Friday, February 29, 2008

Unexplained Carousel

A strange and foreign place lost in a reverie and you walk nowhere or anywhere and think nothing. And you're prepared to see any sort of wonder or gape like an imbecile at the most mundane thing because it's news to you. Wogs or supermen or ghosts or something live here. And the stone is not just stone but hard stone and your foot wears it away like Caesar and Michelangelo and Savonarola and all the nobodies did. You look like you belong here but you don't. You walk and you look at everyone and everything and here you're the child who can't even ask for what you want and don't know what anything is for and everyone is your friend and a stranger all at once and you are in in their thrall.

Then there's this carousel in the middle of nowhere if this is nowhere how would I know with no one on it and it's just there with no hint of a reason for it there are no children. There it is a world spinning empty. It doesn't belong there and you don't belong there and you stand there accusing one another of nothing. It serves only to remind you that your children are out of sight across an ocean and you weep for yourself and you weep for a whole goddamn continent that sent its children across an ocean never to return.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

(Still) Swingin'

[Editor's Note: A year old.]
{Author's Note: I forgot all about it. What's the chances anyone else remembers it? There is no editor.}

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?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Young Man Don't Know Nothin'

Ya see, the young man comes in and he don't know nothin'. That's a given.

Well, not precisely nothin'. He knows all sorts of things. It's just that everything he knows isn't so, or ain't worth a fart in a whirlwind to know. Useless.

But a young man ain't born useless. You got to make him so. A young man is born to be a boon to his fellow man and a credit to his parents, if his parents don't pay too much attention to him and ruin him. Let him be.

They come all in here, extravagant of hair but miserly with manners. They want to start right in being something. Son, you're an unthrowed pot. Stand up straight and listen.

You see, you ain't born knowing, and you can't learn it in a book. How you gonna know to put fabric softener in the steam box to make the oak come out of there real withy and limber? Your grammar school teacher don't tell you that out there in the real world you gotta use the ceiling for a brace for the inner stem while you make down the bolt.

Oh the smart ones come in, though, not as often as you'd like but often enough, and just remind you how dumb you were when you were their age. They're young and handsome and clever and the whole world stretches out to their horizon. You're already on the horizon and you know it. And you think to yourself how wise that boy is to come in here and stand up straight there with the wrong clothes and a box of the wrong tools, and not enough of them, and his hands like his momma's --smart enough to say "I don't know nothin' but I'm willing to learn if you'll show me."

That boy knows everything.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

So What (If It's A Year Old)

[Editor's Note: Another year older.]
{Author's Note: And deeper in debt. There is no editor}

I wouldn't put my finger in that change return slot if there was fifty bucks in it. The greasy handset, battered by a numberless army of salesmen and lovers, hangs like a murderer on a gibbet over the thing. Let the bums get it. She said she'd come. I'm not calling her any more.

I loved the feeling of the neon glowing on the side of my face in there. Don't tell me it's just light. I feel it like the sun. It's the only sun I'll ever acknowledge. The one in the morning rises alone. Mine rises when the manager flips the switch. It never sets on me, that sun.

Man, that scirocco of sweat and booze and cigs and breath like a welder's tank. I feel like I'm born again, from a mummy's womb. Straight on in, just like the music.

The stage is exactly three inches and a galaxy away from the dance floor. Dance? Please. Stumble around with a woman that ain't your wife floor, I think. I like the old dude that looks like Batman's butler or a fruity sort of baron or something that conducts or sways or whatever it is he's doing. He's possessed with it, same as me. He's usually possessed of plenty of cake, a desire to buy a man a drink, and an aversion to arithmetic, too. The waitresses adore that.

The curtain is dirty from wiping your hands on it. Me included. It's dirty like life is. Up high, it's dirty with cobwebs and dust and corruption because you can't reach up there. Down low it's dirty with the grubby hands of all of us trying to wipe off the sweat and grease of what you're doing.

I listen for the cornshucks of the brushes on the snare. He hits it, but I don't care about that. In between -- the faint circular sketching he does without thinking -- that's what I'm after. He's lathering the dry face of the song so I can shave it with the sharp edge of the brass. The bass rumbles like thunder in the distance.

I can taste metal and blood and booze in my mouth. Tastes like life.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Then, Now, Then Again

My family has cabin fever. If it was summertime we could go for a walk somewhere, and I'd waste all my time taking pictures, and the kids would run like colts, and my wife would herd us all. It's just cold and dreary here and we rattle around in our house. I can paw through old artifacts of trips outside, if nothing else.

I've walked down Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island many times since just after the first picture, from the Library of Congress, was taken in 1963. My brother lived on various addresses on Benefit Street while going to RISD in the late sixties. It was ill-advised to help a college student move back then. All they owned was books and vinyl records, and they kept them all on shelves made from concrete blocks and planks. And they never lived on the first floor.

Benefit Street was a dump back then, and is very much not a dump now. I took the second picture on a walkabout a couple of summers ago. It's gratifying to see old things that made it. We routinely lose structures like that to the wrecking ball or in a pillar of smoke from a renter's candle.

This one is called the Harris House. 1767, or so it appears from various deed records. There was an assortment of houses built on the property, and references to this property might be talking about structures long gone. The 1960s picture shows a sort of vestibule that was is out of place on the house, a testament to the the occupants freezing in the uninsulated house in the winter and making concessions to practicality. It's removed now.

It straddles the timeline seam between Georgian and Adam colonial architecture. The doorway is the most common Georgian door I could name. The small entablature over the windows is more common on Adam style. It hasn't lost much, but it could use the shutters back. It's got storm windows instead. Real shutters are fabulously expensive to buy and maintain now. People are used to not seeing them on houses like the Harris house, but I find it mildly jarring, like a woman that has shaved off her eyebrows. Shutters add an enormous amount of depth, shadow, and rhythm to a facade, and are an opportunity to add a dashing dash of color that the lonesome door must shoulder alone now.

Regular people used to design and build their own houses with little more than a few pattern books and some common sense. Postmodernism killed any sort of discriminating eye for architecture the general public might have had. Pastiche supplanted a set of rules, and we lost both the original knack for vernacular building along with the frame of reference that would warn the potential builder: this looks goofy. How many houses in suburbia will make any visual sense to someone 250 years hence? Not many. People like Stephen and Abigail Harris used to achieve it almost without thinking. I'm not sure we can do it any more, even if we tried.

We don't really try. I'd pay real money to live in the Harris House, lead paint, sketchy wiring, intermittent plumbing and all. You couldn't give me a snout house on a typical suburban lot, no matter how much plastic you bang onto it. A house is more than a box to live in.

Or, it used to be, anyway.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I'm A Failure

If a man has talent, and cannot use it, he has failed. -Thomas Wolfe

I never read anything by Thomas Wolfe, that I can recall. I know who he is and recognize his work. He gets jumbled up in the Intertube's hopper with our current writer, Tom Wolfe, who is a fine writer also. Although I've never read anything he ever wrote, either. I read a few paragraphs here and there and got the gist. He assembles the words well, and has a lively mind. He just doesn't talk about anything I'm interested in. There's a lot of people like that. There's a titanic load of people after that, that can't write, but do, that I ignore, too. I don't lump them all in together.

A classic is a book people praise but don't read, Mark Twain famously remarked. I do neither, generally. I just read Mark Twain. Saves time.

I stumbled across the quote by Wolfe and it got me to thinking. I say something similar, but less to the point, fairly often: Adversity discovers underlying weakness.

Most writers have one idea. No one will ever admit that, so don't bother looking around for corroboration. It's like a fiddle they saw away at over and over until the bow loses its last hair. There is no such thing as writer's block. The writer just wakes up one day and has the terrible realization that his one idea might not be very good. Since no one has more than one, he just sits there until he goes back to his one idea, or drinks himself to death waiting for another that never comes.

It's a kind of dumb fun figgering out a Dymo label for the intellectual mailslot in your mind for authors.

Hemingway: Adjective-less bull pestering
Kerouac: Lost and afraid to ask for directions
Mailer: Impresses other NYC apartment dwellers
Tom Wolfe: Astronauts paid my mortgage
Mencken: Everybody's a jerk but me
Bierce: I can call you a jerk better than you can call me one
Churchill: In the olden time
Vonnegut: Starts nowhere. Goes nowhere
Thomas Wolfe: Understands Sippican Cottage, in advance, apparently

Ambition is an interesting thing. Tiger to ride? God to shake a fist at? Mob to stare down? I don't really know. What it manifestly is not, however, is anything to do with talking about it with other people. It is a promise, in the form of a gigantic howling curse, that you hurl into the ether when no one's around. Anything you announce to others is either posturing or complaining. Never complain and never explain, as Disraeli said.

I've said ambitious things to nobody a bunch of times before. They always boil down to this: If you will not have me as a colleague, you will have me as a master.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Infinite Calculus

There was a process for everything.

I remember the long languid early summer afternoons in mathematics class. The teacher would drone and the cicadas would chirrup outside the window. The equation would be chalked on the board and the intricate steps of the logic would be parsed out of it. I'd look out the window and remember her. Her equations were no less perfect.

The chair was placed just so. The toy was brought. The neighbors waved, and got their wave in return. The sun was in the right place to warm the side yard. When the button lost its moorings, there was a moment of recognition, and as ineluctable as anything Newtonian, the tray was produced; the color of the thread adduced and deduced; the problem solved. She'd always hum while she did anything; not musical, exactly --like a machine that is running just right. It was mesmerizing.

Her hand was delicate, but strong and practiced. Her whole life was like a roller at the summer beach. Quietly moving forward. The power was in it, but not made evident by any crash or foam. It was the residue of a million unseen forces distilled to an inevitability. You sensed very young that it would be very difficult to swim against its force, and pointless; so you turned your face to the sun and rode it instead.

I never understood why she introduced such a variable as me into her life's equation. But after a while I realized that such a mind as hers could not be satisfied with simple arithmetic.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Das Internet Boot (Sails On)

[Editor's Note: The bookshelf thing got me wondering about Paul Johnson and William Manchester books. I hazily recalled they'd both been mentioned here, hazily, a couple of years ago.]
{Author's Note: I can't wait until the new Internet paradigm allows me to get rid of the editor, and the enormous support staff I have to carry to publish these items.}

My mind is a cobwebbed thing. When I was young, I was like a human filing cabinet. You could ask me almost any obscure worthless thing and I'd trot it out rat-a-tat. The Lusitania's sister ship. The manufacturer of Richtofen's plane. Churchill's mother's name. Who played Agarn on F Troop. The chemical name for silicone.

I'm not like that anymore, and I don't want to be. It's tiresome for everyone involved to be a Jeopardy contestant out on the street. No one knows very much, really; most people don't know much of anything.

I now know the joy of "Not Going." By that I mean, I am not willing to subject myself to the exertions of chasing the trivial I'm not interested in. I have no interest in many things others commonly do, and I've lost the desire to manufacture that interest or feign the concomittant enthusiasm. It's certainly not any form of elitism. I have the most profound disdain for the supposedly highfalutin'. I still watch football on television. If you think I'm going to sit still and have Katie Couric read me a bad newspaper every evening, you're nuts. And I'll read Twain ten times before I'll read ten sentences of Norman Mailer. And I'll only read the ten sentences as a sort of chore, to allow me to mention he's a lousy writer and a defective thinker over dinner, if called upon.

I'd rather watch SpongeBob -again- than Sixty Minutes, anytime. SpongeBob is rooted in reality, after all; there are sponges at the bottom of the sea. Mike Wallace is unmoored from reality, and what reality he has is of his own invention. He wants to give me an impression -- and he does --just not the one he's aiming at. They both make me laugh, but only one pleasantly.

The internet is a most dangerous and magical sea for us to navigate. I swim through it, and let its atoms wash over me, and get a kind of impression from it, like the ocean. Warm. Cold. Tepid. Dangerous. Limpid. Every sort of thing.

It is said that most people have their minds made up, and simply cast about for information that gibes with their static worldview. The internet is perfect for them, as there is no thing too lame or outrageous that you can not find it by the metric tonne, footnoted. And defended to the death elsewhere in the primordial soup, to the very horizon and beyond, if need be.

I am not a utilitarian. I have no ends, so I seek no means. I swim through the vast thing -- the muck, the weeds, the pale green still water, the rush of the waves and the pounding of the hurricane -- and it washes all around me and gives me an impression. Or more accurately --an ongoing impression.

There is a kind of bloodsport being played in the internet world, and I think people are getting way ahead of themselves in their assessment of how important they are in the scheme of things. They are like sailors in a leaking tin tube creaking with the pressure, sweating and whiffing stale air and listening to pings on the hull, all the while thinking they've got it all figured out. The game is played so ferociously because the stakes are so small. Me? I can't help but notice that Neither Ned Lamont nor Joe Lieberman is Julius Caesar.

My cobwebby mind betrays me again. A tidbit comes to mind. Is it Paul Johnson? William Manchester? Paul Johnson writing about William Manchester? Manchester writing about Churchill? I think it's Paul Johnson writing about Manchester writing about Churchill, but to tell you the truth, I don't care. I could find it on my shelf, but not on the internet, and so it does not exist, according to many.

Anyway, one of them went into the heart of northern India after the British decided to skedaddle and let Gandhi do it. A million persons lost their lives then, give or take, as that simmering pot was unlidded. The vestiges of the Mughul Empire showed right through the modern fabric. The assignment was to go to remote parts of India, and ask the man in the unpaved street if it was a good or a bad thing that the British Empire had left India.

They did not even know that the British had come.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Book Meme

I do not "get out much" on the Internet anymore. At least not as much as I used to. But I couldn't help but notice that many of my Internet confreres have included me in the "tell me what's on page leventyleven" book meme.

I am gratified, of course, to be thought of. But of course I can't just cooperate. I'm a weirdo. If you must know, my house is like a nest of books. There are piles of them everywhere. Shelves depend from the ceiling; rise up from the floor. These stalagtites of text, stalagmites of print, and encrustations of illustration are too loopy to be of much interest to anyone else, I imagine. And the one gaping void has always been the same for me: I don't read fiction. I practically never have. That's what you're all interested in, I know it, and I'm sorry, but I can't help you. I do not have a subscription to any newspapers or magazines, either, now that I think of it. We own screens, but we can't watch broadcast or cable television on any of them. I told you I was strange, but you don't listen.

But there were many that expressed an interest. Let me see if I can be of some help. That first picture shows you the pleasantest where where you can read at my house. You should have a place like that in yours. A place of quiet contemplation, with the world just over your shoulder out the window. A light and a clock and a place for your drink. My wife reads here often while she listens for her child to fall asleep down the hall. Here's what's on the shelf over it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Weapon Of Choice?

My older son is in the seventh grade. He's interested in most of the things his peers are. He's very popular, which I can't figure out. Must be like his mother; everybody likes her.

We cobbled together a computer out of busted and obsolete PCs we had in various closets for him and his brother to use. I found him heroically trying to produce animation with stick figures in Pivot, and then trying to compile them in off the shelf Windows Media. He had no help. Amazing. He is happy as a passenger on the ones and zeros bus, playing Halo with his friends, but I can see he wants to drive the bus already, too.

We used my computer, which is decidedly not well-equipped to produce video-- but at least has a processor from this century in it-- and we made a video together after his little brother and his mother went to sleep last night. Stayin' up late making things.

That's my boy:

Friday, February 15, 2008

Oh Yes; The Windowbox

Top o' the morning to ye, Sippicanite. Or Sippicanette, as the case may be. If you use that third bathroom at the alternative bookstore, please write to me and tell me what suffix to use to greet you properly, too. We're nothing if not mannerly around here.

It's a long road that has no turning, as they say, so let's turn the corner on this window box thingie, and get back to despoiling the internet landscape with our opinion on other matters, shall we?

Well. Well, well, well. Now you've had plenty of advice, up to now. What with me grinding away, your neighbor coming over to critique your sawhorses, and the helpful teenager at the Big Orange Place explaining to you politely that he doesn't think they sell four inch long, galvanized screws that are already bent. Of course, if you like, he'll get on the intercom, and summon someone in charge to ask. You can always tell who's in charge down there, they're the only one amongst the clerks who can shave, either their chin or their legs, respectively.

You think you've gotten advice up to this point? Hold on, dear reader, for the onslaught of unsolicited opinion, for you are about to paint something.

Now people who are willing to help you paint something are a smaller proportion of the population than even the people who need that third bathroom I mentioned earlier. But everyone is ready to tell you how to do it. Actually, that's imprecise. They mostly are prepared to tell you how you did it wrong, and " back in '______' we don't do it that way," after you're done. And you missed a spot.

Now I used to paint things for a living, mind you. Small, quotidian things at first. Big, elaborate things later. And believe me, I've heard it all. I once painted a trompe l'oleil mural, in a mansion, and the roofer came in, filthy, unshaven, swearing, with a cigarette sporting two inches of ash dangling in the corner of his mouth, and he offered me advice. Now I suspect that his experience with two point perspective and faux marble might have been, how do I put this politely, not absolutely top shelf.

But shame on me. Perhaps I've got two many preconceived notions about folks who use @#$! as a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb, and the object of a prepositional phrase, all in the same sentence. Maybe I should have given him the benefit of the doubt. I might have missed the day he was on the Today Show and got his Lifetime Achievement Award for Decoration, along with his honorary degree from the Sorbonne.

"Why the #$%! is this like this?" He said . "I wouldn't do this in my #$%!-ing house."

Really, do tell. The one in the south of France, or the other one?

So take it from someone who's been paid to render an opinion on paint. Everyone's going to offer an opinion for free. And I doubt anyone is going to give you the counsel I'm about to.

Pick out a nice color in a water based, low lustre house paint. Open the can. Stir it until you get bored. Get a disposable 3 inch brush. Slap that paint right on the wood. Twice. you're done.

The horror! No primer! No sanding! No expensive flag tipped tynex/orel brushes! You visigoth you.

Now trust me, it doesn't matter. It won't peel. Let me take that back. It might peel, but if it's going to, because of the sun and rain and snow, it will no matter how you finish it. Remember, it's supposed to look weathered and simple, not fussy. So don't bring fussy into it. But here's the hard part: Don't make a mess. Paint never really looks right if you make a mess. Being neat is not fussy. Leave the shrubs and the siding out of it. And don't paint it a color that competes with the flowers.

All paint brands are about the same, if you compare like for like, product-wise. Gaudy claims from the manufacturers about this or that characteristic are generally true, but one is 99% something or other, and the others are 98%, and it's not worth worrying about.

Except one thing. Pigment cost money. Both the kind of pigment in the paint, and the very expensive pigment they use to print the sales brochures. And if there's any difference between the brands that matters, it's almost always the quality of the sales brochures, and sophistication of the colors. And getting rich, earthy sophisticated tones for paint requires a sophisticated approach to the pigments. Cheap paint makes grey by mixing lamp black with white. It wears well, and applies easily, but it's Just Grey. Better paint has people educated in color, researching combinations, and using four pigments to achieve Grey. Rich Sophisticated Grey. And you can use their materials to find color combinations that don't look like they belong in a trailer park. Just stay away from the color chip displays that look bland overall from a distance. You'll be fine.

First, soak the innards with raw linseed oil. When that soaks in, put in some more. It will keep the water in this box of mud we're keeping from immediately wicking into the carcass of it and speeding up its inevitable decline. Now, lay a piece of window screening in the bottom of the box, to keep the good soil from slowly sifting out through the neatly drilled holes you put there. Then put a thin layer of something that will keep the drainage good in the bottom so the roots don't rot. I use a couple of trowels of gravel from the driveway, but anything will do if it lets water drain free. They sell nifty styrofoam pellets now, of the sort that nurseries have been using for years to mix in their soil to keep it from caking. They work well, and don't weigh as much as gravel. Then the peat and the poop, mixed with good garden soil. And in go the geraniums, and the vinca vine. Or Boston Ivy. Put the vines nearer the front of the box, and it will droop nicely over the canted cap we put on the front of the box for just that purpose. Or you choose the flowers. Who am I to give you advice?
By the way, that's me behind the flash, mirrored in the darkened window. I think I look great in the photo, don't you? I should have my picture taken like that all the time. Now you know what I look like.

Now you're wondering how we chose our color. Well, we chose it because its name, and its delicate tone, conjured up images of ancient babylonian temples, washed by the biblical sun to a delicate ivory; or perhaps the color of the finest cheese, labored over by the flinty Vermont farmer, and seen in the rich, clear beams of the first sunshine of the farm workday, filtered through the mist in the meadow; or perhaps evoking a panorama of wheat, languidly waving in the gentle breeze, stretching to the horizon on the rolling plains of Tuscany, and crowned by the regal Mediterranean sun.

Ben Moore named it "182." Get some. You'll love it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

La FĂȘte du Baiser

Will you thumb through the pictures when I am gone?

Will my face, made careworn and tired, be restored in your mind's eye? I cannot know what it was you ever saw in me. I cannot understand how you could know that when I said those things all people say to one another, almost without thinking, that I would really mean them. I said it and only half believed it myself, uttering such extravagant pledges of dubious value. Not for want of them being true. But I am unreliable.

There is nothing in this world but to love, and be loved in return. In a hundred years the most important man you ever met is anonymous. In a thousand everyone is. We cobbled together a life around the table where we break the bread, and for a few thousand times we were as one. I saw your face in our children's faces. You said you saw mine. The universe passed the plate, and we put in our offering. We are poor, but it's enough for anyone to give. No man could do more. No man could ask for more.

I remember when I was lying on the bed like a dead thing, and you came into the room and thought I was asleep. I wasn't asleep; I was gone from sight, and sound, and lost in a fever. I lay there in a puddle of sweat and more; my very life coming out of every pore, leaving nothing but a husk where a man used to be.

And you kissed me. I remember.

Windowbox Extravaganza -Day Five..Er...Six

[Editor's Note: Day five or six, I've lost count, of the windowbox debacle. I think it's day five; I can't remember. Six days. Sheesh. And I'm not sure it's over yet.]
{Author's Note: Yeah, but the window box is just a pretext to write in my inimitable and compelling style.}
[Editor: Sez you.]
Ever mow the lawn with a toddler in your lap on the tractor? What an expression he has the entire time. Beatific, true, but something of a game face too. Grim determination. I imagine you have the same expression on your face if you've been following along with this window box business. At this point, I'm like a Wallenda,- you're vaguely interested in what I'm doing, but you wouldn't be totally surprised or disappointed if I fell. Well, let's see.

Now, I've got a table saw. Three, actually. I'm not sure if you do. Many people have one in their basement, gathering dust, if not sawdust. It makes it easier to trim this thing out, if you do, but it's not mandatory.
What I want you to do, is take a length of 2-1/2" wide pine, and rip it in half, sorta. Set the fence for 1-1/4", and the blade will take his vigorish, and the waste side of the cut will be a little thinner. No matter. The 1-1/4" wide piece should be the same length as the battens you cut for the front and back of the box, in my case, 39". But I told you before, why measure? Lay the piece on the span, and mark the cut right on it. You can't go wrong that way, and save walking over to the saw, mumbling to yourself: "38 inches, and one big line, and two sorta big lines, and two teeny hash marks" over and over, and mismeasuring. Take the waste cutoff from the 1-1/4" strip, and cut two pieces 7-3/4" long, and glue and nail them on both ends of the front panel, flush with the edges. The last picture shows it better than I can explain it.

Which reminds me. I've got lots of books about making things. Houses, boats, furniture, paintings, all kinds of things. And I can tell you modern books about making things look so much better than old books. They have acres of pictures showing you precisely how to do what's being done. Even my modest little "What's New Page" can bring instant digital photos and accompanying text, with links to buy the things I'm using, and accompanied by the occasional pictures of dead actresses for good measure. Amazing, and good.

But I can tell you dear reader, that the books I treasure the most have few, or no illustrations in them. They're usually 50 plus years old, some much older, and they contain more information than modern books, which are loaded with space gobbling visual information. Since books were precious then, and rarer than they are now, the people who wrote and published them really seemed to be able to write well. The modern ease of photography and writing has removed the heavy lifting of publishing, and we're all 90 lb weaklings compared to our immediate predecessors. There's a lot of information in a fifty year old textbook. There's a lot of pictures and white space in a new one. The modern how- to books are not even in the written tradition, I think, they're more like the experience of working along with someone, like a helper. It's an oral tradition they mimic, and they're not even trying to write, they're writing down what they would say, instead. Which is fine, and useful in its way, but...

[Author's Note: This windowbox thing was originally written three years ago. Please note during the following that I had the idea for "The Dangerous Book For Boys" back then, and there would be no marbling paper in mine. Where the hell is my book advance?]

I have a book reprinted in 1924, originally published in 1905, entitled "The Scientific American Boy." It's filled with a compendium of industrious activities for young men. The book itself is a wonder. It is sparsely populated with a few crude line drawings of the items being discussed, and tons of lapidary and useful text. And they expected you to make, and use, for amusement, the following items: a skating sailboat; snowshoes; a tent; a crossbow; surveying instruments; canvas canoes; rope ladders, a tree house; a derrick and windmill to pump water; a scow with a sail; a toboggan; a winter shelter; a small sailboat; a hammock; paper kites; a water wheel; a log cabin with a fireplace; a gravity railroad, which is essentially a handmade rollercoaster; a cantilever bridge that any modern civil engineer couldn't improve upon; and dozens of other things to make and use, made from readily available things using hardly any tools.

And the part that strikes me as most extraordinary about the whole thing is the fact that you could make this stuff with just a few crude drawings because the text is so well thought out, terse, and incisive. Now it's also neat to think of children making all that stuff and, well, playing outside, but let's leave the pontificating about "kids these days" out of it. Those kids nowadays have different skills, and they're not necessarily inferior. The average teenager knows more about a computer that Bill Gates does, for instance.

And each and every one of those venerable books sits on the shelf and mocks me silently when I write, like I did two paragraphs ago: "The last picture shows it better than I can explain it." Oh well.

OK, back to business. Now you need 2" wide stock for the little frames on the sides. Rip it on the tablesaw, if you've got one, or make do with the 2-1/2" stuff. Because the front is canted forward, and the sides are vertical, the 2" side frames will align themselves visually with the 2-1/2" frame on the front. Now if you inspect the last picture, you'll see we have covered up all the screw fasteners and the laminated edges of the plywood. And the 2" wide pieces align perfectly, cut square, to the little canted portion of the sides. The frames will add the play of light and shadow, and depth, to the whole enchilada, and a certain "whatsis," as Bertie Wooster would say.

In that last picture, I've also laid out what's coming next, in advance, just like you do when telling a bad joke, which I am also an expert at.
Glue and nail the 1-1/4" strip on top of the back. Cut 2 pieces from 2-1/2" wide stock, 7-7/8" long, to the long point, with a 15 degree bevel on the front edge- just like the battens we put under the bottom. There's that 15 degree thing again. It's kismet. Or destiny, Or schadenfreude. Or something. Glue and nail them atop the sides, as shown. Now measure the span from the outside to the outside edge. Better still, lay the 2-1/2" front nosing right on it, mark it, and cut, glue and nail it. Now we're done. Making the box, that is.

Now, a window box does best when it sits on a shelf or brackets, it's true, but we're going to hang this lickity split, and make our bets and take our chances, as they say at the track, and get to the grille earlier.
This next thing is complicated, I know. Gird your loins. Buck up. I have faith in you.

Get some galvanized screws. Long ones. Now I prefer bent ones, because I'm strange, and cheap. You could use straight, brand new ones, but where's the challenge in that? Suit yourself. Get 4 of 'em at least, whatever you choose, a box of mud is heavy.

We've got to go through, let's see, 1/2" of MDO, a 3/4" cleat, +/- 1/2 " of shingles or clapboards or somesuch siding, and another 1/2" of sheathing, just to get to something substantial, framing wise, under the sill. What you're looking for is the framing subsill, usually a doubled 2 x 4 affair, buried in the wall under window opening. You need 3-1/2" to 4" screws, galvanized, to find it and grab it. Tuck the box up under the sill, so that rain from the window sill drips into the box. Predrill the four holes, evenly spaced, about 1-1/2" inches down inside the box, using the nifty bit you got at Amazon through my search box, that's putting my kids through school.

Now comes the really hard part. Drive those four screws, through all that stuff, and be sure to strip the heads just as the heads snug up to the MDO. Don't strip the heads too soon, or the screws will stick out into the box and annoy the ladybugs, and your window box will rattle around. But it is important that you strip the screws horribly, just like the professionals do. Otherwise, when the box is old and tattered and the next occupants of your home want to remove it, and they want to continue the ancient and time-honored tradition of swearing and cursing the thoughtless Neanderthal person who installed the blasted thing in the first place, they will not be disappointed. Of such traditions, civilization is built.

Tomorrow: Paint and Flowers! I guess. Is this thing on?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Windowbox Archipelago

[Editor's Note: Part 5 of our continuing series: How to turn four hours of banging nails three years ago into two weeks of blog posts.]
{Author's Note: It's so cold in Massachusetts today, the flashers are just describing themselves to passersby. But we'll need windowboxes eventually, won't we? There is no editor.}

Good day sirs, or madams. I must make furniture today. I have a bunch of legs and aprons ready to be assembled into tables in the wood laboratory, and must get to them. Now, I could spend the whole morning staring at the computer screen until drops of blood appear on my forehead, trying to conjure up a joke about legs and aprons and The Rockettes all getting married at the same time, but I can't spare the time, really. So on to the windowbox.
What the hell are those? you just said. Never you mind. just make five of them and be still. They are 4-5/8" long to the long point, and are angled at 15 degrees like the mark says. They're made from leftover 2-1/2 inch stock. You have a lot of scraps left over, no doubt, because you didn't measure anything twice, and cut a bunch of stock too short, and wasted it. (whistles, walks away with hands in pockets)

Ahem. You will notice that you cut a strip 4-5/8" wide, an eternity and one internet post ago. Perhaps they are related somehow, ya think? We used to call a revelation like that "Light dawns over Marble Head" at work in these parts.

When you're new on the job, inevitably some old coot would send the "new guy" out to the truck to get a Board Stretcher, or a Johnson Rod, or a Gazinta, or a Left Handed Screwdriver, or some other imaginary tool, and the other old hands would have a snicker at the poor young lad as he nodded as if he understood, and went out to the truck on a fool's mission. Of course, the kid is never that dumb, he just plays along with the old knucklehead, because five minutes alone at the truck is five fewer minutes listening to the old buzzard flapping his gums. And he returns empty handed, feigning sheepishness, and the tired, disreputable, and infantile men would jape: "Light dawns over Marble Head!," and then talk about it and rehash it for a month.

Of course the kid is putting himself through college by working in construction, speaks three languages, and can figure differential equations by the hour, but to them, he's a dope. Eventually, they will all be working for this boy.

Anyhow, Marblehead is a lovely north shore town here in Massachusetts, but you people in flyover country can substitute "the bulkhead" for "Marblehead". When you're insulting people, it really doesn't require that much precision.

Where were we? Oh yes. The mystery blocks. Do this with them:
One on each end of the bottom strip (the 4-5/8" wide piece), one in the middle, and split the difference with the other two. Ensure that all the beveled edges are all on one side, or it will be wrong, and you will be unhappy. Glue the blocks on, and pound some galvanized nails, less than 1-1/4" long, either through the MDO into the pine, or through the pine into the MDO. Or use screws, whatever. Get your drill motor. Did you know that's what it's actually called? The drill is actually the thing you call a drill bit. You can tell the old guys that at work, to impress them with your booklearnin,' when they call it "the drill," or "the screwgun," or the "hand me that thing right there," and point like an infant at what they want.

They may be impressed with your knowledge, but I doubt it.

They will most likely say: "Shut the !@#$ up and give me that @#$%ing thing there and put a sock in it." Then they'll send you to the truck to get a Knot Burnisher or a Sledgeruler.

Oh yes, the drill. Drill some holes in the bottom. (yes, that's the bottom) I drilled twelve 1/4" holes. You can drill as many as you like, any old way. But somehow, you'll sleep better if every time you drill things, whether they show or not, you put them in rows, neatly. It shouldn't matter, they're just there to let the water out of the box. No one will ever see them, probably. It shouldn't matter, but somehow it does. Ask a Tibetan monk or a feng shui necromancer why, I don't know.

Right about now, you're asking yourself, is this thing ever going to be done? Well, to tell the truth, I finished it yesterday, three hours after I started it. Including painting it twice. But then again, I didn't have me waxing nostalgic and poetic about the darn thing the whole way through, like you do. I simply made it.

Glue the pine 1 by 3 strips to the front and back MDO pieces, (7-1/2" back, 7-3/4" front) like so, and nail, or screw them through the MDO into the pine, with fasteners less than 1-1/4" long.

Like dudes, you need two of these. They're totally gnarly endcaps for this bitchin' box, dudes. I like, drew all over it so you'll, like, know the score, but it's like, optional to do that, dude.

Sorry. Use the nine inch wide strip to make these, with lots left over. There's that 15 degree angle again. It appears from time to time, like channeling Spiccoli does. I nipped the top right corner off this piece after I took the picture. To do so, connect a line perpendicular from the right (angled) side to the top side, 1-1/4" long. That's where the MDO line I've drawn meets the top. That's hard to follow, but you'll see it in the next picture.
Assembly time. The pine battens are always facing out. Screw (or nail, if you prefer) through the end caps into the ends of the pine. Glue everything. Screw through the back batten into the bottom battens .The beveled ends of the bottom battens face front, to accept the angled front, if you hadn't picked up on that already. See Marblehead remark above.

I'm using aluminum screws, because they are cheap and don't rust away to nothing in a week. I countersink the heads using a reversible drill bit that makes a pilot hole, then you flip it around and it drives the screw, without removing the whole bit from the drill motor chuck. It's the greatest invention in the history of mankind, the wonder bra excepted. You can click on the Amazon box in the right hand column and search for "countersink drill driver" or something near to it and find it. You're on you own as far as the wonder bra goes. Victoria's Secret sends two catalogs every day to every single address in the US, and hands them out to homeless people as well, I imagine, so it shouldn't be too difficult for you to lay your hands on one. A catalog, I mean. Oh, never mind.
Make it like that. I added two little 1 by 3 blocks to the front, to make a frame. Measure them to fit. ( In theory they're 2-3/4" long, but you measure them to fit because, well, we're slapping this together and who knows what you ended up with) Glue them and nail them. You can see why we nipped the corner off the end caps, to align with the angle of the front.

OK, that's a window box. But it's too darn plain. If we wanted a primitive, we would have just faced nailed five roughsawn boards together. We're going to dress this up a little.

Tomorrow. I guess. Sure. Why not?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Sundays, I Train For The Olympics

We'll resume our Bataan Windowbox March tomorrow. I take Sundays off to continue my ongoing training for the Olympics. The Olympics, being organized largely by narrowminded foreigners, does not yet recognize my event - pie eating- but when the walls of pastry discrimination come tumbling down, I'll be ready. Just like this guy. We're just ahead of the curve, is all.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Four Days Of Windowbox And Counting

Now back to that window box.

We need a plan, and the boat plan won't do. But it's going to take longer to draw a plan than to make the darn thing. Let's just grip it and rip it, shall we?
Alrighty then. Here we are, ready for a sheet of MDO. Now all those people who offered you all the advice about indestructible windowbox construction aren't going to like my sawhorses. That's because, Ladies and Gentlemen, everyone has a different plan for sawhorses. It's like DNA. No one has your exact formula, unless of course you're OJ Simpson.

Now I admit, my sawhorses are made from packing crate lumber and cobwebs. I've been given plenty of advice on how to improve them, all of it unsolicited. But then again, I made them shortly after Reagan had his first inauguration, and they've been stored outdoors for a good part of the interval between then and now, and used, abused, and knocked about considerably quite regularly, and I'm still using them. Many of the people who offered me critiques on them have passed to their reward, while my horses are still going strong. I endeavor to attend the funerals of these kind souls, who tried to save me from the shame of inferior sawbucks, without being asked. My wife always wears a red dress, and I whistle during the eulogy, generally.

I once visited The Orange Place, and saw to my consternation, pre-made sawhorses. The horror! I thought it was illegal to buy a sawhorse. At least from a zen point of view, if you don't make your own, how can anyone trust you to make anything atop them?

At any rate, the two by fours atop those horses are cut from trees that weren't planted yet when I made them, and they still don't wiggle in the joints. The two by fours keep the sheet we're about to cut from collapsing when you're 90% done crosscutting it, and drawing snickers from your neighbors. They'll be over offering advice on sawhorse construction, if you falter, so use the studs.
Right there is the the majority of the elaborate toolset you need to make this thing, dear reader. The saw goes back to John Kennedy's inauguration. A tape measure, a ruler, and forty year old circular saw. Okay, set the circ-saw depth to a little over 1/2" depth of cut, and cut the panel in half length wise. You'll be left with two four foot square pieces. They'll be easier to handle than the whole sheet.

Cut a 9" wide strip off the side of the half sheet. Save it for later, now cut single pieces 7-3/4" wide, 7-1/2" wide, and 4-5/8" wide, all 39" long. Like this:

Now, the piece might not be precisely 39 inches long. Why? Because when you ripped the 9 inches off the sheet, the saw blade took a little for himself. It doesn't matter. Whenever possible, we're gonna use the articles themselves to measure, not a ruler, and save trouble. I've never understood this measure twice cut once business. I've heard it all over the place. Books, TV shows, radio, on t-shirts and mugs. But let me tell you friends, in the real construction world, things move fast. And in the real world, the real motto is: Measure twice... Hey! what's taking so long? Why didn't you measure correctly the first time? You're fired! Something like that.

Use one of the strips you just cut for a ruler to measure four 1 by 3 pine strips like you see above (read yesterday's essay to find out how big a 1 by 3 is.) I put the glue in that last picture for a reason. We're gonna use it, because it can't hurt. Make sure you get exterior glue, the interior stuff isn't water resistant. It's the nails and screws that hold this thing together, but let's give the adhesive a fighting chance, and get the right stuff.

Hey, we're actually doing things now. You must be exhausted. The sun goes down early this time of year, when it's not in your eyes. Take the rest of the weekend off, and return tomorrow for day of rest amusement, and Monday for the beginning of the end of the beginning of building the windowbox.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Window Box Hostage: Day Three

OK. Back to that window box. Let's get the material selection out on the table, so you can get lots of good and bad advice about it from everyone. You'll hear things like:

It's gotta be cypress, for rot resistance.

It's gotta be pressured treated wood, ditto.

It's gotta be cedar, ditto.

It's gotta be lined with copper, or it will rot.

Don't make it from metal, it cooks the plants.

Make it from pine, so it will paint up well.

It's gotta be marine plywood, assembled with epoxy, or it will delaminate.

And so forth.

Well, it could, but doesn't have to be any of those things dear reader. You're gonna get ten, maybe fifteen years, tops, out of your window box, no matter how indestructible it is. Let's keep it simple, and well, picturesque.

We're gonna make the box out of MDO. Medium Density Overlay. Why? Because it's cheap, and easy to work with, and strong, and not too heavy, and it paints up well, and it holds a screw pretty good. MDO is the stuff that road signs were made from, before they were made of steel. It is an exterior plywood, with waterproof glue, and a tough paper face on it, impregnated with waterproofing too. It's a light golden color when you buy it around these parts.

You can make two window boxes out of half a sheet of MDO. A full sheet is 4' x 8.' You could get four out of that, easy. We'll also use some pre-primed #2 pine, 3/4" thick, and 2-1/2" wide, for the bands around the box, to stiffen and adorn it. You'll need about 16 linear feet per box. They call that a 1 by 3. That's called its nominal size, and traces the measurement of the lumber back to before it is dried, and shrinks, and is dressed to its final dimensions. It does seem to the fledgling lumber purchaser that calling something 3/4" x 2-1/2" a 1 by 3 is like calling the small coffee a medium, and figuring no-one will notice. But you are in the lumber yard now, dear reader, and they're not trying to pull a fast one; believe me, they don't feel the need to make any bones about taking the shirt off your back for a strip of wood a bird was chirping in a few weeks ago. It's just one of those interesting and time honored traditions that traces its roots back to Noah, and people who know that sort of thing, know that sort of thing.

Now if you go to the Big Orange Place and ask for MDO, the pleasant teenage girl or boy with the orange smock and braces might mistake it for MDF, which is medium density fiberboard, and entirely the wrong article. MDF is brown talcum powder, mixed with nasty glue, pressed into big rectangles. It's what bad furniture is made from. It lasts approximately ten minutes outdoors, unless it rains, in which case it disintegrates immediately. And it weighs +/- 750 pounds per sheet, or so it seems to if you try to carry it. And it's loaded with formaldehyde from all the glue. Every single thing in IKEA is made out of it. Buy Sippican instead.

Anyway, 1/2" thick MDO is what you want.

Now we're gonna start measuring. You should too. How wide is the window you're adorning? No, no, not the window sash alone. You should include the casings that flank it too. I've got 40" here. That's about average, and not too long for one trough. Really long windowboxes are generally a more difficult proposition, they have a tendency to bow out in the middle of the span from the weight of the wet soil and plants, and require either many partitions along their length, or better yet, you can divide the window box into more than one box. I've made them 10-12 feet long on occasion, but there's a lot more structure in those than we need to deal with here.
(The box is under the three windows ganged together on the right, waiting for spring planting. BTW, the entire "gingerbread" front of that house is MDO, with pine battens on it. It's great stuff.)

Wow, you look fatigued. You go rest. We'll bring out the sawhorses tomorrow.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Windowbox: What's In It For Me?

Well, as reader and commenter Ruth Anne pointed out: geraniums. Of course, to impress your friends you draw back upon yourself and say: "Geraniums? Certainly not! Pelargoniums!" Of course we're down home people here at Sippican Cottage and just refer to everything as: "Dah flowahs."

The windowbox we're going to make is well suited to geraniums. There you see it just planted with little nursery geraniums and a few vinca vines to eventually droop down. The spot gets good sun in the afternoon so the blooms come. The plants get quite tall for how little soil there is for them to grow in. See yesterday's photo.

We filled another box of the same design with begonias, which show flowers even though the window faces northwest, ie: never gets any sun.

So what's a window box for, exactly? Well, it's got a few uses. In urban settings, it might be all the outdoor plants you're going to get. In suburbia, the plantings around the house are generally there to blunt the join between the ground and your house. But you can't see them much from inside the house. Getting them up at sill level brings the outdoors inside a bit, without transferring the buckets of mud indoors.

The purpose of most plants in home landscaping is to achieve a picturesque effect. I'm not sure very many people understand that. There is a melding of cognitive dissonance with a sort of Home Depot delirium tremens in evidence in most landscaping. The houses look like they are at war with the yard; the plants look disconnected from one another and the house; everything is laid out like a farm plot, which is is by its nature unnatural looking; and neatness to the point of plasticity is prized over the picturesque. Your plantings need to be a well organized mess to achieve a picturesque effect. That's subtle, so it's harder to understand than a profoundly organized sterile looking yard.

Other than vines creeping right up the siding, the windowbox is the easiest way to further banish the dotted line between inside and outside, harsh and soft, and nature and artifact. And deer don't like to eat out of them. If you want flowers around here, that's pretty much your first and only consideration.

You can click on the Amazon box in the right hand column and search for books about what kind of plants you might want to put in there. Then decide which window you want to put the windowbox under, and measure it. Windowboxes traditionally are made the width of the sash, but I like to make them the width of the sash and frame.

There. Day 2 of making a windowbox is over, and you haven't hit your thumb or broken a sweat. See? I told you it would be easy. Tune in tomorrow and see if we're actually accomplishing anything yet.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

You Can Make It If You Try

Let's make something.

I make things all day, every day. I've made so many things of one sort or another that it's hard for me to go anywhere and not see one. That's gratifying. Why don't yo make something? I'll help.

The winter is grinding here in the Northeast. It will be gloomy here by the shore until Memorial Day, and never really gets warm until July Fourth. I need to think about spring. How about you? There's no better way to think about spring than to make a window box.

You can make it now, and have it ready for the first warm day when you clean the winter's mess from the flower beds. You can know the satisfaction of making something with your hands, and then compound your accomplishment with the making of the flowers that will surely love it in there. Let's do it. Let's make a box of mud to hang on your house.

We'll need a plan. I have one, and I'll give it to you. You'll need a few tools. I have all those, and I bet you do, too, or can lay your hands on them. You'll need to have a little spare time to work on it. I don't have any of that, but don't worry; my windowboxes are all finished already. So I'm your early bird, and also the first mouse. You can be the second mouse. Remember, it's the second mouse that gets the cheese. So get ready to build your "Second Mouse Windowbox."

Day One: Take the rest of the day off. I'll sign your timecard. Come back tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why Do We Need The United Nations When We Have Deep Purple ?

If you think I'm done with goofy versions of Smoke On The Water, you're sadly mistaken. It's better for you to be sadly mistaken than just sad, so I'm going to show you Senor Coconut and his Orchestra performing what I still firmly hold is one of the lamest pieces of music ever. In Tokyo.

After that, you can't possibly be sad anymore, can you?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Born To Live In That Power

[Editor's Note: A recycled story. You've had a year to forget all about it. The author is very busy making furniture for nice people and cannot write a fresh one. He's had many jobs in his life previously. He has never been fired. He said the same thing whenever he left: I may be no great shakes, but I'm sure no one remotely like me will ever come through that door again. I'll bet that's always been true.]
{Author's Note: There is no editor.}

I like the water from the rusty bucket best. It tastes like something.

It tastes like the earth. I can feel it. I roll it around in my mouth and it's like the magnetism of the poles is in it. The world and everything in it is in the well.

I love that baby. I want to bathe him in the water from the rusty bucket. I want to baptize him myself from the font of the world. I want his bones to sing with the vibrations in the earth. Not clean, exactly; anointed.

That boy's father carries him like a package. He isn't anything to him yet. He loves him, sure, but in a potential sort of way. At least he carries him like there's something breakable in that package. His love is purer than mine - because it is all in his mind, and still he loves that baby. Me, I can still smell the musk of my own womb on his soft little head. And the taste of the rusty bucket.

I didn't know what to think when they strung the power lines across the horizon. Whatever is in those wires is not a person, but it trespasses just the same. But then I felt it. There was power in them, coursing through them. It was everybody and everything going everywhere all the time.

Sometimes I take my boy out in the cool of the evening, the clank of the final fork on the last plate still ringing in the house behind us, and we drink from the bucket with the rust in it, and I hold him up in the air so he can be washed in the power of those lines.

He was born to live in that power. I was born to drink from that bucket.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Who Threw The Pies?

My Intertunnel friend Gerard sent along a video to go along with my revolving pies diatribe. It's Warner Brothers, a particular favorite of mine. Plenty of pies in this one. It helps if you know who Ray Milland and people like that are, but it's not really necessary to enjoy it. Enjoy it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Late Winter, When A Young Man's Thoughts Turn To The Spaghetti Harvest

The winter is dragging now. I begin to daydream. Oh to be back in the Ticino on the border between Switzerland and Northern Italy! How we'd frolic in the warm spring sunshine (just a few months away, now) while watching the doughty Swiss bringing in the Spaghetti Harvest.

Maybe this year, to prepare for the bounty of the fresh spaghetti crop, I could go out onto Buzzards Bay and harpoon some Humpback Mackerel, and drain their sangiovese case oil to boil down and make some Chianti to go with it. A votre sante!