Saturday, June 30, 2007

Second Empire Sylvester

This one's got everything: nudity; violence; righteous retribution. And cottage furniture.

Feet of clay. Everything else, too:

Friday, June 29, 2007

Nothing Happens Until July 4th

Nothing happens on Cape Cod until July 4th.

I worked on Cape Cod for many years. I witnessed various and sundry businessmen down there trying to fight this iron law like a white whale. They'd tow banners from biplanes and make radio ads and hire performers and put out sandwich boards and generally set their hair afire after they got that little flurry of interest and money on Memorial Day. I used to see their businesses slip beneath the foam, tangled in the lines trailing from the leviathan of the springtime's cold water, high winds, and overcast skies all the time. The smart ones just opened the doors on July 3rd, and sold everything they had until they found themselves unscrewing things from the wall and putting tags on them, and running out of even the banana popsicles.

They'd show up on July Fourth, oh yes. And every Friday afternoon until Labor Day you'd know better than to to try the two bridges that allow you to enter Cape Cod over the canal that makes it an island, really, if you didn't have two hours to kill. The rentals turn over at Saturday morning at eleven, so don't try going the other way, then, either.

Let's go down to Main Street in Harwichport. The Finast has Hood ice cream. And look, the Modern Theater sign says they have talking pictures now.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Quiet Contemplation

Is there a spot in your world suitable for quiet contemplation?

I find it's become a rare thing. You don't have to be away from the whole world to achieve it. Just the opposite. Being all alone out in the wilderness is not restful. Even a tiny urban dooryard used to have the potential to serve the purpose I'm referring to, or the small parks that would dot the urban landscape. But exterior spaces are mostly too busy or barren, and so suburb or city or exurb, they don't serve the purpose anymore.

There are fads. Decks, hot tubs, elaborate grilling devices, pools, tennis courts, swingsets, treeforts, bocce, horseshoes... I could keep going, but you get the picture. There's a great deal of hardscaping in the exterior world these days. I am mostly ambivalent about most of those things. They are either useful or not according to taste. But they are not what I am talking about.

I'm talking about a place that is designed to place a person at ease outdoors, sheltered enough from hubbub to stop for a moment and contemplate the outdoors and your place in it.

I am not often on the lookout for things to do. I have too many things to do. I am looking for a place to do not much of anything for a pleasant moment.

Put a garden in your yard. Put a seat in your garden. Enclose it enough to be private. Give it a view through to something else that is pleasant to look at from a distance. Open it to the sky but dapple the sunlight. Get out of the wind, invite a breeze. Stay on the ground if you can, but get out of the dirt.

Keep the fun out of there. It's too much like work.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Got Nature?

I was answering my e-mail yesterday afternoon, and looked out my office window. Notice anything?
Yes, I know something's been eating my neighbor's arbor vitae, or the first four feet of it, anyway. It makes it look like Dr Suess lives next door. No, not that. Look closer.

Yes, I see the ghost of the trench the Verizon Fios installation left in my yard. Grass seed is almost $10.00 for a bag that would seed every Fios installation in Southeast Massachusetts. Why would the trenching people bring some of that with them? No that's not it. All right, I'll go over to a window without a screen to block the view. But I'll have to get up from my desk, and that makes me cranky when I've plopped there after a day hunching over a saw.

My, that's a gangly dog.

Do you know what an osprey is? It's like an eagle that lives at the shore. It's white and black, and it's huge. It's a solitary beast, more or less. It likes to grab fish out of the ocean. You're supposed to get jazzed if you see one soaring overhead.

I had five of them in my yard at one time last week. They all eventually landed in the tall pines, and it looked like there was a bunch of grade schoolers pole-sitting in my yard.

They were big enough to make an attempt on the cats. But the cats were busy.

We get turtles the size of hubcaps, and cute little box turtles too. I was getting the mail once a few years ago, when I saw a woman who had stopped her car in front of my house and was instructing her grade school daughter to pick up a snapping turtle the size of a Thanksgiving Turkey Platter that was in the road. She wanted to "save" it. People have interesting ideas about how fragile nature is, and what the appropriate attitude is to take towards it most of the time. I can assure you that that snapping turtle would have clawed the beejezuz out of that little girl and maybe taken off the end of a finger if I hadn't been there to intervene. They're gila monsters in a tank, not Disney characters, lady. Do you send your daughter out in the road to shoo the drifters away, too?

We've had coyotes in packs. Turkeys in flocks. Phalanxes of turtles. Deer in the same quantities and with the same appetites and regard for private property as teenagers at a mall. A rabid baby skunk living under our back step. Owls. Bats like luftwaffe squadrons every night. A dozen baby squirrels living in the attic. I have to remove three foot trees from my gutters twice a year. My two year old son was trying to feed the birds out back and a field mouse ran out of the shrubs and sat on his foot and ate the seeds. We're only interested in how many gold finches are in the yard.

The deer are just garden pests here. The mosquitoes are biblical in size and quantity. A 75 foot tall pine is a weed. The peepers sound like a 747 warming up on the runway in the spring. Our little children can't play alone in the yard, but not because some drifter might get them. A drifter would never even make it half way up the driveway before the horseflies would get them.

Lenin sat in an office and thought he knew all about how the farmers should order their affairs, even though he had never met one. I read the paper and am told by apartment dwellers that kayak now and again that nature is a delicate affair, and could be snuffed out at any second, wholesale. I've got news for the environmental crowd. If I didn't mow my lawn for three weeks, no one would ever know what happened to us. We'd be pulled to pieces and subsumed.

Nature always looks best on TV - Homer Simpson

Monday, June 25, 2007

Got Gingerbread?

Let's get back to American House styles, shall we? But first, I must rant, and rage, and foam, and whine and wheedle; and then get back to loving you all as neighbors and friends.

I live in a seaside town. The swells live in something they refer to as "The Village." It's a little rabbit warren of streets hard by the harbor and the yacht club. My wife and I and our bairns like to go for walks in the evening there. We're all alone generally, as people talk a good game about liking pedestrian friendly streets, but it's strictly a theoretical exercise. No one walks anywhere but us. There are no children we do not bring.

There are a lot of interesting houses down in the village. I've shown you photos of them from time to time. If you want a verbal beating, try proposing building anything in this town. Anything. There is an abandoned restaurant on the main road through town (It has a stoplight. The stoplight) that has been vacant since I moved here over a decade ago. Dunkin Donuts wishes to place a coffee shop there. My tax money is being spent on prosecuting lawsuits with Dunkin Donuts instead of being augmented by the tax money it would bring. All because the people who do not want it don't want it. They lie anyway: they go to the one in Wareham. In some alternate universe an abandoned restaurant that was uglier than any Dunkin Donuts, even before it fell into disrepair, is preferable to allowing anything to be built there in its ruins.

There's nothing wrong with Dunkin Donuts. Their buildings are too garish for my tastes, but they'd no doubt make the building look like whatever the town asked for. But I've listened to the laundry lists of things people demand to make the thing "fit in" with the surroundings. It's always a laundry list of fake bosh. And if you demanded that the place be made really fitting for its surroundings, not just covered with the affectations of a kind of Potemkin colonial nonsense, it wouldn't approach passing muster with the building code, never mind the disability requirements. It's against the law for a commercial building to have much soul anymore. Postmodern colonial crapola gets pasted on it around here. That's about it.

The people who rail about such things at town meetings and in the paper talk about preserving the character of the town. The town has no character I can discern. The absence of things is not character. The institutions that personify the town are private, and turn their back on the majority of the town and its neighbors in every meaningful sense. There is a word for the person that dreams of a landscape with no person but themselves in it. I don't think it's a pleasant word. They talk openly in the local newspaper about choosing the day of Fourth of July fireworks with an eye towards selecting the one most likely to avoid having anyone from another town attend. Why should we let someone else see our fireworks? Why have it on July Fourth? Why does anyone need an inexpensive cup of coffee, or a job? It all sounds so unsavory, if you're at the yacht club.

When we are walking --alone-- I walk past one house after another that the locals would point to as a paradigm, and demand that the whole town be kept in this unspoiled fashion. The problem is that most of southcoast Massachusetts was a turn of the 20th century seaside retreat, and many of the houses were built as gingerbread confections, and they've been ruined. They've had all the gingerbread ripped off, the porches removed, then covered with shingles and shutters. Some are stuccoed over or even vinyl sided. I see the ghosts of those old houses in there, faintly visible now, like an old lady that shaves off her eyebrows and paints on her features with a shaky hand, or like a pretty corpse in the bottom of a lake.

People drive past those houses --and me-- and go harrumph and say: at least it's not Dunkin Donuts. They're right. Dunkin Donuts is real.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Call The Vatican

Some sort of miracle has occurred. I am at a loss to explain it.

We planted three rose bushes two years ago. In my mind, I was burying them, not planting them. Because the dark and bloody mysteries of roses are beyond me. I can barely grow mildew on my shower curtain. How am I going to tend to those things?

Like all come-ons from smart salesman, the plants had a rose bloom on them when they were displayed for sale. If there is a prettier thing in this world that I'm not married to I haven't seen it. They were cheap and irresistible. Three of them went in at the corner of the garden near the driveway. They lost the bloom they had and did nothing. The difference in appearance between a thriving rose bush and dead one is not spacious for a goodly part of the year.

I tried to find out about the plant, of course. But that's like walking up to a pretty girl in a bar and expecting her to run off with you because you tell her you read a medical textbook about females once. Not likely. I read a dizzying array of advice about roses that approached a sort of kabuki play/necromancy incantation/ Faust bargain/atom-splitting/pointillist painter complexity coupled to a Confucian subtlety; it made me throw up my hands, cut off the wild stems, dump on triple the recommended fertilizer, and forget about it.

There are fifty or so dark purplish red blooms on the things right now, with buds for at least another fifty more. I understand so little about what has happened that I don't even know how to go about lying about it to take credit for it.

Hmm. I'd never make it in politics, would I?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Got Francis?

We are generally indifferent gardeners here at the Sippican Cottage. We're not good at it, but we try, as with so many things in life. But we wisely do not try to sled uphill anymore. We take what nature will give us, and plant the things that are likely to pan out despite our lack of ministrations, or perhaps more accurately because of them. We've killed a lot of plants learning how.

I see our neighbors at war with the landscape, as so many people are when they tend to their lawns and gardens. They seem to have a sort of vestigal farmer tail that makes them crave straight lines and flat things where none are needed. I understand parterres and so forth, and enjoy them in formal settings in the country or a little urban dooryard, but if you live out in the suburbs, or even further out, a fetish for that sort of severe neatness --a sort of craving for landscaping linoleum-- is bizarre and incongruous.

The deer disabuse us of of any idea of planting things of value out in the landscape that will strike them as a sort of salad bar. We take the curse from the join of our house to the ground with the usual easy shrubs and perrenials, now nicely grown and needing only tending, not intensive care. And way out in the landscape, as far as you can go before is gets too wild, we placed St.Francis to stand at the edge of our wilderness and cast his blessing before and behind.

Our little son has gotten it into his own head to go each outdoor day to the edge of his world and put an offering in Francis' bowl. He has nothing, so he finds what he needs in nature to give it back.

As do we.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tommy Walnuts

I don't know how many times I trudged up that hill with his lunch. Mother said he was kind to us when we needed it, so we need to look after him now that's he's alone. Me, I just do what I'm told.

I didn't know what to call him. He looked even older than he was, and he was nothing and nobody to me. He sensed it. He seemed to know everything although he never went out.

"Everyone calls me Tommy Walnuts."

OK, then. I'd sit in the milky sunshine next to the cobwebby window and watch him eat, while the cats - his cats?- the cats did figure eights through his legs. In all the time I was ever there I never saw him show the slightest interest in those creatures, but they hung by him like he was their mother. It was like he was the sun they orbited.

He never spoke while he ate. He'd murmur or grunt if you asked him a question, but shoot you a sort of withering look that made you refrain from asking another. When he was done, he'd take out a tin of tobacco and make himself a cigarette, and he'd smoke and he'd turn his eye towards yours, and it was like a signal that you could ask him something. He never asked me anything, except: How is your mother?

I can't explain what that man knew, because he seemed to know everything. I'd go to school and the nuns would try to pound the numbers and the words and some sense into my head. It took a lot of hammering; at least at first. But then I had a mission. I wanted to ask this man something he did not know. I'd read at recess and at home and I'd sit in the library like a girl and scan the pages looking for the thing Tommy Walnuts would not know. I couldn't find it.

How long is the Great Wall of China? How do you calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle? Who was the third vice-president of the United States? Did you know the Titanic had a sister ship?

"Two," he said, and send me home to scour the shelves again.

One day he looked rough. He always looked old and beat, but he seemed sick. He coughed a lot when he smoked.

"Are you all right?"

"I am always the same. Makes no difference. Ask your questions."

"How did you end up all alone here?"

He took a long drag on the cigarette. He looked around the empty room like a man on a stage surveying the audience before delivering his line. It was the first time he had ever even paused before answering me. I heard the clock tick, and the soft indistinct sound of a cat purring under his chair. A car sizzled past on the wet pavement outside.

He looked at me differently than before. I was sorry I had asked that. I'd gone too far. I was losing so I upset the board.

"I'm not alone. You are here."

Tommy Walnuts knew everything.

Monday, June 18, 2007

One Moment, Please

There are moments.

It is a mundane little warren of amusements. Decidedly low tech, immune to any real throngs, no hint of pigs at a trough while waiting for your turn. It was clean and plain. It was inexpensive and deservedly so. It reminded me of so many businesses I'd seen that had not taken off yet; still the vision of a man or woman or two, future uncertain, working for every dollar and cadging every guest the hard way. If you'd ever been to Disneyland in Anaheim a long time ago you'd know what I mean. Just a carnival with flat tires. I remember when they announced they'd try making a go of it in the swamp in Florida, and it was even money if it would be there in five years. I don't think you could get even money where we were yesterday.

But there is a sort of wearisomeness to having a blast now. The movies are like a visual beating; the rides at an amusement park are a kind of Bataan Death March of fun to wait for your turn, and then simply a test of your will to hold down your lunch; the cost of everything puts too much pressure on you to enjoy yourself or you're a fool. How are you going to enjoy yourself worrying about enjoying yourself? There's no leisure in it. It's pointless to look for it there.

I stood on the Merry-Go-Round, next to my toddler, and the gentle sine wave of his horse's circuit put me in a kind of dream. The sun was in his cockpit, and the wind touched our faces as gently as any lover. The lake reflected the sky and the little blue train came by on its leisurely meander through the dormant cranberry bogs on its way to the little station. My boy waved to it like it was his friend.

I was supposed to be bored, I guess. There was nothing there to interest an adult that they didn't bring. But I assure you I would have stood there next to that fiberglass horse on the brass pole with the little twist to it, and the silent, beaming boy on it, until the sun went dark forever and the stars fell in on themselves.

But dad, there's lemonade over there.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

It's A Barnum And Bailey World

Actually, it's a Thomas The Tank Engine world today. I get to take my little boy to ride on a cheesy full size Thomas this morning. He plays endlessly with the little things, and we are trying to picture his reaction to seeing a huge version of his hero. The only sure thing is the 75 yard berth he'll give to the fellow dressed up as "Sir Topham Hatt." I've seen how that dynamic plays out with Santa Claus.

The big one will come, too, of course, and make a halfhearted attempt to affect a certain 11 year old world-weariness about the proceedings, and pretend he'd rather be slaughtering aliens than riding on a train. But I see right through that; I'm his father. He'll ask me if we can go again when it's over.

There seems to be a tradition nowadays that Father's Day is a day for a guy to sort of rest on his laurels, and take a day off from being Dad.

Why the hell would I want that?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

By The Shores Of The Satmornfunniehaha

The lesson, as always, is never say: "Let me have it" to anybody for any reason.
--Commercial Break--

--End Commercial Break--

Now mow the lawn.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Making Liberace Look Like Tommy Newsome

I know he's playing and singing and so forth, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name Sly Stone's activity here, I'd have to go with: He's presiding over that thang.

People playing instruments used to come out of the radio. No, really.

Have a happy Friday.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Big Yellow Taxi

My older boy finished grammar school yesterday. He starts junior high in the fall.

He's many months younger than many of his classmates, as his birthday only cleared the entrance requirement for first grade by a few days. But he towers over many of his classmates, and looks his mother right in the eye already. He arrives home each day like an army arriving to a field of battle. The house is too small for him now.

He has become partially opaque to me now; sometimes inscrutable. He has opinions. He no longer tells jokes. He says amusing and witty things. It's different.

His core is dead to me at this point. It is his own self-contained perpetual motion machine, neither requiring nor allowing me to spin it any more. If I was going to fix him or break him I should have done it by now. I imagine I've done both. No artist is ever pleased with his canvas, they just allow it to be hung on the wall eventually. You'd like to tinker with the thing but people are looking at it now.

They sent home a disc with a sweet slideshow of pictures of his classmates set to music. The case must have been dusty as a mote of some sort got in my eye.

The pure tonic of his smile looked out at me from his yearbook, his teeth still fighting for primacy in his pre-adolescent mouth. Favorite food: Ribs. Favorite music: Mozart. Favorite day: His birthday. There's a quote he likes from Napoleon Dynamite, and he says he likes to play video games.

Most admired person: His father.

I wasn't quite ready for that. The other children mostly wrote in an assortment of dimbulb athletes out on parole or celebrities with no discernible talent but one for self-promotion. He's got it backwards, my boy does. It is he that is admirable, to think to throw a bone to his old man when others threw theirs to the ether --or to the wolves.

I promised the boy that if he got all A's on his report card we'd buy him a pony. He got a couple B's; just missing A's by a whisker, but missing he did. I felt bad, as he had really applied himself. I felt as if he deserved a present, so we got him that pony anyway.

It was delicious.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Fifties Were Hip. It's Been All L7 Since

I always try to put my self in the place of the people hearing anything for the first time. Sitting in some drafty barn of a palace hearing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik wash over you; hearing a Joplin rag in a slouch joint in Saint Louis; hearing Muddy Waters electrified for the first time at a house party in Chicago after the war; or hearing bop in a club in New York and being at sea for a moment, trying to catch your auditory breath and figure out the billowing phrases as they tumble out, fresh. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. 1952. It's like you were crawling, and you see someone sprint by.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Got Grandma?

Thank God we do. I've little use for the village. You know, the one it takes.

Monday, June 11, 2007

All In All, It Was Easier For Me When I Was Sick

What does the toddler eat for breakfast? What does the eleven year old drink with his sandwich at lunchtime? He needs a permission slip, a bike lock, a helmet, and a change of clothes for a school trip today. Where do you keep the cat food? What time do I pick him up after school? In the front or around back? Where are the car keys? I can't find the straws. How many seconds do you microwave bacon? Yes, bacon. It's good for him. He's almost eleven. He should be smoking and drinking by now, never mind eating bacon for breakfast. They put deli meat in ziploc bags now? What kind of mustard? They are all yellow. I don't know; something about a tank engine.

You all right?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Not Like This. Like This.

My wife cared for me while I was ill. My children, too. It is the cement in the bond of matrimony, somehow. When you are wounded and at your worst, she looks at you like you're clutching a Nobel Prize or an Oscar at a banquet. Do people behave badly when things are going well? I find that the case often enough these days. They fight over winning lottery tickets. You need to find someone that loves you when you are unloveable. Not like this:

I feel better today, because she has looked after me when I needed it. So it's more like this today:

"When I needed it." Heh. I always need it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Peach Baron's House

OK, let's see a Queen Anne style house. Here's one in Magnolia, Delaware. Ain't it purdy, despite the glum sunless day it was photographed?

Lovely. Let's list what makes this a quintessential " Free Classic" Queen Anne:
  • Steeply gabled roof
  • Front facing cross gable roof
  • Mixed wood siding to break up walls with patterns
  • Asymmetrical floor plans and elevations
  • First floor wrap-around porch
  • "Pent" roof on featured gable
  • Whimsical towers
  • Big panes of glass mixed with smaller decorative panes
  • Cutaway bays windows
  • Large classically inspired columns instead of spindlework
  • Dentillation under eaves (those blocks are called modillions)
This house was built fairly late for a true Queen Anne- 1905. It's got some classical revival elements here and there, like these swags over the tower windows:

I'm not sure of much in this world, but I'm pretty sure those cats are dead now. I have no idea if the house is still there.

So who builds a Queen Anne manse right at the end of the run of the style? Why, a Peach Baron. A Peach Baron?

Yes, a Peach Baron. Of course in the annals of the Robber Barons of the turn of the 20th century, none stand in such stark relief as Peach Barons like John Lindale of Delaware. At least according to the local Milford Chronicle:
John B. Lindale was the last of the great peach "barons" of this area. ... he owned thousands of acres of land in sixteeen farms in Kent and Sussex County. Local tradition says that Mr Lindale owned a very fine pair of horses and one of the finest carriages in the area.

" ... he drove a pair of bays to Milford a few Saturdays ago that attracted nearly as much attention as a circus parade..."
Goodness, what a rake. But these unholy concentrations of wealth engendered by the shadowy peach trusts make my descendants-of-the-workingman blood boil. Think of all the sinister Pinkerton thugs he undoubtedly had stationed in his orchards to scare anyone from even thinking of challenging his right to stand bestride his Delaware Peach Empire like the peachy colossus he no doubt was; or perhaps keep children from eating his peaches while they played hooky and went swimming in the summer. Or maybe he just had a dog that would bark at you; the record is obscure on this point.
The records of the 8th assessment District of Kent County show a sharp increase in the value of the residence of John B Lindale between 1902 and 1907. In 1902 his residence was assessed at $800 and in 1907 for $4000. Local legend says that John's mother, Mary Barnett, kept tight control of the family money until she died in 1903. The legend also contends that after his mother died John B Lindale started to build his fine house and acquire other expensive items.
Their rapacious names ring down through the ages. Rockefeller. Morgan. Gould. Harriman. Stanford. Lindale the Peach Baron.

After his mom died, anyway. I'm surprised he didn't start a software company.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Need To Know Basis

What do you need to know to build a house?

I'm what's called a general contractor here in Massachusetts. That is to say I have what's called a Construction Supervisor's license from the state. It means I'm considered capable of standing there and screaming at everybody actually building a house while they're doing it. And I'm allowed to get a building permit. That's about it.

I had to demonstrate that I understood the effect of snow falling from an upper roof onto a lower roof, and soil compaction, and enough hydraulics to get poop gently ambling through the waste pipes towards the septic tank. I had to know how to read a table in a very fat, poorly printed looseleaf book to determine the maximum span allowed for a given size of floor framing, and how far apart they should be spaced so the floor is just a sort of wooden trampoline instead of a trap door into the basement. The place is not supposed to catch on fire while it's being built, or after someone lives in it. At least not by itself.

I have to know a lot of things, actually. Or know that I'm supposed to know something and look it up, anyway. And I'm supposed to husband the process to the finish line --the occupancy permit. That's a formality in houses, mostly, it's not that complicated; in commercial work like a restaurant or a hotel, the building inspectors are many and their concerns are daunting; and if you do everything right the first time, they scowl and make stuff up, and you have to do that, too.

Lots of people are general contractors, and the vast majority of them framed houses as a trade, if they have any trade at all. It was a rare thing indeed to find a supervisor's license among the plumbers or electricians and related trades; they have licenses of their own, and usually stop there. And I'm not omniscient, but there is no such thing as a tilesetting general contractor. I'm not in the general contracting business anymore of course; but even when I was, I was something of an oddball. I was used to talking to customers. I had been in people's houses after they were occupied.

General Contractors are not likely to know much of anything firsthand about painting, wallpapering, flooring, carpeting, cabinetry, or anything else you, the end user, cares about. With rare exceptions, in the general contractor's mind the place was sort of done when the roof sheathing was on and the windows were nailed in the openings. Everything that came after that was an annoyance to him. Including you. And the budget for everything --cabinets, flooring, paint, fixtures, cleaning... you name it... is way too small because all the money got spent making the house "tight to the weather." Because that was the part he was interested in.

Now New England is anachronistic. It still lags the rest of the country in that most houses are built by small developers. Large companies build Levittown after Levittown in most of the United States. That's changing even here now, as the permitting process has become a NIMBY minefield that only people with deep pockets, lots of time, and lots of lawyers can tread upon. I've read lots of ink about "evil corporate developers," but let me assure you ink generators that it's you that have made it about impossible for any other kind of entity to function anymore. Toll Brothers just hires another lawyer. Old fashioned general contractors go bankrupt.

Large corporate builders have an iffy reputation for quality. The surface of the thing is always done to a tee, but everything you touch comes off in your hand. Small contractors, like the kind we have in New England mostly, have a reputation for building the house like a tank, but not finishing, or skimping on the finish.

The corporate guy has never seen your house. It was on a spreadsheet, and they made sure it looked like the assemblage of magazine article details that would get you to sign on the line that is dotted. The little framer did a great job on the only part of the process he ever loved, and then lost interest. Neither person ever wants to see the end user. The framer type generally is ambivalent about going to the bathroom indoors, for instance, so you can imagine the end user showing up at the jobsite is about the last thing they'd want to see. Most of the GC's help is not allowed up on the furniture. You're the furniture. No matter how personable they appear, trust me, if you mailed them the money they'd be happier.

So more or less, for everything you the end user care about in your house, every surface you encounter daily, everything you pay attention to, you're on your own. Unless you really like framing.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Art, Trade, And Mystery

The amazingly hardworking Instapundit (does he sleep?) has an ongoing interest in manual skills, and our collective lack thereof. He's linked to various and sundry disquisitions on the topic -including one of mine. I'm afraid most of them remind me of the Onion article: Executive Fascinated With Electrician's Lunch. He even linked yesterday to someone that thought trade protectionism would force people to acquire hand skills again, as inexpensive consumer goods would no longer be available to the masses. I recall a more forceful version of this same idea being tried in the 1970s by a fellow named Pol Pot. People who think that heavy lifting is good clean fun are playing in the world of physical exertion. No one that has to lift heavy things for a living thinks that way.

At any rate, the hand skills everyone is talking about aren't lost, they're mostly obsolete. I admit I smirk a little every time I see the sanctimony and the hammers come out when a gang of well-meaning people gather to bang framing nails into wall studs for charity. One man working alone with a pneumatic gun and compressor could do the work of fifty amateurs with hammers. I'm all for helping those in need, of course, but making up imaginary tasks to make yourself feel better is not the same as helping. There is plenty of unskilled labor at a homesite. You're not interested in any of it, trust me.

I'm very enthusiastic about encouraging people to bang on their homes and posessions to make them their own. Hell, I've built my own boat as well as my own house. It's gratifying to produce or repair objects with your own hands. Period.

I've got pretty much all the "hand skills" the cubicle crowd seem to covet. But beware: Here's how you used to get them. When you're done reading, I doubt you'll still be interested in most of them. Birdhouses are still in play, though. Go for it!

I'm rereading a book about houses in 18th Century Williamsburg. Strangely enough, it's called "The Eighteenth-Century Houses of Williamsburg." by Marcus Whiffen. If it was published today, it would have a cover that said something like:

"Torn From Yesterday's Headlines-The Exciting True Story of the Heat and Passion of our Passionate Hot Forefathers and Mothers:"
"The Desperate Bodice Stitchers of Williamsburg!"

Or something.

It was published in 1960, so they just told it like it was. I'd rather read one book like this than a metric tonne of fiction anyday. The only bodices that get ripped are because they caught them on a stray nail while burning quicklime in a brick kiln, but I can do without the "excitement." It's interesting enough as it is.

John D. Rockefeller Junior bankrolled the collection and restoration of the houses there, if I recall correctly, and good for him. I always insist that the history that truly matters is not military history, but the march of events in the life of the great mass of citizens of a great nation that defines its progress. The clashing armies are important in that they define the ability and willingness of a society to defend itself, and its will to do so. What they are defending is just as interesting to me.

How did people live? Dress? Labor? Raise children? Learn? What did they sit on, and what kind of dwelling did they live in? Places like Williamsburg catalog just these quotidian details, and bless them for it.

Really dry books like "Houses of Williamsburg" have the scholarly details that lend perspective to our own lives, when we see how far we have come, but also how much we still retain. I found one particularly telling detail in it. It's a contract for Indenture between an orphaned boy and a bricklayer. Here it is:

This Indenture Witnesseth that John Webb an Orphan hath put himself, and by these Presents doth voluntarily and of his own free Will and Accord. put himself apprentice to William Phillips of Williamsburg Bricklayer to learn his Art, Trade, and Mystery: and after the Manner of and Apprentice to serve the said William Phillips from the day of the date hereof for and during and unto the full end and Term of five Years next ensuing during all which Term, the said Apprentice, his said Master faithfully shall serve, and his Secrets keep, who's lawful commands at all Times readily obey; He shall do no damage to his said Master, nor see it to be done by others, without giving Notice thereof to his said master. He shall not waste his said Master's Goods nor lend them unlawfully to any...

To the modern eye, this looks like two paces from slavery. But not to the modern tradesman's eye. Because what you just read was essentially the same as the situation my peers and I entered into when we entered the building trades in the seventies. It wasn't written down, but it was spoken, or understood. I'll serve you faithfully if you teach me a trade is the bargain we all struck with someone older, wiser, and more experienced, but didn't mind having a seventeen year old around to pick up the 90 pound sacks of cement for him. And the only two questions asked of the prospective applicant were: Will you work hard? and: Will you stick around long enough to make my investment in your learning pay off? Answer yes, and you'd be pointed to a stack of something heavy that very minute.

In a very real way you were adopted like this fellow was. You were talking to the tradesman in the first place because you were his child, or nephew, or neighbor, or the son of a fellow churchgoer or lodge member. Somebody had vouched for you before you ever got to stand nervously in front of the guy, while he wondered if those little arms of yours could lift what he needed lifted.

"Art, Trade, and Mystery" is wonderful. I've never heard it described better. Good construction work is an art, and so many poor souls flounder around these days because they learn the "art" in a desultory fashion, get stars in their eyes, and go out on their own without learning the "Trade" which refers to the business end of the deal. "Mystery" is the magnificent capstone to the trio of benefits. Specialized skills and knowledge are the heart of any trade, and customers know better than anyone that hiring a tradesmen to do anything for you is a descent into mystery. The plumber knows the mystery of making the contents of the toilet bowl disappear, and for that mystery you're glad to pay him.

There's sound advice for the young man later in the deed, (it is a deed we're reading from, just like title to a piece of property) although it's more than just advice in a contract like this:

He shall not committ Fornication, nor contract Matrimony within the said term. At Cards, Dice, or any other unlawful Game he shall not play whereby his said master may have damage...He shall not absent himself day or night from his said Master's Service, without his leave, nor haunt Alehouses, Taverns, or Play Houses, but in all Things behave himself as a faithful Apprentice ought to do...

If I had a nickel for every fellow tradesman I knew, whether working alongside me or employed by me, that had ignored exactly this kind of advice and ruined their lives, I'd be rich as Croesus. Tweak it a bit, and make it the first week of instruction in Vocational High School, and you'd have my support.

What's in it for the Apprentice?

...said Master shall you the utmost of his endeavors to teach, or cause to be taught or instructed the said Apprentice in the trade or Mystery of a Bricklayer and procure or provide for him sufficient Meat Drink Cloaths, Washing and Lodging fitting for an Apprentice during the said term of Five Years...

So at the end of five years, the young man would know everything he needed to know to be his own man, and be able to go out in the world and make his living. It's interesting to note that he's promised what is essentially a living wage for single young person and an education, nothing more, but nothing less either. He's not promised the 1700's version of and I-pod, or bachelor pad, or a bitchin' truck, or a sports car, or Nike shoes, or restaurant meals, thrice a day.

The employer has some serious obligations as well, alike in kind and importance to the contract. And I doubt the interdiction against gambling, booze and monkeyshines with girls is prudery, it's probably rooted in the knowledge that your clumsy efforts won't support that kind of easy living for a long time yet, or egads, not a wife and family yet, so knock it off.

Anyway, there were no snout houses at Williamsburg, and no public welfare housing for people on the dole. Both the plans for the houses and the contracts for the workmen were drawn up by amateurs, not professionals, and they're ten times better than what we have for the same things now, drawn up by legions of professionals and lawyers.

There's a lesson in that somewhere. I'm not exactly sure where. I'm an amateur philosopher, not a professional. But I assure you, in 1975, I would have signed that document, and been the better for it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sublime Mundane Mashups

Teh Intarnets are great for mashups.

I remember reading about Renaissance artists who would hear about some stunning visual effect that could be achieved by grinding something strange for their pigments. They were vivisectionists and grave robbers and wannabe alchemists and cranks and geniuses. There was an underlying inventiveness and strong artistic chops too. It's a fool that thinks a gimmick is going to carry you through your whole life.

There are possibilities that open up when technology marches forward. Most of these possibilities are mundane, or annoying. But inventive people just grab what' s around and push what's possible. What could you cobble together from the hoary old late-night interview format, done by someone that's no good at it, interviewing someone who has made his whole life's work riding the wave of his own sublime mediocrity? This, if you're clever:

What could you do with what's right there on your shelf? This, if you're Oliver Laric:

(Thanks to for pointing out the Laric mashup)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

I Like June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like June.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Numerous Inbred Monarch Style

We're talking about Queen Anne style, which are Victorian Houses.

Everybody knows Queen Victoria. She's like Fat Elvis or Santa Claus or Colonel Sanders. That's her scowling out at you from the label of Bombay Gin.
Lord knows she's seen enough of me over the years. Gin and tonic is still the primo summer drink among luminaries like me. The tradition of mixing gin with quinine water goes back to a time when India was a part of the British Empire. Soldiers were given quinine, the only known treatment for malaria, and they liked to mix the nasty tasting stuff with gin. It's associated with hot weather drinks to this day. And although it's considered very hoity-toity now, gin was the poor man's drink back then. And Victoria? Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland starting in 1837 until 1901, and Empress of India after the Mughul Empire fell apart in 1876. Hence the "Bombay."

So the time period coincides with the appellation "Victorian." Who in the Dickins was Queen Anne, and why are Victorian Houses mostly Queen Anne style?

Queen Anne was monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland for 12 years until her death in 1714.
1714? What the hell would she know about a wrap-around porch? And she doesn't even look like she was as much fun as Victoria was known for, which is not much. Here's her picture from Wikipedia:
She would have sat on brutish dark oak furniture, and not much of it, and lived in a drafty glum masonry castle. She looks pretty brutish and dark herself. Why the hell are whimsical woodframe houses built half a world away two centuries after she bought the farm in a country that didn't exist yet get named for her?

By mistake, mostly. The second most popular writer of the 19th century was William Makepeace Thackery, and he wrote a book called The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. A Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Queen Anne and her name was floating out there in the zeitgeist, sorta like Paris Hilton's now. Everyone's talking about her at once for no real reason.

While her name was in the air, Richard Norman Shaw, a British architect, decided that he'd try his hand at picturesque country houses that didn't derive their style from Gothic themes. He published some pattern books, and some American architects like Henry Hobson Richardson picked up on the style and made an American go at the idea. And the appellation Queen Anne just sort of stuck with it. Queen Anne furniture doesn't look anything like furniture that Queen Anne would have had, either.

So Queen Anne in America means one of a series of styles featuring steeply angled rooflines with lots of cross gables, especially facing front; shingles with patterns in them; wall surfaces tricked out to avoid any plain areas; bays and niches; asymmetrical floorplans; and wrap around porches. There were all kinds of subtypes, including the Stick Style we already looked at, Eastlake, Shingle Style, Spindle Style, Free Classic, and Half Timbered, and probably some I've forgotten.

Just call them all Victorian. The realtors do.

(More Queen Anne by subtype later)