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Christmas? Tasteful? What Rubbish.

I never hear the word “decry” for eleven months of the year, but I get it morning noon and night at Christmastime. Seems like everyone’s decrying some aspect of the Christmas thing, and if you look in more than one place, you’ll find people decrying the opposing angles of the same Christmas condition. Christmas is too religious for some. It’s too mercenary and secular two doors down. Me, I think Christmas is too tasteful.

Now, Christmas was a big deal when I was young and Johnson was president. We weren’t wealthy, and your birthday and Christmas were the only days you’d get any swag. And we’d study the Sears catalog like we study Victoria’s Secret catalogs now, and make our Christmas list, and then we’d be schlepped all over creation in a Rambler station wagon or a Dodge Dart with a steel dashboard or a Chevy Impala convertible with a hole in the roof to our relative’s houses, and be spoiled a bit by their generosity. None of them were wealthy either, but they always seemed to have the time and money and affection to get even their most obscure nieces and nephews a little something. The younger you were, the better the present generally was, because after all, it’s easier to buy a present for a child, isn’t it?

What all those homes had in common when we visited was hospitality, and garish and hamfisted Christmas decoration. Jimmy Stewart was very much alive, but Martha Stewart hadn’t appeared on the scene yet, and it showed. Metallic white fake Christmas trees, with a rotating muticored spotlight aimed at it, big red, blue, and green bulbs strung along the outlines of the house, plastic santas guarding plaster creches, spray-on frost in the windows, cheap looking tinsel and home made tree ornaments that looked like you wore your mittens when you made them. It knew no race, or creed, or social station; it was all bad, and lovely.

And your Aunts would hug you, smelling of lilac perfume and the kitchen, and slip you quarters on the way out, your Uncles would tell stories and and roar the loudest at their own japes, and when you got older they’d crush your hand in a welcoming handshake to see if you still squealed.
The music was lively, and sometimes wistful, which was nice. Christmas in 1965 was only twenty years removed from WW2, and thirty from the depression, and most all my relatives were old enough to remember when Christmas wasn’t so jolly. And the perspective that the emergence from true want and danger lent to their mood was like the bubbles in champagne.

I can’t bring myself to decorate in the garish style of my youth. Jimmy Stewart’s passed away, and he’s on the flatscreen at Mr Potter’s now only, but Martha Stewart is in the here and now, out of jail and demanding once more that we straighten up and garland ourselves properly. My Aunts and Uncles have made their way to their reward, many of them, and the others are far away in distance if not in our hearts.

But I have a weakness now that I indulge by visiting websites devoting to pointing a jaundiced finger at bad Christmas yard displays. I wonder: Am I the only one there, with a tear in his eye, remembering how genuine, and fun, and innocent these things were to the dearest people?

I cometh to bury Caeser, not to praise him.

Still, I’d like to visit one more time; put the kettle on.

Bristol, Rhode Island

We’re not like you. My family gets cabin fever in the summer. The boys swim at the rocky little beach at the end of the street, and we sail, and fish off the mooring for scup, and we garden a little, because mosquitoes gotta eat too, and all those other things that make the languid summer days pass — but we often get the urge in the summer to light out and go nowhere in particular.

We used to go to the Newport, RI mansions, and would always be prepared for the docent to ask: “Is, um, your boy suitable for these surroundings?” We’d always let him answer for himself, even when he was but four years old, and moot the question by speaking like a diplomat. He was “born old,” that one.

But we have second wee blessing now: Garrett. Named for his Grandfather, and Uncle, and Greatgrandfather, and after that it gets a little sketchy, what with the famine that drove us all here. Garrett is two. Garrett is an ancient name, based on Gerald, and means “spear carrier” in Latin. It doesn’t do him justice. He really should be carrying a club. There is no way on God’s green earth to bring him anywhere less indestructible than Hadrian’s Wall, which was constructed by the Romans in Britain to keep Garrett’s ancestors — naked, painted blue, screaming in their frenzy and swinging war clubs — from descending the island and desolating the landscape. Compared to Garrett, they were pikers.

So we will not visit Marble House anytime soon, because he could burn down a marble house, I believe. So we seek our amusement in the outdoors, or failing that, anywhere else unbreakable.

August fourteenth was beastly hot. Enervating hot. Lawrence of Arabia hot. Let’s go somewhere, my wife said, in the tone that says: Home is home to you; it’s my workbench, and I don’t want to look at it every day, all day. So off we went, to find something to look at that Gargar couldn’t break. We decided to visit Bristol, Rhode Island, which is famous for having the oldest continuously running July Fourth parade in the nation. It’s a quiet and salubrious burg, hard by Newport, and chockablock full of interesting architecture.

You can park any old place on Sunday afternoon in the summer in Bristol. An antique store owner was unfurling his banner as we pulled to the curb, and politely greeted us as we alighted, and it occurred to me that he was in the right business, because he was naturally friendly and said hello for the sake of it; neither he nor we had any illusions about entering his store with the miniature visigoth we were shepherding down the sidewalk. Some people are constitutionally outgoing, and with any luck, they land in a spot where being friendly is welcomed and useful. Bad luck puts them in a cubicle somewhere, where they wither away from lack of attention like a bachelor’s houseplants.

Marion, Massachusetts, where we live, is awash with sea captain’s homes arranged just so in a little village. Going to Bristol was like bringing coals to Newcastle, at least on the face of it. But it really wasn’t. Bristol was close enough to a little city, and had a long and distinguished history, to have a real economy, and a street life. There were restaurants, and antique stores, and the most pleasant Dunkin’Donuts I’ve ever been in, and believe me, we went in to get out of the heat. That, and drink coffee, and sit in the the alcove at the front of the store, and watch the endless comings and goings of the population and other visitors like us. The building wasn’t really altered for the shop, the inviting sloped entryway, the tall sheets of glass at the street framed with fluted pilasters — it was all still there from whatever little shop used to occupy the place — and the hard surfaces and plastic accoutrement of the new tenant didn’t obscure it. There’s a little platform, not much more than a dais, that runs along the plate glass, that was used to display the original retailer’s goods to the passerby, now filled with plants; and our little tyke passed a busy half hour walking back and forth on it, and mugging at the people who passed by, and amusing everyone involved, including himself. And the cool air descended on us like a blessing, and we sat and wondered how silly it was to drink coffee with Vulcan himself lurking outside the door, waiting to use the sidewalk as his anvil and the sun as his hammer, as soon as we emerged.

In many ways, Bristol has been neglected, and that’s good. Neglect can be benign; ask the West End of Boston, which isn’t there any more. There’s horrible concrete monstrosities where it once was, because the place seemed “blighted” to someone with a blighted soul. But Bristol was mostly ignored, and allowed to muddle along for 150 years or so, without anyone doing anything much to help it.

Peeling paint’s better than vinyl siding, don’t you think?

More on Bristol later…

Creating Something

Do you labor in the vineyard of creativity? Most people do, whether they consider it that or not these days. There’s a lot less drudgery in the work world lately, and take it from someone who’s actually dug ditches: a modern ditchdigger is driving a backhoe that costs more than a Lexus, is conversant in simple geology, hydraulics, physics, mathematics, explosives, and small engine repair, and he’s talking to his brethren on a cell phone while laying out the ditch with a laser level, or perhaps Global Positioning Satellite data. He’s usually aware of both current and ancient water, sewer, drainage, telephone, electrical and data line burial practices. And if something unforeseen and unfortunate happens, he knows CPR too. And he knows the spread of the Ravens/Giants game to boot. What does an Ivy League Liberal Arts professor know, exactly?

I make furniture. There’s drudgery there too, like any job, but you can use a complementary mixture of your head, heart, and hand more than you can in most work. I prefer the tangible arts, because there’s a framework that you improvise inside, and it actually allows a greater range of expression than if their are no rules, even though that seems counterintuitive.

At least it seems to seem counterintuitive to that Ivy League professor I mentioned earlier. A football game has lots of rules, for instance, mountains of them, many obscure. The teams prepare game plans for a week at least, to work within these rigid guidelines against a known opponent. They script their plays, and try to predict their opponent’s script. Then they blow the whistle, and all hell breaks loose. The rules don’t stop inprovisation, and no two football games look very much alike, not for very long. If there were no rules, people would have to stop and decide everything, and so nothing much would happen, and very little would happen in quick succession, except fistfights over the “decidin,'” and that’s hockey, not football.

Furniture has rules. They boil down to three: Is it sturdy? Is it comfortable? Is it beautiful? Some call it: commodity, firmness, and delight. There are many subsets of rules, of course; the average human is 18″ wide at the shoulder and kitchen counters are hard to make bread dough on if they’re higher than eye level. But never mind complexity, get the three rules right, and you’re in high cotton.

There’s a mindset that’s de rigeur these days that rules are for schmucks. (See Ivy League Professor) Do your own thing, man, be creative. My little son’s teacher demands that he write complicated and flowery prose, while refusing to teach him to read or write or spell. The rules will just get in the way of creativity, she thinks.

What utter bosh. Michaelangelo Buonnarotti Simoni painted some interesting things, and he labored under plenty of constraints, including: don’t piss off your patron, he can have you killed AND excommunicated. It didn’t seem to take much off his fastball. But let’s give the Rousseau “Noble Savage” wannabes the benefit of the doubt. Let’s imagine we let the old chiseler off the hook from Pope Julius. Paint what ever you want, Mikie. Do you really think he’d paint something better than the Sistine Chapel? Why stop there? Let’s take it as far as modern artists do. Why not have Michaelangelo paint with his feet, using yogurt instead of paint, and a toilet brush for his stylus? That should free up his creative juices, huh? Don’t like the sound of that? What are you, square?

As I was saying, commodity, firmness, and delight. Sounds easy enough. Let’s see you do it. It’s easy to blaze a trail if you start out by saying wheels should be square instead of round, or made from spaghetti. You’ll get Yoko Ono sized plaudits in the art magazines for that, but the cart still won’t go. Your mission, if you live in that world, is to find a patron that wants an odd useless cart. And has a trust fund too.

Forget all that. Let’s see you carry the rules on your back lightly, like an angel on your shoulder, or heavy, like a rucksack filled with brass knobs– whatever is your lot in life — and make the trip to creativity. Let’s see you do it for a price. Let’s see you make another person — or even better – many people, happy and comfortable and safe for a little while. Let’s see you do it on time. Let’s see you please yourself, and the rest of the world, and maybe throw your little all into the mixer of meaning that is posterity, and have it stick, maybe just a little.

Sometimes, I think I did it a little, and it makes me content.

Old School Part Deux

Well, the fantastic folks over at have another installment in the “Old School” saga up for your amusement, penned by your humble narrator. Here’s a bite:

Wow, I’ve noticed things seem to be getting better all the time. But wait — I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of ink spilled and eyeballs irradiated lately, all over these here internets as our president calls them, about a slowing in the pace of discovery. That was my impression of the general vibe; I wonder if it’s true? Let’s consult the foremost authority on everything, besides me: Google.

Searching for “speedup in the pace of discovery” yields about 33,000 hits. That’s a lot, maybe things aren’t going somewhere bad in a hand-basket.

Searching for “slowdown in the pace of discovery” yields 291,000 hits. Wow. That’s more hits than a weekender in the off-season with Randy Moss. Things must be pretty bad. We’re all going to be living in a cave soon, forced to play Pong on our Etch-A-Sketches by the fire. Bummer.

New and wonderful things used to show up every few days, it seemed, and now we have to wait more than 18 months for CPU capacity to double. I read a few of the slowdown articles. The sky is falling, they say, we’ve run out of ideas. They complain: take someone like Ozzie and Harriet out of their 1950 TV home, and plunk them down in your 2005 home, and they’d be right at home. But take someone from 1900, and plunk them down in 1950, and they’d be as lost as an IT guy at an Armani store.

So what do you think? Is there a slowdown in the pace of change in the world? Or is your head spinning?

Old School

Like you, I’m always searching the internet for the next big thing. And, by Jove, I think I’ve discovered the funniest writer on the internet. Strangely enough, it’s me. has unwisely hired me to wax poetic, nostalgic, and ignorant on their fine tech site. Here’s the opening stanza:

OK, listen up. I’m old. I’m so old, I spell “Old Skool” “Old School.”
It’s my curse in life to notice things. And I’ve noticed that life’s changing rather faster these days. And unlike many of my old school brethren, I think it’s swell. Beware of mildewed old farts lecturing you that life was better back when the telephone was a big black thing hanging on the kitchen wall with a big black cord and a bell like a four alarm fire, not like your newfangled Razr phone that takes upskirt photos. Time marches on, and that’s fine by me.
Like I said, I’m old. Not “drooling in a nursing home” old. Not “your next bed will have a lid” old. More like “I have two kids and pushing 50 old.” If that makes me’s version of Andy Rooney, then so be it.

Wow! Read further, and you can read my resume, sorta. I feel like I left the trap door in my longjohns open by posting that on the internet. There goes my Supreme Court nomination.

Read the rest of it at: Old School

Month: December 2005

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