Friday, March 30, 2007

It All Just Was

Delightful to come to Truro. Never in high season. When the winter has pounded the sand as hard as concrete, and every footprint has been erased; that's the time to come.

The light is nice in the early spring. The orb of the sun hangs low in the southern sky, even at noon, and reaches into the room and picks out the details in even the most mundane of objects. The owners have such a treasure trove of trash in here. There's a weird vibe to a room filled with things that aren't even good enough to throw away. They are like amulets, or sea glass. Like shims under the wobbly legs of someone else's life. Like finding a totem in the wilderness from a dead religion. Trash too valuable to part with.

The first few times I stayed here, I'd pick up one awful thing after another and wonder: what could possibly make someone bring this into their home, never mind keep it through all these years? What power do these talismans hold for their owners? How can you build an altar of peeling paint and worship this god of kitsch?

I got over it. I'd hear the scree of the spring and the slap of the screen door behind me and wander the sand alone, and divide my hearing between the whistle of the wind, the sigh of the surf, and the shh shh of the dune grass reminding me I was in their nursery. There was no point to the things in the shack, or the lapping of the idiot ocean against the fool earth. In the pale moonlight it all went about its business whether I was awake or not. It all just was.

I'd call the people and tell them I wanted to stay in the cottage where it all just was, and they'd put their hand over the receiver for a moment and I knew they were using the word "daft" to their companion about that fellow that wanted to go where no one wanted to go in a season where no one went anyway. And then they'd come back and say they had checked and there looked to be a hole in the schedule. There's a hole in Hiroshima, too, I'd think, but not say.

I've always liked the little stove. You sit right next to it, and feed it like a baby. You can put your hands right on it after you light a fire in it, and feel the power of the flames slowly mount to warm your hands. It gets too hot in an instant, like many things.

I love a stove. You can feed a stove almost anything on a cold morning. Kindling. Rags. A love letter.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Short Rations

I'm working except when I'm sleeping. So you get more YouTube videos of people I've performed with. At least the ones I can recall. People approach me from time to time and start talking to me about what a blast they had at such and such a venue for so and so's fete or whosamajiggy's convention, and I have no idea what they are talking about. I cashed the check and moved on. Glad you had fun, though.

I remember vaguely a night at least twenty years ago where some R&B combo I was in with too many members and not enough musicians played at a place called The Channel in Boston. It was a great big cave of a joint. I have no idea if it's still there. We started the show, as I recall, and then we played with the headliner, John Lee Hooker. I had an elderly aquaintance hear about my job and inquire whether they might be related to Mr Hooker, as that was their maiden name. She was a descendant of Joe Hooker, the Civil War general. I said I didn't think they were related but I'd be sure to give Mr. Hooker her best.

I remember the act that played on the undercard. The Joe Perry Project. Aerosmith got tired of money for a little while in the eighties and made little individual messes like this for a short time, until they got tired of no money. Joe Perry Project. (You Tube Link) Aerosmith used to play in my High School gym. I've sunk pretty low, musically, but at least I never played in the high school gym, and opened up for, well, me.

For the life of me, I can't remember the name of the band I was in, or the names of any of the other musicians in it. The Dialtones? the Superfonics? 'Nuff Said? Jay Murphy? No clue. I'd play with anybody at that point. I do remember that the Channel had sidefill stage monitors, which are big stacks of PA speakers in the wings of the stage, instead of just those wedge shaped floor speakers you are used to seeing in front of musicians.

I remember them, because the BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM coming out of them at flight deck level makes my ears ring to this very day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Spring Potatoes

-Pa, how do you get the coverin' disks to hit the furrow?

-They jest do, son.

-But you never look, pa.

-Keep your eyes on the horizon, boy. Sound advice always.

-But how do you know?

-Waste of time to tend that which tends itself, son. Got to trust to God and yourself. Who else you gonna trust, exactly?

-Did you learn what goes on behind you?

-Same as you, son, riding and asking a lot of damn fool questions. My pa said that if the nattering ever stopped in his wake, he'd know enough to turn the rig back towards the house and arrange a funeral. Nothing else would shut my piehole.

-You've gone quiet now, pa.

-What a man says has meaning, son. Gotta choose your words careful. Can't get two drinks in you and start a ruckus with a neighbor you might need someday. Makes a man pick through his words like picking through the taters looking for eyes. Don't pay to plant them if the seed ain't there, or the ground is like to be barren. Children can talk as they like.

-I'm a man now, pa.

-Shaving don't make a man, son. You'll go quiet in your turn. Don't rush it. Talk to that girl, the one from away, at the Grange Hall fetes a bit first. Or you'll never get anyone to hound you from the back of the tractor for your own.
And sakes; keep your prayer handles between the hoppers or you'll muck up the line of the pickers and the furrow opener. I can feel it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I want you to be happy.

I'd like to be happy, too, now that you mention it. And sometimes my wife and I wonder if we wouldn't be happier in a little village than out in the woods.

Consider the picture. It has those wonders of wonders - girls - in it. I don't have any girls. I have no idea what to do with them. My wife is as mysterious to me as the day I met her, so she's no good figurin' it out, either. It is good that I was given only boys to raise as I am a lummox and cannot be entrusted with the care of female children. I'd be willing, but unskilled, like minimum wage laborers.

It has other wonders, besides three people in the frame. If you live out away from things, there is seldom other people in the frame. It has sidewalks, where you could push a pram with a bebby in it. That's the pleasantest thing in the whole wide world, I think. Some muck it up by considering it exercise. It is a promenade, not a 10k. Calm down.

The sidewalks have that patch of turf between the concrete and the curb. That's essential. Urban sidewalks just butt the street, and you feel too close to the traffic, always. There are no sidewalks where I live, and walking along the shoulder of the road is a seesaw between the Scylla of the poison ivy and the Charybdis of the cars rocketing by occasionally. No thanks.

There are trees that dapple the sunlight, and ameliorate the heat, and line the street like nature's own corinthian columns. A place for the birds to natter and the squirrels to chatter when the housecats come outside. Trees are different out here. They are an advancing phalanx, not a peristyle arbor. You trod the edges of them, but they don't invite you in.

It's lovely to live in a semi-urban setting, and have a broad porch with a stoop to sit on and watch the passing scene. Semi-urban setting have a passing scene to watch, too. There's a little drive next to your house leading to a garage in the back, where it belongs, and the houses sit up on their foundation a bit to gain privacy for the occupants even though the house is almost right on the street. The yard is in back, slightly untidy, where the occupants can feel a little more privacy. It's a grand place for a garden or a swingset or a brick grill; or if you're rich as Croesus, a pool.

There can be rental units, but only if the owner of the property also lives in the building. No one is a bad neighbor when the landlord is right downstairs.

You have to have a lot in common with your neighbors for it to work, and that's what makes it harder nowadays to find this scene. You can't always trust your neighbors to have approximately the same worldview as you any more. More has to be carefully defined in your interactions because less is predetermined by homogeneity. You have to ask if your neighbors let their children play Grand Theft Auto instead of with Barbies. You can't assume much of anything anymore.

There is no one way to live. We all can't be happy in concrete urban dovecotes, or log cabins. There has to be a mix, so that each can find his own. I'm good out by the bogs with the Ospreys kiting overhead. By I find myself looking over the zoning fence these days, and wondering how the tree-lined street might suit us. You guys on either side wouldn't mind a table saw running at one AM once in awhile, would you?


I have to work all day today, alone.

My children and my wife are like a tonic. I gulp a big draught of domesticity in the morning,like Lawrence slaking his thirst in an oasis before setting off across a desert; and then I go off in my solitary fashion and turn on the machines. Because the furniture elves did not come last night and help me out. The radio is on in the background, mostly because even at the volume of a murmur, it cancels out the buzzing sound of the fluorescent lights. That's a fairly low threshold of entertainment to get over, isn't it? More interesting than a ballast buzzing. It's rarer than you might think. Maybe it's me.

When I was a young man, both the Bay City Rollers and the Staples Singers would come out of the radio. The same radio station. I can't quite reconcile that. I drift through the radio now, like an oceangoing fish, searching for anything notable enough to listen to. I would be hard pressed to explain to anyone exactly what I was in the market for at any given time.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

I'm Ambivalent About His Tailor, However.

I have never been unhappy while listening to Al Green. I can't recall if I started out unhappy; I'm just certain I never ended up that way.

When in doubt, listen to Al Green.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Grind

This picture is sixty years old, easy. I'm doing the same thing today. How many people are doing anything the same as half a century ago?

The Grind refers to the mental and physical aspect of the day. He's sanding, not grinding. Me too.

There are some details that have changed, to be sure. This fellow didn't write a blogpost before beginning. He arrived at work a half an hour early and read the newspaper a bit and drank bad coffee from his thermos.

It's ever so slightly clunkier than mine, but he's using a belt sander, same a s mine. His might be better, as it weighs more. It's easier to use a heavy belt sander than a light one.

I won't get the enormous snootful of dust this guy got, as a vacuum hose is hooked up to mine. Nose cancer and a condition like miner's lung from the wood flour was very common in the wood trades. Still is, just less so now. I'm 99% sure the guy smoked like a chimney, too. Everybody did then. Come to think of it, you can still find a lot of construction workers that smoke now. It's one of the few patches of life I rub up against where a lot of people smoke. People who work with their hands tend to be very fatalistic about such dangers.

It's very difficult to get them to use devices to safeguard their health and safety, generally. Most large construction companies have to have rigid protocols, strictly enforced, to get people to take the smallest amount of care about such things. They chafe in the harness, that's why they choose to work out in the wild world instead of in a factory or office. They don't like being told what to do, and perform a simple rough calculation of loss/benefit/discomfort in their head, and throw dustmasks in the trash the minute no one's looking. You have to make it safer and easier at the same time, or it doesn't work. Laws mean nothing in this regard.

The fellow shown above is making a big pile of cheap furniture, and his job is on another continent today. No one shed a tear for its loss. Some one else wanted to do it more, and proved it by doing it better for less. It's the only calculus that should be allowed into the equation. That guy's sons and daughters have an enormous amount of consumer goods available to them because the creative destruction wrought by progress was allowed to make his livelihood pass him by. Consider also that there were craftsman making tables before this fellow, that glowered at him and his economy of scale in his big official factory with his state of the art lighting and tools and salesmen and secretary and bathroom and timeclock and power supply and so forth. He did not shed a tear for them, and we do not for him. In particular, it's sad when people's livelihoods are swallowed by progress. In general, we all get richer so it's fine. In a way, I'm more like the guy the fellow in the photo replaced. People shop at IKEA and Wal*Mart and so forth for inexpensive home furnishings. I don't play in that game, and try to take a big piece of a small pie that's left over. It's enough.

I do not expect anyone to shed a tear for me, if the time comes. I'm sanding today, because for right now, nobody wants it more.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Like A Rolling Stone

I used to be a musician.

I still play occasionally, but only if you really make me. I never paid much attention to learning to play properly. My older brother is a very fine musician and taught me how to play the electric bass in the late 1970s. I bought an axe and amp, had a lesson, and got a job working in The Met Cafe in Providence a week or so later.

Playing the bass is like owning the baseball. You'll play all you want to if you can manage to show up and mind your business. I did.

The music business was filled with guys like me. They worked with their hands all day in construction, and played music at night. But I was the exact opposite of them, too. I played music for money and built things for the love of it.

I've had a few book's worth of odd and interesting things happen to me while I was playing. I could never remember all the places I've played in, and I can't even remember all the bands I've been in. For a while, I'd play with a different set of people four or five nights a week. I don't miss it all that much, really.

I got to wondering how many people I could recall that I played with that would turn up on YouTube. I was tickled to find two in one video. Pinetop Perkins and Luther Guitar Junior Johnson. They're both playing with the magnificent Muddy Waters:

Pinetop seemed ancient to me back then, twenty years ago and more, and he's still alive today and performing at 94 years old. We played in the Civic View Inn in Providence. The dressing room for the bands was upstairs, and it was... how do I put this delicately... um, well, they had shag carpeting on all the walls and the floor and ceiling too. There was a TV bolted to the wall up in the corner; the movies they were playing on there continuously would make an animal husbandry specialist blush. I avoided the doorknob, and there was no power on earth that could compel me to enter the bathroom under any circumstances. Pinetop was bored, so we went down to the bar. I thought it was funny that Pinetop called Johnny Walker Red, his favorite, "high test," just like my uncle does. He was almost fifty years older than me, but we had more in common than I had with people I considered my friends. He wore a huge cowboy hat, was skinny as a rail, told a million stories. We had a blast. Some guys in his band didn't show, so we opened for him and played with him too. All he needed was a piano, really.

I can't remember where the Luther Johnson gig was. That's him playing the guitar over in the right hand side of the frame. He was one of those guys -- lively, talented, good enough to make a living at it, never making a lot of money. I remember giving him a ride back to his house. He lived in a tidy little suburb south of Boston somewhere, and was anxious to get back home to his family. Now that's my kind of guy. I always am too.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get...

I have a very difficult deadline to meet. It would be much simpler if it was impossible. Nothing is simpler than that:

It can't be done. Not worth trying. What now?

It's the tantalizing possibility of finishing well despite great odds that captures our imaginations. It's the reason very able persons are often disorganized in their surroundings and dilatory in their activities. They're spotting the world a few points before the game begins. Just to make it interesting.

I would never ask an employee to accomplish what I'm going to accomplish today. It wouldn't be fair, as you need a bigger dog than just wages in the fight to make that appropriate. When managing others in the past, it has been my responsibility to exhort others to give effort in excess of what was normal. It was always subtracted out elsewhere. It is the nature of the situation, and just.

But I'm going to finish. I'll write this blogpost, just to spot the world a few points.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Play Is The Work Of Children

I never get tired of watching the little ones play.

I have a larger one, as tall as his mother now, almost. He's lots of fun in a different way. But it's the little one, not yet four, and all his compadres that capture my imagination. I literally watch him do nothing. I never get bored of him, ever.

He has a routine as fixed as any salaryman. There's a pleasant frantic rhythm to it. You can still see the unaffected gears turning in his head as he goes from one activity to the next. Nothing much is hidden behind any sort of pretense. It's like watching the raw clay for a human pot spin on the wheel, and you put your hands on it and the shape of his personality is made, or revealed.

He will be past it all very soon. He types his name and a few words now. How much longer can we hope for, before that marvelous transparent being is rendered opaque to us?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

When Driving Fast Was Cool

I'm old enough to remember when driving fast was cool.

I came after the American Graffiti era, of course; but when I saw the American Graffiti movie in the theater, none of it was strange to me. We'd tinker with our elderly American cars, and occasionally we'd race. We lived in podunk. We raced right on the spur of the superhighway that was just finished that started noplace and ended nowhere. At night you could do any damn thing on that road. The police didn't even bother to go there.

I still remember the sort of sinking feeling we got the first time we opened up a car hood and saw this sort of metal octopus atop the engine block. No more tweaking the points and condenser, tinkering with the carburetor, nothing. It was all idiot stickers and towel bar air dams on ricers after that.

Racing, real racing, made a kind of sense then too. It's like its contemporary, country music. Neither one is worth a crap now, because they are just a shiny plastic imitation of the chrome and dirt thing they replaced. They are both so popular that no one goes there any more. No one like me, anyway.

With racing, it ended, like so many things, when too much was achieved. At first, there was an interesting race to innovate the technical aspects of the car and marry it to a maniac driver that had been running moonshine ten minutes before. Now third generation metrosexuals in footie pajamas covered with mercenary scout patches drive cars that are engineered to make sure they don't go too fast. Too fast? There's no such thing. Not one of them could beat me home on Friday night after work. Country music died when it forgot what the hell country the "Country" was referring to. And no, I'm not "Ready For Some Football," you penthouse hayseed.

A car is just a box to ride around in now. It has the vibe of a European tram, if it has a vibe at all. I don't even understand the need for "cars" anymore. A two door car is a joke to me now. A vehicle is a utilitarian device. People talk with disdain about "SUVs" as if they're wasteful or something. They're just station wagons. At least they function as what they are, a big cart to haul people and things in. What's a Pontiac Sunfire, exactly? And everyday cars are all different brands of ugly, more or less. Face facts. A F-150 Lightning pick-up truck will blow the doors off a sports car. The speed limit is 65. What's it all for?

You could make a whole bowl of cereal if you went through the backseat cushions of our little wagon, and you could fit that wagon inside my truck. Our vehicles are there to do things. Not be things. Do things. How can they hope to capture your imagination? Every third song on the radio then was about a car. Every third song on the radio now is ... more than I'd care to listen to. We traded Wolfman Jack for Rush Limbaugh.

Cars? I remember fondly when we wondered only what was possible. And what we could get away with. It's over. Face it.

Spanking The Plank

I'm required to play music today.

I'm not sure I remember how. I'll have to root around to find the instrument and accoutrement required. I'll arrive five minutes before it's time to play. When I get there, it's unlikely I'll know everyone I'm playing with. I'll have to ask the dumbest questions of my compatriots.

What key is this in?
Who sings this one?
-You do.
What's the first few words?

It's only rock n' roll. I'm overqualified.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Naomh Padraig Timeline

St. Patrick's Day at 5 pm:

St. Patrick's Day at midnight:

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Her Uncles had found her alone, a little girl sitting quietly in her family home in the county of Mayo. For the Irish, the famine was just the last straw; they had a litany of Cromwell's leftover reasons to leave anyway. And so they left in their thousands. Sinead O'Leary was no different; first to Liverpool, then to Canada, on to Boston. When she finally moved to New York City, now a grown woman and married, she rechristened it New Cork, and no-one she knew dared disagree. She made it so.

She simply refused to remember anything unpleasant, and seemed to forget nothing else. She regaled her children and grandchildren with stories of Cuchulain, and Medb, and faeries and wee people, Naomh Padraig and his clovers and snakes; a living encyclopedia of fun and fantasy.

She saved what little money came her way, and she bought and sold things. Her long lost relatives would send her this and that from the Auld Sod, and she'd sell them to Yankees who collected such as her family had, as if the Irish were as exotic as Babylonians, not right across the Irish Sea from their own forefathers.

One fine spring morning, she opened a bible box her uncle had sent her. Inside, sheepskin glowed with monastic filigree. She knew the Lord's word was on those Latin pages. Oh yes, she knew. She was wise enough to know also: There was a devil of a ransom in it from a collector too. And when a trim woman appeared at her door, sent by her employer, the Colossus of Finance, to buy it for that mausoleum of manuscripts he was constantly stoking on Fifth Avenue, Sinead was ready. He wanted it like the damned wanted icewater. Sinead knew how long to hold out before acquiescing.

Into real estate the money went. Then her son invested it for her in the stock market. Soon the simple woman, who still retied her own lace when it frayed, was rich. She always was, if you asked her, even though her Uncles could have told you they had found her alone in that stone cottage, all those years ago, because her parents were dead and gone right outside the door, their mouths green from trying to eat grass when the potatoes failed.

She was very old when that awful day christened "Black Friday" took her fortune, just like the famine had taken her family. Her son sat with her on the simple wooden settee she still favored. "It has St Patrick's clover in it, and to put a cushion on it would be extravagance itself!"

He gently told her that he had lost her money, over a million dollars, in one afternoon.

"What a blessing!" she said.

Her son, now grown grey himself, and ruined along with his mother, couldn't comprehend.

"How kind of the Lord to wait until I could afford to lose a million dollars. Imagine what a blow it would have been to lose such a sum when I was poor!"

Her son burst out laughing. And he knew then, that his beloved mother was placed on this earth for a reason. And they would rise again. Surely.

"Besides," she said, "I have three more Bible Boxes"

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday Swingin'

Would you like to take a turn?
No thanks.
Would you like some punch?
Have some.
My name's Gil
Mine's not.
Mind if I sit down?
No more than you standing there.
They have cake.
I baked it.
I like your dress.
It's my mom's. I'll tell her.
I like your permanent wave.
It won't last.
Your eyes are a pretty color.
Both of them?
I think I know your friends.
Perhaps you could introduce us.
I've got a job in the mill now.
Your fingernails told me that.
I was on the football team in high school.
Good thing we didn't dance.
I... I...
Ahoy, mate.
Can I walk you home?
I'm not leaving.

Will you marry me?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Missed It By That Much

If you were kicking around the British Islands in the 1950s, and some knacker asked you who was going to be a big star someday, I doubt you would have said the Beatles. You certainly wouldn't have heard of the Rolling Stones. People in the know might have offered Gerry Marsden, and his Pacemakers.

The video is the real deal. I like Gerry figuring out the hard way that a boom mike might be a no-no in a crowded club. He belts it out in the music hall tradition, in an unaffected Liverpool twang.

Brian Epstein went into the Cavern Club in Liverpool to discover his Silver Beatles and make his fortune, and found the lilliputian Liverpudlian Gerry Marsden, standing on a packing crate because the microphone stand wouldn't lower to his height, sitting in and singing along with his friends Paul, George, John, and Pete Best, the Beatle's first drummer.

Pete missed it by that much. Gerry and The Pacemakers had their cup of coffee in the big leagues, and faded back to obscurity. Still, it's lovely to hear Ferry Cross The Mersey, and see a bit of that luminous postwar explosion of pop, still in its footling cradle.

Good on ya, Gerry.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What Time It Ain't

What the hell time is it?

Doesn't really matter, I expect. The rhythm of the day, the coming and receding of it tells you all you need to know. The whistle will blow. Then you'll know what time it is. What good does it do to know what time it ain't?

I love it in the morning. You walk down the decline through the pines, the soft, gentle shush-shush of the big needles grinding under your boot, the fog swirling around your feet and dashing off a bit -- standoffish -- and then collecting itself again in your wake, waiting for the sun to rise and put it to bed. It reminds me of Pa blowing smoke rings on a long winter's evening. The stars are out strong though the sun is near to come. The idiot woodpeckers haven't begun, but you hear the songbirds a bit, sensing the sun waiting on the platform for the day to begin. They know what time it is.

I used to have a watch, but the steam, the sap, the turps, the cosmoline --well, they did those little devils in one after another. After a while, you just let things go. I stand over this machine and I feed it like it's a dragon, puffing steam, the great jeweled drops of amber sap boiling out like a bit of food on its smacking lips.

No one wanted to feed the beast. It roared and clanked and hissed and bit off the odd man's fingers. You had to be first every day in the dawn to fire her and bring the gauges up like Vulcan's clock. And once it was going you could never stop. It would pull itself to pieces with its unremitting greedy chewing if there was nothing in its maw.

Oh, I'll take her. It's my one, true love. A man can love the thing he understands, it's true, but seeks the whole world over for the thing that understands him in return. And the steam in the beast's veins courses through its body like life does in any man's husk.

I feed it and it feeds me. I'll lie on my bed someday all broke down from my exertions and feel the Lord's hand on my shoulder and wish I had one more day of the smell of the loblolly pine in my nose. Extreme Unction with the turps, father.

The Beach Men

Man, I always hated the Beach Boys.

I always found their vaunted harmonies off-key and grating and whiny. I was never a surfer dude type, and whatever beach vibe I cared for was much more of the chainsaw Dick Dale variety than the butterknife Beach Boys.

But still. They encapsulate something American. They have a kind of dumb fun quality about them I find engaging in pop music. And for a little while, when their leader Brian Wilson was wigged out and Brian Love was marginalized, they made a couple of insistent and lyrical songs along with an interesting fellow named Van Dyke Parks. I like "Sail on Sailor," for instance, which any Beach Boys aficionado would cock a snook at.

They threw him out after a short while, and went back to being Jimmy Buffet's lame grandfathers, singing in not so/too close harmony at State Fairs.

So I don't like the Beach Boys. And I don't care for Mike Love, in particular. But Darlin' is a fine piece of pop, and Love co-wrote it.

The best indication that you've got something worthwhile going on is when people that don't even like what you're doing can find something you did they do like.

The Beach Boys are my bad restaurant with one good thing on the menu. I order it every time.

Monday, March 12, 2007

OK, You're Great

OK, you're great.

BFD. Lots of people are great. But that man, along with many others who worked along with him to achieve that little confection, is also the raw material for further greatness.That's a whole different ballgame.

You see, that's different than just greatness.

Bernard of Chartres said we are like dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and see farther than the ancients. Truer words were never spoken.

I copy things all the times. I parse out tid-bits from the pattern books of the frock coat set, cobbling them together to make something good from something great. It's instructive that Gene Kelly doesn't smear himself with chocolate and scream Vagina! every ten seconds to achieve originality. He, like the people that followed him, distilled from what was worthwhile a recipe for what was sublime. He is inventive, not deliberately obtuse and strange.

I put the wood together to make furniture. I put the words together to make sentences. I try, every day, to find the thing that someone else can use for their own raw material. People tell me occasionally that they use the furniture as the raw material in their domestic lives. That's a start.

But I may never know if I've succeeded. Since it is rare and unlikely, I will probably die without even an inkling of it. But I'm living every day with the trying. It's enough, for us mortals.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Streetbeater

What's the greatest TV theme song ever? That's easy:

The Sanford and Son theme song is by Quincy Jones, of course. If you looked at his resume, you'd be astonished. The guy works.

Entertainment is full of such people -- immensely talented and hard-working -- just mostly more obscure than Quincy Jones. They're the strange looking gaggles of people picking up their statuettes when the sun is still up, and the stringy has-been comedienne hasn't even started making fun of famous people's clothes outside yet.

I've often watched movies and just wondered at the ability of the set decorators, costumers, and the music. Hollywood and the music industry hire all the best people, except for the stars, generally. It's why I'm noticing the set decoration instead of the acting. Even Sanford and Son, it pains me to admit, was just some people milling around on a stage, like almost all situation comedies are. It was fantastic for 50 seconds at the beginning and end, though, wasn't it?

What's the second best TV theme song? We all agree on number one, I assume.

Updated: Perhaps I was hasty.

OK, what's the third best TV theme song ever?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Cooking With Gas In The Kitchen

Could you take this picture in your kitchen?

I don't mean are you baking your own bread, that's unlikely now. But is there any place with a hint of the picturesque in your kitchen?

You cannot worship the god of hard surfaces and become the priest and priestess of the picturesque. The kitchen has become the altar of sacrificed comfort. Reject it. It needs to return to being a pleasant room with a kitchen in it, not a hole in your house into which to ram appliances and particleboard boxes. Formaldehyde! It's what's for dinner!

I will say before we begin that even poor people are generally well housed in the United States, and the reliability of utilities into every home like water, sewer, electricity, and so forth would be a source of envy for great portions of the world. We are not complaining here. We have been given the luxury worrying about small things instead of where our next meal is coming from; so we can turn our attention to... well, where our next meal is coming from.

Let's make a list of generalities.
  1. The room has to be pretty big. We're going to eat in there.
  2. No low ceilings. No vaulted ceilings.
  3. If you yanked out all appliances, fixtures, and cabinetry, would the kitchen be a pleasant room? If not, start over.
  4. Forget row after row of cabinets. Add a walk-in pantry next to the kitchen and get rid of the majority of your wall cabinets. Add windows. The pantry can have all open shelves. Put a door on the room to hide clutter. Putting casework into niches in the walls, so the face of it is flush with those walls is dynamite. Look at the china closet in the second picture.
  5. You need light coming in from at least two adjacent sides.
  6. Make the sink and drainboards huge. Doesn't matter what they're made from Just plain huge.
  7. Gang at least two windows over this huge sink, with a broad sill. Three's better.
  8. Never cook with electricity. Fire, baby.
  9. Maximize the horizontal space at waist level with nothing on it.
  10. Put dishes and glasses on open shelves, or shelves with glass doors. They naturally stack and display well. Keep things you use all the time close at hand. Don't hide them in the endless cabinets.
  11. Never ever show the side of a refrigerator. Any cabinet over a frig should be flush with the face of frig, and extend right down to the floor. Refrigerators used to be sleek and rounded and looked good standing alone in the landscape. They're not any more.
  12. Almost all kitchen cabinets are bland and ugly. Frameless cabinets particularly so.
  13. Lower cabinets with doors are almost all useless. Use drawers below waist level wherever possible. Drawers behind doors are four car collision designs. Just have drawers.
  14. All corner cabinets are useless. For all the money and trouble you go through to get your stuff diving off a lazy susan in there, or worse still, the floppy door with all the hinges that bangs around and pinches your fingers, they're not worth doing. Have the corners boxed in and forget them. Use the money you saved to help build the pantry.
  15. Never put the microwave above the stove or in the upper cabinets. Pulling occasionally superheated stuff out at eye level is madness. And you always want to defrost things while you are cooking something else. Don't work over a hot stove. Put it in a lower cabinet and then your kids can make their own popcorn.
  16. A cooktop with a separate wall oven is great. It was standard issue in tract houses in the fifties. Now it's seeing a resurgence. Great. Gets the oven up where you can see it, too. But never NEVER put a cooktop in an island counter that humans have anything to do with the other side of, especially if people sit and eat there. Are you insane?
  17. A real table that can be moved around and has fold up leaves that people can eat at in a kitchen is five hundred times more convivial than a counter. Make sure there's room for the chairs to be pulled away from the table on all sides.
  18. A door to the outside if there's any way it can be done. A real door. No sliders.
  19. Frameless cabinets look industrial. If you must go industrial, do it with some exuberance and get yourself a quilted chrome/formica/enameled steel/neon/Cadillac finned 1950s thing going on. Or an elegant 1930s Bauhaus modern if you can't stand hominess. But eschew the brutalist concrete/honed stone/nuclear power plant plumbing/ expiatory chair look please.
  20. Overlay cabinet doors are...are... Never mind. Face frames with inset doors, period. Nothing that looks like it was yanked out of a box and screwed to the wall. Make sure all upper cabinetry has some sort of cap or head on it. The particleboard stuff wrapped in woodgrain wall paper with bland overlay hardwood doors always looks bad. Your cabinetry should look like casework or furniture. And it should look good, or ideally better, after you use it and wear it out a little. You're going to live in there, you know. If it relies on the look of pristine sterility, that makes you a bacillus in the body kitchen.
The day couples put a television in the bedroom, it signifies a fundamental change in outlook. Placing one in the kitchen is the same. I'm not saying it's bad. It just represents the failure of the cook, the food, or the company to hold your interest. Just sayin'. But you need music. Plan for it early.

Well there you go. Go to the kitchen designer with this list. Bring defibrillator paddles. You're going to need them.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Your Kitchen Is Devouring Your Soul

I've been installing a kitchen for a friend of mine.

I used to have a lot to do with house construction. It's very rare for me now. The furniture is everything. I've been in thousands of homes; modest, palatial, big, small, desert, arctic, seashore, mountain, underground to apartment aerie. Canada, lots of US states, Central America, Italy. I've noticed lots of things about lots of places. But the thing I've noticed most, is that 99 times out of 100, the kitchen is devouring the soul of the inhabitants.

It's not meant to. It costs more in treasure and effort than any other three rooms in a house. And though people are constantly striving to get a kitchen that's the center of their home, generally they spend all that money and end up with a sort of dismal industrial vivisectionist's operating room, more or less.

Look at that picture. You want that woman's kitchen. You tell me you want it something awful. You describe in painstaking detail the cozy, sunlit, roomy, casual kitchen you want, and are willing to pay big dough for, and then -- I'm sorry to tell you this -- you absolutely refuse to allow any of the elements that make that kitchen look so lovely. You throw it a way with both hands.

It's not all your fault of course. A sort of grim sameness descends on the whole process. You can choose from an almost endless assortment of the same damn thing. It's like the industry makes you take three lefts to take a right. But you don't want to go that way. In my experience, the advice you are going to receive from the vast majority of kitchen designers is a guaranteed lock to make your kitchen about as homey as a podiatrist's waiting room. So what is it that makes that place in the picture look so luminous across the decades?

Here's why that picture looks so lovely:
  1. The room has a high ceiling
  2. The room does not have a vaulted ceiling, making it a cavern
  3. The room is lit from at least two sides
  4. There is a great big sink
  5. There are two great big windows over that sink
  6. A little sconce between the windows below eye level
  7. Items in constant use are at hand
  8. The cabinets are made for the room, and have inset doors and face frames
  9. The cabinets are painted and look like they can be refreshed
  10. Broad windowsills allow houseplants to grow in the sun
  11. There are no fussy finishes or furnishings
  12. There is a door to the outside
  13. There is room for others to gather
  14. There is room for others to help
This is well and ably done, and undoubtedly by an amateur designer. Probably just a carpenter with a pattern book.

Let me point out that that woman is poor. She isn't holding a basket of eggs that a style magazine just handed to her for a photo shoot. The hens just handed those to her. Money won't cure your problem. Mostly, money makes it worse.

There was poison put into our intellectual drinking water last century. The brutalists took up the lament that a house, and especially the kitchen, was " a machine for living." Let me ask you. Should people be fed into a machine? Do you want to feed yourself and your family into one, every day, for the most essential thing in your life -- the marvelous ritual of preparing and eating food -- made no less profound for how often you do it?

( More tomorrow)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Life Is Accumulated Error

Our internet friend Patrick down south in the Red Stick State is making a table. He's asked a question, and it was bound to bring on the logorrhea, mostly off-topic. Here's the question:

Now, since you've offered advice upon the seeking of it, how does one make all the legs on a little table come out the same size? I clamped mine together in sawing and making the dadoes and everything so they'd all be the same height and have the shelves at the same spot and everything, and one leg still came out shorter than the rest (I suspect warpage). Do I just keep sanding the others until they're evened out?
This is interesting as all get-out. We have encountered the confounding and somewhat counterintuitive "Accumulated Error."

There is a long and boring explanation of accumulated error regarding mathematics, science, and especially lately climate prediction. We need not trouble ourselves with that here, as we begin with our eyes glazed over from hunching over the tablesaw. No need to keep basting them.

What we are referring to is well known to the man who must measure over and over again. If I measure a foot with a ruler, and make a mark, and then measure again from that mark, and then again for a while, certain dreadful things can begin to happen. First, after about 36 tries, I'll be outside, and it's snowing, and I don't want to go there. But more to the point, if I am making an error -- say, the ruler is wrong --and then continue remaking that error, while using my last erroneous point to start making my next mistake, things can get really bad really quick. I said "can" get bad, but that's just an expression. They "do" get bad, and you get fired or not paid, and so forth. And your table lists to port. What's happening?

Eisenhower might be the most able executive we ever had as chief magistrate. He said: "A plan is nothing; planning is everything." He understood accumulated error. You have to take into account the vagaries of constant changes.

Now, back to our table. It wobbles. Patrick is downcast. We must help.

First, Patrick, you're very cheeky to just make four legs and expect them to turn out alright. A professional wouldn't figure he's have any sort of success doing that, and make fourteen or so, hoping to get three good ones and one that don't look that bad in firelight. The firelight is generally cast from a lovely blaze in your winter fireplace, made from the other ten legs. But you are brave, and do the crossword in pen, and we must help you.

They are all a little different. You tried, but wood is not steel, and you are not a machinist. Your pencil marks, the angle of your head when you read the markings on tools and measuring instruments; hell, the humidity changed and that wood decided it wanted to be closer to the size it was when the birds were chirping in it last week. And you are accumulating errors, and you don't know how many ways that material and those tools and your own efforts will betray you yet. Wood only really expands or contracts across its grain, so table legs and so forth don't really get longer and shorter. A dry pine board 11 inches wide might gain or lose 1/8" in width in a week, but a 12 foot long board won't gain 1/8" in length. Tabletops move all around. Legs don't do much.

Don't fret. Make the table as best you can. Make the pieces as accurately as you can. Align your joints. Center the baulks of wood in the clamps so that the center of the screw is in the center of the board you're clamping, not offset and yanking it one way or the other. Measure assembled rectangles from corner to corner diagonally, and then the opposite diagonal, and when they are the same, the thing is "square." Do your best to not let the errors accumulate; make only one mistake at a time.

And it will still wobble. Mine do.

Then take the table, if it's small enough, and place it on the only thing you own that's flat, which is your tablesaw tabletop, and wobble it. Two table legs, diagonal from one another, will not lift off the tablesaw. Leave those alone for now. Wobble the table until the other two legs are off the saw, and equalize the amount each is off the table. Use something to measure that distance between the bottom of the leg and the sawtable top. Mark that measurement on those two legs I told you to leave alone, those that WILL NOT wobble. I use a scribe, which is like a compass, to make such measurements and markings. Sand or cut to the line. Now the table will not wobble. It's much harder when the table is bigger to find a flat surface to accommodate the four legs. Kitchen counters are generally very flat, especially if they are stone, as many are these days.

If you make a mistake cutting and measuring for the wobble, over and over, eventually you will get to the top the legs, and you'll have a nifty cutting board.

By the way, accumulated error is why climate scientists tell you it's going to be 500 degrees centigrade next summer, or there will be sheets of ice stretching over the Florida panhandle -- depending on who gives them their grant money and whether their ruler has 11-1/2" or 12-1/2" inches to the foot.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hi Lefty! Hi Stumpy Joe!

Aw geez.

Look, Pat over at Stubborn Facts is talking about me. And unlike most people, he's being pleasant about it. I'm impressed a bit.

I'm not impressed for the reasons you might think right off. I'm impressed that another man has the poise to openly say he's emulating another man. A very imperfect one, at that.

People are always trying to associate themselves with celebrity, for instance. Any tenuous connection they can conjure up -- or lie convincingly about -- to anybody with the slightest bit of name recognition is the first thing out of anybody's mouth.

You know, my best friend lives next door to Tom Brady's mother's podiatrist's landscaper's butcher, so I feel as if I really knocked up Bridget Moynihan!

Well, not quite. Pat is a great big man and I'm not a celebrity. And although I'm Time's Person of the Year, I doubt Pat is much impressed. I think I'm standing next to the thing that has caught his fancy, and so bask in its reflected glow.

I am an autodidact. At everything. And one aspect of being an autodidact is you often flail away on your own when a little help would have gone a long way. Pat will go farther faster than I would because he knows enough to look around for anything that might help him.

I have no advice for Pat. I used to be loaded up on advice, but I feign being fresh out all the time now. I only respond to direct questions at this point. Everyone involved is the better for that. Unsolicited advice is unerringly bad, in my experience. What isn't actively wrong is generally ignored anyway. But I have to say something, I guess.

The easy thing is to remind him not to cut off his fingers. That's considered undesirable among many classes of persons these days. It's not for me to cast aspersions on those people too haughty to participate in auto-mutilation as a general rule. They are creatures of pride, generally; and people who deem themselves too high and mighty to even consider lopping off a finger or two, or putting out what all thinking persons know is a redundant and superfluous second eye, are not my kind of people. Let them congregate together in the thin ether of snooty society. Pat and I know the joys, cameraderie, and brotherhood of the spinning remorseless blade.

So I will skip that lecture, except to say that Pat has entered a different sort of arena than he is used to, and we should caution him severely. If Pat is a bad lawyer -- and I have no reason to doubt that, as he is my friend -- he could get his clients put to death or imprisoned for the entirely wrong crime, which might put him off his dinner for an evening or two. He might contemplate the blow that would be to his reputation, and be discommoded mildly by remorse over it, until he watches the lights dim and flicker for a moment as his conscience and his accounts receivable are wiped clean. It is expensive, time-consuming, and tedious to have to own evening clothes and constantly attend funerals if you are a doctor, for another example. If he becomes a serial murderer or some other worthwhile and energetic professional, there will always be lots of clean-up and some paperwork, but the details will fade into the mists of antiquity very quickly, and you will be restored to geniality after the lime burns heal.

But if you make a table, no matter how rude and misshapen, no matter what the vertiginous tilt it might present to the onlooker, no matter how foul the coloration applied to the glue-smeared splintery mess -- you will never be able to part with it once you make it with your own hands, and it will haunt you all the days of your life.

You can not even look forward to being dead, as so many of our brethren do -- or we do for them -- as your heirs and assigns will keep it around to remind them of what a magnificent fool that fellow Pat -- or "Old Leftie," if you're not careful -- was indeed.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Glimpse of Garter.. Snake

Nature took its foot off my face today. Sun's shining. There are swans cruising back and forth in the flooded bog behind my house. We can see them from the kitchen window. They did not deign to let me photograph them. Like all truly magnificent things, they must pretend to be modest. I will not trouble them.

It's interesting standing for a long moment watching the inexorable trickle of yesterday's rain making its way, as it must, to the sea. A poet should live here. It's wasted on me. I just figure the shake in the grain of a tree drooped over like that makes it unsuitable for anything but firewood, and go back in and knock boards together.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday Redux!

(I'm really busy this week. So you get this fantastic cut and paste re-run from last year. Umm... I meant to say...that is...I've gotten lots of requests to reprint this. Yeah, that's the ticket.)

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. You can't go to that bar. She'll be there, and you took her number and didn't call. You meant to...

No you didn't.

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

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

(fast forward)

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

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

Happy Friday! to one and all!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Black Dog Comes Early

[I wrote this a year ago or so. I'm sick, and tired, and sick and tired, and the peepers haven't come yet. If you see me coming at the lumberyard, give way; and I warn you if you shake my hand and touch your face, you will pray for death from the bugs you inherit. Oh yes; Happy Thursday!]

Winston Churchill was a very great man. But far better, he was an interesting man. His life was so grand, and vast, and fraught with peril and adventure, and his wit was so engaging, and his intellect so profoundly capable and cultivated that he can stand almost endless scrutiny. And when you're done reading all about him, you can read the books he wrote about everybody else.

He was funny, too. And like many men afflicted with humor, he got depressed from time to time. Not down in the mouth depressed, no; the kind of mental anguish that makes a man eye the kitchen knives while holding a tumbler of scotch. He called it his "Black Dog." He knew it would present itself from time to time, and he would get past it by doing something else. Now, doing something else for him meant throwing himself into painting landscapes in the south of France, or building a brick cottage on his country estate, brick by brick with his own hands, or any one of a hundred interesting things that presented themselves to a person of his influence and capacity. And he'd refresh himself by tiring himself out, and get back to yanking on the levers of power in the British Empire.

The Black Dog haunts me too. It comes generally in the late winter. I range around the house, unable to sleep, dogged by some lingering catarrh, bored, and greedy for the sunshine that never seems to come back after Columbus Day. What sleep there is is death, not rest. And you remind yourself that there are others with real problems, and yours don't compare. It doesn't make you feel better, generally, but it keeps you from taking poison.

I was outside yesterday. It was clement. The breeze didn't feel like a knife, or a fish to the face, the sky wasn't crowded with scuds the shade of dishwater, and the sun began to warm to its task a bit and shooed the thermometer into the fifites. Woodpeckers banged their stupid happy heads against the trees behind the shed, an osprey kited over, silent, cruising the edge of the treeline for a rodent foolish enough to look both ways but not up. Oak leaves began to flutter down from the branches they had grimly hung on to all winter, rattling and writhing through the snows and winds, now gently set adrift by the birth of their replacements. I could smell things. Things that smelled faintly like life.

And then I heard it. The peepers. It's such a pleasant little flourish they blow, indistinct, happy, variable. It's such a part of the aural wallpaper after a while you don't pick up on it right away. We've had people stay over our house who remarked in the morning that the peepers sounded like a jet engine outside the window -- they were urban folk and preferred to be lulled to sleep by the quotidian sounds of the odd distant four alarm fire and the delivery truck -- we barely noticed them.

Their little trill -- the thrill of picking up on it for the first time -- the ticking off in your mind of the first in the long litany of Nature's To-Do-List: new mown grass; the crack of the ball on the Hillerich and Bradsby; the glory of fireflies in June; daylight at 9:00 at night; the languid drone of the cicada; rich warm breezes coming in the window as you enjoy the slumber of the sunburned and contented -- it's all there -- if you'll let your mind wander a bit to the end of the road the peepers are paving for you right now.

The Black Dog plays in the swamp, and is consumed.