whole shows. Three of them, from late 1956 into 1957. And it's fascinating stuff, even the dreck, because it's the context. It's the whole America-centered world as it sat-- confident, salubrious, muscular, on the go, the engine of the world with the Marshall Plan and Soviet containment carried lightly on its back. First Ed Sullivan assembles it willy-nilly and points a camera at it. Then Ed rolls a grenade in the middle of it.

There's a long succession of artists and performers you can point to that encapsulate the zeitgeist of their times. Their replacements show up long before they're ready to leave the spotlight, generally, and they hang around long after they're hip. They become... well, Fat Elvis. I remember disinctly watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan when I was a child, and I imagine Elvis knew that he was good for broads and booze and pills and Vegas shows and B movies until the day he died, but he wasn't the lead dog anymore. He knew it because he had done it to others himself.

You watch the luminous black and white TV dubs of the shows, and you're struck by the encyclopedic nature of the proffered fare. Ed is a newspaperman still, jarring in itself -- TV is second fiddle! -- and like some bizarre librarian in the school of uncool. He's the Noah of TV, rounding up a couple of everything, and floating it on the public.

It's all there, all the things that faced Elvis like a wall to get over: vaudeville acts, European music hall ginks, Broadway singers and ballet dancers, dogs and ponies, lounge singers and clowns, eccentric actors, semi-exotic performers from anyplace that didn't have the big red boot on their face. If it wasn't hackneyed enough, there was half a dozen assorted acts straight from the circus; and the circus is entertainment straight from the middle ages.

The artist of the age that superseded the middle ages carved his David, to tell the Doges the world belonged to man. In 1956, our own hillbilly David climbed down off that pedestal and sent his ration of squares to oblivion. You've heard so much about Elvis and the frenzy he engendered, but when you see him there, in front of a phalanx of Jordanaires in checked coats, Elvis seems like everything and nothing. You can't tell if he's so self assured he's bulletproof, or so self-conscious he can't get through the song without laughing at himself. He tosses that impossible shock of a shock of hair, the girls scream, and he laughs -- at himself, at them, at the whole damn thing -- but he's as serious as a heart attack about the thing too. He seems to be all glass, like a windowpane, but he's a deep pool somehow, instead. You don't know why he's all that. You wonder if he does.

I pictured the Conn and Mack tap-dancing duo watching Elvis from the wings for a while, and then going out in the alley to find a pay phone and see if their brother-in-law still had a job opening or two at his dry cleaning store.

Get Elvis - The Ed Sullivan Shows, and watch empires crumble into the sea when Elvis twitches.

The Woodpile At Night

You're out there on the edge of it, you know.

You can smell it of course. The winter's just a hand on the shoulder, not a fist in the face, and the dull swampy flavor of the place washes over you when the wind shifts. Rotten and fecund. When it freezes over, the wind tastes like metal, or an ice cube that's been in the freezer too long.

It rustles from time to time. A bird in a branch. A squirrel in the leaves. A possum or a raccoon or a bear or a griffon or a tyrannosaur, for all you know. They never announce themselves.

The good wood clanks when you drop it on the splitting stump. It sounds ceramic. You know it'll split along the medullary rays in one quick stroke, a few stringy tendrils left to cleave the splits together until they tumble to the hard packed dirt and wait for the stack, the gentle arc of the bark side always up to shed the water that sneaks under the pile cover.

The raptor goes overhead. In the winter the sun is too low in the southern sky to put you noticeably in their shadow. The first you know of them is the shriek they emit, cruising way over the tall pines. No fish today. Something soft and furry that the cat missed.

Come out here at night, with the chilly stars pricked in the slate firmament, the wind abated. Come out to the edge of the forest and fen to the woodpile. That edge has moved with the sunset, and you realize the new edge of the wild was the doorknob. You're in it now, not at the margin of it.

You can stand there a quiet minute, and all the sound is gone but the blood in your veins. The air is redolent of woodsmoke already, but something else, too. You're just another beast, without claw or tooth to speak of, and you're among them. You're not afraid; you're attuned to the place your kind once kept in the order of things. You turn back to the path you crushed in the frosted dormant turf, and know the stuff of the cave.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin'

I have to drive today. I hate that.

I used to drive a lot, every day. A one hour/one way commute has been about minimum for me since Carter was president. Sometimes, it's been much longer. I grew to hate it. I hate toll booths and gas stations and signs at night and corrugated pavement. I hate being away from home, ever.

For a while, I had to fly fairly often, too. I'd take those nerve-wracking short flights where the runway seemed only ten feet longer than the plane required; fifteen minutes in the air and then the ground came at you like a freight train. Flying is glamorous. The first time you do it. Then it's just the bus station squared.

I have to drive to deliver things now and again. I don't mind that so much. It's driving to pick up things I hate.

In a business that makes things, logistics is everything now. You'll hear management course geekspeak about just-in-time inventory and so forth, but all it boils down to is this: if I gotta go rooting around for it, I've made a mistake somehow, and I'm wasting time. It's that simple.

The internet has made the procurement of materials much easier in the last ten years, and I'm mightily grateful for it. It was not always the way.

When I was a manager of another business and charged with hiring many persons, I used to ask a series of questions to potential candidates about what their approach would be if one of our previous customers in upstate Maine called and said there was no hot water in their restaurant, and needed us to fix it. Pronto. We were three or four hours away from this benighted eatery. Just a little exercise, I told them.

Of course it wasn't. It had happened, when I was being managed and not managing, and I had to deal with it. And so there was a right answer, or a series of them, and I knew them.

I used that little plot device a few dozen times, and nobody ever made it to gools -- hot water in the restaurant by the end of the afternoon. I'd give hints, even, but they'd never get it. It was their approach that always killed the prospective applicant. They thought there was a big secret, an answer like in a puzzle. They never realized it was an approach you were looking for, not a secret password or silver bullet or something. How you went about solving a problem at a distance told all. All you had was all you needed, too; a phone and a crummy computer on dial-up. And without fail, when the applicants were told "nope" too many times about their proposed approach, they'd start to tug a bit on their shirt collar, perspire a bit, and offer that they'd drive there right away and handle it themselves if they had to. I guess they read somewhere that managers in the commercial construction business like folks that grab the bull by the horns.

No we didn't. We still don't. I don't want to go anywhere because it's a symptom now that I overlooked something, and now I have to go somewhere and deal with it. If you're riding around in the construction business, you've failed before you spilled the first coffee in your lap while giving the finger to the first jerk weaving into your lane.

If I was a better manager, I wouldn't be leaving the shop today, even for a minute.

But then, what would I have written about? See? Multi-tasking, boss.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Buttonhook Right On Three. Your Shoelace Is Untied.

I never played organized football. I was skinny and contemplative, and it never occurred to anyone involved, me included, to even try. But we used to play all the time.

It was like this, in that there were never enough people to make a full team, never mind two. In extremis, the quarterback had to hike the ball to himself. We actually made the fellow turn perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, and toss the ball up in the air and catch it again before he ran or threw it. Hilarious. I remember Danny, one of my friends, hiking the ball to himself; throwing the ball up in the air after receiving his own snap; running underneath his own wild heave of a pass and catching it; then like a final, magnificent capstone to his herculean if bizarre effort, tackling himself by putting his foot in a ground hog hole while picking his way through the cowflaps and tacklers, falling face first into the pasture grass.

I'd pay ten dollars to see it again, but it's free in my head, and unavailable at any price elsewhere.

The ball often had the bladder bulging out of one or more of the seams or the lacings. To this day, I see professional players throw those marvelous spirals, the camera capturing it revolving slowly as it sails into the galloping wide receiver's hands, and all I can think is: That's a nice ball.

We didn't have any equipment whatsoever. We got smart after a while and wore a half dozen coats or sweaters for the padding, and after the first time being excoriated by your mother for tearing a pocket off the only winter coat you were going to get that year, you learned to put the crummiest garment on the outside.

Once a kind cousin who had become a man and abandoned childish things gave my father his old shoulder pads. My father gave them to me with a straight face. I bet after I skipped elated out of the room with them, his laughter began -- and will echo down through the eons like some second big bang. I wore them outside my clothes, the dense fiberglas flaps clacking as I ran and pinching the opponents' fingers when they tackled me. It is hard to come up with a tableaux more absurd. I must have looked like some insane earthbound Icarus trying to get lift as I ran.

We'd butt heads like rams with our preteen nubbins, bloody our noses and rend our garments literally --figuratively if we were losing, and had a grand time.

The football game is on today, but I am a man now and must work. I will tune it in on the AM radio to carry me along as I bang on my work like a blind cobbler's thumb. Don't matter. The faraway crackling descriptions will be better than being there, or that marvelous fraudulent stand-in for being there, the TV.

It will be better because I will see it in my mind's eye, imagination trumping reality every time, just the same way it did, stumbling and clacking and flapping across Miller's field all those years ago.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Cloud Nine

All humans have their discontents. We'd all still be living in a cave if we didn't often scan the horizon and wonder what was possible.

When you are facing challenges, it is always salutary to consider the pleasant things in your life and surroundings that offset the pebbles in your shoe. Such meanderings are a form of gratitude. I have vices by the bushel, of course, but ingratitude is low down on the list. I am often put in wonder at persons that are placed in extreme situations, many which seem for a time hopeless, and then triumph over adversity. The wonder is perhaps not that they did not succumb, but rather that it occurred to them to attempt to persevere in the first place. With some people I've met or known about, it can be distilled down to a piquant drop: I'm still above the lawn. Let's go!

What makes a man happy? Dunno. But I think that I am. It is easy to recall times when I was profoundly unhappy for a time, but in a way hadn't a care in the world to justify the feeling. There were other times when I've been in a mess, and simply heard the squeaky little voice say deddy from down there near the floor, and everything's all right.

I've been right at the door of death a few times. It's very calm there. I wonder if it's because you claw and bite and scratch to live the most when you know you've squandered or been cheated out of the time you had, and wish to have a chance to catch up on the plus side of the ledger before you go -- but if you've done all you can do you are content with your lot. Dunno that either, but I've always noticed it's the man losing at cards that wants to stay all night.

I notice also that many persons have a kind of self hypnosis that renders them immortal in outlook, because they are not prepared to be ever nearer to death, day by day, as every day they have is squandered, and they know it. And to deal with themselves, they must deny mortality. Botox for the mind.

I have heard that word deddy a thousand times a thousand times, and considered a thousand times in the moonlight the velvet cheek of the woman that loved me truly. While the cave yawned behind me, filled with the indistinct shadows of those that huddled there for shelter and safety, I inspected the horizon, and walked toward it in the sunshine. I think of all the people chained in the cave, murdered in the cave, crippled in the cave, unable to overcome the timidity that seeps from the cave walls, that couldn't walk out even if they wanted to, and I'm grateful.

These are little things, I know, but it's all you ever get in this world.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Watercolor Watercooler Talk

I wonder if Hal Printup had any idea that people would save this. It was attached to a Christmas card, and I'm probably the most obscure recipient of it to Hal. There's a lovely Christmas wish on the back, which mentions the birth of one of my nephews, who is of course one of Hal's numerous grandsons.

That grandson came to visit us this summer, and we took him and his older brother to the basketball court, hard by the local beach, and he slam dunked the basketball.

Time flies, Hal. It's nice you made it stand still in the watercolor for us.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dying Is Easy; Watercolors Are Hard

Harold Printup is a prince of a guy.

I've only met him a few times, but he has a sort of gravitational pull of bonhomie about him. He and his wife Marilyn share a sunny disposition that is written right on their faces. A birthmark of happiness.

Harold, or Hal, if you will, paints watercolors. He is an amateur, in the true sense of the word. He does it for the love of the thing. But there isn't even a hint of visual karaoke about his work. There's no "crummy and blissfully unaware" in evidence in his work, and certainly no " crummy on purpose as a pose," either. He's good, and he's good.

He likes to go to Huntington Lake, apparently, and remember what he was looking at by painting it.

Now, I've seen a lot of plein air work in my day. I don't like most of it. It might be because I've fooled around with painting with every darn medium, bad at all of them, but watercolors are impossible. I see watercolors by people like John Singer Sargent and say bah! Get the oils.

Never mind me. I can't do it. Hal Printup can. Watercolors are immediate, and fast, and capture a scene and mood faster than any medium other than taking a picture. I take that back. The camera just gapes at everything. The photographer must capture with his method as surely as any artist. The end is just more immediate, especially since they've begun to rely on ones and zeroes and not silver and chemicals.

Hal and his brethren must go, and look, and see, and feel, and distill, and then inscribe. They are as contemplative as any philosopher, and as skilled as any lapidary.

It's hard to do, and I hate Harold Printup for his ability where I have none. I asked my brother, his son-in-law, to send me his latest, so I can hang it up next to the others I've saved for decades and execrate Hal every day of my life when I see it.

I figured I'd post it on the internet, so you can hate the guy, too. He's very pleasant, as I've said, and needs to be detested for his manifest ability by more people.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Defcon 3 Furniture Emergency

I enjoy writing on this page.

I'm not sure that's true. I don't know exactly why I write this stuff. Please don't guess; if I don't know, you have no shot. It's unimportant. I've had little time to pay attention to it recently because I'm too busy to do much more than dash off a few lines.

There comes a time with every business that involves making things where you have too few hours to accomplish what is necessary. It is usually timed to some unexpected bump in the road. The bump in the road exposes how close to the margins of what is possible you were attempting. The bump reveals the true nature of your situation.

There is a point where your exertions make no sense. All men must judge what that point is. In general, in a world where you are hired to work for another, that point is 4:59:59. When you are on your own, or if you feel some relationship to your work situation beyond a sort of benevolent bondage, that point is wildly variable.

There was a point in my day yesterday when a lot of things seemed grim indeed. The speedbumps corrugated the road dead ahead. There was a temptation to make the call that the exertions necessary to fix that which needed fixing were too daunting to attempt, as the desired outcome was likely out of reach anyway. I kept plugging away, because I'm not bright enough to quit.

When your name is on the door, you have a tendency to try until someone comes in and makes you stop. It brings a kind of meaning to your exertions that is forever lost to the wage slave. You must take your satisfactions in another way if you do not feel yourself to have a stake in that which you are doing. I have been both owner and wage slave, and have known the attraction of both positions. I offer no advice to anyone about what might suit you.

I read yesterday of a man who threw himself in front of an oncoming train, to shield a stricken young man -- a stranger-- from being crushed. They both survived unscathed. A marvelous man.

That man did not have time to ponder what was likely. Only what was possible. What was likely was very bad. What was possible was sublime.

I don't think we can learn anything about jumping under trains from that man. We're all on our own there. You cannot decide in advance to jump under a train.

Perhaps, in our mundane little worlds, we can mimic such a man. When it's hard, but not impossible, do you try?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy Hogmanay, Ye Presbyters Ye

It's the ancient stuff that gets us going. We paste our modern concerns over contemporary fetes and whoop it up, but it all goes back to the cave.

Hallowe'en. New Years Day. Christmas. Easter. Mardi Gras. Sometimes it appears you're peering into a closed up shop through a grimy window, and way across the room, past the dust of centuries that lays on every surface, through the dim sepia light, you see another window grimier still. Through that one, who knows what you'd see? It's lost to pen and ink, but it's written in our marrow somehow.

Here are the goddamn words, by the way:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?

CHORUS:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp !
And surely I’ll be mine !
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

CHORUS

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere !
And gies a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie-waught,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

It's Burns. Robert Burns. But he didn't make any bones about it. He told everybody he was just writing it down, that it was old, old, old. Auld, really.

Everyone forgets the words, and belts it out any old way in a drunken, misty, stentorian bellow. That'll do. But the thing they forget, the thing that really matters, are the question marks.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?

No.