Monday, June 30, 2008

Let Me Tell You About Mattapoisett

I don't live in Mattapoisett. It's right over there. My older son attends school with children from Mattapoisett and one other town. I built a house in Mattapoisett once:

Mattapoisett is like Marion, where I live. It has a "village," a rabbit warren of little streets down by the ocean that's lovely to walk around in. Away from the water, across the main road in town, there's more suburby looking areas. Exurban, really, as we're pretty far away from any Metropolis. Officially we're a suburb of New Bedford, I guess, but that's like saying you're a satellite without a planet. It's all small around here.

Marion is considered more tony than Mattapoisett. It has a fancier yacht club, tennis club, golf course, stuff like that. But it's much more fun to walk around Mattapoisett than it is in Marion. Marion is like an outdoor funeral parlor compared to Mattapoisett, and that's saying something, as Mattapoisett is pretty sleepy. But you just take a pleasant walk on Mattapoisett's shade-dappled streets, walk right down to the water, get an ice-cream with the ocean for a backdrop, or cross the street --without looking much-- and get a pint at the Kinsale Inn, then sit for a blessed moment on their screened-in porch and watch the ocean and the promenaders go by. We did. Come with us.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

I Love That ELO

There's a kind of coarseness to making fun of things nowadays. I don't mean that it's all bathroom humor, although there's plenty of that. I mean the humor is not sophisticated. To properly lampoon something, you have to first understand it -- but you really have to have a little affection for the subject to mock it properly. The Internet, with its cut-and-paste immediacy, lends itself to instant parody, not much of it very good. If you visit the average blog where opinion is offered and comments are enabled, you're almost immediately able to ken the Zeitgest there immediately and move on: Yes, I get it: You hate ______. A lot. But photoshopping a Hitler moustache onto milquetoast politicians isn't a trenchant lampoon. It's the visual equivalent of putting toilet paper in someone's shrubs while they're asleep. Not particularly brave, or funny.

Randy Newman has the cultivated talent to understand the subject intimately, and the twinkle in the eye that's necessary to mock it properly. But I can see a little affection in there for it, too. That's what makes it sublime.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

That's a Jamaican Ska band, the Skatalites. Ska is a kind of on-its-head Caribbean version of American fifties R&B, on drugs, and steroids. For some unexplained reason they're playing in Glastonbury, which doesn't fit the narrative one way or the other, especially since I'm not sure if it's Glastonbury Connecticut, or the one in England where the skinheads like Ska music for another reason I don't understand.

They're performing a gloss on a Ukrainian composer's idea of appropriate background music for a movie about an international team of saboteurs blowing something up in Greece, but the Greek guy in the movie isn't Greek, I think, his real name is Ercolani and he's from Phillie, and Ercolani is a Bolgnese name anyway, and the Greek song he sings, Yalo, Yalo, isn't part of the score; besides, he used to hang around with Gidget and nobody that hangs around with Gidget is any kind of saboteur you'd care to hang out with --oh yes, the song the Skatalites are playing has words but nobody knows them, and for good reason...

Islands of Greece are green and beautiful,
Green and beautiful,
Where the olive trees grow
In the field below,
But high on the cliffs the guns are hidden there,
Guns are hidden there,
In a cavern of stone,
Guns of Navarone...

There's like 142 more verses like that, only worse, or moreso, or something, and if you go to a Skatalites show and sing along people won't think you're cool because you know them, they'll think you're strange so shut up.

So, to sum up: Nothing is wrong with this picture. It's exactly how I prefer the musical world to be organized.

Friday, June 27, 2008

(Stop! Once Again It's) Hammer Time

[Editor's Note: Originally offered a coupla years ago. Still rings true]
{Author's Note: The kid's pushing thirteen, and blessedly, my lawnmower, right now. There is no editor}

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Across The Street And Three Centuries (Again)

If you cross the street from Abigail Adams, you can look back at the First Parish Church she adorns from the sylvan vantage point of the old burial ground. It has the calm of a spot of extreme age, well tended. There are no hard edges remaining, even on the hardest of original edges displayed there.

These were austere and uncompromising men and women that were buried here. Life was not a bowl of cherries for anybody three hundred years ago, as the mute evidence of the numerous tiny nameless markers at the foot of the parent's graves testify. No man should bury his children, it is said. I suspect it was said recently.

The various inscriptions about the denizens here are very chaste in their praise. It was enough, apparently, to commemorate their importance to the town and the country, to single them out for mention. There are two bronze plaques from the 1920s which list the names of the local inhabitants that participated in the Revolutionary War, flanked by another listing those first hardy souls that founded the city.

The founder's plaque has but a few names: Hancock, Adams, Quincy, Hoar. They are the ancestors of the men of those names we learn of in the history books. Hoar was a doctor, and the third president of Harvard University. The boneyard itself was set aside in 1640.

Henry Adams was born in 1583. It is useful to put that in perspective. William Shakespeare baptized his first daughter in 1583. Michelangelo was still painting the back wall of the Sistine Chapel just forty years before that. Andrea Palladio, that most influential of architects, whose Four Books Of Architecture that church was most surely based upon, was still alive in1580. When I first began working in the 1970s, I worked with people whose experience went back to before the Depression. Henry Adams and his neighbors rubbed elbows with the Middle Ages.

The inscription on the lovely gate leading into the burying ground reads: "The Mortal Shall Put On Immortality."

Certainly that. There's also a kind of fame, made indistinct by the passage of time, which fertilizes the grass here. We are watching the proceedings from the stands, mostly. These are the men and women who strode into the arena, and slew the beasts.

Whatever rest they've gotten, they earned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

(Ruth Anne Wants To Revisit) The Adams Family

[Editor's Note: Reader, commenter, Internet friend, and furniture customer extraordinaire Ruth Anne Adams has requested that we revisit the visit with the Adams family. Her wish is our command.]

{Ruth Anne paid the band a few times. Her beautiful children sit on Sippican Cottage chairs. You get to listen to her tune. There is no editor.}

I've only been to Europe once, but Europe is not obscure to me. In the same way that cultivated persons once used to learn French, and those of a scientific nature German, I was taught about European things while being educated. I knew how to find my way from Brunelleschi's dome to the foot of David without directions. And yes, I know that's a copy standing there now outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

Sometimes it seems like Europe has nothing but history. It occurs to me from time to time that most of Europe is just living in the wreckage of an earlier civilization's works, waiting...

Never mind. I'm an American. We're not waiting for anything. Now, it might appear to many persons in this big country of ours that nothing's very old here. There's no Collosseum in Quincy, where the picture is taken, after all. But just because you live in a suburb where the trees are still staked and no one's house has been repainted yet, doesn't mean the whole enchilada is like that. Sometimes the old sneaks up on you; you bump into it right on the street.

That's Abigail Adams right there. That's a monument to her outside the First Parish Church of Quincy, Massachusetts. She is that rarest of things -- both the wife and the mother of an American President. But America is old enough at least to have produced two such women. That church in the background was established in 1639. Quincy is not new.

It wasn't Quincy then, of course. It was part of Braintree, which is still right down the street if you're interested. The city of Quincy was named for Abigail Adams' grandfather Colonel John Quincy. And so the town is her family home, really, not those prickly men she cared for.

John Adams was not a lovable fellow, though Abigail surely loved him. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, who readers of this page know is my kind of guy, John Adams was: "Honest, intelligent, and sometimes out of his mind." His son John Quincy Adams was about as uncompromising and hard-nosed as his old man, and gathered a few detractors himself when his presidential campaign included saying unkind things about his opponent Andrew Jackson's wife.

Jackson's wife died right after the election, the slur still in her ear, and it hardened Andrew Jackson's heart; and he was already about as ornery a man as you could find in American history. I think this monument is really there to remind us how dour our lives would be without women in them, and to remind us how to behave towards each other.

They made a movie about John Quincy Adams succesfully arguing the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court. It was a worthwhile endeavor, but it would take Lincoln to free the slaves ultimately; perhaps John Quincy should be remembered for the two most earthshattering changes he brought to the presidency: he wore long pants, and went to the bathroom indoors.

I think it's great to happen upon Abigail right there in the street, when you're hurtling past on the way to some hurried quotidian appointment. She personifies the importance of being well regarded as well as being respected -- or feared -- plus the need to cultivate as well as harvest your notoriety. And old things encountered in a new and bustling setting are terrific for framing a perspective on the trajectory of things; birth, education, toil, joy, death, legacy.

John Hancock was born across the street, two blocks down. I didn't run into him.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I (Knew) That Smell

[Editor's Note: First offered in 2006.}
{Author's Note: Man, I was smart in 2006. There is no editor.}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 23, 2008


I never have a camera when I need one. My kid could hit a walk-off home run in the seventh game of the World Series, round the bases heading for home to pick up his Nobel Prize in physics and his Congressional Medal of Honor from dignitaries waiting at Home Plate, and I'd say to my wife: "Gee, I wish I brought the camera. "

To be a photographer is to record, not to participate fully. It's unselfish in a way, and standoffish in another. You are there; but just. The professional photographer's a whole 'nother animal. He either isn't there, an outsider gazing at you like a scientist looking into a petri dish, or he's arranging the scene to suit his art, and he's the center of attention. I have no idea what a drunk guy with a camera phone represents, unless he's with Paris Hilton.

At any rate, sometimes a thing happens in my yard. You can feel it coming. It gathers around the edges of the horizon, egged on by mists from the nearby ocean, chastened by the stalwart boles of the pines, and lowered down on your head like a veil -- or a crown.

My wife usually tells me it's about to happen; the bats tell her. They circle the periphery of the patch of lawn outside our back door, hugging the shadows and gently lowering themselves, like the light, until it's satiny dark and you hear the soft susurrus of their leathery wings right over your head.

There's a tipping point, when the gathered indistinct aureole of haze shot through with pastels snaps like a twig and reveals the underlying sky. It only lasts for a moment, and only comes in the spring.

I got it last week, a minute apart; lord knows what my kids were doing that I should have recorded for the ages and missed while I pointed the camera aimlessly into the sky like a loon:

And then, like all the moments you missed because you were in them, it was gone.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Second Greatest Adventure Movie Ever

Steven Spielberg keeps trying to make this movie, over and over, but he's no John Huston; and using George Lucas as your writer instead of Rudyard Kipling is starting in a very deep hole indeed.

Alexander Who?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Something Else Happens

That's pinus strobus. Eastern White Pine. I know it about as well as anybody, I guess.

I use a great deal of it making furniture. But I was introduced to it a long time before that in the housing industry. If you look at a piece of framing lumber, you'll likely see a grade stamp on it that says SPF with some numbers. No, your lumber isn't worried about sunburn. SPF stand for Spruce, Pine, Fir -- all evergreen trees with needles that have about the same strength and so are lumped together for grading purposes. Pine is immensely strong for its light weight and makes good framing lumber.

I know 1x12 number 2 common pine as well as anyone. (Some call that "C Select" grade. Lumber has a lot of inside jargon) My entire house, except the tile in the kitchen and bath, is floored with it, screwed and pegged. Number 2 is an appearance grade that means it has a few sound knots. 1x12 is a nominal size. It means the board was 1" thick and 12" wide before it was dried (it shrinks) and dressed (the cutters take their vigorish) A 1x12 is actually 3/4" thick by 11-1/4" wide. A "board foot" of this lumber is not a foot square. It is 12" long by 11-1/4 wide by 3/4" thick. People often buy board feet and forget nominal sizes, plus good old-fashioned waste. If you buy clear pine with no knots, it costs more than expensive hardwoods in many cases. I made my entire kitchen cabinetry out of the flooring stock by cutting out the clear sections of knotty boards first. I used the knotty sections for secondary things and kindling.

My property is covered with pines, many over 75 feet tall. Hundreds of them. They grow straight up like weeds. When I wanted to clear an acre of them to build the house, the sawyer didn't charge me anything. He took the nice, straight boles of the trees he felled to the sawmill and sold them to cover the costs of clearing the lot.

I've learned that pine is a slab of gasoline. Almost literally.

What I mean by that is, the cost of pine is almost 100% the cost of the energy involved in getting it to where you're going to use it in the form you want it. The wood is almost worthless just standing there with birds chirping in it. Here's the energy list:

  • Getting your lumberjack butt out to the trees
  • The big machines that fell big trees, and chainsaws, don't run on unicorn farts
  • Truck it back to the sawmill
  • The sawmill uses electricity, but that isn't coming from AA batteries. More energy
  • They dry the boards in a kiln, often using natural gas or that electricity again.
  • Just moving it around the yard requires more than a handtruck
  • Put it on a truck and deliver it to wholesale yards
  • More truck, to the retail yards
I have to get in a truck to pick it up, too. They're between eight and sixteen feet long. Not great in your Subaru sticking out the window.

Read any news outlet. They'll tell you that since all that energy is required to get splinters into my finger, it's Armageddon and we're all gonna die in an inflationary tsunami.

It's true I didn't enjoy paying $4.07 per gallon to go to the lumber yard. But I need pine to make furniture. And I paid 34% less for it this week than I did exactly one year ago. Same quality. Same vendor. Same everything.

A fluke? Not hardly. I bought the same thing two years ago, too, of course. I paid 32% less than 2006. Same place. Same quality.

By any measure of what goes into the cost of a board foot of pine, I should have paid a lot more now. But like most things economic, you can't figure out anything by reading the papers. A lot of it is borderline counterintuitive, or obscure, anyway. The demand for lumber to construct housing is down, so the price is not goosed by any boom. Everybody sharpens their pencil a bit. But there are other factors in play.

Any news article you see that outlines inflationary pressures based solely on the price of raw commodities, without discussing productivity or other concurrent economies of cost, is written by, and aimed towards, a fool.

Just like the lumberyard, and the yards that supply them, I've had all sorts of pressures put on me that might make what I produce more expensive. But at the same time, I've had all sorts of labor and material saving devices come into the picture. It's only inflationary if the productivity gains don't outstrip the rise in cost of materials and labor.

The shorter version of all that is, in general, Something Else Happens. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but not linear. There is no more complex system than the modern economy.

Counterintuitively but wisely, the lumberyard is expanding their facility a great deal right now. When there was a boom, they used their existing location to its max and and made their money. Now it's slack, and they use the pause to get ready for the next rush. Maybe you could learn something from them. You're never going to learn anything worth knowing by watching Katie Couric.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

You Got Me Feeling Alright (Still)

Consider Mr Pickett in 1968.

This is before my salad days, but I know all about it. This was always my favorite Wilson Pickett song. It's been awhile, but I think this is one of those songs I can play on all the power trio instruments, and sing. It's just a laundry list, as we used to call such lyrics; you can make up any lyrics you can't remember, really. It's not a complicated piece of business.

Look at what's going on there. It's pandaemonium, and it's very, very, real.

Now, that sort of frenzy is aped at all sorts of performances nowadays, and it's a total and utter fraud. Mildewed old rock stars are like Fortune 500 companies, and travel around like combination software salesman/haemophiliac princes. There's a checklist of enthusiasms they and the audience run through that is as stilted and effete as any opera crowd ever was. I can hear Mick Jagger going through the list in his head now: OK, Bic lighters, (did we get a cut of those?) leave stage for 1.5 minutes, return to applause, focus group says play Angie as encore to push iPod sales, point to spot in audience where person might be, leave stage, drink Evian, wait 2.5 minutes, do Satisfaction as tie-in for Zune rollout, smile towards left boom camera for Radio Shack spot or we don't get the royalty on the frisbee/remote control knock-off giveaway. When Keith stubs out the cigarette, that means the plane is ready and we can screw.

Let me clue you in on something. In the Wilson Pickett video, when the woman in the To Sir With Love jumper and the legs the cameraman gets interested in --a lot-- whispers in Wilson's ear while he's trying to sing, she's not running down his stock portfolio or giving him directions to the nearest wi-fi zone so he can check his e-mail to see if his Bentley is out of the shop or asking him if he'll sign an autograph she can sell on e*bay tomorrow.

Every town he goes in, indeed.

I've rarely succumbed to that sort of reckless abandon as an audience member after I started performing. I don't know how to act in an audience, really, as once you face the other way in an entertainment venue, you always feel a little funny facing the way the audience faces again. But the musicians on the stage are the ones who should be in control, really; it's the audience that should get wild. I see Donald Dunn playing the bass there, maybe the most ubiquitous bass player after Motown's James Jamerson, and he keeps banging out that cascading hypnotic riff over and over, and lets Wilson surf on the top of his wave. They all let the madness crash up against them like flotsam at a shipwreck, but they know they must keep going. You have to keep stoking the furnace, you can't stop to warm your hands.

They're in control. Of the uncontrollable. That wild scene was very real, and it's gone now-- because the context of being straitlaced all day long, all week, then letting your hair down on Friday has been diluted quite a bit. We're all rock stars all the time now.

I was born too late for Wilson Pickett in his prime. But that wild scene captured on the video lasted for decades. I watched it recede during the 1980s, as the population aged and the clubs emptied out. Such things are bound to either pass or become a staid predictable industry.

I'm a little sad for those still younger than I, that never rode that musical bike without a helmet even once.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What Is Hip? (Besides Me, I Mean)

Well, this is:

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

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

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

That is hip.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Fish Don't Coom

It no coom.

Life passes by on the way to somewheres else now, but it no coom.

The fish no coom anymore. They'd coom and leap into the seine they would, without a care for themselves, and us without a care for them. All gone now.

We'd dig in the muck for the shells of St. James, and the excursionists would ooh and ahh over the beastly things. All gone now, and the all the brahmins don't venture here no more. We'd eat kale from the back acre and spend the money. But the money don't coom now.

She says I am a good man as I don' t strike her, and I don't drink my wages. But there are no wages and the fish don't coom and I'm not any sort of man at all if I don't drink nothing 'cause I have nothing.

The ocean took my digit in the bight of the rope in a gale once. It was nothing, really. Just a pinch.

After a while the pinches add up, don't they, though?

The clock ticks and I wait. The fish don't coom, but she will when her day is done.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Nest Of Books Produces Few Eggs

He who despises truth because it wears in this case no other adornment than a garland of the flowers of the field about its neck, or a wreath of barley around its brows, has no eye wherewith to discern beauty, which is as fascinating in rural dress as in classic attire. So long as the soul is fed it is small matter whether the subjects were suggested by the palace or the barn.

C.H. Spurgeon

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's Hard

It's hard to make it look easy. You can always tell when someone's worked hard to make it look easy, because in the middle of making it look easy they make a phony gesture that they're flagging a bit, and then take it up a notch.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Tea Table

"He's coming here to collect!"

Tom Chippendale knew his good lady wife was prone to fits of panic. But if he heard one more word about the butcher's bill being unpaid, he promised himself he'd head to the inn for a dram or ten. The woman had no faith in him, is all. He always managed to bring home the bacon in the nick, didn't he? And the tea table he had made for the Prince of Wales- that would cover the butcher's bill, and ten others. And the daft woman wants to give it to Annabelle, the butcher's wife, for a measly three months back debt!

"The Prince don't pay!" she'd screeched, not understanding that a man in the prince's position cannot be DUNNED, for the love of the Savior! The Chippendales would get their money by and by, he replied.

"By and by!" she shrieked like a jackdaw. "We'll need a joint of beef a damn sight sooner than by and by!"

"Oh, what would a butcher's wife do with the table anyway?" he mused aloud. "Made for royalty from the finest Santo Domingo mahogany, for the future king of England's... well, ahem, the woman he... the fine lady... his... his... "

"His konkabine!" she erupted again. "Well, if you owes her 'usband tuppence, Annabelle puts on airs like the queen of Araby, she does! She'll know right what to do with it!" she added with a snort.

But he was adamant. He waved his hand with a flourish and banished his wife from the drawing room.

He paused to compose himself and listened to the mantel clock tick solemnly for a few moments. He heard footfalls outside, and then a sharp rap at the door. He opened it. There stood the butcher, looking like he had a toothache, and behind him, blotting out the sun, was the constable, looking like he hadn't heard a good joke in ten years.

"Good... good after... after... noon," he stammered, feeling a bit lightheaded, and a little on his heels. "We were? I mean... my wife and I were just... what I meant to say is..." The butcher's expression began to look like it had been carved from stone by a lost tribe, to frighten tomb-raiders. The constable assumed the expression of a man with a pebble in his shoe.

But then Tom's world swam back into focus, a smile blossomed again on his face, and he stretched out his hand and offered- "Come in, come in. Would you like some TEA?"

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Surely It's Farniture Yer Makin' ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Second Greatest View In The World

As you no doubt remember, I've already explained to you that I've seen the greatest view in the world.

I hate to brag...

Hey, stop your snickering.

Anyway, I hate to brag, but I've now also seen the second greatest view in the world. And this is it:

That's not actually it, but it's the photo I took to give you the general idea.

You see, I was socializing. I very rarely get to do that. When the opportunity to socialize is offered, you must take it and not waste it by transcribing it for posterity. That concept is not settled now, and people have yet to adapt to the fairly recent capability to record everything digitally.

We attended a party for our lovely niece, who graduated from high school in a town near Portland, Maine. Since we did not get a chance to attend the ceremony itself, we were lucky that her dear old dad had photographed the whole thing, and could plug the camera right into the television and show it to all of us.

It occurred to me that every person who attended the ceremony did that. Everyone records everything now. It's fantastic and terrifying. We've become an enormous press corp following ourselves around. We're nervously checking for messages on our phones, taking digital pictures and movies all the time. I think it needs more rumination over the effects it has on our participation in anything. You do not fully participate in anything if you're recording it. And you do not act the same way with a recording device pointed at you.

I think my brother-in-law enjoyed watching his daughter's graduation more as images of it passed by on the television than he did when he was there, because he was busy making a series of digital artifacts of it while it was going on. It wasn't real for him until it was on TV, because he could just look at it and see his daughter get her sheepskin.

The TV points a camera at everything and everybody now. When there's a TV show following the exterminator around, we've come to the end to the ennui road, unless they start filming toll booth operators. But reality ain't real, really; I've worked every kind of construction, and believe me if you watch HGTV you have no idea what those people act like when the camera is off. You don't want to know. Artifice always enters the equation.

It is an important milestone in a person's life to graduate from high school. My niece is lucky that her father thought enough of her, and it, to remove some of the passive pleasure in it and replace it with the active commemoration of it. Someone has to cook, so that all may eat.

But what if we are all cooks, but no one is hungry, and we've forgotten the recipe we were making anyway?

We visited afterwards with an old friend that we'd lost touch with. It was marvelous to see her, and meet her husband, and get a tour of their house. They live on a spit of granite running right into the waves in Cape Elizabeth. That's the famous Portland Head light there in the background.

Their house was built in around World War I, a period lasting 'til the depression when the most best houses were built in the United States. And unlike a modern version of this house, it didn't just gape at the ocean through banks of the worst window and the worst door combined --the slider; instead there was a series of framed views, one after another, dizzying in their variety, and ephemeral because they would wink out as you passed by them and went on to the next one. Inexorably, you'd be led on until you stood right on the granite doorstep of the mighty Atlantic Ocean just steps outside the house, and have the Earth and sky revealed to you like the denouement of a play-- instead of a combination of a hammer to the senses and a kind of overwhelming wallpaper.

I'm in the recording business here. I'm supposed to take pictures and show them to you. But I'm only human. I enjoyed the company instead, and walked through the house like a guest and a friend and a human, and refused to do my duty instead and record it all for you.

I could lie to you and tell you I forget the camera in the car, or the battery in it was dead. But I can't lie, because I went to Catholic School what seems like a century ago and I'm still afraid of the nuns. I left it in the car on purpose because I'm selfish and polite. I was not visiting goldfish. In a weak moment, I ran back and took one or two.

Friends are better than pictures.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Be Careful, Or We're All Toast

I adore these here Intertubes.

As a repository for minutiae, it can't be beat. There's nothing so mundane that you can't find someone cataloging and footnoting it. I'm more interested in the ebb and flow of everyday life than I am in what are considered important things by many. I am amused from time to time when I see people who are monomaniacs about politics shocked and disgusted that many people don't know the names of their elected representatives. I take it as a kind of inverse barometer. Everybody in the USSR knew Joe Stalin's name.

Could there be a better example of a digital mound of minutiae than the Cyber Toaster Museum? It's a magnificent compendium of ennui-chasing pictures of the most ubiquitous household appliances ever. They gamely monetize the whole affair in just the right way, offering a sort of pinup calendar that appeals to the inner Elwood Blues Brother in all of us. Hot.

They have photos of the real items, of course, and interesting scans of advertisements and so forth. I'm particularly taken with this one:

That's the very one we had on our kitchen table when I was a boy. It was already ancient when I was using it, but that's it. The little rotary knob to adjust how dark the toast came out would come off in your hand every time you turned it, and the handle on ours had the corner of it knocked off, likely by someone holding a black piece of toast in one hand and the knob in the other one too many times.

Look at the price. $23. We don't have a toaster anymore, because you can make toast in other appliances. But if you wanted to buy one, you could get one for fifteen bucks or so. Hell, you could by an actual Toastmaster toaster for twenty-eight bucks right now.

We were not rich when I was a kid. My mother would mix sugar and cinnamon together, and put it back in the used teddy-bear shaker the cinnamon came in, and we'd have toast with butter with that on it, and a glass of milk for breakfast. Upon reflection, it seems that our ration of toast was a way to use bread that had the stiffness of toast already instead of throwing it away. We never threw anything away. Even twenty-five years after my parents bought that toaster, or more likely had it given to them as a much-needed and unaffordable luxury, twenty-five bucks was half a day's pay for my mother, who was supporting us when she wasn't telling us to eat our toast.

I am profligate compared to my parents, and compared to their parents I'm downright monetarily licentious. I wonder what would have gone through my mother's mind if the toaster had stopped working back then. A new toaster would be an extra car payment today. No joke.

I think of all the various schemes that some would offer to make sure you'd always have a toaster, or a job making toasters. Rationing. Price controls. Trade barriers. Hell, maybe the thing's carbon footprint is too large and should be made illegal. My grandparents came to Massachusetts back when the Know-Nothing party ran the place and thought we shouldn't even be allowed to eat toast on this continent. Lots of people have lots of opinions about the fairness of something as mundane as the toast.

I'm just grateful, is all, for the The Cyber Toaster Museum, who reminded me how much better off I am not only than my parents and other ancestors, but how much better off I am now than I was myself when I was young. I'm grateful for reminding me how much people used to do without, and how hard people used to work to achieve even the simplest kind of ease in their lives. I think of how hard, without complaint, my parents worked to try to just raise us to adulthood with real deprivation right over their shoulder the whole time.

You're never going to hear that on the news. It's so much more scintillating to say the world will end tomorrow, after all. Good news? Progress? Some perspective? It's there, in the toaster, if you'll just look for it.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

It's 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.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Excitement Is Not Contentment

My little son skips when he is going nowhere.

He sings when he washes his hands.

He performs an extemporaneous opera while stacking blocks.

He is not afraid of wild animals, only the vacuum cleaner.

He plays his brother's video games and just walks through the virtual rooms and opens the doors.

He solemnly gives his mother a dandelion.

McElligot's Pool is not Horton Hears a Who, Daddy.

When asked his father's full name, he gives it, but appends "Daddy" to the front of it.

It's the broken toys he wants.

He wakes up in the same pose he went to sleep in.

He is excited to be him. I am content to be his Father.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hey, It's Curtis Mayfield's Birthday!

(Curtis Mayfield, June 3rd, 1942 - December 26th 1999)

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

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

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

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

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

This one comes back to me though, and kindly:

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

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

Monday, June 02, 2008

Ode To June

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

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

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

June is the first month you look at the fireplace and try to recall the last time you really needed it to take the chill from your bones that winter had pounded into them. 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, 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.