Thursday, July 28, 2005



I used to play darts. I know, "how exciting." Well, I needed to find an activity you could participate in with a Guinness in one hand, and softball requires a taste for warm light beer that I lack. So off to the Irish pub, and the boards.

Not any more. I'm a big old man, with children and a wife and bills and so forth, and the idea of hanging around in a bar seems strange now. But I was single once, and was a "Norm" at Liam's Irish Tavern, which isn't there any more. That's fine, as I'm not there any more either.

Anyway, I thought I was good. You had to win to keep playing, and the other Joes at the bar were pretty good, so I practiced toeing that stripe and mechanically pumping (both) elbows for a good long while until I was proficient enough to avoid sitting down. I was streaky, and enraged many a better player by stinking it up for most of a game, and then pulling it out late, and seeming like a sandbagger. It didn't hurt that I'm 6'-2" tall with long arms, and leaned over pretty good, and seemed to be inserting the darts, not throwing them.

At any rate, I started playing in leagues and so forth, which are the kind of thing the average person had no idea existed, until you happen upon them, and you realize there's entire worlds of people doing all kinds of things you never even heard of in a very serious way. The internet has become an engine for these peculiar worlds. Go to Google, and type in ANYTHING you can think of, and you'll get a ton of sites, and an education.

Anyway, I thought I was good, all those years ago. Then I got an education about perspective.
Our dart team traveled to a club in South Boston. It was a real club, too, not a restaurant or bar like usual, but an old fashioned members-only club, where you rang a doorbell while standing on an unlit threshold in a parking lot, and a disembodied voice says: who are you over an intercom. There was a problem. Women weren't allowed into this club, and we had brought one.

Now, this is twenty years ago, but it was just as jarring a bit of news then as it is now. We were struck by the unfairness of it, or whatever you'd call it: not letting a woman in. We protested that if she couldn't come in, our team wouldn't play. The voice said, if she's on the team, that's different. Inside, he explained that women were barred from the club because all the men would have fistfights over them in the club, and for the men's and women's own sakes, these knuckleheads had to be segregated. They weren't fit company for the women.

I realized I was very far from home, though I had been born not ten miles away.

There were a great many illegal Irish immigrants in the place, and I began to see why brawls had to be avoided at all costs, as a visit from the police meant more than a trip to the pokey and a black eye to many of the devotees of the place; they'd be deported too. My own Irish relatives had drifted down from Antigonish, Nova Scotia to Boston a hundred years ago, after fleeing Ireland, and did all the work no one else would deign to do, just like these rough and tumble fellows, and I was sympathetic.

And they played darts.

They mopped the floor with us , though they were blind drunk. They never even put down their drinks, they just walked to the line, and fffft fffft fffft, it was over.

And so you learned that being good means judging yourself in the context "compared to what?" And compared to them, well, let's just say that after the match blessedly ended, and our beating was over, I was chosen as our "champion" to play the king of the club, one match, for a little money. He hadn't even played up until then, and I couldn't imagine he'd be worse than the guys who had just annihilated us, but I wasn't ready for, well, the "compared to what" education I received.

I threw my three darts. My score was recorded in chalk. The Irish champion went to the line, and pulled out three nails. Three great big nasty twenty penny spikes. Bang, bang, bang into the board. He never missed anything he threw at. And he did it with nails, to show me I wasn't worthy of an even fight. It was over almost immediately, and I knew "compared to what" was now "compared to that," and where I stood in the Pantheon of Darts wasn't on any sort of pedestal, it was around back, near the men's room.

Every single one of those drunken roustabouts was unfailingly polite to us men, and exquisitely deferential to the only woman in the bar, the one we had brought uninvited. But we left immediately, to get back to a universe we understood.

Which brings me to the subject of our essay today, and a long and circuitous route we've taken. Take a look at this guy:

Blind Teen Amazes With Video-Game Skills

He's seventeen years old, he's completely and utterly blind, from birth no less, and he'll kick your ass at video games.

I love this story. Now, playing Mortal Kombat without being able to see it doesn't make you Mozart, or Ray Charles even. But it does make you extraordinary.

Think of the trial and error, think of the concentration that this required. The hours and hours of groping, over and over, looking for that next rung on the ladder to: you can't beat me. And what is trivial becomes sublime, when it's done in this fashion. He'll whup you, with his back turned.

We live in a world prosperous enough to support professional skateboarders, never mind baseball and football players, and where Tron Guy becomes an instant celebrity. It's enough these days to simply capture the imagination of a great many people, however you might do it, because the internet can open up a great audience to you, hungry to be amused, or amazed, or feel part of a community, or look at Brice, in his darkness, and say: "Compared to him, I'm a shirking piker"

And for all you in the audience who say, big deal, it's just video games, they're not important, I say, yeah, not important? Compared to what?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Hail fellow well met.

Let's talk about something important. Joe.

Oh yes. Coffee Joe. Java, jamoke, kaffa, kahveh, sludge, silt, bilge, mud and a shot-in-the-arm. Mud in your eye. Hojo, qahwah, latte, moche, just gimme that coffea whatever you call it.
Look, I'm not fooling here. Listen to me. Coffee is not a beverage. Coffee is the eighth sacrament. Gimme Gimme Gimme.

Ray Charles knew:

In the morning when the sun comes up
She brings me coffee in my favorite cup
That's how I know, how I know, Hallelujah I just love her so.

A blind man could see it. Howsa 'bout a cup?

Let's lay down some rules. First and foremost, we lay a pistol on the table for anyone that approaches with anything decaffeinated. You pod people that drink that dyspeptic dishwater stay clear, I'm warning you. I need that jolt, and I don't mean soda.

Second, there was a period of time in this world when the idea of instant coffee made a certain amount of sense, I guess. People watched two guys named Neil walk on the moon, and were inspired to drink Tang and so forth, and the idea of Nescafe didn't seem all that strange. At the time, you'd have to go to a disreputable diner to get a cup of ready made coffee, and it was probably fresh during the Truman administration, and been warming since, or you'd have to get out a real percolator, grind some beans, and make your own.

They are now opening up Starbuck franchises in the Men's Rooms of Dunkin Donuts. You can drive up to every other window in any city and get coffee thrust out at you. Men named Neil do not trod the moon any longer. Outlaw instant coffee. Bring back the death penalty for serving it. Perhaps an amendment to the Constitution is in order. They want to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning. I say, give an exception if the burning flag is used to heat water for joe.
I prefer Dunkin Donuts to Starbucks. I go in, I say: Give me coffee. They say: Give me money. It happens. I leave. We are both content.

Go into Starbucks. You are disoriented. The signs tell you you can get a pineapple chutney lotus blossom chive and dill brisket rhododenron flavored latte grown at a "fair trade" plantation where the inmates eat gruel twice a day, instead of once like everywhere else, I guess. I didn't know I wanted that. I thought I wanted coffee. But if you go up to the counter, the girl with the jewelry in her nose snorts at you if you order coffee. I'm not sure I'm supposed to order coffee from her anyway. Her name tag says she's a "barista," and I assume that's Spanish for lawyer, because she seems put out by my request for coffee. I look for people behind the counter with aprons and coffee urns, but they are scarcer than non-relatives at the barista's indie band shows.

Hie thee to Dunkin Donuts. Approach the counter. Hold out five quarters. I guarantee you will walk out with a cup of joe without saying a word.

Some lady spilled coffee on her lap once, and sued McDonald's. She won a pile in the misery lottery. She said the coffee was too hot. Now, I drink my coffee cooler than most. I prefer the european method of brewing, with water well below boiling to make the coffee, and it's about ready to drink when it finishes its journey through the glorious beans.

McDonald's makes American coffee. Bubbling hot. God bless'em. Some people like real hot coffee, and some people add milk, or cream, and so forth, which cools the coffee. Coffee to go is often transported to remote locations before being enjoyed, and it's really not possible to serve it too hot, as if you prefer it cool, as I do, you can just wait a little. But if you like it hot, it's gotta start hot.

McDonald's doesn't serve superheated nuclear power plant reactor coolant with a lump of lava in it. It's not even boiling water, which means it's less than 212 degrees. If you stab yourself with a spork is that McDonald's fault? If you eat the fish sandwich with the wrapper on it, and get indigestion, is that McD's fault? I say no.

There may be a circle in hell for people that sue over the mundane, if it's not already full of lawyers. But hell in the afterlife is not good enough for her, the old lady with the hot lap. She needs punishment now. And I decree: NO MORE COFFEE FOR YOU. That'll learn you. Your money won't buy you happiness if it won't buy you coffee.

When I was a wee laddie, shopping was a rough go for my mother. She had four kids, and we ate like we were in a contest throughout most of our waking hours. Pre-made food was expensive, and rare, and mom bought raw materials, food ore that needed smelting, not frozen pizzas. She's take us on her shopping expeditions, and had to make many stops to get all she needed. I remember one to this day. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. That's the A & P to you young folks. The place looked vaguely Victorian, and there were flies buzzing around mounds of lettuce and so forth. But you'd buy coffee beans there, raw, and as you were checking out, there was a grinder right in the checkout aisle.

I imagine that when I'm a million years old, and I've forgotten who I am, and everyone I know, and every other thing that ever happened to me, and everything that happened to everyone else, I'll still remember that glorious aroma, and be content.

Then I'll eat the puzzle in the Nursing Home community room.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Mr Pom Pom


As I told you, we were at Lake Winnepesaukee last weekend. The was more than just frolic, however. There was meaning too. I learned a little about hope, courtesy of Mr. Pom Pom.

Main Entry: [2]hope Function: nounDate: before 12th century1 : archaic : TRUST, RELIANCE 2 a : desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment

Bah. Now that I look at it, "hope" won't do. Because the desire we all shared for Mr. Pom Pom had no expectation of or belief in fulfillment. It really seemed hopeless, for a time. Let's try something else:

Main Entry: [1]faith Pronunciation: 'fAthFunction: nounInflected Form(s): plural faiths /'fAths, sometimes 'fAthz/ Etymology: Middle English feith, from Old French feid, foi, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust —more at BIDE Date: 13th century1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions 2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust

There, that's better. Lots of people had faith in Mr. Pom Pom, but they had faith in something else too, and went through the motions of "hoping" when the "expectation of fulfillment" of their wishes seemed very remote indeed. And Mr. Pom Pom taught us all a lesson: Sometimes you do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, and goodness is its own reward and all that; and because sometimes unlikely things happen and it's best not to take your eye off the prize just because you're likely to be disappointed.

Now, who is Mr Pom Pom, and what did he do, exactly? The first question is easy. Mr. Pom Pom's dad is my good friend Steve. Steve is the most productive person I've ever met, and more fun than Mardi Gras, and a good father to Mr Pom Pom, and his big brother Flapdoodle too.

Mr. Pom Pom used to be Mr. Po Po, and I'll always think of him as that. Mr. Po Po is one of those silly names you call your kid, or he calls himself that seems to stick for a while. One day, Mr Po Po had gotten mildly older, and decided that the sobriquet "Mr. Po Po" wasn't very dignified, and announced that he no longer wished to be called "Mr. Po Po."

Call me Mr. Pom Pom.

Much more dignified. They say every man has the right to decide what he is called, but no man chooses his nickname. Mr. Pom Pom did both, which is rare indeed.

O.K., but what did he do? Mr. PoPo, um, I mean, Mr Pom Pom?

He played the drums badly on Saturday night.

You see, Steve was playing music in a band with his friends for the assembled throng of his New Hampshire neighbors on that Winnepesaukee beach Saturday night, and his sunny disposition shined right on through those songs, and entertained us all. Steve's been playing in some permutation of that band for most of his life, but now the fires of celebrity are banked low in his furnace of music, and they perform only with a lot of begging and pleading. But he's lost nothing off his fastball. He still "does the show."

I first met Mr. Pom Pom back when he was still little Mr. Po Po, and I was hanging around with Steve as he was practicing for a show. Mr. Po Po, who couldn't have been more than three, came into the empty nightclub with his brother and mother, listened to his father play for a minute, and announced: "It's too loud in my ears," and left. Kids are smart. Mr Po Po was no exception.

But Mr. Po Po, um, er, I mean Pom Pom, is exceptional, I guess. He's a big old teenager now, and a year ago or so, he wrecked his car. Really wrecked it. And he wrecked himself in the process. Really wrecked himself.

When Steve told me about it, I could offer nothing, no words of encouragement, nothing I can remember saying that was any use to the guy. Mr. Pom Pom might not live. If a miracle happened and he did, he probably wouldn't be more animated than the furniture he was placed in. What could you possibly say to help a person deal with that?

Well, we all said lots of things. Mr. Pom Pom and his family are loved and respected by all and sundry and the outpouring of concern and grief and help, such as you could give, was outstanding. Still, there's nothing but faith, and when no one's looking, hope too.

Prayer is a kind of hope. When you ask an unseen, unknowable thing to help you, and you hurl your little troubles into the maw of a universe of hurt, all the while knowing in your heart that prayer's not a lever you pull and out comes the candy. You are making your peace with the idea of what might happen, with the faith that it all meshes into something worthwhile somehow, and you're simply saying: This is not up to me. Help that boy.

So you hope, even though no one's peddling hope anywhere near the kid. And he lays there, mute, bruised, bleeding, gone from sight; and his parents, his family, his friends- they wait.

I don't remember when the encouragement and love you saved for his parents was transferred over to Mr Pom Pom himself; maybe it was when you saw him in a picture, still a mess, but eating ice cream in the hospital cafeteria. It was a long slog, but not so long as it might have been, and where would we go? We had hope, you see. Or Faith or something.

And so Mr Pom Pom got up on stage with his brother, in front of his beaming father and the assembled throng that knew him, and where he had been, and how he had returned, and he played a few songs, just like he'd done before any of this hope was necessary. The scar was still bright on his forehead, and he walks ever so slightly stiffly, and sometimes there's a little hitch in his speech, but not so's you'd notice. This too shall pass, it's only been a year.

And they call their makeshift combo: "Those Amazing Vegetables." Steve used that as a joke band name after he saw it on a nutrition poster in a Doctor's office many years ago. It must sound wry and tasteless, and a little like whistling past the graveyard if you didn't know it predated Mr Pom Pom's accident by many years.

He was almost a vegetable. Now he's just amazing.

Monday, July 25, 2005

My Girl


We traveled to New Hampshire this weekend, to Lake Winnepesaukee. Or as my son calls it, Lake Hockeypesockey. It's a long haul from Marion, Mass, but a new wonder has appeared on our horizon. In a fit of benevolence, generosity, and good sense, The Big One's Nonni (Grandmother for all you non-Italians) gave a portable DVD player to him for his birthday present, and to celebrate his scholarship this last term. She has re-discovered fire, or a close approximation of it. Because one run through The Spongebob Movie and The Rutles, and we were already at the Lake before the kids even knew we had left home.

Alexander, Caesar, Magellan, Columbus, Newton, McCormick, Edison, Einstein- pfffft. All pikers compared to Nonni, and whoever got up one morning, drove to work, and said to the people in the cubicles outside their office: "Let's make a DVD player you can take in the car. Have it on my desk by close of business Friday."

The lake's a whole different animal from the ocean. It's really enormous, so the scale of it doesn't suffer, but it's a "power boat" place. Sailboat types don't care for power boats, and vice versa, but you "get" the whole power boat thing at Winnepesaukee. Walk to the end of the path, walk to the end of the dock, step on board, and blast out to the middle of the lake. We did just that, in the middle of our first night, with only the full moon for our illumination, and were safe and content, and owned that lake from end to end, or so it seemed. There's really no sound more pleasant on a hot summer night than shutting off the motor on a boat, and drifting across the moonlit water, the gentle windblown waves lapping the side of the skiff, and the sound from countless lakeside homes drifting out across the lakes, soft and indistinct, but recognizable as the sound of laughter and conviviality, and, well, fun.

During the day, swimming, and jet skis, and waterskiing, and the dumb fun of being dragged on an inner tube. The Wee One sits in the water to his waist, and splashes, and giggles, while the Big One practices his backstroke swimming lessons ten feet further out: Eagle, Soldier, Monkey, Eagle Soldier, Monkey... The Queen watches both easily, as the beach is filled with people just like us, and everybody is everybody else's friend instantly, and the children drift easily into hijinks with their numerous new compatriots. No one is really a stranger, if they have children and a mortgage. The rest is details.

At night, there was a party, right there on the sand, and a band played everybody else's favorite song, and wasted no time with anything obscure and nothing angry sounding. Music that sounds fun is rarer than it should be these days. The music industry has become a competition to see who can express deep emotional scars and trumpet dissonant lifestyles to go with the dissonant chords, wrapped in chainsaw sounds and screaming, and forgetting that life's really not all that bad. I've noticed that among people who's lives truly aren't easy, they never listen to depressing music. Life's too short to have misery for entertainment too. Teenagers like nasty sounding stuff, but I suspect that people with four square meals a day, a summer house, and a jet ski have little to complain about, and must enjoy snarling pop music mostly as a change of pace from their easy life. I suspect that ghetto music has become nastier as life has improved there as well. Forty years ago, it was no picnic to live in a Detroit slum, and they listened to Motown. Now rappers spit out venom, and live like pashas. Such is life.

The Motown still sounds, fine, if you're interested. We heard some, on Saturday, and it still encapsulates our shared experience, and the pleasure of a simple melody, well sung:

I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day
When it's cold outside- I've got the Month of May
I'd guess you'd say- What can make me feel this way
My Girl

Perhaps as you get older, and the number of funerals you attend begin to outnumber the weddings, and you've tried to catch the curve balls that life throws everyone, rich or poor, and dropped a few, you begin to value the person that can distill a smile, or better still, a pat on the back or a hopeful dream, and can sugar-frost that mental medicine with music and recharge your batteries.

I don't need no money- Fortune or fame
I've got all the riches baby- One man can claim
I'd guess you'd say- What can make me feel this way?
My Girl

How did those men from Detroit know all about my wife, and sing about her, four months before she was born? It's a mystery.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Sign Me Up

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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Don't Be a Jerk

It's been hot here. Sticky hot. The Queen takes the children to the beach each day. It's at the end of the street we live on, just a few miles. The beach in our town is an afterthought, really; the town's anima is centered around being on the water, not in it. But the Big One has swimming lessons at the beach, and the Wee One sits in the gentle lapping waves, up to his waist, and dredges sand through his fingers and is content.

The beach has a lot of rules. I think the beach should have one rule: DON'T BE A JERK. That would about cover it. But things are never that simple anymore. People get together and start laying out the rules landscape, and forget when to stop. After a while, the rules, and especially the impetus behind the rules, starts to conflict with itself. And after a while, you could sum up the rules as: DANGER -WARNING -NO FUN ALLOWED. GAMBOLERS WILL BE CHASTENED.

Safety is paramount, to an idiotic degree. There's a float you can swim out to, and rest a spell, and swim back. Woe be it to anyone who dives off the float into the water. This is strictly impermissible. A few years ago, a youngster broke his neck diving into the water, and the town, with an eye towards lawsuits, forbade diving. But as I understand it, the poor fellow that hurt himself did so because he didn't dive off the float, he dove off a rock near the shore, into shallow water. If he had done what is now proscribed, he would have been fine. It's curious.

Judgement and reason are assumed to be beyond the capabilities of the average person here. And the idea that children should be policed by their parents is apparently no longer current.
Any plastic device for amusing yourself is not allowed. Now, I understand why the sign says: No Glass. Accidents happen, and broken glass at the beach I can live without. But glass is easily replaceable by other containers, and so no ox is gored. But the interdict against boogie boards, and inner tubes and so forth extends to water wings. They're plastic, so no dice. In other words, safety is paramount to the nth degree- someone might get hurt!, so everything is banned, but taking a chance on a tot drowning for the lack of two little rings of airfilled plastic is preferable to allowing some barbarian to show up with anything so declasse as, well...plastic anything.

Dogs are banned, of course. But why? It's not because the dogs really can't go to the beach and coexist with bathers; it's because civility has broken down to the point where people can't be expected to take responsibility for their animals. People bring really mean animals to public places now, and take pleasure in menacing people. They always put you off with a "My dog doesn't bite," if you ask them to restrain their pit bull named "Satan" because he's menacing your children. And he leaves the brown, cylindrical objects in the sand that smell disagreeable when you step in them, and his owner can't be bothered to clean it up, or bring the dog off the beach when he's in the grunting mood. So no dogs. More rules, because no one remembers the Golden Rule. No not that one, the one I just coined, the new one: DON'T BE A JERK.

The beach is mostly empty these days, although the steamy heat has driven that Demosthenes of Boston, Hizzoner Mayor Tom Menino to the radio each day announcing a weather alert and telling us in mumbled spoonerisms to drink lots of water and look in on shut-ins. Thanks for that, really. I was planning on sitting in front of the open oven door all day in a ski parka until you warned me off it.

Note to Tom: After Demosthenes cured his faulty speech by filling his mouth with pebbles and yelling over the sound of the surf, he took the pebbles out. You seem to have left a few in there.

I read in the paper that eleven people have died of heat related causes in Phoenix this week, and it reached 116 degrees on the thermometer there. If you investigated a little further, you found that ten of them were homeless people, and you can't force them to stop drinking dehydrating liquor and come in out of the sun, there's a rule against that, and they died of heatstroke. The eleventh person was an elderly woman who was found in her apartment, which was equipped with air conditioning, which she had turned off. Waste not, want not got her.

So maybe mumbling Tom has a point. But people who used to look after the elderly, like their friends or relatives, did so because it was the right thing to do, not because the Mayor told them to. We live in a time where the national legislature feels the need to pass legislation called "Good Samaritan Laws," making it a crime to see someone in distress and refuse to help. But isn't it all the other laws and rules and codes and statutes that they passed, and the insane litigation that they turn a blind eye to, and sometimes encourage, that made us so distant from one another in the first place? People are afraid to interfere in anybody's affairs, not through an aversion of being a busybody, but because they're afraid of being sued. Or assaulted.

The Queen and the Wee One and the Large Child settled themselves on the blanket in the sand yesterday, and tried not to break any rules. Another party settled down beside them. They had brought a nuclear powered boom box, and felt no compunction to respect the wants or wishes of others a few feet from them, and blared rap music at flight deck volume. No one ever seems to blast Respighi at that volume, I've noticed.

Now my wife could go to the authorities in town, and dutifully, in a few days, the DPW would come on down to the beach, and add another line to the "Prohibited" sign, to specify music. And so the worst of us will make it impossible to have any music at the beach, which is unfortunate. That's not the way it should be done, and they'll find another way to annoy everybody next time, anyway. Besides, rules are for squares, you know, the people who don't need rules on civility and parental probity in the first place. You know, people that don't want to listen to hateful misogynist singsong or death metal at the beach. Rules only apply to the people that need them least.

I say, take down the sign with the laundry list of real and imagined threats to civility and safety. Replace it with a smaller one:


And give the lifeguard a pistol. Problem solved.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Seven Years

Buon Giorno.

I've done construction of one sort or another at a lot of houses. I've seen good, bad, indifferent, and superb architecture. I've worked on brand new stuff, as well as houses where people hid during King Philip's War to avoid a severe haircut, and everything in between. And I've seen the march of events in housing, framed with the perspective that comes with experience with what came before. And I have a library card.

Anyway, I think America has the best housing in the world. In almost any category you wish to measure, we live in the most comfortable and spacious digs on the planet. The average person in America has better and more reliable services to support that house to boot. Potable water comes out of the tap. Losses of electricity are rare, and usually of a short duration. When you flush the toilet, it goes somewhere. The phone always works. And we take these things for granted, and woe be to anybody who lets that reliability slip. A California governor tried an experiment a few years ago in intermittent electricity, and he's standing by the side of the road now holding a sign that says: "Will Run A State for Food"

The way Americans seamlessly integrate the manifold blessings of the world's factories and laboratories into their lives exceeds even the Victorians. Computers, voice mail, cable television, satellite television, satellite radio, game consoles, e-commerce, e-mail, flat screen monitors, i-pods, compact disks, DVDs, and on and on. People find useful things, well, useful, and, well, use them, and don't give them much thought. Things are not the same everywhere.

When I visited Italy six years ago, we visited some long lost Italian relatives, who were considered very middle class by Italian standards, had no where near the creature comforts we enjoy here in the States. They had one little 21 inch television. He drove what was considered a big car in Italy, a four door Peugot that I could put in the back of my truck. My Italian cousin's teenage boy coveted a cell phone, and peppered me with questions about how much a cell phone cost in America. Now, something may have been lost between my pidgen Italian, and his third language English, but the gist of the conversation was that a cell phone cost a fortune in Italy, and there was an involved procedure to get one. I explained to him that not only was the cell phone I had free, but the person who gave it to me for signing up for a monthly pittance of a service delivered it himself, to my home, for free, the day after I ordered it.

He looked at me like I was Baron Munchausen, telling tales. I think they counted the spoons when we left.

I invited my relatives to visit us in America, to try to reciprocate for their hospitality to us, but they weren't interested, and seemed to have the impression that America was something along the lines of the Wild West, and was too scary somehow. Not violent scary exactly, although there was a hint of that too, just too rollicking, or fast, or big or something.

Yes, yes we are.

How fast do things move along here? Here's some perspective:

Seven years ago I worked on a new big house near here. It had about 15,000 square feet of living area. That's big, isn't it? And it wasn't just a big old plastery space inside either; it was elaborately appointed as well. The owners were people I had worked for many times over the years, and are terrific people, generous and pleasant, and were raising a big crop of delightful children. The father of the brood had made a pile for himself by excelling in his field, and they decided to build a big old house with all the bells and whistles. It was pretty opulent.

The wife supervised the day to day activities as the house took shape, and we'd see the husband from time to time when he arrived home from work and looked in. One day, when the house was nearing completion, he visited the site, looked over the progress and the bills for that progress, and joked to us: "I gave my wife an unlimited budget for this place, and somehow she exceeded it." We all laughed, and he did too. Such is construction, no matter how much you're spending.

I never saw him really irate about any aspect of the proceedings, except once. The kitchen cabinetry was being installed. It was extremely well designed and made, and won't be out of style or worn out anytime soon. The kitchen featured everything kitchens in a house that elaborate always had: Granite counters, Jenn-Air grill, SubZero refrigerators- two, side by side; trash compactor, two dishwashers, big stainless range; in short, the high end of the spectrum, and lots of it.

The architect was there. He and the wife were planning on a location to add a wine refrigerator. The husband became perturbed, and then visibly and audibly angry. He considered a wine refrigerator an expensive and superfluous item. He said it was extravagant, and he had ten thousand dollars of refrigeration available already, and his wine could go in there. The house had a mahogany paneled dining room, a library, a conservatory, and murals on the ceilings, but it wasn't going to have an extravagance like a wine refrigerator. And so it was excised from the plans.

I was in Home Depot the other day, and I noticed a pile of wine refrigerators stacked to the ceiling. They were having a special on them. They cost well under $200.00. Here's a link to Price; they have one for $99.00. I am beginning to see them in two bedroom ranches now.

Seven years.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Ice Cream Man


We attended The Queen's family reunion over the weekend. She has a large extended family, and they gather once a year at one home to gab and gambol and make googoo eyes at the newest babies. It's quite pleasant.

There is a stale Hollywood and literary formula about gatherings such as these, always highlighting internal tensions and conflicts. Everybody's always dysfunctional, and fight like scorpions. Well, it just ain't so. Everybody loves one another at the one I attended, anyway. They have an appetite for simple games that can be played in the yard, like horseshoes and badminton, and everyone jostles and chats amicably, all eased by the simple fun of the activities, and the cold can.

And because I married into it, I am slightly less involved than those born to it, I guess. They make me feel welcome, of course, but I get more of an outsider's perspective. And it occurs to me that the stale formula I mentioned might be spot on for the kind of people who write movie scripts, because they go through the motions of reuniting with their family, but it's a hollow and staid occasion, and there is no feeling of blood, and kin, and shared experience, and commonality that enlivens the gatherings of families who really do care for one another like my wife's family does.

The only really familial situations Hollywood finds any more are mob weddings and poolside gatherings at porn movie maker's homes. Meh. They never seem to find "family" where it actually is.

Because I was not part of the "war effort," the important business of seeing that everyone was fed, and covered in sunscreen, and so forth, I was able to wander away unnoticed for a time, and walked the street in cousin's central Connecticut neighborhood. It was a languid, hot, sunny day, more Alabama than New England, and the street has no traffic, so you could walk right down the middle of the hot pavement, watched out only for morning doves in the trees.

The street's lined with small ranches, built in the fifties and sixties, all cared for by their owners, who would wave as you passed before returning to their flower beds. I was struck by how little the houses had changes in the intervening fifty years. There was a satellite dish, next to the TV antenna it replaced on the roofs, and there were no Dodge Darts with push button transmissions on their dashboards in the drives anymore, but it was about the same as it ever was. It looked like the sort of place that people who got on with their lives, got on with their lives. No pretension, but nothing gone to seed either. There are rooms inside my house messier than the flower beds I saw. It looks essentially like where I grew up, preserved in amber.

Then I heard it. I hadn't heard it in so many years. I thought it was a joke, some hipster had it for a ringtone on their phone or something. The Ice Cream Man music.

It was real, alright, and I traced the progress of the music, and the unseen truck, through nearby streets like a bloodhound. Pavlov couldn't come up with anything that talked to me, that affected my very brain stem, like that sound. Every single hot, dusty summer day in the sixties came rushing back to me at the same time, our manifold noses lifted to the air like dogs to a scent, the whispered question: Did you hear that? And the shushing, and waving, and the faraway gaze with the head cocked to capture the sound, and use your inborn direction finder. And the crazy tune all those trucks played would come into range, and you'd all sprint for home, to ululate at your mother: The Ice Cream Man, The Ice Cream Man, Hurry up Mom,! I mean, can I have a quarter? Hurry, please please please.

And you'd gather in the scrum of kids at the window of the truck, and get a popsicle, and it was like water in the desert on Christmas Day for five minutes. And when you were done, you'd sharpen the popsicle stick to a point by dragging it back and forth on the curbstone, and show it to your friends; and that was all the danger you'd ever have in that little neighborhood.
I went back to the yard, and everyone of a certain age commented on the Ice Cream Man, and how long it had been since they'd heard it, and how wonderful it was to recall their childhood instantly from that little tuneless tune those trucks played.

Someone got a bright idea and said: "Hey kids, the Ice Cream Man is coming!" Let's go!

The kids turned, and looked at us like we had enrolled them in Latin classes at a Reform School.

They had ice cream in their refrigerator, every day, ten kinds, and watched DVD movies in their cars on the way to the party. They were swimming in a pool we would have coveted fiercely when we were young, and bounced on a trampoline we couldn't have even imagined having in someone's yard 40 years ago. They had whirligigs and cameras, (film, what's film?) and fifty delicacies laid out to try to tempt them to eat just one more.

And I realized that Ice Cream Man Music is just used in the soundtracks to bad horror movies these days, when someone's reaching for a carving knife, not a sharpened popsicle stick, and no kid in their right mind who's got a freezer full of Ben and Jerry's wants to haul ass out into the street to get a Creamsicle made by the low bidder, served to them by a moody loner who's registered at the police department, and has an GPS ankle bracelet.

Time marches on. I am glad for the easy prosperity I enjoy, and our children have. But I wonder what will be my boys' version of the Ice Cream Man music. The actual thing ain't cutting it.

Friday, July 15, 2005


I wish to tell you a story about humility. It won't take long.

The Big One was in the fourth grade this last year. By a trick of the calendar, he wass the youngest there. If he was born three days later, he would have been in the third grade this last year. He's bright, and a tall drink of water, you know, so the 11 months between him and many of his schoolmates doesn't show that much.

He attends what we used to call a parochial school. They're a little more interested in academic excellence than in the local public school, and a lot more interested in the character of their charges, so we pony up the money and his mother schleps him the ten miles or so to school every morning, and back in the afternoon. The building he sits in all day isn't much to look at, and if it was the public school, it would have been replaced by now with something more elaborate. The world is upside down from when I was a child; the private school just scrapes by, and the public school is palatial and new.

This might sound a little simplistic, but I asked my wife only one question about the school after she first found it and toured it with an eye to enrolling our boy: Are the desks in rows, or are they arranged in circles? Rows, she said. Case closed.

He likes it there, and he thrives.

Now, The Large One got excited about his science fair. It's a big one, he intoned. In the gymnasium. The whole school displays at once. Judges of knowledge and stature from the surrounding environs, including engineering students from the local college. I must win.

Winning's hard, I warned him. Everyone wants to win. It's in the trying, that we learn about winning, I told him, and pulled up short before lapsing into "giving 110%" and "stepping up," and so forth.

He'd have none of it. He had to get the ribbon, or perish trying.

He really did exert himself. I'd never seen him pay attention to anything except Playstation like this project. He went to the library, and picked his topic and books. He had his mother cart him over to Staples, to get poster board and such, and then to the supermarket, where he bought cooking oil, and molasses, and drew a few stares at the checkout line. He returned home, and went over his experiment. What in the blue sky are you doing I asked?

Why, exhibiting and measuring the miscibility in water of various common substances, father, he said in the tone of profound condescension I didn't expect 'til he was shouting in my ear trumpet, after he put me in a home in forty years.

What made you pick that?


I wish I could spell out the way he says I don't know. It's all one word, said in a comic fashion, and sounds approximately like I ugh no or perhaps ightno, if it was pronounced by a slav with a sore throat. It's his all purpose term for "I dunno," and "whatever," and" so be it, "or perhaps "que sera, sera," as well as occasionally: "Don't bug me about whatever you're buggin' me about any more. "

But he usually says ightno when you ask him how his day at school was, while he's conquering the universe with his thumbs. It was jarring to hear him tell me, by inflection, that he was busy with his experiment, and wasn't interested in being questioned about it right now.

And he showed how the oil and the water didn't mix, and the density of the molasses made it fall to the bottom of the glass of water, but eventually dissolve, and something about emulsification I can't remember now for the life of me, that makes me think it won't be as many as forty years before I'm in that home. He did it all himself.

The he took out the poster board, made a triptych, and started scrawling all over it in his childish hand. The Big One's smart, but his penmanship is AWFUL. He showed his hypothesis, and his procedure to test it, and his data, and his results and conclusions, it was all quite impressive, but you needed a sort of infantile Rosetta Stone to decipher it. Is that an A, or an N?
My god he was proud of it, and we couldn't help being touched by his earnestness. And then I forgot all about it.

The Science Fair is tonight Dad! You forgot. You have to go! I'm going to win!

I had forgotten, and had to rush around to make myself presentable and get him there on time. The Queen stayed home with the Wee One. The Wee One, who is two, would have performed a different kind of experiment at the science exhibit: What happens when I tear all these things into little pieces and break them all into bits, and stomp on them, I wonder, and run around like a cave man troglodyte woad raider?

So it was me and The Big One.

We entered the big room, and I was taken aback. Every exhibit looked like it was made by PHDs, with help from a team of Fine Art Majors, and a Computer Graphic specialist on standby. Well, every exhibit but one. My boy's stood out, that's for sure. Someone had slaved over choosing the fonts on the laser printed charts on the surrounding exhibits, and it showed. Miles still had magic marker on his fingers from scrawling his runes on the cardboard backboard. He had performed his experiment multiple times for his peers and the judges, and I leave it to your imagination what it looked like after a nine year old boy had mixed cooking oil, molasses, and water, over and over again, with his own unsteady hands. It looked like someone had been testing all natural hand grenades at this exhibit, and had to hose it down afterward.

The principal got up and started reading the list of winners. The winners would have their pictures taken for the local paper. The Big One was electrified. I'm going to get my picture in the paper!

The Principal droned on. The prizes were being distributed lickity split.

I looked at my son's Great Molasses Disaster of 2005, and glanced up and down the aisle at the other exhibits. They were all magnificent. Someone had an entire solar system, in a slick black box, with each planet rendered beautifully in full color, and had managed to get the strings suspending the orbs to disappear. I couldn't see how they had done it. Another produced static shocks for the participants, and looked as though it could charge a quarter a play, and people would line up for it.

I thought I'd better temper The Boy's enthusiasm, lest he be too disappointed. Before I could say anything, he says: "Dad, only the blue ribbon for the best of show overall is left, we should stand down front so I can go up to get it right away!"

And he took off, leaving me standing there with:
"Son, you know there's no shame in ..." half formed on my lips.

I hustled up to the front, amongst the scrum of expectant children and parents, and my boy.

Of course he won.

I was agog. More exactly, I was sticky from molasses, and I was agog. The Boy walked up and got his prize, and said a few inaudible words two feet below the microphone, and I was, well proud of him, but humbled.

Because the judges had seen what I should have seen and didn't. My boy had done it himself, and it showed. Boy did it show. But no matter. His experiment worked. It showed the properties he was trying to show. He drew the right conclusions, and scrawled them on his display. In short he did it, when others had it done for them, and the judges recognized it.

But the real lesson was learned by his old man. I'll never doubt that little urchin again.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

July 14th 2005-
Good day to ye.

Let's be positive today. Nary a discouraging word, as they say.

O.K. I'm positive that Hollywood hasn't made ten movies as good and entertaining as "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" in the intervening 57 years since it was made. Yup, I'm positive.

Hollywood is in a slump, according to Variety. People don't plunk it down reflexively at the box office any more. Lots of head scratching up and down the Sunset Strip. Well, let me give you some hints, over there on the west coast, about why we're not buying as much of this piffle as previously: It's because it's crap.

It always was crap, I know. When I was a kid, TV was in black and white, and had three or four channels. You watched whatever was on it. Period. And if you were home sick from school, propped up with pillows in the bed, fortified with those wonder drugs, aspirin and ginger ale, the one treat you got was the 11 inch black and white TV at the foot of your bed, and bad movies all day long.

TV, with only those three or four channels, still didn't know how they could possibly fill all those hours. They'd show any drivel: Candlepin bowling for a couple of bucks, or maybe just a gift certificate. Community Auditions. Anyone who's ever seen Community Auditions can't watch American Idol. Once you've seen the spectacle of an overfed adolescent in a tutu twirling a baton to a lounge combo version of a Sousa march, nothing else will do.

But of all the dreck, Dialing for Dollars was king. Dialing for Dollars was a local show, where a bad radio announcer would host an interminable movie in the afternoon, and occasionally pause to pick bits of a shredded phonebook out of a rotating basket, and call the phone number on the scrap. At first, the available technology didn't even allow you to hear the person being called, making the tableau seem even stranger than it was. If the person was home, and watching the movie, and could identify the movie, and knew the exact amount of cash they were giving away, they won a few bucks. Think of those odds. The unintentional comedy factor was pretty high; picture watching, watching mind you, a bad emcee count on his fingers and intone: One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four Rings...

People would actually answer their phones back then, and talk to whoever was on the line. No call screening. No unlisted numbers. No cold call salesman. No answering machines yet. Hell, the host would still reach party lines occasionally back then. For you youngsters, a party line was a phone circuit that served several homes, because phone lines used to be precious, and expensive. The phone would ring slightly differently for each user, and your neighbors could pick up their phones and listen to your conversations if they felt like it. And so occasionally the host would be talking to three shut-ins at the same time, none of whom were watching his movie.

The host would mostly get elderly ladies, who didn't know what day it was, never mind what the movie was, and started talking to the guy as if they were restarting a conversation they had started in 1936, and he'd sit there, politely trying to get an interjection in edgewise, always failing, and looking at the camera like it was an oncoming freight train. Finally, he'd get the question out, and the women would say:

"What did you say your name was, again?"

And he'd always say: "Buh Bye" sweetly, and they'd add ten bucks to the till, and he'd PUT THE PHONE NUMBER BACK IN THE BIN. Try, try again, indeed.

The more upscale local station tried a bit of class by showing the same dreadful movies at midnight on the weekends, but with a host in a tuxedo. He'd stand on a set reminiscent of a Busby Berkley musical, in bow tie and tails, and try to find something interesting to say about the movie. There was a problem. The fellow hosting the show used to be Bozo the Clown on Saturday mornings, and we all knew it. And try as he might to be urbane, many of us would always look at him and smirk. That poor fellow spent his whole rest of his life trying to be suave and sophisticated, but the greasepaint and fright wig always showed somehow, like a tattoo you got when you were young and drunk, and regretted for every waking moment for the rest of your life.

Off topic perhaps, but I met his son once. I attended a party at the local junior college, the summer between high school and college. The college had always had the reputation as a place where wealthy people send their ne'er-do-well children to dry out and be babysat by the faculty, until they could ram them back into the real college that had expelled them for partying too much. My friends and I were just the poor local schlubs, very out of place, and must have looked like the dead end kids to these little inebriant fauntleroys. We were the guests of a lovely young lady who was dating a friend of mine. The movie host's son was there, drunk as a lord, and began hitting unmercifully on my friend's girlfriend, right in front of him. My friend could have disassembled the little blighter into his component limbs, and stacked them like cordwood if he'd had the mind to, but he was a gentle sort, and slow to anger. The little cretin eventually brought out what I'm sure he thought were his big guns: Do you know who my father is?

I butted in: "I sure do. He's Bozo!"

This was not the answer he was looking for. He withdrew.

Anyway, eventually you saw every movie ever made- good, bad or indifferent. Occasionally they'd show a good movie like "Blandings," by mistake perhaps. And you got a perspective on how hard it is to make a really good movie. It must be difficult, there's so many of them, but so few worth watching.

What I suspect, however, is that recently they're not really trying to entertain us anymore. They really don't seem to care that a vast majority of potential viewers, me included, don't need to see another movie about a hit man with a heart of gold. Forty five of them a year for the last ten years has fulfilled my need for comic murderers, thank you. I'd rather see stories about interesting and attractive people, like the Blandings.

"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" was made in 1948. It was essentially remade in the 1980s, with uneven effect, but still with enough of the original's luster to shine on through, as "The Money Pit." Tom Hanks and Diane from "Cheers" made a good comic team, and we own that one too and wqtch it occasionally. But Blandings is king.

Cary Grant is da bomb. Cary Grant is a movie star. Picture Tom Cruise sitting on a couch across from Jay Leno. That's a very small picture, even if you have widescreen television. Now picture Cary Grant sitting across from Johnny Carson. They're both too big for the screen, no matter how big it is.

Everybody in Hollywood is a homunculus compared to Cary Grant. He's dead, and in black and white, and my wife still reminds me: "You know, Cary Grant is a babe."
Grrr. Yeah, I know.

And unlike modern actors, he can act. Not Olivier acting. I mean, "Hamlet" isn't in danger of breaking out in the middle of one of his movies. But you only need so much Hamlet in your life; somebody tell a joke, will ya? Cary Grant knew how to.

And Myrna Loy was a babe. She had the looks of the woman you would marry, and stay that way. She started her career as a vamp, but morphed into a matron eventually. The vamp always showed, though, like a glimpse of garter, and I still remind my wife: "Myrna was a babe, you know."

Grrr. Yeah, I know, she says.

And Myrna knew how to deliver her lines for their full comic effect. Most actresses today sound like they're reading that shredded phonebook I mentioned earlier, aloud. Without their glasses.
The story is and interesting cultural artifact about city folks building their house out in the countryside. It's funny to hear them talk about Western Connecticut like it's out on the prairie, and bucolic as Vermont. Mr. Blanding's house would fetch tens of millions of dollars today. But the story is universal, for anybody that builds a house, and raises children, and works at a job. The humor is the sort that's a lost art these days. It's quiet, and self effacing, and subtle. Mark Twain used to rail against people that "told jokes." He knew how to be funny, which is to tell a story in a humorous way, and avoided punchline fodder. And a movie, a comic movie, is just telling a story in a humorous way, isn't it? It should be. This one is.

And it's interesting to look through the actors who have small parts in the movie. They all know what they're doing, and push the story along nicely. Only a a fetishist would recognize more than a few of them by name, but they all look familiar. Then you look up their resumes, and are amazed:

Louise Beavers, who plays their maid, and comes up with the advertising slogan that pays for that house, was in 163 movies!

Harry Shannon, the well driller, who has the best scenes in the movie, appeared in 149 movies. I vaguely remember him shooting at John Wayne, or shooting at the someone else with John Wayne, a few times.

Nestor Paiva, who plays an appraiser for 30 seconds in the movie, was in 186 movies.
And Jason Robards (Senior) knew how to work. He appeared in no fewer than 206 movies, and then had a son to be in a few hundred more.

And you know why they worked like that. They were professional, and people that knew how to write and produce movies knew enough to use accomplished and dependable actors, and tried mightily to entertain us. They still do entertain us, though they're all dead now.

It's the live people in Hollywood that have forgotten how, or never knew.

2005 Best Places to Live

July 13th 2005-
Greetings and salutations, my compadres.

You know me pretty well by now. You know I can't leave this "Best Places to Live 2005" thing from CNN/Money alone. I've got to crawl underneath it, check the hoses, look for hidden rust and concealed damaged, and maybe loosen the oil drain plug a little before I come back from under there, just for mischief's sake.

I'm not alone in this, I see. I've seen this thing referenced all over the web, and I'm sure that's why CNN/Money goes to the effort of rating places to live and then hunkering down under their desks in anticipation of people disagreeing with their findings and throwing crockery.

My favorite item from the horde, perhaps, is this: "Pa. Town On 'Best Towns' List Does Not Exist." Apparently, Wexford, Pennsylvania is simply a Post Office designation for areas of four suburbs of Pittsburgh. There' s no such place, as it were. I will leave the effect of its non-existence on its suitability as a place to live up to the reader. I expect it's a terrific place for you to live with your imaginary friends from preschool. What's that? You had real friends in preschool? Well, get off the internet right now, this is a place for lonely shut-ins, not you. I also expect that despite the fact that the town doesn't exist, you'll still end up in jail if you don't pay your property tax to somebody.

I noticed Barrington, RI, is number six on the list. That's a short drive from where we are in Marion, Massachusetts, and that seaside town looks a lot like ours. I've got no beef with that one.

It's number three that really caught my eye, though. Naperville, Illinois. I was in Naperville two months ago. I have friends in Naperville, who moved there from Marion. A few years back, I directed the construction of two big service stations on the tollway there as well. Well, my friends took CNN/Money's advice, before CNN/Money even offered it, and moved to Naperville. And I'm in a position to tell if they've lost their minds, or lucked out.

Naperville is as far outside Chicago as Marion is outside Boston. Chicago is a great city. I'm not using "great" in the fashion of modern parlance, you know, swell, or nice, although it is a swell and nice city. I mean Chicago is a big, important city. I knew a lot about Chicago before I ever set foot in it, because I study architecture, and Chicago might be the most important architectural city in America. Louis Sullivan invented skyscrapers there. Frank Lloyd Wright annoyed the locals in Oak Park for a while, before spraying architecture all over the map, from Tokyo to Iraq and back. There are a lot of well known and notable buildings in Chicago. Boston is a great city, too, but it's very insular and small compared to a place like Chicago. Hell, there's only about 600,000 people living in all of what's called Greater Boston, which includes lots of suburbs. There's 130,000 people living in Naperville, never mind Chicago. Chicago is a big, booming, jostling, lively, friendly place. Even the panhandlers are polite. In Boston, even the beggars have a 'tude.

Well my friends have been in Naperville for a little while, and have meshed into the life there fully, and showed us around. They're not strangers to the midwest, and there's no fish out of water or Green Acres vibe to their story. They liked Chicago, and they sold their tiny house in Marion and bought an enormous home in Naperville, with money left over. They live on a quiet street, with neighbors who all share their approximate worldview, which is more important than many people think. Variety is not always the spice of life, and if you must get up to go to work at 6:00 AM, and your neighbor is hosting MTV video type parties outside your window every night, neither of you is going to be happy. He'll be dead, and you'll be in jail for killing him, or vice versa, eventually.

Variety isn't even always variety, now that I think about it. The guy annoying you next door might just be a jerk, but he might not even be an exotic jerk. And I often find myself more in tune with people who don't look much like me, at least as far as the census takers think. America, thank god, has always been a place where you left tribalism at the door, and coalesced into communities and institutions voluntarily, with people whose company you enjoyed. And everyone seems to be enjoying each other's company in Naperville.

Naperville had a very important story to tell city planners as well. The story is: mind your own business. Naperville got as big as it did because two big highways were run right through it, and made the bustle of Chicago available to it. My friend, oh, let's call him Mr. Smith, works in Chicago and lives in Naperville. CNN/Money had a few trite and ill advised comments on how Naperville is tainted by the big roadways filled with megastores that have sprung up next to the highways. What nonsense. Here's their own words:

Drive for two minutes out of town in any direction and you're likely to be sitting in traffic on an ugly highway.

Duh. It's that "ugly" highway that makes the whole thing possible. I cringe when I hear stuff like that, and it's everywhere, you've seen it too, I'm sure. The only bosh worse is seeing people in print refer to wilderness or farmland that's "lost" to development. "Lost?" Was it ground into powder and shot into the sun? Is there a black hole where it was before?

The word they should use, and never will, is converted. But converted doesn't have that pejorative connotation that "lost" does, and they think it's a shame that other people, people like the Smiths, have a comfortable, convenient and safe place to live. There's a whiff of "Let them eat cake" to the term "lost to development." Or maybe: "I've got mine, and to hell with anybody else." I disagree with the sentiment, and I don't like cake.

By the way, farmland is never "lost" to development. Any time you want, you can buy 100 or so of those houses, bulldoze them, and plant potatoes again. What's stopping you? What's that you say? That would cost over $100,000,000.00 to do? Well, maybe, just maybe, the land is being used for a more cost effective and important use than growing potatoes now. You'd have to grow A LOT of potatoes to make that 100 mil back. And this may be a surprise to you folks that think we're "losing" farmland, but out near that highway that you find so objectionable, there's dozens of supermarkets that I imagine you find objectionable too, surrounded by parking lots that I imagine you find objectionable as well, filled with decent, hardworking, busy people that you probably find objectionable to boot, and there's still plenty of potatoes in those supermarkets for you to buy. And everything else from kiwi fruit to bok choi. So put a sock in it.

That last paragraph made me realize it's probably unwise to ask a guy named Sullivan about potatoes.

Where were we? Oh yes; the real story in Naperville, besides the solid and decent Mr Smith, and his vivacious and attractive wife, and his four boisterous and lovely children, is the downtown. There's a walkway along the river, which allows you to promenade, and sit a spell, and cool yourself on a hot day by sitting in the shade, and get away from the cars, but still get to dozens and dozens of interesting places. The City of Naperville didn't try to pass laws against big box stores and all the other big businesses people love to profess hatred for and then shop at anyway. They zoned them out by the highway, on what we used to call "the main drag" around here, away from the downtown, where the acres of asphalt for multiple lanes and parking are a blessing, not a curse, because you drive there, and Napervillians can get what they need conveniently.

And those stores did what everyone fears they would do. They wiped out the little downtown businesses that tried to complete with Wal*Mart, and Home Depot, and all the rest. But why try to compete with those places? To extend that logic further, why not grow your own food? Get water from a well? Why not write plays and perform them in your back yard instead of watching TV?

Anyway, Naperville shrugged, got on with their more convenient lives, and used their tax money, including the massive tax receipts from those big stores by the highway, to improve the infrastructure of the downtown, and blessedly didn't try to put the area on life support.
And pillar to post, downtown Naperville is a wonder. Really good restaurants, one after another. Upscale, downscale, ethnic, coffee shops, everything; and you can walk all over, because the real traffic is out near the highway, where it belongs. Antique stores, really good bookstores, one after another. Real clothing stores, not just places with acres of drop ceilings above and linoleum below and polyester in between. Pastry, candy, toys, stuff and junk, store after store. Nightspots you might like to visit, if you could find a babysitter, and you can, because you live in a neighborhood where everybody knows each other. In short, the precise thing that every planning board, zoning board, and conservation committee in the country is trying to legislate, and never seems to achieve. And nobody's on business welfare, and they don't exist because they have enough pull to legislate competition out of their town. They are there only because they Naperville public likes what they offer, and patronizes them.

I could live in Naperville, and I'm fussy about where I live. I bet you could too.

But there's no ocean. Never mind.