Monday, December 29, 2008

The Greater Fool Theory Of Housing

I must open by assuring everyone that I'm not denigrating other people because I don't like their houses. When I hear buzzwords like sprawl and McMansion and hyperconsumption and unsustainability and so forth, they are universally used as pretexts to allow the author to hate his fellow citizens without seeming snobby. No one needs what I don't want is the slogan of the age. And all the schemes are about rationing now. Martinets will decide if you need something or not. I hate it.

I don't want you to live in a snouthouse, though, but not because I don't like you; it's because I think you're swell and I want you to be happy. Your house might be making you miserable, and you don't know why. I know why.

I was asked in a formal setting why I make furniture. I have many stock answers for that, but I hesitated for a moment this last time, because it occurred to me that I was fighting a rearguard action against a determined foe, one that was beating me. The American house is being ruined, and I'm fighting a guerrilla war by trying to help people return a little soul to their homes by filling them with furniture that's got some. Half-million dollar mistakes have no reset button. You've got to deal with them.

Here's a house for sale in the town I grew up in:
Everyone looks around and sees houses like this. They pass unremarked now. After a while, if it doesn't look like this, people are going to think a house looks strange. And it's wrong, wrong, wrong. The situations where a house nailed on the ass end of a garage are appropriate are so few there's no use talking about them. Never do this.

There's Postmodern evil afoot here. Everything is boiled down to a pastiche, and you put all these disconnected totems into a blender and put the mixed up parts on a concrete rectangle. It's making us all crazy in a very subtle but profound way.

There has been a concerted effort to dismantle all standards of right and wrong and beauty and truth. If ever truthiness was put into sticks and bricks, this house is it. When you rebel against standard things, sooner or later you run out of ways to be original, and all that is left is to do the exact opposite of good. It's the only permutation of new that's left to you after a while. The American house is becoming that perfect distillation of bad ideas. Everything exactly at cross-purposes with its stated purpose.

People are rational and no rational person will ever feel any close connection with this structure. They will be proud of their house because it conforms to the general description of what a house should look like. There's a reason why everyone wears skinny glasses in one decade and skinny ties in another, all doing it at the same time as if on command. People will look the same kind of weird if they think that looking weird makes them look normal.

"The Greater Fool Theory" means you purchase equities or commodities not based on any intrinsic value they hold, but simply based on the assumption that you can find a "greater fool" to purchase it from you later at a profit. When people refer to Wall Street as a big casino, they're right only because they behave like a racetrack tout there; there's no reason why it should be that way. People should invest to own a portion of a company whose activities generate more than publicity and venture capital and the hope of a greater fool.

I read that the minute people are under water on their mortgage, many mail the keys to the bank and leave, because they "invested" in their house in the same Greater Fool way. It's just a big plastery box nailed on the back of a garage, after all. When escape from the house via automobile is the central theme of the structure, I figure the lienholders surprised by default should have gotten an Omega Man vibe from the occupants, not a Harry Bailey worldview, and planned accordingly.

Here's the "bonus room" you get for making your house into an outbuilding for your car:
I was going to make a joke and compare this room with the room Hitler was confined to in Landsberg Prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf, but I realized halfway through that I've seen pictures of Hitler's room in prison and it's a lot more pleasant than this one.

Stop building this house.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

There Was A Time

There was a time when James Brown and Phil Silvers shook hands on stage. I'm surprised that the universe didn't rupture and send all of our component atoms rocketing into space.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

(Deb in Madison is thirsty for some) Ginger Ale

[Editor's note: Reader and commenter Deb from the mitten state wanted to see this one again.]

{ Author's note: We're nothing if not accommodating, especially if it involves almost no effort on our part. There is no editor.}

I wish it would rain.

No; sleet. Sleet would finish the tableau. Rain is cleansing. It washes away the dirt and corruption. No snow either; the fat, jolly flakes just hide it all. Snow can make a fire hydrant into a wedding cake. I want sleet.

I want to pull my collar up, and hunch my shoulders as if blows from an unseen and merciless god were raining down on me. I don't want a Christmas card. I want the Old Testament.

Old, or new - I knew it. Father and mother would open the Bible to a random page and place an unseeing finger anywhere and use it for their answer to whatever question was at hand. They'd torture the found scripture to fit the problem a lot, but it was uncanny how often that old musty book would burp out something at least fit for a double-take. But any Ouija Board does that, doesn't it?

It was just cold and bracing. No sleet. I didn't need to be clear-minded right now. Paul's tip of the hat to the season, a sort of syphilitic looking tree, hung over your head as you entered the bar like it was Damocle's birthday, not the Redeemer's. It was kinda funny to see it out there, because inside it was always the same day and always the same time. Open is a time.

People yield without thinking in these situations. It had been years since I had found anyone sitting on that stool, my place. It was just understood, like the needle in the compass always pointing the same way for everyone. Paul never even greeted me anymore, just put it wordlessly down in front of me as I hit the seat. Some men understand other men.

It was already kind of late. I could bang on those machines like a Fury until the sun winked out, but I didn't feel like working on Christmas Eve until the clock struck midnight. That's a bad time to be alone and sober.

"I'm closing early tonight," Paul said, and he didn't go back to his paper or his taps. He just stood there eying me. I took the drink.

"You've made a mess of this, Paul," I stammered out, coughing a bit, "What the hell is this?"

"It's Ginger Ale. You're coming with me tonight."

I could see it all rolled out in front of me. Pity. Kindness. Friendship.

"No." I rose to leave.

"You'll come, or you'll never darken the doorstep here again."

Now a man find himself in these spots from time to time. There are altogether too many kind souls in the world. They think they understand you. They want to help you. But what Paul will never understand is that he was helping me by taking my money and filling the glass and minding his own. It was the only help there was. A man standing in the broken shards of his life doesn't have any use for people picking up each piece and wondering aloud if this bit wasn't so bad. They never understand that the whole thing is worth something but the pieces are nothing and you can never reassemble them again into anything.

I went. Worse than I imagined, really. Wife. Kids. Home. Happy. I sat in the corner chair, rock-hard sober, and then masticated like a farm animal at the table. Paul was smarter, perhaps, than I gave him credit for. He said nothing to me, or about me. His children nattered at everything and his wife placed the food in front of me and they talked of everything and nothing as if I wasn't there... no, as if I had always been there. As if the man with every bit of his life written right on his face had always sat in that seat.

I wasn't prepared for it when he took out the Bible. Is he a madman like my own father was? It's too much. But the children sat by the tree, and he opened the Bible and placed his finger in there. I wanted to run screaming into the street. I wanted to murder them all and wait for the police. I wanted to lay down on the carpet and die.

"Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

He put the children to bed, to dream of the morning. His wife kissed him, said only "goodnight" to me, and went upstairs. We sat for a long moment by the fire, the soft gentle sucking sound of the logs being consumed audible now that the children were gone. The fire was reflected in the ornaments on the tree. The mantel clock banged through the seconds.

"Do you want something?" he asked.

"Ginger Ale."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We're All Scrooge Now

A Christmas Carol has redemption in it, but it's a grim piece of business. I don't mind that. Dickens was kinda full of it most of the time, anyway. He was constantly describing a bleak, humorless, changeless world of fingereating factories and economic desolation that disappeared while his ink was still wet, and was probably never as bad as he thought it was in the first place. Doesn't matter. No fiction writer should worry too much about being evenhanded. It's OK to be a monomaniac if you're good at it, fiction or not. Studs Terkel didn't write for Fortune magazine, either. Tend to your own garden; let someone else take care of the rest of the landscape.

Scrooge is all wrong, or at least backwards, for our times. Scrooge was a benighted individual, twisted by his circumstances, but ultimately redeemed by the good example set by everybody around him. He's not dumb, and it dawns on him that the hoarding of everything, including --especially-- his love for his fellow man, brought him no pleasure; and he can't help but notice that people that he considers fools and knaves are happy despite their circumstances. He has his epiphany, and we ours watching him.

The tale is backwards now because Scrooge was alone in his misery, surrounded by plenty and bonhomie if he would just partake of it; we are now multitudes; nations; a veritable globe of hoarders and schadenfreude peddlers, searching for any last outpost of goodwill towards others, simple pleasures, or just plain harmless fun that can be vilified and then dismantled.

If there is a pulpit, a pedestal, a proscenium or a podium where the milk of human kindness is being dispensed right now, I've missed it. Half of the population thinks the government should do everything for everybody, which is a cute way of saying I'd like to do nothing for anybody, and there may be a few things around the margin of that largesse I could wrap up and put in my freezer; the other half is talking about hoarding gold, bullets and Spam, which is just a cute way of rationalizing why being a cheapskate and friendless jerk was a wise plan in the long run. You can take your Ayn Rand and your Ned Ludd alike and shove...

See, now I'm doing it. I'm drifting through this bizarro Scrooge and Marley world, and it's getting to me. It's backwards and no one sees it. Mobs of competing Scrooges roam the streets, statehouses, newsrooms and vestries, looking for some remaining opposition Tiny Tim, to yank the crutch from his arm and smash it because the store he bought it in wasn't unionized and the greeter didn't have acupuncture with no co-pay included on their medical. Or maybe Tim's in a union and we can't have that. They're pulling the drumstick from Fezziwig's mouth because he's a fattie and it's dark meat filled with transfats and they're under interdict. The one coal in the grate Bob Cratchit warms himself by is stamped out because it emits too much carbon, while they tell his wife maybe she shouldn't have so many kids and then she could feed them. People with trustfunds or sinecures stand around in a chorus and talk about how some misery might build a little character in that Cratchit clan.

We think if we could only find that one last Scrooge and pry what we want for ourselves from his miserly hand we'd be happy. That would be bad enough, but I'm beginning to think it's even worse than that: We're a marauding army of Scrooges looking for one last Tiny Tim to beat up for his lunch money.

Maybe we should look for that last Scrooge in the mirror. I'm doing my best to avoid seeing him in there; I'll be by the fire with the last remaining Tiny Tims, while the zombie hordes of Marleys desolate the landscape outside. You're welcome to join us.

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors' children
Whom you have seen before
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Wistmas

Could you conjure it up out of nothing, if you had to? They say you keep it in your heart all year round. Would it flicker and die in there before Hogmanay?

You could read the lyrics any way you want. And then the music starts and you wonder whether your heart will break before all the cheer is wrung from it.

Oops. Spoke Too Soon

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Electrifying News

I don't know if you already noticed it or not, but electricity is danged useful. Without it, you can't post witty essays on the Internet or anything. The reason you can't is twofold. First, you're not all that witty; second, you're busy emptying the sump pump hole with a pail and dumping it outside, in the dark.

Other than that, you can do without the stuff. Heat is overrated, and my wife looks so lovely in the candlelight.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hitting Rockbottom With Wallace Nutting

"I am under no illusions as to my pictures. I am not an artist, and it is most disagreeable to me to be called one. I am a clergyman with a love of the beautiful."

I look for examples of antique furniture online. I've noticed an interesting phenomenon; museums have crummy websites. I bet they don't think they're crummy. I imagine they think they're swell. More about that later.

I'm interested in Wallace Nutting. If you've never heard of him, that's understandable. He's not exactly Britney Spears, but he was fairly notable in his way. Born at the dawn of the Civil War, passed away at the start of WW II, to my endless amusement he hailed from a place called Rockbottom, Massachusetts.

He was the bluest of bluebloods. Pilgrim ancestors, Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard. He was a minister, and then he started his second career as an antiquarian when he was about 45 years old. Sounds partly familiar. He first took pictures while out in the country, and later employed a staff of ladies to hand-tint them. They were nature scenes at first, and then he began to buy and renovate colonial houses, furnish them in period style, and depict domestic scenes using models dressed in period clothes. Here's one called Backgammon:

They were often referred to as "chromos." He sold ten million of them from a catalog. He wrote books about his peripatations. I have a copy of a few of them. They're like reading a somber version of Henry David Thoreau's Cape Cod. If Nutting ever told a joke, I've never heard about it. He made his contemporary, Calvin Coolidge, look like W.C. Fields in comparison.

He opened up a few houses as museums. He was always hustling, so you could pull something off the wall and buy it if you had a mind to. That brings us back to museum websites. Nutting was a colleague of a fellow with the triple barreled name of William Sumner Appleton. Appleton was a founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Appleton and Nutting went in on some projects together, and Nutting contributed his words, pictures, and items to the Society.

But Appleton and his SPNEA brethren didn't like the taint of filthy lucre on their history. They had a falling out over Nutting's commercialism, and they went their separate ways.

Nutting opened up a shop making reproduction furniture. His furniture, though it's less than a hundred years old, is collected as if it was original. His books are highly prized, though most are out of print. I refer to Nutting's Furniture Treasury all the time.

I can find all sorts of information about Nutting and his furniture, furnishings, and opinions all over the place, for free or for short money. The SPNEA? I can't help noticing their website parses out information with an eyedropper, desperately trying to coax you to spend some money to get them to part with it. They're now trying everything they execrated Nutting for then, renting out restored properties for weddings, licensing copies of antiques and selling them, along with the usual begging.

I can go to an auction house website, and get dozens of high-quality photos of all sorts of antiques, along with measurements and a little provenance, and it doesn't cost a penny to look. The auctioneers aren't doing it out of the goodness of their heart. But Adam Smith will tell you it doesn't matter why it happens. The SPNEA website wants to show me a dreadful slideshow using the execrable RealPlayer plugin. No thanks.

No profit is made, no doubt, and thank god for that. It all must go to keeping trustfund babies employed at above market wages, harrumphing at cocktail parties about mercenaries like Wallace Nutting, and people like me too, I suppose, while they hoard the information they should be trumpeting everywhere and charge like a phone-sex line for what little they deign to mete out.

Hey, look how well that worked out for The New York Times. I'm sure it will turn out swell for the museums, too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Littel History

I have a long and illustrious pedigree. Interestingly, furniture and mixed metaphors are woven throughout the warp and woof of my family tree like a tunnel left by a powder post beetle.

The earliest recollection of family goes back to 1736, when the local lord, a certain A. A. A. D'Artagnan Umslopagaas Dynamite Macaulay, took a decided interest in my Irish ancestor Brutus Sippican's bodger business. He was egged on, no doubt, by Brutus' wife, Fanny, who was described by the local constabulary as "comely of visage, and a real goer." It is said that she would tout Brutus' abilities in the making of his innovative "Two Legged Stoole," and was unstinting in her efforts to attract potential buyers from far and wide, especially when Brutus was out gathering wood.

Not much is known of Brutus himself; but according to court documents he was called on urgent business to a British town called Newgate, and liked it so much he decided to take up permanent residence there. Mr. Macaulay kindly offered to look after Fanny, and it is said that Brutus' youngest bairn, raised in the lap of luxury at the Macaulay estate, was so happy with his new accommodations that he began to favor his step-father even in his physical appearance.

After a time, old A.A.A. seemed captivated by the young lad's proclivity for daubing interesting things on the walls, and legally had the boy's name changed to Mene Mene Tekel Upharson Sippican, and turned him out of doors and bade him to make his fortune in the manual arts, though the boy was only three. We Sippicans are a doughty lot, and often make our way in the world early in life.

Mene Mene made his way to London, where he was a great hit. He was trained in the classical manner in an alley, and found many deep-pocketed patrons for his talents, especially on race day when people were crowded very closely together at the rail. Mene is said to have grown forlorn after a time, and was so stricken with longing for his long lost father that he followed him to Newgate and decided to "hang" there as well, to use the amusing vernacular of the time.

But before Mene left, he too had a son to carry on the line. Little Belvoir Sippican was born into straitened circumstances, but like all our line, soon learned to look after himself. He is the first of our line to make his way to the Americas, although his name did not appear on the register of any ship for some reason. Like many of our clan, he liked to keep an unostentatious profile. He was a gifted storyteller, and is said to have regaled many of his former British Isle compatriots with uproarious and detailed yarns about a certain G. Washington.

Various locals took umbrage at the silver-tongued devil's ability to entertain his audiences, and Belvoir was chased from the burgs of New York due to such jealousies. He decided to make his way to Canada to make his fortune, which he no doubt would have done had he not succumbed to injuries suffered in an unfortunate mumblety-peg incident in Boston.

But the Sippicans are nothing if not lucky, and Belvoir was able to find a woman willing to carry on the line, who in an astonishing coincidence was married to the fellow old Belvoir was playing that exuberant game of mumblety-peg with. Cassandra seemed put off by her husband's behavior and left him to raise little Cyrus Sippican on her own. Cassandra was a proud woman, and considered a style setter in each of the numerous towns she inhabited. She seems to have started the craze of wearing letters on your outerclothes as a fashion statement, a practice still in vogue among American footballers to this day.

Cyrus grew up and was said to be a giant among men. He made his way out in the landscape as a wrassler, sometimes against other humans. His signature move, the eye-gouge, is still popular in modern wrestling circles as well as daycare centers.

Here the trail goes cold a bit, although you can espy Cyrus painted into the bottom left corner of a Thomas Cole landscape painting, bothering a bear for the amusement of a gathering of Mohican Indians who were Cyrus' trading partners. The painting, though one of the finest of the Hudson River School, is too indistinct to determine what business Cyrus had with the Indians. He is reported to have purchased large quantities of corks in New York, so he may have been teaching the tribe how to fish using a bobber. We can only conjecture.

Cyrus lived to a ripe old age, and after his death, his son Archie Sippican made his way east once more. He is rumored to have been employed mowing the lawn at Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin allowing Hank, as Archie called him, more time to write. Various items that formerly belonged to Mr. Thoreau have been handed down in our family for generations; we are planning to read the book some time in the future as well.

The trail goes cold for a bit again, but Archie's peripatations led him to Chicago, where he was reported to be talking excitedly to the fellow that shot William McKinley just moments before the dreadful deed; but apparently the Sippican silver tongue was not enough to dissuade the gentlemen.

Archie's bairn Cuthbert was said to have what sounds like some sort of door to door cutlery sales business, and traveled widely and quickly around the midwest. The exact nature of the business is unknown; but there are many references to families throughout the great midsection of our land counting their spoons after a successful visit by old Cuthbert.

Cuthbert had a brother, who was apparently both some sort of doctor and a convert to evanglicalism. He is said to have been very handsome and popular, and traveled widely throughout the south, and went by the unusual moniker of Positive Wasserman Sippican.

The Sippican line's Irish-Catholic roots asserted themselves again later in the twentieth century, when my own father, Cuthbert's grandson Zoltan Sippican, was testifying in court about some matter or another. When asked: "Occupation of Father?" young Zoltan answered: "I think he's taken the Holy Orders, your honor." "Why is that, son?" asked the judge. Zoltan replied that he was told that every time Archie was brought before a magistrate and asked his occupation, he was famous for answering: "Nun."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

She Called It The Piazza

She called it the piazza. I'd been to the library and it isn't a piazza at all, but she says it just the same.

I don't say that and it's not like I know what to call it anyway. I wouldn't say it to her if I did because she is so fierce. They've pulled babies out of her and bits off her while the calendars repeated themselves, and when they bury her there will be an echo inside. But everyone loves her and fears her.

She never went leathery, she got adamantine. Basilisk to a stranger and a pitted madonna with the toe worn smooth where votaries come to her own. She'd press a quarter in my hand like a card trick when we left.

The piazza leaned drunkenly off the building and she'd send me to get the food that cooled out there. Thirty rickety feet and more over the jetsam of a thousand lives gone bad surrounded by chainlink and crime.

It was always hot and close and she had only two colors -- grey and the pink of her cheek. There was always things I didn't understand boiling. Everything on the plate was grey and pink, too.

The rooms were in a parade. The triptych of the parlor windows showed the sack of a forgotten Rome. No running in the hall! Her daughter lived down stairs so there was no one to bother but ... the very idea. But how could a child linger in that tunnel of a hall. The bedrooms branched off, dim caves that smelled of perfume bought in stores forty years closed by men thirty years dead. The indistinct whorls on the wallpaper reached out to touch your hand like a leper. You had to get past it to the kitchen table.

She'd spoon the sugar and dump the milk in the tea until the saucer was a puddle and you wondered how many times the bag could take it. But there was cinnamon and laughter now and then and sunlight that turned the battered battleship linoleum into a limpid pool. The cork shone through the scrim of the coating, a million footfalls revealing it over time.

And Catherine? The Cork showed through there, too.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Never Pick Fights With People That Buy Pixels By The Kilojoule

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm just a caveman. I fell on some ice and later got thawed out by some of your scientists. Your world frightens and confuses me! Sometimes the honking horns of your traffic make me want to get out of my Ford and run off into the hills, or wherever. Sometimes when I see videos on my Intertube machine, I wonder: "Did little demons get inside and draw them on the cave walls?"

My older cavecub's junior high school has an Audio/Visual club. They limit the amount of cubs they allow in it. My cavecub got passed over.

Caveman Woodbanger is supposed to be sanguine or mystified or peeved or whatnot. But Caveman Woodbutcher knows all about the ability of your average school teacher to see the potential in a cavecub. Caveman thinks we expect too much of teachers in many ways; there are a lot of cubs and they're not mind readers. I cast my mind back to when the dinosaurs and I roamed the Earth and my own high school wouldn't allow me to take shop class no matter how much me and my troglodyte parents tried to convince them to let me. What a waste of everyone's time it would have been to let me at any tools. They knew I'd never stick with it. I must go back to the runes. It's not that caveman and cavecub care all that much. Everyone gets to do what they want as soon as you grow up and leave the Secondary Cave. It's the intergenerational monotony of the thing that strikes caveman funny.

Likewise, what a waste of time it would be to let my cavecub into the A/V club. I'm sure it's loaded with cubs churning out videos like these, using nothing but the obsolete video editing software that came with Windows; Vixy; cave cartoons found on YouTube; cavetoys found in littler cavecub's room; an eight-year-old digital still camera; and help, encouragement, and bad jokes from their old cavedad:

I see the teacher who runs the A/V club has the kids entering things on Smith Magazine's Six Word Memoirs. Oops. Not exactly:
For the last four days, I have done nothing but email teens who are finalists for our upcoming teens-only six-word memoir book. It’s hundreds and hundreds of stories, plus some pictures, some advice, some tough questions, and some secret-sharing of my own. Today, I got a reply informing me that a memoir Larry and I had selected wasn’t written by a teen at all, but by their teacher, testing the waters.

I just fell off the mastodon wagon, but I don't think you call that "testing the waters" in publishing. At least not in depositions, anyway.

That's OK. My cavecub's picture has been on Six Word Memoirs for almost a year already. But I wrote the blurb and took the picture; he and I are too far to the left on the evolution chart to ... ahem... test any waters.

So Unfrozen Caveman Woodbutcher is here to praise my local schoolteacher. Put him up on the Mount Rushmore of edumacation with Horace Mann and Christy McCauliffe and Aristotle. Even an unfrozen caveman can see that his assistance in helping us avoid exposing our cavecub to strange old men that masquerade as teenagers on the Intertunnel has really been first-rate.

Delmer's A Haunt, Still

That's my friend Delmer Wilson.

Those aren't the swallowtail boxes we talked about before. They're a sort of basket, made like the oval boxes, but with a loop handle added. The Shakers called that item a "carrier." Spare of prose, too. It is what it is.

There was Shaker village in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Delmer Wilson lived in Sabbathday, Maine, which isn't too far from there, but I don't know if he ever went there. A carrier made in the Canterbury, New Hampshire Shaker village sold for $117,000.00 this year. Delmer is standing in front of a pile of over a thousand of them, identified as a season's work for him.

I wonder; could I make 117 million dollars worth of furniture this year? Doubtful. Delmer sure looks relaxed doing it. Me, I'm frantic and the kids still need new shoes.

I'm friendly with the nice people over at Marion Antiques here in the town I live in. They don't mind I wander around a lot and only buy trifles. And they don't mind that I make antiques fresh daily, because they understand we're in different but related businesses. Many antique dealers treat me like a leper.

I bought a Shaker box from Marion Antiques recently. The Shakers used to make perfectly round containers, too. they called them "measures." The modern equivalent would be the folded, waxed cardboard bin you put chinese food in, I guess. This one was painted blue originally, I can still see it stuck in the check grains of the wood. The most valuable stuff still has the original paint on it. The Shaker carrier that sold for all that cake is painted a screaming yellow color, and the paint is still intact. People think of Shaker stuff as kind of drab, but it isn't. They painted stuff really vibrant colors, and they didn't use tiger maple by accident.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling seemed kind of drab 'til they cleaned it. Many had become accustomed to thinking of it as drab and wanted it put back the way it was. When reality intrudes on prejudice, reality is often asked to go back to the back of the bus. It won't stay there forever, but foolish people try.

The measure I bought at Marion Antiques wasn't expensive. but I flipped it over, and scratched rudely in the bottom, it said: WILSON 1848.

It's not him; the date's wrong, and Delmer wouldn't have taken so little care in doing anything, even scratching his name on something. Someone that used it for a lunch pail wanted to make it identifiable, or some such; or maybe some former owner is fooling around and it's not that old.

I don't care. When a ghost shows up, you don't ignore him because you don't like the clothes he's wearing.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Hello Denver

Sippican Cottage Furniture got a nice little mention in the Denver Post the other day. Victorian Holiday Splendor at

I played music at some sort of civic or convention center in Denver a decade or so ago. It's funny how you associate entire areas of the country and their populations with mundane details about your short soirees through them. A pretty girl asked me for an autograph in Denver once, and so Denver is a swell place with wonderful people and marvelous vibe and unicorn farms and the streets are paved with pound cake, forevermore. They're just burnishing their image at this point.

On the same day as the DenverPost item, one of my neighboring states sent me an automated $25 ticket for running a $0.70 toll. Which I manifestly did not do. But they know you'll pay it because it's too much trouble to fight it, and so they don't really care whether they are full of merde.

In my world, that state is now three parts clarified bowel movement, four parts perfidy, eleven parts death, taxes and the grave, and forty-five parts low-rent jackleg. Hope it was worth the twenty-five bucks. You can always spend five hundred bucks on tourist advertising later to try and woo me back inside the benighted dotted line I've drawn around your state. I'll build a privy, with a hole in the shape of a certain state instead of a half-moon in the door, and use those brochures in there, I promise.

Viva Denver!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More Real Than Real

I make cottage furniture.

Except, technically I don't. If you want to get precise about it, cottage furniture is... well, my fingers hurt from making cottage furniture that isn't really, so I'll stop typing and paste a picture and save us all some grief:
Cottage Furniture refers to inexpensive suites of furniture from the nineteenth century, almost always made of the plainest wood and painted, with decorations painted on them. If there was woodgrain showing, 99% of the time it was "grain-painted" in a spartan, primitive style.

I go to antique stores pretty regularly. Real cottage furniture is about the rarest style I see in there. It was mass-produced for the better part of the 19th century, but it's all gone now. Everyone wanted it and then no one wanted it. A great deal of the "shabby chic" movement involved painting cottage furniture white and sticking it in your second house, so it's still around here and there under a badly applied coat of house paint. The back leg is kinda hinky, the drawers are stuck from the humidity, your weird uncle had a leaky bottle of Hai Karate aftershave that gives the dresser a funny smell, but it's there next to your buttsprung mattress on the rusty exposed spring foundation.

The king of Cottage Furniture was Andrew Jackson Downing. He didn't make any, as far as I know; he was really a gardener at heart (Central Park in New York was his idea) He popularized the ideas behind it and basically defined what a "cottage" was in America with books like The Architecture of Country Houses.

It's a text-heavy book by modern tastes, but it's got some illustrations of furniture Downing offered as examples of appropriate to the country house. You don't want any. They look too rococo to the modern eye. Various publishers have made a living repackaging the illustrations of gingerbread millwork and furniture Downing supplied with his various tomes. He championed a Gothic Revival style for country houses in order to make houses look picturesque out in the landscape. The style can easily be stripped down to simple shapes and forms that are not fussy or expensive, but have a bit of whimsy associated with them: Carpenter Gothic.

The Gothic style got associated in popular culture with the era just before the Depression, and so it gets unfairly maligned constantly as the place in the movies where Anthony Perkins keeps his mom past her fresh sale date, where Jimmy Stewart's newel post knob comes off in his hand over and over, and where Boo Radley would live. If Orson Welles wanted to do scary, he'd put Agnes Moorehead in a black satin frock, put the camera down low in a gothic room, and show the musty side of things.

So I don't make cottage furniture if you look at his pictures, but I do if you read what Downing was driving at:

...the highest principle in designing or building a cottage, that it should be truthful, that is, should clearly express the modesty and simplicity of cottage life. Hence, not only should the cottage aim to look like a cottage, but it should avoid all pretension to what it cannot honestly and faithfully be. And as its object is first utility, and then beauty, the useful should never be sacrificed to the ornamental, but the latter should more obviously be connected with, and grow out of the former, in a cottage than in a more elaborate dwelling.

Almost everyone's house is a cottage nowadays. A cottage is just an informal house. Very few people live in formal houses of any kind. There's often a kind of fight going on between reality and their idea of what they're supposed to be doing, however. Many people have very fussy and severe looking furnishings and finishes in their informal houses. The juxtaposition of these contrary impulses makes people crazy and Home Depot rich.

I'm being interviewed by the newspaper this week, and a television station next week. They're going to ask me, I know it in my bones--

Are you:
  • Norm?
  • Bob Vila?
  • Wallace Nutting without the chromographs?
  • Martha Stewart, only less tough?
  • Pottery Barn's idiot brother?
I'm not any of those things. I'm this generation's Andrew Jackson Downing, saving the American House one end table at a time.

...if it so happens that one is forced to inhabit a house meagre and poor in its interior, its baldness and poverty may be, in a great degree, concealed or overcome, by furnishing the rooms in a tasteful and becoming manner...

...And here we may be allowed to prose a little, at the outset, by an allusion to the blunders committed by many persons in furnishing a house. We mean the blunder of confounding fashion with taste, of supposing that whatever the cabinetmakers and upholsterers turn out as the latest fashion must necessarily be the only things worth having; and of a total ignorance of the fact, that the most fashionable furniture may be in the worst taste, while furniture in the most correct taste is not always such as is easily obtained in the cabinet warehouses.

Tasteful furniture is, simply, furniture remarkable for agreeable and harmonious lines and forms, well adapted to the purpose in view.

Preach it, brother.