Sippican Cottage

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My Life, Summed Up

A drive-by commenter left this appended to one of my old posts:

Anonymous said…

Hello – don’t blog myself, not sure I know anyone who does (I’m an Internet guy) – but stumbled across your thoughts while tracking down the Sippican River. Liked Sei Shonagon, liked Procol Harum on YouTube, liked the general ambience & line of thought. What more can one say? Hope you’re enjoying life, and good luck with the fine furniture.

“Hope you’re enjoying life, and good luck with the fine furniture.”


Ladies and gentlemen — my business card, raison d’etre, rallying cry, slogan, business plan, home self-help study course.

And eventually, my headstone.

Update: ( How exciting. I’ve never updated anything before.)
My fellow Massachusetti and self described “reader but not commenter” Jill sent me this:

Now I can die in piece. Or if I get sleepy at the tablesaw, in pieces.

It Was Reet Petite

Jackie Wilson says:

When you are a performer, you need to give people a compelling reason to pay attention to you. There is no other advice in the world of entertainment. That’s it.

Jackie Wilson was not in need of this advice.

One of the great failings of Rock and Roll music is that it is more or less based on a great fraud in performance: it tries to make that which is easy appear hard. When you see guitar players grimacing over simple little barre chords, and singers acting as if they are being subjected to pein forte et dure because they’re mumbling, off-key, that they are dissatisfied with their current state of affairs, it’s all nonsense. Rock music is really simple to write, sing, and play; and for the most part, the actual execution of the notes on electrified instruments is kind of a delicate and decidely unenergetic affair. The windmilling arms and bashing is nonsense. It’s the misdirection play, imported from football. They’re thrashing around like that because nothing much is going on, and they’re very afraid you’ll catch on to that eventually.

Jackie Wilson personifies the obverse. That which is NOT decidedly easy is made to seem effortless. It’s hard to sing like Jackie Wilson. It enters the realm of metaphysical impossibility to sing and dance like that. And it brushes up against the margins of human alchemy to do it all with that kind of projected insouciance. He’s smiling the whole time he’s running a marathon, while carrying a big heavy bucket of art the whole way.

Get yourself some music that looks easy, but is very difficult indeed. Eschew the music that is made to look hard, but is essentially of the caliber of a chicken pecking a toy piano. Jackie Wilson is as good a place to start as any.

I Got My Mojo Too

Bad luck and trouble.

I used to hear about bad luck and trouble a lot when I supervised many people. After the total of persons who are supposed to call you when they can’t come to work that day reaches about a dozen, pretty much every day you get at least one telling you about bad luck and trouble.

I’m a soft touch in action, and have a very hard heart in my very hard heart. That is to say, I’m likely to give a bum five bucks, and think he doesn’t deserve it the whole time. It ain’t about deservin’.

Bad luck means something different to me than other people, I gather. Bad luck to them appears to mean that the eminently predictable results of their endless foolish behavior is impinging -finally- on their 24/7 self-gratification. To me, bad luck is being hit by a meteorite.

I was hit by a meteorite once, sorta. I was driving to a job I had. I drove a van. I was driving on a large highway early in the winter night, doing the speed limit with my seat belt buckled. My vehicle was in good repair. I was paying attention. I was sober.

On the other side of the road, a battered pick-up truck was approaching. It was not in good repair. The driver, who was not sober, was likely not driving in a safe manner. And his left rear wheel left his axle. Not the tire. The whole wheel.

Now, I know he was drunk because he fled the scene on foot, and the policeman and I found a whisky bottle on the front seat of the truck. But what maneuver he was trying that elicited the loss of a wheel from the axle beggars imagination.

Anyway, that wheel kept rolling along at 65 MPH, right across the grass median strip, and straight down the lane I was in. It was dark, and the tire was black, of course. Do you think you’d see that coming? Since I was going 65 MPH in the opposite direction, I imagine it was coming at me at around 120 MPH. A meteorite.

I’m a funny person. I have a tendency to freak out over small annoyances, and yet am calm generally when all others are panicked. A character defect of some sort. And seeing that object at the last second before I hit it, or it hit me, didn’t faze me. I didn’t swerve — just as well, as it was too late and my truck would surely have overturned. I didn’t do much of anything, as there was nothing to be done. I held on to the wheel, and whoop-de-do.

I remember distinctly what seemed like a long time spent in the air, the nose of the truck finally arcing to face the windshield down at the pavement, the wry feeling of watching the pavement pass by on the glass like movie credits. Then the front hit the ground again, and I was suspended in the seatbelt like a parachutist, the huge yellow and purple welt already rising across my shoulder from the strap stopping me from being launched through the windshield to be mashed between the truck and the pavement. I held the wheel straight, and thought: if the airbag goes off, I’m dead.

I bounced down the road like a hobby horse for a good long while, the heel/toe gyrations slowly abating, until all four wheels were under me again, and I drove to the breakdown lane and sat for a minute to collect myself.

A policeman came, and asked me why I was just sitting there. I told him to look at the front of my truck. The truck looked fine from three sides, but on the front, there was a sort of trench burrowed out of the undercarriage from bumper to bumper where the wheel had hit and I’d rolled over it.

We walked across the highway to where the three wheeled pickup truck was, and saw the whisky bottle on the front seat. The policeman declined to pursue the driver who had run away on foot.

The policeman inspected my driver’s license and registration for any flaws, and finding none, insisted that I make arrangements to remove my truck before I could leave. I called AAA, and my wife.

They arrived about the same time. I loaded my equipment into her car, watched the wrecker hook up my truck, and I went to work.

I have no doubt, the driver of the other truck called his boss the next day -late- and told him all about his bad luck.

The Crowd Called Out For More

Procol Harum A Whiter Shade of Pale 1967 Top of the Pops

Top Of The Pops, in black and white no less.

This song predates my interest in it. It’s from 1967. But it was still immensely popular in 1975, when we were dancing in the gym to it. The girls wore dusters and had turd curl hairdos and smoked cigarettes. The guys wore farmer pants and had Vinnie Barbarino hair and bummed cigarettes off the girls. And they’d play “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” without fail, and mercifully allow us to dance with the girls close and slow for a moment.

I’m not a nostalgia freak. I talk about old things a lot, but that’s not the same thing. I’m not generally wistful for things of my youth. I’ve always been an oceangoing shark. You must always swim forward or you perish. My salad days are tomorrow. Always.

I am occasionally asked in an exasperated tone right here on my blog: ” How old are you?” when I wax poetic about Miles Davis in the fifties or Louis Prima in the forties or lumber yards in the thirties or some other anachronistic thing that caught my eye. The whole world is my high school yearbook, the way I see it.

But I’m only human. I was rooting around on YouTube, and I listened to this little trifle, and I found myself transported back a little in time, and I didn’t mind. It won’t last. Nothing ever does. And I don’t want to purchase it, or carry it around and jam it in my head through waxy earbuds. I don’t want to go to a Procol Harum reunion concert. I certainly don’t want to write a thousand word essay on how meaningful and important it is. It’s a trifle. That’s the point.

If it came on the radio, I wouldn’t change the channel. My highest praise, that.

What It Was, Was Football

When we went out to vote on November 7th, my wife and I had to drive by our son’s elementary school. We were mildly amused to spy him, out for recess, playing football in the schoolyard with his classmates.

We parked across the street and watched for a few precious minutes. Since we were not a butterfly, or a jet contrail, or a candy wrapper, or a penny, he didn’t notice us there, so we got to see him in that rarest of settings: “somewhere else,” without his parents or guardians present.

The football activity was hilarious. It alternatingly resembled an algae bloom and an ayatollah’s funeral– first a kind of milling around in an amorphous blob, then a kind of wild melee over a leathery old totem. We watched them drift back and forth for a pleasant minute, with the odd missile launch of the forward pass rocketing rudderless out of the scrum and landing any old place but that most rarified of targets: a teammate.

It was wry to consider that playing tag is verboten at his school. I’m not joking.

The school is getting comical in this regard. They were terrified of the food the little ones were eating, so they tinkered endlessly with the school lunch menu to make it so healthy that no one purchased it anymore. Now everybody eats fluffernutters they bring themselves.

They built an elaborate and very expensive handicapped playground. That’s a kind and thoughtful gesture. But it is merely a gesture, as there are no handicapped children to enjoy it. There just aren’t that many children of any kind in a little town like ours.

And no tag. Someone could get hurt. Someone could be left out. Someone could sue is the real reason, and the powers that be always point that out right up front.

Tag isn’t allowed, so one of the kids brings a football, and they play that. And football isn’t banned, because no one thought of it yet. And the absurdity of allowing mobs of pre-teens to chase one another if one is holding a ball, but not if their hands are empty, seems to be lost on the school administration. At least for now. And I, for one, am glad of it.

I’m not as worried about my son being injured playing football as I am in contemplating the little straitjacket world he’s being fitted for. Those children decided on the rules, supplied their equipment –a ball– and played their game without any adult supervision; and I saw a lot less kvetching among them than at any organized sporting event they participate in. I’m leery of them being told that someone will always tell them exactly what to do, and simultaneously unerringly protect them from not only from harm, but hurt feelings. One aspect of that tandem of supervision is repugnant, and the other unlikely.

I’m living in a strange world where people for whom I have no regard draw finely calculated and ultimately meaningless distinctions about everything down to the scope of activities allowed for pedophiles to roam the earth, at the same time they ban children playing tag in the schoolyard. Such distinctions are meaningless because anyone who is prepared to commit a great offense is not concerned about the rules governing small ones.

I dread the day, which is on the horizon now, not over it, when I’m forced to tell my children that the only sensible course of action is to ignore the rules, as there are so many of them that they become gibberish. And what the hell, the rules only seem to apply to those who wish to live worthwhile lives anyway –who never needed them in the first place.

He Won

My oldest boy is eleven. He’s fairly bright.

He’s got a kind of internal gyroscope going: one that keeps him from behaving badly. He is occasionally frantic and silly, like all boys his age are wont to be, but I’ve literally never seen him be deliberately unkind to another person. Conversely, he’s almost literally stunned when anyone is mean to him; it’s as if someone from another planet is being presented to him, a planet with strange and unpleasant customs. He doesn’t get his inner light from me, I’m as mean as Cuchulain with a pebble in his shoe. Must be his mother.

At any rate, he plays chess. He learned on my old 486 vintage computer, when he was barely out of diapers, by moving the pieces on the virtual chessboard with the mouse. The game would automatically place your piece back where you started if you tried anything non-standard, and he learned the moves, hit or miss, by paying attention to what was not allowed. Just like life.

I started playing with him when he was four. I was always black, and removed my queen from the board before we began. And then I’d slaughter him.

I gave him the old books I learned from all those years ago. J.R. Capablanca, the Cuban chess phenom guided him on his musty pages, as he had me. J.R.’s been as dead as a pharoah for half a century. I’d slaughter him less severely.

They decided to try a chess club at his school last year. He came home after the first session, and was kind of subdued. I sensed a problem.

Did you play chess?
How many games?
Fourteen, I think.
How many did you win?
All of them.
Did you play against all your friends?
At first. Then the teacher. He say’s he’s going to get a book and study up for next time.

We don’t play often. I work a lot, and spare time is hard to come by for both of us. We returned home from the Thanksgiving trip, and he and I were rattling around the house while his mother and brother slept. There was a tremendous rain and windstorm going outside, and I figured the lights would wink out any minute. I was weary of the sight of anything electronic. Let’s play.

He beat me. He made no errors. I baited him with many potential possibilities to take a piece and lose the game. He ignored them. I clawed and grabbed to the end, and took multiple queens from him. He kept giving them up, sometimes just for a pawn, and got another one. He was like an anaconda. He was ahead from the start, and leveraged it inexorably into a win. He did not exult. He had a look of shock, almost. A kind of gratification tempered with awe.

I don’t remember the last time anyone beat me at chess. I stopped playing because not many people were interested in playing, and even fewer in playing and losing.

So now I am faced with a problem. If I play black without a queen forever, I may never win again.

He is a superior sort of person than I, my son. It is gratifying for a man to roll that idea around in his head. Not smarter, exactly. Intellect alone does not make a man valuable to his brethren. He has that rare combination of intellectual acuity chained to a thoughtful and pleasant personality. He is immune to evil.

I put him to bed. I thought for a long moment, alone in the dim light from the embers of the evening fire, and threw the black queen in the fireplace.

Have A Pleasant Thanksgiving

There are lots of news stories available –the majority of them, I think– expounding on the horrors of Thanksgiving. “Send us your dysfunctional family Thanksgiving disaster stories” is the lede on every radio program I can find, that hasn’t jumped the gun entirely and started with “Tell us your Christmas horror stories.”

I’m not having it. Thanksgiving is lovely. Or it should be.

Thanksgiving doesn’t beat around the bush; right in the name it tells you it’s a day to be grateful. Complaining about it seems to me to be like going to the art museum and complaining that the paintings are obscuring your view of the walls.

Hmm. Perhaps that’s a bad simile. I’ve been to many museums where the dropcloth daubs they hang on the walls aren’t as interesting as the off-white paint, now that I consider it. So please insert “Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy” in the preceding paragraph where “art museum” appears. Thanks.

Anyway, it’s not about you. For one day, at least, I don’t want to hear about your crabby attitude towards your assembled family and your overcooked turkey. I don’t want to hear about the lousy TV you’ve got to watch the football game on. I don’t care if you don’t like the floats that drift by Macy’s like garish barrage balloons. Put a sock in it. It’s not about you.

It’s not about any of us. It’s about remembering that everything we have is a gift, and we could lose it, and we should take time out from our lives for one day a year and acknowledge that.

Have you ever been in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving? I hate the preening socialites and politicians that visit there on Thanksgiving to get face time on TV. I think much more kindly about the people that feed those poor souls on November 22nd and November 24th, when the cameras aren’t interested.

There’s a look on a person’s face, when someone gives them something they need that they might not have otherwise. It’s the look on the face of the man in line at the soup kitchen. It’s gratitude.

I’m going to give it a try tomorrow, that look. It looks like Thanksgiving.

The Tea Table

“He’s coming here to collect!”

Tom Chippendale knew his good lady wife was prone to fits of panic. But if he heard one more word about the butcher’s bill being unpaid, he promised himself he’d head to the inn for a dram. The woman had no faith in him, is all. He always managed to bring home the bacon in the nick, didn’t he? And the tea table (like this one) he had made for the Prince of Wales- that would cover the butcher’s bill, and ten others. And the daft woman wants to give it to Annabelle, the butcher’s wife, for a measly three months back debt!

“The Prince don’t pay!” she’d screeched, not understanding that a man in the prince’s position cannot be DUNNED, for the love of the Savior! The Chippendales would get their money bye and bye, he replied.

“Bye and bye!” she shrieked like a jackdaw. “We’ll need a joint of beef a damn sight sooner than bye and bye!”

“Oh, what would a butcher’s wife do with the table anyway?” he mused aloud. “Made for royalty from the finest Santo Domingo mahogany, for the future king of England’s… well, ahem, the woman he… the fine lady… his… his… ”

“His konkabine!” she erupted again. “Well, if you owes her ‘usband tuppence, Annabelle puts on airs like the queen of Araby, she does! She’ll know right what to do with it!” she added with a snort.

But he was adamant. He waved his hand with a flourish and banished his wife from the drawing room.

He paused to compose himself and listened to the mantel clock tick solemnly for a few moments. He heard footfalls outside, and then a sharp rap at the door. He opened it. There stood the butcher, looking like he had a toothache, and behind him, blotting out the sun, was the constable, looking like he hadn’t heard a good joke in ten years.

“Good… good after… after… noon,” he stammered, feeling a bit lightheaded, and a little on his heels. “We were? I mean… my wife and I were just… what I meant to say is…” The butcher’s expression began to look like it had been carved from stone by a lost tribe, to frighten tomb-raiders. The constable assumed the expression of a man with a pebble in his shoe.

But then Tom’s world swam back into focus, a smile blossomed again on his face, and he stretched out his hand and offered- “Come in, come in. Would you like some TEA?”

The North East Kingdom

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I make furniture here and Massachusetts and sell it on the internet, all over the country. There’s some in Canada, and some in Great Britain, but the people that own it lugged it there from America. I don’t sell internationally. Your money is too complicated, and except for all that Nigerian e-mail loot I’m going to get, I stick to what I know: American.

I offer a print catalog. People from all over this wonderful land of ours sign up to receive one. I never tire of seeing all the disparate places that turn up each day. America is a big wonderful place, filled with nice people. It captures my imagination to hear from them.

Every state in the union is represented on my list but one. I can only draw inferences, as I have no facts to go on, but apparently no one in North Dakota needs furniture. Or they don’t have any money. Or they don’t like furniture makers from Massachusetts with logorrhea. Or they don’t have the internet or running water. Or no one lives there anymore, and the two Senators and one Congressman didn’t want to tell anybody or they’d lose their gig. An impenetrable mystery.

At any rate, lots of people from everywhere else want a catalog. But there was another place that was very sparsely represented on my little list, and it’s not as far away –theoretical almost– as North Dakota. That place is Vermont.

Well, Karen from Vermont –“The North East Kingdom” — showed up in the comments this weekend, and left me a little missive from a fellow traveler in the world of Quickbooks, hard work, and flinty irascibility:

I come by now and then, sit on the steps of your porch and admire your words and pictures. It occured to me that i could purchase your furniture and just signed up for a catologue- i’m psyched to view the finished product and try to pretend i could have the insight to see the grain in the rough (i can’t see it, but i can feel it). We burn wood for heat up here (NEK = Northeast Kingdom = VT) We cut down cherry last year and i thanked God for it’s warmth as i just about cried every time i added a piece to the fire.

Well, thanks Karen. She says she reads Ambivablog, so we know she’s alright. And she lives in Vermont, so we know she’s interesting. For all the rest of you out there in the rest of the landscape, let me assure you: Vermont is a beautiful and interesting place.
I used to visit Vermont fairly often. I strapped boards to my feet and slid down their ice masquerading as snow a lot when I was younger and had no bairns to feed. There is skiing all over the northeast, of course, but for some reason, Vermont seemed to me the ne plus ultra for hurtling down the mountain. I made a gag map for a skiing companion once. It said SKI MAP on the front, and I had used a magic marker to totally black out Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine on it. Those places have their own charms of course, but they don’t have Ludlow. People in Vermont hate people from Massachusetts that come to ski. I always liked that about them.

It’s produced the most interesting people, whose common attribute seems only to be that they don’t have any common attributes –they’re just not like anybody else, anywhere else. Vermont can produce Bernie Sanders and Calvin Coolidge. Go figure.

I wrote a little story about Vermont to go with a table I make. Rudyard Kipling lived in Vermont when he wrote The Jungle Book.

I want you to read that sentence again, and mull it over:

Rudyard Kipling lived in Vermont when he wrote The Jungle Book.

Go figure. Anyway, that’s the sort of place Vermont has always been, and will always be, in all likelihood. The place that makes you say: go figure.

The Kipling Table

Month: November 2006

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