Friday, June 30, 2006

Eighties Seconds Street

Let's have a second helping of eighties music, shall we?

There were various things going on. Rock music went down the rabbit hole of self absorbtion, was lured into a swamp by Sargeant Pepper, and eventually drowned in a puddle of overseriousness and studio filigree. The Ramones swept the board clean by saying: three chords two minutes ten words four guys. Period. Sorry, ELO.

The glams and blues rockers and the operatic types stuck to the arenas, a sort of Broadway for fist pumpers.

Punks were like a dose of castor oil. They were supposed to be fast acting purgatives to the system. They decided they liked the trappings of the elite freaks they had sought to topple, and became a kind of Cromwell to the rock edifice's King Jameses. They said they wanted to destroy it, but they liked replacing it just fine, thank you.

A lot of people snuck in there with the punks. If you could use your plumage or plinking to attract attention to yourself, you could always do what you wanted later. The Police were the paradigm here. We're punks today, and playing jazz tomorrow. I'm making the comparison right now, you heard it hear first: Eighties music was the equivalent to the blogosphere of the last five years: Set your hair on fire, get noticed, attract an audience, and then run with it.

But there was another stripe of entertainment I loved that flew in under the radar too: The Buskers.

The Buskers are not a band, but it would be a great name for one. A Busker is a troubadour, the fellow standing in the subway with his guitar and maybe a friend strumming a guitar and cadging change. A Busker is the guy in the beachside bar on thursday night telling jokes and playing folkie guitar and singing along--with you. The hardest thing in the world is to stand alone, or perhaps with one friend, and entertain a crowd. The worst bands have the most people in them in the rock world, generally. Beware the spackle trying to hide the musical cracks.

There were a million of these guys (and dolls) spawned in the eighties. They'd tart themselves up every which way, get an audience, and then do whatever they wanted. And I always loved to hear the intrinsic entertainment in the offerings.

The kings of this are Squeeze. They made a maiden video of astonishing fun and spunk with Chris Difford croaking "Cool For Cats" genially, the double entendres spilling out like a drunken Chaucer. There were chicks dancing right on stage, and a kind of barroom band banging away behind, and their mod/cavern rocker/pre-draft Elvis/Louis Jordan jump/ stripped down rock ethic won everybody over. And then they let Glenn Tilbrook loose.

Glenn Tilbrook is still the best male singer outside of opera I have ever seen perform. He's a really inventive and talented guitar player too -- both electrified rock and folkie. And it's really rare to find someone that can write interesting things and has the necessary musical ability to perform them properly. Let's face it, we suffer through Dylan's and Van Morrison's voices to get at the lyrics and the vibe. I went to a what was supposed to be a Squeeze show, and ended up in a tent watching Difford and Tilbrook perform alone, strumming guitars and singing. They explained that they had lost all their money, and had to go out and sing for their supper, alone, again. No matter.

It was like listening to the Buskers on the platform at the subway to heaven. All of the aural wallpaper was stripped away, and just the voice, accompanying guitars, and good humor shone through, and you saw what entertainment was supposed to be no matter the form: a connection between the song, the singer, and the audience. There's no fist pumping like the arena. There's no fashion show contest between the audience and the performers like the glam rockers and divas. There's no posturing and nihilism like the metal bands. There's no distance like the arena or the festival.

Watch this, from 1989. It's just plain fun, and fun to watch them freak out the interviewer who forgets exactly who he's questioning. You asked, so he told you, dude. Quirky ain't a pose with them, just you.

It's like elemental entertainment; the difference between the television and the fireside. One's more sophisticated. The other, the older one, radiates real warmth, and though it's really just the same thing over and over, the flames dance, don't they?

[Editor's note: Blogosphere please take note --I have determined, right there at the end of this video, the exact place and time the idea of mass self-mutilation by tattooing occurred to the entertainment industry, and through them, the general public.]
[Author's note: There is no editor]

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Senses Working Overtime

I know you like the back of my hand, dear reader. And right through these here internets, I can feel the vibrations and emanations. Your chakra and your aura and your vibes come through, and as I lay my hand on the cpu, I can hear it, in my very bones:

what about the eighties?
Getting clearer now, less faint:
The seventies were dreadful; stop talking about them! You're harshing my mellow!
Honing in on the signal now:
Please, god, I wasn't born yet. No more Lulu!
OK, OK, what about the eighties? Was the music any fun?
Why yes, it was. But it takes more rooting around in it to find good stuff left over from the eighties. The most poplular song in the eighties, ten weeks at number one, was Physical by Olivia Newton John. Or as we used to call her in our little LA combo back then: Olivia Neutron Bomb, referring to her ability to clear a room, leaving only the furniture.
Land sakes, look how bad the most popular music was in the eighties:
Lionel Ritchie
Michael Jackson, post nose
Kenny Rogers
Bonnie Tyler
Kim Carnes
Madonna before pitch correction equipment, still looking a little doughy
Rick Springfield
Human League
Toni Basil
Duran Duran
REO Speedwagon
Sorry. I'm not channeling Howard Dean; it's just that I got to that last one-- whom I renamed DOA Meatwagon -- and I felt the urge to plunge a number two pencil into my eardrums.
The first thing I ever wrote was twenty-five years ago or so, a review of the DOA Meatwagon show at the Providence Civic Center. I've never met a more loathesome bunch of people than those guys and their entourage. My friend Steve LaBadessa was a photographer, and got a superb photo of the security guards dragging some drug addled schlub out of the arena, none too gently, either. When the guards got done tharashing him, they turned towards us, saw the cameras, then decided perhaps the photos of the proceedings would be best if unpublished -- and came after us. We fled like footpads, them in hot pursuit, our press credentials waving behind us like a Sopwith Camel pilot's scarf.
Look, this isn't going well. It wasn't that bad. Let me show you the best of it, the encapsulation of the zeitgeist in pop music, and still damn good fun: XTC

The eighties were a time when the world was waking up from a kind of torpor, or stasis. New possibilities were opening up. The shooting wars had calmed down a bit. And the ideas from the technology and commerce side of the aisle were ascendant, and things got downright hopeful compared to the enuui mixed with depression the seventies encapsulated. My high school yearbook in 1976 had a two page spread that simply had the word APATHY in big letters across it. Hey, when you're taking a beating, sometimes it's best to curl up and wait for the blows to stop raining down.

Anyway, XTC encapsulates the marvelous and clever hive of activity that eighties music was, if you scratched the chrome off the arena rock edifice and looked a little deeper. They embodied the ideal of a few talented guys writing quirky, pleasant, tuneful ditties for our --and their own -- amusement. It was nice to see people look like they were having fun, and not taking themselves too seriously for a change. To paraphrase Jeff Lebowski- God, I hate the Eagles.

XTC look like dweebs, and they are. The lead singer and one of the founders, Andy Partridge, canceled a whole tour because his wife hid his valium, and he was terrified to go on stage without it. He really belonged in a cubicle somewhere, or a library or something. He wrote songs about his comic book collection. His sort of Star Wars action figure collector comic book guy ugly guitar buyer home studio recorder computer geek TV Guide obsessed Avengers wannabe persona didn't exist yet then in pop culture. Everybody's like him now.

We dragged poor Andy out onto the stage he feared so, to distill the intellectual and the artisitic and the pop culture wag "vibe" into those toe-tapping songs. My, they were clever.

Enjoy it. I did. You've worn out your Talking Heads records anyway.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What Is Hip?

Well, this is:

You know who's hip? The geeks, the joiners, the outcasts, the loners, the scholars, the poor benighted souls holed up in their basement banging away at their instrument while contemporaries drift through their daily amusements. The guys and girls with the slide rules and the soldering irons and the metronomes and the rickety chrome fold-up music stands. The ghastly dweebs with ink here and there on their hands and exacto knives in their drawer and pushpin holes in their subject material. They've got glasses like deep sea sub windows and pants hiked up like a flood's coming. They've got collections of manuscripts or lp records or fruit crate labels or Beatles butcher covers but they haven't got any furniture or a set of clothes that match.

And they're busy all the time while their friends are out having the mindless fun we all covet but the hermit can't participate in, because the fun stops the minute they show up.

Eventually, the geeks stand up facing the beautiful people, and let it out --the distilled essence of their efforts, the cream skimmed off the top of their monastic intellectual efforts. And the shiny happy people, the people that know how to dress, and to schmooze, and to look like more than they are, the ones that travel effortlessly through this life --they turn, and are transfixed, and say:

That is hip.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Chick Flick

I'm not subjected to chick flicks much. My wife is a perfectly sensible person, and is not in need of much "Sisters Gettin Their Groove Of The Ya Ya Yanni Ripped Bodice You've Got E-Mail You've Got She-Male Altar of Andie MacDowell A River And A Spotted Liver Runs Through It." She's not much interested in westerns either, whether they're of the John Wayne variety or the more recent cuddlin' cowboys. Thank the lord.

But then again, she's not all that interested in watching "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Godfather" over and over again either. Chicks are like that. I guess. What the hell do I know about it?

But if I had to point out a chick flick, and say convincingly it's both good and estrogeny, could I do it? No fair saying "Groundhog Day." Everybody likes that one. It's like saying your favorite book is the Bible during a presidential debate. Yeah, sure it is. I bet you read it when you're in the bathroom and at the beach, too. Yeah, guys like "Groundhog Day" too, but all in all, we'd rather watch Sonny Corleone hit his brother-in-law with a garbage can lid. Again.

OK, so you hold a gun-- or perhaps, a curling iron --to my head: pick a chick flick that's good and chicks like.

That's easy. "To Sir, With Love". And the music's good too:

You can make a lot of money making bar bets about who sang that one. Take action all night long on Petula Clark and Shirley Bassey, and then clean up when you tell them it's Lulu. It's the best kind of trivia question, too; everyone has a guess, and everyone that guesses wrong says: "Of course!" when you reveal the answer, not: "Who?"

Why is "To Sir, With Love" a chick movie you ought to watch, especially if you're a chick? Because it's about becoming a woman,and doing so by shedding all the infantile delusions young girls have about being an adult, and really being one. Let's face it, if this movie was made today, the teenage girl Judy Geeson played would blossom as a woman by sleeping with the teacher, that handsome Sidney Poitier. That's icky all around, and forty years ago, they knew that. Do you think you'd find this quote in a movie today:

"I am tired of your impudence, rough behavior, and sluttish manner. There are certain things a decent woman keeps private. If you must play these disgusting games, DO THEM IN YOUR OWN HOME AND NOT IN MY CLASSROOM!"

It's important that people barely grown don't think they're being adults by doing adult things in a childish way. Why chicks put up with movie after movie of old men trying to cadge one last blast of jerky adolescence out of the world at young girls' expense, like vampires, and watching young women submit to such indignities as an entre to adult society, is beyond me. I don't much care for the obverse of that seedy coin either-- old broads trying to find one last landscaper to sleep with them before they swap the G string for Depends. Double ick.

Back when they made this movie, people could still write sophisticated lyrics with a sort of narrative in them-- neither a sermon nor a simple exhortation to nihilism -- and people still knew how to sing them. And as you watch little Lulu belt it out, you can hear her gratitude and admiration for the man that allowed her to be an adolescent while coaxing her into being a real, adult, woman. A woman person.

Yeah; it's a chick flick. Chicks are people too, ain't they?

Monday, June 26, 2006

I Feel Fine

I've made money, in varying, modest piles, playing four different instruments at one time or another. I never learned to play any of them properly. Funny that; the topic of playing them properly never came up -- it was rock music. I've been paid to show up and own the instruments occasionally. It ain't rocket science.

My older brother can play properly. He's a scholar, and a performer, and a teacher. That's the correct formulation for any endeavour, by the way: learn, do, teach.

Anyway, I told him, a long time ago, that I wanted to learn to play the guitar. He said fine, and plopped The Compleat Beatles down in front of me. It's two very heavy books of sheet music of all the Beatles' songs. It's in there, he said; just learn it.

I remember how he had painstakingly learned to play Beatles and Stones and assorted pop songs in our parents' living room by implacably picking up and dropping the needle on the scratchy records and listening to little bits of it over and over and over, and pecking them out on his guitar. And then he would perform them with his friends and get girls mooning over him like a Beatle.

He was eight years older than me, and I got interesting looks from some of my teachers in high school, of the female eight-years-older-than-me variety: You're Garrett's brother? He didn't... ahem -- er, mention me, did he?

I got away with murder, I'm tellin' ya.

Well, he'd figured it all out a long time ago, the hard way, and so could point you right to the right place, right away. And he's right, of course, the distillation of the american country blues and pop song and the british music hall ballad is all in there. The Beatles dug it all out of there for you.

All that's left is for you to go and get it.

Lennon flubs the lyrics halfway through. Like it matters.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Rain Comes Again

The rain comes again
Trying, as we all do
To get to where it must go
From where it is

It will go back
As we all do
To where we belong
We may linger; we do not stay

It has no malice
Comes quietly
Leaves silently
Wearing away even stone

The leaf catches it
It cannot hold
The turf waits
Only a moment

Unnecessary, but welcome
Aren't we all?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Don't Be A Jerk

[ Editor's note: It's the summer; sometimes we rerun things]
[Author's note: There is no editor.]

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. Because 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.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

People Get Ready

I was a child in the sixties, a teenager in the seventies. The natural trajectory for a young man in the suburbs would be to embrace rock music. I never really did.

They were too much like me, perhaps, the arena power chorders. Aerosmith used to play in my high school gym, after all. I wouldn't change the channel if Bachman Turner Overdrive came on, and I had a well worn copy of Frampton Comes Alive, just like everybody else, but that was about it.

There was a jukebox in the lunchroom at our public high school. It was a revelation to me after spending my grammar school years in Catholic School. The nuns would have no more brought in a juke box than a Wiccan into our lunchroom. Upon reflection, it's the nuns that got it right. It was a symptom of the profound unseriousness of the place that the public high school supplied the same soundtrack a teenager demanded in his non-school life to muddle through it.

I could probably list every single song in that jukebox, down to the most obscure, and it was over thirty years ago. Not much of it was very good. But it was generally fun and disposable, like popular entertainment should be, but rarely is, any more. There was:
Led Zeppelin
Harry Nilsson
Dr John
Rolling Stones
Eric Clapton
The Beach Boys
Moody Blues
More Led Zeppelin
Grand Funk Railroad
Elton John
Billy Paul
Billy Preston
Earth Wind and Fire
Still more Led Zeppelin
Gilbert O'Sullivan
Looking Glass
Marvin Gaye
The Rasberries...

Well, you get the picture. Nothing much recorded at La Scala. Nothing much recorded in a gospel church. Now having enough money to put into a jukebox was a foreign concept to me. The thing would play anyway, and you'd hear everyhing in it no matter what, eventually. I recall the only time an insurrection against the thing was mounted, when some wisenheimer pumped a buck or two into the thing and selected "Dogs Barking Christmas Carols" 15 straight times. After about five minutes, a grim and resolute shop teacher marched over, pulled the enormous contraption away from the wall, and yanked the plug. I'm certain it's the only cheer the prickly old fellow ever heard from his charges.

This one comes back to me though, and kindly:

The man, and the topic, was a world away from me. I was unlikely to adopt his huggybear/trotsky cap or his owlish glasses. But really, to a fifteen year old, looking into a world of dead ends, who could say it better, and funkier, than Curtis Mayfield?

Ask him his dream
What does it mean?
He wouldn't know...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Disk Dog Ate My Digital Homework

I took lots of stunning photographs of Newport, Rhode Island on Monday afternoon. By stunning, I mean I was stunned to find out the information was corrupted and I lost 75% of them.

It was only a few years ago I would have blasted away with a 35mm Canon "cannon," brought the coated plastic plugs of film to the processor, paid a small child's ransom, and received eight hundred assorted out of focus unusable snapshots. So I'm not going to complain about what might have been; it was never very good. At least degraded ones and zeroes don't cost anything but your time.

But it's you, dear reader, who was cheated; I still had the lovely afternoon with Mrs. Sippican, and the bangers and mash I had for lunch in an open air Irish cafe has stayed with me as tenaciously as any pleasant memory. (Pounds chest gently; Excuse me!)

When you are a photographer, you are disconnected from the proceedings in a very real way. You are an observer. And when you have that lens-y thing in your hand, you're always looking at the world differently, searching for the next thing to point it at. I had the most fun inside the museum I extolled yesterday, because the camera was put away. And I have a much more vivid memory of the child's bed in the attic room than I do of that cabbage rose I stuck the lens right into from yesterday's essay.

That's why you read books to understand things. A movie is another's idea of something. The act of conjuring up the vision in your own head of the topic at hand, a requirement of reading, makes the vision yours. And if I had the pictures, I could write fabulous bon mots about the whole affair, and you could assemble a gossamer image of it in your head, and vicariously live in Newport for a minute. Now you're more or less SOL.

Except for these:
Extreme age softy molded by the touch of a million hands and the gentle scrape of a million shoes. There is nothing quite so lovely as something cared for but old. Nothing that gets used to replace this configuration of material, design, maintenance, and just plain love will ever get to be this old. Fiberglass, steel, plastic, resin -- bah! It's all designed to look brand new for a little while and then get chucked in a dumpster. There's no picturesque in plastic.
Roses. Fence. Grass. Wood. Paint. Repeat as necessary.

What a magnificent mess. I've spent countless hours looking for such a wreck to resuscitate. I gave up after a while, and built my own wreck, but still. This place has had the most benign sort of neglect. It's the "fixing" that kills a place like this. The average handy person at the Home Depot would ruin everything about this place that makes it interesting, all because the paint is peeling. Vinyl siding would have been plan one for everybody involved, no doubt; I'd like to slap everyone that even considered it. Pressure treated this and false muntin that, and in no time, this place would have looked like every other suburban tract house in the snouthouse/ranch/colonial/japo-scandinavian/moorish tile/wrought iron/gay nineties/swiss chalet/corbusier abbatoir/bauhaus/prairie/cottage style. Then we could have knocked it down and put up a concrete block dry cleaners.

Don't laugh; The Samuel Whitehorne House Museum I showed you yesterday was turned into a dry cleaners/flophouse, and about to be torn down, when old Doris Duke purchased it and restored it.

Sometimes --you can't do it; they can't help.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Mrs Cottage and I Have a Date

Mrs. Cottage and I had a lovely afternoon yesterday. I worked all day Sunday, and like a madman on Monday morning, to set aside the afternoon for a little excursion. We ditched our kids with their grandmother, and set off to Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport's a lovely place. It's a town made of wood, and I find the colonial architecture melded into a lively modern scene a tonic for the senses.

There are flowers everywhere. The roses reach out their arms to tap you on the shoulder and cadge you for a look. Their thorns buttonhole you like an importunate hawker at a carnival: Look at me! I'm fabulous. Step right up and see me. You find yourself turning around to look back at what you just saw ten feet before --did I just see that? Was it really that pretty? Just like the housepainters did when Mrs. Sippican walked past.

There's an impression many people share for a kind of ideal city living: Quiet streets, old houses fronting right on the sidewalk, little plots of land with well tended but unfussy gardens, common areas of greensward appearing regularly to break up the houses and exercise the dog. People are busy but not frantic, there is street life but not clamor, and there is something to do, some peg on which to hang the whole thing, that informs the visitor what the ultimate essence of the place is --raison d'etre.

Newport comes as close to this ideal as I can muster. And the raison d'etre -- the Atlantic Ocean-- makes it especially lovely. Only Florence Italy beats it, and they had Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci on the payroll there; it's like cheating, really.

We go places, when we go there, but it's really not necessary. You can just wander around and gape at the quotidian. I'm not normal, and have a greater than average interest in such things, but I find myself examining the heads on the wrought iron nails used to affix the clapboord siding to the three hundred year old houses, until my wife yanks on my arm and says: Hey loser, look at the flowers.

Completely by accident after lunch, we came upon the Samuel Whitehorne House Museum. It' s not as well traveled by tourists as the big attractions of the Gilded Age Mansions on the other side of town. The museum's right in the middle of the bustle of the barrooms and other plebian haunts, and there's a working wharf across the street, still visible out the upper story windows.

We went in not hoping for much, but were rewarded amply with what I can only describe as a kind of furniture porn. The house was saved from demolition in the 1960s by Doris Duke's cigarette money, has been ably restored and cared for, and is filled with furniture made by the two conjoined twin families of the specifically Newport and generally American Townsend and Goddard furniture makers.

Want to know what the fuss is about Goddard and Townshend furniture? Go into any antique store and tell them you found some in your attic and it's kinda gloomy what with the ball and claw feet and nasty mahogany and you want to unload it. Watch the proprietor wet his pants and clutch his chest. They just fight about which museum the stuff goes in, at this point.

The difference between seeing the pieces of furniture they made in a restored colonial manse and seeing them in a sourcebook for furniture geeks is like the difference between a Victoria's Secret model's picture, and a Victoria's Secret model's phone number pressed into your hand at a nightclub. Sometimes the theoretical isn't enough to fully appreciate the situation, as it were.

There were only five people on the tour. The poor docent, who was a lovely elderly lady with an aristocratic Austrian accent, must have thought I was an off-duty second story man casing the place for a robbery later. I could feel her eyes on me as I lingered in each room looking at each piece of furniture while she was talking about the wallpaper in the next room.

Come to think of it, I did rob the place. I steal with my eyes.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

You Say It's Your Birthday

I'm forty eight years old. I don't care.

I've cheated death a few times. I've had good fortune, and I've been royally screwed. I've had money, and I've had none. I've gone hungry for a little while.

I've been simultaneously propositioned by one woman while being assaulted by another-- both strangers. I've signed a few thousand autographs. I've been recognized on the street by passersby, confusing my companion. I've gone unrecognized on occasion by my own relatives.

I blinded everyone in my chemistry class in high school. I counterfeited money in shop class for a lark. I was nicknamed "The Phantom" by that chemistry teacher, because I was constantly truant. I was a National Merit Scholar.

I've performed dangerous backbreaking labor. I've been paid to teach frisbee.

I've been a welder in the desert. I've had pretty secretaries bring me coffee.

I've saved a few people's lives. I've seen a man murdered.

I've worked for charities. I've committed vandalism. I've been robbed a half dozen times. I've stolen things.

I've been thought a clown. I've been considered dreadfully serious.

Half of the employees at my last job called me Mr. Rogers. The other half called me the Prince of Darkness. They were all correct.

I've been picked on like a sissy. I've knocked a man senseless--that struck me first-- with one blow.

I'm very polite. I have a terrifying apoplectic temper.

I've worked with people for four years and never said a word about myself, despite the fact I talk all the time.

I made a joke, in a foreign language, in a foreign country, and people laughed. I've been booed, loudly, before.

There was a stretch of my life, lasting one third of it, where I was profoundly unhappy all the time. I doubt anyone knew that.

If I could live a thousand years, I wouldn't change a goddamn thing, if it meant one fewer minute of sitting at a table I made, in a house that I built, across the table from the wife I won, watching the children we made smear their dinner on their faces.

Happy Father's Day

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Real Deal

Working today, but I don't mind. Sometimes the smell of the wood shavings and the gentle sigh of the teeth of the saw in the cut make up for the time taken from leisure.

This guy's likely currently demonstrating the adage: "I'll sleep when I'm dead." His hard work is remembered, though. How many people reading this know how to use that drawknife he's got, or has ever seen that "dumbhead" shaving horse he's sitting on? Those shingles he's making by hand come in a big cardboard box now, neat as pins, fashioned entirely by machines, and ready for your house.

It's unlikely the modern fellow applying them to your house is wearing a fedora. Money ain't dignity.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Hammer Time

My older boy is ten. He's infinitely interesting, and not just to his parents. Like many of his peers, the best description of his personality is born old. That is to say: he's preternaturally sophisticated, and is endlessly interested in adult things, without ever losing that joie de vivre that we all envy the young. It's interesting to field questions from him now, and try to figure out what's happening just below the surface of the inquiry. There are no easy questions anymore. And sometimes I wonder if he asks me things just to see if I'll run out of answers. And the time for making stuff up is over. The world's not that mysterious to him any more.

We have him help out with the family business a little. Once a week he empties out the various vacuum cleaners, sweeps the floor, bundles the trash, and totes that bale a bit. He gets paid, and tracks this payment on a spreadsheet to determine how much he's earned. And he cashes it in when he wants something bad enough. It's a testament to how much times have changed, that often as not it's software he wants. Sheesh.

He really isn't interested in what I do. He's dutiful, and a joy for his company, but he's not handy. Strangely enough, I'm not really handy either, and have worked my whole life to counterfeit other's easy ability with tools. In boatbuilding, they use an expression: His mallet don't ring. What they refer to, is when a man would caulk a wooden boat, he would strike a metal iron with a wooden mallet to set a string in the seam that seals the planks from leaking. A good caulker could gently rock and strike the iron to set the seaming cord almost effortlessly, and the mallet would "ring" as he struck it. It's like watching someone play a stringed instrument well. For the rest of us, it's like trying to shove a snake up a drainpipe.

His mallet don't ring. It's not pejorative. It's an assessment. It means effort is required to accomplish the same thing that comes easily to others. It has a tone of awe, sometimes, to acknowledge greatness, born greatness: His mallet rings.

My boy's mallet don't ring. But he soldiers on next to his father, and counterfeits ability with effort. Someday he will find the thing that makes his mallet ring. But I shall be prouder of him for the effort he puts in on the things that must be done, than whatever he accomplishes doing what he'd care to do. An Olympic Gold Medal is nothing compared to a Silver Star, after all.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Lots of things have gone south in the last twenty four hours. Nothing much; just a little string of annoyances that seem like Marley's chains dragging behind you. Impediments, not disasters.

Blogger keeps eating my words. You'd think I'd stop relying on it, but thinking only gets you into trouble -- so knock it off. Hit publish and get file not found. Grrr. Mouse dies. You pick it up. Cursor races around the screen unwonted, then closes the browser. Grrr. Dehumidifier dies ten seconds after the warranty expires. Grrr. Poison Ivy. Grrr. Lumber yard bin is empty of the material you want. Grrr. More rain. Grrr. Wake up with a headache. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

The coffee's good. My wife's attentive. That's good. And my son's last day of fifth grade is today. He starred in an off-off-off-fairly far off Broadway production of The Boston Tea Party as John Hancock, along with the rest of his fifth grade class last night.

I had work to do. Grrr. I didn't need the interruption. Grrrr. I had to hurry to the shower. Grrr. I stepped on a" Bionical" in the shower. GRRRRRRRRRR. Why do they leave that in the tub? Why not a nice soft rubber duckie? GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.


We're seated. There will be a delay, the teacher mumbles inaudibly.

They were wonderful. All of them. We didn't know whether to laugh, or smile, or cry, or beam, or brag, or applaud, or what. My little boy stood at the front of the stage like a trouper, and delivered his lines with verve and panache, and his friends were equally successful, and we all had a wonderful time.

Hey look; it stopped raining.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Treasure. Your kids have treasure.

It's no wonder they love stories about pirates. Well, Patchy the Pirate, anyway, until they're a little older. Then it's Kidnapped; Swiss Family Robinson; Robinson Crusoe; Treasure Island; 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The Pirate Trial of Mary Bonny and Ann Read.

SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow--a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

Robert Louis Stevenson- Treasure Island

Able seaman or corsair, the trusty locker is always there, for your Hot Wheels or Bratz or crayons if not your cutlass, doubloons, and sextant. And any kid needs a place for their treasures, someplace not too neat, where you can rummage around like a little attic looking for something you've forgotten to catch your eye and capture your interest. And so we make the box.

Can't be too high from the floor to the lid, or the little one's can't reach in. Can't be too low, or they tumble in while they're fishing around in there.

The one drawer is the best part of this one. All the little bits and pieces of things that go to the bottome of the toy box and languish, unseen forever can go in the drawer and stay handy, and puzzles have a place to live too. Little ones love to operate drawers and doors and lids anyway, and so they can get busy with the drawer and the lid before they get busy for real.

We can make this out of poplar, an affordable hardwood that paints up well, or perhaps Eastern White Pine for lightness. Solid wood, we want to think about your kid's kids. No plywood except maybe the drawer bottom. Egad, no particle board. Particle board furniture is junk, and always will be. It won't hold a fastener. It disintegrates if it gets wet. It outgasses formaldehyde for a long time. It will be in the dumpster before it stops smelling like a glue factory and your kid is in junior high.

We'll paint the exterior, and rough it up a bit, as it will get that way anyway, and might as well look like it's been to Fiji and back right away. Inside, we'll use the original lacquer- shellac. It's interesting stuff; made from the discarded shell of an insect, the lac bug, the flakes gathered and dissolved in pure alcohol. Once it's dry, it's edible, so no worries about that. We'll put an anti-slam closer on the top.

It needs a drawer pull and some sort of handles on the side. We'll scour the hardware companies for just the right things. But that's the thing, right there, at least in prototpe form. We need working drawings, and then we build a prototype to see if it's any good, and tweak it if it's not.

Or burn it if it's really not.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Just A Bunch Of Stuff That Happened


I love this picture. I love the Spanky style clothes, the leather shoes, the hissing radiator, the chipped basin, and man oh man, look at that cowlick. The poor little fellow isn't going to get anywhere with that, though he's giving it a go. Only momma's spit can paste down a cowlick, and this poor little fellow's mom had to go off to work, and leave him to wrestle his devil ears by himself. The year was 1943, and I imagine she's making something for the armed forces, and the little fellow's dad is too, or is in the armed forces.

And so he's left in the care of someone barely visible on the right, and among his peers. I like watching my own sons pal around with their friends, and try to watch the proceedings without participating as much as possible. Your very presence intrudes, and staying in the background allows them to sort things out as much as possible among themselves. And it's fun to watch them try to do things that you take for granted, but they're still learning. The effort of it, and the satisfaction after is amusing. When they're older, the mileposts of accomplishment get fewer and farther between, and instead of daily trophies, you get yearly diplomas.

Whoah, wait a minute. A daycare center for working mothers in 1943? That's unpossible. I thought all you Stepford Wives were freed from domestic bondage in 1968 or so, when your 1950s Ozzie and Harriet manacles were finally broken. But there are hundreds of pictures like this in the Library of Congress, from all over the country, and innumerable picture of Rosie the Riveter to go along with it. 'Splain it to me Lucy.

I'm going to make 100% of the audience angry now, which is hard to do. Usually, either 50.5% or 49.5% hate you for what you say. But I'm going for the whole enchilada today:

A. There was no evil man-plot to keep women out of the workplace before.

B. There was no evil government plot to destroy the family by ramming women into the workforce.

For all you folks that think we evil white men get together twice yearly and plan how we're gonna oppress everybody, you need to look in our closets. We can't dress ourselves without help, just like the little fellow pictured above. Secretly ruling the world is unlikely.

For all you folks that think it's all a government plot to bring socialism to middle america on black helicopters, you need to visit the Post Office. Look around. The government can't figure out what it's doing. If you can barely tell what you're trying to do, it's unlikely you're trying to wed it to an evil purpose.

It's all, as Homer Simpson says, "just a bunch of stuff that happened."

My wife stays home and cares for our children a little, and for me a lot. Many people see that as example "A" above. Not so. It suits us both, and our children, and we can, so we do.

Earlier in our lives, our oldest was shuffled off to daycare so we could both work, and many people saw "B" above. Well, we needed money. Half of it did go to the government, after all.

But he's pretty well adjusted. He doesn't recite "Let A Million Flowers Bloom" and scream 'Death to the Capitalists" because he swapped germs with a dozen of his peers when he was two. And his mother gives him a whiffle in the summer, so no cowlick. In short, we all survived.

Then what are we to make of it? It easy:

A. We're all rich

B. People are valuable.

Women work now because there's a shortage of people. Women worked in 1943 because there was a shortage of people -- of the male, induction age type. And women, like men, can be lured away from the joys of the home if it pays good enough. And since as the years pass, and the amount of heavy lifting required continues to diminish, and the jobs get more sophisticated and lucrative, and human ingenuity and sophistication becomes more important, employers must do everything they can to lure people into the workforce. Like pay the world. And overlook the occasional childbirth interruption.

People blithely say the world is overrun with people. Okay, smart guy, try putting an ad in the paper looking for help. Let's say you're fussy. You don't want meth smoking child molesters or people that sleep at their desks. You're gonna have to offer a lot to get anyone, and if you're fool enough to exclude enormous swathes of the population because they're, well, girls, you're going to be sitting waiting for the phone to ring for a long time.

And we are all rich. Let's not be ingrates and complain about opportunity in America. We have problems, because human beings are imperfect. But the largest problem among poor people here is obesity. Tell someone in central Africa that any of us is not rich, and they'll likely disagree. And ask you for a dollar to eat for a month. We're a rich enough nation to pay people to be poor, and get obese. That's rich.

And so, some of us work outside the home. Some of us work from the home. Some of us work in the home. Some of us place our children with other children when they're one or two. Some wait until they're five. Some of us wipe bottoms. Some of us pay to have those bottoms wiped. Some people don't work, because they have money, but ignore their children and leave it to nannies to take care of them. Some people work, and spend every waking hour left with their children.

It's just a bunch of stuff that happened.

Busy Today

Busy today. How about you?

Monday, June 12, 2006


The blessed sun returned yesterday, and we luxuriated outside, lulled by the gentle gurgle of the sump pump drainage hose. When the sun revealed itself, finally, the grass made one of those cartoon noises -- something like: sproingggg, and grew three inches in three minutes. An enormous, silent osprey kited overhead, eying the children. If birds can do arithmetic, this one was. Let's see, the little one weighs about thirty pounds, give or take, and I've never picked up a rabbit that big, but he'd feed a family of four raptors for four weeks, easy. But he looks kinda doughty, and might struggle. Let's find a few chipmunks, what do you say?

The big son was out of the question, of course; that's him mowing the lawn. The one barely three is the center of attention now, and charms us with his googoo and his antics. But the mellow ripening of the elder son into a little man is another whole enchilada of wonder for his father. I still can't get over the idea that I have a child old enough and responsible enough to mow the lawn. I literally am in a kind of awe of him. He seems sometimes too good to be true.

I wonder if he'll like me when he's grown. A man newly minted likes to put some distance between himself and his father, generally. You are left wondering if whatever affection he might have for you will trump his desire for independence, and drive him to mow your lawn when you really need some one to, not just because it's fun to watch him do it.

And yes, I'm writing this because I manifestly love that little boy and his even littler brother, and the mother that raises them to be as charming as they are -- and because I'm too busy making furniture to finish the plan for the toybox today.

One thing I've noticed about the two boys -- they eat a lot.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Friday Slog

Endless dreary rain.

It was more interesting when it was raging down like a monsoon. Now it's just limitless, piddling, annoying dismal dripping.

The sky is dishwater, the ground coffee grounds under the sink. The sodden leaves weigh down the branches, and the trees slump like mourners. The birds sleep in.

The ground is sated, and more. Every little seam and pinhole in the basement weeps the water flung on the ground outside a week ago. It's an assault, but the worst kind; a siege, slowly but inexorably finding the weakness in your subterranean parapets. The sump pump has become the central theme in my life.

There's often a marvelous moment, late at night, when it first starts to rain. You're warm and comfortable, it's late or early, and the rain, gone for too long, reappears with a little sizzle on the windowsill, and then the steady drops drum on the roof, and you drowse and dream of creek, the river, the ocean.

That's ten days ago. Now the sound of the rain is like the tramp of an occupying force, implacable, smothering, brutal and cold.

The windowboxes are aquariums. The toads drown in the window wells. the mosquitos hatch, and hatch their plots for the summer, when they will remind us of the awful rain long after it's gone and we miss it.

The grass is as green as Cambodia. Water glints through the underbrush, reflecting the dull sky from the most unlikely places. It seems like it will never end.

And sure as age, and death, and taxes, and the turning of the earth and the rising of the sun, on the day it's over, I'll get a postcard from the town, announcing the water ban.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Back To The Drawing Board

OK, here we are again, making things. Children's toybox/footlocker things. And here's a kinda sorta example of just the sort of thing we can use to get the style of the thing. It's too big. Don't worry about that. It's got two drawers. Don't worry about that. My scanner stinks, and it didn't capture the magnificent color of the thing properly. Don't worry about that. It's entirely through dovetailed along each corner, which will make the box more expensive than starting a laboratory, doing biological research, reanimating the corpse of a Shaker, and asking him to make it. Don't worry about that either.

Don't worry; be happy. These are all modest problems. The part we don't have a problem with trumps them all; the thing is sublime. Marvelous. Neat-O. The rest is conversation.

To review, the picture is from The Encyclopedia of Shaker Furniture by Timothy Rieman and Jean M. Burks. It's a coffee table book that weighs more and costs more than a coffee table. It's chock-a block full of marvelous pictures of Shaker furniture and the Shakers themselves. It weighs about twenty pounds. You can buy a copy right here, if you like:

There's a sort of decaffeinated coffee table version of the book too, if you're not feeling flush, and want to save some money to spend, on, oh, I don't know, Sippican Cottage furniture or something, here's a link for it:

The notation in the book mentions that this Shaker piece looks vaguely non- Shaker. The diamond shaped escutcheons for the keyhole and the dovetailed box are considered "worldy," details. Shakers called the rest of us "the world." It's a fine example of american country furniture style, however worldly it might be. Let's monkey around with it.

First, we'll make one drawer. That'll keep the cost down, and two aren't really that important. We just want to keep the bottom of the thing from being where little toys go to languish and die the death of being ignored.

Second, we're going to lose the dovetails. They're expensive to execute, and they're overkill in this instance. Dovetails are part of a tradition of woodworking that goes back before high quality glue was available. They form a mechanical bond that holds together well without any adhesive, hence their appeal. And they look neat. But the thing we''re making need to be affordable, and not too fancy. We'll dovetail the drawer sides, to impress the neighbors. We'll use simple rabbett joints at the corner of the box itslef for strength with simplicity.

We'll change the dimension from the original 26" high x41" wide x 22"deep. It' s too big. The original is not for a child. The Shakers raised children but didn't have any themselves, hence the scarcity of Shakers these days. We're in the know about chldren so we can make this a better size for a kid's needs. Let's try 22"high x 36" wide x 15" deep.

We'll monkey around with it some more tomorrow. Ow! Paper cut. Woodworking sure is dangerous. I'm going to go use the table saw; it's safer.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Pay Attention To The Smile Coming Out Of The Radio

Billy Preston died yesterday. There's bound to be a little frenzy around his name today, and then he'll drift into a kind of trivia question obscurity. Occasionally one of his songs will waft from the radio, and amuse or annoy you according to your tastes; he was alteratingly trivial and silly and funky and soulful and bubblegum and gospelish. You're bound to entertain at least some people, blasting all that into the ether; and the popularity of his friends, the Beatles, and the songs he played with them, will ensure that whether you know his name or not you'll hear him for a long, long, time.

Billy Preston was born in 1946, and never really did anything but play music, right from the first. I've seen the odd picture of Little Richard in his prime, touring some godforsaken and forgotten place, lounging in a cheap hotel room between shows, his band crashed out on every horizontal surface; and there's Billy Preston in the corner, probably no more than fifteen years old, out on the road with the men. Wild men, at that.

Little Richard made friends with the Beatles, and they made friends with Richard's phenom sideman, and when Apple records was formed by the Beatles to ostensibly allow them to escape from the music business, Billy Preston cut the first version of My Sweet Lord, George Harrison's lovely little paean to gospel songs. It was a flop. But Preston's version is so much better than Harrison's; it informs it with the soul that George could write, but didn't have the easy talent to perform. Listen to Preston play it:

There was a period in the early seventies where you couldn't go ten minutes without hearing Billy Preston come out of the radio in one form or fashion or permutation. He played with everybody. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The aforementioned Little Richard. Sly and the Family Stone. Bob Dylan. Hell, he hung on long enough to play with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And on top of all those snippets of him, you could hear him play his own lively disposable pop numbers, all huge hits, one after another:

I Wrote a Simple Song; Outta-Space; Will It Go Round in Circles; Space Race; Nothing from Nothing. He won a Grammy for Outta Space. From 1972 through 1975 he seemed to be on the radio all the time.

Like many people in the entertainment industry, Billy Preston succumbed to drugs and booze, and was profligate with his money. He eventually got caught trying to burn down his house for insurance money. He was addicted to cocaine and booze, and pleaded no contest to assault. His life was a wreck, and then his health was a wreck.

He eventually seemed to straighten himself out, and began playing again. He was still immensely talented and well regarded. But his earlier abuse of his body seemed to overtake him, and got him in the end.

Sometimes it seems that demons attack the most vulnerable souls. It was nice that Billy Preston could make our lives a little sunnier. I hope a little of that sun shone back on him, and he could feel its reflected warmth on his face before he left. After all, we all knew him as a smile that came right out of the radio.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Now What Do You Want To Do?

OK, we're making something. Here we are making something. We are so making something.

What the hell am I going to make?

It's really not that difficult. As they say about writing, you just stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

Well, when in doubt, sweep the floor, I always say; let's examine the process first. Here's the criteria for a piece of furniture:

  1. Will anyone want one?
  2. What is its function?
  3. What style is it?
  4. Can I make it?
  5. Can I make it in a cost effective way?
  6. How big is it? Can I ship it?
  7. What makes it special?
  8. Can I find examples or comparables?
  9. What will it cost?
  10. What time is lunch?

1. Will anyone want one? Is easy generally. People tell me all the time the kind of stuff they want me to make. I've got lots of stuff in the catalog with suggestions for improvements from customers integrated in them now, or the idea itself born of suggestion. The ideal suggestions come from my wife. She never says anything for months at a time, being of a taciturn nature, then says a thing like: "If I trip over on more pull-back car in the middle of the night in our child's darkened bedroom, I'm going to put poison in your cornflakes." Hints such as these let me know that children need places to put their things that exceed the wildest ideas of parents and architects alike. OK, we'll make something for the tot's toys.

2. What is its function? I told you once already: I don't want poison in my cornflakes, and the kid has lots of stuff that has no natural home. It needs a bin for it until he goes to college and we can try to throw it all away and fail miserably and simply weep over each and every Happy Meal toy like some holy relic. So it's got to be built to last.

3. What style is it? The paradigm for children's things is the footlocker. The lidded box is king, let's make one. Sort of a seaman's chest, or a stage box, as they called the thing you gave to the highwayman when they held up the stagecoach. We'll batter it up front because it's going to look that way anyway right quick. And it really shouldn't look like Sesame Street anyway; it's furniture, and if it's useful and handsome they can use it forever, even as adults. I'm useful and handsome, and I'm still going strong, for instance.

4. Can I make it? I can make any darn thing, thanks, but this is particularly suited to my shop. If I can't make a box with a lid, I'm ready for a bed with a lid.

5. Can I make it in a cost effective way? The thing has to have value added; that is, a toy box is nothing special. And "Nothing Special" can be made in Indonesia for pennies and I can't compete with that. So we're gong to make it like something a person would treasure and give to their own youngins when they grow up and make the same mistakes we did. And we're gong to make it out of solid wood, and right there it's better than 99% of the other examples out there -- everybody that has the child safe particle board toy box from Poverty Barn knows it takes you kids fifteen minutes to rip the screws from the pneumatic child safe closer on the lid, and that particleboard won't hold a screw. SLAM!

6. How big is it? Can I ship it? Sizing this thing is easy. Most toy boxes are all the wrong size. The sides are too high for little ones. They're too big front to back generally, and the little ones end up climbing in them to reach things in the back. It tips over and the lid comes down. That's bad, right? Skinnier, longer, and less deep makes for good proportions for such a thing, and the shipping companies will accept it too.

7. What makes it special? Here's where we go down in the annals of design: We're going to put a drawer in the bottom. Everything in the bottom of the toy box goes there to die. Your poor children break toy after toy trying to get to their little treasures in the bottom, but they can't do it. We need a place for puzzles and little things that get lost in there, that they can get to without climbing in the box after it.

So we'll mimic the first step in the long process that started with a lidded box, then slowly added drawers from the bottom up, one over another, until the whole thing was drawers and they just nailed the top on. You knew that was how we got the modern chest of drawers, didn't you? Well, you do know.

8. Can I find examples or comparables? Sure we can. I found a lovely picture of a lidded box with one drawer in The Encyclopedia of Shaker Furniture by Riemann and Burke. There are two examples, actually, and strangely, one is Bog Red, and one is Delft Blue, two Sippican Cottage Furniture colors. I say "strangely," because I bought this book last autumn, and I've been selling things painted those colors for four years now. That's why you go about things in a sensible fashion. When reality catches up with you, it matches up with your fiction. The boxes are too big, they are designed for adults, but the form and proportions are sound. The book costs more than the furniture we're making, by the way.

9. What will it cost? We'll make one to see what it costs. Offhand, drawers cost money. They're very labor and material intensive. But there's only one. There's a substantial amount of wood in this thing too. Three or four hundred dollars maybe for the whole enchilada.

10. What time is lunch? Lunch is at 11:00. When you start real early, that's noon.

(more tomorrow)

Monday, June 05, 2006

Disregard the Man Behind the Curtain

I realize that it's not readily apparent from reading my paeans to seventies pop musicians, but I make furniture. It's a tangible art, like architecture, and has certain limitations, which to me make it more interesting.

You see, art isn't supposed to have limitations any more. Limitations are considered stultifying and constricting -- square. And so we have stories that tell you nothing -- comic books are now graphic novels; movies are just a bunch of stuff that happened, with explosions and murders to hold your attention; television is nothing more than a catalog of human discontents; the painting world has decided to hang the dropcloths on the wall; and the man on the corner muttering to himself isn't a bum any more, he's a performance artist.

But it's the limitations that define the accomplishment. If your only limitation is your own mind, then you easily slip into the most constricting of modes: I'll shock everybody! I'll say doody poopy! at a funeral. I'll wear my underwear on the outside of my clothes. I'll eat the paint and puke it on the canvas. There will be religious icons smeared with bathroom offal, oh yeah. I will scream singsong expletives at a volume that will make the microphone superfluous --in a love song.

Yawn. If your approach is simply a sort of artistic palindrome -- by that I mean you just do the opposite of the people you consider squares, you're just as square as they are, but you've added another layer of being derivative; that's it.

Furniture shouldn't be a kind of joke. It has to function in the real world. There is an enormous industry of Art Furniture loose in the world. They make furniture that looks hostile -- and is-- or alternately, looks supple and sinuous, but hurts your butt endlessly anyway. The entire industry seems to be entirely made up of both producers and consumers trying desperately to empty out their trust funds. It is a closed circuit, however; the money keeps going around and around, never achieving the thrust necesssary to escape the gravitaional pull of the atelier. They all wear funny glasses however, maybe that's where the real money is to be made. But I'm not an optometrist.

But the "citizen soldier" of the tangible arts is hard to find too. If you are unaffected by the urge to call yourself an artiste, you are likely prone to making gun cabinets out of nasty stringy oak and stained early american; nothing stylish please. So they're of doubtful utility too. When I visit the furniture stores, where real people shop for things to plop their butt on, the utmost facet of the design process always seems too prominent to me: the furniture has pastiche postmodern affectations of a certain style, or several styles mixed together, but the overriding concern with the needs of the factory not the user shape the furniture to the point where it looks more like the box furniture should come in than the furniture itself. And for all these reasons, people like me plug away at making things that aren't a sort of thing, they are the thing itself.

It wasn't always this way. Pattern books were published by the directors of furniture making shops, outlining their approach, along with copious examples of what they were doing. Proportion, style, method of construction --it was all there, and even if you didn't read very well, you could take the measurements right off the drawing and get to work. I still have and use many of these pattern books, written by men whose names you instantly recognize: Hepplewhite, Chippendale, Sheraton, Stickley. You can learn a lot by pawing through architectural books by the likes of Vitruvius and Palladio too. The aforementioned furniture designers certainly did.

I stick to Vitruvius' three legged stool of design elements, the three things that must be satisfied if you are going to make a piece of furniture that's a success: Commodity, Firmness, and Delight.
By that he means: ask yourself: Is it comfortable enough, is it strong enough, is it beautiful enough?

One leg of this "stool," sometimes two, is missing from your average piece of furniture. In the Art Furniture world, occasionally someone hits the trifecta and misses wide of the mark and mucks up all three aspects. He or she usually gets showered with awards and has really unusual frames on their glasses. Someone that lives in a Corbusier house writes them a big fat check, and the circle of trust fund life is unbroken.

I'm going to design a piece of furniture this week, as the catalog is getting ready for more items. I thought you'd be interested in how that happens. What the hell else would I write about anyway? Do you want me to link to a video of Eric Carmen and the Raspberries from 1975? OK, maybe next week.

Anyway, I'll tell you how I do it, and show you how it turns out; and when it's done, you can tell me: Is it commodious, is it sturdy, and is it delightful?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Ode to June

June is the king of all months. Now, I'm not qualified to offer an opinion on the king of all months in Calgary, or Phoenix, or Oklahoma, or the Seychelles, but I know June in New England as well as anyone, and let me tell you, it's sweet.

June is the monthly dessert after eight months of eating your calendar vegetables. June is the coins rattling in the tray after you pulled the lever of life for all those bleak, grey days of early spring without effect. June is the ball crossing the stripe and swishing into the twine at soccer. If you're the forward, I mean. If you're the goalie, the other eleven months are the ball crossing the line, and you, defeated, looking up from the mud as it sails past. June is the save.

And that magnificent long gentle slide from the longest day of the year (that's in June, of course) to Columbus Day, is the payoff for having to scrape your windshield frost with an expired credit card, without gloves, in February.

June is the first month you look at the fireplace and try to recall the last time you really needed it to take the chill from your bones that the winter pounded into them. And you close the fireplace flue, in a ceremony like the immurement of a Pharoah in his pointy stone temple, to slumber for the ages that pass on the calendar until you resurrect it in October.

The hummingbirds peer in your window, wondering when the delicate bell shaped flowers you put out for them each year might be ready, but too polite to knock. The finches sing outside the window, replacing the sound of the scraping of the snowplow on a distant road just before daybreak. The finch is preferable, I think.

That houseplant that you ministered to like a hemophiliac prince all winter, and looked each day like it would collapse in a pile of dust and corruption if you forgot to water it hourly, goes out on the porch in June, and untended, grows like a two year old child does, washed only by the warm gentle showers of June rain.

And in the evening, which seems to go on for days, the gloaming lowers itself gently on your head like a crown; the bats begin their endless circles overhead, their leathery wings beating time to nature's tune, and whispering in your ear as you walk the yard between the luminous Hostas and ferns; all the while illuminated only by the rich dregs of sunshine left in the June day's cup, and the fireflies.

And the ocean in June, dear reader, the ocean. Nature erases the line between earth and sky, and you feel as though you could sail right up the wall of the heavens if you could just get to the horizon, to trail your fingers through the firmament. The clouds float by one by one, like lone teenagers at a mall, unable to coalesce into a gang, and so, without the others to goad them on, they smile and look almost cheery- and a little silly if they try to puff themselves up into something threatening.

And when the thunderstorms come in late June, to settle the dispute between the earth and the sky, with the ocean third man in, the great anvil headed clouds rise up to the earth's ceiling and break open like a pinata, bringing the great gift of a cleansing summer rain to cool the air and pop the humidity like a bubble in the bath. And then it's over, and the air is filled with bracing ionized air, as if you lived under a waterfall; and you walk shoeless in the grass outside the door and watch the birds gather themselves for another take at their improvised opera. And if the storm tales a pole, and the electricity with it, no matter, for the sun shines until you're done with it, and you wink off to sleep with it winking back at you on the horizon.

I like June.