Monday, July 31, 2006

Gimme Some Of That Old Time Religion

We'll visit Benefit Street in Providence Rhode Island, dear reader. But first, a diversion.

Sunday is for wandering. My wife pleads for me not to work all seven days of the week, and not-working-but-staying-home is no day off for her. Let's go for a walk, and point the camera at things, shall we?

I've been going to Providence Rhode Island regularly for over thirty years. I've done most everything there is to do there -- thrice over. What are considered hoary old establishments now by the locals are places I go by and recall their predecessors of Jimmy Carter vintage. Hell, Gerry Ford vintage. Damn! Nixon vintage.

I know exactly what my family looks like to the denizens of the part of town known as college hill. Both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design are right there, and the place has had alternated between a bohemian and a faux-bohemian vibe since I've trod the earth.

We have no tattoos. No skinny glasses. No moonboot athletic shoes. No swoosh stripes. We dress ourselves and our children unstylishly, really; to be stylish nowadays, and casual, is to be deliberately poorly dressed. And it's expensive to dress badly; the affectation of poverty costs big, generally. We are neatly turned out, and all our clothes match- that's it. There are no slogans of any kind on anything we wear. My wife has the beauty of a real woman, and her clothes just wrap it. Women wish they were her; I doubt many wished they were dressed like her.

Our children unselfconciously clutched balloons from the burger restaurant, and wore the paper hats given them. They were not being wry- and genuine need not a apply on college hill.

A disreputable street person approached me, and tried to press a pamphlet in my hand, and whisperered that the Marxist something Worker's something Revolutionary something something would set me free.

I know how this works. He is a bum. He is being paid to hand out these pamphlets. That is why he mumbles a slogan that is designed to be delivered like Mussolini from a balcony. He's not getting his dough for drugs or booze or a flop if he doesn't unload the pamphlets, but he couldn't care less what's on it. And I know that if ridding himself of the documents was all he had to do, they'd be in the nearby 7/11 dumpster by now. So I know he's being watched. My conjecture is not disappointed.

We cross the street to promenade further, and head back the direction we came. And there they are: his handlers. They have a card table, and a banner, and folding chairs, and big stacks of said pamphlets, and they see us coming.

It's striking to walk down that street, after over thirty years of walking down that street, and seeing them there. Because they are squatting right adjacent to the location of my own brother's old place of business. They called it an "alternative" bookstore back then, but let's not pussyfoot around; it was a communist bookstore.

Communism is that sweetest of ideals -- we're all pals and should share everything. My brother is smarter than me; he's a better father to his children than me; he's more talented at everything he's ever tried than me; and he devoted a goodly portion of his time to the ideals on those pamphlets I was looking at now, thirty years later, flapping a bit in the breeze outside his old haunt. The Soviet Union was still very much a going concern, back then.

The two fellows eyed me a bit. They scanned my familial situation. I could see intellectual calculations going on behind their severe skinny glasses.

I was doing some mental calculations too. Mine were wobbling between the sort of polite demurrals you have at the ready for the panoply of geeks, freaks, and entreaters of all sorts that come at you in any city, and the unwise urge to tell them how stupid they looked to me.

There are certain things you know without having to be told. And I knew for a certainty that those two fauntleroys have never, and will never, really work a day in their lives. They were each wearing north of five hundred dollars worth of clothing and accessories, minutely calculated to make them look disheveled. My wife, who you perhaps have gathered is a female, would be unable to afford having her hair cut by the salon where these two had their hair artfully arranged to look like they had just rolled out of bed. They are attending schools using money unearned by them, and are out politicking for a lark. The Workers are a lovely abstraction to them. They are going to save them.

I read once that college educated persons rarely have friends that are not. If you press them on that, they always claim their menial laborers as their friends, like a country club swell hugging the landscaper for unbigoted effect. I attended a conclave of writers once, and a nice fellow made a remark about the great unwashed, which took the form of the great uneducated in his vernacular. He asked me directly where I was degreed. I said I was not. He almost fell over me trying to apologize while saying "not that there's anything wrong with that." He was pleasant and didn't understand why what he said was interesting. The idea that anyone present would have a different background never occurred to him; he doesn't have a mean bone in his body, and really, I didn't care.

Well the card table bohemian Marxists loomed large now on the radar screen. I saw them watching the bum they had hired directly across the street, and eying me. And here I was, right in front of them; I was the person they were touting on all those flyers. I was the worker who they would emancipate. I've been a body shop mechanic, and a janitor, and a housepainter, and a welder, and a factory hand, and a starving artist, and a laborer, and every other damn thing. If I sneeze at the wrong time I could still lose a finger or two at work. And I didn't play at working hard for a few months between semesters, and then think I know what it's like to see the horizon, fifty or sixty years off, with nothing but your wits and your back to get you there.

I actually became interested. What could you possibly have to say to me, I wonder?

They sized me up, and pulled their hands back in, and let me pass by without saying anything. They waited a short moment for the next trust fund bohemian to come along, and pressed the pamphlet into their hands with a rousing: Help us emancipate the working man.

The communist bookstore is a Sovereign Bank now.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Happy Sunday

When you examine it, it's just the same dumb thing over and over. Just like life.

Playing a hammer-on note while counting the audience is exactly the kind of droll thing I'd do. It just doesn't take me as long as Billy Gibbons, is all.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

More Than Sticks And Bricks

Well, I found a postcard featuring the Millicent Library in Fairhaven, Massachusetts to annoy you with today. The town's benefactor, H.H. Rogers, built it to commemorate the memory of his beloved teenaged daughter, after her untimely death. Here it is, as envisioned by its builders:

It still looks more or less like this, but there are a lot more mature trees and foundation plantings now, and it's difficult to get in position to capture the whole joint without greenery intruding into the frame. The picture is from a lovely small archive of postcards of venerable things called: Vintage Views.

Of course you can peruse our earlier ramblings about the old place here, and here. Oh yes; and here.

Or just walk up those stairs with me. The pictures always list to the port side these days, as the left hand is being tugged by a certain three year old library devotee.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can assure you that when you see my pictures straighten out, there will be a tear in my eye also.

It is difficult to consider Mr. Rogers' eye.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Not Bahstun; Bawstin!

Well, we laid Jack Warden to rest yesterday. And it got me to thinking. One of the movies I mentioned, The Verdict, is a very "Boston" sort of a movie. There aren't that many of those.

You know the places that end up in movies. Los Angeles and New York and Chicago and Miami and did I mention New York and Los Angeles? Hell, nowadays it's Toronto more often than not because it's cheaper to film there. The Farrelly Brothers have a sort of Providence, Rhode Island franchise going now, but that's just a cool icy rock orbiting around Boston.

Let's have a list, shall we? VERY BOSTON MOVIES.

The rules:

"Rules? In a knife fight?"

Sorry, wrong area, wrong movie. The only rules are that the movie encapsulate the local vibe here, with bonus points for local sights and extra special bonus points for successfully attempting a local patois; or more likely to be efficacious: avoiding attempting a local patois without drawing attention to yourself. John Ratzenburger need not apply.

Let's make it an even ten:
10. The Thomas Crown Affair- It's a lousy movie, really. But it absolutely looks like Boston and environs in the sixties. It's mostly of places the vast majority of working class people in Boston never dreamed they'd be allowed to sweep, never mind mingle at, but what the hell. Faye Dunaway eventually married local favorite and J Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf. Steve McQueen wisely avoided attempting a cultivated Boston accent. His face would have broken.
9. The Boston Strangler - When I'm done with you, you're going to figure Boston is the most depressing place in the world. Let's get the mass murderers out of the way, right away. Albert DeSalvo sums up the crime in Boston forty years ago: There's plenty of it, and we have no idea what to do about it. My friends and I always do imitations of Tony Curtis in Spartacus and The Vikings, talking like, well, Tony Curtis the whole time. Yondah is da cassool ov my faddah. He makes a surprisingly believable weirdo murderer, which might tell you something. All kind of Boston area in there.
8. Tie
7. Tie
Paper Chase
Love Story -
You know, before Al Gore invented the internet for me to make fun of him on, he went to Harvard where the Socratic Method is used and had the greatest love story ever told about Ryan O'Neal based on Al's life. Some persons who are of a more skeptical bent than I doubt the likelihood of these happenings. I don't. Al Gore is just as big a self-absorbed and shallow jerk as the people portrayed in these movies. Enjoy.
6. Jaws- Boston's no where near Martha's Vineyard, where they filmed this thing, but who cares? Everyone in Boston goes down Route 3 every Friday in the summah and goes to the crummy cold beaches on Cape Cod. Who cares? They don't go anywhere near Martha's Vineyard, which is just a pile of rocks and t-shirt stores out in the Atlantic. Who cares? No one has a Massachusetts accent of any kind in this movie. Who cares? They caught that tiger shark, the one they hang up on the dock and do an impromptu autopsy on, off Montauk -- and that's Long Island! Who cares? It's a good movie. The only part that strains credulity is where they get all those people in the water at the beach. On Memorial Day. Try it. There'll be some shrinkage.
5. The Last Hurrah -Not much Boston to look at in it, and they changed everybody's name, of course; but you're never going to understand Boston until you understand James Michael Curley. Curley the mayor used to get kickbacks from contractors for public works projects. Once, a highway overpass collapsed, and his "partners" were in trouble. Asked about the calamity, hizzoner calmly remarked that it appeared to be "an injudicious mixture of sand and cement." Anyone surprised that the Big Dig tunnel fell in on some poor woman and crushed her to death a few weeks ago must be new around here.
4. Charly - Made that street in South Boston famous. It didn't help. The trajectory of every poor Boston schlub: Born dumb, get a little education, lift your eyes up from the mud to gaze for a moment at the bright horizon, and then land face-first back in the mud again. They blame it on mental retardation in the movie, but I think it's the Guinness, myself. Triple points for the scenes in the Kasanof's bakery.
3. Good Will Hunting -There is manifest affection for the whole of Boston and Cambridge in this movie. It's silly, but who cares? They understand the local zeitgeist. Around here every airhead thinks they're a genius, so why not run with it? I punched my fists right through the drop ceiling in my basement room when Fisk hit that home run. A sterling moment in an ultimately losing effort (The Reds beat us the next day to finish it.) -- yeah, that's Boston. Lose proud. I've heard rumors that Robin Williams is a skilled mimic. Where did he find a mentally challenged Vermonter to imitate for this one? One of life's great mysteries. Gives Cliff Clavin a run for his money for crash and burn attempts at Bawstin Tawk. And Will is always on the wrong train. No wonder he doesn't show up on time for work very often.
2. The Verdict -Sidney Lumet made this movie, and you could see he hates Boston. He even drags the characters to New York City for no discernible purpose; maybe he wants to get decent deli or something, which is impossible in Boston. David Mamet's screenplay has people saying very Boston things. The seedy bar where Newman hangs out across from the common is perfect. Pre-Cheers Boston was just like that, trust me. Newman doesn't even attempt an accent, thank god, but Milo O'Shea, the judge, is the ne plus ultra of the successful rogueish Irish twang. The whole mess of a proud city gone to seed is in there; the scene of trying to pull a grip and grin at a funeral is very Boston -- it's usually a politician, though, not a lawyer. They even got the dry cleaning bag hanging behind Newman while he slurs his words into his apartment phone right.
1. The Friends of Eddie Coyle -Everything about Boston is small-time, except our egos. Small time crooks with small-time concerns and small-time dreams drift around a bunch of small-time Boston area haunts. Robert Mitchum tries a mild local accent, and doesn't sound like he's from Nebraska. The bowladrome's still there; the Garden's gone.

Honorable Mentions:
Moby Dick - We're all that crazy in New Bedford.
Malcolm X - I was born in Dorchester, but I'm keeping my last name, thank you.
The Last Detail - They're all drunk in Boston, for a while.
The Brinks Job - Looks like old Boston, sounds like old Peter Falk.
State and Main - Supposed to be New Hampshire, I think; screams Manchester-By-The-Sea to me.
Outside Providence - That's where Massachusetts kids go to meet girls with big hair, when Saugus is too far to drive.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Heaven Can't Wait After All

Jack Warden died. He wasn't young. He got the mention you'd expect for an old hand in movies and TV; chaste, short, each item mentioning the little corner of his life that overlapped the reporter's life. We'll remember his name for a while, and then just his face, always referring to him as "Oh, that guy," and then he'll become the trivia question, and then end up in a sort of famous oblivion. He'll never go away, really, there's just too much evidence of him.

It's telling, about either Jack or me, that all the mentions of his work in the five-paragraph-dead-notices I found here and there mention all kinds of things he worked in I haven't seen, and wouldn't find time to watch if I was confined to an iron lung, in prison. Come to think of it, I bet if I looked through his bio hard enough, I bet I could find a role he played of a guy in an iron lung in prison. He played every other damn thing.

I always liked actors like him. Out of the WW II army with a bum leg, he took a shot at acting, and from there on in he worked all the time. I'm sure he became that reliable name in everybody's rolodex: ready, steady, go. And after a while, you noticed that whenever they gave Jack Warden interesting lines to deliver, he'd deliver them as well as anybody. I did anyway.

He seems to be remembered mostly as being Warren Beatty's go-to guy. He was terrific in Shampoo, where they gave him something to say. It's Warren Beatty who's a stiff that won't lay down now, not Jack. Warren Beatty played a callow lothario in Shampoo to a tee, and Warden played the dissolute businessman foil for him perfectly; no one seems to have figured out that Beatty was good in his role because that's exactly what he was -- a tongue tied dope with too few shirt buttons. Jack Warden was a good actor. Big difference.

Jack has 153 projects listed in imdb, and some have mutiple entries because they're TV roles. Anyone can go in there and find something they liked Jack Warden in. Film critic or Home Shopping Club devotee -- doesn't matter-- there's something for everyone.

There's three things he did that came to mind right away for me when I heard he was dead.

Being There
The Verdict

Those three movies encapsulated, some unintentionally, the clapped out shambles the seventies still represents to me. Jack Warden is marvelous in all three, and steals the show each time.

Watch those three movies. Send Jack home thinking: Man, he was good.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Spring Is A Distant Memory

The end of July is Summer in New England. There's no bones about it. The air is heavy with moisture, the heat more like a sauna than an open oven door. The plants get crazy, pushing and shoving in the beds, reaching out to grab at you when you go by. At night, the bugs on the screens blot out the moon.

The ocean is at the foot of the street, mere miles away, and when the breeze tacks, you can catch a whiff of the salt in it. No siren can compose a more alluring sales pitch. It's delightful to be on the water in July, and there's always the breeze you need to banish the motor. The sun is like a velvet hammer.

I'm a late summer man. I'm not old, but I'm not young. There's as much wake behind the boat as horizon in front of it. I don't mind really. Consider my house.

That's it there, in the picture, this spring. When I was younger, I dreamed of this house, and having the family in it. I had no idea how to get it. I wandered the earth, and had many adventures. And eventually, I figured things out, and did an end around, and made the thing happen. I am happy here.

According to the cult of the adolescent, to which we are all expected to pay obeisance unto death, it's the wanting phase of my life I'm supposed to prolong as long as I can manage it. I'm supposed to pretend there is no finish line, and simply ask the starter to fire the pistol over and over again, so I can know the thrill of beginning over and over again. I demur.

Life is a career, and then it is over. I do not wish to be an entry level employee until the day I am fired, as it were.

That picture is supposed to encapsulate all that I am supposed to abhor about owning a home. It is no longer new. It requires attention, and effort, to keep it standing and presentable. I'm supposed to want a new one by now, or have covered it with plastic to avoid paying any attention to it. But why would I not want to pay attention to it? It holds everything I've ever really wanted. I run my hands over it like a lover, because that's what I am.

It needs painting. I don't mind, because I don't want to go back to the starting line just to hear the pistol.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

You Got Mixed Use In My Sprawl

(Editor's note: This was written before breakfast this morning, but Blogger absolutely refused to accept the picture upload until this evening. Blogger is owned by Google. Forget Microsoft; Google is evil.)
(Author's note: There is no editor.)

What are we looking at here? The short answer is: what I drive by about a mile from my house, if I head away from the water.

There are a lot of defunct farms in New England. Subsistence farming was the occupation of the vast majority of citizens until quite recently. I remember seeing a statistic that at the outbreak of WW II, the majority of US citizens didn't have indoor plumbing. That seemed odd, until you considered how many people still lived on farms.

It's very difficult to grow food in New England. And over time, as transportation improved, the production of food became remoter to its consumers. We routinely eat food that is flown to its destination now. Amazing.

So the farms got bigger, and more efficient, and moved to where the ground didn't "throw up a fresh crop of rocks every year," as they used to say in New England. What are we going to do with the land?

For the most part, it's become forest again, or houses. The houses we notice. The forest part gets overlooked. There's a lot more forest in New England than 100 years ago. And when you walk through it, you occasionally come across the rubble foundations of the houses where flinty people whacked at the flinty soil generations ago. Their descendants are playing Playstation in a 3500 square foot ranch in a subdivision, and don't even know where the food comes from. The supermarket, right?

It's restful to drive past the hayfield. They tried to raise sheep there a few years back, but either the shepherd or the sheep got tired of it, apparently. That's feed hay in the rolls there; I often see bales elsewhere for construction silt fencing too. There aren't that many animals to feed, but there is plenty of construction and wetlands around.

The land has become valuable. The farmer who cleared it 250 years ago would have to visit his outhouse when he found out what the city slickers would pay to whack his farm up into houselots. He'd laugh in there, and then straighten his face and come out and get his millions.

I can guarantee you that there will be very heated discussions at town committee meetings and petitions circulated and laws passed and invective hurled when this property is offered for sale for houses to be built on it. The word "development" will be spat out like a curse, and the words "sprawl," and "pristine," and "save" and others will be bandied about. Because nobody knows what they are looking at.

That lot is as developed as any houselot. Trees were cleared, the granite boulders, worn smooth and round by glaciation, were stacked along the perimeter, and the farmer had a go. The land is already developed; just not to its full money potential, what they call in real estate "best use."

What you're really looking at there, and what I like, is a form of "mixed use." And every single person screaming at the meetings about developing the land into houses wouldn't allow mixed use anything, anywhere, in their town, ever -- and so are kinda crazy. They just see a house as other people, and don't care to see any other people, I guess. But more than any more houses, they refuse to see anything that isn't houses anywhere near their house.

The loveliest places around here are mixed use places. You can walk down the streets, there's a mixture of commercial, residential,retail, restaurant, government services, parks, and so forth. I take pictures of them all the time and folks write me and say: That's lovely; "I wish I lived there instead of this nasty subdivision I'm in." And planners are always trying to invent places like that, but they always turn out like Potemkin Villages. Not real. Because the thing they are trying to achieve isn't allowed, and you can't plan that which must arise spontaneously.

My neighbor builds dock platforms in a barn and in his yard. I hear him banging away over there occasionally, or the sizzle of a welder. At night, I hear the coyotes ranging through the woods; but I also hear the pumps in the not-too-distant cranberry bogs. My neighbor grows herbs for sale to restaurants and a small local clientele. We're too spread out to comprise any sort of village, but the mixed use part is there, if imperfectly.

Someday, somemone will complain about all that stuff, and zoning laws will be enforced, and the NIMBYs will triumph; and this place, where people say 24/7 they don't want sprawl, will have nothing but.

Because they won't allow anything else to happen.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Money Changes Everything

It is gratifying to see effort rewarded.

My good friend Steve is an excellent father to his two boys. His older son, Flapdoodle, is twenty years old, and wishes to follow in the old man's wake a bit and play music with his friends. My avid readers will recall that Flapdoodle is Mr. Pom Pom's brother, whose brush with death and musical greatness we recounted here before.

Now, I've known Flapdoodle since he was a wee bairn. He's always been a nice kid, and afflicted with a kind of adult poise from a tender age. He was "born old," as we say. And every spare minute, he's been plunking on his guitar to learn how to do it. And he's got college age friends now, who are similarly thoughtful and fun and dedicated to making music for the amusement of others.

"Making music for the amusement of others" is more than just learning how to play Stairway to Heaven, halfway through, in your basement. Everybody wants to be a rock star. But the local bar don't need no rockstar. It needs you to learn how to play your instruments properly, gather the proper equipment, figure out what the audience would want to hear, and show up on time and work hard. And I can assure you, all that's rarer than hen's teeth.

Father Steve is both mildly demanding and helpful. Flapdoodle goes to college now, and spends his summer working at a beachside restaurant/nightclub, working hard in the kitchen. Steve used to play in that same nightclub twenty years ago. When Flappy's done, he comes home to the apartment over Steve's garage that he and his musical compatriots rent from Steve.

I'm not sure, but I don't think Steve is getting wealthy off the rent.

Steve cleared out half the basement in his house, painted the floor, and they cobbled together the equipment needed to simply go down there, pick up instruments, and bang out a four chord song. It's much more marvelous for not being lavish.

Steve tells me the band works down there every spare moment, and he's gratified to hear them really applying themselves and trying to get better in an organized and intelligent way. They don't make the mistake most aspiring musicians make --to just plunk away indefinitely at the same old thing, never really learning it, never giving much attention to the wants or desires of any prospective audience. Rock music suffers from festering self-absorption enough without adding any of your own on there. It's not rocket science. But it ain't that easy to be entertaining, either. Steve helps them when he can, and mostly helps them by not intruding much. He always seems to be around when they can't remember the end of "Light My Fire," though, and the door opens up a crack while they argue over it mildly, and Steve says F C D and they're back at it again.

They were going to get their chance last weekend, until nature intervened. Steve's old band was dragged back from semi-retirement to perform at an annual outdoor party, on the water's edge, at a fine little community called Far Echo Harbor. It's along the shores of the gigantic Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire. Steve's got a summer home there, and helps put on this entertainment as a gesture of neighborliness and goodwill. It's become something of a tradition. And Scrambled Porn, as Flapdoodle's band calls themselves, was going to play for an hour in the middle of the old man's performance.

That's perfect. Big, ready made audience. Instruments already set up. Familiar friendly faces in the audience. The only pressure was the internal kind, the desire to do well and entertain. There's a lot more pressure when you're professional. Money changes everything.

There was a problem. It rained like the first ten pages of the Bible for twelve straight hours. There was no venue large enough to hold the audience and the bands indoors, and it had to be cancelled. Long faces.

But sometimes, marvelous things happen, and minor disappointments only make the story flow better. They had the tent set up for the caterer, and he served that food anyway, and as a hundred or two of us huddled under the tent in the rain and watched the kids splash in the puddles just outside it, something coalesced amongst the disappointment.

The caterer ran a roadhouse restaurant right down the street called the Bad Moose. It's a great place, haunted by locals and tourists alike, serving food in the afternoon and bluesy music and beer at night. That man had hired a band to play on Saturday night. And they didn't show up.

So here's your chance Flapdoodle and friends. First you have to convince Old Steve to let you. He's wise, your father; he didn't say yes right away. He went there first to take one look at the crowd and see if things would be thrown at you if you faltered. Because you were about to be among strangers. And entertaining strangers is ... different.

The Bad Moose crowd at night is prone to motorcycles and tattoos. There are very few drinks with umbrellas in them in evidence. There is a contingent of very large males prone to high-fives and bottled beer, and some women who might have danced around a pole previously. The bartender works alone,whirling like a dervish, is dressed like a vampire, has some metal in the face and tattoos on the skin, and could probably clear the room in 15 seconds flat. And she's a girl.

There is a lot of commotion and confusion as Steve and I tried to set up the instruments and PA system for unfamiliar idiosyncracies in a crowded bar. The crowd was restless. The manager of the bar looked at the childish faces of the band, old enough to work in a bar, but not old enough to drink in one, and I saw a moment of doubt flash over his face. And after we sorted out all the cables and applied all the necessary duct tape, those young fellows let it rip.

Steve and I crouched by the door, winced a little, and prayed or something. I went to Catholic School for seven years, but I couldn't remember for the life of me the name of any Saint that would be the Patron Saint of Bar Fights, so the the prayers may have been of doubtful utility.


They were great. Not polished, but not so's you'd notice. And after about five minutes, you could feel it -- the audience wanted to like them. And when they faltered, the audience picked them up and carried them to the next passage where they knew the way better. There was lots of wild abandon on the dance floor, which is just the same scoured pine planks the band's standing on. And the audience whooped and hollered and beat their spilled beer to sea foam in front of the manchildren drinking water and smiling like they'd just won the world series -- when they got the nerve to look up from their strings. And when they ran out of things to play, the audience made them play it all over again.

The next morning, an emisssary came from the Bad Moose. The boys were asleep still, crashed out on every couch and bunkbed in the little summer home like some invading army. Steve was awake, and the fellow pressed two damp and wrinkled fifty dollar bills in his hand. Give that to the boys and tell them they can play there anytime.

Money changes everything.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


It's been a long time since a day went by without a Sippican Cottage blog entry. I'm traveling without a computer, to where there are no computers. This does not compute.

Here's some more pictures of Bristol, Rhode Island, to tide you over until Monday:

Friday, July 21, 2006

Let's Put On A Show!

There was a hackneyed theme in movie entertainment sixty or seventy years ago. Mickey Rooney or some other homunculus would turn to Judy Garland or some other soon-to-be-drinking-right-from-the-bottle starlet, and exclaim: "Let's put on a show!"

Of course they'd get up a stage made from packing crate lumber and bedsheets, and sing and dance, and have some good old-timey fun; and they'd save the orphanage from the evil bankers who wanted to foreclose on the mortgage and turn it into a Dickensian factory. With the orphans chained to the machines, no doubt.

The only problem with the theme was that it wasn't real. The essence of entertainment is to make the difficult seem easy, or better --effortless. When you see Gene Kelly splashing in the puddles, he's always got that huge beaming smile on his face. Four minutes and fifty seconds in to the routine, he's still got that smile pasted on there, even though I imagine his lungs are on fire and his knees are groaning and his lower back is barking at him and his stamina is tested like a marathoner 1000 yards from the finish line.

You're not supposed to see the effort he put into it before the cameras were turned on, or the pie plate with stubbed out cigarette butts atop the battered piano in the third floor walk-up in Brooklyn where the song was written. You don't want to hear about the splinters suffered by the crewman making that packing crate stage to hold Fatty Arbuckle.

But all the apparatus that makes self expression possible is getting easier to get your hands on all the time. And there are still a lot of kids in straitened circumstances with a lot of time on their hands, and they still decide to put on a show. And the internet and the digital world it represents makes room for the amateur -- he who does it for love-- to compete ably for your attention with the mighty professional.

Hail to you, whoever the hell you are, because you were down in your mother's basement, and said to yourself: Let's put on a show!:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Hydraulic License Rock

The quality of this YouTube feed is better than most. The quality of the music is too:

That's Cream re-united and performing "White Room," probably their best known song. I've watched it many times. It occurs to me that it explains a lot about rock music.

Those are old men. Eric Clapton, playing the black stratocaster, has his hair mussed just so as a sop to youth, but they're old farts. Old farts playing rock music are lame. Cream is not. Here's why:

The term rock music has been twisted and stretched to cover just about any set of noises organized to sell discs. It's as if forty or fifty years ago a religion was founded, and you had to get the A and R rabbis at the record companies and radio stations to announce you were kosher, ie: rock and roll, to be consumed.

If there's anything lamer than old, bald men in spandex still yelping about the discontents of teenagers as if they were still in junior high, I haven't seen it. "Hope I die before I get old" only stirs the blood if the blood doesn't require Geritol. You're not allowed to pick that gauntlet back up and complain about your backache while doing so, too.

Performers used to acknowledge that their shelf life as young rebels "fighting the man" was short, and if they wanted to keep performing afer it expired, they'd have to become part of the nostalgia industry. Listening to Peter Frampton in 1976 is excusable. Listening to Peter Frampton to remind you of 1976 is excusable. Listening to Peter Frampton as anything else is kinda silly.

Cream is a part of a tradition of adult music. they listened to music from America's black musical tradition, where it is was plenty acceptable to be an adult, and consider adult themes. When they were young, they were striving to be old. Now they are old, and need not strive.

I watched them, and knew that I had seen their like before; but not where you'd think. They were operating their machinery, and I had seen men operate familiar machinery before. I've known many men, skilled in the rough arts: masonry and concrete finishing and excavation and demolition and blasting--men past their physical prime, but still tough as nails, and wise; and able to leave any three youngsters in their dust.

They sit in the chair in the excavator, and their knobby hands move the levers just so, and they move the bucket with the delicacy of the teaspoon. They wake up tired, and yet they never tire while working, because they husband their energies where the young and strong and dumb flail away and drop out.

They stand in the shade whenever possible, and rest when it is offered, but do not flag.

And they smile at one another at the end of the day's work, exactly the same smile exchanged at the end of this song; a knowing smile among those who have earned the respect of a fellow adult man.

And the young men watch them and learn.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I Know That Smell

By god, how I know that smell. Old plaster and dirt and corruption and mildew and rockwool insulation and nasty fibrous plaster; the smell of grandma's grandma's attic. The smell of grandma, too.

We walked past this doorway in Bristol, Rhode Island. It's the entrance to a vacant turn-of-the-twentieth century single story retail business building. My wife commented on what a neat place it would be to sell my furniture. I've done that sort of mental arithmetic a million times, for myself and others, and I know anyplace cheap enough for me to buy is generally cheap for a reason. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.

That little padlock you see is to "keep the honest people out," as we used to say. It's probably there to protect the valuables of the people working on the building, not the building itself. Some sort of demolition had happened, and the woolly interior of the walls and ceilings was partially exposed, but there was no sign of anything but the most desultory activity. No Coming Soon sign. No building materials. No people.

Now, I told you I know that smell. I've worked on buildings and/or their furnishings for my whole life. And I've seen most everything at this point. I've seen wooden plumbing and DC electricity and steam piped in by the city for heat. I've seen vestigal carbide gas works and elevators with accordion doors,and secret rooms. I've seen ranks of identical rooms -- whole closed up floors of them-- one bed, one window, one dresser each, for the long dead live-in servants of the ghosts of the mansion's long dead original owners. I've seen the cubbyholes where settlers hid their children during King Philip's War. I've repaired houses sheathed with 24" wide oak planks 1-1/4" thick and as hard as a banker's heart. I've seen more lead paint than a Dutch Boy.

That smell used to be common thirty years ago. It was a building that had gone to seed, but with hard use, over a long time, and barely altered. It wasn't continuously fiddled with, with only a vestige of its original form showing through the years. It was old, and a wreck, and wonderful, and had potential -- and nobody wanted it.

Everybody wants everything now. I caution persons slightly younger than me that life was not always as rosy as it has been for the last 20 or 25 years, at least for the most part. There was a time when it was very difficult for a hardworking family to get by, and you jumped on any work situation that promised even a modicum of stability. With both feet. You'd accept work situations that would look like indentured servitude now, more or less. You never ever ever quit your job before you had another one. Never. And it took real nerve to buy a rundown building like this and turn it into something.

My elders warned me about the Depression. It led them to certain habits which seem like madness now -- overreaction and paranoia. When you hear about honest people hoarding cash outside of banks, saving newspaper and cardboard and scraps of this and that, never throwing anything away, always afraid that all prosperity is ephemeral -- that's the Depression talking.

Twice in my working life, unemployment in the construction business has exceeded 25% for a substantial stretch. That might be news to you civilians, but the reason you can't find anyone to do anything for you that involves heavy lifting, hammers, and speaking english, is that everyone but the hardiest souls and people with nothing but a strong back were driven out of the sector for sunnier economic climes. Everybody bailed out if they could manage it.

Well, I'm not going to warn you about the Depression. Preparing yourself for a cataclysm that never comes is a form of unpreparedness, really. But recently, I hear that certain ex-government officials have gotten the idea in their heads that 1970 was swell, and had just the right ratio of carbon dioxide and economic activity, and we need to return there, pronto.

I know that smell. It's the smell of the cake I'm going to be allowed to eat, when there is no bread.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I Go I Do

There's a local guide with Walking/Historic Tours marked out on it available most everywhere in Bristol Rhode Island. My wife grabbed the local guide in a restaurant, and I'm referring to it now, so I can tell you that's a picture of the Rockwell House Inn on Hope Street. We didn't look at the guide while we were in Bristol, because we're strange.

If I wanted planning, I would have stayed home and made a gantt chart. I wanna wander around and see stuff. I don't want to be harangued, or shepherded, or queued, or itineraried, or reserved; and I don't want to be told anything. I want to find things out. Am I strange? I don't know. You decide.

My poor children. When the oldest was four or so, he used to play a computer game called Roller Coaster Tycoon. It's a funny and smart little building game where you open an amusement park and assemble rides and kiosks for refreshment and gather all the other appurtenances of a theme park on the screen, and try to populate it with little customers. It's smart, and funny, and has an interesting and captivating visual and musical style. After playing this game for six months or so, my son asked me: "Dad, is there a place, you know, in the world, the real world, a place with rides and candy clowns and funny buildings and things like Rollercoaster Tycoon?

"No. "

I know, I know. But waiting in line is a not an amusement, and I can't bring myself to do it very often, even to allow my kids the same anthropomorphic-mouse-in-the-swamp thrill considered mandatory in polite society these days. Hey Walt: If the phone don't ring, it's me.

But you can just walk around in Bristol, and amuse yourself, if you're an adult with certain pedestrian interests, or a three year old:

I've said it before: A three year old is the perfect companion. He will go anywhere, and look at anything.

He'll look at flowers, or dirt in the gutter, it doesn't matter. Just keep going, and keep looking at things, and you'll be fine. And until hunger or sleep beckons, he's relentless. Why would we need a map? He won't hold anything but his mother's hand, and he won't read anything because he can't, or he won't. He has no pockets. He's ready to be friends with each and every man, woman, and child he sees; and come to think of it, most other creatures, and some inanimate objects.

"I go I do," he says occasionally. It's all one word -- one syllable really -- when he says it: "IgoIdo."

Yes, son; can we come too?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Back Back To Bristol

It's been a year since we traveled to Bristol Rhode Island and wrote about it. Since we've all forgot everything from last week, I assume it's safe to just start all over again.

Bristol's a nice little town, hard by the waters of Narragansett, and Mount Hope.

Bristol has a long and proud tradition of backing the weak horse. Backing the dead horse, occasionally.

It used to be called the Mount Hope Lands, and was home to Metacomet. Metacomet is known also as King Philip. In these parts, that's a very familiar name. We name high schools after King Philip, to further embarrass him with low SAT scores and unattractive football uniforms.

Metacomet decided he didn't like those Britishers hanging around anymore, united a bunch of tribes, and burned 600 houses or so to the ground. Sort of the ELF for the 17th century. After a few weeks of rape, murder, and assorted other frivolity, some of the local inhabitants of those ashy spots where the houses used to be went looking for Mr Metacomet. They didn't go looking as the term is used in birdwatching, either. Mount Hope Lands started over.

Bristol was settled, and they started shipping like all get out to the British Isles, as the water at their doorstep led straight to Old Blighty. What could possibly go wrong?

There was some unpleasantness in the 1770s, as you recall, and as navies tend to do when they're looking for people to make examples of, the British navy decided not to exert themselves overmuch by bothering the inland natives, and took turns looting, annoying, and burning Bristol.

Bristol sifted the nails out of the ashes again, and knocked together some more shacks to wait for further trouble in, and started their newest attempt at prosperity: taking up one side of the rum/molasses/slave triangle that needed ships to serve it. Happy days were here again, sorta.

In 1825, slave trading became illegal, and Bristol went down the hole again.

They wandered into the Industrial Revolution after that, waiting for North Carolina, and Japan, and then China to run them out of business this time.

So now what? What do you do when all you've got is history? You sell it.

Bristol has the oldest continual celebration of the Fourth of July in the United States. We walked aroung there on July 15th, and the red white, and blue bunting was still hanging all over the place. The parade route is painted right on the street, so I figure they're serious. I've never seen the parade.

Bristol has a lot of commemorative parks, many which are going to seed. In general, a plethora of commemorative parks commemorate local politicians giving construction contracts to their brother-in-laws in lieu of allowing real economic activity to happen. I always picture soviet style speeches being made at them; "Funds are just being released for this now;" "The proletariat will bask in the glow of the contributions of others;" Is not the five year plan bearing fruit, comrades?" Oh well, our kid likes the swings, even if they are broken.

At any rate, it's a very pleasant place to stroll, and has lots to look at that requires no admission, and lots more that does; the businesses there have the friendliness to strangers that comes from not knowing if bankruptcy will come tomorrow, and local malingerers in the street are just like you, hanging around for the joy of the place, not to annoy others who come there from distant places. A gang of toughs walked by us in a cloud of cigarette smoke and cell phone chatter, and the most menacing looking one made a googoo face at my toddler and cartoon waved at him, to his delight.

It's a friendly sort of place.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

More Thoroughly Unmodern Millie

It occurred to me today just how lousy the photos of the Millicent library I've been posting are. Well, there's nothing I can do about it now. You're going to have to put up with them. They're all we've got, and the subject matter will carry the day, anyway. Think of them as snapshots, not photographs, and we'll all be fine. You try taking photos with a camera with a four secong lag between depressing the button and making an image, with a three year old clinging to you like a rabid monkey because he's afraid of the life sized baby gorilla stuffed animal in the children's reading room.

Here's one from atop the book stacks:

The Millicent Library makes the same mistake most libraries do; it attempts to compete in a half-hearted way with and Blockbuster Video, with its only selling point that you pay in advance in your tax bill instead of at a checkout counter -- thereby allowing you to imagine it's "free." The only analogy I can come up with is a bad buffet. You keep telling yourself you don't mind how terrible the food is, because after you pay, it's all free!

I' m not the sort of person that thinks that no one needs what I don't want. I am irked by persons that say they are vegetarians, for instance, so no one needs meat, and so forth. The supermarket of life would be very small, if tailored to one person. But you'd need a lot of them.

The library tries to be everything to all people, and so must fail us all. Why do they have Ishtar VCR tapes and Eminem records and Harlequin Romance novels by the metric tonne? Is the library no different than the swap shelf outside the ladies room at work?

Well, there's worthwhile stuff there too. And if you paw around enough, you can find what the library should concentrate on: out-of -print hardcover books that inform and delight, a true repository of value, not a pile of stuff. Book burning isn't evil, if the books are worth more as BTUs than information.

There's plenty of fine flotsam among the quotidian jetsam in there, so I'm not going to complain; especially since you can grab that book and read it in series of rooms like this:

Saturday, July 15, 2006

More Millicent

Hi. We're in one of the reading rooms in the Millicent Library in Fairhaven Massachusetts here. When I see the facility with which artists used to be able to depict cloth hanging over the human frame, I sometimes think that we're going backwards, instead of forwards, in the art world. They call that a "drapery study," and this is a really fine one. Modern art looks like cave paintings compared to this, at least to me.

I'd love to tell you who the painting is about, and who painted it, but I can't. The public computer is directly below it, and a young fellow, dressed like Alan Iverson, was sitting there and downloading pornography or bomb recipes or stock quotes or al qaeda instructions or My Little Pony trivia questions or something, and didn't like me looking over his shoulder.

And so I left him, and the lovely lady seated over him, to their mysterious pursuits.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Let's Cross The Street

If you think H.H. Rogers ran out of money after one magnificent building or two, you're sadly mistaken. When you're a Standard Oil board member, during a period when the income tax rate was zero, you can lay your hands on money the way Gomez Addams used to in the old black and white TV show: The Addams Family. You just wander around your big mansion and open up any drawer and pull out wads of cash. I don't know if H.H. Rogers pulled lit cigars out of his pockets too, or went wild when his wife spoke French, but he apparently loved his daughter the same way Gomez loved little Wednesday.

Old Hell Hound Rogers had a lot of money, but I bet he would have traded every bit of it to get his daughter Millicent back when she died, only seventeen years old, of a heart ailment. Right across the street from that magnificent dustcatcher of a Unitarian Church we've been talking about this week, he also built the most sublime little confection of a building, and named it after his lost little girl, because she said once that she loved libraries.

I am always touched when someone tries to deal with the loss of a loved one by commemorating them in the most beautiful manner possible; there seems to be a trend recently towards simply using loss and tragedy as a sort of club to leverage a kind of pity and influence out of your fellow man. Millicent's family laid the cornerstone for the Millicent Library in a private ceremony, alone with their tragedy, and so left only the pleasantest public memory of the source of their woe for the world to keep. One wonders about the ability of any monument to soften such a blow to the interested parties.

That's Dante glaring at you from the front wall of the building. Forgive him, he's been through hell. The library is a little bit of heaven though, so all in all, he comes out ahead.

Here's another picture of the outside:

Fairhaven is still a sleepy little place, and the library has suffered from the best kind of neglect- no one's got the urge to staple a huge hideous addition on it, they've simply kept the original in good repair. I'm sure aluminum siding and gold shag carpeting or something equally fooolish was considered for it somewhere along the line, but H.H. Rogers is a long time in the cold, cold, ground, and there's no money in the town budget to wreck it, and so it stays the way it was built, more or less.

We love going there. There's all kinds of interesting things in there besides the books, and when all else fails, you can just walk around and gawk at the place itself.

We remember his daughter kindly, for he surely did.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Gettin' Medieval On Your... Unitarianism

Oh geez he's maundering on about a church he doesn't attend again.

Why, yes. Yes I am. And I might write a bit, and wax poetic, all the while trying to distract you from the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room with us all --I don't have a decent overall picture of this church.

"I got distracted, " My older son says. He's in the sixth grade, and if you send him to do something -anything- it's best if there are no butterflies or open books or glowing screens of any kind along his route, if you expect to see him anytime soon. His old man' s no different. I got distracted by the trees and forgot the forest.

I'd send you to the website for the church, but their pictures are worse still. They portray, but do not capture, if you get my meaning. What the hell, here it is: Fairhaven Memorial Unitarian Church.

Unitarians are not doctrinaire folks. I read one of their sermons. It was about exchanging fruitcakes at the holidays. The minister is British apparently, and she is surprised we don't like to eat them. She does like to eat them. She notices that some people give fruitcakes they were given as gifts to others as gifts . She says she does not because she likes to eat them. She says perhaps others re-gift them because they do not like to eat them. But she does. It's a sort of Seinfeld routine, without any jokes.

Then they're supposed to write something bad on a scrap of paper. Someone collects the scraps of paper, and they burn them. The mysteries of Unitariarism to me are profound.

The appearance of their rituals and the appearance of the building in which they celebrate them are at odds, visually. There seems to be a yearning for fellowship and not much else in the congregation, and the church looks like you might wanna burn a few heretics at the stake or flog the odd hunchback in front of it.

Gothic Revival was all based on the work, more or less, of two very influential men: Pugin, and Ruskin. Pugin is the driving architectural force behind Westminster in London, the prototypical example of gothic architecture. Ruskin identified the genesis of all gothic revival architecture as the Doges Palace in Venice. Anybody that knows what the Bridge of Sighs in Venice was for knows that this apogee of ecclesiasticalism melded to the city state wasn't talking to people about fruitcakes when questioning them in the Doges Palace. And the romantic notion of visually reviving this primitive piety through modern riffs on architecture gave us the look of it, without the reality.

It's OK by me there's no Savanorola preaching inside this church, or being burned outside it either. But it occurs to me that something should be going on in there. There sure are a lot of marvelous things going on outside.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I Don't Like Politics

I avoid them assiduously here. Hell, I have no idea what this blog is about, what with the furniture, and the boats, and the children, and the music, and the wandering around hereabouts with a camera. But it ain't about politics. Politics is poison when it enters the home. It's a civic duty. It belongs in public life. It's fouling your own nest to drag it into your house.

I was at a small fete last week. The weather was perfect, the company was pleasant, the assorted children frolicked together all afternoon in the gentle sun and the cool shade without ever a tear being shed. The food was good, and simple, and made right before us and served by the same hand that prepared it. We adults chatted of many things and we coalesced in numerous cliques of various sizes and compositions to do that chatting. Since we are not all in each other's company often, there is a lot to talk about, and much that seems fresh to report as well as to hear.

No one got the urge, not even once, to talk politics.

Why would we? Nothing is settled by political prattle. Points scored in debate are always subtracted from the bonhomie column kept elsewhere. Politics to normal people is treated like what it is: an intrusion into our lives, something that keeps us from what is more important, and what is amusing. Politics is a lawn to be mowed, not a game to be played on it. And the people that involve themselves in it, generally, are either dry as dust, or nasty, or sometimes loony.

I'll bet you every adult at that party votes in every election. I know they are intelligent and thoughtful people. I bet, if pushed, they could give you a sober rundown, factually coherent throughout, of the condition of the local, state, and national polity. And I doubt very much that all the levers pulled in those booths are the same ones for every participant. But I also bet you there's one aspect of the proceedings where we all share the exact same outlook, and simply gauge the likely effectiveness of one political party or candidate over another: we're all looking for the politics that will intrude into these personal scenes the least, or who will allow the smallest intrusions by others -- whether simply to annoy us, or to kill us.

I am deeply suspicious, and perhaps you should be too, of anyone that wishes politics to have enough prominence to be mentioned at a garden party. We do not, after all, throw these parties at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Got Buttress?

If you turn slightly to the right after taking the picture I posted yesterday, this is what you see. That, ladies and gents, is a real live flying buttress. The building is the Unitarian Memorial Church in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Fairhaven has a population of about 15,000 persons. But we've got Chartres quality buttresses. I wonder if many people appreciate that.

I doubt it. The church is little used, from what I can gather. There never seems to be any activity there when we're around, and the only persons we ever saw exit that magnificent pile of stone came out of there the day we took this picture, and they were young men wearing flip-flops. The person that paid to have this elaborate and substantial building built, probably saw it as a manifestation of a substantial strain of thought and piety.

In the long run, he was wrong.

I'm grateful for the flying buttresses, just the same.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Interesting Things To Look At

My wife and I like to walk around downtown Fairhaven, Massachusetts. It's a sleepy little place, but still triple the size of our Marion. Our smallest child is barely three, and will go absolutely anywhere and look at absolutely anything. That makes him perfect company.

There's a magnificent Unitarian church in the middle of town, that like most of the buildings of note here was the gift of H. H. Rogers. Henry Huttleston, or Hell Hound, as his business competitors called him, was part of the Standard Oil trust at the turn of the twentieth century, and a close associate of John D. Rockefeller senior. He became a very wealthy man, but he never forgot the very humble place of his birth - Fairhaven. Fairhaven is a lot less humble than it would be, had Rogers not undertaken to build this church, the Town Hall, the High School, and a veritable confection of a building, the Millicent Library. We never tire of walking around, and through, these buildings.

This picture is taken from the most humble angle available on the church. We were in a little courtyard, behing the parish house, unused to visitors. But there are no blank walls, no concrete block, no vinyl siding, no sheets of blank steel or glass, nothing boring or humdrum or brutalist or skimpy. I could simply walk in a circle around the place and point the camera anywhere and you'd see something worth looking at.

Ornamentation is no longer considered a worthwhile endeavor in architecture. One of the great crimes of modern thought was to associate Victorian sensibilities with the gloomy, the haunted, the discredited. Let's face it: Norman Bates wouldn't live in a split level ranch.

Unadorned surfaces are actually fussier to produce than any other. "Minimalist" architecture is very demanding technically, and therefore is a kind of lie. It's not simple, though it tries to give the impression that it is. It's much phonier than any gingerbread.

Look at this little visual vignette, and see how visually simple it is to ken each block sitting atop the ones beneath it; how each shingle overlaps its predecessor from the slater's workday; how the corners are covered and ennobled by the rich verdigris bronze caps; and the finial to remind you: here's the top, the top is important. It draws your eye there like any raindrop, to start your descent -- just as that raindrop does -- visually, physically, one overlapping plane to the next, jostling easily with his brother, to the very earth. Hell, this building even looks back at you a bit here and there, with a kind of egyptian looking deerhead thingie poking out of the top of the wall. And the little cupola peeks out from some structure behind and hints, always: there's more besides. It's like a glimpse of garter.

Or you can go right down the street to the small hideous glass office building and clamber up the rusty spot welded ladder to the parapet and see the flat gravel and tar roof and the air-conditioning piping.

Your call.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Call Your Haberdasher

When you consider it calmly, are their outfits any sillier than anything your average rock star wears nowadays?

Compare them with Madonna, for instance -- another eyetalian american prone to hanging around New York City clubs. At least the Young Rascals have their underwear under their clothes.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


There was a time when "Good Lovin' " was like the national anthem of cover bands. They called it blue-eyed soul. Bunch of italian kids from Joisey listening to Otis Redding records and blasting it back out like a fire hose. They eschewed a bass player for Felix Cavaliere's left hand and a sort of male cheerleader routine. They certainly are making enough noise to make up for it. The first rule of public performance is that you need to give people a compelling reason to look at you. I don't see this as a problem here.

You need to get your hands on a car that's got no roof, and put on the Young Rascals and drive to the beach today.

It occurred to my wife that there's no way that drummer would escape being drugged with Ritalin nowadays.

Friday, July 07, 2006

High Quality Bad Quality

The video quality is bad. The audio quality is worse. It's thirty years old, easy. None of these singers are showing up in Victoria's Secret catalogs anytime soon. There'll be no fist-pumping sisters gettin' loud segue into the trite Respect, which I always think of as an Otis Redding song anyway.

Is there anything this good on TV now? Is anybody making music this sophisticated any more, and marrying it to a vision with musicians and singers who can carry it? And if they did, would we know enough to point a camera at it? We point cameras at most everything nowadays, ask Paris Hilton; why is this so rare, and wonderful?

It's church music and tin pan alley and a hint of Beale Street. As far as Aretha Franklin is concerned, it's about as obscure a number as she has, although it was a hit at the time. It's undoubtedly my favorite of everything she's ever done.

The cicadas trill outside. The breeze, freighted with myriad scents from the garden, comes softly through the window. The cat dozes on the chair. The birds are a quiet riot. The sun is warming to its task.

Aretha is singing.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Summer Re-runs

I've become prominent, internet-wise, among people looking for "Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House." That's fine by me. Me and my wife would rather be associated with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as any other two people, I guess. Here's the first thing I wrote about them, about a year ago:

Good day to ye.Let's be positive today. Nary a discouraging word, as they say.

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

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

It always was crap, I know. When I was a kid, TV was in black and white, and had three or four channels. You watched whatever was on it. Period. And if you were home sick from school, propped up with pillows in the bed, fortified with those wonder drugs, aspirin and ginger ale, the one treat you got was the 11 inch black and white TV at the foot of your bed, and bad movies all day long.TV, with only those three or four channels, still didn't know how they could possibly fill all those hours. They'd show any drivel: Candlepin bowling for a couple of bucks, or maybe just a gift certificate. Community Auditions. Anyone who's ever seen Community Auditions can't watch American Idol. Once you've seen the spectacle of an overfed adolescent in a tutu twirling a baton to a lounge combo version of a Sousa march, nothing else will do.

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

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

The host would mostly get elderly ladies, who didn't know what day it was, never mind what the movie was, and started talking to the guy as if they were restarting a conversation they had started in 1936, and he'd sit there, politely trying to get an interjection in edgewise, always failing, and looking at the camera like it was an oncoming freight train. Finally, he'd get the question out, and the women would say:"What did you say your name was, again?"And he'd always say: "Buh Bye" sweetly, and they'd add ten bucks to the till, and he'd PUT THE PHONE NUMBER BACK IN THE BIN. Try, try again, indeed.

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

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

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

Anyway, eventually you saw every movie ever made- good, bad or indifferent. Occasionally they'd show a good movie like "Blandings," by mistake perhaps. And you got a perspective on how hard it is to make a really good movie. It must be difficult, there's so many of them, but so few worth watching.What I suspect, however, is that recently they're not really trying to entertain us anymore. They really don't seem to care that a vast majority of potential viewers, me included, don't need to see another movie about a hit man with a heart of gold. Forty five of them a year for the last ten years has fulfilled my need for comic murderers, thank you. I'd rather see stories about interesting and attractive people, like the Blandings.

"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" was made in 1948. It was essentially remade in the 1980s, with uneven effect, but still with enough of the original's luster to shine on through, as "The Money Pit." Tom Hanks and Diane from "Cheers" made a good comic team, and we own that one too and watch it occasionally. But Blandings is king.Cary Grant is da bomb. Cary Grant is a movie star. Picture Tom Cruise sitting on a couch across from Jay Leno. That's a very small picture, even if you have widescreen television. Now picture Cary Grant sitting across from Johnny Carson. They're both too big for the screen, no matter how big it is.

Everybody in Hollywood is a homunculus compared to Cary Grant. He's dead, and in black and white, and my wife still reminds me: "You know, Cary Grant is a babe."Grrr. Yeah, I know.And unlike modern actors, he can act. Not Olivier acting. I mean, "Hamlet" isn't in danger of breaking out in the middle of one of his movies. But you only need so much Hamlet in your life; somebody tell a joke, will ya? Cary Grant knew how to.

And Myrna Loy was a babe. She had the looks of the woman you would marry, and stay that way. She started her career as a vamp, but morphed into a matron eventually. The vamp always showed, though, like a glimpse of garter, and I still remind my wife: "Myrna was a babe, you know."Grrr. Yeah, I know, she says. Myrna knew how to deliver her lines for their full comic effect. Most actresses today sound like they're reading that shredded phonebook I mentioned earlier, aloud. Without their glasses.

The story is and interesting cultural artifact about city folks building their house out in the countryside. It's funny to hear them talk about Western Connecticut like it's out on the prairie, and bucolic as Vermont. Mr. Blanding's house would fetch tens of millions of dollars today. But the story is universal, for anybody that builds a house, and raises children, and works at a job.

The humor is the sort that's a lost art these days. It's quiet, and self effacing, and subtle. Mark Twain used to rail against people that "told jokes." He knew how to be funny, which is to tell a story in a humorous way, and avoided punchline fodder. And a movie, a comic movie, is just telling a story in a humorous way, isn't it? It should be. This one is.

And it's interesting to look through the actors who have small parts in the movie. They all know what they're doing, and push the story along nicely. Only a a fetishist would recognize more than a few of them by name, but they all look familiar. Then you look up their resumes, and are amazed:Louise Beavers, who plays their maid, and comes up with the advertising slogan that pays for that house, was in 163 movies!Harry Shannon, the well driller, who has the best scenes in the movie, appeared in 149 movies. I vaguely remember him shooting at John Wayne, or shooting at the someone else with John Wayne, a few times.Nestor Paiva, who plays an appraiser for 30 seconds in the movie, was in 186 movies. And Jason Robards (Senior) knew how to work. He appeared in no fewer than 206 movies, and then had a son to be in a few hundred more.And you know why they worked like that. They were professional, and people that knew how to write and produce movies knew enough to use accomplished and dependable actors, and tried mightily to entertain us.

They still do entertain us, though they're all dead now.It's the live people in Hollywood that have forgotten how, or never knew.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

July 3rd

My wife and I and the wee one sauntered in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts again. The afternoon before July Fourth was a hive of preparatory activity. Not for us; we're lazy and unmotivated and unpatriotic, apparently. Everyone else was busy preparing for a road race, and a fireworks display, and a teen dance at the gazebo in the center of the park hard by the boat ramp. We were gratified to simply keep the three year old out of the traffic. The road race would have been much less strenuous. There is no trophy, however.

We sat on the screen porch of the Kinsale Inn, across from the water, and ate lunch. A rare and wonderful thing, that -- time together in a restaurant without any clowns, real or fiberglass, on the premises; perfect weather to be out of doors; the little one co-operated enough for us to stay seated for thirty minutes straight; no where to be after to hurry us along and ruin the feeling of repose. The little one mugged for the waitress and smeared food on his face, and my wife and I just smeared the food on our faces. Far off across the common, you could occasionally hear the flag snap in the breeze.

We walked after past the old stone wharf and snapped the picture of the skiffs lolling in the gentle surf, waiting for their moment. This is the first year in a while I don't have a boat in the water. The remnants of Hurricane Katrina blew through Massachusetts after languidly making their way up the spine of the country, and dismasted my little yawl. I gave it away rather than fix it.

A boat is a terrible thing. It taunts you. You have no time to use it, but somewhere in the back of your mind, you turn over the calculations of all the money and time and effort you've put into keeping the thing in the water, then figure in how few times the weather, the personnel, and the necessary free time coalesce into a boat trip. It's the death of the thing when you do arithmetic for your fun.

It occurred to me what a strange man I am, looking at those skiffs. I own a boat a little bigger than them, and until they reminded me of it, it had left my mind.

I built that boat, a fourteen and a half foot sail and row skiff, the entire thing made from magnificent mahogany and mahogany marine plywood. I finished it three years ago or so. I had worked on it in a desultory fashion, ten minutes a year it seemed sometimes, for the previous ten years or so. The half built boat and the lumber was in the way after a while, and a constant source of irritation; so in a fit of exuberant effort, I finished it, more or less, and then promptly stored it in a garage and assiduously ignored it. It gleams there, in the artificial twilight, the motes of dust drifting past through the light cast from the window the only tide it has ever seen. It needs only the final coat of paint on the clinker hull, and the name to be inscribed on the transom. Who wants to make a boat more than they want to use a boat?

My wife and I spent a jolly moment talking about what to name it -- a favorite pastime. There are always more names than boats to go around. Garlic and Gaelic; Sailbad the Sinner; Miles to Go II; Sunshine and Ravioli ...

I have no doubt we will have more fun talking about naming it, and spend more time doing so, than we will ever spend in the damn thing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

July Fourth Oh You Betcha

You want America? Do you even speak American? Would you know America if you saw it? Has the thing itself become so obscure and argued over that it's lost its meaning? Can I possibly write another sentence with a question mark at the end of it and get away with it?

This is America:

Declaration of Independence. Panama Canal. Hoover Dam. Empire State Building. Cure polio. Put Tojo and Hitler in the cold cold ground-simultaneously. Man on the moon. Wear out the Soviet Union. Broadway. Wall Street. Main Street. Hollywood and Vine. Four young ladies playing The Stars and Stripes Forever, all on trombone.

You name it, we got it. In spades.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Long Weekend?

Today's kinda odd. Is it a holiday for you? I can't get any sort of vibe anywhere. The blogosphere has ten people in it, all talking about the same things. Last night I drove to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is about as popular a destination for July Fourth getaways as I can picture, and there wasn't a soul on the road at 6:00 PM. I guess everybody's all there already, or isn't coming.

Sane people used to take this whole week off, anyway. I worked day and night for about fourteen straight days to get a bunch of stuff out the door, and we're having a little hiatus this weekend. "Hiatus" refers mostly to the hernia I gave myself working in the yard yesterday assembling a kind of poor man's "Six Flags Over Marion" for our little boy, by conjoining a half dozen crummy playtoys in one place in the yard. Note to self: put the sandbox where it belongs right away, not five years later.

I hope all of you find a moment between all the strenuous fun, barbecues, sunburns and traveling, to marvel at what has sprung forth from that big piece of paper the powdered wig set apppended their signature to 230 years ago.

If you dug George Washington up and reanimated him, then described what we all have managed to slap together in the interim -- Six Flags Over Marion included -- while the worms were nibbling on him and his compatriots, he'd think you were pulling his leg. You'd have to squire him around and show him to get him to believe you.

I hope you get a chance to squire yourself around a little, and remind yourself of how far we've come, too. Happy Independence Day to you all.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Fairly Cool For Cats

All by himself, singing songs he wrote. It's like attacking a machine gun emplacement with a machete, and winning.