Saturday, January 31, 2009

Elevator Jones 4 (and a half)

You collect yourself in the car. I never knew what that meant before.

I hate the Star Trek doors. I want to feel the weight of a door when you push on it. A building shouldn't devour you. I don't want to go in its maw.

There's something wrong with everybody. Spectator or actor or stagehand or director; doesn't matter. Everyone's a mess. There's a man in pajamas in a wheelchair on the curb smoking a cigarette. It's twenty. You could grind him up and make a paste of pure corruption.

VCT. That means vinyl composition tile. Twelve inch squares. Hard. Cold. Everyone stares at it and walks. There's nothing to see and that's the point.

After a while it's over. It's late. What difference should it make in there what time it is? But we are humans no matter the VCT. The moon is up and the sun is down and the day is over and that's that.

You go down the long lonesome corridor and stare at the flecks in the floor and there's nothing and nobody for the last fifty yards. You come up hard at a door. There's a badge and some writing and it doesn't matter what it says. The room has no people and the television is screwed to the wall in the last place it should be, in the corner at the ceiling, and it yells at no one. Not even me. You stare slackjawed for a moment and the wraiths of some hoary joke are blurted out to the audience of dead souls in an empty room.

Going down.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

She Blinded Me With Science

My older boy's science teacher showed him a video made from Tom Lehrer's musical recitation of the Table of Elements set to a tune from The Pirates of Penzance.

I don't understand the thinking. Actually, I lied; I understand it perfectly --I think it's foolish, that's different.

Science is not interesting because Tom Lehrer wrote a funny ditty about it. Tom Lehrer is interesting because he wrote something witty about something boring. If you're interested in the table of elements it's interesting. Just like all things. The idea that all things can be made interesting to all people by making them get up and dance in presentation is silly. To put it in woodworking terms, pointing to the veneer doesn't make the flakeboard underneath it any more interesting to look at. Besides, people truly jazzed about chemistry are so much funnier than people jazzed about jazz ragging on chemistry. Behold the Boron lady and Phil Spector, PHD: Chicks Dig Boron.

My son was somewhat delighted I knew all about Tom Lehrer and could recite many of his ditties from memory. The Table of Elements song is his least entertaining work I can recall. Short on funny, long in presentation. This one's much darker, and gleeful:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dear School Administrators: Your Curriculum Sucks. My Kid Is Fine

Dancin' Machine from sippican cottage on Vimeo.

A certain video hosting outfit erased, without notification, a video of my kid dancing because some venal grasping grabby entertainment company wants to beat pennies from children for every lick on Hollywood's fecal lollipop, Fair Use under DMCA for mashups and spoofing be damned. So I'm (up)loaded for bear.

That coincided nicely with my son's kindergarten administrators telling us that he's: "unable to express ideas in front of a group, unable to selectively listen for sounds, follow multi-step directions," and our supreme favorite: "unable to to complete assigned tasks in allotted time."

I don't have time to bring the little feller's 522 piece Lego set suggested for 8-12 year olds and stand there while he assembles an entire Beach House, with absolutely no help, using nothing but a 72 page exploded diagram pamphlet. He does it faster than I could do it, but it takes a little while and we're all too busy for that, and I'm not sure 72 pages qualifies as multi-step, because I'm a dolt. Likewise, I don't have a video of our boy fearlessly performing a Smashmouth song in front of an audience of 250 or so at Lake Winnepesaukee when he was just four years old, because, of course, I was busy on stage performing with him at the time. I doubt that qualifies for selectively listening for sounds anyway, as the drummer kept coming in early and the boy ignored him.

A pretty girl sent me a picture of it, though:

You can tell he's not an adult because adults never hold the microphone correctly like he is doing in the picture. Save your wisecracks; I know he's cute and I look like hell. But cut me some slack, I had a temperature of 104 degrees the night before, as I was suffering from Lyme Disease just then but it was still undiagnosed. I looked like hell but the show went off on time, because I was hired to perform there and we take completing assigned tasks in the allotted time fairly seriously at our house. That assigned task was a four-and-a-half hour drive from our house, but somehow we managed.

The school administrator that summoned us to discuss my boy's "inability to complete assigned tasks in the allotted time" came in, plopped a slovenly 8" thick, undifferentiated and dogeared pile of foolscap paper on the table, and was sipping from a franchise restaurant disposable hot coffee container unavailable in the town I live in. And although the meeting was held at their school, had been postponed twice already, and she has a secretary, she was a full twenty-five minutes late.

My boy has never missed the bus.

So you're "a group." How'd my little boy do expressing himself in that video?

PS: I'm emailing this to the school administrator right now. Should I email her my earlier entry where I exposed another of our school system's teachers masquerading as a teenager on the Internet? No, that would be cruel.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Messed-Up Mashup Goodness

Microsoft Songsmith. Like so much of what's generated under the vague heading of "tech," it's useless for anything productive or elegant. But it's lying there lifeless on the digital ground and someone picks it up and puts it to "good" use anyway.

In a real way, the more profoundly useless a thing is, the more fun people seem to get out of using it. All Your Base Are Belong To Us and Dramatic Chipmunk and the glorified Gong Shows most contest entertainments supply are really the audience putting the fun in what is essentially humorless. Do you really think the suits thought Paula Abdul making dizzy remarks about high-school-talent-show-level singing was going to be a phenomenon? They put it on hoping they could sell ShamWows to shut-ins, and were as surprised as anybody when people made their own fun out of the dreck and made the show a success.

Songsmith supplies "musical" backing to you when you sing in the shower, only you're not in the shower. Some mildly inspired person decided to strip familiar vocals out of popular songs and feed them into Songsmith's hopper and see what came out.

It's like looking at a car wreck on the highway as you roll slowly past the flares and state policemen waving flashlights. Fun!

More here at Heh.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Snow In The Early Morning (In 2006)

[Editor's Note: Rerun. The guy's busy making things besides text. Besides, you all have "Internet Alzheimers" and can't remember what you read last week, so what's the diff?]

{Author's Note: Notable in my mind because it's the first time my Intertunnel friend Pastor Jeff read my blog and marked the occasion with a comment. A decent sort of fellow, that Jeff. P.S.: I think we just coined the term Internet Alzheimers. And there is no editor.}

We had snow yesterday at daybreak. The light was so faint, and tinged with blue, that the whole scene outside the door seems under water. I took a picture to try to catch the light:

Pine, Oak, Maple, Holly, and a few others mixed in. There are geese and ducks in the water just past the first row of trees. This is the kind of snow we get here in the southcoast; not enough to plow, generally, but enough to soften the barren look of winter a bit.

It's funny to consider that, according to statistics, what you're looking at is farmland "lost" to development. This was all a pasture meadow, for ruminant animals 75 years ago, when sturdier folks still tried to cadge a living farming in New England. The old surveying documents use what few trees were here previously as markers, and they were chosen because they were conspicuous for their lonesomeness. The soil is acid and there isn't much topsoil over the sandy subsoil. You could mow it flat and plant cranberries, but there's such a glut of cranberries that the government pays farmers not to grow them now, after attracting them to the industry by guaranteeing their prices previously.

My deed actually still allows me to drive my livestock across the road onto my neighbor's property to water my herds if I need to; but the cats just drink out of the little dishes under the potted plants, so there is no need to take them up on it.

The land we own covers five acres. About three quarters of one acre is lawn, house, driveway, and plantings. The rest is wild, and will remain so. It's surrounded by thousands of acres of river, fen, swamp, bog, forest, more swamp, brambles, poison ivy, nettles, ticks, and mosquitoes big enough to make you put lead diving shoes on your toddlers outside, lest they be carried off.

Farmland "lost" to development; I think not. Looks like "reforestation" to me. And last time I checked at the supermarket also built on "farmland lost to development," the shelves are filled with the flesh of the creatures that formerly grazed in what rapidly turned into our little pine jungle. They must have found some of that lost land somewhere else, I expect. Or used less land to generate more food is more likely.

Are the cows any sadder, unable to drink my swampwater? I don't know. But the ospreys like it here now. So do we.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I make furniture but the making of it is only half of it. Running a business is like being a shark. Swim forward or die. Many people long for sinecures so they can do the same thing over and over and still get their money, but the creative destruction of the economy generally precludes that. Even the Post Office uses state-of-the-art machinery to fold, spindle and mutilate your mail now. Time marches on. Me, I just would like a Sunday off.

The swimming forward can be as simple as presenting the same old thing in a fresh way. Or maybe you're always at the cutting edge of consumer fashion and your ideas are obsolete while you're still thinking them. Perhaps you make it exactly the same but you change the font on your website instead of keeping a storefront to display your wares. Whatever, things change. You can sell Mid-century Modern furniture hand over fist right now to twenty-somethings who watched The Incredibles and soaked in the design vibe, but that wasn't a wise ware to hawk twenty years ago. But if you have hand skills, someone will always want you to do it. The buggy whip conglomerate might fold, but a few hardy souls can make bespoke buggy whips for the connoisseur if they got mad skills. The drones will get laid off and work at IKEA.

I ordered a lathe six months ago, to swim forward and make turned leg furniture too. It was delayed so long I sort of forgot about it. (It was ordered the same time as my replacement for my 350 pound doorstop) It arrived last week unexpectedly and broken. I don't have time to pay attention to it right now, but I was compelled to because I had to tell the manufacturer what's wrong with it so they could send me replacements for the busted stuff. Now it stands there in the corner winking at me. It reminds me of the boat I built four years ago and never launched. Its very existence is an accusation. Hurry up.

I went looking for video for lathe turning. Everybody is turning bowls I don't care about and nobody has any skills worth mentioning on YouTube. My only rule for claiming to be an expert in any walk of life is you have to at least be able to do it better than me. That's a lot rarer than it should be although I'm no great shakes at anything. At least that's what the nuns told all of us about everything every day, you Mr. Big Britches, you. Anyway, at least I found this guy.

Here's to you, crazy Greek dude with the sewing machine lathe and mad skew chisel skills. You rock.

Umm....I think it's a dude.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Have A Pleasant MLK Holiday

The United Nations is a terrible fraud. There's a dozen or two decent countries represented there, and the rest chairs reserved for dictators and jackleg statist functionaries, the kind of person that is actually the polar opposite of a representative of their putative population. The US is the reality of the imaginary UN ideal: Every kind of person lives together and gets along with his brother as best they can. And everyone is brethren. There are no untouchables born here.

I'm immensely proud, and feel damn lucky to be born in this place.

Friday, January 16, 2009

If I Had A Million Dollars, I'd Buy You A Monkey And This Record Collection

When I was younger I had to learn Oldie but Goodie songs for bands I was in. No Intertunnel. I found a hole-in-the wall store that loaded 45s into jukeboxes. They'd sell to the public, but in the most desultory fashion. If you found them out behind the Chinese Restaurant and the SCUBA place and were willing to look through all the boxes and brought a little money, you could buy the stuff. I still have some of them, and several hundred lps, too. This is so much cooler than that, which was pretty damn cool already.

Estate Liquidation

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

So I'm A Welder In The Desert...

[Editor's Note: If you're just getting here, Sippican is droning on about walking uphill both ways to work in the seventies or something, a continuation of this.]

{Author's Note: It might have been the very early eighties, I can't recall and won't research it. I'd fire that editor if I had one.}

I can't remember what year it was, or the exact address of the place, or a host of other things, but I can tell you what I had for lunch on my first day as a welder in the desert. I can tell you because I had the exact same thing every day for a year. Paper bag was a Toreador Squat, I think. Peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread. Verifine apple juice in a likewise squat little glass bottle with a metal cap and a sort of foam label/wrapper, an apple, a granola bar and a paper napkin. I tried eating the napkin a few times before I lost interest.

You couldn't get an apartment in LA without a bank account and a job. You couldn't get a bank account without a fixed address. I couldn't get a job without an apartment. I can't remember who was governor of California at the time. It might have been Jerry Brown or maybe George Deukmejian. At any rate, Franz Kafka was actually running the place. I picked a day, and simultaneously told the apartment landlady I had the job, told the bank I had the apartment, and told the job I could TIG weld thermocouples all the live-long day, baby. The Million Pound Bank Note is just a short story to you; it's an instruction manual to me. You guys should read less Rand and more Twain if you want to get on in this world. By "less Rand," I mean "no Rand," and "all Twain," actually.

(I put "actually" at the end of that sentence so you'd get the proper Valley Girl vibe that was born in LA at the time.)

TIG means Tungsten Inert Gas. You have an electrode in your right hand and you blast an arc through an aureole of plasma while you feed in the filler metal with your other hand. It's harder to do than other types of welding.

I went to Catholic School, so when I said I lied about welding, I don't mean lie in the contemporary sense. I am incapable of looking anyone directly in the face and lying. The nun is there over your shoulder forevermore. To us, even giving people the wrong impression was considered lying. We didn't parse "is." People mistake it for false modesty now, but it's pure terror of the shades of nuns past.

But it's also just a venial sin, and in the Berretta fashion of being willing to do the time for the crime I figured I could take a few weeks in Purgatory or Limbo or Hell's Kitchen or the Department of Motor Vehicles or whatever God's badboy waiting room is called. A man's gotta eat.

I had TIG welded under a microscope in a clean room before. I wore a nylon smock, sat at a sort of school desk, looked through a little green peep lens, pressed a button and stepped on a foot pedal while a tiny weld was made. But it was TIG welding.

Now it was 5:45 in the morning. You have to start early in the desert or it gets too hot for much of anything. The roof is corrugated steel, uninsulated. There are no windows. I eventually used to see the guys working at other shops on the street in sort of shantytown lean-tos, or just under a roof with no walls, and envy them. We were a more formal business, so we got to work in a concrete block Minotaur's labyrinth with a warming tray over our heads. I'll leave it to your imagination and arithmetic to figure out what time you get up to arrive at a job over fifty miles away at 5:45.

I'm not stupid, I'm just dumb. I know I'm in for it, and have to be prepared. No nylon smock is gonna cut it here. I wore jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt. I brought leather gauntlets.

When people talk about thermocouples, they generally think of the little one in their oven the size of two Excedrin laid end to end. Hmmm.... That's incorrect; no one ever thinks about any sort of thermocouple until you have to weld them or you don't eat. Then you think of them really hard.

There was no money in that sort of thermocouple and the company didn't bother with them. We made them for sticking into thermowells that we also made, which in turn were stuck into oil wells and foundry cauldrons and heat treat furnaces. We made those, too.

A small thermocouple for us was about the diameter of a pencil, a big one like the handle of a baseball bat, and made all sorts of lengths. They are made from a stainless steel tube, filled with a kind of white itching powder they called insulation, with two conductors made from dissimilar metals buried in it. The raw stock came coiled to make it easy to store, and you'd desuage them using a barbaric machine that used a revolving bend to straighten the coil as you pushed it through and held on for dear life. We made the desuaging machine, too, and sold it to other companies who had employees as valuable as the crewmen with no names on Star Trek that beam down to the planet's surface and take up permanent residence there.

Then there's this smell. Did I tell you about the smell?

(to be continued)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Television Is For Appearing On, Not Looking At, But...

...if you want to make an exception, you can watch me tomorrow on NECN's New England Dream House:

Don't worry, if you miss it because your parole officer won't let you go back home until the evening, they re-run it at 7:00 PM.

Nota Bene: That's not me in the picture. I'm much taller.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Killing Two ... um... In The Bush... With The ...Um...The Birds With The Rock Thing

Gerard Van Der Leun at American Digest hit me with one of those Internet chain-letter chores the other day. As is my wont, I'm late in responding and refuse to cooperate. I'm supposed to list all the jobs I've had. I'm not sure I could if I wanted to and I don't.

I'm afraid of Gerard, so I have to say something. Gerard is one of the very few people that are actual writers on the Intertunnel. Between quixotic ramblings and bizarre pictures of women not always wearing all their clothes, he'll toss off an essay, which in my narcissism I assume is done simply to remind the web that Sippican Cottage is the second-best writer in the world, and no better. He is, as my father calls it: Full of life.

I'm full of other things. But if I wrote down all the things I've done for work no one would believe me so there's no point. I've chopped sugar cane in Central America and taught Frisbee in Framingham and many points between. If I exaggerated one iota you'd think I was Baron Munchausen.

Another person who writes things I want to read is the Barrister at Maggie's Farm. He writes in a spare, avuncular style I like, like many of his co-bloggers there. They are calm people and I like calm because I am mercurial.

The Barrister displays a hallmark of the truly intelligent. He is curious about quotidian things. He wrote about the lowly thermocouple today, because a problem with his water heater caused him to discover it.

I think he's misdiagnosing his problem, or had it explained imperfectly to him; if the thermocouple breaks it never tells the machinery that the water has gone cold, or tells it it's magma hot and turns it off even though it isn't. The pilot light goes out out of boredom, I guess. But the detail is not important.

So I'll respond to Gerard who's no doubt lost interest, and to the Barrister though no response was asked for: You two can't name a job I haven't done. I've made thermocouples. Thousands and thousands of them. I'll describe one job I had, instead of listing all of them.

I needed a job, bad, in LA in 1979/1980. I moved there with next to no money and no plan. I was only old enough to drink because they hadn't changed the law yet. I'd had a dozen jobs or more already. No one was hiring nobody for nothing nohow. If I see another person compare today's economy to the Depression I'm going to show them a picture of 1979. When a mortgage on a house reaches 17%, unemployment is right around 30% in the construction industry, and inflation looks like it's going to touch 20, you get back to me. Car companies did more than just talk about going bankrupt back then.

I was sleeping on the couch in an apartment shared by two girls, neither of which I knew then or know now. You can distill painful shyness into a kind of brazenness if you try real hard.

The only job opening I could find was a classified for a welder. I had welded under a microscope before, so I was prepared to say I was qualified. A ship in a bottle is still a ship, right?

I drove 66 miles dead east from LA to get there. Outside the place looked like Ingsoc owned it, and inside it looked like Beelzebub was renting it. Medieval. A metal corrugated roof in the desert. The concrete block walls could just barely hold in the amount of crazy required to be a welder in there.

It was a terrible job and the pay was about the same as begging in Calcutta or maybe a dental assistant in England. There were -- I remember because they told me-- 135 people there that day applying for the job. There was a person sitting on every horizontal surface you could see making out an application. I was the only one wearing a suit and holding a resume. They took me out of the scrum, up the stairs, gave me the man what are you doing here act.

I lied. I lied like a politician. I lied like an infomercial. I lied like four hundred sermons played backwards. You bet I can weld your thermocouples. They sent 135 people away that very minute.

(to be continued)

Monday, January 05, 2009

Tick Tock

A body knows a room after a while.

Can't be plastic only. The sunlight tells you nothing then; it's all the same day and night and what's the sense in that? It's this swimming like a shark in the nighttime ocean they crave and I don't understand. They want it all the same; winter, summer; young, old; man, woman; happy, sad. They take pills to keep themselves from seeing the light change shapes on the wall and pass away.

It's the passing away they fear to consider. They say the church is for the superstitious, but I've been in the church and everyone in there knows how to behave in the graveyard. The superstition is thinking you are never any closer to taking up residence there. The sun would write it on the wall if you'd let it.

The wall at the foot of the bed is filled with ghosts. I know some first-hand; the others I can make out through the paint. Lives have passed by in this room.

The kids are kind but hurried and foolish. They don't notice little things. The bedposts are squared in a certain way so the beds may be joined together. No need for that now. The clock in the hall bangs around the circle for me, alone, but not alone. What I was given was enough, because I know in my heart of hearts that those that pity me my frailty and time alone never will have such as I had, even for a little while. They wouldn't recognize it if they saw it; how could they ever find it in the first place?

They walled up the firebox and put in a plug for a television for me. They don't know me. Scenes play on the wall already. They said it was dangerous to make a fire in there.

The danger is in no fire, ever, children.

Friday, January 02, 2009

(Yet Another Long Day's Journey Into) Big Night

[Editor's Note: Originally run two years ago. Seems timely still, which means he must still be a miserable failure at business.]
{Author's Note: No, I'm a prescient writer, not a bad businessman! See, people? That's why there is no editor. The guy has no clue}

It's exceedingly hard to run a business.

I really don't care what kind of business it is, either. They vary widely, of course, but they'll all kick your ass. Digging ditches or personal shopper, makes no never-mind. If you've ever made out a Schedule C you know exactly what I'm talking about.

It's hard to tell a story properly, too. Most entertainments are only modestly entertaining, -- if that -- and ephemeral. It's a rare thing that endures for a good long time in the world of movies and music and art. The producers generally just throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Most of what they throw at the wall actually should be hitting a fan, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

People are making their own fun with entertainment at this point. The reason people yell at the screen now instead of sitting in rapt attention are manifold, but the number one reason is the stuff on the screen isn't very good; and like a buffet of tidbits, the audience is trying to fashion a plate of fun for themselves. The cook can't seem to do it, so you do it yourself.

I watched a movie I've owned for a long time: Big Night. It's on VHS, so I know I've had it a while. It's a story about two Italian immigrant brothers trying to make a go of it in a restaurant in New Jersey in the 1950s. They are failing, and try to pull their business up from oblivion by hosting a celebrity for one "big night." It's both good entertainment and a good look at business. I don't talk while it's playing. It's doing all the work for me.

Like the best kinds of distillations of the human condition, Big Night uses the plot device of splitting one person's personality between two people, and having them rub up against one another. It's a useful dichotomy for the examination of the business ethic. One brother, Segundo, is running a restaurant and concerned with the mercenary aspects of running a business; his older brother Primo is the brilliant cook, concerned with being an artist with his food. Neither is a complete person without the other. The back and forth between them, as they search for the balance between being true to themselves and earning a living is as fascinating a portrayal of what it means to be creative and make it pay as I've ever seen.

The movie works on many other levels, and I wonder if the authors of the play -- as this movie is surely just a play with a camera pointed at it-- would even acknowledge my appraisal of the one person split into two plot device. I think artists always have this rolling around in their minds without admitting it. They wish to deny their self promotion, as it seems to smack of commerce. But watch the credits roll by sometime. Even a little movie is a serious business. Let the artists indulge themselves with their imaginary aversion to filthy lucre. Like good manners, I don't care why they say the right thing.

If you want to know what it is to be a brother, and an Italian, and an artist, and a businessman, and an immigrant, watch this movie. If you want to see why I never recovered from meeting my wife the very first time, look for the woman in the red dress at the final meal. Don't get me wrong; that's not her. My wife is prettier. Whether I am Primo or Segundo has yet to be determined.

Sometimes, when the Schedule C looks up at me from the desk, I wonder if I might try being Pascal, the brothers' venal but engaging and successful competitor from down the street: "I am a businessman. I am whatever I have to be at any given time. Tell me what, exactly, are you?"

(Some salty language)

Watch it.