[I’m recycling this from a year ago. I am reminded recently that for a great deal of my life, I was pointed towards, and assumed to be, part of the Cadre of The Adjective. I know what it is to be a sort of human filing cabinet. But no man knows very much, generally. Knowledge is not wisdom. It’s great to be Shakespeare, but even he would tell you he’s not Hamlet.
Writing is, in a sense, Being the Adjective. Modifying a little perhaps, but only descriptive. I always bridled at it; I chafed in the intellectual harness. I longed to be the verb. It’s gotten me into all kinds of marvelous trouble over the years. I’ve decided that I’m now at least entitled to be an adverb.]
When I was a lad, and Johnson was president, most middle class basements were identical. The concrete was left exposed, the washer and dryer stood guard, one bare bulb illuminated the whole affair. Most men had a workshop of some sort down there. A venerable cast iron Craftsman table saw. Peg board, of course; pegboard was the ne plus ultra of the handy set. Kids, you’re officially old when you remember when pegboard was state of the art. A few dull hand planes, perhaps a drill press, a circular saw with the original blade, a jig saw about as sturdy looking as an electric carving knife. Screwdrivers, lots and lots of screwdrivers. And baby food jars filled with wood screws, all still there unused, because the drywall screw came like a horde out of the east and swept the landscape bare of flat headed screws.
And what was that basement shop for? Why, to build a boat of course.
The plans were everywhere in the fifties and sixties. Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Life, National Fisherman, Green Stamp Catalogs. You do remember Green Stamps, don’t you? You bought stuff, they gave you little stamps, you pasted them in their book, and redeemed them for worthless household stuff. It was the voluntary American version of the chit system that had its compulsory version in the USSR, with Russians standing in line for days to get a block of suet to eat.
The stories of the boat made in the basement, too big to get it out through the bulkhead, probably became cliche because because they were so true and so numerous. And many people succumbed to the siren song of the boatbuilding urge, only to founder on the Scylla of the lack of spare time and the Charybdis of lack of talent.
And why should I be any different? When I went to college for Architecture, on the first day of our design class, our teachers demanded: design your dream house. Right now. Before the end of the class. Now I thought I was there to learn how to design my dream house, with the help of these gentlemen, and then perhaps try my hand at it. But these fellows had other ideas. They seemed to have the same approach to teaching that modern singers have singing the National Anthem- I don’t know the words, the song is about me, and I’m starting on the last note and going up in volume and histrionics from there.
Anyway, I sketched what is essentially an accurate representation of the home I live in now, with a little handmade boat in the yard. The ocean in the drawing was a little closer then than it is in reality now, because each eighth of a mile towards the water adds another zero to the vapor trail of zeros houses cost anyway. But in all major respects, it was spot on, two decades in advance. And they said:
Only they weren’t that pleasant about it. My little dream was too, well, normal for the two men in clogs, and they told me so. With force.
As my classmates, who were wiser than me, scribbled furiously, designing concrete and steel and chain link and glass and stone monstrosities, with hot and cold running potato chips, I pondered my dilemma. What would make these guys happy? And then I hit upon it.
Thirty minutes later, I showed them my new castle. I was half a geodesic sphere, plopped down bizarrely in the mountains. It was the human equivalent of a fishbowl. There were no interior partitions. Anyone inside would be roasted like an ant with magnifying glass held over them.
They loved it. They showed it to everybody else in the class. How forward looking. How brave.
On the way out of the class, the light began to dawn on one of the teachers. He asked me, where’s the bathroom? It seemed to be the first time he had considered the second most fundamental human need.
I had my “A” in hand already. I could, and did, tell him: “There’s a hole in the middle of the floor,” and left.