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Let Me Tell You About Mattapoisett

I don’t live in Mattapoisett. It’s right over there. My older son attends school with children from Mattapoisett and one other town. I built a house in Mattapoisett once:

Mattapoisett is like Marion, where I live. It has a “village,” a rabbit warren of little streets down by the ocean that’s lovely to walk around in. Away from the water, across the main road in town, there’s more suburby looking areas. Exurban, really, as we’re pretty far away from any Metropolis. Officially we’re a suburb of New Bedford, I guess, but that’s like saying you’re a satellite without a planet. It’s all small around here.

Marion is considered more tony than Mattapoisett. It has a fancier yacht club, tennis club, golf course, stuff like that. But it’s much more fun to walk around Mattapoisett than it is in Marion. Marion is like an outdoor funeral parlor compared to Mattapoisett, and that’s saying something, as Mattapoisett is pretty sleepy. But you just take a pleasant walk on Mattapoisett’s shade-dappled streets, walk right down to the water, get an ice-cream with the ocean for a backdrop, or cross the street –without looking much– and get a pint at the Kinsale Inn, then sit for a blessed moment on their screened-in porch and watch the ocean and the promenaders go by. We did. Come with us.

I Love That ELO

There’s a kind of coarseness to making fun of things nowadays. I don’t mean that it’s all bathroom humor, although there’s plenty of that. I mean the humor is not sophisticated. To properly lampoon something, you have to first understand it — but you really have to have a little affection for the subject to mock it properly. The Internet, with its cut-and-paste immediacy, lends itself to instant parody, not much of it very good. If you visit the average blog where opinion is offered and comments are enabled, you’re almost immediately able to ken the Zeitgest there immediately and move on: Yes, I get it: You hate ______. A lot. But photoshopping a Hitler moustache onto milquetoast politicians isn’t a trenchant lampoon. It’s the visual equivalent of putting toilet paper in someone’s shrubs while they’re asleep. Not particularly brave, or funny.

Randy Newman has the cultivated talent to understand the subject intimately, and the twinkle in the eye that’s necessary to mock it properly. But I can see a little affection in there for it, too. That’s what makes it sublime.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

That’s a Jamaican Ska band, the Skatalites. Ska is a kind of on-its-head Caribbean version of American fifties R&B, on drugs, and steroids. For some unexplained reason they’re playing in Glastonbury, which doesn’t fit the narrative one way or the other, especially since I’m not sure if it’s Glastonbury Connecticut, or the one in England where the skinheads like Ska music for another reason I don’t understand.

They’re performing a gloss on a Ukrainian composer’s idea of appropriate background music for a movie about an international team of saboteurs blowing something up in Greece, but the Greek guy in the movie isn’t Greek, I think, his real name is Ercolani and he’s from Phillie, and Ercolani is a Bolgnese name anyway, and the Greek song he sings, Yalo, Yalo, isn’t part of the score; besides, he used to hang around with Gidget and nobody that hangs around with Gidget is any kind of saboteur you’d care to hang out with –oh yes, the song the Skatalites are playing has words but nobody knows them, and for good reason…

Islands of Greece are green and beautiful,
Green and beautiful,
Where the olive trees grow
In the field below,
But high on the cliffs the guns are hidden there,
Guns are hidden there,
In a cavern of stone,
Guns of Navarone…

There’s like 142 more verses like that, only worse, or moreso, or something, and if you go to a Skatalites show and sing along people won’t think you’re cool because you know them, they’ll think you’re strange so shut up.

So, to sum up: Nothing is wrong with this picture. It’s exactly how I prefer the musical world to be organized.

(Stop! Once Again It’s) Hammer Time

[Editor’s Note: Originally offered a coupla years ago. Still rings true]
{Author’s Note: The kid’s pushing thirteen, and blessedly, my lawnmower, right now. There is no editor}

My older boy is ten. He’s infinitely interesting, and not just to his parents. Like many of his peers, the best description of his personality is born old. That is to say: he’s preternaturally sophisticated, and is endlessly interested in adult things, without ever losing that joie de vivre that we all envy the young. It’s interesting to field questions from him now, and try to figure out what’s happening just below the surface of the inquiry. There are no easy questions anymore. And sometimes I wonder if he asks me things just to see if I’ll run out of answers. And the time for making stuff up is over. The world’s not that mysterious to him any more.

We have him help out with the family business a little. Once a week he empties out the various vacuum cleaners, sweeps the floor, bundles the trash, and totes that bale a bit. He gets paid, and tracks this payment on a spreadsheet to determine how much he’s earned. And he cashes it in when he wants something bad enough. It’s a testament to how much times have changed, that often as not it’s software he wants. Sheesh.

He really isn’t interested in what I do. He’s dutiful, and a joy for his company, but he’s not handy. Strangely enough, I’m not really handy either, and have worked my whole life to counterfeit other’s easy ability with tools. In boatbuilding, they use an expression: His mallet don’t ring. What they refer to, is when a man would caulk a wooden boat, he would strike a metal iron with a wooden mallet to set a string in the seam that seals the planks from leaking. A good caulker could gently rock and strike the iron to set the seaming cord almost effortlessly, and the mallet would “ring” as he struck it. It’s like watching someone play a stringed instrument well. For the rest of us, it’s like trying to shove a snake up a drainpipe.

His mallet don’t ring. It’s not pejorative. It’s an assessment. It means effort is required to accomplish the same thing that comes easily to others. It has a tone of awe, sometimes, to acknowledge greatness, born greatness: His mallet rings.

My boy’s mallet don’t ring. But he soldiers on next to his father, and counterfeits ability with effort. Someday he will find the thing that makes his mallet ring. But I shall be prouder of him for the effort he puts in on the things that must be done, than whatever he accomplishes doing what he’d care to do. An Olympic Gold Medal is nothing compared to a Silver Star, after all.

Across The Street And Three Centuries (Again)

If you cross the street from Abigail Adams, you can look back at the First Parish Church she adorns from the sylvan vantage point of the old burial ground. It has the calm of a spot of extreme age, well tended. There are no hard edges remaining, even on the hardest of original edges displayed there.

These were austere and uncompromising men and women that were buried here. Life was not a bowl of cherries for anybody three hundred years ago, as the mute evidence of the numerous tiny nameless markers at the foot of the parent’s graves testify. No man should bury his children, it is said. I suspect it was said recently.

The various inscriptions about the denizens here are very chaste in their praise. It was enough, apparently, to commemorate their importance to the town and the country, to single them out for mention. There are two bronze plaques from the 1920s which list the names of the local inhabitants that participated in the Revolutionary War, flanked by another listing those first hardy souls that founded the city.

The founder’s plaque has but a few names: Hancock, Adams, Quincy, Hoar. They are the ancestors of the men of those names we learn of in the history books. Hoar was a doctor, and the third president of Harvard University. The boneyard itself was set aside in 1640.

Henry Adams was born in 1583. It is useful to put that in perspective. William Shakespeare baptized his first daughter in 1583. Michelangelo was still painting the back wall of the Sistine Chapel just forty years before that. Andrea Palladio, that most influential of architects, whose Four Books Of Architecture that church was most surely based upon, was still alive in1580. When I first began working in the 1970s, I worked with people whose experience went back to before the Depression. Henry Adams and his neighbors rubbed elbows with the Middle Ages.

The inscription on the lovely gate leading into the burying ground reads: “The Mortal Shall Put On Immortality.”

Certainly that. There’s also a kind of fame, made indistinct by the passage of time, which fertilizes the grass here. We are watching the proceedings from the stands, mostly. These are the men and women who strode into the arena, and slew the beasts.

Whatever rest they’ve gotten, they earned.

(Ruth Anne Wants To Revisit) The Adams Family

[Editor’s Note: Reader, commenter, Internet friend, and furniture customer extraordinaire Ruth Anne Adams has requested that we revisit the visit with the Adams family. Her wish is our command.]

{Ruth Anne paid the band a few times. Her beautiful children sit on Sippican Cottage chairs. You get to listen to her tune. There is no editor.}

I’ve only been to Europe once, but Europe is not obscure to me. In the same way that cultivated persons once used to learn French, and those of a scientific nature German, I was taught about European things while being educated. I knew how to find my way from Brunelleschi’s dome to the foot of David without directions. And yes, I know that’s a copy standing there now outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

Sometimes it seems like Europe has nothing but history. It occurs to me from time to time that most of Europe is just living in the wreckage of an earlier civilization’s works, waiting…

Never mind. I’m an American. We’re not waiting for anything. Now, it might appear to many persons in this big country of ours that nothing’s very old here. There’s no Collosseum in Quincy, where the picture is taken, after all. But just because you live in a suburb where the trees are still staked and no one’s house has been repainted yet, doesn’t mean the whole enchilada is like that. Sometimes the old sneaks up on you; you bump into it right on the street.

That’s Abigail Adams right there. That’s a monument to her outside the First Parish Church of Quincy, Massachusetts. She is that rarest of things — both the wife and the mother of an American President. But America is old enough at least to have produced two such women. That church in the background was established in 1639. Quincy is not new.

It wasn’t Quincy then, of course. It was part of Braintree, which is still right down the street if you’re interested. The city of Quincy was named for Abigail Adams’ grandfather Colonel John Quincy. And so the town is her family home, really, not those prickly men she cared for.

John Adams was not a lovable fellow, though Abigail surely loved him. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, who readers of this page know is my kind of guy, John Adams was: “Honest, intelligent, and sometimes out of his mind.” His son John Quincy Adams was about as uncompromising and hard-nosed as his old man, and gathered a few detractors himself when his presidential campaign included saying unkind things about his opponent Andrew Jackson’s wife.

Jackson’s wife died right after the election, the slur still in her ear, and it hardened Andrew Jackson’s heart; and he was already about as ornery a man as you could find in American history. I think this monument is really there to remind us how dour our lives would be without women in them, and to remind us how to behave towards each other.

They made a movie about John Quincy Adams succesfully arguing the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court. It was a worthwhile endeavor, but it would take Lincoln to free the slaves ultimately; perhaps John Quincy should be remembered for the two most earthshattering changes he brought to the presidency: he wore long pants, and went to the bathroom indoors.

I think it’s great to happen upon Abigail right there in the street, when you’re hurtling past on the way to some hurried quotidian appointment. She personifies the importance of being well regarded as well as being respected — or feared — plus the need to cultivate as well as harvest your notoriety. And old things encountered in a new and bustling setting are terrific for framing a perspective on the trajectory of things; birth, education, toil, joy, death, legacy.

John Hancock was born across the street, two blocks down. I didn’t run into him.

I (Knew) That Smell

[Editor’s Note: First offered in 2006.}
{Author’s Note: Man, I was smart in 2006. There is no editor.}

By god, how I know that smell. Old plaster and dirt and corruption and mildew and rockwool insulation and nasty fibrous plaster; the smell of grandma’s grandma’s attic. The smell of grandma, too.

We walked past this doorway in Bristol, Rhode Island. It’s the entrance to a vacant turn-of-the-twentieth century single story retail business building. My wife commented on what a neat place it would be to sell my furniture. I’ve done that sort of mental arithmetic a million times, for myself and others, and I know anyplace cheap enough for me to buy is generally cheap for a reason. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.

That little padlock you see is to “keep the honest people out,” as we used to say. It’s probably there to protect the valuables of the people working on the building, not the building itself. Some sort of demolition had happened, and the woolly interior of the walls and ceilings was partially exposed, but there was no sign of anything but the most desultory activity. No Coming Soon sign. No building materials. No people.

Now, I told you I know that smell. I’ve worked on buildings and/or their furnishings for my whole life. And I’ve seen most everything at this point. I’ve seen wooden plumbing and DC electricity and steam piped in by the city for heat. I’ve seen vestigal carbide gas works and elevators with accordion doors,and secret rooms. I’ve seen ranks of identical rooms — whole closed up floors of them– one bed, one window, one dresser each, for the long dead live-in servants of the ghosts of the mansion’s long dead original owners. I’ve seen the cubbyholes where settlers hid their children during King Philip’s War. I’ve repaired houses sheathed with 24″ wide oak planks 1-1/4″ thick and as hard as a banker’s heart. I’ve seen more lead paint than a Dutch Boy.

That smell used to be common thirty years ago. It was a building that had gone to seed, but with hard use, over a long time, and barely altered. It wasn’t continuously fiddled with, with only a vestige of its original form showing through the years. It was old, and a wreck, and wonderful, and had potential — and nobody wanted it.

Everybody wants everything now. I caution persons slightly younger than me that life was not always as rosy as it has been for the last 20 or 25 years, at least for the most part. There was a time when it was very difficult for a hardworking family to get by, and you jumped on any work situation that promised even a modicum of stability. With both feet. You’d accept work situations that would look like indentured servitude now, more or less. You never ever ever quit your job before you had another one. Never. And it took real nerve to buy a rundown building like this and turn it into something.

My elders warned me about the Depression. It led them to certain habits which seem like madness now — overreaction and paranoia. When you hear about honest people hoarding cash outside of banks, saving newspaper and cardboard and scraps of this and that, never throwing anything away, always afraid that all prosperity is ephemeral — that’s the Depression talking.

Twice in my working life, unemployment in the construction business has exceeded 25% for a substantial stretch. That might be news to you civilians, but the reason you can’t find anyone to do anything for you that involves heavy lifting, hammers, and speaking english, is that everyone but the hardiest souls and people with nothing but a strong back were driven out of the sector for sunnier economic climes. Everybody bailed out if they could manage it.

Well, I’m not going to warn you about the Depression. Preparing yourself for a cataclysm that never comes is a form of unpreparedness, really. But recently, I hear that certain ex-government officials have gotten the idea in their heads that 1970 was swell, and had just the right ratio of carbon dioxide and economic activity, and we need to return there, pronto.

I know that smell. It’s the smell of the cake I’m going to be allowed to eat, when there is no bread.


I never have a camera when I need one. My kid could hit a walk-off home run in the seventh game of the World Series, round the bases heading for home to pick up his Nobel Prize in physics and his Congressional Medal of Honor from dignitaries waiting at Home Plate, and I’d say to my wife: “Gee, I wish I brought the camera. “

To be a photographer is to record, not to participate fully. It’s unselfish in a way, and standoffish in another. You are there; but just. The professional photographer’s a whole ‘nother animal. He either isn’t there, an outsider gazing at you like a scientist looking into a petri dish, or he’s arranging the scene to suit his art, and he’s the center of attention. I have no idea what a drunk guy with a camera phone represents, unless he’s with Paris Hilton.

At any rate, sometimes a thing happens in my yard. You can feel it coming. It gathers around the edges of the horizon, egged on by mists from the nearby ocean, chastened by the stalwart boles of the pines, and lowered down on your head like a veil — or a crown.

My wife usually tells me it’s about to happen; the bats tell her. They circle the periphery of the patch of lawn outside our back door, hugging the shadows and gently lowering themselves, like the light, until it’s satiny dark and you hear the soft susurrus of their leathery wings right over your head.

There’s a tipping point, when the gathered indistinct aureole of haze shot through with pastels snaps like a twig and reveals the underlying sky. It only lasts for a moment, and only comes in the spring.

I got it last week, a minute apart; lord knows what my kids were doing that I should have recorded for the ages and missed while I pointed the camera aimlessly into the sky like a loon:

And then, like all the moments you missed because you were in them, it was gone.

The Second Greatest Adventure Movie Ever

Steven Spielberg keeps trying to make this movie, over and over, but he’s no John Huston; and using George Lucas as your writer instead of Rudyard Kipling is starting in a very deep hole indeed.

Alexander Who?

Something Else Happens

That’s pinus strobus. Eastern White Pine. I know it about as well as anybody, I guess.

I use a great deal of it making furniture. But I was introduced to it a long time before that in the housing industry. If you look at a piece of framing lumber, you’ll likely see a grade stamp on it that says SPF with some numbers. No, your lumber isn’t worried about sunburn. SPF stand for Spruce, Pine, Fir — all evergreen trees with needles that have about the same strength and so are lumped together for grading purposes. Pine is immensely strong for its light weight and makes good framing lumber.

I know 1×12 number 2 common pine as well as anyone. (Some call that “C Select” grade. Lumber has a lot of inside jargon) My entire house, except the tile in the kitchen and bath, is floored with it, screwed and pegged. Number 2 is an appearance grade that means it has a few sound knots. 1×12 is a nominal size. It means the board was 1″ thick and 12″ wide before it was dried (it shrinks) and dressed (the cutters take their vigorish) A 1×12 is actually 3/4″ thick by 11-1/4″ wide. A “board foot” of this lumber is not a foot square. It is 12″ long by 11-1/4 wide by 3/4″ thick. People often buy board feet and forget nominal sizes, plus good old-fashioned waste. If you buy clear pine with no knots, it costs more than expensive hardwoods in many cases. I made my entire kitchen cabinetry out of the flooring stock by cutting out the clear sections of knotty boards first. I used the knotty sections for secondary things and kindling.

My property is covered with pines, many over 75 feet tall. Hundreds of them. They grow straight up like weeds. When I wanted to clear an acre of them to build the house, the sawyer didn’t charge me anything. He took the nice, straight boles of the trees he felled to the sawmill and sold them to cover the costs of clearing the lot.

I’ve learned that pine is a slab of gasoline. Almost literally.

What I mean by that is, the cost of pine is almost 100% the cost of the energy involved in getting it to where you’re going to use it in the form you want it. The wood is almost worthless just standing there with birds chirping in it. Here’s the energy list:

  • Getting your lumberjack butt out to the trees
  • The big machines that fell big trees, and chainsaws, don’t run on unicorn farts
  • Truck it back to the sawmill
  • The sawmill uses electricity, but that isn’t coming from AA batteries. More energy
  • They dry the boards in a kiln, often using natural gas or that electricity again.
  • Just moving it around the yard requires more than a handtruck
  • Put it on a truck and deliver it to wholesale yards
  • More truck, to the retail yards

I have to get in a truck to pick it up, too. They’re between eight and sixteen feet long. Not great in your Subaru sticking out the window.

Read any news outlet. They’ll tell you that since all that energy is required to get splinters into my finger, it’s Armageddon and we’re all gonna die in an inflationary tsunami.

It’s true I didn’t enjoy paying $4.07 per gallon to go to the lumber yard. But I need pine to make furniture. And I paid 34% less for it this week than I did exactly one year ago. Same quality. Same vendor. Same everything.

A fluke? Not hardly. I bought the same thing two years ago, too, of course. I paid 32% less than 2006. Same place. Same quality.

By any measure of what goes into the cost of a board foot of pine, I should have paid a lot more now. But like most things economic, you can’t figure out anything by reading the papers. A lot of it is borderline counterintuitive, or obscure, anyway. The demand for lumber to construct housing is down, so the price is not goosed by any boom. Everybody sharpens their pencil a bit. But there are other factors in play.

Any news article you see that outlines inflationary pressures based solely on the price of raw commodities, without discussing productivity or other concurrent economies of cost, is written by, and aimed towards, a fool.

Just like the lumberyard, and the yards that supply them, I’ve had all sorts of pressures put on me that might make what I produce more expensive. But at the same time, I’ve had all sorts of labor and material saving devices come into the picture. It’s only inflationary if the productivity gains don’t outstrip the rise in cost of materials and labor.

The shorter version of all that is, in general, Something Else Happens. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but not linear. There is no more complex system than the modern economy.

Counterintuitively but wisely, the lumberyard is expanding their facility a great deal right now. When there was a boom, they used their existing location to its max and and made their money. Now it’s slack, and they use the pause to get ready for the next rush. Maybe you could learn something from them. You’re never going to learn anything worth knowing by watching Katie Couric.

Month: June 2008

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