Sippican Cottage Recommends:
Hi everyone. We offer stories about life in Southeastern Massachusetts at
our sister site:
SippicanCottage.blogspot.com Monday through Friday, generally. Visit
us there, too, after you've maxed out your credit card buying our Sippican
April 20th, 2010-
Our friends at Wrentham Antique Marketplace are selling our new Groaning
Board dining tables like the hotcakes you can place on them every morning.
Here's a seven footer you can steal for just $1500.00. Drop by their store
on Rt 1A in Wrentham, Massachusetts and order one today! Tell Chuck and
Cathy that Sippican sent you.
We're having a big spring special on our
Miles' Admiring Shelves. Order one by June 22nd and get a $30 discount,
and free shipping to boot! A tremendous value. Customize yours from our list
of available colors and finishes. Order one or a dozen today!
February 27th- Don't miss our St. Padraig's Day special. Order our
fabulous Tiger Oak Shamrock Table by
March 17th and shipping is free! That's a $30.00 savings you can put towards
construction paper and glue sticks for your shamrock decorating.
Our new best friends at
NECN are nothing if not professional. They've
already got a video dub of my appearance on New England Dream House on their
website. Here you go:
Is it tall, dark and handsome in here, or is it just me?
January 10th- It's 2009 already? Does the calendar have a snooze
If you live in New England, and have electricity and cable TV this week,
you can see Sippican Cottage Furniture featured on
NECN's New England Dream
House at 10:00 AM on Sunday, January 11th.
They show it again at 7:00 PM in the evening, so if you can't believe just
how handsome I Iook on television, you can tune in again and check. Set your
Our handsome Mount Lebanon Table got a nice mention in the
Denver Post last week.
Denver is a wonderful city (since the Broncos stopped
beating the Patriots every year in the playoffs). Sippican Cottage Furniture
has lots of customers out west, including the states of Washington, Oregon,
California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. Now if someone in
New Mexico will buy something, we can have customers in contiguous states
from Maine to Washington. (We could cheat and use the
to connect the states, but that wouldn't be sporting) Thanks, Denver Post;
we're pleased to be included on a page with The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Not
Debbie Reynolds; the
November 4th- We've got another new item for you: The Mennonite
Work Table. the Mennonites came to America and Canada and brought forth the
bounty of the land with good, honest work. Our Mennonite Table allows you to
carry on the tradition of good, honest work with our reproduction of their
farmhouse favorite. Makes a great desk. Based on a real antique. Sure to be
a favorite in your family until the sun winks out. See
September 30th- Don't miss our new item:
The "Super" Ten Finger Stepper. Same
great utility as our regular Ten
Finger Stepper, but with a solid Tiger Maple top step and whimsical fingerholes. Customize yours from a wide array of choices. Order one by
Hallowe'en and get Free Shipping! It's scary how good a deal it is.
March 31st- Ah, Spring is but a hide and seek proposition. I don't
care what the calendar says, it's still too cold to be Spring. But think
ahead a little. The flowers will soon bloom, and you'll need a stylish bench
to sit on to take off your Wellies after tilling your garden. Order a
Harry Longbaugh's Bench by
Memorial Day, and take advantage of our Free Shipping special. Save $30, and
do it sitting down.
February 7th- Late winter greetings all! Lots of action at the
Sippican Cottage these days. How about a new item for the catalog? Check out
our Mount Lebanon End Table.
All solid maple construction with a solid tiger maple tabletop. Nicely
tapered legs make it look like it's going to get up and dance. You'll dance
around your living room when you buy one, just to see the tiger maple grain
shimmer as you shimmy by. Buy two and we'll like you twice as much as we do
already. Just $325.00 plus shipping is a tremendous bargain. Order yours
today before we come to our senses and raise the price.
January 28th- Brrr. Put another log on the fire and think of Beltaine.
You can enjoy St. Patrick's Day in style with our late winter special. Buy a
Shamrock Table by March 17th and get
free shipping anywhere in the lower forty-eight states. That's a $25 value!
You'll be in the clover early.
September 11th- Hi everyone. Don't miss our Autumn Special. Purchase
a Harry Longbaugh's Bench and
get free shipping anywhere in the continental United States. That's a $20
savings. Harry Longbaugh's Bench is the most useful thing we sell. It must
be, as it is the most useful thing anybody sells, and we're anybody
July 20th- Hi. The sun is hiding her face again today. Hot and muggy.
It's more Mobile, Alabama than Massachusetts outside. We drink our lemonade
and are fine with it. What's summer by the shore without a little bead of
water at the end of your nose from time to time?
Let's have more pictures of items we shipped recently. These went to
longtime customers the Connollys in New Jersey. Nice people. Nice tables.
Oh, I've let a couple cats out of the bag early there. That's a new table
design, and a new tabletop color, too. Don't tell anybody until I get the
new webpage coded, OK?
July 19th- Hello Everybody. The sun is shining here today after days
of rain. Lovely. We're very busy making furniture, and are too thrifty with
new photos for you, our beloved visitors. So let's see some picture of items
we've shipped recently. They've gone all over the country. First, to
Pennsylvania. Here's two
Ancient Mariner Bedside Tables, in Clapboard White, with Lovely Tiger
Maple tops, lightly distressed. Spiffy. Click on the picture to enlarge.
May 24th- We have a Summer Special for all you nice people that like
a little organization with your madness. Buy one of our
Treasure Island Shelves by
September 3rd, and receive free shipping on your order. That's a $30 value!
Don't trip over tank engines all season. Put those treasures away.
Jamuary 29th- Hi everybody. We've updated our Kipling Table page with
many more new pictures, and lots of new color combinations too.
Click here to see it.
January 25th- Hello again everybody. Busy, busy, busy. Lots of orders
from all over the country. We'll have lots more pictures soon, including
many new items.
You've asked for it -- here it is:
A Color Selection Page. We'll
add more pictures to it as we get them, but it's bound to help right away.
January 9th, 2007- Hi everybody! Thanks to everyone for all the
orders in 2006. We had lovely people From Washington State to Maine,
Minnesota to Texas, and most places in between on the customer list. This
year, we want more states to enjoy the value and beauty of our Instant
Antique Furniture. And we need someone -- anyone-- from North Dakota to sign
up for our catalog mailing list. We have folks from all the states but one!
Come on North Dakota! Everybody can sign up here.
Don't miss out on our Saint Patrick's Day special. Order one of our lovely,
solid "Tiger Oak" Shamrock Tables by March 17th, 2007, and get Free
Shipping. That's a twenty five dollar savings.
Visit our Shamrock Table page here.
October 10th- Goodness, we're busy here at the Sippican Cottage.
We're filling orders right now from coast to coast in this great land of
ours. And we get print catalog requests every day.
We're offering an Autumn Special with all the catalogs we send out. What's
that? You want a print catalog too? Sign up here.
Amaze your friends. Sow envy among your enemies.
But you can get that same Autumn Special right here on the internet:
Buy a Harry Longbaugh's Bench, get
Don't wait. The offer only last until December 25th. Hmm. That date rings a
bell. Can't quite place it.
Oh well; it will come to me.
May 31st- I trust you had a pleasant Memorial Day holiday. Our older
son marched in the parade and played the trombone. Fabulous.
We've got a new picture of a Sippican
Cottage Console table on the site. The old picture, and the one we used
in the print catalog, really didn't do it justice. This one's much better,
don't you think?
We delivered one to Wrentham
Antiques Marketplace, another sold before it was done, and we have two
more about for immediate delivery. This batch is a rich, smoky
cinnamon color, with magnificent prominent tiger striped grain. You really
should order one today, as your life has been devoid of meaning and beauty
lately, and only tiger maple can cure that. Everybody knows this.
Get one here.
We delivered furniture to our friends at
Wrentham Antiques Marketplace in
Wrentham, Massachusetts today, and last Thursday too. Lots of wonderful
things there before, now it's way past wonderful. We're partial to our Extra
Longbaugh Benches. Here's a picture of one in clapboard white:
Jayne at Wrentham gave us the idea for the longer length, and at
exactly 5 feet, they make a terrific seating bench for our Grandma Barker's
Kitchen Table. Use one in your foyer to sit and take off your boots when you
come in --it's mud season in New England. That's the season just before bug
season. Go to Wrentham and get one or two for only $349.00 each.
That's so cheap for such a versatile and handsome item, it's like stealing.
We won't report you though, we'll just make more. Go to Wrentham and see all
sorts of wonderful Sippican Cottage items now, with more coming every week.
Hello again everyone. We're making furniture like gangbusters this week.
We're filling orders for our existing line, of course, but we have some new
things in the works, too. As usual, the best ideas for things to make come
from the customers; if all businesses would pound that into their collective
heads like a railroad spike, life would be much more pleasant, wouldn't it.
A lovely correspondent from the midwest couldn't fit our
Longbaugh Bench where she
needed it to go. She asked for a smaller one. It' s almost ready to ship,
and it's cute as a button. Perhaps we'll offer it as well as the usual size.
We'll post a picture of it here when the paint's dry.
Just to confuse matters, we're making a Longbaugh Bench that's five feet
long, too, to serve as the seating for our Grandma Barker's Kitchen Table,
which is also five feet long. A customer wandered into Wrentham Antiques
Marketplace on Rt. 1A in Wrentham, Mass, and wondered if she could have one
that big, and wandered off without ever knowing what a good idea it was. My
boys refuse to sit on anything else now, and the prototype will never make
it out of our house, I fear. Don't worry, we'll make more, and post pictures
of them here too. Thanks go out to our mysterious stranger. She'll be back I
bet, as Wrentham Antiques Marketplace is so darn pleasant, and she'll
probably see the bench, forget her earlier desire for just that item, and
say to herself: "What a great idea! I wish I thought of that!"
February 27th, 2006-
Hello everybody. What's new? Lots and everything, of course.
We got another article written about us In Furniture Today Magazine. It's
always nice to see your name in print, and spelled correctly for good
measure. Furniture Today's E-Business Editor, Brian Carroll is a very
pleasant person to talk to, and is very accomplished at writing
informational articles in a manner that avoids dryness. No mean trick, that.
The latest article is written about our approach to marketing on the
internet. It goes into detail about what we're doing, and why, and since the
Internet is still the Wild West in many ways, the approaches to selling on
the internet vary wildly.
I've been contacted by a few other retailers, and found out that some people
have been told to copy my technique to the letter. I'm going to advise you
here to avoid that. Instead, copy my approach. Here it is, and it's a
lot older than the internet:
I'm trying to make the best possible things I can, in the most efficient way
I can devise, and sell it as inexpensively as is possible, while continuing
to feed all our families down here at Sippican. I assume my competitors are
on the same page here. If, not, look in the mirror, friend, not on the
internet. That being said, how do you market on the internet? How do you
The purpose of marketing is to make people who would be interested in your
product aware that it exists. Really, that's about it. I'd like to stake out
on a sand dune the marketers that are in the business of fooling potential
customers into thinking they want what the guy's got to sell, no matter what
it is. "There's a sucker born every minute" is no way to go through life.
And in the long run, it never works out for anybody.
Now, I assume that the whole world doesn't want what I've got. That's fine.
But the internet allows me to find -- check that; allows people to find me
-- that are interested in what I've got. And so I'm just a small fish in an
enormous pond, but I'm in the correct pond, and all the anglers are looking
for my kind of fish, as it were.
That's the key to the internet marketing thing. Don't try to sell cotton
candy at Funeral Homes. You're wasting your time. Why mindlessly try to
attract people to your website if you don't sell what they want? You're
wasting everybody's time, including your own. I don't try to get people
looking for chrome and glass dinette sets to get hijacked to my page, hoping
they'll buy something I do have when they get here.
People are paying for play in the search engines, and I'm always deeply
suspicious of them. If you have what I want, why do you have to pay to force
your way to the front of the line?
I put all this stuff on the internet because I want the customer to
understand what they're getting, and who they're getting it from.
I used to live in a town, hours from the ocean, that featured a sailboat on
the official town sweatshirt because they didn't know what to put on there
that encapsulated the town. Kinda sad, really. I moved from there to a town
on the ocean, because I wanted the reality, the substance, not an illusion.
Tell your customers who you are, and what you've got, and maybe they'll buy
it from you. Try to spell all the words correctly. Be pleasant. Don't try to
appear to be something that you're not.
Did I mention the spelling?
January 24th 2006-
Greetings. As promised, here's a picture of the jelly cupboard we fashioned
to complete the assortment of items for the " All Sippican Cottage Kitchen."
It's a bad picture, but it's a fine cabinet. It's based on our "Treasure
Island Shelf," with doors and a Solid Pine top added.
I'm thinking of adding it to our line. Anybody else want one? Besides
Mrs. Sippican, I mean. She's demanding one since she saw this one.
January 23nd 2006-
Good day everyone. Snow today. Bundle up!
Well, we've got a picture of the all Sippican Cottage kitchen from one of
our favorite customers. We've made a custom design china cabinet based
on an antique from Johnston's Antiques in Franklin, Mass; to the right we
have a variation on our Ma Barker's Kitchen Table; and a supersize version
of our Mile's Admiring Shelf hanging over it:
Fabulous, n'est pas?
But wait, there's more; tomorrow we'll show a picture of the jelly cabinet
that goes along with it. There's a Ten Finger Stepper in the kitchen too.
Thanks Janice, the room looks fantastic!
January 2nd 2006-
Happy New Year to ye, one and all.
"A place for everything, and everything in its place."
What a magnificent sentence. Like most trite things, it's true, and
expressed in a lapidary fashion. Hell, the sentence is practically a
palindrome, but it doesn't suffer from its simplicity. There's an ethos
there that far exceeds: "Put your clothes in the hamper or no cookies." Why
is it "zen" if it's foreign but just pedantic nagging if it's domestic?
Let's see what we can glean about it:
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. 2002.
Things should be kept in order.
Wow. Thanks for that, really. Who wrote that, Cotton Mather? Himmler? For
gosh sakes, there's more there than that, isn't there? Or is it just me?
I've devoted great chunks of my life to domiciles and the things that go
into them, and seen exactly what the truism means, played out on innumerable
domestic stages. In my experience, it's the first half of that old saw
that's always lacking, and causes 99% of the problems you find with the
second half. People --I include myself here; I'm people too -- are always
struggling to fashion proper homes for their belongings, and until they do,
those belongings, cast adrift in their homes, circulate like bedouins from one horizontal surface to the next, and annoy their owners to
distraction. It's not just effort or fortitude that makes life orderly; it's
just not possible to have one half of the equation missing and get the end
Let's try somewhere else:
Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor
Let us now turn to the proverb with which we are
concerned: "A place for everything and everything in its place." Marshall
McLuhan has recently explained it as an allusion to printing and the
necessity of returning type to its box, when it has been used; see his
Understanding Media (1964).
No, no, no. Marshall McLuhan is a one note piano. I'm an
ignoramus, and even I know this expression is older than Gutenberg. What a
maroon. For the life of me, I can't understand how people like Mr. McLuhan
leverage a few (in his case, one) sound bite about one thing into a career.
"The medium is the message," he said, (wrongly) and everyone falls
all over him in perpetuity for his opinion. He's like a workman with one
tool in his toolbox -- a hammer -- so the whole world looks like a nail to
Bless Mr. Taylor, he didn't give up there, but kept on
sledding and found:
"There is a place for everything
In eart, or sky, or sea,
Where it may find its proper use,
And of advantage be,"
Quoth Augustine, the saint.
Well, now, since Augustine was
born in Tagaste which is now in Algeria, in 354, methinks Mr. McLuhan should
go back to talking ragtime about television, where he can be innaccurate and
puerile about the correct millenia.
Notice the relationship, baldly stated. It needs to have a
proper place to have a proper use. A coffee table is a useful thing. If you
crack your shin on it four days a week because your house is cluttered, its
usefulness is diminished. And we've all pitched perfectly good things in a
dumpster because we couldn't make them fit in our humble homes, or our
lifestyles. A shame, really.
But we're not done yet. Let's keep looking.
"Omnia tempus habent, et suis spatiis
transeunt universa sub caelo"
(To everything there is a season, and a time to
every purpose under the heaven.--Ecclesiastes 3:1).
"A place for everything, and everything in its place." indeed.
So buy an Admiring Shelf, or a
Treasure Island Shelf, or
something with a drawer to put
your things in, and make them fit in your life properly, at hand but not
If anyone asks why, tell them Omnia tempus habent...
Greetings to all, and Happy Holidays.
I've been involved in the construction of many different things in my life.
I've built a birdhouse, (by myself) and a football stadium, (I had help) and
most everything in between. I've frozen and sweated, and strained to lift a
heavy load as well as frustrating myself over the most delicate filigree.
I've been in thousands of homes from modest to palatial. The ones I haven't
been in, I've read about. But last week, the most extraordinary thing
happened to me. A real first.
I still make custom furniture. I hate to admit it, really, because when
people find out you can and will make things, they haunt you day and night
in the most pleasant way. Sippican Cottage is an idea, really, and the idea
is to serve the largest possible number of nice people by selling standard
items. And no matter how much I love making something original and unique
for nice people, it limits the range of people you can serve. And so what is
surely a blessing, loyal and faithful customers that want just that special
something, can also be a distraction, like a scenic overlook on a highway--
you just can't help yourself -- you've got to stop and enjoy it, though the
A lovely woman and her husband commissioned me to make them a china cabinet,
based on a very old and interesting example at Johnston's Antiques in
Franklin, who we've mentioned here before. The original is of an age and
provenance such that it becomes important, not just interesting. Few of us
can afford important furniture, and even if Bill Gates adopts us all, there
isn't enough important stuff to buy anyway. It is, by definition, rare.
And so, we copy. And like the very best customers, they ask me to improve
upon the original, to make it more useful, and perhaps, more comely, instead
of a slavish copy. That's always a tall order, to improve on something
that's good already, and you deliver the item with the feeling one has when
performing in front of an audience for the first time. Practicing the violin
in the garage helps, but it's not the same as Carnegie Hall, after all. So
you stand there, and hold your breath, and they say they adore it, and for a
moment you know what the diva holding the roses at the end of the opera
That feels good, believe me, but that feeling is not new to me, thank
goodness. I've lived long enough for the curtain calls to start to outnumber
the throwing of rotten tomatoes, as it were.
What was truly extraordinary, was that the customer wished to commission
additional items, and began to search for something to show me to get an
idea of what she wanted.
Now, I've been shown scraps of wallpaper, and chips of paint, and pages torn
out of magazines from Popular Mechanics to Art Digest. I've been shown
cocktail napkins, and plans stolen from architect's offices, and out of
print books with the text in Greek. I've been handed the catalogs of my
competitors, my colleagues, and the mighty retailers from Ralph Lauren to
Home Depot. But for the first time, someone handed me a Sippican Cottage
Furniture catalog, and pointed to an item in it, and used it to describe the
general outlines of the thing she wanted.
I can't die happy yet, though, until someone tries to sell me one of my own
items in an antique store.
Get your free catalog here.
Hi everyone. We've got lots new here at Sippican:
For starters, we have a new look on our home page, with better graphics and
so forth. Hope you like it. We had a crack team of subliminal message
experts working on the masthead for forty days and forty nights, and all
they came up with is that when you roll over the picture, it looks
different. Oh well, it's nifty, at any rate.
We've got a new print catalog coming out soon. Now you can get genuine
Sippican ink on your fingers. Sign up for the free catalog, (and e-mail
notification of new items and specials too, if you like,) right here:
Yes, I want a fabulous print catalog sent to
my house, and soon.
I've got yelled at a lot because my picture wasn't on the website. Why you'd
want to see the owner of Sippican Cottage Furniture is beyond me, but you
can see it on our new, improved, About Us Page.
If I'd known I'd live this long, I would have taken better care of
myself. At any rate, the furniture's nice.
You can find a limited supply of our furniture at: Cameron House Interiors
and Gifts, 4817 West Park Boulevard, Plano, Texas. 75093 Drop by and
tell Christine we sent you. We're excited to be in the Lone Star State!
We've got lots of new items we're adding to the catalog. Check back often.
Don't forget, you can see, touch, and buy our furniture at:
Wrentham Antiques Marketplace
in Wrentham Massachusetts,
The Old Company Store
5 Elm Street
In Wareham, Massachusetts.
More locations coming soon.
And you can now read our commentary page at :
In an obvious attempt to lose half my readership, I write today about cats.
It doesn't matter what I write. If I write that I like them, the dog people
See, they're gone already, they didn't even stick around to see if I was
going to link to the haha funny home video of the cat grabbing at a string
on a ceiling fan and going helicoptering around for a spell before being
hurled into the sliding glass door. But they've all already seen it ten
times, and e-mailed it to their friends, they know if you're not in on it
already, you're not in on it at all. You are an apostate. You like those
Yes, yes I do. When I was growing up, I wanted a dog. My dear mother was
petrified of animals, and disliked untidiness, so no go. And your parents
know you better than you know yourself, after all, and knew I couldn't care
for such a beast. Not for more than a week. Now, the information available
about dogs is very sketchy, too patchy for me to make a valid assessment
really, but I gather the creatures live longer than a week. No dog for you.
No cats either, a creature that gave poor mom the willies more than a
dog, even. At least a dog, well, how do I put this? The dog goes
outside. Any Venusian who visited our planet would know who's in charge
around here immediately, by observing which one craps in a box, and which
one empties it.
And so as a child, we had a succession of wildlife that taught you nothing
about the wild, or about loyalty, or about ferocity, or greed or want, or
anything else. Goldfish, gerbils, that sort of thing. For a while, we had
little turtles in a dish. You can tell you're through with them when they
turn white, by the way.
And so my mother was right of course. I've killed more fauna than a hunter
gatherer tribe. But the desire is not a slave to the intellect. I needed
another mammal around the house, one that wouldn't do anything I'd tell it
to, and the best I could hope for is predicting its behavior a little. No
I'm not referring to my wife, although the description is an apt one. Cats.
Cats are the pet for you, if you must have a pet, but don't deserve one.
They are what all housepets are, animated furniture. They become part of the
fabric of your lives, no question, and fray all the fabric in your life,
it's true, but they're in the background, and don't bother. Feed them in a
desultory fashion, and every twenty five days or so, they'll deign to sit in
your lap and go prrrrrrrrrr. I'm up for that.
My friends have dogs. They never go anywhere, or do anything, without first
thinking of how this will affect their creature. They're better people than
us, it takes so much tenacity of will to sign up for that kind of
responsibility, to be trusted so supremely with the wellbeing and care of
another being. One that will never grow up and mow the lawn for you, I
Get up one half hour late one morning, and go to the door to let the cat in,
and he'll be gnawing the head off a rodent outside the door, and look up at
you and you'll know what he's thinking: "I had to do this myself, you big
stiff; and I'm going to throw up parts of this on your couch later, that'll
learn you to sleep in."
And so I like the solitary nature of the cat, and its mystery, and the fact
that the minute he goes outside, he reverts to his feral self, and the only
difference between the little beast and a tiger is its size, and the pink
collar he's wearing. He'll shred my wife's clothes for saddling him with
that, I bet. Ruins his feral vibe with the woodland creatures.
Two cat is best, three cats is madness, four or more and you're a newspaper
article. We got two black cats at the animal rescue place, to replace the
two beloved animals we buried in our yard after living at our new house for
a short while.
Of course they were dead before we buried them, what are you, dog people?
Anyway, they had lived a long and happy life, and dreamed every night by the
fire of mice with lead shoes, and passed away old.
The Big One was just a little lad then, and we asked him to name the new
ones. Moonshine and Sunshine he said. I laid some groundwork for editing by
pointing out that they were both identically black, and neither was likely
to answer to "Sunshine." He liked "Lady Godiva," for the chocolate color,
not the streaking incident, and so it was Moonshine and Lady Go.
Two black cats. Bad luck perhaps. Moonshine was headstrong and roamed far
afield, and I found her after a short spell by the road, where curiosity...
well, you get the picture, and I buried her in the woods next to the others.
Tears were shed. Lady Go was sad, if cats can be sad.
My wife loved that animal. She is kind to all things great and small, and
raises we three male beasts in addition to the cat. Pets are tests of your
kindness and reliability, and Moonshine tested our hearts.
He appeared out of the woods that surround our house not long after, skinny,
sickly, disheveled, wild. White with gray and black, mottled. He'd pace
around the perimeter of the lawn like a panther, lean, hungry, feral. My
wife considered it a sign, so soon after Moonshine's demise, and she fed
that beast. She'd put out food at night, though I told her it was crazy;
raccoons and possums and foxes and god knows what else would show up each
night looking for the buffet. No matter, HE might get some of it, and
that was enough for her. Occasionally we'd see him, closer now, but you
couldn't approach him or he'd disappear for days.
My boy remarked the patch of grey atop his head made him look like he had a
page boy haircut, although he didn't know to call it that, he just said: He
looks like Moe!
So Momo it was.
My wife is kind, and animals know "kind" when they see it. But a cat is
cautious, oh yes. After nine month of patience and caution, he allowed her
to touch him once, while he ate greedily from the bowl, still nowhere near
the house. Just like me, he was finished.
Soon he was eating on the back step, and sleeping on a pile of straw left
over from a Hallowe'en display, at the corner of the house. And then one
day, when a year had passed, she put the food in the back hallway, and left
the door open.. He came in over a period of ten minutes, still terrified,
but curious. She closed the door behind him. And he went CRAZY.
He made that traverse of 38 feet from end to end of the house over and over,
launching himself at the windows in the doors, crashing to the floor, and
racing to the opposite end for another leap and collision. My wife and
little boy scurried around shrieking and trying to reach the doors to open
them before he got there, but he was everywhere, and frantic, and they were
trapped in the house with a wild beast. They finally got one open, and he
As my wife recounted the tale to me when I arrived home from work, I had to
stifle a smile. She thought she had blundered, and he was gone forever. She
doesn't know men very well, I thought to myself. Though all she gets all day
is we three men, men, men. She had become the sun around which that little
creature orbited, as had we all, and sure enough the next day he was back.
And shortly thereafter, he was sleeping by the fire, and making that prrrrr
noise, a little peeved about THAT UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT AT THE VETERINARIAN,
but exhibiting to this day the only attitude that cat owners generally envy
their dog friends. Gratitude.
I love this picture. I love the Spanky style clothes, and the leather shoes,
and the hissing radiator, and the chipped basin, and man oh man, look at
that cowlick. The poor little fellow isn't going to get anywhere with that,
though he's giving it a go. Only momma's spit can paste down a cowlick, and
this poor little fellow's mom had to go off to work, and leave him to
wrestle his devil ears by himself. The year was 1943, and I imagine she's
making something for the armed forces, and the little fellow's dad is too,
or is in the armed forces.
And so he's left in the care of someone barely visible on the right, and
among his peers. I like watching my own sons pal around with their friends,
and try to watch the proceedings without participating as much as possible.
Your very presence intrudes, and staying in the background allows them to
sort things out as much as possible among themselves. And it's fun to watch
them try to do things that you take for granted, but they're still learning.
The effort of it, and the satisfaction after is amusing. When they're older,
the mileposts of accomplishment get fewer and farther between, and instead
of daily trophies, you get yearly diplomas.
Whoah, wait a minute. A daycare center for working mothers in 1943? That's
unpossible. I thought all you Stepford Wives were freed from domestic
bondage in 1968 or so, when your 1950s Ozzie and Harriet manacles were
finally broken. But there are hundreds of pictures like this in the Library
of Congress, from all over the country, and innumerable picture of Rosie the
Riveter to go along with it. 'Splain it to me Lucy.
I'm going to make 100% of the audience angry now, which is hard to do.
Usually, either 50.5% or 49.5% hate you for what you say. But I'm going for
the whole enchilada today:
A. There was no evil man-plot to keep women out of the workplace before.
B. There was no evil government plot to destroy the family by ramming women
into the workforce.
For all you folks that think we evil white men get together twice yearly and
plan how we're gonna oppress everybody, you need to look at our closets. We
can't dress ourselves without help, just like the little fellow pictured
above. Secretly ruling the world is unlikely.
For all you folks that think it's all a government plot to bring socialism
to middle america on black helicopters, you need to visit the Post Office.
Look around. The government can't figure out what it's doing. If you can
barely tell what you're trying to do, it's unlikely you're trying to wed it
to an evil purpose.
It's all, as Homer Simpson says, "just a bunch of stuff that happened."
My wife stays home and cares for our children a little, and me a lot. Many
people see that as example "A" above. Not so. It suits us both, and our
children, and we can, so we do.
Earlier in our lives, our oldest was shuffled off to daycare so we could
both work, and many people saw "B" above. Well, we needed money. Half of it
did go to the government, after all. But he's pretty well adjusted. He
doesn't recite "Let A Million Flowers Bloom" and scream 'Death to the
Capitalists" because he swapped germs with a dozen of his peers when he was
two. And his mother gives him a whiffle in the summer, so no cowlick. In
short, we all survived.
Then what are we to make of it? It easy:
A. We're all rich
B. People are valuable.
Women work now because there's a shortage of people. Women worked in 1943
because there was a shortage of people, of the male, induction age type. And
women, like men, can be lured away from the joys of the home if it pays good
enough. And since as the years pass, and the amount of heavy lifting
required continues to diminish, and the jobs get more sophisticated and
lucrative, and human ingenuity and sophistication becomes more important,
employers must do everything they can to lure people into the workforce.
Like pay the world. And overlook the occasional childbirth interruption.
People blithely say the world is overrun with people. Okay, smart guy, try
putting an ad in the paper looking for help. Let's say you're fussy. You
don't want meth smoking child molesters or people that sleep at their desks.
You're gonna have to offer a lot to get anyone, and if you're fool
enough to exclude enormous swathes of the population because they're, well,
girls, you're going to be sitting waiting for the phone to ring for a
And we are all rich. Let's not be ingrates and complain about opportunity in
America. We have problems, because human beings are imperfect. But the
largest problem among poor people here is obesity. Tell someone in central
Africa that any of us is not rich, and they'll likely disagree. And
ask you for a dollar to eat for a month. We're a rich enough nation to pay
people to be poor, and get obese. That's rich.
And so, some of us work outside the home. Some of us work from the home.
Some of us work in the home. Some of us place our children with other
children when they're one or two. Some wait until they're five. Some of us
wipe bottoms. Some of us pay to have those bottoms wiped. Some people don't
work, because they have money, but ignore their children and leave it to
nannies to take care of them. Some people work, and spend every waking hour
left with their children.
It's just a bunch of stuff that happened.
I used to play darts. I know, "how exciting." Well, I needed to find an activity
you could participate in with a Guinness in one hand, and softball requires a
taste for warm light beer that I lack. So off to the Irish pub, and the
Not any more. I'm a big old man, with children and a wife and bills and so
forth, and the idea of hanging around in a bar seems strange now. But I was
single once, and was a "Norm" at Liam's Irish Tavern, which isn't there
any more. That's fine, as I'm not there any more either.
Anyway, I thought I was good. You had to win to keep playing, and the other
Joes at the bar were pretty good, so I practiced toeing that stripe and
mechanically pumping (both) elbows for a good long while until I was proficient
enough to avoid sitting down. I was streaky, and enraged many a better
player by stinking it up for most of a game, and then pulling it out late,
and seeming like a sandbagger. It didn't hurt that I'm 6'-2" tall with long
arms, and leaned over pretty good, and seemed to be inserting the darts, not
At any rate, I started playing in leagues and so forth, which are the kind
of thing the average person had no idea existed, until you happen upon them,
and you realize there's entire worlds of people doing all kinds of things
you never even heard of in a very serious way. The internet has become an
engine for these peculiar worlds. Go to Google, and type in ANYTHING you can
think of, and you'll get a ton of sites, and an education.
Anyway, I thought I was good, all those years ago. Then I got an education
Our dart team traveled to a club in South Boston. It was a real club, too, not a
restaurant or bar like usual, but an old fashioned members-only club, where
you rang a doorbell while standing on an unlit threshold in a parking lot,
and a disembodied voice says: who are you over an intercom. There was a
problem. Women weren't allowed into this club, and we had brought one.
Now, this is twenty years ago, but it was just as jarring a bit of news then
as it is now. We were struck by the unfairness of it, or whatever you'd call
it: not letting a woman in. We protested that if she couldn't come in,
our team wouldn't play. The voice said, if she's on the team, that's
different. Inside, he explained that women were barred from the club because
all the men would have fistfights over them in the club, and for the men's
and women's own sakes, these knuckleheads had to be segregated. They weren't
fit company for the women.
I realized I was very far from home, though I had been born not ten
There were a great many illegal Irish immigrants in the place, and I began
to see why brawls had to be avoided at all costs, as a visit from the police
meant more than a trip to the pokey and a black eye to many of the devotees
of the place; they'd be deported too. My own Irish relatives had drifted
down from Antigonish, Nova Scotia to Boston a hundred years ago, after
fleeing Ireland, and did all the work no one else would deign to do, just
like these rough and tumble fellows, and I was sympathetic.
And they played darts.
They mopped the floor with us , though they were blind drunk. They never
even put down their drinks, they just walked to the line, and fffft fffft
fffft, it was over.
And so you learned that being good means judging yourself in the context
"compared to what?" And compared to them, well, let's just say that after
the match blessedly ended, and our beating was over, I was chosen as our
"champion" to play the king of the club, one match, for a little money. He
hadn't even played up until then, and I couldn't imagine he'd be worse than
the guys who had just annihilated us, but I wasn't ready for, well, the
"compared to what" education I received.
I threw my three darts. My score was recorded in chalk. The Irish champion
went to the line, and pulled out three nails. Three great big nasty twenty
penny spikes. Bang, bang, bang into the board. He never missed anything he
threw at. And he did it with nails, to show me I wasn't worthy of an even
fight. It was over almost immediately, and I knew "compared to what" was now
"compared to that," and where I stood in the Pantheon of Darts wasn't on any
sort of pedestal, it was around back, near the men's room.
Every single one of those drunken roustabouts was unfailingly polite to us
men, and exquisitely deferential to the only woman in the bar, the one
we had brought uninvited. But we left immediately, to get back to a universe we
Which brings me to the subject of our essay today, and a long and circuitous
route we've taken. Take a look at this guy:
Blind Teen Amazes With Video-Game Skills
He's seventeen years old, he's completely and utterly blind, from birth no
less, and he'll kick your ass at video games.
I love this story. Now, playing Mortal Kombat without being able to see it
doesn't make you Mozart, or Ray Charles even. But it does make you
Think of the trial and error, think of the concentration that this required.
The hours and hours of groping, over and over, looking for that next rung on
the ladder to: you can't beat me. And what is trivial becomes sublime, when
it's done in this fashion. He'll whup you, with his back turned.
We live in a world prosperous enough to support professional
skateboarders, never mind baseball and football players, and where
Tron Guy becomes an instant celebrity.
It's enough these days to simply capture the imagination of a great many
people, however you might do it, because the internet can open up a great
audience to you, hungry to be amused, or amazed, or feel part of a
community, or look at Brice, in his darkness, and say: "Compared to him, I'm
a shirking piker"
And for all you in the audience who say, big deal, it's just video games,
they're not important, I say, yeah, not important? Compared to what?
Hail fellow well met.
Let's talk about something important. Joe.
Oh yes. Coffee Joe. Java, jamoke, kaffa, kahveh, sludge, silt, bilge, mud
and a shot-in-the-arm. Mud in your eye. Hojo, qahwah, latte, moche,
just gimme that coffea whatever you call it.
Look, I'm not fooling here. Listen to me. Coffee is not a beverage. Coffee
is the eighth sacrament. Gimme Gimme Gimme.
Ray Charles knew:
In the morning when the sun comes up
She brings me coffee in my favorite cup
That's how I know, how I know, Hallelujah I just love her so.
A blind man could see it. Howsa 'bout a cup?
Let's lay down some rules. First and foremost, we lay a pistol on the table
for anyone that approaches with anything decaffeinated. You pod people that
drink that dyspeptic dishwater stay clear, I'm warning you. I need that
jolt, and I don't mean soda.
Second, there was a period of time in this world when the idea of instant
coffee made a certain amount of sense, I guess. People watched two guys
named Neil walk on the moon, and were inspired to drink Tang and so forth,
and the idea of Nescafe didn't seem all that strange. At the time, you'd
have to go to a disreputable diner to get a cup of ready made coffee, and it
was probably fresh during the Truman administration, and been warming since,
or you'd have to get out a real percolator, grind some beans, and make your
They are now opening up Starbuck franchises in the Men's Rooms of Dunkin
Donuts. You can drive up to every other window in any city and get coffee
thrust out at you. Men named Neil do not trod the moon any longer. Outlaw
instant coffee. Bring back the death penalty for serving it. Perhaps an
amendment to the Constitution is in order. They want to amend the
Constitution to prohibit flag burning. I say, give an exception if the
burning flag is used to heat water for joe.
I prefer Dunkin Donuts to Starbucks. I go in, I say: Give me coffee. They
say: Give me money. It happens. I leave. We are both content.
Go into Starbucks. You are disoriented. The signs tell you you can get a
pineapple chutney lotus blossom chive and dill brisket rhododenron flavored
latte grown at a "fair trade" plantation where the inmates eat gruel twice a
day, instead of once like everywhere else, I guess. I didn't know I wanted
that. I thought I wanted coffee. But if you go up to the counter, the girl
with the jewelry in her nose snorts at you if you order coffee. I'm not sure
I'm supposed to order coffee from her anyway. Her name tag says she's a
"barista," and I assume that's Spanish for lawyer, because she seems put out
by my request for coffee. I look for people behind the counter with aprons
and coffee urns, but they are scarcer than non-relatives at the barista's
indie band shows.
Hie thee to Dunkin Donuts. Approach the counter. Hold out five quarters. I
guarantee you will walk out with a cup of joe without saying a word.
Some lady spilled coffee on her lap once, and sued McDonald's. She won a
pile in the misery lottery. She said the coffee was too hot. Now, I drink my
coffee cooler than most. I prefer the european method of brewing, with
water well below boiling to make the coffee, and it's about ready to
drink when it finishes its journey through the glorious beans.
McDonald's makes American coffee. Bubbling hot. God bless'em. Some people
like real hot coffee, and some people add milk, or cream, and so forth,
which cools the coffee. Coffee to go is often transported to remote
locations before being enjoyed, and it's really not possible to serve it too
hot, as if you prefer it cool, as I do, you can just wait a little. But if
you like it hot, it's gotta start hot.
McDonald's doesn't serve superheated nuclear power plant reactor coolant
with a lump of lava in it. It's not even boiling water, which means it's
less than 212 degrees. If you stab yourself with a spork is that McDonald's
fault? If you eat the fish sandwich with the wrapper on it, and get
indigestion, is that McD's fault? I say no.
There may be a circle in hell for people that sue over the mundane, if it's
not already full of lawyers. But hell in the afterlife is not good
enough for her, the old lady with the hot lap. She needs punishment now. And
I decree: NO MORE COFFEE FOR YOU. That'll learn you. Your money won't buy
you happiness if it won't buy you coffee.
When I was a wee laddie, shopping was a rough go for my mother. She had four
kids, and we ate like we were in a contest throughout most of our waking
hours. Pre-made food was expensive, and rare, and mom bought raw materials,
food ore that needed smelting, not frozen pizzas. She's take us on her
shopping expeditions, and had to make many stops to get all she needed. I
remember one to this day. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. That's
the A & P to you young folks. The place looked vaguely Victorian, and there
were flies buzzing around mounds of lettuce and so forth. But you'd buy
coffee beans there, raw, and as you were checking out, there was a grinder
right in the checkout aisle.
I imagine that when I'm a million years old, and I've forgotten who I
am, and everyone I know, and every other thing that ever happened to me, and
everything that happened to everyone else, I'll still remember that glorious
aroma, and be content.
Then I'll eat the puzzle in the Nursing Home community room.
Mr. Pom Pom
As I told you, we were at Lake Winnepesaukee last weekend. The was more than
just frolic, however. There was meaning too. I learned a little about hope,
courtesy of Mr. Pom Pom.
Main Entry: hope
Date: before 12th century
1 : archaic :
2 a : desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment
Bah. Now that I look at it, "hope" won't do. Because the desire we all
shared for Mr. Pom Pom had no expectation of or belief in fulfillment. It
really seemed hopeless, for a time. Let's try something else:
Main Entry: faith
Inflected Form(s): plural faiths /'fAths, sometimes
Etymology: Middle English feith, from Old French feid, foi,
from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust ómore at
Date: 13th century
1 a : allegiance to duty or a person :
LOYALTY b (1) :
fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief
in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in
something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
There, that's better. Lots of people had faith in Mr. Pom Pom, but they had
faith in something else too, and went through the motions of "hoping" when
the "expectation of fulfillment" of their wishes seemed very remote indeed.
And Mr. Pom Pom taught us all a lesson: Sometimes you do the right thing
because it's the right thing to do, and goodness is its own reward and
all that; because sometimes unlikely things happen and it's best not to
take your eye off the prize just because you're likely to be disappointed.
Now, who is Mr. Pom Pom, and what did he do, exactly? The first question is
easy. Mr. Pom Pom's dad is my good friend Steve. Steve is the most
productive person I've ever met, and more fun than Mardi Gras, and a good
father to Mr Pom Pom, and his big brother Flapdoodle too.
Mr. Pom Pom used to be Mr. Po Po, and I'll always think of him as that. Mr.
Po Po is one of those silly names you call your kid, or he calls himself
that seems to stick for a while. One day, Mr Po Po had gotten mildly older,
and decided that the sobriquet "Mr. Po Po" wasn't very dignified, and
announced that he no longer wished to be called "Mr. Po Po."
Call me Mr. Pom Pom.
Much more dignified. They say every man has the right to decide what he is
called, but no man chooses his nickname. Mr. Pom Pom did both, which is rare
O.K., but what did he do? Mr. Po Po, um, I mean, Mr Pom Pom?
He played the drums badly on Saturday night.
You see, Steve was playing music in a band with his friends for the
assembled throng of his New Hampshire neighbors on that Winnepesaukee beach
Saturday night, and his sunny disposition shined right on through those
songs, and entertained us all. Steve's been playing in some permutation of
that band for most of his life, but now the fires of celebrity are banked
low in his furnace of music, and they perform only with a lot of begging and
pleading. But he's lost nothing off his fastball. He still "does the show."
I first met Mr. Pom Pom back when he was still little Mr. Po Po, and I was
hanging around with Steve as he was practicing for a show. Mr. Po Po, who
couldn't have been more than three, came into the empty nightclub with his
brother and mother, listened to his father play for a minute, and announced:
"It's too loud in my ears," and left. Kids are smart. Mr Po Po was no
But Mr. Po Po, um, er, I mean Pom Pom, is exceptional, I guess. He's
a big old teenager now, and a year ago or so, he wrecked his car. Really
wrecked it. And he wrecked himself in the process. Really wrecked himself.
When Steve told me about it, I could offer nothing, no words of
encouragement, nothing I can remember saying that was any use to the guy.
Mr. Pom Pom might not live. If a miracle happened and he did, he probably
wouldn't be more animated than the furniture he was placed in. What could
you possibly say to help a person deal with that?
Well, we all said lots of useless things. Mr. Pom Pom and his family are loved and
respected by all and sundry and the outpouring of concern and grief and
help, such as you could give, was outstanding. Still, there's nothing but
faith, and when no one's looking, hope too.
Prayer is a kind of hope. When you ask an unseen, unknowable thing to help
you, when you hurl your little troubles into the maw of a universe of hurt,
you know in your heart that prayer's not a lever you pull and out comes the
candy. You are making your peace with the idea of what might happen, with
the faith that it all meshes into something worthwhile somehow, and you're
simply saying: This is not up to me. Help that boy.
So you hope, even though no one's peddling hope anywhere near the kid. And
he lays there, mute, bruised, bleeding, gone from sight; and his parents,
his family, his friends- they wait.
I don't remember when the encouragement and love you saved for his parents
was transferred over to Mr. Pom Pom himself; maybe it was when you saw him in
a picture, still a mess, but eating ice cream in the hospital cafeteria. It
was a long slog, but not so long as it might have been, and where would we
go? We had hope, you see.
And so Mr Pom Pom got up on stage with his brother, in front of his
beaming father and the assembled throng that knew him, and where he had
been, and how he had returned, and he played a few songs, just like
he'd done before any of this hope was necessary. The scar was still bright
on his forehead, and he walks ever so slightly stiffly, and sometimes
there's a little hitch in his speech, but not so's you'd notice. This too
shall pass, it's only been a year.
And they call their makeshift combo: "Those Amazing Vegetables." Steve used
that as a joke band name after he saw it on a nutrition poster in a Doctor's
office many years ago. It must sound wry and tasteless, and a little like
whistling past the graveyard, if you didn't know it predated Mr. Pom Pom's
accident by many years.
He was almost a vegetable. Now he's just amazing.
We traveled to New Hampshire this weekend, to Lake Winnepesaukee. Or as my
son calls it, Lake Hockeypesockey. It's a long haul from Marion, Mass, but a
new wonder has appeared on our horizon. In a fit of benevolence, generosity,
and good sense, The Big One's Nonni (Grandmother for all you non-Italians)
gave a portable DVD player to him for his birthday present, and to celebrate
his scholarship this last term. She has re-discovered fire, or a close
approximation of it. Because one run through The Spongebob Movie and The
Rutles, and we were already at the Lake before the kids even knew we had
Alexander, Caesar, Magellan, Columbus, Newton, McCormick, Edison, Einstein-
pfffft. All pikers compared to Nonni, and whoever got up one morning, drove
to work, and said to the people in the cubicles outside their office: "Let's
make a DVD player you can take in the car. Have it on my desk by close of
The lake's a whole different animal from the ocean. It's really enormous, so
the scale of it doesn't suffer, but it's a "power boat" place. Sailboat
types don't care for power boats, and vice versa, but you "get" the whole
power boat thing at Winnepesaukee. Walk to the end of the path, walk to the
end of the dock, step on board, and blast out to the middle of the lake. We
did just that, in the middle of our first night, with only the full moon for
our illumination, and were safe and content, and owned that lake from end to
end, or so it seemed. There's really no sound more pleasant on a hot summer
night than shutting off the motor on a boat, and drifting across the moonlit
water, the gentle windblown waves lapping the side of the skiff, and the
sound from countless lakeside homes drifting out across the lakes, soft and
indistinct, but recognizable as the sound of laughter and conviviality, and,
During the day, swimming, and jet skis, and waterskiing, and the dumb fun of
being dragged on an inner tube. The Wee One sits in the water to his waist,
and splashes, and giggles, while the Big One practices his backstroke
swimming lessons ten feet further out: Eagle, Soldier, Monkey, Eagle
Soldier, Monkey... The Queen watches both easily, as the beach is filled
with people just like us, and everybody is everybody else's friend
instantly, and the children drift easily into hijinks with their
numerous new compatriots. No one is really a stranger, if they have children and
a mortgage. The rest is details.
At night, there was a party, right there on the sand, and a band played
everybody else's favorite song, and wasted no time with anything obscure and
nothing angry sounding. Music that sounds fun is rarer than it should be
these days. The music industry has become a competition to see who can
express deep emotional scars and trumpet dissonant lifestyles to go with the
dissonant chords, wrapped in chainsaw sounds and screaming, and forgetting
that life's really not all that bad. I've noticed that among people who's
lives truly aren't easy, they never listen to depressing music. Life's too
short to have misery for entertainment too. Teenagers like nasty sounding
stuff, but I suspect that people with four square meals a day, a summer
house, and a jet ski have little to complain about, and must enjoy snarling
pop music mostly as a change of pace from their easy life. I suspect that
ghetto music has become nastier as life has improved there as well. Forty
years ago, it was no picnic to live in a Detroit slum, and they listened to
Motown. Now rappers spit out venom, and live like pashas. Such is life.
The Motown still sounds, fine, if you're interested. We heard some, on
Saturday, and it still encapsulates our shared experience, and the pleasure
of a simple melody, well sung:
I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day
When it's cold outside- I've got the Month of May
I'd guess you'd say- What can make me feel this way
Perhaps as you get older, and the number of funerals you attend begin to
outnumber the weddings, and you've tried to catch the curve balls that life
throws everyone, rich or poor, and dropped a few, you begin to value the
person that can distill a smile, or better still, a pat on the back or a
hopeful dream, and can sugar-frost that mental medicine with music and
recharge your batteries.
I don't need no money- Fortune or fame
I've got all the riches baby- One man can claim
I'd guess you'd say- What can make me feel this way?
How did those men from Detroit know all about my wife, and sing about her,
four months before she was born? It's a mystery.
The weather is perfect. Warm, dry, sunny.
We're delivering some furniture to Wrentham Antiques Marketplace today. They
were featured on Boston's Channel Five "Chronicle" newsmagazine last week.
Chuck McStay had some sound advice for people shopping for home furnishings:
Buy what you like.
The hosts of the show discussed that approach at the end of the show for a
little while, like it was a revelation to them. It's funny how far out on an
intellectual limb you can climb out before the advice " stop sawing" starts
to sound good. The idea that you should fill your home with items that you
chose yourself because you like them is news? All good advice sounds like
news, I guess, since it's so much rarer than bad advice. Chuck and Kathy are
charming and their store is elegant and fun. Who knew they were so smart,
I've written about Wallace Nutting here before. I have a great regard for
his insight into American furniture. His injunction: "If it's new, it's no
good." would seem to be at cross purposes with "Buy what you like."
It's not. We are not blank slates, but neither are we all finished before we
start. We can get advice along the way, and take it or leave it as we see
fit. We have a catalog of misfortunes and triumphs, attempts and retreats,
information and bunkum in our head that we use as our ruler to measure the
world. We get into trouble when someone has The Answer, and we end up
with a leopardskin chair that looks like a giant shoe in our living room.
And we wonder: What was I thinking? The short answer is: You weren't. You
were following some advice you got, or intuited, that this was the Hot
Thing, and it wasn't tempered by the idea that this might not be look so
swell to me in a few years. Months, maybe. Actually, It kind of struck me
funny while I was unwrapping it.
Nutting wasn't being rigid in his thinking, just generalizing. He was also
very careful to point out that just because something was old, that didn't
make it good. It just meant it was still around. He was very incisive in his
judgments between one antique and another, and set the tone for really good
decorating advice from professional appraisers since.
Good decorating advice is an attempt to inform and lead, not shove. Home
decoration is a very personal thing, and trying to bend your life into a
rigid framework of another's making is a recipe for disappointment. And
Nutting knew that furniture design in the past had been based on the three
big legs that hold up the furniture world: Commodity, Firmness, and Delight.
In other words, is it comfortable, is it sturdy, is it lovely? Ask your self
that question every time you purchase any item that will add or
subtract from the sum total of your happiness. Faddish items almost always
lack at least one of the three characteristics, and sometimes two, or all
three. We live in a society unknown to our forefathers, where making things
deliberately ugly, and making people uncomfortable, is considered artistry.
Eventually, decorators and furniture makers pushed as far as you could go,
and variations on the theme of Commodity, Firmness, and Delight were tougher
There was only one easy way to be a trailblazer: I'll make it ugly, on
purpose. I'll exaggerate its proportions, to disorient the viewer. I'll make
it uncomfortable, to challenge the user. I'll make it flimsy looking, to
unsettle the user, or actually flimsy, who cares if it lasts? And I'll use
my iconoclasm to aid in my self-promotion, and bad will be good, and I'll be
unusual. I'll make music that sounds like a china closet being pushed out a
window onto a herd of dyspeptic elephants. At least no one will say I was
trying to copy Mozart.
Apply this sort of thinking to the other aspects of your life. Why not bathe
in lava? Water's so yesterday. Why not eat poison ivy salad with motor oil
vinaigrette? Insalata mista is on too many menus already. I must do
something new! Why just get two breast implants? Three would be better.
Three is better than two, right?
What Nutting was talking about, and what Chuck McStay was talking about, and
what Mary Richards and Peter Mehegan were talking about Chuck talking about,
and what I'm talking about talking about talking about, is using the old
approach to serving humanity to choose the items that ennoble and lend
interest and comfort to your life, and your backside if they're upholstered.
Commodity, Firmness, Delight.
I'm rereading a book about houses in 18th Century Williamsburg. Strangely
enough, it's called "The Eighteenth-Century Houses of Williamsburg." by
Marcus Whiffen. If it was published today, it would have a cover that said
"Torn From Yesterday's Headlines-The Exciting True Story of the
Heat and Passion of our Passionate Hot Forefathers and Mothers:"
"The Desperate Bodice Stitchers of Williamsburg!"
It was published in 1960, so they just told it like it was. I'd rather read
one book like this than a metric tonne of fiction anyday. The only bodices
that get ripped are because they caught them on a stray nail while
burning quicklime in a brick kiln, but I can do without the "excitement."
It's interesting enough as it is.
Colonial Williamsburg seems like an interesting place, one that I might like
to visit. I've been to Washington DC's monuments, and Mount Vernon and so
forth, but never Williamsburg. We'll have to wait until the Wee One is a
little older, I think, as he will no doubt try to single-handedly re-enact
the sack of Washington by the British during the War of 1812, and discommode
the passersby, but we'll get around to it eventually.
John D. Rockefeller Junior bankrolled the collection and restoration of the
houses there, if I recall correctly, and good for him. I always insist that
the history that truly matters is not military history, but the march of
events in the life of the great mass of citizens of a great nation that
defines its progress. The clashing armies are important in that they define
the ability and willingness of a society to defend itself, and its
will to do so. What they are defending is just as interesting to me.
How did people live? Dress? Labor? Raise children? Learn? What did they sit
on, and what kind of dwelling did they live in? Places like Williamsburg
catalog just these quotidian details, and bless them for it.
Really dry books like "Houses of Williamsburg" have the scholarly details
that lend perspective to our own lives, when we see how far we have come,
but also how much we still retain. I found one particularly telling detail
in it. It's a contract for Indenture between an orphaned boy and a
bricklayer. Here it is:
This Indenture Witnesseth that John Webb an Orphan hath put himself, and by
these Presents doth voluntarily and of his own free Will and Accord. put
himself apprentice to William Phillips of Williamsburg Bricklayer to learn
his Art, Trade, and Mystery: and after the Manner of and Apprentice to serve
the said William Phillips from the day of the date hereof for and during and
unto the full end and Term of five Years next ensuing during all which Term,
the said Apprentice, his said Master faithfully shall serve, and his Secrets
keep, who's lawful commands at all Times readily obey; He shall do no damage
to his said Master, nor see it to be done by others, without giving Notice
thereof to his said master. He shall not waste his said Master's Goods nor
lend them unlawfully to any...
To the modern eye, this looks like two paces from slavery. But not to the
modern tradesman's eye. Because what you just read was essentially the same
as the situation my peers and I entered into when we entered the building
trades in the seventies. It wasn't written down, but it was spoken, or
understood. I'll serve you faithfully if you teach me a trade is the bargain
we all struck with someone older, wiser, and more experienced, but didn't
mind having a seventeen year old around to pick up the 90 pound sacks of
cement for him. And the only two questions asked of the prospective
applicant were: Will you work hard? and: Will you stick around long enough
to make my investment in your learning pay off? Answer yes, and you'd be
pointed to a stack of something heavy that very minute.
In a very real way you were adopted like this fellow was. You were talking
to the tradesman in the first place because you were his child, or nephew,
or neighbor, or the son of a fellow churchgoer or lodge member.
Somebody had vouched for you before you ever got to stand nervously in front
of the guy, while he wondered if those little arms of yours could lift what
he needed lifted.
"Art, Trade, and Mystery" is wonderful. I've never heard it described
better. Good construction work is an art, and so many poor souls flounder
around these days because they learn the "art" in a desultory fashion, get
stars in their eyes, and go out on their own without learning the "Trade"
which refers to the business end of the deal. "Mystery" is the magnificent
capstone to the trio of benefits. Specialized skills and knowledge are the
heart of any trade, and customers know better than anyone that hiring a
tradesmen to do anything for you is a descent into mystery. The plumber
knows the mystery of making the contents of the toilet bowl disappear, and
for that mystery you're glad to pay him.
There's sound advice for the young man later in the deed, (it is a deed
we're reading from, just like title to a piece of property) although it's
more than just advice in a contract like this:
He shall not committ Fornication, nor contract Matrimony within the said
term. At Cards, Dice, or any other unlawful Game he shall not play whereby
his said master may have damage...He shall not absent himself day or night
from his said Master's Service, without his leave, nor haunt Alehouses,
Taverns, or Play Houses, but in all Things behave himself as a faithful
Apprentice ought to do...
If I had a nickel for every fellow tradesman I knew, whether working
alongside me or employed by me, that had ignored exactly this kind of advice
and ruined their lives, I'd be rich as Croesus. Tweak it a bit, and make it
the first week of instruction in Vocational High School, and you'd have my
What's in it for the Apprentice?
...said Master shall you the utmost of his endeavors to teach, or cause to
be taught or instructed the said Apprentice in the trade or Mystery of a
Bricklayer and procure or provide for him sufficient Meat Drink Cloaths,
Washing and Lodging fitting for an Apprentice during the said term of Five
So at the end of five years, the young man would know everything he needed
to know to be his own man, and be able to go out in the world and make his
living. It's interesting to note that he's promised what is essentially a
living wage for single young person and an education, nothing more, but
nothing less either. He's not promised the 1700's version of and I-pod, or
bachelor pad, or a bitchin' truck, or a sports car, or Nike shoes, or
restaurant meals, thrice a day.
The employer has some serious obligations as well, alike in kind and
importance to the contract. And I doubt the interdiction against gambling,
booze and monkeyshines with girls is prudery, it's probably rooted in the
knowledge that your clumsy efforts won't support that kind of easy
living for a long time yet, or egads, not a wife and family yet, so knock it
Anyway, there were no snout houses at Williamsburg, and no public welfare
housing for people on the dole. Both the plans for the houses and the
contracts for the workmen were drawn up by amateurs, not professionals, and
they're ten times better than what we have for the same things now, drawn up
by legions of professionals and lawyers.
There's a lesson in that somewhere. I'm not exactly sure where. I'm an
amateur philosopher, not a professional. But I assure you, in 1975, I would
have signed that document, and been the better for it.
It's been hot here. Sticky hot. The Queen takes the children to the beach
each day. It's at the end of the street we live on, just a few miles. The
beach in our town is an afterthought, really; the town's anima is centered
around being on the water, not in it. But the Big One has swimming lessons
at the beach, and the Wee One sits in the gentle lapping waves, up to his
waist, and dredges sand through his fingers, and is content.
The beach has a lot of rules. I think the beach should have one rule: DON'T
BE A JERK. That would about cover it. But things are never that simple
anymore. People get together and start laying out the rules landscape, and
forget when to stop. After a while, the rules, and especially the impetus
behind the rules, starts to conflict with itself. And after a while, you
could sum up the rules as: DANGER -WARNING -NO FUN ALLOWED. GAMBOLERS WILL
Safety is paramount, to an idiotic degree. There's a float you can swim out
to, and rest a spell, and swim back. Woe be it to anyone who dives off the
float into the water. This is strictly impermissible. A few years ago, a
youngster broke his neck diving into the water, and the town, with an eye
towards lawsuits, forbade diving. But as I understand it, the poor fellow
that hurt himself did so because he didn't dive off the float, he dove off a
rock near the shore, into shallow water. If he had done what is now
proscribed, he would have been fine. It's curious.
Judgement and reason are assumed to be beyond the capabilities of the
average person here. And the idea that children should be policed by their
parents is apparently no longer current.
Any plastic device for amusing yourself is not allowed. Now, I understand
why the sign says: No Glass. Accidents happen, and broken glass at the beach
I can live without. But glass is easily replaceable by other containers, and
so no ox is gored. But the interdict against boogie boards, and inner tubes
and so forth extends to water wings. They're plastic, so no dice. In
other words, safety is paramount to the nth degree- someone might get hurt!,
so everything is banned, but taking a chance on a tot drowning for the
lack of two little rings of airfilled plastic is preferable to allowing some
barbarian to show up with anything so declasse as, well...plastic anything.
Dogs are banned, of course. But why? It's not because the dogs really can't
go to the beach and coexist with bathers; it's because civility has broken
down to the point where people can't be expected to take responsibility for
their animals. People bring really mean animals to public places now, and
take pleasure in menacing people. They always put you off with a "My
dog doesn't bite," if you ask them to restrain their pit bull named "Satan"
because he's menacing your children. And he leaves the brown, cylindrical
objects in the sand that smell disagreeable when you step in them, and his
owner can't be bothered to clean it up, or bring the dog off the beach when
he's in the grunting mood. So no dogs. More rules, because no one remembers
the Golden Rule. No not that one, the one I just coined, the new one: DON'T
BE A JERK.
The beach is mostly empty these days, although the steamy heat has driven
that Demosthenes of Boston, Hizzoner Mayor Tom Menino, to the radio each day
announcing a weather alert and telling us in mumbled spoonerisms to drink
lots of water and look in on shut-ins. Thanks for that, really. I was
planning on sitting in front of the open oven door all day in a ski parka
until you warned me off it.
Note to Tom: After Demosthenes cured his faulty speech by filling his
mouth with pebbles and yelling over the sound of the surf, he took the
pebbles out. You seem to have left a few in there.
I read in the paper that eleven people have died of heat related causes in
Phoenix this week, and it reached 116 degrees on the thermometer there. If
you investigated a little further, you found that ten of them were homeless
people, and you can't force them to stop drinking dehydrating liquor and
come in out of the sun, there's a rule against that, and they died of
heatstroke. The eleventh person was an elderly woman who was found in her
apartment, which was equipped with air conditioning, which she had turned
off. Waste not, want not got her.
So maybe mumbling Tom has a point. But people who used to look after the
elderly, like their friends or relatives, did so because it was the right
thing to do, not because the Mayor told them to. We live in a time where the
national legislature feels the need to pass legislation called "Good
Samaritan Laws," making it a crime to see someone in distress and refuse to
help. But isn't it all the other laws and rules and codes and statutes that
they passed, and the insane litigation that they turn a blind eye to, and
sometimes encourage, that made us so distant from one another in the first
place? People are afraid to interfere in anybody's affairs, not through an
aversion of being a busybody, but because they're afraid of being sued. Or
The Queen and the Wee One and the Large Child settled themselves on the
blanket in the sand yesterday, and tried not to break any rules. Another
party settled down beside them. They had brought a nuclear powered boom box,
and felt no compunction to respect the wants or wishes of others a few feet
from them, and blared rap music at flight deck volume. No one ever seems to
blast Respighi at that volume, I've noticed.
Now my wife could go to the authorities in town, and dutifully, in a few
days, the DPW would come on down to the beach, and add another line to the
"Prohibited" sign, to specify music. And so the worst of us will make it
impossible to have any music at the beach, which is unfortunate. That's not
the way it should be done, and they'll find another way to annoy everybody
next time, anyway. Because rules are for squares you know, the people who
don't need rules on civility and parental probity in the first place. You
know, people that don't want to listen to hateful misogynist singsong or
death metal at the beach. Rules only apply to the people that need them least.
I say: Take down the sign with the laundry list of real and imagined threats
to civility and safety. Replace it with a smaller one:
DON'T BE A JERK
And give the lifeguard a pistol. Problem solved.
I've done construction of one sort or another at a lot of houses. I've seen
good, bad, indifferent, and superb architecture. I've worked on brand new
stuff, as well as houses where people hid during King Philip's War to avoid
a severe haircut, and everything in between. And I've seen the march of
events in housing, framed with the perspective that comes with experience
with what came before. And I have a library card.
Anyway, I think America has the best housing in the world. In almost any
category you wish to measure, we live in the most comfortable and spacious
digs on the planet. The average person in America has better and more
reliable services to support that house to boot. Potable water comes out of
the tap. Losses of electricity are rare, and usually of a short duration.
When you flush the toilet, it goes somewhere. The phone always works. And we
take these things for granted, and woe be to anybody who lets that
reliability slip. A California governor tried an experiment a few years ago
in intermittent electricity, and he's standing by the side of the road now
holding a sign that says: "Will Run A State for Food"
The way Americans seamlessly integrate the manifold blessings of the world's
factories and laboratories into their lives exceeds even the Victorians.
Computers, voice mail, cable television, satellite television, satellite
radio, game consoles, e-commerce, e-mail, flat screen monitors, i-pods,
compact disks, DVDs, and on and on. People find useful things, well,
useful, and, well, use them, and don't give them much thought.
Things are not the same everywhere.
When I visited Italy six years ago, we visited some long lost Italian
relatives, who were considered very middle class by Italian standards, had
no where near the creature comforts we enjoy here in the States. They had
one little 21 inch television. He drove what was considered a big car in
Italy, a four door Peugot that I could put in the back of my truck. My
Italian cousin's teenage boy coveted a cell phone, and peppered me with
questions about how much a cell phone cost in America. Now, something may
have been lost between my pidgen Italian, and his third language English,
but the gist of the conversation was that a cell phone cost a fortune in
Italy, and there was an involved procedure to get one. I explained to
him that not only was the cell phone I had free, but the person who gave it
to me for signing up for a monthly pittance of a service delivered it
himself, to my home, for free, the day after I ordered it.
He looked at me like I was Baron Munchausen, telling tales. I think they
counted the spoons when we left.
I invited my relatives to visit us in America, to try to reciprocate for
their hospitality to us, but they weren't interested, and seemed to have the
impression that America was something along the lines of the Wild West, and
was too scary somehow. Not violent scary exactly, although there was a hint
of that too, just too rollicking, or fast, or big or something.
Yes, yes we are.
How fast do things move along here? Here's some perspective:
Seven years ago I worked on a new big house near here. It had about 15,000
square feet of living area. That's big, isn't it? And it wasn't just a big
old plastery space inside either; it was elaborately appointed as well. The
owners were people I had worked for many times over the years, and are
terrific people, generous and pleasant, and were raising a big crop of
delightful children. The father of the brood had made a pile for himself by
excelling in his field, and they decided to build a big old house with all
the bells and whistles. It was pretty opulent.
The wife supervised the day to day activities as the house took shape, and
we'd see the husband from time to time when he arrived home from work and
looked in. One day, when the house was nearing completion, he visited the
site, looked over the progress and the bills for that progress, and joked to
us: "I gave my wife an unlimited budget for this place, and somehow she
exceeded it." We all laughed, and he did too. Such is construction, no
matter how much you're spending.
I never saw him really irate about any aspect of the proceedings, except
once. The kitchen cabinetry was being installed. It was extremely well
designed and made, and won't be out of style or worn out anytime soon. The
kitchen featured everything kitchens in a house that elaborate always had:
Granite counters, Jenn-Air grill, SubZero refrigerators- two, side by side;
trash compactor, two dishwashers, big stainless range; in short, the high
end of the spectrum, and lots of it.
The architect was there. He and the wife were planning on a location to add
a wine refrigerator. The husband became perturbed, and then visibly and
audibly angry. He considered a wine refrigerator an expensive and
superfluous item. He said it was extravagant, and he had ten thousand
dollars of refrigeration available already, and his wine could go in there.
The house had a mahogany paneled dining room, a library, a conservatory, and
murals on the ceilings, but it wasn't going to have an extravagance like a
wine refrigerator. And so it was excised from the plans.
I was in Home Depot the other day, and I noticed a pile of wine
refrigerators stacked to the ceiling. They were having a special on them.
They cost well under $200.00. Here's a link to
Price Grabber.com; they have one for $99.00. I am beginning to see them in two bedroom
We attended The Queen's family reunion over the weekend. She has a large
extended family, and they gather once a year at one home to gab and gambol
and make googoo eyes at the newest babies. It's quite pleasant.
There is a stale Hollywood and literary formula about gatherings such
as these, always highlighting internal tensions and conflicts. Everybody's
always dysfunctional and fight like scorpions. Well, it just ain't so.
Everybody loves one another at the one I attended, anyway. They have an
appetite for simple games that can be played in the yard, like horseshoes
and badminton, and everyone jostles and chats amicably, all eased by the
simple fun of the activities, and the cold can.
And because I married into it, I am slightly less involved than those born
to it, I guess. They make me feel welcome, of course, but I get more of an
outsider's perspective. And it occurs to me that the stale formula I
mentioned might be spot on for the kind of people who write movie scripts.
They go through the motions of reuniting with their family, but it's a
hollow and staid occasion, there's no feeling of blood, and kin, and shared
experience, and commonality that enlivens the gatherings of families who
really do care for one another like my wife's family does.
The only really familial situations Hollywood finds interesting anymore are mob
weddings and poolside gatherings at porn movie makers' homes. Meh. They
never seem to find "family" where it actually is.
Because I was not part of the "war effort," the important business of seeing
that everyone was fed, and covered in sunscreen, and so forth, I was able to
wander away unnoticed for a time, and walked the street in the host cousin's central
Connecticut neighborhood. It was a languid, hot, sunny day, more Alabama
than New England, and since the street has no traffic, you could walk right
down the middle of the hot pavement, and watched out only for morning
doves in the trees.
The street's lined with small ranches, built in the fifties and sixties, all
cared for by their owners, who would wave as you passed before returning to
their flower beds. I was struck by how little the houses had changed in the
intervening fifty years since being constructed. There might be a satellite dish
next to the TV antenna it replaced on the roofs, and there were no Dodge
Darts with push button transmissions on their dashboards in the drives
anymore, but it was about the same as it ever was. It looked like the sort
of place where people who
got on with their lives, got on with their lives. No pretension, but nothing
gone to seed either. There are rooms inside my house messier than the
flower beds I saw. It looks essentially like where I grew up, preserved in
Then I heard it. I hadn't heard it in so many years. I thought it was a
joke, some hipster had it for a ringtone on their phone or something.
Ice Cream Man Music.
It was real, alright, and I traced the progress of the music and the unseen
truck through nearby streets like a bloodhound. Pavlov couldn't come up with
anything that talked to me, that affected my very brain stem, like that
sound. Every single hot, dusty summer day in the sixties came rushing back
to me at the same time, my friends' manifold noses lifted to the air like dogs to a
scent; the whispered question: Did you hear that? And the shushing, and
waving, and the faraway gaze with the head cocked to capture the sound and
use your inborn direction finder. And the crazy tune all those trucks played
would come into range, and you'd all sprint for home, to ululate at your
mother: The Ice Cream Man, The Ice Cream Man, Hurry up Mom,! I
mean, can I have a quarter? Hurry, please please please.
And you'd gather in the scrum of kids at the window of the truck, and get a
popsicle, and it was like water in the desert on Christmas Day for
five minutes. And when you were done, you'd sharpen the popsicle stick to a
point by dragging it back and forth on the curbstone, and show it to your
friends; and that was all the danger you'd ever have in that little
I went back to the yard, and everyone of a certain age commented on the Ice
Cream Man, and how long it had been since they'd heard it, and how wonderful
it was to recall their childhood instantly from that little tuneless tune
those trucks played.
Someone got a bright idea and said: "Hey kids, the Ice Cream Man is coming!"
The kids turned, and looked at us like we had enrolled them in Latin classes
at a Reform School.
They had ice cream in their refrigerator, every day, ten kinds, and watched
DVD movies in their cars on the way to the party. They were swimming in a
pool we would have coveted fiercely when we were young, and bounced on a
trampoline we couldn't have even imagined having in someone's yard 40 years
ago. They had whirligigs and cameras, (film, what's film?) and fifty
delicacies laid out to try to tempt them to eat just one more.
And I realized that Ice Cream Man Music is only used in the soundtracks to
bad horror movies these days, when someone's reaching for a carving knife,
not a sharpened popsicle stick, and no kid in their right mind who's got a
freezer full of Ben and Jerry's wants to haul ass out into the street to get
a Creamsicle made by the low bidder, served to them by a moody loner
who's registered at the police department, and has an GPS ankle bracelet.
Time marches on. I am glad for the easy prosperity I enjoy, and our children
have. But I wonder what will be my boys' version of the Ice Cream Man music.
The actual thing ain't cutting it.
I wish to tell you a story about humility. It won't take long.
The Big One was in the fourth grade this last year. By a trick of the
calendar, he is the youngest there. If he was born three days later, he
would have been in the third grade this last year. He's bright, and a tall
drink of water, you know, so the 11 months between him and many of his
schoolmates doesn't show much.
He attends what we used to call a parochial school. They're a little more
interested in academic excellence there than in the local public school, and
a lot more interested in the character of their charges, so we pony up the
money and his mother schleps him the ten miles or so to school every
morning, and back in the afternoon. The building he sits in all day isn't
much to look at, and if it was the public school in town, it would have been
replaced by now with something more elaborate. The world is upside down from
when I was a child; now the private school just scrapes by, and the public
school is palatial and new.
This might sound a little simplistic, but I asked my wife only one question
about the school after she first found it and toured it with an eye to
enrolling our boy: Are the desks in rows, or are they arranged in circles?
Rows, she said. Case closed.
He likes it there, and he thrives.
Now, The Large One got excited about his science fair. It's a big one, he
intoned. In the gymnasium. The whole school displays at once. Judges of
knowledge and stature form the surrounding environs, including engineering
students from the local college. I must win.
Winning's hard, I warned him. Everyone wants to win. It's in the trying,
that we learn about winning, I told him, and pulled up short before lapsing
into "giving 110%" and "stepping up," and so forth.
He'd have none of it. He had to get the ribbon, or perish trying.
He really did exert himself. I'd never seen him pay attention to anything
except Playstation like this project. He went to the library, and picked his
topic and books. He had his mother cart him over to Staples, to get poster
board and such, and then to the supermarket, where he bought cooking oil,
and molasses, and drew a few stares at the checkout line. He returned home,
and went over his experiment. What in the blue sky are you doing I asked?
Why exhibiting and measuring miscibility on water of various common
substances, father, he said in the tone of profound condescension I didn't
expect 'til he was shouting in my ear trumpet, after he put me in a home in
What made you pick that?
I wish I could spell out the way he says I don't know. It's all one
word, said in a comic fashion, and sounds approximately like I ugh no
or perhaps ightno, and pronounced by a slav with a sore throat. It's
his all purpose term for I dunno, and whatever, and so be
it, or perhaps que sera, sera as well as occasionally: Don't
bug me about whatever you're buggin' me about any more.
But he usually says that when you ask him how his day at school was while
he's conquering the universe with his thumbs. It was jarring to hear him
tell me, by inflection, that he was busy with his experiment, and wasn't
interested in being questioned about it right now.
And he showed how the oil and the water didn't mix, and the density of the
molasses made it fall to the bottom of the glass of water, but eventually
dissolve, and something about emulsification I can't remember now for the
life of me, that makes me think it won't be as many as forty years before
I'm in that home. He did it all himself.
The he took out the poster board, made a triptych, and started scrawling all
over it in his childish hand. The Big One's smart, but his penmanship is
AWFUL. And he showed his hypothesis, and his procedure to test it, and his
data, and his results and conclusions, and you needed a sort of infantile
Rosetta Stone to decipher it. Is that an A, or an N?
God he was proud of it, and we couldn't help being touched by his
earnestness. And then I forgot all about it.
The Science Fair is tonight Dad! You forgot. You have to go! I'm going to
I had forgotten, and had to rush around to make myself presentable
and get him there on time. The Queen stayed home with the wee one. The Wee
One, who is two, would have performed a different kind of experiment at the
science exhibit. What happens when I tear all these things into little
pieces and break them all into bits, and stomp on them, I wonder, and run
around like a cave man troglodyte road raider?
So it was me and The Big One.
We entered the big room, and I was taken aback. Every exhibit looked like it
was made by PHDs, with help from a team of Fine Art Majors, and a Computer
Graphic specialist on standby. Well, every exhibit but one. My boy's stood
out, that's for sure. Someone had slaved over choosing the fonts on the
laser printed charts on the surrounding exhibits, and it showed. Miles still
had magic marker on his fingers from scrawling his runes on the cardboard
backboard. He had performed his experiment multiple times for his peers and
the judges, and I leave it to your imagination what it looked like after a
nine year old boy had mixed cooking oil, molasses, and water, over and over
again, with his own unsteady hands. It looked like someone had been testing
all natural hand grenades at this exhibit, and had to hose it down
The principal got up and started reading the list of winners. The winners
would have their pictures taken for the local paper. The Big One was
electrified. I'm going to get my picture in the paper!
The Principal droned on. The prizes were being distributed lickity
I looked at my son's Great Molasses Disaster of 2005, and glanced up and
down the aisle at the other exhibits. They were all magnificent. Someone had
an entire solar system, in a slick black box, with each planet rendered
beautifully in full color, and had managed to get the strings suspending the
orbs to disappear. I couldn't see how they had done it. Another produced
static shocks for the participants, and looked as though it could charge a
quarter a play, and people would line up for it.
I thought I'd better temper The Boy's enthusiasm, lest he be too
disappointed. Before I could say anything, he says: Dad, only the blue
ribbon for the best of show overall is left, we should stand down front so I
can go up to get it right away!
And he took off, leaving me standing there with:
"Son, you know there's no shame in ..." half formed on my lips.
I hustled up to the front, amongst the scrum of expectant children and
parents, and my boy.
Of course he won.
I was agog. More exactly, I was sticky from molasses, and I was agog. The
Boy walked up and got his prize, and said a few inaudible words two feet
below the microphone, and I was, well proud of him, but humbled.
Because the judges had seen what I should have seen and didn't. My boy had
done it himself, and it showed. Boy did it show. But no matter. His
experiment worked. It showed the properties he was trying to show. He drew
the right conclusions, and scrawled them on his display. In short he did it,
when others had it done for them, and the judges recognized it.
But the real lesson was learned by his old man. I'll never doubt that little
July 14th 2005-
Good day to ye.
Let's be positive today. Nary a discouraging word, as they say.
O.K. I'm positive that Hollywood hasn't made ten movies as good and
entertaining as "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" in the intervening 57
years since it was made. Yup, I'm positive.
Hollywood is in a slump, according to Variety. People don't plunk it
down reflexively at the box office any more. Lots of head scratching up and
down the Sunset Strip. Well, let me give you some hints, over there on the
west coast, about why we're not buying as much of this piffle as previously:
It's because it's crap.
It always was crap, I know. When I was a kid, TV was in black and
white, and had three or four channels. You watched whatever was on it.
Period. And if you were home sick from school, propped up with pillows in
the bed, fortified with those wonder drugs, aspirin and ginger ale, the one
treat you got was the 11 inch black and white TV at the foot of your bed,
and bad movies all day long.
TV, with only those three or four channels, still didn't know how they could
possibly fill all those hours. They'd show any drivel: Candlepin bowling for a
couple of bucks, or maybe just a gift certificate. Community Auditions.
Anyone who's ever seen Community Auditions can't watch American Idol. Once
you've seen the spectacle of an overfed adolescent in a tutu twirling a
baton to a lounge combo version of a Sousa march, nothing else will do.
of all the dreck, Dialing for Dollars was king. Dialing for Dollars was a
local show, where a bad radio announcer would host an interminable movie in
the afternoon, and occasionally pause to pick bits of a shredded phonebook
out of a rotating basket, and call the phone number on the scrap. At first, the available
technology didn't even allow you to hear the person being called, making the
tableau seem even stranger than it was. If the person was home,
and watching the movie, and could identify the movie, and knew the exact
amount of cash they were giving away, they won a few bucks. Think of those odds. The
unintentional comedy factor was pretty high; picture watching, watching
mind you, a bad emcee count on his fingers and intone: One ring. Two rings.
Three rings. Four Rings...
People would actually answer their phones back then, and talk to whoever was
on the line. No call screening. No unlisted numbers. No cold call salesman.
No answering machines yet. Hell, the host would still reach party lines
occasionally back then. For you youngsters, a party line was a phone circuit
that served several homes, because phone lines used to be precious, and
expensive. The phone would ring slightly differently for each user, and your
neighbors could pick up their phones and listen to your conversations if
they felt like it. And so occasionally the host would be talking to three
shut-ins at the same time, none of whom were watching his movie.
The host would mostly get elderly ladies, who didn't know what day it was,
never mind what the movie was, and started talking to the guy as if they
were restarting a conversation they had started in 1936, and he'd sit there,
politely trying to get an interjection in edgewise, always failing, and
looking at the camera like it was an oncoming freight train. Finally, he'd get the
question out, and the women would say:
"What did you say your name was, again?"
And he'd always say: "Buh Bye"
sweetly, and they'd add ten bucks to the till, and he'd PUT THE PHONE NUMBER
BACK IN THE BIN. Try, try again, indeed.
The more upscale local station tried a bit of class by showing the same
dreadful movies at midnight on the weekends, but with a host in a tuxedo. He'd
stand on a set reminiscent of a Busby Berkley musical, in bow tie and tails,
and try to find something interesting to say about the movie. There was a
problem. The fellow hosting the show used to be Bozo the Clown on Saturday
mornings, and we all knew it. And try as he might to be urbane, many of us
would always look at him and smirk. That poor fellow spent his whole rest of
his life trying to be suave and sophisticated, but the greasepaint and
fright wig always showed somehow, like a tattoo you got when you were young
and drunk, and regretted for every waking moment for the rest of your life.
Off topic perhaps, but I met his son once. I attended a party at the local
junior college, the summer between high school and college. The college had
always had the reputation as a place where wealthy people send their ne'er-do-well
children to dry out and be babysat by the faculty, until they could
ram them back into the real college that had expelled them for
partying too much. My friends and I were just the poor local schlubs, very
out of place, and
must have looked like the dead end kids to these little inebriant fauntleroys. We were the guests of a lovely young lady who
was dating a friend of
mine. The movie host's son was there, drunk as a lord, and began hitting
unmercifully on my friend's girlfriend, right in front of him. My friend
could have disassembled the little blighter into his component limbs, and stacked
them like cordwood if he'd had the mind to, but he was a gentle sort, and
slow to anger. The little cretin eventually brought out what I'm sure he
thought were his big guns: Do you know who my father is?
I butted in: "I sure do. He's Bozo!"
This was not the answer he was looking for. He withdrew.
Anyway, eventually you saw every movie ever made- good, bad or indifferent.
Occasionally they'd show a good movie like "Blandings," by mistake perhaps.
And you got a perspective on how hard it is to make a really good movie.
It must be difficult, there's so many of them, but so few worth watching.
What I suspect, however, is that recently they're not really trying to
entertain us anymore. They really don't seem to care that a vast majority of
potential viewers, me included, don't need to see another movie about a hit
man with a heart of gold. Forty five of them a year for the last ten years has
fulfilled my need for comic murderers, thank you. I'd rather see stories
about interesting and attractive people, like the Blandings.
"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" was made in 1948. It was
essentially remade in the 1980s, with uneven effect, but still with enough
of the original's luster to shine on through, as "The Money Pit." Tom Hanks
and Diane from "Cheers" made a good comic team, and we own that one too and
wqtch it occasionally. But Blandings is king.
Cary Grant is da bomb. Cary Grant is a movie star. Picture Tom Cruise
sitting on a couch across from Jay Leno. That's a very small picture, even
if you have widescreen television. Now picture Cary Grant sitting across
from Johnny Carson. They're both too big for the screen, no matter how big it is.
Everybody in Hollywood is a homunculus compared to Cary Grant. He's
dead, and in black and white, and my wife still reminds me: "You know, Cary
Grant is a babe."
Grrr. Yeah, I know.
And unlike modern actors, he can act. Not Olivier acting. I mean, "Hamlet"
isn't in danger of breaking out in the middle of one of his movies. But you only need so much Hamlet in your life; somebody tell
a joke, will ya? Cary Grant knew how to.
And Myrna Loy was a babe. She had the looks of the woman you would marry,
and stay that way. She started her career as a vamp, but morphed into a matron
eventually. The vamp always showed, though, like a glimpse of garter, and I
still remind my wife: "Myrna was a babe, you know."
Grrr. Yeah, I know, she
And Myrna knew how to deliver her lines for their full comic effect. Most
actresses today sound like they're reading that shredded phonebook I
mentioned earlier, aloud. Without their glasses.
The story is and interesting cultural artifact about city folks building
their house out in the countryside. It's funny to hear them talk about
Western Connecticut like it's out on the prairie, and bucolic as Vermont. Mr.
Blanding's house would fetch tens of millions of dollars today. But the
story is universal, for anybody that builds a house, and raises children,
and works at a job. The humor is the sort that's a lost art these days. It's
quiet, and self effacing, and subtle. Mark Twain used to rail against people
that "told jokes." He knew how to be funny, which is to tell a story in a
humorous way, and avoided punchline fodder. And a movie, a comic movie, is
just telling a story in a humorous way, isn't it? It should be. This one is.
And it's interesting to look through the actors who have small parts in the
movie. They all know what they're doing, and push the story along nicely.
Only a a fetishist would recognize more than a few of them by name, but they
all look familiar. Then you look up their resumes, and are amazed:
Louise Beavers, who plays their maid, and comes up with the advertising
slogan that pays for that house, was in 163 movies!
Harry Shannon, the well driller, who has the best scenes in the movie,
appeared in 149 movies. I vaguely remember him shooting at John Wayne, or
shooting at the someone else with John Wayne, a few times.
Nestor Paiva, who plays an appraiser for 30 seconds in the movie, was in 186
And Jason Robards (Senior) knew how to work. He appeared in no fewer than
206 movies, and then had a son to be in a few hundred more.
And you know why they worked like that. They were professional, and people
that knew how to write and produce movies knew enough to use accomplished
and dependable actors, and tried mightily to entertain us. They still do
entertain us, though they're all dead now.
It's the live people in Hollywood that have forgotten how, or never knew.
July 13th 2005-
Greetings and salutations, my compadres.
You know me pretty well by now. You know I can't leave this "Best Places to
Live 2005" thing from CNN/Money alone. I've got to crawl underneath it,
check the hoses, look for hidden rust and concealed damaged, and maybe
loosen the oil drain plug a little before I come back from under there, just
for mischief's sake.
I'm not alone in this, I see. I've seen this thing referenced all over the
web, and I'm sure that's why CNN/Money goes to the effort of rating places
to live and then hunkering down under their desks in anticipation of
people disagreeing with their
findings and throwing crockery.
My favorite item from the horde, perhaps, is this:
"Pa. Town On 'Best
Towns' List Does Not Exist." Apparently, Wexford, Pennsylvania is
simply a Post Office designation for areas of four suburbs of Pittsburgh.
There' s no such place, as it were. I will leave the effect of its
non-existence on its suitability as a place to live up to the reader. I
expect it's a terrific place for you to live with your imaginary friends
from preschool. What's that? You had real friends in preschool? Well, get
off the internet right now, this is a place for lonely shut-ins, not you. I
also expect that despite the fact that the town doesn't exist, you'll still
end up in jail if you don't pay your property tax to somebody.
I noticed Barrington, RI, is number six on the list. That's a short drive
from where we are in Marion, Massachusetts, and that seaside town looks a
lot like ours. I've got no beef with that one.
It's number three that really caught my eye, though. Naperville, Illinois. I
was in Naperville two months ago. I have friends in Naperville, who moved
there from Marion. A few years back, I directed the construction of two big
service stations on the tollway there as well. Well, my friends took
CNN/Money's advice, before CNN/Money even offered it, and moved to
Naperville. And I'm in a position to tell if they've lost their minds, or
Naperville is as far outside Chicago as Marion is outside Boston. Chicago is
a great city. I'm not using "great" in the fashion of modern parlance, you
know, swell, or nice, although it is a swell and nice city. I
mean Chicago is a big, important city. I knew a lot about Chicago before I
ever set foot in it, because I study architecture, and Chicago might be the
most important architectural city in America. Louis Sullivan invented
skyscrapers there. Frank Lloyd Wright annoyed the locals in Oak Park for a
while, before spraying architecture all over the map, from Tokyo to Iraq and
back. There are a lot of well known and notable buildings in Chicago. Boston
is a great city, too, but it's very insular and small compared to a place
like Chicago. Hell, there's only about 600,000 people living in all of
what's called Greater Boston, which includes lots of suburbs. There's
130,000 people living in Naperville, never mind Chicago. Chicago is a big,
booming, jostling, lively, friendly place. Even the panhandlers are polite.
In Boston, even the beggars have a 'tude.
Well my friends have been in Naperville for a little while, and have meshed
into the life there fully, and showed us around. They're not strangers to
the midwest, and there's no fish out of water or Green Acres vibe to
their story. They liked Chicago, and they sold their tiny house in Marion
and bought an enormous home in Naperville, with money left over. They live
on a quiet street, with neighbors who all share their approximate worldview,
which is more important than many people think. Variety is not always the
spice of life, and if you must get up to go to work at 6:00 AM, and your
neighbor is hosting MTV video type parties outside your window every night,
neither of you is going to be happy. He'll be dead, and you'll be in jail
for killing him, or vice versa, eventually.
Variety isn't even always variety, now that I think about it. The guy
annoying you next door might just be a jerk, but he might not even be an
exotic jerk. And I often find myself more in tune with people who don't
look much like me, at least as far as the census takers think.
America, thank god, has always been a place where you left tribalism at the
door, and coalesced into communities and institutions voluntarily, with
people whose company you enjoyed. And everyone seems to be enjoying each
other's company in Naperville.
Naperville had a very important story to tell city planners as well. The
story is: mind your own business. Naperville got as big as it did because
two big highways were run right through it, and made the bustle of Chicago
available to it. My friend, oh, let's call him Mr. Smith, works in Chicago
and lives in Naperville. CNN/Money had a few trite and ill advised comments
on how Naperville is tainted by the big roadways filled with megastores that
have sprung up next to the highways. What nonsense. Here's their own words:
Drive for two minutes out of town in any direction and you're likely to be
sitting in traffic on an ugly highway.
Duh. It's that "ugly" highway that makes the whole thing possible. I cringe
when I hear stuff like that, and it's everywhere, you've seen it too, I'm
sure. The only bosh worse is seeing people in print refer to wilderness or
farmland that's "lost" to development. "Lost?" Was it ground into powder and
shot into the sun? Is there a black hole where it was before?
The word they should use, and never will, is converted. But converted
doesn't have that pejorative connotation that "lost" does, and they think
it's a shame that other people, people like the Smiths, have a comfortable,
convenient and safe place to live. There's a whiff of "Let them eat cake" to
the term "lost to development." Or maybe: "I've got mine, and to hell with
anybody else." I disagree with the sentiment, and I don't like cake.
By the way, farmland is never "lost" to development. Any time you want, you
can buy 100 or so of those houses, bulldoze them, and plant potatoes again.
What's stopping you? What's that you say? That would cost over
$100,000,000.00 to do? Well, maybe, just maybe, the land is being used for a
more cost effective and important use than growing potatoes now. You'd have
to grow A LOT of potatoes to make that 100 mil back. And this may be a
surprise to you folks that think we're "losing" farmland, but out near that
highway that you find so objectionable, there's dozens of supermarkets that
I imagine you find objectionable too, surrounded by parking lots that I
imagine you find objectionable as well, filled with decent, hardworking,
busy people that you probably find objectionable to boot, and there's still
plenty of potatoes in those supermarkets for you to buy. And everything else
from kiwi fruit to bok choi. So put a sock in it.
That last paragraph made me realize it's probably unwise to ask a guy named
Sullivan about potatoes.
Where were we? Oh yes; the real story in Naperville, besides the solid and
decent Mr Smith, and his vivacious and attractive wife, and his four
boisterous and lovely children, is the downtown. There's a walkway along the
river, which allows you to promenade, and sit a spell, and cool yourself on
a hot day by sitting in the shade, and get away from the cars, but
still get to dozens and dozens of interesting places. The City of Naperville
didn't try to pass laws against big box stores and all the other big
businesses people love to profess hatred for and then shop at anyway. They
zoned them out by the highway, on what we used to call "the main drag"
around here, away from the downtown, where the acres of asphalt for multiple
lanes and parking are a blessing, not a curse, because you drive there, and
Napervillians can get what they need conveniently.
And those stores did what everyone fears they would do. They wiped out the
little downtown businesses that tried to complete with Wal*Mart, and Home
Depot, and all the rest. But why try to compete with those places? To
extend that logic further, why not grow your own food? Get water from a
well? Why not write plays and perform them in your back yard instead of
Anyway, Naperville shrugged, got on with their more convenient lives, and
used their tax money, including the massive tax receipts from those big
stores by the highway, to improve the infrastructure of the downtown, and
blessedly didn't try to put the area on life support.
And pillar to post, downtown Naperville is a wonder. Really good
restaurants, one after another. Upscale, downscale, ethnic, coffee shops,
everything; and you can walk all over, because the real traffic is out near
the highway, where it belongs. Antique stores, really good bookstores, one
after another. Real clothing stores, not just places with acres of drop
ceilings above and linoleum below and polyester in between. Pastry, candy,
toys, stuff and junk, store after store. Nightspots you might like to
visit, if you could find a babysitter, and you can, because you live in a
neighborhood where everybody knows each other. In short, the precise thing
that every planning board, zoning board, and conservation committee in the
country is trying to legislate, and never seems to achieve. And nobody's on
business welfare, and they don't exist because they have enough pull to
legislate competition out of their town. They are there only because
they Naperville public likes what they offer, and patronizes them.
I could live in Naperville, and I'm fussy about where I live. I bet you
But there's no ocean. Never mind.
Ahoy there, mates.
CNN/Money Magazine is out with their "Best
Places to Live 2005" extravaganza, and as usual, it's a lot of laughs. I
look forward to it, and tinker with its search and statistics features, and
just generally enjoy myself with "what if" scenarios, and jape a little at
what CNN/Money thinks makes a place swell.
Now, they've chosen Moorestown, New Jersey, as the best place to live in the
US. I must admit, I've never been to Moorestown, at least I don't think I have, but
I've been all around it. It's down near Philadelphia, and not too far from
NYC, and looks OK from the profile on CNN/Money. But that's not good enough,
is it? So I went to Moorestown on the web, their own town page, and looked
It was refreshing to see how humdrum the place looked. No big ideas
here. Big ideas are usually bad in the quality of life arena. No one is
trying to save the earth, or mankind, or get everyone to march in rows in black shirts, giving a stiff armed salute. They just want you to know when
the trash is being picked up, and where to find the field hockey practice,
and to thank a town employee for years of service at their low visibility job.
And that's how you can tell that good people are having a good life in
Moorestown, and places like it elsewhere. They keep away from the excitement of having a Supreme
Court case on eminent domain named after them, and let people get on with
their lives, it appears.
The "top places" page has an interesting matrix on the right side of the page.
It lists 8 preferences you can specify, from not important to very
important, in categories like crime rate, pollution, available leisure
activities, and so forth.
Now you know I just have to monkey around with this, don't you?
First, I play it
straight. I play along, and put in my preferences. Crime's bad, right? I
thought so. let's see, Low auto insurance? Please, I'm from Massachusetts.
Auto insurance here is the financial version of a hostage situation, so
anywhere's better than here, right? Fiddle with Cultural Options, whatever
that means. I guess they mean if you just have to see a woman in a run-down
theater, smearing herself with chocolate and reading a phone book, and
occasionally yelling Vagina!, nothing else will do. Although I did notice Moorestown was doing
Oklahoma. Good for them.
I checked the box that leaves
out Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, and other such places where flashers just describe
themselves to passersby in the winter, instead of opening their coats. And
the answer is: Apparently I want to live in Hawaii.
No I don't.
Well, let's try beating on this thing. Let's say I'm a big deal. Money's no object, since I
don't have any. Let's put "Very Important" next to every item, and see what
25 places in New York and New Jersey.
I think this thing is telling me more
about the people that wrote it, than about where to live. I noticed some
places where I'd keep one hand on my wallet, and another on my sidearm, when I was
was out promenading. Maybe it's just me.
I know, let's try saying: I'm a
narcoleptic drunk with a trust fund, and don't care where I live. I'll never
leave the house much. (Don't laugh, in Massachusetts, a narcoleptic drunk
can become a Senior Senator). Let's put in CNN/Money's version of "I don't
care about anything." Crime, pfft. Pollution? Love Canal has lovely rainbows
in the water. Things to do? I'm gonna lay on the couch in my shorts and eat
bon-bons and drink from an amber bottle all day, who cares? So we fill it in
with: I don't care about anything, and voila:
The same 25 cities in New York and New Jersey.
In fairness, they do seem to be in a different order, at least here
and there, and so I figure my internet connection still works. But you
people from CNN/Money need to get out more. I mean from that office building
in New York.
So here's what we know so far: If you demand the finest of everything that
the United States of America has to offer, move to Tenafly, New Jersey, or
thereabouts. And later, when you become a disillusioned and nihilistic
misanthrope, and don't care a fig where you live, you won't have to move.
CNN/Money said so.
I looked up Tenafly on Google images. Real Estate listings come up first, as
they often do when you enter a city and state. Behold what Google thinks
Tenafly looks like:
The CNN/Money search engine needs one more button, to make it more useful to
me. Right under the button that says no cold weather, which does a grave
injustice to entirely salubrious places filled with wonderful people like
Minnesota and Wisconsin, I need one that says:
No Snout Houses
Well, (announcer voice) The 76th Annual Summer Classic, Baseball's
All Star Game (end voice) is tomorrow. Try to curb your enthusiasm.
I'm not going to watch the dratted thing, are you? Don't get me wrong. I like
baseball. There was a time when I'd watch the All Star Game. But the game
itself used to seem to mean a lot to the players, and their enthusiasm rubbed off
on the viewers. But the players don't care a fig for the thing now, and
treat an invite to it like something that they picked up on their shoe, and
that's what rubs off on the viewer now.
I think it was Seinfeld that observed that we don't root for
anybody in sports anymore, we root for the laundry. I agree. The biggest
mistake any sport can make is to put the player's names on the jerseys, and
they've all made that mistake now. Professional athletes are creeps.
There was a behavioralist and philosopher named Huizinga, that analyzed the
British schools' use of sports like rugby to instill moral values in their
participants, and tried to explain the mechanics of organized sports. He
said, "Play is the school of rules." And before the advent of big time,
organized sports, with big money involved, he was right.
Then professional sports became very big time, and lucrative for more than
the owner and the concessionaire, and the paradigm was blown all to hell.
You can't learn or teach anything about good sportsmanship, team play,
effort, the benefits of regular practice, or anything else productive by
observing professional team sports of any kind. And they're all professional
sports now, or function as minor leagues for the pros. The reason people are
assaulting each other at T-Ball games these days is they think their kids
are gonna get somewhere in the sport as a pro, if they just yell at him
enough and get the coach to let him play every inning, instead of taking his
turn like the rest.
And all that's a joke. Pretty much everyone that plays big time sports these
days is a physical freak. You can practice all you want, but if you can't
turn the bat around on a 95 mile an hour curve ball, and get your bat on it
too, all the effort and desire in the world won't help you. And some guy
like, let's say Cecil Fielder, who absolutely refused to do much more than show up, and
for who "training" consisted of missing his third breakfast for a
few weeks in the spring, got paid all that money because he could do it, and you couldn't,
and that's that. And as they say in basketball, you can't teach height.
And I don't want to hear anything about the charity stuff. Ted Williams used
to sneak across the street from the ballpark and look in on little sick children
when no one was looking because he was a decent human being. Now a publicist
calls the local paper, two dozen photographers, and a couple of television
stations, and breathlessly tells them to make sure they hustle over to the
hospital, a celebrity athlete will deign to lay hands on whatever sick
children they can find, and their magnificent importance will no doubt cure
those children, and don't forget to mention that the big celebrity's
foundation donates almost 4% of the donations it receives to.. to... well,
we forget what the affliction is, but I assure you the celebrity cares
deeply about being a Big Deal around it, and playing golf in its name.
But I still enjoy listening to a baseball game on the radio. The game is
perfect for the radio. You can picture the whole thing easily with a little
description, and the lazy pace doesn't bother you if you listen to it while
doing something else. Football is made for the TV, basketball too, but
hockey shouldn't even be allowed to televise its games, go to the rink.
And turn on the radio for baseball.
If there is a broadcast medium appropriate for women's basketball, or
bicycling, or soccer, I haven't seen it, and I imagine only dogs can hear
But let's celebrate the All Star Game in our own way. Baseball players have
always been the dumbest of all professional athletes, and that's saying
something. They say funny things all the
time. Unintentionally funny usually, but funny nonetheless. When Yogi Berra
is your elder statesman, you're not exactly the halls of academe. So let's
let them entertain us, without having to listen to any drivel about giving
110%, and "stepping up." We'll restrict our efforts to players from the
distant past, because I'm not that interested in why Albert Belle ran over
trick-or-treaters, or why perhaps Sammy Sosa feels he needs both steroids and a
"No, we don't cheat. And even if
we did, I'd never tell you."
"I've played a couple of hundred games of
tic-tac-toe with my little daughter and she hasn't beaten me yet. I've
always had to win. I've got to win."
"How you play the game is for
college ball. When you're playing for money, winning is the only thing that
"If I were playing third base
and my mother were rounding third with the run that was going to beat us,
I'd trip her. Oh, I'd pick her up and brush her off and say, 'Sorry, Mom,'
but nobody beats me."
"If you know how to cheat,
"I didn't begin cheating until
late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive. I didn't
cheat when I won the twenty-five games in 1961. I don't want anybody to get
any ideas and take my
Cy Young Award away.
And I didn't cheat in 1963 when I won twenty-four games. Well, maybe a
"I'd always have it (grease) in
at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off. I
never wanted to be caught out there with anything though, it wouldn't be
"When I began playing the game,
baseball was about as gentlemanly as a kick in the crotch."
On Race Relations:
"I don't care if the guy
(Jackie Robinson) is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a god-damn
zebra. I'm the manager of this team and I say he plays."
"I don't think baseball owes
colored people anything. I don't think colored people owe baseball anything,
"In a world filled with hate, prejudice, and
protest, I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice, and protest."
"I'm coming down on the next
pitch, Krauthead (Honus Wagner)."
"They've got so many Latin
players we're going to have to get a Latin instructor up here."
"I don't see why you reporters
(Brooks Robinson) and
me. Can't you see that we wear different numbers?"
"He'd (Reggie Jackson) give you
the shirt off his back. Of course he'd call a press conference to announce
"After Jackie Robinson, the
most important black in baseball history
is Reggie Jackson, I really
"The only reason I don't like
playing in the World Series is I can't watch myself play."
"The secret of managing is to keep the guys who
hate you away from the guys who are undecided."
"The more self-centered and
egotistical a guy is, the better ballplayer he's going to be."
"Gee, its lonesome in the
outfield. It's hard to keep awake with nothing to do."
"God watches over drunks and
On The Love Of The Game:
"All last year we tried to teach
him ( Fernando Valenzuela) English, and the only word he learned was
played, World Series checks meant something. Now all they do is screw up your
"The will to win is worthless
if you don't get paid for it."
"These days baseball is
different. You come to spring training, you get your legs ready, your arms
loose, your agents ready your lawyer lined up."
On Physical Fitness:
"They say some of my stars drink whiskey, but I
have found that ones who drink milkshakes don't win many ball games."
"The good Lord was good to me.
He gave me a strong body, a good right arm, and a weak mind."
"When I came
over here (the National League), I always heard it was a stronger league,
with amphetamines all over the clubhouse, but all I found was Michelob Dry."
"I'll promise to go easier on
drinking and to get to bed earlier, but not for you, fifty thousand dollars,
or two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars will I give up women. They're too
The Intellectual Side of the Game:
"He (Branch Rickey) must think
I went to the Massachesetts Constitution of Technology."
"The doctors x-rayed my head
and found nothing"
"How can I play baseball if I'm stupid? If I was
stupid I wouldn't have pitched in the World Series. I'd be playing ball in
Mexico or Yugoslavia or on Pluto."
"Reading isn't good for a
ballplayer. Not good for his eyes. If my eyes went bad even a little bit I
couldn't hit home runs. So I gave up reading."
"Baseball is ninety percent
mental. The other half is physical."
"I'm not going to buy my kids
an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did."
"A manager should stay as far
away as possible from his players. I don't know if I said ten words
to Frank Robinson
while he played for me."
"He (Darryl Strawberry) is not a dog; a dog is
loyal and runs after balls."
"I think about the cosmic
snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose
its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be
hurled through space. When that happens it won't matter if I get this guy
"All I had was natural
"I know I'm the world's worst
fielder, but who gets paid for fielding? There isn't a great fielder in
baseball getting the kind of dough I get paid for hitting."
On Dreaming of The Big Leagues:
"You got a hundred more young
kids than you have a place for on your club. Every one of them has had a
going away party. They have been given the shaving kit and the fifty
dollars. They kissed everybody and said, 'See you in the majors in two
years.' You see these poor kids who shouldn't be there in the first place.
You write on the report card '4-4-4 and out.' That's the lowest rating in
everything. Then you call 'em in and say, 'It's the consensus amoung us that
we're going to let you go back home.' Some of them cry, some get mad, but
none of them will leave until you answer them one question, 'Skipper, what
do you think?' And you gotta look every one of those kids in the eye and
kick their dreams in the ass and say no. If you say it mean enough, maybe
they do themselves a favor and don't waste years learning what you can see
in a day. They don't have what it takes to make the majors, just like I
never had it."
July 8th- 2005-
I wish to give you a gift. Think of me as your Salvation Army. I have
something that I can no longer use, that I wish to give to others so it
does not go to waste. I want you to have, and enjoy, and share, my Linguine
Now it's not really my Linguine con Gamberi. But I've made it so many times,
with so many variations, that people began to associate it with me. It's
really Anne Casale's recipe. But since the architect doesn't get to live in
the house, he just draws the plans, I think I can get away with calling it
included a link for Anne Casale's "Italian Family Cooking" in the left
column. I assure you, it is the most useful and best Italian Cookbook you
can buy. Page 89: Linguine con Gamberi. I did that from memory. I haven't
looked up the recipe in 15 years, but I remember the page number. So you
know it will make an impression on you, if you remember it like that.
Gamberi refers to the shrimp. I loved shrimp. When my beautiful wife and I
were first married, we were broke. We lived in a crummy apartment, and
worked a lot, and had little disposable income. And for a treat, we would
get a quart of ice cream, and watch Northern Exposure, and were blissfully
unaware that we needed anything more. And we would very occasionally scrape
up enough money to eat in a good restaurant. We would never eat in a bad
restaurant, or egad, a fast food restaurant, because we would rather eat
spaghetti and marinara sauce night after night, and peanut butter every
noon, and hoard our "little all," than dissipate it willy-nilly on bad
restaurant food. And because we never dared risk squandering our little
treat by risking eating at unknown places, we found the finest meal we could
think of, and ate it at the same restaurant over and over.
Legal Sea Foods had a few places within a half hour of our home, and we took
advantage of it. They were first well known for a no-frills- picnic table-
paper napkin kind of unpretentious fish house vibe, that had to yield when a
simple lobster began to cost over twenty bucks. Twenty years ago, twenty
bucks was a pile of money to pay to eat an enormous boiled cockroach no
matter how much drawn butter came with it.They became more upscale, as did we all, and
now the soul food fish shack vibe is long gone. The food's still terrific.
At least I think it is, I have to avoid it like a leper colony now.
We'd sit and wait for a table; not too long, that's important, but long
enough to let the ice work on your Bombay Gin and tonic and make it
perfect. Why, yes, I think I could do with another, my fine man.
Then to the table, and 1/2 dozen really fine oysters on the half shell, with
horseradish and tabasco. My wife would wonder who the hell the maniac she
married was when I ate those, and had the
fish chowder while I slurped the awful things down. Sometimes we
had calamari, sliced into ringlets, battered and fried, mixed with little
rings of hot peppers, a dish I bet you can find at coffee shops now, but new
and wonderful a few decades ago. And then, we'd both order the same thing
for our entree, every time, and elicit stares from fellow diners when we
offered each other bites from our identical dishes, for the love of sharing
I guess, or perhaps on the off chance our own was only sublime, and
the other's was better still: Shrimp and garlic, on angel hair pasta.
It sounds so simple, and trite, but all really good food is simple,
just made well from very good ingredients. White wine of course. Then
black coffee, and Bon Bons, little frozen dollops of ice cream, coated with
really fine chocolate. And you'd sit there, when it was all done, spent from
the exertion of enjoying yourself, and glowing with the effects of a
really fine meal, shared with the person you love above all others, and
looking in wonder at how appetizing even the little pool of olive oil and
garlic in your empty dish looked.
Shrimp is the king of all seafood, I think.
And I can't eat it any more.
The doctor said it was like a switch being thrown somewhere in my body.
Could've happened anytime. Couldn't have been predicted. I said: mmmmffglloffffmmmnfrp. My face was the size of basketball, my heart was
playing the drum solo from In A Gadda Da Vida, (the extended version,) I had
hives with their own zip codes, and the emergency room nurse had to place a
rubber glove filled with ice between my eyes, or I wouldn't have even been
able to see the doctor. Diagnosis: Anaphylactic shock. Cause: seafood and
Treatment: No more Linguine con Gamberi.
Well, we adapt, don't we? I have friends who to this day ask my
wife, when we're all out to dinner, sotto voce, if it's
OK if they have shrimp, they don't want to depress me by having it brought
to the table. That's a friend, I tell you. Go right ahead, I don't
mind, really I don't. And I'm going to prove I don't mind, by giving
it to all you lovely people too.
Page 89. Don't forget the Pinot Grigio.
July 6th, 2005-
No offense, but you people are getting predictable. I already know what
you're going to say, for instance, when you see the picture I've got today:
"Oh my god, he's lost his marbles, he's got a picture of a fireplace in
Yes; yes I do. And unrepentantly. The Sippican cottage fireplace is the
locus around which our whole domestic world revolves, and it's about time I
told you about it. Try to put that bathing suit from yesterday out of your
mind for a moment.
I've read that San Diego, California, and a town in southern Italy, I forget
the name, have the ideal climate for human beings. That's wrong, I think.
Don't misunderstand me, I've been to San Diego lots of times, and lolled
about in Balboa Park, and annoyed the animals in the zoo, and it really is a
swell place. My mother's side of the family hails from southern Italy, and
the landscape and the people there are no strangers to me. I visited the
middle of the peninsula in the dead of winter, and needed only a sportcoat
and the occasional shot of grappa to keep me warm. But I fear that
the people who figured that those two places were the most salubrious in the
world, were doing a little arithmetic, when they should have been doing
They figured room temperature, the one where the most people feel at ease,
is 72 degrees. San Diego and fill in the blank Italy are 72 degrees
outdoors, or the
closest to it on this planet the most often.
But that's not the whole story.
If you're in a room, and the temperature is neither too hot or too cold,
you're not comfortable, you're just not hot or cold. Comfort is a
complicated thing, and it entails more than avoiding standing in front of
the open refrigerator for too long, or sticking your head in the oven when
it's on. Comfort is the feeling of physical and mental well being that we
strive for, and talk about, and seek, but can't define easily.
The days are long, and sunny and warm, here in early July in Massachusetts.
But the idea that the winter will be welcome when it arrives isn't that
crazy, and enters into even my mind, the guy that loves sailing and hot
weather, if just because I know it will kill all the mosquitoes.
Ellsworthy Huntington, in 1925 wrote something that Paul Johnson, the
magnificent historian, brought to our attention in his "A History of the
"The evidence shows that human beings function most effectively outdoors at
temperatures with a mean average of 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, with noon
temperature 70 average, or a little more. Mental activity is highest when
the outside average is 38 degrees, with mild frosts at night. It is
important that temperature changes from one day to the next: constant
temperatures, and also great swings, are unfavorable- the ideal conditions
are moderate changes, especially a cooling of the air at frequent intervals"
Well, hello Marion. And hello Mr Hearth:
Look, they're reading by the fire. Mental activity is highest, etc. etc.
There simply is no substitute for fire. We are cavemen in suits and ties,
nothing more. And just because we're clever enough to kill all the sabre
tooth tigers by the water hole before they eat us, and later invent Play
Station 2, doesn't mean we're done with being earthy. I've seen precious
little TV lately, but what I have seen just seems like little more than
a substitute for the flicker of the
fire for us Cro Magnons in casual but tasteful attire to huddle around.
I'll take the real fire, every time.
The old Yankees used to dust off the old saying: Firewood keeps you warm
twice- Once when you split it, and again when you burn it. It's like many
tired old sayings, it got trite because it was absolutely true, and
I am amused when folks go all squishy for any exotic ceremony, and ignore
the perfectly serviceable ones in their own tradition. I don't go all wobbly
in the knees making tea, like they do in Japan, or London for that matter.
Drinking shots of snake venom like they do in Hong Kong seems less exotic if
you've ever had real still whisky, drunk from an old milk jug. Eating only
with two fingers on one hand in Morocco is another; Yawn. Chopsticks,
It only seems interesting because it's alien, and you get the outside view
of it. Re-examine this little ceremony:
A little paper, torn in strips. under the grate, in the ashes which are
never removed, but do not grow. Our newspapers are virtual now, like what
you're reading, and that explains the glare you get from me when you ask me:
"Paper or plastic?"
Paper dude, paper.
Kindling now, atop the grate. Split shingles, leftover wedges from tapered
legs, little bits and pieces of kiln dried lumber left from any construction
project. You arrange them randomly, but exactly in the fashion you remember
from the first fire you lit that didn't take ten matches. One match is
It's cool outside, so you pull on a little coat, perhaps gloves, or you just
brave it in your regular clothes, knowing the fire will seem that much
better if you're chilled a bit. In February, this also lends a certain sense
of urgency, believe me.
The wood pile, early in the season, is neat as a pin; all the split baulks
are lain bark side up to shed the errant raindrop. You pick the logs with a
complex calculation of time, and shape, and size, and combination, that
rivals good cooking. Places like LL Bean sell any number of elegant and
useful carriers for your logs, ranging from canvas slings with leather
handles, to wrought iron trees with a carry handle. If you live to be a
thousand, and become the richest man in the world, you will never use
anything other than a plastic five gallon pail. Two hours of blessed warmth
The logs are Oak. Several years old. Split after drying for one season. Oh
sure, occasionally you get other wood in there, perhaps the odd Maple,
Birch, or Holly. Never Pine. It's gummier than an oil spill. Leave it for
Put those logs on the kindling, arranged so the flames will lick up between
them some, and give you the show you're looking for, and will collapse on
themselves when the greedy fire eats them half away instead of rolling out
on the floor and discommoding the cats.
One match only.
And then the sun comes right out of those logs, from where the July sunshine
hammered itself in, and warms your bones, and your family, and your hearth.
Read by the fire, and the author is improved beyond all measuring. Eat your
dessert by the fire, and the cook begins to recommend themselves to Paris,
not the pastry aisle. Drink a glass of wine by that fire, and it makes you
wittier, and the warmth of the fire spreads like ink in a pool.
And if you're lucky, that hearth is the center of the world for two, it
could lead to...well...er...um...two children, or so I hear.
July 5th, 2005-
Good day to you. I trust you all had a wonderful time celebrating the Fourth
of July. The weather was extremely clement yesterday, and the yard
beckoned, and we answered. Lovely.
But now, is the thrill gone? I feared so, and began to wonder- What is the
Fifth of July an anniversary for? Anything? Bueller?
Well, I didn't really mean anything. I meant something really notable, or
fun, or important. I looked around, but it all seemed trivial, all the July
5ths through the ages:
In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica. But
Einstein shot that all to hell and ruined it for the rest of us.
In 1830, France invaded Algeria, lord knows why.
In 1920, Algeria declared its independence from France, lord knows
why. But they've got that going for them.
In 1954, Elvis made his first recording, "The Blue Moon of Kentucky." I
didn't hear that being covered at Live8, so I guess he's not noteworthy,
In 1884, Germany, no doubt envious of the Garden of Eden the French
had found in Algeria, invaded Cameroon. They must have lost interest in the
place on one of the other 364 days of the year, July 5th calendars are mute
on the subject.
In 1811. Venezuela declared its independence from Spain, but waited until
2004 to declare its independence from any form of work not based on oil
receipts and warmed over Castro politics.
In short, I was going to have to think of something else to bore you with on
July fifth. Until...
Omigod. 1946. THE INVENTION OF THE BIKINI. Hosannahs and ululations! Cinco
De Mayo, Independence Day, gosh darnit, Christmas is nothing compared to
that! Before 1946, ladies bathing suits were designed by the Taliban. And
then- France, still stinging from their expulsion from Algeria, no doubt,
decided to attract some attention to themselves the old fashioned way, by
disrobing, and c'est magnifique! they gave us the most expensive garment per
square inch in the world, and worth every penny, I say.
Now, to be a real bikini, we've got to look at that belly button. Various
two piece swimsuits had been in vogue in Hollywood, for instance, before
1946, but It took Louis Reard, in Paris, France to get the girls out on the
beach properly in a getup worthy of tanning in. Here it is, fashioned by one
of the few women brave enough in 1946 France to model it. In 2005, we're
having trouble getting anyone to wear at least this much when sunbathing:
Click anywhere on the picture (no wise comments, you) and you'll be
transported to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and read all about
Monsieur Reard and ol' Michele Bernardini, the model, and lots of other
interesting stuff about the Bikini Atoll, the islet in the Pacific the garb
is named for, and our now thankfully forgotten habit of dropping atomic
bombs on it.
And for all you Haute Couture weirdos infesting Paris right now, here's my
two cents: That picture was taken in 1946. Miss Bernadini looks quite
fetching in that rig, and comfortable to boot. A woman wearing that suit
would feel feminine, and attractive, not exhibitionist. And men don't really
need to see any more than that to get the general idea. So the next time you
people get the urge to reinvent the bathing suit wheel again, like you do
every year, and make it look like your model is wearing a bag, or a couple
of bottle caps, or a window screen, or little boy's pants, or little more
than postage for an undersized envelope, look up this picture, and repeat
Quit while you're ahead.
Fourth of July, 2005-
Hello all. I'd like to wish each and every one of you a pleasant Fourth of
July. For all you lovely folks who live on the other side of the national
dotted lines, celebrate along with us, because after all, the United States
is just the whole world, living in one place.
Many years ago, I used to live in Medfield, Massachusetts. Medfield is a
nice place. It's considered a fairly affluent and desirable place to
live these days, but when I first moved there, there were abandoned fifteen
room victorian era homes on the main street in town. Make an offer. I made a
living in the town and neighboring burgs, read both books in the library,
and suffered through "Medfield Day" celebrations for the better part of a
decade. Off topic perhaps, but when did face painting and getting brochures
from car dealers become a "celebration?"
There is a little five and dime in the middle of town, which is a rare thing
these days. It had become the repository for All Things Medfield, perhaps by
default. If you wanted a jersey emblazoned with the insignia of the high
school team, that's where you got it. And I found myself in there quite
often, searching for the little things you need that you didn't know you
needed until you needed them, if you catch my drift. If you had to have a
stamp, or a pencil, or a map, or a box of bandaids, or a light bulb, they
One day, I had one of those moments in the store, where you get a
vision of your surroundings as if you were a complete stranger, which is
rare and useful. I was standing in line at the checkout, passing the time
looking at the wares displayed near the register, a textbook example of the
retailer's first line of attack. And they had a pile of garments emblazoned
with "Medfield," and for a picture, they had a sailboat. A big one.
Now the ocean is a solid hour from Medfield. The only water in the
town is the Charles River, which meanders all over the map through eastern
Massachusetts, and for the most part is so inconsequential you can jump
across it, plus a little pond near the "Old Mill," and Herve Villechaise
couldn't drown in that. Hence the moment. What was Medfield about?
The repository of All Things Medfield didn't know. Neither did I. And I
began to think, I didn't want to live in a town that didn't know what to
emblazon their shirts with. I had no "anima" it was a place you slept until
you went to work, and that's it, I guess.
Now, I intend no disrespect to my former brethren in Medfield. I always
found the place to be infested with just the sort of salubrious and pleasant
people you'd want for your neighbors. But I guess I needed to go where the
sailboat made sense.
And we moved to Marion; and the sailboat, and the little victorian village
by the sea seemed to make all the sense in the world. But did it?
When you move, you look around for what the locals do, and do likewise. But
forget the sailboat in Marion. My sailboat's in Fairhaven. A mooring in
Marion costs only $50.00 a year, if the price hasn't gone up since I looked
into it ten years ago and gave up. I pay twenty times that, and have a ten mile ride as
an added penalty to the financial one. Whah?
Well, since the price of moorings is set at 1/20 of what it's worth, almost
no one ever gives one up. They lie, and cheat, and hoard, and tie unused
boats on them, and give them to their progeny, but they never let them go.
There's a waiting list of course, but people who've moved to the town
five years after I did have got their hands on the few moorings that have
come open, because the fellows at the town hall who know when the list will
have an opening tell their friends when that will be, and they rig it so
they're first in line when it does. Marion took some federal money to dredge
or somesuch a long time ago, and so the list cannot be limited to Marion
residents only. And so the harbor, the central theme of the town, is forever
clogged with the boats of people from out of town, and the politically
connected, and the aroma of that sort of people keeps me from coveting a
spot there too much. It's funny what people will tell you at your children's
baseball games, when they think you're in on it too, instead of slightly
appalled by it.
But beautiful flowers often bloom easiest on a cowpie, and the dearth of
space in Marion's harbor drove us to Fairhaven, and as I told you in
"What's New" a little while ago, it's the best sailing on the planet, and so
I am content. And the only aroma there is from the ocean at slack tide, and
the sweat of the brow; it's not redolent of "Le Grande Fromage," and the
But Marion had another thing that made it special and remarkable, and
required no waiting list: The Fourth of July fireworks.
Now, we went to them initially because there's precious little else to do
around here. There are no restaurants to speak of, and the three places with
liquor licenses in town aren't exactly the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. And
when we heard about the Fourth of July Celebration, we drove a little,
and walked a ways, down the street we live on, spread our blanket, and sat
down like a banquet for mosquitoes, and were prepared to settle for "not
It was spectacular. The pyrotechnics company knew what they were doing. The
fireworks were shot right out over the harbor, from right in front of us,
and the open horizon improved the sightlines. The band played real patriotic
music, Sousa marches and such, and reminded me how tired I was of laser
light shows and bad rock music. It is useful to remember that Sousa's real
name was John Philip So, and he wanted to really americanize it, so he added
the letters USA to it. I appreciate the gesture, and his patriotism, and
never tire of his marches. And here I was, participating in the life of the
locality, celebrating the birth of the nation, by the seashore I loved, with
my family. And I was content.
We made a point of contributing to the fund for the display each year after
that. The display was put on by private donation, not public funds, which
added to its luster. This was truly by, for, and of the people. And every
year the show was a little better, and it began to define what it meant to
live here for our family. My oldest son was so captivated by it, when he was
just a toddler, I painted a little mural of a fireworks display over his
bed, and he fell asleep looking at it every night of his life, until his
little brother displaced him, and he moved to another room. His little
brother will never see the real thing, however, just the painting. I'll get
The crowd at the display began to grow, and it added to the frisson of the
display with the feeling of an "event," and I was gratified to see my
brethren from the surrounding towns, some of which had displays of their
own, coming to participate in ours, and ooh and aah and eat ice cream and
distract one or two of the mosquitoes from biting only me.
A year ago, a strange thing happened. My wife went downtown, to purchase
something, and she returned home to inform me that an enormous crowd was
streaming into the downtown. That's strange, I thought, it's only July 3rd.
In its finite wisdom, the people running the show had decided to change the
celebration of Independence Day to July 3rd, because they ostensibly feared
that there were too many displays on July 4th, and they would distract from
I was agog. I refused to go. I refused to participate in the extinction of
the reason for the display in the first place. Had they forgotten the real reason
for our fete? I thought so. And so the most central commemoration of our
common bond, our raison d'etre, had become subservient to a fireworks
It got worse, dear reader. For there will be no fireworks display at all
this year. I was puzzled to hear that, for I had watched last year with
interest as the thermometer-shaped sign on the lawn of the Town Hall
tracked the progress of the donations and easily topped out. But it was
cancelled. I was mystified, but only a little, because but I figured
if they forgot why they were celebrating, they certainly would forget
how, sooner or later.
I never did glean the reason for the end of it. I heard some stuff in the
local paper that didn't add up, about the cost, which seemed odd, as it was
paid for by private subscription. No one ever seemed to cause any trouble at
it, and the police blotter never showed an arrest at one that I noticed. It couldn't be lack of interest, I've
never seen anything in the town with that level of interest.
The fellows at my older child's baseball game were most instructive about
this topic, after educating me, unknowingly, about moorings. The Thurston
Howell wannabes, the lotus eaters, the mooring holders, the twenty five
people who go to Town Meeting and when nobody's looking, decide things,
didn't like what they considered the riffraff from the surrounding towns
walking past their waterfront homes, and enjoying their fireworks.
And that was that.
And so we forgot what we were celebrating, and why, and then, how.
I think I'll start selling Marion T-shirts, with a picture of Medfield on
them. I don't know what else to put on them any more.
I moved to Los Angeles in the late '70s, on a lark. When I say on a lark,
I'm not referring to driving there on a little scooter for the elderly
and infirm, I mean I went with no idea why I was going. I went along with my
older brother, who knew why he was going, and lives there to this very day,
pestering the state with music. I simply succumbed to wanderlust, and
returned after a few years.
Driving across the country was interesting, and instructive. People in
print and on TV who
worry a lot, worry a lot about the homogeneity of culture
in the United States. I have no idea what they're talking about. Everywhere
I went in the US seemed different than the last place by a wide margin.
There was a commonality of a sort to the whole business, but not the kind
that matters if you're talking about people, not things, I think. It doesn't
matter that there's a McDonald's restaurant in Houston. The people behind
the counter are from Houston, not from Oak Park, Illinois, after all. And
they inhabit it in a Texas sort of a way, even if the paper hats look the
same as in New Jersey.
I like to see the shared values and interests of my brethren as the cake,
and enjoy the different icings we each put on that make us interesting to a
stranger, but not strange to someone familiar. The nervous nellies screaming
at each other on panel shows think that because potable water comes out of
the tap everywhere, and you get the same dial tone on every phone in the
country, we're becoming a Stepford nation. They spend too much time in
Europe, I suspect, where using the telephone is like gambling, both for the
reliability of connecting to the party you are trying to reach and the
possibility of enormous financial loss, and ordinary people conduct
biological experiments daily, like an MIT scientist, by drinking the water
and waiting for the "results" to come in, in a bathroom that doesn't work.
Note to TV talking heads: People are all the same to you, because you only
talk at them, and it's never occurred to you to ask them a
question, and listen to the answer. Room service queries don't count.
Anyway, I worked in El Monte, California, for about a year, and fit right in
when I learned to eat burritos off the lunch truck instead of BLTs, and
started putting "R" at the end of my words, which to this day occasionally
makes people in Massachusetts, the place of my birth and domicile for 45
years, say: "You're not from around here, are you?"
I had heard a lot about surfing in California. In my grammar school days, I
had a friend who's father's job took them to Southern California in the
summer, and back to Massachusetts for the winter and the school year, the
worst possible permutation I can think of. He'd appear at my door each
fall, his hair gone white from the sun, his winter freckles connected into
one huge cocoa overlay, and tell me about surfing in California. And we'd
listen to Beach Boys music. Not that "fifties car song" crap. "Sail on
Sailor," and "Sloop John B," and "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and "Darlin," you know, when Van Dyke
Parks took over and stopped the adenoid problem off-key falsetto screeching
in the background for a while.
So I moved to LA, and listened to an alternate universe through my car
radio, one with a "surf report" and not a "schools closed due to snow
report" every morning, and was content.
At least until the 150th straight day when the announcer would intone: Bad
surfing today. No one ever went surfing. I'd see them at their desk at work,
wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "Zog's Sex Wax" and huarache sandals, but
they never went surfing. Because it was no big deal to them, they only
went when it was really good. I can assure you that finally, after months of
"Bad surfing today," the announcer said: "There's a terrifying and
destructive storm lashing the Hawaiian Islands- whoopee! wax your boards"
and the next day, tumbleweeds were blowing up and down the aisles at work.
You can ski in Vermont in May, even June, if you want. Killington make a
point of leaving a couple of hundred yards of slush open to the public for
thrill seekers who want to say they went skiing in their bathing suits, but
no one that likes actual skiing would bother, only someone from California
would want to go.
And so you really only learn about the vagaries of the
people in various parts of this great land when you live among them for an
extended period of time, and learn what they've become blase about, which
seems exotic to others. When my California brother brought his young sons to
visit Massachusetts, they wanted to go sledding, and for the life of us, we
couldn't figure out a place to go and do it.
I've spilled a lot of ink in this space about sailing. And if you live
in Nebraska, the idea of gliding along the ocean, propelled only by the
breeze and cold beer, must seem exotic. I've gone as far as building a boat.
(How are your plans coming, are you ready to buy the lumber?) And I'm here
to admit to you, I haven't been sailing yet this year. Not once.
Look, I'm busy making furniture. The wind was from the North a lot.
Bottom needs painting. No one to go with. Looks like rain. Red tide. Motor
needs tuning. Big One has a baseball game. Little One has a cold. The wind's
from the East. Too cold. Too hot. More furniture. Family Reunion. Tide's all
wrong. Is that a thunderhead cloud?
To paraphrase Yogi Berra, we did it all the time, so we didn't do it at all.
Things ain't what they used to be and never were.
We're back rooting around in the Library of Congress, and we're back in the
kitchen again, a different one. It's the depression again, or maybe the
My wife loves this picture. What's not to like? When you're on your final
leg of the race of life, recalling things past, aren't these the sort
of things that you'd ruminate on? Dimly remembered, perhaps, but at the same
time you might remember the feeling you had, the smell of the detergent, or
your mother's perfume, or perhaps the drip of a faucet. Something to make it
real, to frame it and make it a picture in your mind.
I'm nowhere near boneyard age myself, at least actuarily, but I occasionally
already find myself transported to images of my oldest child when he was a
baby, just by seeing some humdrum item he used to idly finger, and wouldn't
be seen dead with now. You could videorecord every waking hour of your
children's exploits, and watch them over and over, and not capture your
imagination like a little sigh they let out when they rolled over in their
sleep. You do watch them while they sleep, don't you? I can't be the only
When I was a young man, I visited my older brother. He had gotten on with
his life, and begun to raise a family, while I was still wearing leather
jackets and driving too fast. I found something compelling in hanging around
his house, and seeing him and his wife minister to their sons' daily needs.
Everything seemed so mundane, and pleasant. He was washing his little boy's
hair in the tub after a long day of toddler folderol, and he summed it up
for me when I asked him about the kind of dedication it took to raise a
child. Dedication had never been my strong suit, and I was genuinely
curious. He shrugged, and called the daily rituals, blessings, and ablutions
"Pleasant Chores," and I've never heard a better term for it. I owe my
brother and his wife a great debt, for when I had forgotten or taken for
granted the simple pleasures of a family, he showed it to me, like this
family showed it to the cameraman, in the room but not participating, and
demonstrated a framework I longed for and duplicated for the best part of my
Washing dishes is not fun. I remember how much work it was when I was a
child, to wash a family of six's dishes after the evening meal, before we
were able to afford a dishwasher, and it took some effort. Washing dishes is
a chore we can all relate to, because at some time or another, we've all
done it. Well, it's a chore, but it looks like a pleasant chore in that
picture. There's no leaves on the trees outside the window, and I bet that
stove was also the heat for the room, and standing next to it for a while
probably felt like a towel right out of the dryer too. Mmm. And mom doesn't
have the "isn't that precious, get the camera" look on her face, she simply
looks kindly upon her charge, so no doubt this is a daily occurrence, a
The caption of this picture mentioned the race of this family, and it was
jarring to think they were fixated on that when looking for things to
notice. If this picture doesn't capture something universal, I'm in the
wrong universe. I remember reading that seventy five years ago, Old
Yankees generally hated the smell of garlic, and they must have wondered how
the garlic eaters lived, and hence the picture. Well, I'm a garlic eater. My
father is Irish, so I'm only half a clove of garlic eater, and if I went to
the Italian American Club, I would only be allowed to go in the pool up to my waist,
but her ancestors would be no strangers to mine. And if you're still
wondering out there, at the Works Project Administration, about garlic, it
tastes a lot better than Haggis.
I sell little steps not unlike the one the girl is standing on, and every
one that goes out the door makes me smile to think it might be part of a
ritual of some sort, to each family its own, that binds the family bricks
with the mortar of shared daily activities. Children always ask their parents to
play with them, but secretly they always covet working alongside them
better, I think.
I bet that dress the little girl was wearing was made by that woman at the
sink, and the curtains too. Everything in the tableau is neat and orderly,
and speaks to a kind of salubrious monotony that families need to make
children feel secure, I think. Familiar things, at familiar times, from
familiar people- "Pleasant Chores." indeed.
I want you to look at a picture. The picture is in the Library of Congress,
don't ask me where. If I had to find it in their archive again, it would take me until The
Statue of Liberty got down off her pedestal and roller skated.
is from the 1930s. The government was hiring all kinds of people to do all
kinds of things back then, and I suspect when they got towards the back of
the line of people waiting for a gummint job, they said things like: "What
do you know how to do?' and whatever you answered, they said, go out and do
it, and good, bad, or indifferent, we'll archive it, and you'll eat three
times a day.
Well some guys had cameras. And they remind me of the Japanese tourists I
saw in Europe. Don't be fooled by the numerous movie and television
references you've probably seen about Japanese tourists, in shorts, black socks, and wing
tips, taking pictures of trash cans, and light poles, and sewer lids, and so
forth. By, "don't be fooled," I meant, don't be fooled by the ubiquity of the
jokes into thinking it isn't true. It is true, I've seen it. They'll
take a picture of anything but something interesting. Well, they had nothing
on these depression era boys, because they went out into the landscape, and
pointed that lens around like a dowser at a waterpark, and blasted
No detail of everyday life was too mundane for them to capture. And you wade
through the thousands and thousands of mostly black and white photos and
marvel at what a wonderful thing 70 years of distance has done for the whole pile. I
could look at them until AARP calls me, and not get bored by their boredom,
because it's a history of a life that was going, and one that was coming,
written in lightning on film. And for once, no one in the pictures is
important. By important, I meant prominent. Because the archive is filled
with the only people who are really important in this world, which is
Look at this:
Now, I'm going to forgo maundering on about the good old days, because
this is thirty years before I was in the game, so to speak, and I don't have
a dog in that fight.
But look at that room. It's glorious. You'd kill for a kitchen that pleasant
to be in, and we'd get you to sign the closing papers before you noticed
there isn't a dishwasher, unless you count the girls in the chairs. Please
keep in mind, this is not the rich folk's house, or it wouldn't be here.
They were just regular folks, like you and me, or maybe just me; you might
be an Admiral or Rock Star or somesuch, I don't know.
Let's go over what they knew about a kitchen then, that they don't know now.
First of all, look at the light. I'm referring to the light emanating from
the yellow orb in the sky, which rarely gets into houses these days. The big
girl on the right is reading,
and that looks like a great place to do it. Two things bring in that light.
First, the ceiling is high enough, but not vaulted. Designers vault rooms willy-nilly now, and make gloomy, echoey, medieval caverns out of rooms that
should be close and homey. Kitchens get it a lot these days. You generally
need four or five hundred thousand million watts of lighting in a vaulted
ceiling kitchen to approach what they've got here, streaming right in. ( I
might be a little off with my calculations on footcandles there, but I stand
by the gist of it.)
looks nine feet high. You can get a fairly airy ceiling by simply specifying
full eight foot studs for the first floor wall framing of your house, and
gain 4 inches, for a few bucks. You'll save people like me from getting
cracked in the head by your inexplicable ceiling fans on a 7'-8" ceiling
The ceiling would undoubtedly have been white calcimined plaster, to
reflect the light. Calcimine was a form of paste used un lieu of paint on
ceilings, that you had to wash off
before recoating. Everyone forgot that eventually, and painted over it, and it peeled
forever. Your recollection of endlessly peeling Victorian and WWI vintage house
ceilings generally traces back to calcimine. In the fifties, peopled stapled
asbestos and cardboard tiles over the flaking paint, in the sixties they
tried acoustic drop ceilings, the seventies tried swirled sand textured
paint over the mess, and the eighties tried the judicious use of the
But everyone's forgot to make the ceiling high enough to make the
room proportionate to its length and width, allow
the windows to be tall and stately, and let in extra air and light. Your
present kitchen is almost undoubtedy larger than this, and I ask you, could you fit
those four children in yours while you worked at the sink? (Count the shoes,
there's four, trust me) The designer knew enough to put windows on two walls
in the room, and not just one. It's possible to get natural light into a
room with the windows ganged on one wall, but its hard to do, and unlikely
you'll manage it. Lighting your face from one side alone makes for
interesting Beatles album covers, but it's no way to live.
Look at the pantry cabinet on the facing wall. it's niched in, to allow you
to get around the room, with a nice flat counter to display what is
obviously a prized possession, with room to spare for day to day use as a work
surface. Lovely. Now, even expensive kitchen cabinets are really crummy these days. They're more
often than not made from particle board covered with plastic woodgrain
paper with a design imprint that looks like someone who liked
Lawrence Welk a lot drew it originally. The only real wood on cabinets now is
the doors, and they always are overlaid on the face, not inset like the
picture. They are overlaid to save the manufacturer trouble, not give you a
better looking thing; these cabinets have the doors inset into the frame,
which is fussy, and looks terrific, and is not like most modern cabinets.
The modern version looks more like the box a cabinet comes in
than a cabinet itself.
The cabinets here are painted, probably glossy white, looked spiffy,
reflected the glorious light some more, cleaned easily, and could be
refurbished when they got to worn by a conscientious homeowner. Nowadays,
since you've ponied up all that money for your cabinets, they're probably
solid hardwood faces, with uninteresting grain, dark enough to soak too much
of the light up, and make you add still more lightbulbs to try to see in
there. They're sprayed with a thin couple of coats of nitrocellulose
lacquer, which is tough as nails, at least until it isn't, which is
fairly soon, and can't
be rejuvenated by hand, and end up in the trash every ten years, no matter
what you paid for them.
That fridge is really small, but the homeowners probably had spent their
childhood with an icebox, or some without even that, and thought it was a
marvel, no doubt. And it has the supple streamlined corners and clean white
metal baked enamel glaze that says "clean" to me. You wouldn't feel the need
to put wood panels on the front of your refrigerator if it looked that,
The simple checked floor is terrific. Really underrated, that kind of simple
decoration. The photographer is probably standing in the door that leads to
a dining room, or a hallway or parlor if the house is small. The homeowner
has hung a pretty little mirror on the wall, canted just so, so she can see
behind her when she's at the sink, or alternately look out the window.
People still make the mistake of making the sink a sad, lonely place to be,
and occasionally make it even worse than bad, by running the cabinets right
across with no window, and doom the user to hours of staring at nothing,
their back to everyone, whether you have a dishwasher or not. For shame!
You all know me by now, and know full well that I'm going to steal the
design for that gate leg table in the middle of the room. Oh yes. It's the
perfect work island for food prep, and presto, open it up and you're eating
the finest meal in the world, which is placed on the table direct from
the oven or stove, by Mother's hand, surrounded by your loved ones,
the clink of glass and china and cutlery a domestic symphony, the beaming
faces of the children arrayed around the round table, with the late
afternoon sun beaming in and the family beaming out.
Get some of that lost kitchen, as much as you can find, fit, or afford, and
I'll bless it for you, right here and now.
Well, we've broken out the Summer logo for the masthead. Spiffy, ain't
it? You can tell just how lazy I am by perusing the site and seeing how few
pages it's on. I'll get to it, before Fall, anyway. There's that rose again,
right from our garden.
Now I hear from many folks because of this here internet thingie. And some
of you poor devils don't live anywhere near a proper ocean. No, no, not the
Pacific one, that won't do. I get confused every time we visit my brother in
Los Angeles and go to the beach. I get up from the blanket and run inland-
the water's on the wrong side of the sand. I'm talking the Atlantic Ocean.
And sailing on it.
Now many people get out on the water these days, in every kind of craft.
Bass boats, canoes, skiffs, kayaks, boogie boards, water wings, you name it.
But it all begins and ends with sails for me. Breeze buckets, the power boat
guys call them. Where are you gonna get in one of those, they jape at you.
Nowhere. That's the point.
If you're relying on a motor, you're commuting, not boating. I'm trying to
get nowhere, slowly, at great expense. And I've discovered the best place in
the world to do just that. West Island, Massachusetts.
Now it's not like I deserve credit for discovering this. I came home late
one night, with plenty of tonsil polish in me, and announced to my wife:
Honey, we're boat owners! Well, that's one half of the old saw: the two
happiest days in a boat owner's life are the day he buys a boat, and the day
he sells it. There's some truth in that one. But anyway, I had been talked
into adopting a 24 foot sailboat by a friend. who didn't need it any more,
because he was even dumber than me and got a bigger one.
I'd sailed before, and liked it. I sailed a few real wooden boats in
Boothbay in Maine, and remembered how strenuous and cold it was. Fog, mist,
blastng winds, huge granite mounds jutting up from the ocean floor to put
you in debt to the boatyard, or the funeral home. The wind would consider
your sailing acumen for a moment, and then come at you like a pack of dogs,
from all sides seemingly, and push and pull you all over the water. You'd
see seals on the granite islets as you heaved past, and they'd look at you
like you owed them money, and an explanation.
I sailed in Marblehead, on the coast just north of Boston. The eeriest thing
I ever experienced was riding in the skiff from the boat to the dock, in the
dead of night, in a moonless fog. The pilot knew his way, and we were never
in any danger, I guess; but the feeling that some great beast would rise up
out of the soupy fog and inky water and take you down into the sea was the
the creepiest misplaced feeling I've ever had. A boat at night in the
fog has the same disorienting effect as weightlessness, I imagine; sound is
stolen from your mouth, and the person next to you can't understand what you
say, but you hear a dog bark 15 miles away, and can count the tags that
rattle under his chin when he does, to boot.
And then some damn fool produces a light, and at first you shine it into the
fog, and does you absolutely no good, the fog eating the beam, and spitting
it back ten thousand fold. And then you make the mistake of shining it
straight down in the water, and you see every beast, creature, bug, and
wraith you ever imagined living in the ocean, plus ten you couldn't conjure
up before, all invisible in the sunlight, but everywhere, doing
everything, at night. Like the maps used to say, there be monsters here. The
only equal of the creepy feeling of seeing the ocean floor illuminated at
night is sleeping in the desert, in a tent under the stars, and hearing a
truck on a highway miles away like it's coming throught the tent flap, and
waking in the morning and folding up the tent, and seeing the wriggle marks
in the sand, showing where every creepy crawly thing in the desert
slept underneath you, for the warmth, and left before you woke.
Cape Cod is famous for sailing, and I've sailed on the cold bay side, warm
enough to sail on, but not swim in, as well as the open ocean side, warmed
by the gulf stream. It's warm enough for sharks.
My son Miles, the Big One, always adored sharks. He'd draw pictures of them
in kindergarten, and plead for us to buy tome ofter tome for him with
pictures of them, their huge, gaping mouths and dead eyes creeping out us
adults, and delighting him. We could never go through Boston without his
little voice from the back seat, bang on cue as we passed the exit: "Can we
go to the Aquarian?" He slept with a little stuffed shark pillow for years.
One day, after sailing, we walked up the ramp from the pier past the rude
table where lucky fishermen gutted beautiful striped bass and other assorted
"keepers," the term for a fish big enough to take from the ocean. Miles was
transfixed by the silvery shimmering scales, and the mad scrum of seabirds
when the knife expertly flicked the fish guts to the side. He was so
transfixed, he didn't see the rollaround trash cart parked next to the
scene, with a different sort of cargo. I called him over and said, check
this out. There was a magnificent six foot long blue shark, mouth agape,
teeth glinting in the sun, with a little teeny hole on one side of his head,
and a great big gaping one on the other side where the fisherman had
persuaded him to lie quiet on the floor of the boat and make no ankle
trouble, with a sidearm.
I had blundered. This was not a board book. This was not Disney. This was
the real deal, and bigger than his father, and it was the last shark I saw
my son interested in for a good long time. And for a while, he became
somewhat circumspect about the ocean, and the bathtub too, for that matter.
But back to West Island. West Island is a marvel. It's between New Bedford
and the mouth of the southern end of the Cape Cod Canal. And it was the only
place for 100 miles in either direction I could get a mooring for my boat.
Earl's Marina is behind the island, and protected from the open ocean by it
and the causeway that connects it to Sconticut Neck. At anchor, the
shoreline is jolly with little seaside shacks, worthless and expensive, and
boats and boats and boats. You have to pick your way around the island
through a little channel, to get out to Buzzards Bay and the sailing, but
it's pleasant, like an overture to a familiar opera, a hint, a taste of fun
And then something nice, and unusual happens. You get around the island, and
everyone's gone. The island is a bird sanctuary on the ocean side, and there
isn't one structure anywhere in sight. You feel exactly like an explorer,
sailing along an unknown coast, and half expect to see a Wapanoag Indian in
a feather headress wander out on the sand, instead of the seagulls and
And you tug a few lines, and set the sails just so, and open something cold,
and arrange the cushions, and just lay your leg over the tiller, and dabble
your hand in the water, and that boat just slides on across Buzzards Bay,
without any effort. Because the wind only comes from one direction at West
Island, all summer, the southwest, and if it's coming from another
direction, or there's too much of it, you don't go sailing anyway because it
only does those things when the weather is beastly.
And when you get to Cape Cod, you turn around and the wind comes over the
other beam, and you tug those lines once, and you're done working again for
And that sublime blue ocean rolls under your keel, and every once in a while
another lazy, lucky man drifts by in another boat and always waves, because
we share the same creditors, I imagine.
And you go home, pacified and recharged, and sunburned and tired from doing
nothing, and think: It cost too much damn money. Summer's so short.
The bottom needs painting. Gas for the skiff outboard costs a ransom at the
dock. I'm gonna sell that boat.
Maybe in the fall.
When I was young, I went to a real lumberyard. The Large Orange Place is not
a real lumberyard. The Large Orange Place did not exist then anyway. Do not
misunderstand me. I am not one of those people who chain themselves to the
construction fence at the new Large Orange Place and sing "We shall
Overcome" because we think they're despoiling the earth by offering
off-price ceiling fans to the masses. But The Orange Place is not a real
At a Real Lumberyard, the clerks know more about the lumber than you do. You
must know what to ask for at the desk of a Real Lumberyard, you cannot drag
people down the aisle and point at what you want. You must know the magic
lingo, or you will forever feel like an outsider there. You will never be
treated discourteously, but you will sense it: I do not belong here.
But magic things happen at the real lumberyard. When you order $20,000.00
worth of framing lumber, you don't have to load it all on an orange cart
with a bockety wheel and then strap it to the roof of your car. It gets
delivered, of course, because the real lumberyard is not for pawing through
piles. A lumber yard is an extension of the true problem of building a
dwelling, which is 99% logistical, and a little measuring. Honestly, anyone
can do residential carpentry, but knowing how to wrestle a sheet of plywood
into place on roof framing 35 feet off the ground and nailing it and not
your foot, after knowing when to do it, with what, and all the while going
as fast as possible, is the trick. And when the lumberyard brings you the
that five figure pile, with another to come in the afternoon, the piece you
want is on the top, magically, without asking, because they know.
It was necessary for the layman to subject himself occasionally to the test
of wills of the Real Lumberyard when I was young, because there was no
other way to get your hands on a sheet of plywood, or a piece of pine. And
now that I am an old hand at the lumberyard, and am met with hearty hellos
there like Norm entering Cheers, I reflect back on the striking similarity
of the operation to the one I saw, in tow with my parents, in the late
1960s. Of course that lumberyard couldn't have dreamed of the fax machine,
or Nextel radios, or Good God! the Internet back then, but like the
Victorians integrating all the fruits of the industrial revolution, the Real
Lumberyard just used the technology, and kept the daily rituals.
I visited the same Lumberyard recently. It was pretty much the same as I
remembered it. It barely noticed the opening of a half dozen Big
Orange Stores within easy driving distance of their location. They just kept
on doing what they were doing, and doing it well, and slept soundly at
There was a sign on the wall at that lumberyard, behind the counter. It
Dear God, just give me one more building boom. I promise not to fritter
it all away this time.
I laughed when I read that. I thought of all the home builders I knew, or
knew of, that had gone belly up since I entered construction in
the seventies. I knew fellows that employed 75 electricians one day, with a
big office filled with secretaries and fleets of trucks, and summer
houses to spare, and when their biggest customer went belly up in a
real estate bust in the late eighties, they had to go back to working out of
their parent's garage again. I worked for a guy that bought a house for $70
grand in a little suburb, got the real estate bug in the eighties too, and in
the span of a year and a half or so, flipped it for a more expensive
house two towns over, sold that and built a house two towns over from that,
sued his site contractor when his new house ended up settling into the
unsuitable soil he had demanded the poor guy work in, took the
settlement and his equity, and moved back a few doors down from his first
home, the $70,000 one. $250,000 later, he was essentially back where he
began. I know others who have risen, fallen, and risen from the ashes again
and again. It's a hard business sometimes.
Most of the United States is now served by large corporate builders, like
Centex or Pulte or Toll Brothers, but the majority of the homes built in the
Northeast are still built by small developers, the kind of people for whom
that sign about a boom is more than a laugh.
Recently the papers are filled with armageddon predictions about a" housing
bubble." I read them with interest, because it is an industry that I know
something about, and is dear to me. And I can't help but notice that the
people writing about this imminent domicile doom have absolutely no idea
what they're talking about. Now that doesn't mean they're wrong, I have no
idea about that. A busted clock is correct twice a day after all. But if
they are right, they don't know why they're right. Because the price of
housing is based on lots of things, and the ways people pay for them
dependent on a lot of other things, and those reporters never seem to
know anything about any of those things, or show any interest in them. So as
far as the Big Bubble Story Frenzy, I figure, This too shall pass. One way
or the other.
It also makes you wonder if they're just as mistaken and lacking in
inquisitiveness about all the other subjects you don't know anything about,
and depend on them to tell you about.
But I must tie the Bubble stories in to the sign at the lumberyard; I know I
can do it. I searched my mind, trying desperately to conjure up any
recollection of that place from the eighties, or even better, what if it
that sign was there in the late sixties, that would put a sweet finish on
the story and give perspective to the doom and gloom prognosticators. But I
couldn't for the life of me remember if I'd seen it before. So I asked the
clerk how old the sign was. He couldn't remember exactly.
The 1940s sometime he thought, maybe earlier.
Well, well, well. you never know, do you? We revisited the
Americans website, to see how they're doing these days. As you might
recall, we were one of the many who were scratching their heads over the
list of ephemeral and trivial personalities that were included in the
original list. The list's detractors were a little too quick to dismiss the
whole process, I think. I was pretty harsh about some of the contestants
too, but I really do
like the list thingies, as I suppose you do too. Yesterday, the American
Film Institute did a list of their own, about famous and notable movie
quotes, and when I tried to see what all the hubbub was about without
actually having to watch the proceedings, the webserver turned me away
because the traffic was too high. These are people who are in the publicity
business in a BIG way, and are turning away onlookers. So don't tell me you
aren't paying attention to this sort of thing. Someone, or many millions of
someones, crashed that server. And Matt Lauer's salary is getting paid
somehow, to host Discovery/AOL Greatest Americans.
There were some aberrations on that original list, no question. And those
aberrations made people who were interested in American History, me
included, cringe. I pointed out that Ellen Degeneres was on the list, but
James Madison, who did most of the heavy lifting of the US Constitution, was
not. And I suspect that if you could ask the people who put her on there if
they really meant that Ellen represented a more potent cultural force than
James Madison and his legacy, I bet they'd say no, they just thought she was
swell, and didn't give it a lot of thought.
But I find a refreshing lack of worship of government figures is at work
here, and was gratified to see people who championed or improved the mundane
and everyday aspects of the general population's lives for the better were
included on the list in substantial numbers, along with those that commanded
great armies or legislated over large swathes of the political landscape.
Because history isn't just a string of Waterloos to memorize, is it?
It's also what we're all doing, while no one's looking.
And you know in your heart that Rosa Parks, for instance, who makes a
great story, isn't one of the most important persons in our history. But
people put her on the list, I suspect, because she encapsulates the
aspirations, and dreams, and hopes, and plain good sense and dignity, of a vast multitude of people, and her name is a kind of shorthand for them.
And so I was gratified to see, when the list was winnowed down to five
personages, how notable was the good sense of the American public, when push
came to shove, in choosing them.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now the list just before this one, the Dick Clark sounding Top Twenty Five,
was populated with some some comparative lightweights, if you ask me. But
when push came to shove, Americans chose five very important and interesting
And I'm going to run a string right through all of them, and connect our
Washington, in case you're not paying attention, is the most important
person in American History. And not because he launched the dental
profession into overdrive on a new continent, either. There was a tremendous
amount of heavy lifting involved with the birth of this nation. and he did
the lion's share of it. It's easy to forget that Washington became the
nation's first chief executive only after winning the war that made that
nation possible. He served two terms, and was the first, last, and only
chief magistrate with the throw weight to keep both sides of the political
spectrum together and working for the common good. When you have both Thomas
Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton yammering in your ear simultaneously, each
pushing hard for a completely different vision of your barely existent
nation state, and you keep both their energies harnessed for the greater
good of the country, you're a better director than anyone before or since.
It is useful to recall that many of the movers and shakers of the
pre-Constitution American Colonies offered to make George Washington the
King of America, after they threw off Mad King George III, and he turned
them down flat. Ruminate on that. Not many man in his position would have
the intellectual vigor and moral rectitude to do the same.
Remember also, two things:
When Washington had to choose, finally, between supporting Hamilton's
vision for a mercantile, financially modern, practically educated, federal
powerhouse of a nation, and Jefferson's rural, guild driven, decentralized
governed, and classically nostalgic framework based on the savvy but
uneducated yeoman farmer, Washington chose Hamilton, and modernism.
And when his two terms were over, he retired to private life, to let others
administer the country he loved and had risked his fortune and his skin for,
the very first time in the history of the world a chief magistrate's
position was changed by ballot and not bloodshed. The man in public life
that doesn't find himself indispensable above all others, is a rare thing.
Benjamin Franklin is a superb example of what was made possible by American
ingenuity and effort, once Washington made the whole thing possible. I grew
up in a town named for Benjamin Franklin, and spent countless hours in the
first public library in America, founded by the town on a collection of
books donated by the great man himself.
He was the father of the post office, an innovative inventor and especially
tinkerer, the first in a long line of extraordinary tinkerers in American
history like Whitney and Colt, and McCormick, Ford, and Edison.
He was also the first American Dr Phil, god forgive me for calling him that.
His witty aphorisms, based on the simple but elegant logic and morality of
the ages, are as true today as the day he wrote them, and as universal. He
is the father of Whitman, Emerson and Alcott, and the funny papers too.
He was a godsend to agriculturalists, and championed commonsense approaches
to solving horticultural problems still mired in medieval thinking in
farming. He was America's first real publisher, and tilled that soil with
the seeds that would sprout to eventually publish Irving, Hawthorne and Poe,
and Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
In short, he represents the varied and forward looking activities of all
American citizens, when freed from the mire of autocracy, to make their way
in the world by their intellects and their efforts. He is a distillation of
The fight between the ideals of Jefferson and Hamilton had to simmer, but
implicit in the Declaration, is the coming cut of the Gordian Knot of
Slavery. Without the simple moral genius of Abraham Lincoln, it all goes to
pieces. And the edifice that Washington erected, and people like Franklin
expanded to the horizons, would have disintegrated without Lincoln. Lincoln
did it, when no one else would even hazard the attempt, and paid for it with
his life. Lincoln's is the only monument in Washington that features the
honoree seated, and rightly so. He's earned the rest hasn't he?
Martin Luther King Jr. belongs in this pantheon, and right after Lincoln,
because when the promise wrung from the blood of the Civil War was
diminished by Jim Crow, King was the catalyst for the idea that all men and
women should participate equally in our society, in word and in deed, and
his religious fervor encapsulates the driving force behind so much of the
best of America's instincts. He first represented a portion of the
population, but ended up uniting the whole population, no mean feat.
Like Lincoln, he paid for his bravery with his life.
There are many that will not like seeing Reagan on that list. His memory is
too recent, perhaps, and the people in opposition are still alive. But let's
not bring modern axes that need grinding to the history book. Reagan
embodies American exceptionalism, both in his own rise from obscurity, and
his political career. Reagan is the figure of the mature America, self assured,
generous of spirit, with the simple wisdom of middle america in his bones.
And like Washington, a little, he had the support of many that could agree
with each other on nothing else. Reagan Democrats united with Roosevelt
Republicans. No mean feat.
When half the world had lived under the oppressive gloom of the Communist
hammer and sickle for seventy five years, and the best the most
gifted statesman and generals could do before Reagan was make an
accommodation with it, and try to keep it from overspreading the entire
globe and making slaves of us all, Reagan said the world could do better.
And he had grown used to being out of step with conventional but ephemeral
wisdom, and saw things as they might be, and uttered the simple thought that
needed a complex approach to achieve: "Tear down this Wall."
And if you saw that hated wall being battered to bits by the people from
both sides of it, simultaneously, and were unmoved, and didn't see the hand
of the United States there, and his shadow, I don't think you were paying
And so we've chosen people who embody:
Making a nation
Expanding the nation's horizons
Preserving the nation
Ensuring that all the possibilities of the nation are available to all of
Offering the help and friendship of the nation to others internationally who
might follow in our footsteps and enjoy the same liberties and prosperity as
After all the foolishness, the acrid smoke from the ears of the partisans,
and the empty TV pageantry, Americans know who mattered. They were us, sort
of. Only more so.
Last day of school! Yippee!
OK, not for me. But the Big One is transported with joy. Some of it was
bound to rub off. The Queen is more circumspect. Practical as ever, she
applauds the respite from schlepping the Big One to school in the morning
and fetching him in the afternoon, while wondering what could possibly
mesmerize the Wee One into napping in the afternoon like a short car ride
does, on the way to get big brother. Of such tradeoffs, Motherhood is
constructed. We will thank his teachers, and mean it.
Well, now, yesterday was fun. It turns out the ugly couch page, besides
being a load of fun, is made by and for nice people who mostly live down the
street from where I did, when I was a young man. But I'm afraid I don't know
any of them. Of course, when you work third shift in a factory while going
to school, you don't make a lot of friends who aren't vampires. Well, as I
said yesterday, the Internet has many wonderful by-products. One was the
ugly couch page. One was at the top of the ugly couch page.
There was little Melanjelly. I don't know her, or her family, but her story
is universal, so that's not important. She's two and sick. And when someone
is two, and sick, her family friends and neighbors look out for her, and her
Now people are always asking for dough for charity. I must admit I've always
been a soft touch even for panhandlers, never mind other pleas for
donations. And because of that soft spot, coupled with a complete lack of
judgement, I've gotten taken advantage of countless times. Because I'm
afraid it's getting harder to find the people who really need your help
amid the sea of opportunists that really want your money. And after
you've been "touched for a fiver" over and over and later found out the fund
used the money to buy breast implants or jet skis for themselves, you get
discouraged. It's disconcerting, and changes your world view, when you first
find out that man on the corner won't work for food, and will
actually throw food back at you if you try to give him some, in lieu of the
cash he craves for booze.
I am reminded of a story of James Michael Curley, who reminds anyone who
knows much about him of hundreds of stories. For out-of-towners and youngins,
he was the genial and corrupt Mayor of Boston, and sometime congressman and
Governor of Massachusetts, who died around the time I was born. The Spencer
Tracy movie "The Last Hurrah," is based on his life. And he earned the
nickname, "The Mayor of the Poor." Because for all his faults, he
was a generous man. Usually with other people's money, but no matter. One of his cronies, and there were many,
all on the payroll, recounted a story about "the Curley," as my venerable
Irish relatives would call him. I've included a link to buy his biography in
the left column, if you're interested. It's the best written biography
I've ever read, about the most interesting public figure in Boston history,
and that's saying something on both counts.
As I was saying, the story goes that Curley would work late in the evening. Night comes fast and
early in the winter in Boston. Curley would spy a disreputable looking man
turning the corner outside his office. Curley would shrug on his coat, and
hustle out the door, and be standing on the next corner before the man would
get there. Curley would feign every time, to save the man embarrassment,
that he just happened to be there waiting for his car, and hail the fellow
like a lost brother, and gently slip him some money. After witnessing this
charade numerous times, Curley's crony protested that this man was
undeserving of pity or charity, as he was a bum, and would surely spend the
money on booze, and diminish the value of Curley's generosity. Curley
answered that it was still charity even if someone really didn't
That is very American. Americans are very generous, and give and give,
knowing full well that much of their charity might miss the mark, but
content in knowing that some of it might reach someone who really needs it.
They carry a bucket of cool water over hard ground, as it were, hoping
there's a cupfull left at the end of the trip for someone who's really
Well, there's a little girl, sick in a bed, in the same hospital that my
parents brought me to when I was two, and I figured that maybe she could use
some help. So be an internet neighbor, be an American, and click on the link
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