Sunday, July 31, 2011

Make It Fonky!

I mos def must be the funky! I desire to shake my grooved thang higher! I must melt the hot stax of wax in my ears, and take off to an astral plain! We will, we will, biological clock you in the face! Raise the roofie on the sucker! It's a crisco inferno! Burn your mother's down!

(Legion of Rock Stars)

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! Let's put hope in your soul finger! And ebony and Merchant Ivory soap in your hole! Maceo, take me to the bridge of sighs! I wanna take your squier! Good God alrighty! They're gonna spank that plank like a rented joule! So high, I can't get over Stitt. So wide, you can't have it your way, have it your way! Make it fonky!

(Andy Rehfeldt)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Children Will Not Be Appearing On White Dwarf Star Search, Thank You Very Much

When you look up at the heavens at night, a goodly portion of the pinpricks of light are white dwarf stars. Those stars don't function anymore; that is to say, they are not ongoing concerns in the star business. They've run out of hydrogen, and have imploded. They only "shine" because they once were capable of making heat, and it takes a long while for a star to cool off. Apparently there aren't any white dwarf stars that have cooled off enough to stop being visible altogether, because it takes hundreds of billions of years for them to achieve space's room temperature. But they are all already kaput; they just appear to be functional. When we look up at the night sky, we're just having a really long wake five minutes after the murder, so to speak. They're dead, Jim.

I'm not interested in the TV show these people are trying out for, or Craftsman tools, or much of anything  in the videos. It catches my eye for other reasons. These people are not unusual. It is not their fault they have been gelded and made useless. They did as they were told. I find them interesting, because they appear to my eye to be about average. They have participated fully in American public life, and it has made them useless to themselves and to others. The reaction necessary to shine is missing, and the ingredients have collapsed in on themselves, and they only have the slowly fading appearance of the citizenry they sprang from. God bless them, they've got enough mettle to try to squeeze something from the raw material of their lives: Maybe I can be crowned the king or queen of the shiftless, and appear as a Reality Sideshow geek, displaying my underdeveloped limbs and the stubs of my intellect for a few pennies.

Whenever the topic of  our children being homeschooled comes up -- and it always comes up, and not by way of us mentioning it -- everyone blurts out the same thing: Aren't you afraid your children won't be "socialized"? No one ever hesitates one moment to consider that the question might be an ipso facto insult to us, or even to ask themselves what in the hell the term itself means. The lack of thought in formulating the question removes any malice from it, and we never take any offense. Our own relatives ask us the same thing. We just consider it a dumb question, and dumb questions aren't rare enough in our lives to pick one out and manufacture a barrel of umbrage over it. Aren't you afraid your children will turn out just like you, instead of just like me? would be a more amusing version of the question.

There is, essentially, no crime in the town we live in. But there was a real, live murder a year before we moved here. A disreputable young woman with some children she doesn't care much about paid her boyfriend and one of his friends $2000 to murder her husband, who had made her angry enough to try to divorce him, and then kill him because he had once thrown a stick of butter at her. The two boys shot the estranged husband to death, and because he happened to be playing video games with another fellow at the time in his seedy apartment, two men were murdered for the price of one. The murderers turned old enough to drink liquor while being held without bail. All such criminals are short on real savvy and long on what they learned watching TV, so it took about fifteen minutes to figure out who did it and why, and they're all going to prison for a good, long while. Maine doesn't have a Casey Anthony drive-up window at the courthouse -- yet. The paper took pains to point out the murderers were Honor Roll students, fresh out of the local high school. They were exquisitely socialized. 

We are trying, with no help and a lot of opposition, to produce decent, productive, ethical, moral, well-read, arithmetically capable, ambitious, vigorous, funny, kind, intellectually curious, self-regulating adults. And the only question anyone has for us is: how can we live with ourselves, knowing we're keeping our children from the wonders of attending the White Dwarf Star Academy.

Somehow we manage to bear up under the shame of it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

It's Got A Blast Beat You Can't Lose It

Andy Rehfeldt fixes music just the way I like it.

(Thanks to Andy S. for smacking me upside the head with Rehfeldt in the first place)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tryin' To Make It Real, Compared To What?

My book of collected flash fiction, The Devil's In The Cows, is currently Number Two...

Wait a second, I didn't like the way that last sentence was shaping up. It's currently ranked second on Amazon's list of "Hot New Releases In Short Stories"

It's currently ranked 43rd in sales on Amazon for Fiction, Short Stories. I feel like I'm young and single again, as I'm ranked between "Dating my Vibrator" and "Christmas in High Heels" on the popularity scale.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has me by a nose, right now, but I'm seven slots ahead of that fellow that claims to be a writer from Maine named Stephen King. He may very well be from Maine, I guess; but I've lived here for over a year now and I've never run across the guy...

I realize upon closer inspection that that last sentence was an unfortunate turn of phrase to use regarding Stephen King, and apologize unreservedly. Anyway, if Stephen King really lived in Maine, I expect he would have been in my living room at least once by now. There just aren't that many of us up here. I bet he shares a villa with Gore Vidal near Como and just keeps a PO box in Skowhegan to keep the revenuers off his scent. 

The Devil's In The Cows is currently the 3013th best-selling book of any kind on Amazon.

I find upon looking around that there are at least 450,000 volumes about sparkly vampires alone available at Amazon, so if you throw in all the other books for sale there about vivisection and cooking and how to code websites so they don't work very well and Fabio with his shirt half-off and ex-government officials explaining why they should get a medal instead of an hour in the stocks, 3013 doesn't seem so bad.

But in the words of Joe Mantegna in The Money Pit, "Let's not get nuts, here."  I notice every other book around me on the lists have the full panoply of agents and publishers and flacks working on them day and night. All I have are friends and Windows XP and my own efforts. Friends are better, no matter how quickly I might slip from sight. You have a best seller? Compared to what?

I won't get nuts, because I know, as I wrote in A Fresh Crop Of Rocks:
A farmer never thinks wrong. That’s because a farmer never thinks his troubles are over. A farmer knows when he's eating a turkey with one hand and holding hands with a pretty girl with the other, things are going to go downhill soon. He feels about the same way when his hands are empty and the girl is ugly.”
I'm hardly a farmer, but the point stands. Thanks to all my readers that purchased a copy, and to Bird Dog, and to Glenn Reynolds, and Daphne, and Jill, and Julie, and everyone else who I'm overlooking in my haste to go and make a coffee table, and especially to Gerard Van der Leun for helping me sell my little book.

If you haven't purchased a copy yet, you're in luck. Amazon and Barnes and Noble are engaged in a discount war over the book, and it's currently available for only $8.60.

Buy my book!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Think Outside The Box

Let's go to The Big Rock Candy Mountain today. Fantasyland. Through the looking glass. Soar on a flight of fancy. Blue-sky. Let's lose our minds and pretend we're building a house.

I know, near no one is building a house right about now. But I'd like to illustrate a concept by the only important economist in contemporary American life -- a dead Frenchman, of all things --Frederic Bastiat.

When I was going to build my first house, I had no money. This seems to be a recurring theme in my life. I had attended architectural school for about ten minutes, until they'd explained to me that under no circumstances would anything to do with traditional residential housing be discussed, never mind taught. What I know I taught myself.

My head was as full of tapioca as the next guy, so I thought maybe there was another answer to the question: How should a single-family house be built? I looked into dozens of freaky-deaky approaches. I made piles of drawings, one bad idea after another, trying to get a free housing lunch. I was stupid, but not stupid enough to ignore the arithmetic each approach yielded. Ignoring arithmetic is for rich people, and seems to be enshrined in a Constitutional Amendment that got ratified while I was asleep, now. I ended up building a traditional, small, Cape Cod Style home.

So let's do some of the arithmetic I did. You're building a house (snicker) in the Northeast. How to frame it?

The standard platform framed (one story at a time) wood frame house has walls built from 2x4 "studs." A 2x4 stud is 1-1/2" thick and 3-1/2" wide, and is 92-5/8" long. It is made from spruce, pine, or fir, woods that are light, strong, easy to work, and easy to grow and harvest. Drywall and blueboard (for plaster) are sheets 4 feet wide, so two sheets laid sideways will leave about 1/2" extra between the ceiling and the floor, and the seams will mostly be at waist level and easy to tape. That's why a stud is 92-5/8" long; there's usually a good reason why things are traditional in these matters. Wood studs are placed on a single bottom plate, under a double top plate (plates made from 2x4s also) 16" on center. You start your framing 15-1/4" from the end so that exterior sheet goods (plywood or OSB, the ersatz plywood made from wood chips and glue) will break on the center of a stud. Sheet goods are 4' by 8'. Four studs on 16" centers equals four feet. Monkey-level adding and subtracting is enough to build a normal house.

In the "bays," the interior area between the studs, you place fiberglass batt insulation before you enclose them. The insulation is sized to fit snugly in the bay, about 15" wide, and comes in long rolls, usually. Batt insulation installation is one of the few things a dedicated homeowner can accomplish better than a trained professional.

Here comes the arithmetic. Energy worriers say a 2x4 wall isn't thick enough for enough insulation to suit them. They want a 2x6 wall instead. Or more exotic insulation than inexpensive, safe, easy-to-use fiberglass. Or both, usually. Thicker insulation will allow less heat to escape, and save money over the life of the house. This seems to make sense. Like most things that seems to make sense to intellectuals  nowadays, it doesn't make any sense at all.

2x4 walls don't lose all that much heat in a house. Heat leaves mostly via your windows, and through air leaks and from opening and closing doors. Most heat leaves your house by going straight up, anyway --the reason why there's a lot of insulation in your attic compared to your walls.

Framing your walls with thicker framing costs a lot of money. The lumber costs more. The resultant walls weigh a lot more and require more men or machinery to lift up into place, as it's traditional to build them lying flat. The insulation costs more; it's thicker. Your windows and doors will cost more because they need jamb extensions for the additional wall thickness. The painter will want a taste for more woodwork.

People that don't care about anything but energy use will do the arithmetic for you, and they will lie about how much you'll spend (it will be more) and how much you'll save (it will be less). Even their rosy scenario will likely have you attending your unborn children's college graduation, if he's on the Blutarsky path, before you see a dime of savings. The truth is, it doesn't make any sense, and likely never will.

But that stuff's obvious. Obviously stupid things are written into law nowadays, never mind commonly tried. Let's go further. A 2x6 wall is 2" thicker than a 2x4 wall. Walls stand on your floors, not outside them. Your rooms are all smaller. No one considers this. The handwavers will ignore this calculation. I wouldn't.

The perimeter of even a small house is pretty big. My house isn't enormous, but its perimeter is 320 linear feet. Remember, two stories means you're doing this twice. 320' x 12" x the 2" you've given up is 7680 square inches, or 53 square feet of living space.

53 square feet of living space is a lot. It's almost 3 percent of the total. It's a half-bath's worth of room. If you're an energy loon, you'll counter that my house is too big. Everyone's house but the energy loon's house is too big, if you ask them. But if my house is too big, why wouldn't I just make it 53 square feet smaller and then frame it with 2x4s and save a pile of money that way? It costs 100-125 dollars per square foot to build a plebeian house. Saving 5300 to 6625 bucks by doing nothing is smarter than spending tens of thousands extra to try to save it over a half-century.

Spending enormous amounts of time, effort, and money to achieve vanishingly small, probably illusory returns while making the average citizen's life less comfortable. It's the New American Way.

[Update: Barnes and Noble and Amazon are having a price war over my book. Buy it now for only $8.60

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Tell-Tale Lie

[Editor's Note: from 2008]
{Ombudsman's Note: That's not accurate; there is no editor}
(Author's Note: There's no ombudsman at my house, either. And there's no Buds, man, until work is over)

I need to be a little bit tedious here for a moment.

No, really; more than usual. It's because you have to grasp the enormity of this foolishness first. So here goes:

I've worked every kind of construction there is. Commercial construction, residential construction. I've painted the inside of a doghouse, and I've built football stadiums. Rough arts? Check. I've painted murals and wallpapered, too, so it's not just the barbarian arts I'm talking about. I've worked alongside many a homeowner, and at their direction in their occupied homes, as well as out in the field where no end user comes.

I've worked on single family homes a lot. Duplexes? Sure. Multi-family? Check. Condos? Absolutely. Big ol' apartment buildings? Of course. Call them what you like --whip out your PUD. I've already seen it.

I've cleared the land. Dug the hole. Stacked the blocks. Poured the chowder. I've stuck a spud into the steel. Welded? Name your metal. Hell, I've paved the street. Put in the sewer and the drainage.

Office buildings? Yeah. Hotels? Yeah. Getaway cabins? Sure. Mansions? Absolutely. McMansions? I guess.

Exurb, suburb, city, village, town, township, outpost. Atlantic? Pacific? Great Lakes? Pah. Done.

I've screamed into the phone and the ear and the air alike. Worked alone. Directed hundreds.

I've drawn the plans. Applied for the permits. Put in Environmental Remediation. Sat in interminable meeting for the privilege of being yelled at before being denied and approved alike.

I've worked on houses where the owners showed me where their ancestors hid during King Phillip's War. I've worked on houses that had graywater recovery and passive solar.

Railroad, Colonial, Adam, Georgian, Second Empire, Stick, Eastlake, Colonial Revival, Tudor, Queen Anne, Ranch, Prairie... this is getting tedious. If I can think of a kind of house I've had nothing to do with I'll mention it. Ummm......

People? Black, white, brown -- all the hues of the rainbow and the UN combined. Disfigured or whole, ancient or young, from every continent. Well, maybe not Antarctica. I've worked with every race, color, and creed. Gay, straight, and just plain strange. Men, women, boys, girls. Disabled people I couldn't keep up with, and able-bodied lazy people. Everybody.

I've worked for customers so imperious that they wouldn't allow us to drink from their garden hose while we were working. Outside. In August. In Massachusetts. Some people, conversely, would set a place for us at their table if we were in their house at dinnertime.

In short, I've done every single thing I can think of in construction at one time or another, by and for every sort of person-- short of scouring other galaxies for odditities -- in every sort of setting you could conjure up, and for every sort of customer you can imagine.

Okey dokey, with my bona fides out of the way, let me state for the record that I've seen most all the Do-It-Yourself kinds of TV shows now,  and I can tell you, without fear of contradiction, that in the hundreds of thousands of hours I've worked, and during the gazillion man-hours of other people's work I have observed, not one, single, solitary human being in the real construction world has every given any other person a "high-five" before, during, or after the job. It has literally never happened in my presence.

I don't know what you people are watching, but it ain't work.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

No, Not The Ramones. The Ramongs

Consider if you will, kind reader, Top of the Pops emcee Jimmy Savile's hairstyle. If and when you recover, consider The Foundations, who wisely changed their name from The Ramongs and had a couple of hits in the late sixties. Perfect fake Motown by a band from all corners of the British Empire:

The Wikipedia page for The Foundations is a stone gas. The formation and promotion of bands used to be interesting --byzantine, egalitarian, and charming. Pop music might as well have an HR office with forms now, the process is so contrived. I love that Clem Curtis, the lead singer, was a boxer and an interior decorator. He'll pick out your drapes and beat your ass if you don't like them.

A band I was in used to play "Stump the Band" with the audience back in the nineties and early oughts. You name a band with a top ten hit from the 60s,70s, or 80s and we'll name the hit and play it. When we were in a good mood and the audience looked square, we'd expand it to top forty. Everyone always said The Foundations, hoping we wouldn't know Build Me Up, Buttercup. Eventually the song was in a movie and not very obscure anymore, a common fate for Stump the Band fodder. I remember Steve would always sing:

Why do you build me up, buttercup, baby
Just to let me down,
And hose me around?
And then worst of all
You never call baby
When you say you will,
And you're on the pill...

Well, it wasn't Hal Holbrook performing Mark Twain, but liquor was served. You don't want to know what we backup singers changed the word "buttercup" to.

To amuse ourselves we'd play Now That I Found You once in a while. It was a much better song, anyway, than BMUB. Most of the songs that were hits in those decades you really didn't have to know to know. If one of us knew a snippet of lyrics, the chords weren't hard to parse out on the fly. Everybody always asked for the identical obscure stuff anyway. As Paul the drummer used to say, "If you haven't seen the show, we haven't been stumped in ten years. If you have seen the show -- OK, we were stumped."

When we didn't have an inkling, we'd cheat and just say, "Did you say The Beatles?" and play ISHST. Sorry about that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I Just Checked, And My Driveway Has Not Turned To Magma

Hmmm. "Horrid Heat" "100 percent hot."

I live in Maine. Nothing in the US is more east than Maine. Nothing much in the US is more north than Maine, except Alaska, of course, and close to a tie with a little of Minnesota and Washington. Maine is the same size in area as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. I'm looking at that picture, and I see Delaware, and Maryland, and Virginia, and even a little of West Virginia, not one of which is even in the Northeast, but no Maine.

But the headline gods must be obeyed, and the third stone from the sun must be nudged into Mercury's orbit in the newspaper to get a rise out of people. Information and geography be damned. Here's today's weather report. It's 69 degrees right now at 9:50 AM. That's 69 Farenheit, not Celsius or Kelvin as you've been led to believe.

It was 20 below zero one morning here last winter. I'm perfectly sanguine with the weather right now, thank you very much.

One of the simplest ways to determine how intelligent your living arrangements are is to count how many months you can live comfortably in your house by simply opening and closing the windows and removing or adding a garment. According to people that make maps for the weather report, I live in: HERE BE MONSTERS, USA, and I'm perfectly happy 7 months out of 12 with no mechanical contrivance to adjust the temperature in my house but a box fan in a window now and then. Hell, we don't even need a light fixture on during the day in any room in the house for 6 months a year. My workshop wouldn't even need much artificial light in it if the previous denizens (stoned or insane, take your pick) hadn't removed a dozen windows and boarded them up. You know, to "save energy." I can't help but notice that "saving energy" really means "relying on energy for everything at all times and in all places to reinforce a total war on nature, and then talking endlessly about rationing it for everyone else."

Open a window in your life. It smells stale in there.

[Updated: Reader and commenter Robin wanted a hit of Coos Canyon. I'm fairly certain the snowbank is melted now, but don't hold me to it]

[Uppity-Update, Sunday, 7-24-2011, 9:00 AM]

The Weather Channel doubles down on stupid:

Well, whaddya know, they finally show Maine, with a big, fat 92 over it. "Hot Steamy Northeast." Ah, weather porn. But just like the women in real porn, the temperature is just not that into you when the camera's off. 92? That's an interesting number. 92F would be the record high temp for today. Well, it would be interesting -- if I wasn't wearing a long sleeve shirt right now with all the windows open.

Today's forecast, from the same people but off the main page, is for temps three degrees below average for the date. Keep ****ing that chicken, fellas.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Here Comes The Honeydew

The usual suspects are staggering around the landscape discovering their backside regarding housing again. It's amazing and amusing that people who claim to have a crystal ball can't even figure out what's already happened, never mind what's going to happen.

Foreclosed houses might not be up to Martha Stewart's standards? Who knew?

As huge numbers of foreclosed homes continue to work their way through the real estate pipeline, another problem is blossoming — mold. In most homes, as residents go in and out and the seasons change, natural ventilation sucks moisture up to the attic and out through the roof. It's called the "stack effect." And in many parts of the country, it's driven by air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. But no one is going in or out of most foreclosed homes — regardless of climate — and the effects can be devastating.

I see the local Punctuation Boutique was having a special on em dashes. Anyhow, the author has no idea what the stack effect is, or how it works in a house, open or closed up, and simply wrote whatever Wikipedia and the local Service Magic dude or energy efficiency loon they've got on speed-dial told him or her.

Let's look at the picture they've supplied with the article:

Well, it's mold, and it's in a foreclosed house, I guess, so they're not lying; they just don't know what they're talking about, and don't know who to ask to find out anything, and don't know what to do with any accurate information that comes their way anyway.

It's only technically mold. More specifically, that's mildew. That mildew has bleep-all to do with foreclosure and abandonment. It's probably gotten better since the occupants moved out, because that mildew's been there for years, caused by steamy showers in a room with no mechanical ventilation and the window painted shut.

You see, they used to make houses that relied on the occupants to have a little common sense, and to perform mundane physical activities to ensure their own comfort. They put a big window in the bathroom, but you had to open it and close it yourself. Notice the shower curtain on the left, none on the right. After years of soaking the window, they gave up on maintenance and painted it shut. It used to be a requirement that a bathroom have a window for ventilation, but after decades of people not using them, the building code devotees said you needed mechanical ventilation in your bathroom. That's why you have a ceiling fixture with a fan in it that you refuse to turn on instead of a window you don't open now. Half of the exhaust fans are worse than nothing and simply dump the moisture into the attic, the other half are disconnected or ignored by the occupants because they're too noisy.

But they're not wrong about mold in foreclosed houses, they're just right for the wrong reasons. But I'm no 20/20 hindsight handyman. I'm more of an "I told you so" kind of guy:

Why won’t these numbers converge into one big, happy cheap housing fiesta? Regular people are waiting out the Great Recession, hoping to someday get a job, form a household, and then buy a house. They are being told that when they finally emerge, that all that empty inventory of houses will be waiting for them in fine condition at rock-bottom prices. No it won’t. Because a house needs occupants, and the contractors they hire to maintain them. Houses left alone by absentee banks are going to slowly disintegrate. Entropy doesn’t take years off while you try to scare up a down payment.

I kept going, 'cause that's how I roll:

Time will pass. Pipes will freeze. Raccoons will get in. Persons who know a house is never worth nothing will break in and discover sweet, sweet, copper in them thar walls. Mice and squirrels will breathe their last in the attic, and you’ll be breathing their lasting perfume for a good, long time -- if you can smell it over the mildew.
The only people that know how to renovate these places aren’t going to hang around in an industry with Dust Bowl unemployment numbers, waiting by the phone for years for you to pull yourself together. They’re going to leave the industry; the few that are left aren’t going to be interested in being your coolie labor. All you know how to do is download songs from iTunes and fill the copier when it says PC LOAD LETTER. They know what a house is worth, and how to fix it. They only need you to show up at the closing with a big, fat check. Just like old times.
A two-tier market for housing will develop. Regular houses, owned by regular persons, will be bought by other regular people with regular mortgages for regular prices. The “shadow” inventory – houses not occupied and in very uneven condition -- will be purchased by speculators, renovated and flipped as rapaciously as before, and will be sold for about the same money as the regular houses. No amount of waiting around in mom’s basement and reading about housing bubbles on the Internet is going to change the fact that houses are expensive because they are valuable and always will be.

The interviewees in the NPR article are just organized handymen, and are capable of cosmetic repairs to mildewed surfaces at exorbitant rates. But they're not prepared for real mold, and neither will the next occupants be. The eco-everybodies, the "remodelers," the energy monomaniacs, and the code tinkerers have transformed the average contemporary house into a little sealed terrarium for humans, entirely dependent on mechanical contrivance to continue its existence, never mind be habitable. The fetish for airtightness, and vapor barriers, and ersatz materials masquerading as environmentally-friendly improvement, and endless codes in substitution for common sense have produced a house that will entirely self-destruct in half a century if you live in it and take good care of it, and about half a decade if you don't.

There's mold inside the walls of lots of foreclosed houses, don't get me wrong. The real kind, not mildew; the kind with spores that'll kill you if you breathe them. Nothing short of the demolition of the entire interior of the house, the removal of all the soaked insulation, the replacement of the OSB sheathing silently turning to damp shredded wheat beneath the immutable face of the vinyl siding will have to be addressed. Six grand to a glorified handyman won't cut it. Hell, the vandals stealing all the copper pipes and wires are doing you a favor getting a head-start on all the demolition you're going to need.

A house has been made so "energy-efficent" that it can't go two weeks without dehumidification, humidification, heating, cooling, mechanical ventilation, sump-pumping, and ten other things I'm too weary to write.

We were all better off before we "fixed" houses, and housing.

[Update: Barnes and Noble and Amazon are having a price war over my book. Buy it now for only $8.60]

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I Can Fix A House That Isn't Fixed

My wife and I go out for a walk most days.

She goes out more than I do. I have bad feet. Three times a day is common for her. There is a substantial grid of quiet streets near us with sidewalks, and you can simply walk in the road most of the time. Rumford is the county seat, but it's hardly a metropolis. Whenever I walk, I mostly look at dwellings, and my wife looks for gold finches.

I've built a lot of stuff. Houses, too. I've repaired more houses than I could count. I know all about them. I repaired houses while the occupants were living in them, especially, so I was privy to exactly how people actually use their houses. I painted the privy, too.

The single-family home is the most interesting thing about the United States, outside of the people who have inhabited it. Well, it was, anyway. Since houses are the sticks-and-bricks manifestation of people's wants and dreams and desires and idea of comfort and mores and habits and taste and style, they are more telling than any thousand autobiographies would be. People lie to their therapist. What chance does an interviewer have? I went to Mount Vernon and I knew the guy.

Rumford is mostly dreary to look at. It was always a utilitarian place; a big, hulking paper mill squatting over the river was the entire reason for the place, after all. But it was handsome, once, at least part of it. There were whole streets of big Victorians with turrets and bays and rambling porches.

The picture at the top of the essay is the only truly beautiful structure we go by on one of our short walks. It was an animal barn, and is now a garage, but as far as I can tell no one uses it. All the other buildings we pass, dwelling or outbuilding alike, have been so defaced by the occupants "fixing" them that they are only barely recognizable as what they once were. The houses are entirely maimed, and you can trace the evidence of the endless procession of snake-oil no-maintenance energy-saving eco-friendly con-men through time written on their facades, now exposed by the inevitable neglect presaged by the original desire for a free lunch. The layers flap in the breeze like an archaeology dig.

Oh, the durability of paint improved with wonderful lead! If you have spiders, put a slug of mercury in it, too! Cover up that nasty, chalking, lead paint with asphalt tab sidewall shingles! Save energy with our new asbestos siding! Cover up that nasty asbestos siding with space-age aluminum siding! Get rid of that nasty old, dirty, dented, faded aluminum siding and put eco-friendly vinyl siding! Who needs windows when you can have little plastic hatches shoved into the holes where the windows used to be?

It's such a pleasure to walk by the unusual place where the occupants were too lazy and cheap to even wreck their home properly. I can fix a house that isn't fixed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why I'm So Strange

I use an inexpensive MP3 player hooked up to a set of computer speakers to listen to music while I work. Since the entire rig has no moving parts, more or less, it continues working despite the dust and corruption floating around in there. ('No moving parts, filled with dust and corruption' reminds me of the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles for some reason)

The machines are noisy and I'm often wearing earmuffs, so I can listen to the same hundred songs a hundred times because I never hear them all all the way through, anyway. I never pay any attention to what is on there, I just sweep whatever's on the desktop's desktop into the nasty little device and off I go. All I can attest is that it's slightly better than the sound of the buzzing ballasts in the fluorescent lights.

There are multiple items from most on there. There's rather a lot of Mozart and Morrison and Green. The Bach's on a guitar, the only way I can abide it. Random's best. There's just something about Cake followed up by Respighi that should float anyone's boat.

  • Al Green
  • Mozart
  • Van Morrison
  • Kinks
  • Handel
  • Elvis Costello
  • Squeeze
  • Cake
  • Beethoven
  • Eumir Deodato
  • Levon Helm
  • KD Lang
  • Basement Jaxx
  • Dionne Warwick
  • Lyle Lovett
  • Steely Dan
  • Lee Michaels
  • Blossom Dearie
  • David Byrne
  • Wilson Pickett
  • James Brown
  • Bach
  • Jonathan Coulton
  • Ace
  • Erik Satie
  • AA Bondy
  • Freddie King
  • Townes Van Zandt
  • Ottorino Respighi
  • Supremes

Monday, July 18, 2011

Welcome To The New Captain Tammany H. Plutocrat Seawater Economy

I'm forced to dabble my finger in the turds of the media looking for kernels, just like everybody else. I'm a businessman and need to know what's what. I can only find out things by inference or by tough experience, though. No one that gets paid to talk about things knows anything. Even if they did, they can't write. Even if they could, they wouldn't write anything but propaganda.

But people can be observed, even at a distance, filtered through the septic tank of the media. I like people. Not 'people' in the aggregate. I like persons. The People is a lynch mob on a bad day. I'm a person, and I like other persons.

I especially like American persons. America is the most interesting place in the world because it's just the whole world in one place. We should abolish the United Nations because it's too narrow a slice of humanity, and just give America its own reality TV show instead.

So, person to person, I don't know about you, but I'm weary of being ruled -- not governed, mind you; governed is in the rear-view mirror, and fading -- ruled by a gaggle of metrosexual car salesmen, slovenly ward heelers, and soi-disant intellectuals that can't operate an apostrophe, never mind something substantial and commendable like a dry cleaners or a brothel.

Wait, never mind, I do know about you. I pay attention to you, the anonymous and the friend alike, because it it my business to know about you. I have to try to understand you well enough to get you to read my writing and put your porridge or your Perrier down on the tables I make. And I've never seen everyone as desperate and anxious as they are right now. I'm less anxious and desperate than your average citizen only because everything bad has already happened to me. You're right to worry, it's not fun. I lived as an almost-adult in the seventies, and that was pretty bad, but it's much worse now. The seventies came with its own anaesthetic. We succumbed utterly to malaise. We gave up. No use squirming in the electric chair, after all. Eventually they took the boot off our necks and we had a pretty good run. It's different now.

The economy is like a traffic jam and an accordion. Most traffic jams have no reason to be. There are lots of cars, humming along. Then someone gets nervous and taps the brakes. Even in a benign business climate, the commerce cars veer from lane to lane, lock up the brakes and exaggerate the effect of the first gentle tap on the pedal from the guy up ahead. The accordion is squeezed, and makes unpleasant noises. Of course they're unpleasant; it's an accordion. In a less benign business climate, the driver eating a hoagie and talking on the phone and the woman applying eyeliner while texting crash into each other and things get really bad, really fast. But eventually, if the wreckers and the ambulances sort things out, people get back to zooming along and giving each other the occasional finger. The accordion bellows out. I've lived through the accordion going in and out four or five times already.

We're way past that now. The traffic-jam-accordion is five years in the rear-view mirror. The cars didn't just tap the brakes and have a fender bender; they left the road and ran over the pedestrians and crashed into the houses and burned down the city. The ambulances were in the shop, the wreckers were up on blocks because their wheels were stolen, and after growing weary of having their four-hour lunches interrupted by the complaints from the people stranded on the highway, the government strafed the survivors instead of helping them. They followed up by napalming their cars, and sending out parking tickets for the burnt-out hulks to any survivors.

Welcome to the new Captain Tammany H. Plutocrat Seawater Economy. Climb aboard the Ship of State, a wholly owned subsidiary of Titanic, Inc, they said. But there isn't room for everyone on board, and most of us are cast adrift in a rowboat, and there's nothing but ocean in sight. We sailed until becalmed, rowed until our back gave out, and the map we were given said land was just over the horizon, but of course the horizon, by definition, is always on the horizon. The canteen we were given is dry, but has a Groupon for water in it. The ration cans are filled with nothing but dietary advice. Captain Plutocrat buzzes by from time to time on his cigarette boat, made from the finest flotsam of our lives dashed on the rocks he steered us to, and gives us advice. First it was: You don't need all your possessions; why not throw them overboard? Then throw the people you don't like overboard. Then the feeble. Eat the fat ones before they get skinny. Why not chuck the kids in the ocean, too? Finally, when we're all alone with nothing, he tells us to stop whining and drink seawater if we get thirsty.

Captain Plutocrat has detractors, of course, and their worldview is the opposite of his, but one can't help but notice they're on the deck of Captain Plutocrat's speedboat with him, and their advice if you're thirsty is to take the seawater rectally instead of orally. Then they bomb off and leave us there. 

We drink the seawater and it makes us crazy enough to drink seawater so we drink seawater, and there's no end to it. It's our own fault. We tapped the brakes, got in the rowboat; we listened.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I Told You. No Stairway To Heaven

Most mornings I wake up my older son by barging into his bedroom and playing Stairway To Heaven. Badly.

I never really cared for STH. I never cared enough about it to loathe it, either. I caution my Intertunnel friends that becoming completely, monomaniacally interested in persons and things you dislike will make you crazy, and make you seem so to others, to the detriment of your original cause. Remember the words of the prophet Lebowski: You're not wrong, Walter; you're just an ***hole.

Anyhow, I made my son learn it, and I learned it at the same time to make sure he did. It's a terrific running joke at our house. He's a proper teenager, and always asleep when he's not lying around. He opens one eye and glares at me most satisfactorily while I hack away at it. He used to hate it for its own sake, but now he hates to hear me do it because it's irritating to hear me slog through it, as he can bang it out effortlessly.

I promise not to get any better at it, son.

Friday, July 15, 2011

It's Like Checkers, Only Slower

There is a fetish in modern life for mistaking the introduction of forced complexity into human affairs for fairness, or progress. Truly increasing utility almost always brings simplification, and vice-versa.

Richard Feynman was an interesting person. He was in some ways an abrasive fellow, yet he's almost always seen smiling and animated. Being smart in one particular way makes you impatient with others who are not -- or even worse, usually, others that are almost as smart but not quite. Being really smart at one thing confers no special insight into anything else; usually just the opposite. It's like a form of intellectual celebrity. Like making a billion dollars caterwauling rock songs, so you figure that you'd be a terrific geopolitician. You go looking for physics in metaphysics, for another example.

I don't think I've ever seen anyone that could explain fairly complex things to laymen using mundane examples any better than he did.

Richard Feynman

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I Scare Myself, And I Don't Mean Lightly

The world has been showing a grim and unsmiling face for a long time. I'm going out of my way to be happy.

It's very far out of the way.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"The Devil's In The Cows" On Sale Now

The Devil's In The Cows is a collection of 37 of my best flash fiction stories, edited, expanded, and just generally given more oompah and whatsis and shizzle.  It's available in paperback for just $11.95.

My method is simple. I look for a picture, chosen at random from the Library of Congress, and write a story about the impression it gives me. A kind of Internet Truth or Dare, with the dare first, and the truth later. I write each one in the voice of the subject.

Here's a free sample, 2.7 percent of the book, and the reason for the title: The Devil's In The Cows

I TOLD THAT boy, I told him. You don't want no part of this farm, nor another. A farm is a jackplane for human boards. Wears you out like a sermon.
    It made ma mere old, and his mother, too. She was beautiful once. Gone to seed, now. The work wore at her. Not the work, no -- getting nothing for the effort but chapped grinds a person down. A farm is a twenty-five hour timeclock with no paycheck. She done it for me, and I done it for the farm, and for pere and ma mere, but it dies with me.
    It's a terrible thing to raise your own to disown you. The girls was no trouble 'cause all girls like frilly things and a farm is a dreary place. First magazine comes into a farmhouse with pictures of socialites, and daughters is plotting an escape. The only mistake they can make is letting some local boy convince them that he’s the ticket out of here. A wandering mind and a weak back is fine for a city dweller, but it's deadly out in the landscape. The farmboys with a touch of neon about them and their coquettes generally break down and wander back before they even get to a road with two stripes on it. We sent the girls to Augusta to school, and they found fellers with ink daubed all over them and we breathed a sigh.
    "It's a boy!" my wife said, "We were blessed with a boy, Xavier, and he can help you." But I already knew in my heart that it was a curse, because I loved that boy so, before he was even borned, that I could never let him like me much.
    He had to see how hard life was here and so put aside a man's sneaky love for his father and go away someday.

I had to goad him from this place. That is a hard thing, my friend -- a hard thing.
    My father in his turn told me all of the things a man needs to know about a farm, in his mind, anyway. He loved it so, and tried to make me love it too. I loved him, truth be told, but hated his farm. But he got rheumy and I stayed on to help and eventually I slipped him in the ground and threw dirt on him like any other seed. By then it was too late to slip the orbit.
    So I shows my boy what's what, and drive him like a team from dawn to dusk his whole life. I gotta wear it out of him early. He learned everything about the old place, but it's all bad son, all bad, I says over and over. He'd keep even with me when he was only shoulder height, and I'd catch him sneaking a bed lunch for the power that was in it. I didn't know what to do with him after a while, to discourage him, for I could never bring myself to be mean with him -- never.
    Then the boy comes to me and says there's a war on, father, and I'm gonna go and kill a Boche or two. And my wish is granted and I curse the genie like all men do that go for a rub expecting a free lunch.
    The kids from the city will think it's a lark until they're pissing themselves in a trench, and could no more kill anyone than a kitten. That's good, and might keep them safe. But the boy’s never been afraid like that, and that's bad.
    "You remember gran-pere, boy?"
    "Of course, dad."
    "Well, I've never been no more good to you than a Pharaoh to a Jew, but now you have to listen to me.

Gran-pere he was wise about the world. It wasn't about knowing things; any damn fool knows things, some of them true. Gran-pere could feel things. He went beyond the knowing and let himself feel things. You got to do that. It's in you, I know it, because he drew it out of me, and you're mine."
    "I feel things, dad."
    "No, not like that. Not moonin' over the neighbor's girl or getting angry over the radio. It's sense -- like smell or something. It's not on purpose. Laissez faire, boy."
    "Dad, the train is leaving."
    "I remember when I was young and we was working, gran-pere would put his nose up in the air and mutter, “The devil’s in the cows.” The sky might be dead blue, not a puff of wind, six hours of work to be done, and we'd go inside; within an hour the heavens would open up and we'd watch weather as stupefying as any ten pages of the Bible from the parlor."
    "Goodbye, dad."
    I saw him sit, the familiar shrug of his blocky shoulders clear as day through the glass, and then the train slowly pulled away. He didn't look back.

    Oh God -- watch for the devil in the cows, son.

Buy it now at Amazon:

I Was Educated By Nuns Holding Metal-Edged Rulers, So I Don't Need No Spellczech

Don't let this guy get a load of the Intertunnel.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

The eight-year-old spare is fascinated with stop-motion stuff, so we wasted the morning together in a most pleasant fashion. He acted out all the choreography first, and took all the pictures. Eight frames per second will drive a person to distraction, but remember: Don't panic!

Friday, July 08, 2011

It's Got A Beat. You Can Dance To It...


I like people with a sense of humor about themselves. The audience has gotten awful serious, though. 

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Look Out. There's Beatles In The Salt Shaker

Well, it beats my old "bar trick" of bending swizzle straws into gynecological shapes, anyway.

(Thanks to Charles Schneider for sending that one along)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Monday, July 04, 2011

Now, When I Was Just A Little Boy

Dad was lit and lighting the perfect little briquets weaponized with greasy lighter fluid. The match was applied as tentatively as a hotfoot to a ward heeler. The food was a napalm airstrike on a cow, no less.

The house was painted after a fashion, slumping now a bit everywhere it touched the ground without a concrete elbow to lean on. The flower beds had made their long, lonely way from too much dirt to too many weeds. There was a whiff of a fight between someone's septic tank gone awry and our rose hedge on the breeze. The overgrown thing had taken on a corroded aspect from the depredations of the beetles; it looked like a leprous dragon, smelled like a grandmother, and pinched like a mortgage when you touched it looking for errant shuttlecocks or wiffleballs.

We had sparklers and the neighbors had ribbons of firecrackers and the mailbox invited an M-80 once. Down where our once-trim houses, packed like cigarette boxes in a carton, petered out to kids with sketchy parents and the one or two farmhouses that used to plow our lawns when they were cornfields, they had bonfires. The girls there went barefoot and smoked cigarettes and knew things early.

The pine needles killed the lawn on the side, the sun killed the lawn in the front, and we pounded the lawn into an urban playground in the back. The only place grass would grow was in the walk, where my mother would try to kill it over and over. Life was like that, then.

The neighbors past the arbor vitaes would wave and glare. She was convinced we were bad, he was convinced she was scary, their children twitched like beat dogs, and never our twain did meet. We had more fun knowing it grated on someone.

The radio was in the window, and we were in the firmament

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Famous Opera Jokes

"I once saw Arteta play Musetta at the Lyceum."

"Really? Who won?"

Friday, July 01, 2011

You Make Miso -- Very Happy -- I'm So Glad You -- Came Into My Life. Hit Me

James lost at lunch before
Got mad and went offshore
Japan said "Try curd just once more"
Soul Brother Numbah Won!
Buying tofu, metric tonnes
He cooks in double knits
I'm about to lose my sh*t
You made miso,very happy
I'm so glad you came into my life. HIT ME!