Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Your Lying Lips and Your False Teeth

I Heard It Through The Grapevine is a marvelous song.

It has an interesting pedigree. It was written by the very successful songwriting duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1967. They tried ever sort of angle at recording and releasing it, with their employer, Motown records, never really seeing the potential in it, and shelving each one in turn. First the Miracles, then the Isley Brothers recorded it; neither version was released. Marvin Gaye recorded it in the form we're accustomed to hearing next, but the owner of Motown, Berry Gordy, didn't think it had any potential in that iteration, and shelved it too.

Whitfield didn't give up, and Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded another version, and Whitfield got Gordy to allow the single to be released with no fanfare from Motown. It went to Number Two on the Billboard Pop Chart, and stayed there a good long time. It was Motown's biggest seller up to that point.

Amusingly, what was destined to be the most popular version of the song almost didn't get released because of the popularity of The Pips version. Motown just offhandedly stuck Gaye's version as filler on his next album in 1968, and didn't release his version of Grapevine as a single until they discovered that DJs were ignoring the album and simply playing that one song because they couldn't get the single. They wised up and hurried a single out, and it went to number one, and remained the biggest selling single for Motown for the next two years.

The two versions are fascinating. Gladys Knight sings it with declaiming gospel uptempo verve, exuding a kind of glee, almost, at discovering that her lover perhaps has been unfaithful. It's very different from the kind of dark brooding menace of Gaye's vibe of betrayal, melancholy -- and danger. Watch Gladys and the Pips sing it in a sort of supper club atmosphere, and hear the gathering of self awareness and pride as a woman discovers her man is unworthy of her, rears up to her full feminine stature, and tells him so:

There's a real sort of affirmation of self-worth and blast of righteous anger -- the anger sublimated, tamed and yoked to the plow of dignity: If you don't love me enough to be faithful, I don't need you. I'm worth it.

Now watch them sing it together, and see the pain in Marvin Gaye's delivery, telegraphing the very real pain that was a constant in Gaye's life:

It's different for a man. The betrayal is an affirmation of another sort. Cuckolded. The fool. His essence as a person held up to others, behind his back --mocked and shamed. He doesn't know what he'll do if she leaves him; but he can't stand to be played for a fool. This is dangerous territory for a man to navigate. The vibe of the version is subverted. Dark, gloomy and foreboding; anything might happen.

The same situation, two different ways. Could Shakespeare illuminate the human condition any better?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Loosed From Our Moorings

I like where I live, but it's an odd place. It has a "village," a portion downtown of mostly small cottages on urban sized plots, crowded in a rabbit warren of little streets hard by the ocean. But the appellation "village" usually connotes a kind of familial and bustling streetscene. Marion is like a mausoleum most of the time. We used to take our older child, when he was but small, to the playground on Saturday, and he'd literally be all by himself. No one would even walk by. We began to go to the neighboring towns to find some people outside.

There are institutions in town where the activity seems to be. There is a tony private high school- Tabor Academy; an exclusive yacht club - Beverley Yacht Club; and a very exclusive golf course - The Kittansett Country Club. There's a tennis club that looks like it belongs in British Colonial India.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not going to be joining the Beverley Yacht club or playing golf at Kittansett anytime soon. And I doubt either of my children will attend a high school that costs about the same in tuition as an Ivy League university. And I'm not really sure I'd join, even if they'd have me and I had money to burn. I don't want to start calling my wife "Lovie" and wear green pants with whales on them, is all. It's nothing personal.

These institutions and others are sort of revered around here, but they add little to the everyday life of the town. They are insular and private and are cordoned off from the rest of the population by money and walls and the money pit the ocean presents to the would-be sailor. Money doesn't fill a playground.

It is because of this built-in distance from many of my neighbors, and the real distance my home, way out in the boonies, presents, that I crave the activities that happen from time to time that involve the general population of the town. Our older boy plays baseball with his brethren, our toddler goes to story time at the library. We used to revel in the magnificent fireworks display yearly at the town beach on Fourth of July, but the insular folks killed that because it grew too popular,and attracted people, well, people like me and my family, except they were from the surrounding towns. The folks in Marion that don't like strangers kiboshed the proceedings rather than allow outsiders to enjoy it along with us. There was a representative letter to the editor in the local weekly newspaper replete with references to those sorts of people and undesirables and things of that nature that was a classic of the form. Being only recently freed from the ranks of the great unwashed, I found the the whole attitude repellant.

But nobody's asking me. A town gets its vibe going almost without cognition; it just sort of coalesces around institutions and people and weather and all the other isalnds of interest in the ocean of humanity without thinking. You can propose; humanity disposes.

And so I was gratified to go to the center of town, and watch my son march in the Memorial Day parade, and play The National Emblem in front of the reviewing stand at the town hall, and help us to honor the people who fought-- like my father and grandfather, and some -- like my uncle Bobby -- who died, in the military service of their country.

The parade was a zoo; a wonderful kind of rabble coursing down the three main streets in the little downtown. Doughy veterans marching smartly in a little claque, then an enormous amorphous throng of instrument wielding gradeschoolers, all cheered on by as big a crowd of people as the downtown ever sees --a few hundred people.

The first speaker was a local man, active in veterans associations, and a terrible and wonderful public speaker. His innate good sense and humility was revealed by his inability to speak to the crowd without stumbling over each word. I thought he was marvelous, a testament to the really dignified and self-effacing nature of the citizen soldier of the United States. His friend read the roll of the veterans from the town that had died since the last Memorial day tribute, and I was really jarred by how many names there were; they far outnumbered the persons present in uniform for the fete, and reminded my that my own father is becoming a rarer bird each day: a living reminder of World War Two.

There was another man in an officer's uniform; younger, a bit, than the other veterans, and a member of the town government in some capacity --I didn't catch his name. He was introduced in a perfunctory manner, and he launched into a rather lengthy droning speech. He spoke like someone who was used to speaking in places where the audience could not escape. It was as if he was talking at us, not to us. And he went on, for quite a bit, about pacifists. Wonderful antiwar people. Conscientous objectors. Quakers. Just plain uncooperative cranks, too, by the sounds of it. He directed us to graveyards where we could find those pacifists, some buried as long as 225 years, and asked us to honor them on Memorial Day.

He seemed really taken with the idea.

No one so much as murmured about the fellow's remarks. No one really showed any enthusiasm for them, either. I'm not sure if he got any applause at the end of his stemwinder; I had since taken my little son across the street to the park, where he played amongst the magnificent rhododendrons, and stopped to run his little unknowing finger over the brass runes on a plaque set in the ground amongst the greenery. It reads:

Judge us not by our words, but by our works.

Good advice, that; I'll try.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Have a Pleasant Memorial Day Weekend

He gazes out of the photo, mute, enigmatic, not quite smiling, and speaks to me across the decades.

When I was a little boy, amusements were few and far between. Television was still in black and white for us, and after the reruns of Gilligan's Island and The Three Stooges, not much was on the idiot box, as my father called it.

I remember my father and me trying to watch a hockey game broadcast from the west coast featuring the California Golden Seals, who were setting a new low in sports sumptuary and getting pasted by our mighty Boston Bruins -- Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Pie McKenzie and... well, I can still recite all their names down to the most obscure, even Garnet (Ace to his friends)Bailey. On a thirteen inch black and white TV with rabbit ears. We might as well have used the Etch-a-Sketch.

Eisenhower's X-Box, the Etch-a-Sketch was.

And so it always seemed a real treat when we could wheedle our mother to drag out the elegant but battered silverware box, left from some set our family never owned, filled with the family photographs. The pictures were mostly black and white too, the current cutting edge of photography being Polaroid's prehistoric b&w instant photos, which would come out of the camera, and you'd count to a now forgotten tempo, and pray, and pull off the cover paper to expose the image and stop the developer, and smear your clothes, and hope the picture was vaguely done.

We'd see the usual babies on the shag carpet, buns up, and confirmation and communion suits that fit like either a tent or a rubber glove, never any degree in between, and little girls in their Easter jumpers and patent leather shoes, with their mothers wearing a hat, a real hat, ready for church. Father, grim, unsmiling in his workday suit, a little shiny at the elbows and knees.

Those photos were only the littlest bit interesting after a while, because they were for the most part, well -- us. The exotic ones were always deeper in the pile, instantly recognizable as special by that magnificent sepia tone that photos used to have, and spalling and cracking like a fresco in damp cathedral.

There they'd be, the southern Italian or Irish immigrant faces, looking stoically at the camera, surrounded by extended family on a stoop in Cambridge or Dorchester or Roxbury Massachusetts, or perhaps Antigonish, Nova Scotia. They had their hard lives written all over their faces. But always calm looking. Serene, really; neither introspective or egoist. And they looked into the lens in a way that we never do. Not into it, but through it.

Our parents would strain to remember all the names, and who did what and from where, and why and when. And I figure, with the small wisdom that I've accumulated with age, that when we pestered them too much about someone obscure, they made stuff up.

And then his face would turn up. Handsome, mysterious, forever young. Forte.

Who's that?

That's my brother Bobby, my mother would answer. And that was that.

I was young, and still in the thrall of my parents, and sensed it. Here is a place you do not go.
And the years passed, and the TV was in color, and my wrists and ankles began to show from my hand-me-down cousins' clothes. And the box came out less often. But when it did, the tantalizing face, handsomer than all the others, undiminished by time or care, resplendent in a uniform, always caught your eye. He died before I was born I learned, by osmosis I think, I don't remember ever having the nerve to ask, and I'm sure it wasn't offered.

In Korea.

And the earth spun, and the seasons changed, and then I was a man.

One day, my mother came to me. She had a picture. it had lain stored and untouched for fifty years, coiled, and she couldn't unroll it without destroying it. We slowly, ever so carefully unrolled it, the flecks of black and white popping off, as I stared at the faces. Hundreds and hundreds of faces. Five rows, stretching right off the page, four feet long, all in identical infantry uniforms, except the six cooks dressed all in white. C Company 506- Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Camp Breckinridge, KY. December 27, 1952.

And there was only four ways to stand out in that mob of faces. The cooks, of course. One man in the hundreds wears an officer's hat, and looks ten minutes older than the rest. One man is holding drumsticks over a military style snare drum. And in the very center, in the very front, one man holds the company colors on a lance. Two crossed muskets, a Capital "C" and a "506."

And he has the face that speaks to me.

Now when I was in college, on a lark, my friends and I went skydiving. We trained all day in a sweltering hangar in Upstate New York amongst the farms. They strapped army surplus gear on us, hung us on straps depending from the hangar roof, and shook us around violently by our heels until we demonstrated that we could unbuckle our main chute from the straps on our shoulders, then pull the cord on our belly chute. Fun.

We climbed resolutely into a Beechcraft Beaver, which now seems to me an odd name for a plane, and knelt in rows in the fuselage. A few long minutes later we launched ourselves, some with difficulty, out the open hole in the side and into a whirlwind far over the patchwork quilt of the fields. A tether pulled our chute for us, and we drifted down and found a place with a liquor license.

I called my father, and told him what I had done. Expecting praise, I guess, or some such. And he called me, gently, the fool I was.

I protested: but you were in a bomber plane. They must have made you jump. And he told me, son, if that plane was on fire, filled to the brim with rabid rats, and piloted by a dead man, I'd still take my chances in the plane. And to jump from a perfectly good one, he said, is foolish. Click.

My father was in the Army Air Force. Ball gunner, hanging in a plastic bubble under a B-24J, Les Miserables, over the Pacific. Air Medal. Distinguished Flying Cross. After I pestered him enough, he once told me a sort of a story about the war. He reeled off the names, Tarawa. Pelelau, Kwajalein, Tinian. He mentioned, in an offhand way, that after some island had been bombed flat, they later landed on it. It looked like the island had been picked up ten feet, he said, then dropped. His CO told them that some planes were coming. On these planes were some people. They were coming from somewhere. They were going somewhere else. When the planes landed, my father and his compatriots were instructed not to talk to these men, or even about them; and if he said so much as hello to one of them, or said "boo" about them to anyone else, he would spend the remainder of the war in a military prison, incommunicado. My father lost his desire, if he had had any, to speak about those men. Some of them flew a plane named the Enola Gay.

My Father seldom talked much about being in the military.

And my mother never talked about the brother in the photographs.

Now the picture, the coiled picture, was ruined. But then, we don't watch black and white TV any more, do we? My mother took that picture, and a bankroll, and had a necromancer or an alchemist or something at a digital photography studio restore it, perfectly, and make copies for all of us nephews. Mine hangs today over my kitchen table.

He watches over me.

I was forty years old. My mother told me, Uncle Bobby hated his real name.

His real name?

Francis, she said.

My middle name is Francis. I never knew.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

When the Junk on the Wall Was Real

I've been in a thousand roadhouses. Paint peeling from tin ceilings, yellow pine floors stained with the offal of a million benders and scoured clean by the grit of numberless shoes. The neon winks at you. The Men's room door is on its fifty-fourth set of hinges, the room itself is on its third cleaning in forty years. There are bowling trophies and fish heads and incongruous signs on the walls all donated by the denizens -- some of whom are half forgotten but in attendance, others always present but dead. The glasses aren't clean but beer comes in its own glass, and you can order it by holding up your fingers. The pool table lists to port a bit; after 11:00 PM the patrons do too, so all is well. The quarters, stacked like a tower in Pisa, signal "next game" 'til tomorrow and then some anyway.

There's a stage, capacious enough for an anorexic to tell jokes from, with four people, their instruments and equipment, and a full drum kit on it. The singer wanders the floor anyway. He sings into a bus station microphone, whispering in it like a lover, or alternately screaming into it like a Stanley Kowalski sort of lover, and peppers his delivery with winks at pretty girls and harmonica playing like a distant elegaic train whistle on the prairie at night.

The guitar is a Fender Stratocaster, of course; it's strung with strings like cable, and you never hear a note unless it's intended. You can't mash them all around. The amplifier is right behind him, that player, and if he swings his hips -- he does-- the sound shakes the strings into a sort of harmonic frenzy, and he rides the rising howl like a surfer does a wave, and then swings the neck away and the shimmering tone of the plucked chord returns to the slow boil.

There's a lot of space in the music. The bass is an anchor. The drummer could make do with just a high hat and snare. His right foot is like a piston driving a pile. He moves his stick to the ride cymbal, and you sense that the bell of the cymbal is a world away from the edge.

The guitarist knows what he is doing, and never plays what is being sung; he winds his counterpoint around the vocal like a vine on a drainpipe, and the beautiful rainwater courses down inside, splashes down in the garden, the curb, the gutter -- into the very earth. It rises again from that earth, and forms melancholy clouds, scudding across the musical horizon, then brings the cool, gentle rain down on all of our heads, which cleanses and anoints us.

Your girlfriend goes home with the bass player, of course.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I Need Something Beautiful Right Now

I've too much to do, and not enough time to do it.

That's fine; we all seek out that situation, if it's not supplied to us already. The newspapers are always filled with things about simplifying our lives. It's nonsense, always. We'd fill up whatever space we made in our lives with something else, the minute we had a free moment.

Life is richer, and fuller, than at any time in the past. I'm not that old, but I remember the limitless road of drudgery laid out in front of me when I was a young man. Get a job, do it, make your replacements on this mortal coil, watch Gilligan's Island, die. Join the sepia ranks of the anonymous.

Work and family are still all that matter to me in the world, that hasn't changed; it's the dreary wallpaper of everyday life that's improved, and I'm all for it.

Sometimes I catch people wishing for misery, nostalgic for a time when they were forced by circumstances to huddle together. They feel lost out in the landscape of life, and want company. And if you're not willing to go back to their crabby world, they'd like to thrust you back into it. No thanks.

I know people I would not have known if this box of electronics wasn't on my desk. I've seen places I've never been to, and will never visit. I know things I would not have known. I've been reminded of things that would have remained forgotten. I've seen that anybody that thinks they know very much about any one thing is a fool, and that anyone that thinks they know very much about everything is a total ass, and should mind their own business.

As I said, I'm busy, and pressed for time. I've seen the inside of one room for too long. I need to see something beautiful right now.

No sweat.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Leaving The Musical Kid's Table

I like to keep it light, most days. Life is not without its travails, and I don't go looking for trouble where it ain't, as they say. Anybody who's actually had a job on which they depended for their daily bread where someone was yelling at you will never again have a radio on with someone screaming at you in 4/4 time.

I don't tend towards the saccharine either, and so I am not allowed the refuge of the lightweight ditty like others of the no yelling persuasion. I like country music, but I haven't heard any for forty years. There's some Journey with Stetsons on the radio dial where Country Music used to be found -- at least figuratively found; I've never heard a country song on the radio I cared for since FM radios were installed in cars, and I don't know where to look for it.

I don't mind pop music as much as many of my friends because I don't pay much attention to it. If you think it's important, than you can get awful fussy about whether Def Leppard was better before or after the drummer lost one of his arms. I just worry if one arm alone can stand all the tattoo ink. And turn the dial.

There are times when you desire to listen to music made by people who take what they're doing seriously. Respighi and Mozart and Vivaldi and Handel and Satie and Schumann and Beethoven are always handy to have around, and unlike Lindsay Lohan discs, they're cheap. I guess it costs a lot more to cover an acre of floozie freckles in pancake makeup for the cover photo and hire four rock musicians and a studio for an afternoon than to get forty or so all-world classical musicians and an opera house. And two microphones.

But Mozart and his brethren don't suit all moods. You need something that percolates with the bubbles of modern life, and breathes the sooty air of a downtown streetcorner. You need pleated naugahyde that squeaks when your date's leg scoots across it, gin in a real glass, bad lighting everywhere but the center of the stage, and that stage raised but six inches, a salesman in the corner by the cigarette machine opining on the pay phone, you need to hear a siren go by occasionally and faintly, and you need to see the back of a neon sign like an irridescent snake wending its way across a window. What you need, is to sit in an upholstered chair,conjure up that scene in your mind's eye, and listen to Blue Note records. Forget mind's eye gin, though, get Bombay and a real lime.

Blue Note records were for people who wanted to listen to artists searching for beauty, and truth, and meaning, and rhythm, and style, and immediacy; artists that had the temerity to search at the margins of musical possibility because they had mastered their instruments first, and so could try to master themselves, and the world, and the cosmos. Their journey would take various and wonderful turns, like a river that meanders, cutting switchback on itself, labrynthine, mildy disorienting, skirting the disquieting feeling of walking too close to a precipice to see the view, and then find the broad stream of the mighty melody again and drifting with the current home.

It would take effort on the listener's part, sometimes, to appreciate what was going on. This was the challenge dropped at your feet. "We're going out where the map says: "Here be Monsters." All the spices of the Orient and beautiful exotic girls and dervishes gyrating and spinning on magic carpets await us... if we make it to the other shore."

"Wanna come?"

Monday, May 22, 2006

The View From The Trenches

Someone's got to play in the lounge in the chinese restaurant. (Click to see Flickr photo sideshow. Don't worry, that's the raciest one.)

Well, that's not fair, really -- at least around here in New England. I'm a little out of the circuit, and have been for a while; but if memory serves, the lounge in the chinese restaurants in these parts have really good Country and Western cover bands in them. There aren't any lounge singers that look like 150 pounds of ground chuck in a 100 pound satin sack in there. And maybe it's not fair to the people in the photos, either; maybe they're more fun than a picnic for people with delirium tremens would be for a hungry ant. And even though some of them seem to have attended too many picnics for their spandex, we really have no idea who any of them are. Maybe they were swell.

I don't remember where I first saw these photos, but they lead back to something called Sharpeworld, a place where someone definitely has an eye for the obscure and odd. And if this isn't obscure, and odd, I don't know what is.

These photographs were found in the trash and rescued from oblivion; the oblivion that time will bestow even on entertainment much more popular than the people on the photographs. These people seem to be equipped with a sort of instant oblivion, like they're black holes for charisma. They're the lounge entertainment version of Men in Black :In a flash, you've forgotten you've seen them, and even forgotten what you yourself were doing when you saw them. Some have faces that can stop a clock, all of them make the clock run backwards.

It's a wonderful array of the people who were playing at the wedding of your distant cousin -- you remember, you got food poisoning from the chicken and shells; the comedian hired for the Rotary Club Medal of Achievement dinner you missed because you had the flu; the combo on the deck (in the rain) at the golf tournament banquet from that course under the high tension power lines -- where you got poison ivy; and the stripper that wouldn't take any of her clothes off from that lounge your college buddies from upstate took you to as a hoot. You may have been too drunk to fully appreciate them, or maybe the acts were too drunk, who knows? Anyway, everybody draws a blank here.

It's not the photographer's fault. The pictures were taken by James J. Kriegsmann, who by all accounts was no slouch. I went looking for Kriegsmann, and was astonished by what I saw.

He died in 1994. He was born and educated in Vienna, Austria, and in 1929 came to New York and started photographing celebrities.

And what celebrities! Michael Ochs Archives has a wonderful set of some of Kriegsmann's work, and the people in them are astounding. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Eartha Kitt (rowr) Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis; dozens and dozens of the most famous acts in the world for decade after decade.

I imagine that Kriegsmann's notoriety among the glitterati brought the lumpen people to his doorstep, thinking that if they plunked down the cash, some of the leftover celebrity might still be in the lens. And so Kriegsmann worked, and worked hard, and made the same attempt to portray these subjects as sympathetically as he could. It boggles the mind what they must have looked like when they walked in his door.

The proprietor of Sharpeworld put these on Flickr hoping that someone would remember something about these folks. It's a fool's errand, I'm afraid. Would you remember who was singing O Sole Mio in the Terminal Lounge in 1979 in Trenton when you went in to get out of the rain for five minutes to use the pay phone?

Though we laugh, the camera was kind -- in that it captured them as they wished to be, and maybe as they were, at least for one or two brief shining moments: Somebody.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Getting Your Haircuts From Dog Groomers, And Other Discontents

You're really not supposed to take pop music too seriously. That goes for the audience, too. It's just supposed to be fun, and ephemeral, and that's it. You're not going to save the world with your two minutes and forty eight seconds of foot-tapping goodness. And generally, introducing much more than foot-tapping to the proceedings brings the whole edifice down on your heads. You can't make bubbles out of iron.

The Beatles killed pop music, though it was not their intention. They could write very high quality pop, with just the right balance between sophistication and raucousness; and if you set up two boom mikes and their instruments, they could entertain you.

But they went searching for the holy grail of seriousness, and they began to put together pop confections by using the entire array of studio technology available at the time, and so made music that was not possible any other way --the studio album.

The records they made were almost uniformly wonderful, so where's the problem, you're asking? Well, everybody else is busy Not Being As Talented As The Beatles, but they're using the same techniques plus all the other aural spackle and visual wallpaper to make studio silk purses out of the sow's ear of their meager talents, and then compounding their errors by taking themselves seriously. And we have to listen to it.

There's a lot of potential to make interesting cultural artifacts with the studio system. But its been taken too far, and simply made it possible -- if not required -- for the most avaricious and outrageous among the already mildly inspired to elbow their way to the front of the pop music line. It's killed the thing that spawned them, for all intents and purposes.

A few friends got together in Wales forty years ago, and played in some bands together. They didn't take themselves seriously; their very name was an offhand joke -- The Iveys, after a street in their town, and a play on words referring to the pop group The Hollies.

They learned how to play their instruments and sing a little, and made friends with the Beatles. They changed their name to Badfinger, apparently a snippet from a working title of a Beatles song. And when you've got the Beatles helping you out -- at least the ones not named John Lennon, who thought you too, well, unserious -- you're likely to do OK. It doesn't hurt to have Paul McCartney singing back-up on your songs, like this one, (knock down the old grey wall) and George Harrison and his friends playing on your others.

Thirty-five years ago, simple, lyrical, happy, glittering pop used to come out of the radio every few minutes, like No Matter What. It didn't save the world, or grant any inner peace or enlightenment, it didn't rage against the... well, let's just say, there was no rage in it at all. It was fun and vibrant, harmless and marvelous.

Those Welsh fellers with the little knack it took to write tuneful nursery rhymes fell in with gangsters and lawyers, or the other way around; in the music business you need dental records to tell them apart anyway. They made all kinds of money and got all kinds of girls despite their golden retriever haircuts, bad teeth, and sunken chests. They managed to get their own sort of Yoko Ono. They took themselves very seriously, and two of them eventually hanged themselves over the idea that it all mattered a great deal more than it does, or should.

My friend Steve calls suicide "The permanent solution to your temporary problems." It was better, for everybody involved, when they were supplying us with the temporary solution to our permanent problems, at least for two minutes and forty eight seconds.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Stop Me Before I Wear Plaid Again

Let's go down the seventies rabbit hole again. What the hey, I say.

This is not nostalgia, trust me. Happiness was the seventies in my rear view mirror. I think people really have forgotten how crummy that decade was, every which way, and live in a dream world that it couldn't happen again. I notice a certain similarity in the fiddling politically here in Massachusetts to thirty years ago, and wonder if the accompanying Rome burning will follow in its train again. Boston looked like Beirut thirty years ago, except Beirut had beautiful Mediterranean beaches; you could walk across Boston Harbor and barely get your feet wet then -- no miracle involved -- on the dead fish and sewage in 1975.

And disco did not suck, by the way. When times are hard, people generally turn to happy music. Disco is happy music. You can tell people don't really have a care in the world these days; the music is miserable. No one seeks out depression if they've got it already.

That brings us to today's seventies wonder, the least depressing music, well, maybe ever: Al Green.

He was born Al Greene in Arkansas; later his family moved to Detroit. He sang in the family Gospel group, The Greene Brothers, when he was as young as nine years old. My, those Detroit soul phenoms. Later, his father grew perturbed that young Al was listening to secular music, (how could you not listen to Jackie Wilson?) and booted him out of the band. His family dropped him, he dropped the "e" at the end of his name.

Al tried to be everybody but himself for awhile: James Brown; Wilson Pickett; Sam Cooke. But when he met Willie Wilson from Hi Records, he decided to be himself. Good move.

It was a good move, because there really is no one else like Al Green. He sings most often in falsetto; but unlike most falsetto singers, his voice sounds powerful and masculine despite the register. Michael Jackson, Frankie Valli, Lou Christie, BAH! Shrill dog calling. Only Marvin Gaye could go up there like Al Greene. But Al Green didn't just go up there; he lived there, invited you over, and you better bring two girls -- or you'll end up with none.

Like the greatest nightclub singers, he could stand alone on a stage, and sing an achingly slow ballad, with nothing but his beaming face and mellifluous voice to hold your attention:

Like so many people who show a sunny face to the audience, Al Greene's life has had a lot of darkness in it. Let's not dwell on it. After all, he doesn't, exactly; Al Green just keeps on smiling, and we smile along with him.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Get Rhythm

There was a certain group of people you didn't mess with when I was a kid.

They seemed to congregate together in every city they inhabited, and their ways seemed strange to the straightlaced people. They outwardly appeared more than a little dangerous, and had a reputation for an outsize appetite for criminality. You'd never see them portrayed in a movie, unless they were doughty workers, or were carrying a knife.

People admired them for their athletic ability, as they seemed preternaturally gifted in the physical arts. Almost all of the greatest boxers of a certain period were from this group, and they inspired a sort of fear tied up with confusion; are they supermen, or does their seeming imperviousness to the normal physical recoiling from pain signal a kind of brutishness? You'd never dare ask a question like that, though, they seemed too fierce. They were kinda scary.

Man, could those people dance and sing. They always had the girls atwitter at any function, because they had none of the staid ballroom etiquette or outright distaste for movement of the Ward and June Cleaver set. They sang and danced and carried on. The girls danced with them, but thought twice about bringing them home to their parents.

They were prone to flashy clothes too. Chrome suits. Stylish, yes; but something of the peacock, too. Unafraid to call attention to themselves. Proud, down to the most mundane detail.

I was born into that group...


Anyway, we watched Soul Train, just like everybody else.

Is that the Isley Brothers playing? Funky.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

You Felt Good... Now You're DYNAMITE !

Take your medication. Drink six cups of coffee. Comb your hair. Burn your chairs. Put your high heel sneakers on. GIRD YOUR LOINS. Now press the play button.

That, ladies and gentleman, is not entertainment. That is a hurricane, wrapped in a tornado, basted with the sweat of a thousand leopards, and sanctified in the Sublime Church of the OMGWTF.

Those poor benighted (French?) souls in the audience tried to sit there and listen to it. James wasn't having any of that. He stomps the grapes of rhythm in the vineyard of the human condition, and blasts his buckshot of funk into the audience. The wounds are serious, but not fatal.

That's real happiness on his face. It beams out from his mien like sunshine. I know how hard he worked to make it seem that effortless. I know how uncompromising and fierce he was towards his band. But all that was yoked to the service of his vision, his mission to sanctify mankind with syncopation and singing and the fury of his feet. It was so he --and in our turn, we -- could get up on top of that sublime and effortless force and ride it like a wave. It's a smile, backed up with velvet and iron and sleek sultry sex.

James is in his church. Call and response. Channeling the sublime. Please do not tell me that "Sex Machine" doesn't belong in church. The sunny nature of mankind is distilled and fed back to us, every aspect of it a tribute to the maker of it all -- and our high priest is James Brown. It's all good, he intones. It all serves the higher power.

Can I get a Amen?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Celebrity Advice and Other Mutually Exclusive Items

I have a soft spot for weirdos, cranks, freaks, dopes, and the great majority of the minority of strangeness.

I have a great deal of respect for the mundane, the average, the square, the nerd, the: hey expecting highwater with those pants? sorts of people.

Apparently, I've got it exactly backwards.

You see, I don' t fit in very well with the second group. Let's call them the joiners. I don't have the mental toughness to work my whole life at the same thing. I don't have the simple piety required to enjoy the benediction of regular churchgoing. I don't have the ability to willfully suspend disbelief enough to watch television and get any enjoyment out of it; I'm always looking at it as a useful catalog of modern day affectations and avarice, but I can't bring myself to look at it as entertainment. In short, many would say, I belong with the first group: "Hey ottist, paint this!"

I don't fit in very well amongst the strange set, either. I'm not able to hide my admiration for the joiners, and that's a deal breaker with the freaks, generally. "It's my way or the highway" sounds very second group, but it's really the outlandish brigade that tolerates nothing outside its little world. The joiners just shrug their shoulders if you say you don't watch American Idol for the singing, and maybe figure you're a little odd. The freaks will picket your house if they decide your kid's habittrail keeps hamsters against their will in your house or something. When I say, against their will, I mean against the freaks' will; the hamsters seem to have no opinion other than a cetain enthusiasm for free sunflower seeds.

As I was saying, I seem to have the whole thing backwards. If the television, newspaper, movies, and radio are to be believed, I'm supposed to get my cues on how to behave from the freaks, and I'm supposed to get my cues on entertainment from the joiners.

Have you seen how celebrities, and celebrity politicians order their affairs? Taking advice from them on any topic seems about as efficacious as looking for a dowser on the Titanic after you hit the iceberg. Not. Likely. To. Be. Of. Any. Help.

And I said any topic, because you can't even ask them about their own craft. They don't even understand that, really, and it shows; How do you explain why a zillion people will line up to see an aging midget in the third iteration of an adaption of a lame television show about spies who's simultaneously publicly demanding his third or fourth or fifth wife have a baby without saying anything? They themselves really can't explain it either, so they go to the default position: I must be wonderful.

No. No you're not; you're dreadful human beings, in general -- and in particular some of you are even worse than dreadful.

Conversely, a great deal of pains are taken to inform me what the great mass of people think I should be interested in. You must like this; everybody does. I know I should be interested, but I'm not. And I'm not not interested as a sort of gesture, either; I leave it to others to say one thing and then do another. I don't secretly watch American Idol while disparaging it openly. I'm really just not interested one way or the other. If it doesn't matter enough to me to like it, why would it matter enough to hate it?

I don't go to the water and sewer commission meeting looking for entertainment. Why would I conversely pay any attention to advice given to me from someone who's never gotten up before noon in their life, and demands that their M&Ms get sorted before they eat them?

Stick to your trades, people; stick to your trades.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day

No matter how long you tarry at the metaphysical dance, always remember who brung you.

Friday, May 12, 2006


I remember when Friday meant something. It' s a fuzzy, dim memory, like differential equations or the theme song to The Joey Bishop Show. But it was real, once.

You got paid on Friday. A check that you brought to the bank after work. A slip of paper that represented a fiduciary obligation on the part of your employer; you know that sort of thing. You'd go to the bank... no, I'm not kidding, you'd actually go there and wait in a line between velvet ropes depending in caternary curves from chrome stanchions, like it's an opening night on Broadway and not a crummy line to get beer money; and you'd stare at the clock and the neck of the person in front of you and remember lame jokes you saw on the Tonight Show about the little chain on the pen at all the stand up desks. Why, those jokes were funnier than airline peanuts, I'm tellin' ya.

And you'd have that slip filled out to go with your paycheck-- but never correctly; always with your deposit on the first line until you noticed that line was labeled "cash" or "currency," and you'd scratch it out and fill it in a line lower, and then wonder if it was OK to have scratched out stuff written on a DEPOSIT SLIP. It's like a legal document and all, and you can't just have a do-over on that, can you? So you'd make out another and put the info on the second line, like a good doobie, until you noticed the "cash" line you avoided has a check box with it. The first one was correct all along, and now you've got one with the first line inexplicably left blank; and you' do it over but you're last in line again already and you need to get out of there -- It's FRIDAY!

After you wait and wait, the clerk behind the bullet proof glass that doesn't even go up to the ceiling barely even looks at what you wrote, they just read the check and push a few twenties back and grunt at you anyway.

But it's Friday! You don't care. You need to find clean clothes that match. That's only two variables. Why do you still end up inspecting your second clothes hamper -- the floor --for stuff only lightly worn that looks slightly better than the Mr. Zog's Sex Wax tee shirt that's the only clean thing in your drawer? Who cares? It smoky in the bar anyway, and it's Friday!.

Oh. You can't go to that bar. She'll be there, and you took her number and didn't call it. You meant to... no you didn't.

Who cares? It's Friday! There's many other places with a common victualler's license, ain't there? Your friends all have dates -- or geez poor Steve got married fer crissakes -- but you'll find someone you know at the Irish Bar, won't you? Yeah, but maybe it'll be that guy you impaled with the dart two weeks ago. You keep asking yourself the same two questions about that place: Who walks in front of a guy throwing darts? That, and: What kind of person wears a sheetrock knife on his belt in an Irish Bar on... yup: Friday night!

What's on TV? Remington Steele. A repeat. Hello Dominoes? No anchovies. No; no anchovies. The little fishes. No, I don't want extra anchovies. I WANT EXTRA NO ANCHOVIES.

(fast forward)

It's so much easier now. Friday! is still the best day of the week. There's always clean clothes. They still don't match, but you're old and you don't care. Who are you going to impress? Your wife? She bought you those clothes. The money is already in the bank of course. You only go to the bank to sign mortgage papers once every ten years now. The rest is just keystrokes. Where is the bank, exactly? You haven't had money in your pocket for ten years. What would you do with money? Get pennies handed back to you. Who wants those? Even my children want quarters. Pay the plastic bill when it comes. Keystrokes. Stamps? What are those?

But it's still Friday! and Friday! is still wonderful, because Friday! is the day you take the six plastic bags that have been lurking at the bottom of the stairs all week to the end of the driveway. Yeah, those bags. The ones with the diapers in them.

Happy Friday! to one and all!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Pelargonium? I Don't Think So

We're simple gardeners here at the Sippican Cottage. While we share your admiration for those whose gardens are overburdened with exotic cultivars, and on whose lips Latinate names trill, we just don't want to pay too much attention to what we're doing.

There's more to it than that for me, perhaps. To be an expert, you have to know so much about something that you can't even look at it for the pure joy that's in it anymore. If you've ever been in the office of a really accomplished specialist doctor, you can always spot them looking at you -- eventually, if not right from your greeting -- as the bundle of bones and guts you are. As they say in the mafia movies, it's not personal, it's strictly business.

I worry about doctors that take too much of an interest in me personally anyway. I'd be in a tavern if I wanted commiserating companionship, after all. And the medicine in the tavern is more efficacious, generally. The best and most competent doctor I ever met told me the worst news in the most businesslike manner, and left the room to leave me alone with my wife. He tended to his business, and left us to tend to ours. We need more of that, and not just in the medical profession.

I can't enjoy recorded music if it's a selection I've learned to play myself. I see the bones and the guts of it, arrayed like cadavers in the music morgue, when I should be getting the lilt. I have gone way out of my way to avoid ever deconstructing any of the music of a certain soul singer, because I never want the magician to show me his trick after he performs it, and I don't want to peek either. I don't want to ruin it by understanding it.

I don't want to ruin it by understanding it. Hmm. Music. Gardening. Love.

It's a geranium. It not the genus Pelargonium of the Kingdom of Plantae of the Division of Magnoliophyta of the class Manoliopsida of the order Geraniales from the family of Geraniaceae.

I think, when the sun comes out, I'll sit on that brick step, next to my wife, and open the window a little so we can hear, indistinctly perhaps, Al Green sing on the box, next to the pots of geraniums.

End of story.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mo Momo

(I'm recycling text again today. I didn't even bother to put the letters in a different order than I did last year, when I wrote about Momo:)

In an obvious attempt to lose half my readership, I write today about cats.

It doesn't matter what I write. If I write that I like them, the dog people ... (crickets)

See, they're gone already, they didn't even stick around to see if I was going to link to the haha funny home video of the cat grabbing at a string on a ceiling fan and going helicoptering around for a spell before being hurled into the sliding glass door. But they've all already seen it ten times, and e-mailed it to their friends, they know if you're not in on it already, you're not in on it at all. You are an apostate. You like those cats.

Yes, yes I do. When I was growing up, I wanted a dog. My dear mother was petrified of animals, and disliked untidiness, so no go. And your parents know you better than you know yourself, after all, and knew I couldn't care for such a beast. Not for more than a week. Now, the information available about dogs is very sketchy, too patchy for me to make a valid assessment really, but I gather the creatures live longer than a week. No dog for you.

No cats either, a creature that gave poor mom the willies more than a dog, even. At least a dog, well, how do I put this? The dog goes outside. Any Venusian who visited our planet would know who's in charge around here immediately, by observing which one craps in a box, and which one empties it.

And so as a child, we had a succession of wildlife that taught you nothing about the wild, or about loyalty, or about ferocity, or greed or want, or anything else. Goldfish, gerbils, that sort of thing. For a while, we had little turtles in a dish. You can tell you're through with them when they turn white, by the way.

And so my mother was right of course. I've killed more fauna than a hunter gatherer tribe. But the desire is not a slave to the intellect. I needed another mammal around the house, one that wouldn't do anything I'd tell it to, and the best I could hope for is predicting its behavior a little. No I'm not referring to my wife, although the description is an apt one. Cats.

Cats are the pet for you, if you must have a pet, but don't deserve one. They are what all housepets are, animated furniture. They become part of the fabric of your lives, no question, and fray all the fabric in your life, it's true, but they're in the background, and don't bother. Feed them in a desultory fashion, and every twenty five days or so, they'll deign to sit in your lap and go prrrrrrrrrr. I'm up for that.

My friends have dogs. They never go anywhere, or do anything, without first thinking of how this will affect their creature. They're better people than us, it takes so much tenacity of will to sign up for that kind of responsibility, to be trusted so supremely with the wellbeing and care of another being. One that will never grow up and mow the lawn for you, I mean.

Get up one half hour late one morning, and go to the door to let the cat in, and he'll be gnawing the head off a rodent outside the door, and look up at you and you'll know what he's thinking: "I had to do this myself, you big stiff; and I'm going to throw up parts of this on your couch later, that'll learn you to sleep in."

And so I like the solitary nature of the cat, and its mystery, and the fact that the minute he goes outside, he reverts to his feral self, and the only difference between the little beast and a tiger is its size, and the pink collar he's wearing. He'll shred my wife's clothes for saddling him with that, I bet. Ruins his feral vibe with the woodland creatures.

Two cat is best, three cats is madness, four or more and you're a newspaper article. We got two black cats at the animal rescue place, to replace the two beloved animals we buried in our yard after living at our new house for a short while.

Of course they were dead before we buried them, what are you, dog people? Anyway, they had lived a long and happy life, and dreamed every night by the fire of mice with lead shoes, and passed away old.

The Big One was just a little lad then, and we asked him to name the new ones. Moonshine and Sunshine he said. I laid some groundwork for editing by pointing out that they were both identically black, and neither was likely to answer to "Sunshine." He liked "Lady Godiva," for the chocolate color, not the streaking incident, and so it was Moonshine and Lady Go.

Two black cats. Bad luck perhaps. Moonshine was headstrong and roamed far afield, and I found her after a short spell by the road, where curiosity... well, you get the picture, and I buried her in the woods next to the others. Tears were shed. Lady Go was sad, if cats can be sad.
My wife loved that animal. She is kind to all things great and small, and raises we three male beasts in addition to the cat. Pets are tests of your kindness and reliability, and Moonshine tested our hearts.

He appeared out of the woods that surround our house not long after, skinny, sickly, disheveled, wild. White with gray and black, mottled. He'd pace around the perimeter of the lawn like a panther, lean, hungry, feral. My wife considered it a sign, so soon after Moonshine's demise, and she fed that beast. She'd put out food at night, though I told her it was crazy; raccoons and possums and foxes and god knows what else would show up each night looking for the buffet. No matter, HE might get some of it, and that was enough for her. Occasionally we'd see him, closer now, but you couldn't approach him or he'd disappear for days.

My boy remarked the patch of grey atop his head made him look like he had a page boy haircut, although he didn't know to call it that, he just said: He looks like Moe!

So Momo it was.

My wife is kind, and animals know "kind" when they see it. But a cat is cautious, oh yes. After nine month of patience and caution, he allowed her to touch him once, while he ate greedily from the bowl, still nowhere near the house. Just like me, he was finished.

Soon he was eating on the back step, and sleeping on a pile of straw left over from a Hallowe'en display, at the corner of the house. And then one day, when a year had passed, she put the food in the back hallway, and left the door open.. He came in over a period of ten minutes, still terrified, but curious. She closed the door behind him. And he went CRAZY.

He made that traverse of 38 feet from end to end of the house over and over, launching himself at the windows in the doors, crashing to the floor, and racing to the opposite end for another leap and collision. My wife and little boy scurried around shrieking and trying to reach the doors to open them before he got there, but he was everywhere, and frantic, and they were trapped in the house with a wild beast. They finally got one open, and he was gone.

As my wife recounted the tale to me when I arrived home from work, I had to stifle a smile. She thought she had blundered, and he was gone forever. She doesn't know men very well, I thought to myself. Though all she gets all day is we three men, men, men. She had become the sun around which that little creature orbited, as had we all, and sure enough the next day he was back.

And shortly thereafter, he was sleeping by the fire, and making that prrrrr noise, a little peeved about THAT UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT AT THE VETERINARIAN, but exhibiting to this day the only attitude that cat owners generally envy their dog friends.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Trying To Bat .400 For The Season

Ben Franklin was an interesting fellow. He had a wide range of experience compared to many of his contemporaries, who were educated farmers from Virginia, for the most part. Having experience in many facets of life is very useful, I think, if only for one thing: It reminds a person that they don't know very much about any particular thing, never mind most things. I find people who are scholars tend to think they know a great deal more than they actually do, and it's because they've mistaken the library for the whole world. There's a whole world of books in a library, but that's not the same thing. Oh, and politicians: You can't run the whole world if you're bright and expend "sleep on the couch in your office" effort. Scholars don't know much; you don't know anything.

Franklin and many of his peers wrote lists and papers and folios and whole books filled with advice on mundane matters. I have a wonderful book written by George Washington as a young man called Rules Of Civility, and while it's great fun to read, advice like "don't stick your knife in the salt cellar if it is greasy" is of dubious utility right now.

George was only thirteen when he wrote his book on civility, and he really wasn't writing, per se, he was copying imperfectly lessons he was being taught, in French, which were just tradition forms of etiquette. You can easily trace Washington's lessons back to Il Galeteo, written by a Jesuit priest named Giovanni della Casa in the mid 1500s in Florence. Renaissance Humanism manifested itself in many more ways than naked statues and paintin' on the ceiling.

Anyway, there's lotsa dopey stuff mixed in with perfectly good advice in Washington's book, which is interesting but not useful, and explains why Washington bowed instead of shaking hands, for instance. But you can still read Franklin -- lots of Franklin -- and use almost everything to your advantage, and it probably will continue to be useful 300 more years into the future.

In a way, you can simply hold up your life to Franklin's advice and make your comparison. Rank your success as a human being on a sliding scale and it will have an uncanny correlation to how closely you adhered to his advice:

Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

You can refrain from sticking your greasy knife in the salt cellar all day long and be a wastrel jerk. Franklin listed the thirteen bones in the decency skeleton, right there for you.

Me, I'm just trying to beat Ted Williams' batting average.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Ash Pits of Hades

We have a tradition here at the Sippican Cottage. And the tradition has been born and tweaked and upheld for over a decade now, and has offered me a perspective on what tradition really means, if only in a small way.

Neither my wife or I had any idea what to do in a garden when we were first presented with the miserable patch of ground outside our exurban door. Our childhood experience was suburban, but our families, like most suburban families of the last generation, were essentially of the urban mindset, if not location. They moved from third floor walkups to suburban ranches, but there was more than a little bit of the rented flat about them forever.

My own father was not a gardener, by any stretch. He mowed the patches of wan green in between the vast stretches of brown on our lawn like a good citizen, but that's as far as it went. He always had the air about him of a man who should have a newspaper and a pot of tea on a table surrounded by cobblestones -- he's no farmer.

My mother is much more adept in the garden, but I got none of it. There was always something of the urban in her gardening too; more windowbox gaudy than sedate pastoral charm. I was of no use to her as a child, and only learned the simplest things about planting: mix dung and peat in the hole and water it. It was enough, in a way.

I read a lot of gardening books. Some were very serious. You can tell a serious gardening book; it doesn't have any pictures.

The mass of books I looked at, the ones with nothing but pictures, had the whiff of the fast food restaurant to them. The old advice: "If the menu has pictures of the food on it, it's not likely to be haute cuisine" applies to gardening as well.

There's a kind of cognitive dissonance to most gardening in the suburbs, because the whole layout of the houses and the surroundings is flawed, generally, and the visual confusion it engenders leads to a kind of Home Depot delirium tremens in landscape design as well. The home might be put on a kind of country manor house lot, but looks like an urban design, or a home that belongs in a desert is stuck in a jungle, and so forth. Fill in your own stucco nightmare here. A sort of incoherence seeps into the proceedings, garden included.

We've murdered enough plants to get Gaia knocking on our door with a mob of woodland nymphs with pitchforks and torchs, while we tried to figure out what to do, where. But while we are not born wise, we learn -- if haltingly -- what works, and what looks appropriate, and what helps to blur the distinction between in and out, and porch and lawn, and lawn and woods, and woods and world. Just between you and me, the books without the pictures help some, but the beating the world gives you trying desperately to grow things is the real education. I'd skip the Feng Shui picture books altogether, if I were you.

So every year, we put the geraniums in the pots on the front step, and in the window box on the shed, with some vinca vine to trail down and wave hello in the breeze a bit. We divide the hostas and put them around the yard, in the shade, here and there. We tend to the rhododendrons and barberrys we had the presence of mind to plant in the right place a decade ago, getting dividends we earned the hard way which almost banish the cruel thoughts of all those shrubs that did not survive an immediate razoring to the ground by hungry deer. We mow the grass in gentle curves, as nature intended, not laid out as if by laser like a farm plot. We hang a few dipladenias outside windows we want hummingbirds to favor, and we steal the tall phloxes' freeseeded progeny and the bottomless well of pachysandra one plant provides, and we know it will work, and we know how to work it. We caress the lamb's ear to remind it to carry on. We leave great swaths of our property wild, and only clean out the buffer between, a little, to provide the transition.

Tradition is a kind of faith; you trust it will work because you trust it will work. I bet many traditions, like ours, are born every day. Sometimes you wish that someone could have told you what to do, instead of having to figure it out yourself; but would you have listened anyway, if the book did not have pictures?

Friday, May 05, 2006


I forgot who it was. Friend of my wife, I think. My wife came home from work one day, the long slog up the highway and back over, a few shekels in her pocket, a slight aureole of weariness glowing around her, and handed me one of those nasty plastic pouches that have replaced paper bags at the supermarket. In it was an awful, dirty, watery fistful of hosta, given to her by one of her coworkers. It looked exactly like some half masticated frond a stegosaur might have spit out over some perceived unwholesomeness. It was too muddy to throw away, so I planted it.

I planted it with all the hope for resurrection I had when I planted the poor cat out by the swamp when she had strayed too close to the road and broken our hearts. That is to say: none. The hosta was nothing to me, but where else would I put it, but in the ground?

Of course it grew, because we left it alone and didn't care about it. I've divided that hosta four times or so in the last eight years. Our yard is very shady, and there always seems to be one more spot that could benefit from its variegated if everyday charms. There's a period in the summer when the long delicate stalks appear like magic from the center of the plant, and wave their delicate bell shaped flowers to the breezes, causing the hummingbirds to favor our yard like an Alfred Hitchcock/Doctor Seuss hybrid project. We croak the bird book, looking for the correct term for all those little irridescent wonders. Flock?Swarm? Gaggle? Herd? Pod? A murder of hummingbirds? We're the only people who get them like this I guess, and so we'll have to coin the term:

An unentitlement of hummingbirds.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

More Housepainting

Here's another housepainter of note. John Singer Sargent. The "house" is the magnificent Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. John Singer Sargent is the Greatest. Painter. Ever.

Of course art is not a competition, or shouldn't be. American Idol and throwing people off an island one by one is about the process, not the end result, after all. The world is no smaller or crabbier if I tell you I saw Michaelangelo's and DaVinci's and Sargent's daubs, a foot from my face, and it's Sargent hands down for me. The rest don't go on the bonfire after such a statement, I just look at them in a different order. Picasso shows up later on that same list, right after all of my children's efforts, and several of my dropcloths.

Anyway, Sargent, like many of his brethren, got the urge to eschew the canvas altogether, and just start painting on the walls behind them. It's a different animal, and he approached it differently than his other work. He painted this, on a tympanum above a doorway at the MFA, around 1920. It's marvelous.

Well, AIN'T IT?

Sorry. You're entitled to your own opinion about it, of course. It's just that, if it differs from mine I don't want to hear it.

Lots of people didn't like this particularly when he painted it, along with a few acres of additional plaster at the MFA. They all sound like stooges now; Sargent sleeps serene.

It's in what would be called Neo-Classical form, and some called Neo-Wedgewood eclectic, because of the chaste color schemes and themes, no doubt. It's a testament to the train wreck in the art world that was going on at the time that those were hurled at him like epithets.

The Danaides is the theme. They are a Greek allegory, whose story is variously told. They were the fifty daughters of a king, ordered to marry the fifty sons of the king's brother. Woody Allen doesn't have anything on the ancient Greeks, does he? At any rate, they agreed to wed their cousins, while conspiring to murder them on their marriage bed. Only one of the brides declined to kill her spouse, as he was the only one to decline his marriage prerogatives.

The Danaides were consigned to Hades, and as their punishment, they were made to try to fill a vessel with water, but the vessel had holes in the bottom, and their chore could never be completed. The thankless task is a recurring theme with those crazy Pelopponesians, isn't it?

Sargent knew what he was doing. That which we call art, or sophistication, or civilization, is the continous attempt to fill a bottomless well. You must strive always, or the urn will be quickly emptied. This artist is acknowledging perhaps that his work, no matter how famous or well regarded, is ephemeral; and that the process of trying to capture the beautiful, or the important, or the sublime, and hold it up like a roadmap -- or better, a mirror -- must always press forward, lest we slide backwards. There is no point of stability between barbarism or civilization; it's just a matter of which way we are heading.

Sargent was cursed to pour it, over and over again, into our urn. We are grateful for the water, for as long as it lasts.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

House Painter

I've had lots of interesting jobs in my life. I've had lots of very uninteresting jobs, too, but they always seemed to turn interesting somehow too. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm unlikely to figure it out now.

I used to paint. I've painted lots of things. Plain things. Ornate things. Big things. Little things. Important things. A long, long time ago when I was a young man I was offered a job by a man I hardly knew for a project that was just beginning. He said he was painting the White House. There was something about the offer that told me that all the "interesting" was on the cover of the book, as it were, but all the pages were blank. It sounded exciting but turns out boring. I am not generally wise, but I turned it down, and had a glint of recognition a few years ago, when I read an obscure notice in some publication that the job was completed. "My mind is kind," my older brother says often, meaning we often forget that which is unimportant, but I think 6 presidential terms had gone by in the interim. I'd had 4 or 5 careers.

There is a reaction, somewhat common at the Post Office, which is featured on the news from time to time, that inflicts people who seek a sinecure and then are faced with endless quotidian diet of the same damn thing. Be careful what you wish for.

Anyway, I used to paint on the walls. There's a long and proud tradition of painting on the walls, and I was allowed to be included in that tradition, even if it had a little less Michaelangelo to it than maybe it should have.

Tromphe l'Oeil. Fool the eye, it's called. There's a fellow named Graham Rust who's published a few books about it recently, and is very good at it. If I had dedicated my entire life to it, or at least as much of my life as the average White House painting job lasts, I'd probably be about half as good at it as he. I dabbled. It was fun.

It's hard to explain fool the eye. It's like a joke; if the audience doesn't laugh, it's pointless to explain it. It's not a mural exactly, it's more like an illusion of depth or space or material. The lines between all these various kinds of painting on the wall are fuzzy. It falls in and out of favor, but goes all the way back to a cave in Spain. Any Steely Dan fan knows that. Out of favor or not, it's not going away any time soon. Upon reflection, it's not the only thing I have in common with stone age men.

The picture above is a powder room in a fairly elaborate sort of Gothic revival house. The owners of the house were the nicest people I've ever had as customers. Everyone who knows them would give them a kidney, but they don't need any. They wanted interesting things to look at in their home, and I hope they're still interested in it after all these years.

I jabber all the time. But like many who talk too much, I don't reveal much, really. The words are for you; my thoughts are my own. But I'm going to explain why I did what I did in that room for the first time, ever, although it's been over ten years since I did it.

People would rely on me for advice, guidance towards what was possible as much as what was desirable. And when I was smart, soemtimes I'd offer advice that was pointed towards the ultimate benefit of the end user, without them really understanding it. That's risky, for if you fail, you can't go back and explain why you did what you did.

There was this magnificent house. You'd walk in the front doors, which were massive mahogany items, and enter an big hexagonal foyer, with a marble parquet disc in the center of the floor copied from a portion of the floor at St. Mark's in Venice. Two and a half stories up there was a mural of the sky. But the architect was trying too hard to impress, and forgot his real job. The very first thing you noticed in that house, the thing that caught your eye first and foremost -- was a toilet in the powder room off this foyer.

Trailer park meets mansion. The powder room was very small, too, but the ceiling was high, as the first floor rooms had high ceilings. It was like an elevator shaft with a crapper in it. As the picture demonstrates, it's hard to get far enough away from anything in that room to even get a picture of it.

I painted all that stuff on the walls and ceilings with the help of my brothers, and the owner of the house later told me that she couldn't keep anyone out of that room. Her children were instructed to use one of the other numerous bathrooms in the house, but they'd sneak in there to look at the stuff on the walls, sometimes even when they didn't need to use the toilet.

The owner was pleasant enough to tell me that the little powder room was the most memorable thing in the house to a visitor. I was pleasant enought to refrain from telling her that it was even more memorable, in a different way, before I started.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

I Feel Good -- You Should Too

The world is a wonderful place. It's hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes, and the fellow weaving in the next lane jabbering into his cell phone while eating a submarine sandwich and occasionally nosemining can distract us, no doubt. Many things intrude. But sometimes, if you're available for wonderment, you can have a moment of clarity.

On the ocean is a place for moments of clarity. You cannot be in a motorized anything, unless the motor is turned off, because you're just a commuter if the engine is running. Sailing's better; contemplative.

You can't sail like the kind of people who always want to tug on the lines to get an additional half a knot out of their breeze bucket. You need the kind of sailing where you set the sails, and fix your course to nowhere to allow the fewest interruptions, and lay your leg over the tiller, trail your hand in the water, and consider your situation. Coronas with limes never hurt either.

You have nowhere to go, and nowhere to be, and after the second time you take them, your sailing companions must lose the urge to talk about the process of sailing in an enthusiastic fashion and simply enjoy it, and the company. And with the sky arrayed overhead, and the sea below, you are content to examine the world dispassionately. And the beauty and simplicity of the clouds that drift, the terns that swoop, the wavelets that tap their gentle knuckles on the windward side, the feeling of motion snatched without struggle from the endless breezes that massage your cheek and sail alike allow you to enjoy the world and all its wonders, and everybody in it, if just for a moment.

That's a complicated and unusual apparatus to distill the elixir of life, ain't it? We need to find ways, every day, to get the simple flavor of the sublime, in an esspresso dose -- short, fast, concentrated; ephemeral but available.

Two minutes of pop music can do it for you. It has to be good. It can't be serious. Serious pop music is an oxymoron. You're not saving the world, Bono, you're just a preening middle aged man in a ridiculous getup who's first job is to entertain, but you never got around to learning how. I'll raise my hand when you're Woody Guthrie. Don't hold your breath. On second thought -- do.

My bad. We're filled with love for our fellow man today. Our fellow Irishman too, last paragraph notwithstanding. Maybe's he's trying hard but failing. I'll leave him be. You too, if he makes you smile.

It's not supposed to sound like you're trying hard, even if you are. Try hard in rehearsal. It's generally best when it's a melody that sounds about fine whether played by a chamber orchestra, a busker, or a chicken pecking it out on a toy piano. The lyric is generally best about as complex as a nursery rhyme, a little obscure maybe, but with a hint of the recognition of the sublime percolating in the background, and hints of the whole daft fabric of shared human experience like a breeze blowing over your face.

It should be over in one minute fity eight seconds, and comprise one third of your quarter's worth of selections in DiMeglio's Pizza's jukebox in 1968, too.