Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gettin' Used To It

[Editor's Note: Another "What's New" entry from 2005. Man, that a lot of words for a place usually reserved for: Sale on benches!]
{Author's Note: There is no editor}

Let's talk about gettin' used to it. To be more specific: becoming inured to it. What's the "it" I'm referring to? Well, that's up to you. I'll tell you what "it" means to me, you tell me what "it" means to you. Because what I'm talking about, is becoming inured to some aspect of modern life, blind to its charms or warts, because it is common, and unexceptional. And there are two dangers in this gettin' used to it.

The first problem is ingratitude. Our lives are transformed, for the good, by the march of events, but precisely because these developments are ubiquitous and useful, we don't notice them. You'd notice them plenty if they disappeared, though. Generally, the useful stuff we take for granted is the stuff we love to hate. I hate my cellphone, you say. I hate Home Depot, you say. Add your own example here, it's not difficult, even if you're of tender age, because the march of events these days is swift. Now try to imagine life before those items. I hate people talking on the cell phone in the car, many say. Well, I remember before we had cellphones to yak on in the car. And I remember that car breaking down. In the dead of winter. In the dead of night. On a deserted highway. And to this day, over 25 years later, I remember that 5 mile walk, wearing only clothing suitable for the car heater full blast, not the winter full blast, to the nearest place I could get in out of the cold.

I like cell phones.

The second problem is when our lives are diminished, but it creeps up on us, and we don't see it because it is lost in the landscape of everyday life. We become used to it without considering it. And by the time you can consider it dispassionately, and critically, and point your finger at it, and make gagging noises, it has become ubiquitous, and replaced something else that used to be ubiquitous, and was better. And you're left looking like a crank if you point it out to anyone.

Now, you've hired me to be your official crank, if you're reading this daily essay, and I do not wilt from the responsibility. It's my job to notice things, I guess. My furniture is not a fly stuck in amber, I hope, because what is good in design is often timeless, and what people call improvement is sometimes just tinkering. So our perspective is everything. We can read history books, and add to the perspective of our own experience, and read current events, and find out about contemporary experience, or we can read science fiction, and fantasize about what we might have handy to abuse and take for granted in the future.

So I'll tell you what I noticed, the very first time I saw it, and saw it immediately for what it was: An eyesore that has become a regular part of American life, and made me a crank:

That, ladies and gents, is what I call a snout house. And what a snout house is, is a glorified garage, with a house stapled onto its ass end. To me, it's the architectural version of a plumber with his britches slung too low walking backwards, bent over, all the time. And I hate it like poison. And I hate its designer, and builder. And I hate the realtor who's selling it, even though I don't know him, and I hate his car, and his sweater, and his eating habits, and his molecules.

No, not really. We don't hate anybody here at Sippican. But I don't like snout houses.

I remember like it was yesterday the first time I saw a snout house. Because it wasn't one of those things that snuck up on me, really; the first time I saw it I was fascinated and repelled, and knew I was going to be stuck with it for a good long time.

I was living in Los Angeles at the dawn of the eighties, and would go to the cavernous and elderly movie theaters there, because I liked the gaudy interiors, the big screens, and the air conditioning. Mostly the air conditioning. And I wasn't all that fussy about what was on the screen, really. And it was beastly hot one day, and we went to a matinee of E.T. the Extraterrestial. The movie theater seemed empty as you entered, but that was just because all the patrons were too short to show over the top of the chairs, and it was a zoo in there the whole time. We didn't care. The boisterous laughter of children never really grates, at least on me. We sat in the back row, in the blessed coolness, the movie a trifle, but not bad, and Elliot rides his bike down a cul-de-sac completely fronted by garage doors. And I was in shock. Is this the alien part, I thought? This Martian streetscape? Then I realized that Spielberg probably chose some Simi Valley subdivision to film at, thinking he was being wry, and pointing out his idee fixee, the "soullessness" of suburbia, and unwittingly doing infinitely more to help make suburbia unattractive than the people he looked down his nose at, by giving free advertising to the snout house.

And since then, the snout house has moved inexorably eastward, like architectural locusts, and has consumed the landscape from sea to shining sea.

I don't share the beautiful people's revulsion for suburbia. It's just decent people making a living for themselves, and maybe having a patch of grass to play touch football on. Many people do hate suburbia, the whole idea of it, and wish we were all living in concrete urban human dovecotes, where they can keep their eye on us. Me, I like looking out the window and seeing a little statue of St Francis, surrounded by ferns and flowers and squirrels; it's better than the fish store dumpster I used to look at when I lived in a more urban setting. But that's just me, perhaps. The snout house gives these detractors the ammo they need to rename your home and its brethren "sprawl" and attempt to pass laws against it. And I don't want to help them.

Now let's look at the forces that gave birth to the snout house. Because you're just a crank, if you say: I don't like it, so there.

People's lives have changed in the last fifty years, and they don't rest on ceremony as much as they used to. And my very own business is based on a kind of informality of decoration that also applied to houses, snout houses too. We don't have two parlors, with antimaccassars on the furniture, because we don't greet pedestrian callers that way any more. And the car must be acknowledged. The car is another one of those things people love to hate, that's useful beyond all reckoning. And people use it to go everywhere from their suburban nest. And you can put all the pedestrian amenities in the world in the average suburban neighborhood, it won't tempt people to walk anywhere. There's nowhere to walk to.

Americans have become extremely informal these days, in clothes, titles, homes, amusements, everything. Look at a picture of a baseball game from the 1940s. Every single man in the stands is wearing a suit and a fedora hat. And baseball wasn't a rich man's amusement then, these were regular Joes. People try to get in to see the Pope these days, in Vatican City, wearing halter tops and flip flops, and are offended when the Swiss Guards tell them to shove off and hie to a haberdasher.

This informality, coupled with a strange kind of truthfulness, has made the snout house amenable to many folks. Because they feel no need to have a ceremonial front door on their house anymore, as no-one is ever going to walk to their house, ever, to see them. They are going to enter their house through the garage, every time, because that's the way life is. Their kids might play in the street outside the house, but all our assorted playthings have always been in the garage, all the way back to when the garage was a stable, and modern people are just acknowledging that. So there's a sort of sense in the house turning its back on the street, because there's no people in the street any more, just cars. And the precious green space is in the back, and their house sorta faces it, and many times their neighbor's green space, and they are secluded from the pavement in a very salubrious way.

And so I look at these houses, and like to think that what we're looking at, is a reversal, but a copy, if that's possible, of the urban alley. All the services happened in an alley, while the house faced the promenade of the streetscene on the other side. And so people buy their snout houses, not considering the streetscene, because in their uncritical look at it, they see it for what it is, which is the utility side of their house. And the house hunches its shoulders, and gathers the green plat if the yard in its arms, in the back, and people are content, which is Good.

But I know why they're really built this way, dear reader, and I don't like it. Builders decide what gets built these days, not the eventual owners, and they get their plans from the back of magazines, drawn by knuckleheads without any design smarts, almost like a comic book version of a house. It's not their fault, these designers, that Architects abandoned any idea of good design for domiciles and concentrated solely on making public buildings expensive and hideous, and left "designers" to design our houses in crayon.

The real reason the snout house swept the nation is because the driveway is shorter that way, and the builder saves a few bucks on concrete or asphalt. That's it. And he just buys a jet ski or a bass boat with the money, and we all get to look at garage doors all day.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Three Years Ago I Invented Blogging And Wrote This

[Author's Note: Four years ago all I had was dial-up Internet access, but started an Internet business anyway. Like with everything else, I was a cranky autodidact, and painfully taught myself HTML by fooling around with FrontPage, toggling back and forth in the WYSIWYG window to compare the code to the appearance of the page. I had no idea there was anything like a community of blogs, and just started writing essays on my What's New page. Here's one from 2005 I'm not ashamed of.]

{Editor's Note: You spelled forego wrong. I fixed it. See, you do belong on the Internet.}

[Updated: This is my favorite kind of mistake. Anwyn pointed out that I was wrong when I thought I was wrong. I'll take it up with the editor tomorrow, while shaving.]

[Author's Note: There is no editor}

Now, I'm going to forgo maundering on about the good old days, because this is thirty years before I was in the game, so to speak, and I don't have a dog in that fight.

But look at that room. It's glorious. You'd kill for a kitchen that pleasant to be in, and we'd get you to sign the closing papers before you noticed there isn't a dishwasher, unless you count the girls in the chairs. Please keep in mind, this is not the rich folk's house, or it wouldn't be here. They were just regular people, like you and me, or maybe just me; you might be an Admiral or Rock Star or somesuch; I don't know.

Let's go over what they knew about a kitchen then, that they don't know now.

First of all, look at the light. I'm referring to the light emanating from the yellow orb in the sky, which rarely gets into houses these days. The big girl on the right is reading, and that looks like a great place to do it. Two things bring in that light. First, the ceiling is high enough, but not vaulted. Designers vault rooms willy-nilly now, and make gloomy, echoey, medieval caverns out of rooms that should be close and homey. Kitchens get it a lot these days. You generally need four or five hundred thousand million watts of lighting in a vaulted ceiling kitchen to approach what they've got here, streaming right in. ( I might be a little off with my calculations on footcandles there, but I stand by the gist of it.)

That ceiling looks nine feet high. You can get a fairly airy ceiling by simply specifying full eight foot studs for the first floor wall framing of your house, and gain 4 inches for a few bucks. You'll save people like me from getting cracked in the head by your inexplicable ceiling fans on a 7'-8" ceiling that way.

The ceiling would undoubtedly have been white calcimined plaster, to reflect the light. Calcimine was a form of paste used in lieu of paint on ceilings, that you had to wash off before recoating. Everyone forgot that eventually, and painted over it, and it peeled forever. Your recollection of endlessly peeling Victorian and WWI vintage house ceilings generally traces back to calcimine. In the fifties, peopled stapled asbestos and cardboard tiles over the flaking paint, in the sixties they tried acoustic drop ceilings, the seventies tried swirled sand textured paint over the mess, and the eighties tried the judicious use of the wrecking ball.

But everyone's forgot to make the ceiling high enough to make the room proportionate to its length and width, allow the windows to be tall and stately, and let in extra air and light. Your present kitchen is almost undoubtedly larger than this, and I ask you, could you fit those four children into yours while you worked at the sink? (Count the shoes, there's four, trust me) The designer knew enough to put windows on two walls in the room, and not just one. It's possible to get natural light into a room with the windows ganged on one wall, but its hard to do, and unlikely you'll manage it. Lighting your face from one side alone makes for interesting Beatles album covers, but it's no way to live.

Look at the pantry cabinet on the facing wall. it's in a niche, to allow you to get around the room, with a nice flat counter to display what is obviously a prized possession, with room to spare for day to day use as a work surface. Lovely. Now, even expensive kitchen cabinets are really crummy these days. They're more often than not made from particle board covered with plastic woodgrain paper with a design imprint that looks like someone who liked Lawrence Welk a lot drew it originally. The only real wood on cabinets now is the doors, and they always are overlaid on the face, not inset like the picture. They are overlaid to save the manufacturer trouble, not give you a better looking thing; these cabinets have the doors inset into the frame, which is fussy, and looks terrific, and is not like most modern cabinets. The modern version looks more like the box a cabinet comes in than a cabinet itself.

The cabinets here are painted, probably glossy white, looked spiffy, reflected the glorious light some more, cleaned easily, and could be refurbished when they got to worn by a conscientious homeowner. Nowadays, since you've ponied up all that money for your cabinets, they're probably solid hardwood faces, with uninteresting grain, dark enough to soak too much of the light up, and make you add still more lightbulbs to try to see in there. They're sprayed with a thin couple of coats of nitrocellulose lacquer, which is tough as nails, at least until it isn't, which is fairly soon, and can't be rejuvenated by hand, and end up in the trash every ten years, no matter what you paid for them.

That fridge is really small, but the homeowners probably had spent their childhood with an icebox, or some without even that, and thought it was a marvel, no doubt. And it has the supple streamlined corners and clean white metal baked enamel glaze that says "clean" to me. You wouldn't feel the need to put wood panels on the front of your refrigerator if it looked that, well, cool.

The simple checked floor is terrific. Really underrated, that kind of simple decoration. The photographer is probably standing in the door that leads to a dining room, or a hallway or parlor if the house is small. The homeowner has hung a pretty little mirror on the wall, canted just so, so she can see behind her when she's at the sink, or alternately look out the window. People still make the mistake of making the sink a sad, lonely place to be, and occasionally make it even worse than bad, by running the cabinets right across with no window, and doom the user to hours of staring at nothing, their back to everyone, whether you have a dishwasher or not. For shame!

You all know me by now, and know full well that I'm going to steal the design for that gate leg table in the middle of the room. Oh yes. It's the perfect work island for food prep, and presto, open it up and you're eating the finest meal in the world, which is placed on the table direct from the oven or stove, by Mother's hand, surrounded by your loved ones, the clink of glass and china and cutlery a domestic symphony, the beaming faces of the children arrayed around the round table, with the late afternoon sun beaming in and the family beaming out.

Get some of that lost kitchen, as much as you can find, fit, or afford, and I'll bless it for you, right here and now.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

I Put On My Philosopher-King Hat, And I Spin The Propeller...

It occurred to me that organized religion has expired. Run out of gas. A few people like sitting in the buildings, so they go on Christmas Eve, but as a way of life for the majority of people I just don't see it.

I'm speaking of the "Western" world, of course. I'm not sure that label works any more, if it ever did, but you get the picture. Europe doesn't go to church. America doesn't go to church. There are plenty of places where religion is still the central theme in everybody's life- or else.

When I was little, I was a little shocked to see my Father go down on one knee and kiss a Cardinal's ring. I was in school with the hardcore penguin nuns and went to a Catholic Church with real incense and stained glass and the rest of it, but it still was jarring to see it. It would be jarring just to see a nun in North America now.

The religions I am most familiar with consist of a framework of behaviors that you're supposed to accept without thinking about them all the time. The "not thinking" part gives their shallow detractors a lot of ammo, but there's nothing sensible about being ambivalent and thoughtful when placing your hand on a hot stove, for instance. People who instinctively don't put their hands on a hot stove are wiser than "smart" people who think it's stupid to reflexively do anything simply because someone told them to -- I'll find out if that stove is hot. And I just might find out tomorrow, too, because nobody tells me what to do.

So religion was good for not wasting a lot of time worrying about what you should be doing all the time. You had an abstract sense of right and wrong that carried you quickly through the mundane affairs of men, and you wondered about the big themes from time to time. People spend more time thinking about whether they should take the last donut in the breakroom than they used to contemplating eternity. By the way, I know the security camera is broken in there, but you've got frosting on your face. There was some friction, of course, between competing frameworks. And it's all fading fast. What has replaced it?

The vast majority of my fellow citizens have a new framework for unblinking reflexive activity now: Whatever I can get away with that I feel like doing. That's coupled with: Whatever I'm forced to do. The luxuriant undergrowth of laws is a symptom of people trying to constrain others. This constraint has two prongs. People are not content with minding their own business. Anything they do not care for -- and they do not really know how they came to be a big bag of preferences -- must be banned. Nothing you don't want must be allowed. Until the faddish quality of your lifestyle makes you pull a volte-face and start chaining yourselves to the fence at nuclear power plants, demanding they build more of them this time.

The second prong is people who are making a mess of their own lives want someone to compel them to stop. Stop me before I kill again. I borrowed too much money and took too many drugs and slept with too many people and ate too much food and I'm lazy and watch too much TV and someone should pass a law to keep me from doing all this stuff. Suing a restaurant because you dumped a cup of coffee in your lap is a corollary of Stop Me Before I Kill Again. The murderers will sue their victims' estates, eventually if they haven't already, for allowing themselves to be killed and ruining the murderers' lives with their mortality.

The alternative to religion is a terrifically intrusive government. I've seen your politics and it's a tent meeting you don't invite god to, and your church is a political action committee. But because the government can't just pick up the trash and leave the contemplation of the sublime to others, one man's deity has become another man's ban on bottled water.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Welcome To New Beige

This is a sign displayed in Fort Phoenix Park in Fairhaven. The hurricane barrier and Coggeshall Street bridge connect New Bedford to Fairhaven. Fort Phoenix overlooks the opening to the harbor between them. All the locals call New Bedford "New Beige." They call Fall River, which is a little further west, and often associated with New Bedford "Fall Reeve."

If you embiggen the sign, you'll notice that you have your choice of two languages for your public safety: Spanish or Portuguese. The map is in English, for some other reason. Apparently if you speak English, it's just understood that under no circumstances should you eat fish, mussels, or lobsters caught anywhere near New Bedford. Or if you speak English, it's assumed that you understand the international Ghostbusters symbol for "Don't Do That" -- the circular sign with the red stripe athwart it. Of course that sign was in use in foreign countries forever, but only was introduced to English-speaking Americans back in the seventies when the Metric system raised its ugly head from the international primordial ooze, revolutionized the measurement of illegal drug purchases, and then disappeared again. Perhaps they should have told you not to eat any Loch Ness steaks or Killer Whale burgers you might be able to cadge out of there either, if they wanted to touch all the bases of superfluousness, or superfluidity, or however you want to get that triple word score. They could rename New Bedford's harbor There Ain't Much In There Besides PCBs Cove and not many would notice.

I suppose you could get your panties in a bunch over the sign, and fill in the usual observations about the Tower of Babel and so forth. You could call the hospital my Father goes to in Quincy, Mass, and listen to: "Press one for Mandarin" and get all pissy too, if you like. I'll pass. I'll just observe that most everyone but us in Fort Phoenix Park was speaking Spanish or Portuguese, and a great deal of them were fishing, and they were all bringing home whatever they caught and were eating it.

Oh, the Fort? It was built in 1775 to defend the very important harbor here, and was bristling with cannons overlooking the water. The British bombed it flat in 1778. I bet they ate the lobsters, too.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

My Five-Year-Old's Online Editing Debut

My little fellow found this video on YouTube for our Borderline Sociopathic Blog For Boys. He calls YouTube "On Demand." Funnay.

If you don't know what the Borderline Sociopathic Blog For Boys is all about, the explanation is here: The Borderline Sociopathic Blog For Boys. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I'm From The Past And I'm Here To Help

I was reading Essays In Idleness by Kenko. He was dead in 1350. I am many strains of people, but it's all European. Europe was nothing in 1350. If you were a betting man back then, you'd have bet on Asia. You'd have bet wrong.

So the Black Death is raging around Europe and the Japanese are writing in a style called zuihitsu -- just follow the brush. The brush being the stylus of choice there and then. Kenko read Sei Shonagon, the cranky broad from my masthead, same as me. And the personal essay is tie that binds us.

I hate the term: blog. It's ugly, and it's come to mean something even uglier than the sound of it. It's become the minor leagues of hate. I write personal essays here. Zuihitsu. It might not be noble, but a person has little to offer to others but knowledge of which they are sure. "I am an expert in the affairs of all men" is the banner of the professional politician and their toads. Not hardly.

Why am I wandering in the few moments between exhaustion and sleep in the dusty stacks of an alien culture dead and buried for seven hundred years? To find a kindred spirit. They're in short supply on the DIY network, after all.

A house, I know, is a temporary abode, but how delightful it is to find one that has harmonious proportions and a pleasant atmosphere. One feels somehow that even moonlight, when it shines into the quiet domicile of a person of taste, is more affecting than elsewhere. A house though it may not be in the current fashion or elaborately decorated, will appeal to us by its unassuming beauty-- a grove of trees with an indefinably ancient look; a garden where plants, growing of their own accord, have a special charm; a verandah and an open-work wooden fence of interesting construction' and a few personal effects left carelessly lying about, giving the place an air of having been lived in. A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the grasses and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing. How could anyone live for long in such a place?

You can't. I have never been in a hotel room as comfortable and pleasant as my own bedroom, and I have been in Presidential Suites before. Money can't fix the problem, and the availability of money without the governor of a framework of rules to expend it almost always makes things worse.

Our post-modern zeitgeist evangelizes that rules of any sort that govern personal behaviors or the appearance of our surroundings or entertainment are stultifying and worthy only of mindless opposition. The unthinking rejection of all tradition leads to a counterintuitive outcome: a set of rules, much more stringent than what they replaced, will replace the old ones, and they will consist of the worst possible alternative to what was there before.

How else can I explain nailing your house onto the ass end of your garage? How else can I explain a Japanese man writing about my house, and the house you should be living in, in the fourteenth century?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I (Still) Don't Like Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2008

John Quincy Adams Was My Congressman And He Bought Me This Lighthouse With Someone Else's Money

Got the notion in 1835, to be specific. That's the year Barney Hiller sold four acres at Ned's Point in Mattapoisett to the gummint for $240. You can't buy one acre in Mattapoisett for $240 nowadays, highlighting just how debased our currency has become. If you're a loon. The United States Lighthouse Service built a 35 foot tower with a -- get this-- whale oil lantern on top. Well, it was better than fireflies, I guess.

Mattapoistett is right down the street, er, I mean coast, from New Bedford, so the whale oil lamp no doubt kept many whaling ships from running aground here so they could continue to supply the whale oil lighthouse with oil to keep the light burning to keep the whaling ships from running aground when getting the whale oil to supply the lantern that kept the whale...

I see a pattern developing. See: ethanol.
In 1923 the lighthouse was automated, as the local politicians no doubt ran out of brothers-in-law to live in the keeper's house. The keeper's house was floated on a barge across Buzzards Bay to Wing''s Neck in Pocasset that year to house some other jackleg, no doubt.

I thought I had fallen into a kind of Connecticut Yankee reverie and woken up in the Auld Sod when I saw this outbuilding. I half expected Maureen O'Hara to come out and talk of the roses by the door and belt me if she liked me.

The kids just come to Ned's Point at night to drink their fathers' beers, maybe cop a feel from a willing girlfriend, and perhaps write their name on the side of the lighthouse from time to time while the local constabulary slumber. Those without enough gumption or sense to have that much fun windsurf here. It's like sailing but you don't get as wet as you do when you sail.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

By Popular Request

My horsefly abattoir primitif elicited lots of interest. By popular request, a picture of the results. The customers turn to a sort of mulch in the very hot jug pretty quick.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

I've Never Seen Anything Like It

When I was a little kid, my (much) older brother took me to the Cinema to see Help!. The girls screamed throughout the whole movie whenever the Beatles were on the screen. My brother stayed until the evening show hoping the adults wouldn't scream so much and he could hear what was going on. He's a left-handed bass player, too. I'm a right-handed bass owner.

Whenever I hear people mention the Beatles when talking about how popular such-and-such a cultural phenomenon is, I know what a fraud it would be to compare anything to it. I've never seen anything like it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fie On Thee, Horseflies!

If you're new around here, I live in a swamp. I know I'm supposed to call it a "pristine wetland," but if you don't mind, I'll call it the bog-to-hell-and-gone instead. Everything comes out of that swamp all the time, sometimes to delight us, sometimes to bite me and give me a fever of 105. The swamp will kill you if you let it. It would pull my house apart in a decade if I ever stopped mowing the lawn.

The worst thing the swamp produces is the horsefly. It's not actually only one kind of a beast; there's a handful of types. They appear after the midges and mosquitoes, but before the poison ivy, generally. They're the most vicious thing I can imagine. They attack like kamikazes, and get a blood meal from you with scissor mandibles. They make the end of my yard miserable for five weeks or so in the summer. Let's kill them.

Go down the basement and bring your heir and your spare.

You need a plan. It should contain all the information you need to build the thing, plus a list of all the items you need to purchase to make it. It should be a loopy looking long-haired- equation looking thing like that.

1/2" plumbing pipe, a clear plastic one-gallon jug with a screw lid, a funnel, a roll of 4 mil plastic, some punky wood strapping I dumped behind the shed 5 years ago.

The kids like the tinkertoy vibe of the plumbing pipe. I like the kids.

An 8" square of MDO left over from windowboxes.

If you can't use things for what they're not intended for, you have no business on the Internet.

You buy a 20" beachball at Wal-Mart, put a blessed halo around it with duct tape, leave a tab flap to pierce and hang the ball in the center with kite string. Spray paint the thing black while it's hanging. Horseflies are dumb. They see the ball swaying in the breeze and think it's a spherical cow or something. When disabused of this notion, they always fly straight up. They eventually make their way through the funnel and die in the heat of the clear jug. No bait or poison is necessary. The trap is a little more than a week old and the jug has thousands of the nasty bugs in there. For Amityville spectacle, some of the beasts lay their eggs in the corpses of their brethren before perishing, and the little sluglike larvae hatch and crawl around in there too. For a while. Hence the breeding cycle is interrupted, and next summer is made better now.

What do you know. It works. The kids can play in the yard again. If I'd have known it would work, I would have made a better looking one.

"If I'd have known it would work, I would have made a better looking one" would make an excellent epitaph for my grave, now that I think about it.

[Update: Many people read this essay every day, seven years or so after I wrote it, and wonder if the trap works. Here's a picture I took a day or two after I set it up. Not long after that, I had to empty it because the horseflies piled up to the top of the funnel]

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sprawling Sprawl And The Sprawling Sprawlers That Sprawl It

(Author's note: From 2006)
[Editor's Note: There is no author]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because they won't allow anything else to happen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

(You Need A) Benefit Plan

Well, I've still got some pixels I need to flush out of my camera, so here they are. It's Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island again, of course. That lovely creme yellow number above is on the high side of the street, heading up College Hill, and makes the most of its site. There's a beautiful little garden gate right next to this plot, too, for the neighbor's compound.

Living right on the street is tricky. You get goobers and gawkers like me all day long, so privacy is always a concern. There's a common answer to this malady on display here and there in Providence; the house is raised on a foundation about 3 or 4 feet, and has a stairs set sideways outside the front entry leading down to the sidewalk in both directions. This allows you to look down on your neighbors both literally and figuratively when they pass by, which is the ambition of most people of substance. So I hear; how would I know? Interior shutters on the lower half of the downstairs windows are de rigeur as well.

Here's another Georgian/Adam lovely. It's not plain, exactly; or if it is it's because we've lost our perspective -- we see Grace Kelly in an evening gown in a place where we're used to seeing Pamela Andersen in a amateur porn video, and wonder where all the action is.

Here's a very rare thing indeed in our world. That spindlework, coupled with the pierced screen balustrade and the paneled base, infill sticks set on an angle inside a stop-chamfered frame, is pure Victorian, and the first thing pulled off old houses and replaced with much simpler stuff because the upkeep is a bear.

I live in a town where the locals pride themselves on not letting anything go without shingles all over it. They built a gargantuan dirigible hangar-sized sportspalast at the hoity-toity private high school, and the town made them skin the whole thing over shingles. It looks ridiculous.

Shingles good! goes the chant. I guess. But for the most part, I walk around in the village in downtown Marion and see one house after another that used to look as exotic and exuberant as that little porch right there, and all the gingerbread is long gone and the siding is replaced with shingles. The spindlework Gilded Age ghosts call out to me.

Everybody seems to think they're still looking at a shingled Grace Kelly. All I see is Pamela Andersen, after too many botox treatments and three more husbands down the line.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

(Let's Try:) Dewars Fvum Pvovidunce (Again)

Oh yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about. Gimme some of that American architecture.

Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island has a wide selection. Now, by wide selection I don't mean there are split level ranches and Bauhaus stucco boxes mixed in. I'm referring to a range of architecture from Georgian, to Adam, to Colonial Revival, with a smattering of Second Empire and other assorted Frenchified sort of things. Oh yeah, some Greek Revival. Somebody's always doing CPR on Greek architecture. There's some Italianate whatsis here and there. They dabble a bit in the Victorian, but just. For the most part, it's that chaste and elegant American extrapolation on the English tradition.

There's really only subtle changes between Georgian, Adam, and Colonial Revival period things. The first picture is an excellent example of the Georgian. A simple two story box, two rooms deep, with doors and windows strictly symetrically arranged. The style books can't make up their minds if the style goes from 1700-1780, or all the way to 1830. If it doesn't go to 1830, this house isn't one. But that's a classic Georgian door. Or Adam. You decide.

I thought the owner might come out and shoo me away from this bronzey-rusty-peachy wonder if I kept staring at it. I'm going to call this Adam. That's a bracketed console entry, which was very popular in later Victorian styles, but this is like their daddy. The leaded glass is really delicately done, and there were little bees or pineapples or flowers or something decorating the interstices and all the proportions are elegant and the black door looks marvelous with that not quite definable siding color and --Oh Lord I've been leering at this guy's front door like a lunatic for five minutes by the clock, and if he doesn't call the cops soon I'll be lucky. Take a picture it'll last longer, as they say; so I did.

Adams houses aren't much different from Georgian Houses; just a little more delicate in execution, and more likely to improvise a little with the massing of projecting wings and porches and ells and so forth. They have Palladian windows a lot. In New England, during the 1980s, there was a short fad for a kind of Jetsons Adam Revival house, with a projecting center gable, a garage attached but set back a foot from the front facade, a palladian window over the front door in the second story -- usually part of a two story foyer -- and a symmetrical facade. The house might have rambling ells behind. That house passed the true test of architecture -- the trick or treater knew exactly which door to go to.

That plan was superior to every damn thing that has come after it.

Here's our last one for today. Early Classical Revival, I think. It's got the big entry porch they loved, a much more imposing building and facade. That style overlaps with Greek Revival, and this has all the Greek goodies on it. It's a great big place, and it's a throwback to thirty years ago on Benefit Street. It's a rooming house. Most of Benefit Street used to be inexpensive apartments for students going to the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, or Brown. There seems to be a fetish for vicious dogs again, at least judging by the three pit bulls we saw being walked, so perhaps the neighborhood is that most common of urban situations: You probably don't need a pistol, but sharp teeth might come in handy in a pinch.

There's a lot of teeth on the mouldings too. I guess it's always been that kind of neighborhood.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

(Let's Go To) Pwvaavvadints Vho Dieland (Again)

[Editor's Note: Originally offered in 2006]
{ Author's Note: I wish the editor would stop putting so much of my personal information on the Web. Now everyone knows that' I'm at least two years old. }

It's the most stubborn local patois to emulate. About no one ever gets the twang right, when they try it in the movies or on TV. It's slightly more Joisey than Bawstin, but it 'taint neither, really. I watch Outside Providence occasionally, just to see the dimbulb Alec Baldwin try it, over and over, and crash and burn.

Providence is the capital of the smallest state, with the biggest name, in the Union: The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. We walked one of the nicer streets in the capital plantation, Benefit Street, and took some pictures for benefit.

Actually not all that many bricks on display on Benefit Street; the street is too old and the houses from the 18th and first half of the 19th century are generally all clapboard. That last one's a bed and breakfast of some sort. I can highly recommend it, because I've never been there. I never can highly recommend any bed and breakfast I've ever actually stayed in, because it's like staying over other people's houses except you're not a guest and you have to give them money. But bed and breakfasts are better than hotels, which all look the same no matter how much they charge, so I don't like them either. In the one, they're pushing their way into the room at some ungodly hour to give you orange juice you don't like while you're standing in your man-pajamas, ie: underwear. In the other, the fire alarms actually work, but everyone in the place has the same attitude you have in a bad neighborhood in a city --don't make eye contact.

I stay home a lot.

But not today; we're wandering around. Benefit Street runs along the side of College Hill, and is nice and flat, but take a turn and it's San Francisco east, for a block or two, anyway.

These houses were being demolished back in the fifties, until someone started one of those groups that has the werewithal and the tongues to lick lots of stamps and envelopes and save things and cadge money from strangers and pass laws and do all that other mysterious stuff. It was still pretty seedy looking here and there back in the early seventies, and it's beginning to fray a little around the edges lately too, but Benefit Street still is one of the most pleasant places anywhere to walk with your honey and your male heirs.

More tomorrow.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Spring Is (Still) Just A Distant Memory

[Editor's Note: First offered two years ago.]
{Author's note: I should make the editor paint the house.}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 06, 2008

It All Just Was (A Re-run)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Nothing (Still) Happens Until July 4th

Nothing happens on Cape Cod until July 4th.

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Your Plumbing Doesn't Work

I played trombone in a local symphony orchestra many long years ago. You'd be hard pressed to believe how little classical music is written for the awful piece of plumbing I was blatting into. Like many "modern" instruments, it got parts written for other instruments transcribed for it, here and there, but in general, you'd open up the sheet music and see the the big bar going across the page to indicate the number of measures you were supposed to count silently without playing before you got to your part, and the number would be something like 242. Then play fourteen notes and get another 242 bars rest. Imagine counting to 4 -- 242 times. It was like 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, only duller because you were sober. Well, everybody else was sober. I started drinking.

So I like to see the freaks getting some. Here's Mozart, played on a Flugelhorn. Man, that's just wrong. But I don't want to be right; never have.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Moowah Mattapoisett

If you're lost on teh Intertunnel and just sort of wandered in, I'm singing the praises of my next door neighbors in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. Sterling folks. I took a picture of this interesting house, when a unseen, mordant voice drifted down from the rooftop there: "That'll be one dollar." Heh.

Look, it's Mrs. Cottage. Oops, she moves fast.

The next one doesn't need a sign to tell you that this is not the Registry of Motor Vehicles or a convenience store, does it?

The houses are right on the street, and a Cape house affords little privacy situated like that. They all solve the problem by having shutters inside, and a front storm door that is louvered like these exterior shutters, so the inside front door can be opened to let a breeze in, but afford privacy to the inhabitants.

It's possible to live right on the street in a town like this. Sleepy:

The library is a little Roman wonder. It's gotten that rarest of things: A major addition in keeping with the original structure. Hey Frank Gehry: Symmetry; look into it:

An offering to the god of passersby: