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Choom Choom Charlie Was An Engineer

Not up to code, I think. Not the building code, Morse Code, Hammurabi’s Code, my area code…

Well, it appears I’m going to have to get back at it.

My public demands I hit my Intertunnel thumb with a pixel hammer until gouts of web blood appear amusingly on their screen. They suspect I’ve failed — know it in the depth of their hearts, in the forecourt of their minds, in the alleys of their senses — but gosh, they want to know exactly how I dropped my house on my head while trying to fix it. For the lulz.

Of course, if I wanted to tell an audience something really interesting, I’d have made a mordant aside somewhere along the long, weary way we’ve traveled under my house, about how I once got a 650 pound woodburning furnace into the second floor of my house in the dead, dead, dead of winter, through a door three feet above grade with no stairs, halfway down a driveway under four feet of snow and with a pitch approaching black diamond, with no one but a teenager and his mother to help me. Now that would have been a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying, well, heat. That would be a story worth telling. But I put the audience off the scent early, and coaxed them into the basement where I keep the second-rate tales, and they’re none the wiser. Of course they’re none the wiser, because they’re listening to me. I’m not that bright, but if I was a butcher, and a customer came in the shop and expressed an interest in an emaciated pullet with scoliosis I had hanging in the shop window, I wouldn’t blurt out that I had a big roast beef in the back. I’d keep, er, selling that chicken. So forget I mentioned it.

Now that all my clothes have been washed twice since Thanksgiving, so that most of the cranberry is out of them at this point, I really should get back to it. How to jack up the back of your ramshackle Victorian and ram a foundation under it, a hundred years or so too late. We of course took the theoretical engineering course earlier in the week. Time for practical engineering.

When my dad had a flat tire — an occurrence as common as meeting a congressmen in Hell, as dad favored “recapped” tires back in the day — he’d make us all get out of the car while he fixed it. My father was a banker, so arithmetic wasn’t his strong suit. All practical things weren’t his strong suit, now that I think of it. Hell, I think we buried him in his strong suit, which was a bit shiny at the elbows and knees. He wasn’t good at anything but making people love him. But how much a car weighed, and how much the jack would hold, and what additional danger would be posed by four or five relatives malingering in the car was not known to him. His calculations consisted solely of get out of the car, you lot.  It had the side benefit of an eager audience to cheer him on as he cursed gently under his breath and deftly replaced the bald tire with no air in it with the bald tire that was low on air that he kept in the trunk for just such festive occasions.

Now I’m no better than my dad; indeed, I’m much worse, because I don’t care for arithmetic either, plus I’m as lovable as a bacterium, generally. But even I know that telling my family to get out of the house just before I lifted it wasn’t going to help all that much. Houses be heavy, dude.

How much does a house weigh? That’s an interesting question. It was especially interesting to me, because it might end up on top of my head. I had to know whether to wear a hard hat or a baseball cap. Go ahead, ask the Intertunnel how much  a house weighs.

Herein lies another lesson. If you enter the Intertunnel, and ask it a question of a practical nature, it generally sends you first, last, and every time, to someplace with HOW TO in the URL. I’ve noticed that no one at no site with HOW TO in its name knows how to locate their nether regions using cartography and hand-held portable illumination devices. The HOW TO neighborhood of the Interburbs isn’t just stupid; it’s concentrated, distilled, malignant imbecility.

(to be continued)

[Update: In one of life’s great comeuppance moments, my wife called me this evening and told me she had a flat tire. Neither one of us can remember the last time we had a flat tire. It might be 25 years.  I had to go to the Sherwin Williams parking lot and change her tire in the sleet and darkness. My father has gone to his reward, but he still has enough existential pull to teach me a lesson about defaming him, I see. If you’re listening, Dad, I wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over the Androscoggin River]

Thanksgiving 2013

There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as between an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and it was a good lamp, but now it sheds light, too, and that is its real function. And love makes one more calm about many things, and so one is more fit for one’s work. -Van Gogh

I think the worst condition of man is loneliness.

It is a terrible thing to be lonely, or worse, truly alone. No one goes crazy in general population. It’s solitary that eats at your mind. Even the craziest of  men, immured in stone, unable to get even a glimpse of the bright, blue tent of the sky, scratch at the walls to leave a message; to tell another that they were there.

I am not alone in this world, which is good, because I have a melancholy nature. I am married, and I have children to throw rolls over the table at one another. They are my name, scratched on the unyielding wall of the world, telling anyone that will bother to notice that I was here. My family makes me calm about many things.

It’s Thanksgiving. I am separated by distance and other things from everyone except my wife and children. I do not know if I’ve ever understood the true nature of the holiday until recently, because to have plenty and to be able to gather together was fairly easy. People don’t often appreciate things that come readily to hand. I’m a person.

We will have enough to eat, and sit in a warm room, laugh and wonder at the dogeared cards we have been dealt, and I’ll try mightily to shed the light that is my true function, to make me more fit for my work. We will all pray over our plate like children. Thanksgiving is the only kind of prayer that you can be sure will work, because it faces backwards.

I tap on the wall of the Intertunnel, too. I often feel disconnected from my fellow passengers on this spinning rock, moreso each day. I wonder if some other inmate, some fellow traveler, might hear my tapping, and be braced by the thought of a fellow internee. I often hear tapping in return, and it refreshes me to carry on.

And so I offer this little word of thanks, and release it into the ether. I’m glad I’m not alone, and if you’re reading this, you’re not alone, either, and I’m glad to get a chance to leave a little something in the take a soul, leave a soul dish at the checkout counter of life.

[ Extra special Thanksgiving thanks goes out to Karen, Richard, Paul, Robert, Malcolm, David, Tracy Lynn, Victor, Caleb, Blake, Clare, Patrick, Andy, Mitchell, Eric, Francis, Sarah, Andrea, Julie, William, Kathleen, Nancy, Mary J, and a very generous stranger in New Jersey for not only tapping on the stone walls in our shared dungeon, but for bribing the guards into giving us a cake with a file in it.]
[Update: And Anh! Many thanks!]
[Continuing News Update: Many thanks to Karen M. from Calphalonia]
[Additional Gratitude Alert:  Dale K in Washington. Mainey thanks!]

There’s A Very Pleasant Side To You, A Side I Much Prefer

I have a pleasant side. It’s the other one. No, not that one. Not that one either. I’ll turn around. Nope. Well, it must be around here somewhere.

Of course it is. My good side is in my dining room, calling themselves Unorganized Hancock and playing Mardy Bum by the Arctic Monkeys.

They’re my good side. They are me, only not a jerk. I guess that means they’re really not me; they must be my wife’s good side. She has all good sides, so she doesn’t have to spin like a centrifuge looking for hers.

The kids have been sick in bed for a week or so. They are homeschooled, so they’re almost never sick. My wife and I once considered sending the little drummer boy to regular school, but we decided it would be easier for us to just drive to the Center for Disease Control and drink out of all the petri dishes they keep there.

It’s been so long since the little feller was sick, and he is so young, that he’d forgotten what being sick was. He was confused, not sad, and kept asking us how he was supposed to act. He sat on a little tuffet made of pillows on his bed and watched cartoons from the forties on a little disc player and sneezed like a cartoon himself — kerchoo. The big one layed around like a teenager. I told him he didn’t need germs for that. He doesn’t listen.

I think there are four takes in this video, and the big one would hack like a four-pack-a-day coal miner in between them. My wife was the key grip, or the best boy, or the gaffer or something. I was David O Fargin Selznick, waving the camera around like I had palsy. The Heir put the whole thing together by himself, and is playing the bass, guitar, and singing. The little one continued his streak of never, ever requiring two takes to do anything.

Ladies and germs, Unorganized Hancock! Enjoy! kerchoo

The Governor Of Maine Has Stolen My Children’s Christmas Presents

The governor of Maine has stolen my children’s Christmas presents, presents that were made possible only by the generosity of my readers.

Maine passed a law trying to extort sales tax money from Amazon, by claiming that if an Amazon Associate lives in Maine, then Amazon is a Maine company and must collect sales taxes here. That was about as wise and useful as it sounds. Amazon immediately cancelled all their Maine Associates’ accounts, so the state will collect no sales tax, and everyone that derived income from their Associates accounts will lose all of that income, and so won’t pay any tax on that, now, either. My situation is even worse than most. Because of some sort of clerical error, Amazon thought I still lived in Massachusetts, and never notified me that my account was being cancelled, and didn’t instruct me to remove my Associates links when they notified everyone else, so in addition to forfeiting all future Amazon Associates income, I will also forfeit the last thirty days of Amazon income I’ve already earned. My wife and I had hoped to use that money to put presents under our Christmas tree for our children. Amazon Associates money is not “mad money” for us. I do not know exactly how I’m going to make up the shortfall in our income next year.

The fact that we will not receive this income any longer cannot diminish my gratitude to my readers for the kind and thoughtful gesture of trying to support this blog with their purchases. I want to thank everyone once again for reading, and commenting, and using my supplied links for as long as they lasted, and for hitting my tip jar, and for supporting my children in their musical efforts.

I hate to complicate this explanation of the disappearance of all my Amazon links, but in addition to Amazon, Google has cancelled Google Checkout as of the 20th of this month, so I will not be able to have that tip jar on my blog any longer, either. I’m very grateful to everyone that donated funds via that avenue also. As far as I know, the PayPal button still works, but it’s only noontime, and the way things are going this week, by five o’clock the entire Internet might be turned off.

I must admit that I do not feel like I am a citizen of Maine any longer — I just live here– and I have no regard whatsoever for Massachusetts, the state of my birth. Hell, I barely feel like an American anymore. But I do feel as though I belong to a community of virtual citizens instead. They are scattered, of course, but they’re generous, and intelligent, and forward-looking, kind, hardworking and salubrious, as I hope we are, and their Intertunnel nation is the only one I have any affection for now.

I was raised a Catholic, though that upbringing has done me precious little good for a long time. But I recall that I was taught, as the Bible says in Luke, to “pray for those that abuse you.” So, here goes: This is me, saying a prayer for that rat-faced, greedy, grasping, porcine, boorish, gibbering, moronic stuttering clusterfark of a troglodyte pedlar we have for a Governor.

It’s times like these that make me wish I had been raised by Evangelical Christians, instead of Catholics, so I could proceed directly to the “laying on of the hands.”

Sippican Cottage’s Handy Guide To Engineering Your House

Copyright 2013 Sippican Cottage. Don’t be de-copyrighting this. I calls it. No erasies. Black magic. Eggsetera

You axed for it; you got it: Sippican Cottage’s Handy Guide To Engineering Your House.

Blecch. I hated using “engineering” as a verb in that sentence. But the Intertunnel verbs all sorts of nouns these days, because reasons. I’m just going with the flow.

Back to the topic at hand. You want me to tell you how I lifted the back of my house and slipped a foundation under it, using a few hundred dollars and a teen-aged boy as my resource pool. I’m getting to it. But first you need an engineering course. I know you’ve been told that you need to go to school for twelve years, and then go to school for about six more years to build anything, but I’m here to tell you you don’t. You need to understand that drawing at the top of this essay — that’s it. No, really; that’s all there is to designing a house.

Let’s go over the players before the curtain goes up. Here’s where you come in. I hate to break this to you, and believe me, it’s nothing personal, but it’s my duty as your architect, teacher, and friend to inform you that you’re the HEAVY THING. I know you’ve been staying away from the break room donuts, and running in the occasional 5K for breast cancer or whatever, but it’s true. You’re the weight in this concrete and plywood sandwich.

It’s not just you, either. It’s all your relatives, if you can convince them to come over for Thanksgiving, and all the chairs you’ll be sitting on — or if you invite me over for Thanksgiving, the recliner I’ll be sleeping in. Your jugs of Chanel No. 5 and your cat litter box count, too, and equally, if they weigh the same. Anything that weighs anything in your house is part of that arrow.

On to the VAGUELY BENDY THING. That’s generally your floor. Take no umbrage at your floor being described in this manner. I am not casting aspersions on your floor, because aspersions are heavy, and we’ll have to include them in our calculations of the HEAVY THING, which will make the arithmetic more complicated.  If you  go down in your basement and look up, you’ll see rows of bendy things, spaced as regularly as a high school dropout (probably a Mexican high-school drop out at that, these days) can space them. Those are floor joists. They’re in the ceiling, because you’re in the basement, but they’re floor joists. Ceiling joists are what you see if you go in the attic and look down. I told you all this was simple, but I didn’t say it wasn’t goofy.

You have to remember now, that all those VAGUELY BENDY THINGS, no matter where they are, eventually have to be added to the HEAVY THING arrow. They’re called “Dead Weight,” or more precisely, “Dead Load.” You and your fourteen cats and furniture that smells like you and fourteen cats is called “Live Load.” It’s not all that important to sort them out, and you can add it all together, Live and Dead load, and enter it all under HEAVY THING and not worry about calculating it to the last avoirdupois, unless you’re running a Zumba class on pogo sticks for the clinically obese in your living room or something equally exotic. It’s common to use numbers like 40 PSF for live, and 10 or 20 for dead load, depending on what you’re building, and who’s using it. Snow on the roof, and wind blowing against the side, and those five layers of roofing you left on my leaky roof, you bastards, are all loads that must be accounted for, too. So only build your house in the summer, and when it’s not windy or rainy, and the arithmetic gets easier, unless you have to explain it to the building inspector.

Now, on to the CRUSHY THING, and its very important counterpart, the OTHER CRUSHY THING. Back when humans weren’t all idiots, everything in a house was sorta symmetrical like THE CRUSHY THINGS. You went through a door, or a city gate, or in my case, the portal to the jailyard, and there was a lintel (the VAGUELY BENDY THING) plopped atop two CRUSHY THINGS. It looks sensible to a sane person. Before everything in interior trim became joined with 45 degree angles like a picture frame, all your doors and windows had a frame like that around it. It looks sensible, that’s why it’s beginning to look out of place in a home now.

Pay attention now: The CRUSHY THINGS on some levels of your house might be VAGUELY BENDY THINGS turned upright. Your exterior walls might be made from a whole bunch of 2x4s, and your second floor would sit on top of that. VAGUELY BENDY THINGS make lousy CRUSHY THINGS when you get right down to it, so you put a whole lot of them fairly close together, generally 16″ apart, and put one horizontally on the bottom and two horizontally on the top, and then nail sheathing all over the outside of it, or if it’s entirely inside the house, you screw drywall all over it. Then you nail the ever-loving hell out of it, and the resulting assembly makes a pretty good CRUSHY THING. If you watch Home and Garden television, these assembled CRUSHY THINGS are called “walls,” generally the very walls the realtor says you can “just” demolish so you can have a clear, unobstructed view of your microwave from the other end of the house, and to allow you to hear the dishwasher running when you’re trying to watch football, even though it’s nearly sixty feet and two rooms away. Nota Bene: “Just” removing these CRUSHY THING partitions results in having all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS and all the HEAVY THINGS land on your head.

Eventually, all the ad-hoc CRUSHY THINGS make their way down to sit atop the king of all CRUSHY THINGS, the foundation. That’s usually a concrete affair, the only thing that keeps you from digging out under your lawn and the street to make one more room underground to watch TV in, even though there are four or five rooms to watch TV in your house already.

So the foundation holds in all the crazy, i.e.: you. It keeps out a lot of crazy, too. People think it should keep out water, but it can’t, so your feet are sitting on a sopping carpet while you’re watching that TV down there. It’s not the concrete’s fault. It’s just supposed to keep out the very largest snakes, and withstand the entire weight of all the dirt outside from pushing your house flat from the sides like a soda can ready for recycling. It transfers all the force from all the HEAVY THINGS, and all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS, and all the intermediate CRUSHY THINGS, then transfers all that to your footings, which are just more CRUSHY THINGS, lying  horizontally under your foundation walls, transferring the weight of everything but your mortgage to Mother Earth — which is supposed to be the ultimate CRUSHY THING. Like I said, it’s supposed to, but your house probably sits on peat moss or mulch or mud or sand or ball bearings or some other unsuitable substance, because the man that digs the cellar hole knows he’s going to be retired before you figure out what the hell’s under your house.

If you don’t have any sort of basement, and your floor is concrete, you’ve somehow been convinced to live in a basement that’s located above ground, or maybe it’s more of a garage where you’re the car. This is called “slab on grade,” or “Texas.” Don’t be fooled. The concrete floor is still the VAGUELY BENDY THING in this situation. That’s why it cracks. It’s trying to be a BENDY THING, but concrete doesn’t care for bending, it only likes being a CRUSHY THING, so it breaks pretty easily.

Therein lies the lesson. Designing a house is simple. Look at the drawing again. I’m not joking, it’s that straightforward. Figuring out all the forces involved, and then sizing all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS and all the CRUSHY THINGS is as easy as looking up a few charts on the Intertunnel and walking down the derelict aisles at Home Depot, where they keep all the framing lumber and you can see all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS on display.

My house? The HEAVY THINGS are way too heavy, The bends in the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS aren’t vague at all, they’re visible to the naked eye — from space, I imagine– and the CRUSHY THING it’s all supposed to sit on has been crushed to powder and washed away. Let’s see if we can restore it without us becoming CRUSHY THINGS by accident.

OK, Off To The Store. You Need A Cobweb Rake

I give up. What’s that big, steel girder doing there? It ain’t holding up the house, that’s fer sure

Alrighty then, we’re going to fix the basement. We’ve got the nerve, we’ve got multiple hundreds of dollars at our disposal. We’ve got a teenage boy, or we will when he wakes up. And of course, we have our cobweb rake.

How’s that? You don’t have a cobweb rake? By gad, what sort of toolset have you accumulated? What about a Johnson bar? Howza ’bout a board stretcher? Any left-handed paint paddles lying about? Sounds like you don’t have any sort of good stuff hanging around. But above all, you’re going to need that cobweb rake. You better get a good one. Don’t go cheapskate here. You can use one of those cheap table saws made of lead and plastic by the Chinese low bidder, the ones that sound like a hive of bees and a pound of washers being agitated in a clothes dryer, they’ll do fine. But you need a real, good cobweb rake. Don’t skimp.

I suppose you’ll go to Home Depot, or if you’re a Unitarian-Universalist, maybe you can afford to go to Lowe’s, I don’t know, but when you go to the cobweb rake aisle, don’t just settle for the first one that the cobweb rake salesman tries to palm off on you. I’m in Maine, so I needed the Charlotte’s Web Deluxe Extra-Premium High-Strength Ergonomic Cobweb Rake. If you live in most of the rest of the lower 48, outside of Maine, maybe you can get by with a lesser model without all the features. If you live in Florida or Hawaii, there’s nothing left for you but prayer. Santeria prayers work best on the bugs you’ve got. But none of them can compare with Maine spiders.

What’s that you say? The clerk at Home Depot didn’t think he could find a cobweb rake? You know he’s lying. Guys like him hoard important stuff like that in the back and ease it out the loading dock door to select friends and assorted palm greasers. Go back there again, and lay a double sawbuck across that guy’s palm, and see if you don’t end up out by the dumpster, waiting for your special delivery. It’s not right, I know, but it’s how the world works.

Of course, I’ve owned my own cobweb rake since the early eighties. I’ve put it away every fall, after a generous soaking of tonsil polish, of course, to keep us both withy in the joints. I remember the first time I used it. We were installing hot and cold running potato chips in some rich guy’s house, and I drew the short straw and had to make my way through his root cellar alone. I’ve never forgotten that afternoon — if that’s what it was. It was dark down there — and I was proud that even though I’d just gotten the schematics for the apparatus, I put the hot pipe on the left on the first try.

Say what? The Lowe’s lady didn’t know what a cobweb rake was, either? Well, you can show her a picture of mine:

Remember to buy all your cobweb rakes through my Amazon Portal, I get a commission

Of course, that’s the lightweight one I use for the easy stuff. I’ve got a metal one, too, for under the stairs, where the albino spiders go heavy on the silk. The stuff’s structural, I tells ya.

I’m Fixing A Hole Where The Rain Gets In

Well, this situation looks fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in. The rain, and mice, spiders, stray cats, chipmunks, squirrels, snow, mud…


[If you just toddled in, Ive been describing how I jacked up part of my ramshackle house in Maine and put a foundation under it. I have done so without mentioning anything about my house, Maine, or jacks and foundations, for almost a week. I deserve a trophy or a beating, I think]

Now, then. The Point.

I’ve been coming to The Point for quite some time now. I thought I was on its scent about a week ago, but I came up empty when I checked the traps. I put more thesaurus urine on the legholds and put them back in the river of words where I like to go trapping, but haven’t had any luck since, either. I thought I had The Point up a tree a few days after that, but I got cold and wandered off after waiting for it to come down. In my defense, I waited almost fifteen minutes before I got bored. I’m not made of stone, you know. I don’t have a pointer dog to hunt The Point with, so I left my cat at the base of the tree with The Point in it. He turned out as useless as a fat clerk in a Victoria’s Secret.

I thought if I pretended not to be interested in The Point, he might show himself, figuring that he’d outlasted me, so I looked off into the distance a good bit, and pretended to write about other things instead of telling you about how to slip a basement under a house rather than doing it the other way ’round, like God and the building inspector intended. But instead of coaxing The Point out in the open where we could club it to death in the comments, I just ended up with a sort of Dumb & Dumber edition of Palladio’s The Four Books on Architecture.

I don’t know Mr. Palladio; I think he went to public school, and I had the nuns, so we’re bound to travel in different circles, forevermore. Or perhaps he’s full-blown Presbyterian, and no one like me gets to talk to any of those. But I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t approve of me putting out a version of his book with so many fart jokes in it. Worse, after a while I got tired of changing all those Latin “V”s he favors into plain old “U”s, so it wouldn’t be so easy for his publisher to catch on that I was plagiarizing him. So I pried the Vs and Us off my keyboard and tried to swap them, but the duct tape didn’t hold, they all fell off, and now I’m trying to make The Point using only 24 letters, like a drunk reciting the alphabet for a state policeman by the side of the road.

Oh, yeah. The Point. More than a few years ago, I took the Massachusetts Construction Supervisor license test with hundreds of other schlubs at the UMASS Dartmouth campus-cum-abattoir, handed it in, and went outside.  I knew no one there. Once again, I was all alone, because everyone knew each other. They were standing in a kind of park that looked more like a black ops landing strip than a place for humans to congregate, and they were all talking furiously to each other. Right there, I got the only education that I was likely to get from the whole episode.

They all knew each other because they had all been taking that test, and attending those stripmall classes together, forever and a day, over and over. They always failed. They failed long. They failed hard. They failed often. They failed regularly. Miserably. Spectacularly. With bangs. With whimpers. And no one that passed finished before I did. They left forty-five minutes before the allotted time was up because they were only on the second question at that point, knew their answer to the first one was wrong anyway, and figured there was no point in continuing.

I didn’t bother to introduce myself to anyone. I didn’t need to, after all — I was famous. I was the moron or genius without the tabs; a celebrity of sorts. I simply walked up to the closest gaggle of hangdog expressions and they adopted me immediately like a pound puppy. They were all comparing notes on how exactly they failed. I gathered that they met so often that they had formed softball teams and dart leagues and began to marry each other’s sisters. I didn’t quite understand how it could be, I didn’t think the test was that hard, but they all assured me it be.

They were all framing carpenters. They had reached the period of their careers where they had to take over for their old man the framing carpenter, and let him move to Florida with the seven fingers and one thumb he had left and be retired for at least fifteen minutes before he had his complimentary myocardial infarction. Of course their fathers never had to pass the test; they were grandfathered in, and the Building Code was small enough to be printed on an index card back then, anyway. But they had to pass, and they couldn’t. One man, who had the rangy look and laconic voice common among framers I have known, said nothing for a good long time, but when pressed, came to The Point in one, brilliant, heartbreaking sentence:

“Not a lot of questions about wood on that test.”

Unlike people like me, who are inoculated with a phonograph needle, he was prone to saying very few words while stuffing them with meaning. He was right. Dead right, and I mean that every which way. He knew, by instinct, and training, and custom, and experience, intergenerationally, exactly how to build a single-family house in the state of his birth. And that knowledge, experience, and desire was worthless to him, because there’s not a lot of questions about wood on that test.

Listen to me. If you’re reading this, you’re the person that test is geared towards. The meek have not inherited the earth. The meek have been sent home to tell their father that there’s not a lot of questions about wood on that test. The test, and the whole industry, was being geared up to be the province of people that are willing and able to wade through fens of text bogged down with legalese, much of it contradictory, a great deal of it useless, in order to have anything to do with building or altering a single-family home.

No one that reads this blog can’t understand how to build a house, or anything else, for that matter. It’s statute turtles all the way down now. You’re all intellectuals. You’re all used to traversing minefields of legalese to get to your porridge. You’re smart, in a very particular way.

And so, we come to the second part of The Point. As I said, you and I are smart, in a very particular way. And that way of being smart is completely useless to the problem at hand: What makes a good, sturdy, liveable house. Being that particular kind of smart has become worse than useless. It’s become antithetical to good housing. It’s a trifle to figure out the structural problems presented by a single-family house. The things that make a house pleasant to live in are subtle, not complicated. There’s nothing subtle in the CMR.

We drove out every single person that built good houses to live in, guarded by common-sense, not statute; produced by tradition, custom, habit, or by accident –what difference does it make why someone is right? Everyone that knew what they were doing are all gone, driven out in a tide of superfluousness, and we’re going to have to do it ourselves if we want it done at all. I can tell you that “the experts” in these matters don’t know squat about what makes a pleasant place to live in. The “experts” built UMASS Dartmouth, and teach there. By the mark of that beast you should know them. You’ve been told  that building and repairing a house is an arcane, complicated business left to professionals. You’re warned never to try anything substantial to repair your house. They tell you to change out the kitchen counters and the tile like they’re underwear, spending the same money over and over again, but the rest of the house is as complicated as the building code is. No it’s not. In my experience, if it’s in your house, and it’s fussy or complicated, it’s bad and you don’t want it. A good house is simpler than a bad house, and that rule of thumb gets truer every day.

You’re plenty smart enough to know, or at least figure out, everything you need to know to build or fix anything worth living in. The only question is whether you have the sense to know what a dullard used to know, and stop building and buying and living in houses a dumb person, in recent memory, knew enough not to build, buy or live in.

UMASS Dartmouth, Class Of ’16

We have Sippican on file here somewhere. He’s the guy without tabs, right?

[If you just came in, I’m explaining how to repair a 110-year-old ramshackle house. I’ve gotten as far as my baby pictures. Hang in there]

And so in your hearts you beseech me to lay down my cudgels and finally put lintel atop column or wiggle my spud in some girder holes –something– but I find the need to weave wattle for my mind’s pigpen just outside the jobsite again.

I describe a thing to bring a laugh but it’s not a laughing matter. I’m throwing rice at a funeral. In Massachusetts they examined me to see if  I was worthy to stack one block upon another, to let a dog, or a dog’s minder, get in out of the rain.  They did it in a place that should be taken apart to its component molecules, the bits burned to ashes and smeared on the faces of its patrons and architects, the very ground it squats on like a concrete animal salted to make a Carthaginian blush and a Roman envious. UMASS Dartmouth is the worst place man made. A penance is in order.

They say a bad surgeon buries his mistakes, but a bad architect can only advise his clients to plant vines. UMASS Dartmouth should plant poison ivy over every inch of it. It wouldn’t be landscaping. It would be a warning to the unwary. You think I’m joking? This is what it looks like:






You could dig up whatever bits of Dante Alighieri you could find and plop him at a table and press the quill in his bony hand and say, “Top that, you piker,” and he wouldn’t hesitate a moment, just say he couldn’t raise and dare not call, and throw in.

It’s not a prison. A prison acknowledges the essential humanity of its occupants by trying to thwart their normal urges. It knows what you want, and tries to take it away from you, because you want to live like a human being, at least the kind of human being that goes to prison. But UMASS Dartmouth doesn’t have anything to do with human beings. It is worse than the most devilish panopticon, because every nook and cranny of it is designed to make you repudiate your own humanity. It wishes to deny the existence of humanity itself. If there were corpses hanging from those gibbets with the featureless rags hanging from them in the last picture, it would improve the mood, I think. A corpse used to be a human, after all.

So what does a place that denies the essential essence of humanity produce? What is the end product of a nursery of inhumanity like this concrete dovecote? This:

UMASS Dartmouth, class of ’16. The Boston Marathon bomber

So it’s the weekend, and I’m at UMASS Dartmouth, in the back row of a grim, semicircular intellectual arena, where on weekdays good ideas are slaughtered by intellectual kittens, no lions being available, for the amusement of sleeping students. But today it’s jampacked with people who want to be general contractors. Everyone has already had fourteen cups of coffee, and the room vibrates a bit with it.

As God as my witness, there was no cheating. Everyone would have cheated, I suppose, but it’s not possible to cheat. You are allowed — strike that — you’re required to bring the answers with you. The whole test simply asks you to look things up in that big, powder blue looseleaf foolscap mess they call the building code, and write it down when you find it on the line that is dotted.

As we began, the opening shuffle of papers sounding like the emptying of a dumpster, it dawned on me why everyone attended those classes at the stripmall I mentioned before. Every single one of those classes taught nothing. No one knew anything more at the end than at the beginning. All they did, was to teach the students how to take apart the big, blue book of statutes about building structures, and put it in a different order, one that made a kind of sense: foundation before framing before plaster before skylights and so on. Then they gave their students fifty cents-worth of color-coded binder tabs to tell one section from another, and locate things faster.

It was a long time ago, and one forgets things, but I remember distinctly that each and every person in that room filled with hundreds of people had those color coded tabs on their books — except one person, of course. I began to feel as though I was being looked at by every single person in a very large crowd, which is fine if you’re tap-dancing or singing barbershop or whatever, but is very unsettling if you’re just another schlub in the room. Oh, what ideas you can conjure about other people who are staring at you. That guy is either much smarter than we are, or very, very much dumber.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which was which and who was who. But me, I was in for another shock. The test lasted for two hours, if memory serves, and I dutifully remembered the nuns, and tried to ace that bad boy, and finish first. I plunged headlong into figuring snowloads that would make a ski area blush, and figuring out how to nail off a corner post to withstand a temblor that doesn’t show its face much in New England that I’ve noticed. I flipped furiously back in forth in that big, bad, book, and looked up what needed looking up, and read it, and puked it back up in a cloud of number two pencil lead.

An hour and fifteen minutes in, people started to get up and hand in their papers, while I was still laboring at span charts and live loads and occupancies for a theoretical bowling alley that was being converted to a ballroom for paraplegic arsonists, or some sort of arcane building use that made the rules go topsy-turvy. After a few minutes, the trickle of people leaving became a steady stream. The ghost of parochial schools past appeared at my shoulder rattling their beads like some weird Sister Jacob Marley, the face of the big industrial clock turning to a judge with a black cap, and I thought of my hubris, and the little plastic color-coded tabs, and ended up using every last minute of the allotted time, while wishing for more.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not tell you what your score is on such a test. They will not tell you anyone else’s score, either. That would smack of a meritocracy based on, well, merit, and we can’t have that. They mail you something a month later that bluntly tells you if you passed or failed, and that’s it. And that’s where I discovered the big secret.

(to be continued)

First Comes The Concrete Leper Colony. Then The Framing


[If you just came in, I’m describing the process for fixing the ramshackle house where I currently live in Maine. Just like all actual repair work, I lied to get the job, and it’s taking way longer than the estimate. The Shirk Brothers in The Money Pit are not really fictional. I’ll get to the point in two weeks! I promise]

You might expect the published rules for building a house to resemble some form of instruction book. You’d expect wrong.

This is what it looks like. (it’s a pdf)

That’s just an addendum or notification or supplement or appendix or amendment or notification of pending imminent continuing forthcoming wonderfulness. The actual body of the code is much less straightforward and succinct, and it’s six inches thick. There’s a delightful entry among the gobbletygook atop page two on the linked pdf — don’t miss it, it’s a howler. It asks for an estimate of the fiscal impact of changing and adding a bunch of laws about building every sort of structure in a whole state, and it just says “None.” They double down by asking about any effects on small businesses, and they aver once again, “none.” I guess the rubber stamp that reads: Who Gives A Sh*t was sent back to the print shop to be resoled from overuse, and they had to settle for the None version.

The “CMR” on all such pages stands for Code of Massachusetts Regulations. That’s right, you’re reading legislation if you want to build a house, or more precisely: statutes.The Building Code is part of this CMR, and it’s mired in Dogeared Dewey Decimal Land in the 700s. If you’re curious about whether politicians have decided to cast their laser-like focus on whether gasoline-soaked foam rubber makes good wallpaper in a nightclub, you can look at the amendment of the section about what kind of chair rail  you can use in your basement in a flood zone.

If you’ve ever wondered if ADHD is a real thing, the CMR is the scientific proof for it. It’s a very real condition, or syndrome, or affliction, or whatever you need to call it to get your speed pills paid for without a co-pay. You apparently catch if from touching ballots in state representative elections in Massachusetts. The general public, and even poll workers don’t suffer from it, because they handle so few ballots, but the winners of the elections get the germs all over them by stuffing so many into the ballot boxes when no one’s looking. They should probably wear gloves.

I promised you a big secret on Saturday, like everyone does on the Intertunnel, but here it is Monday, and no secret, and now we have to go to UMASS Dartmouth first. Sorry. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t learn much of anything useful about your house by going to that august seat of learning; but you have to take a test.

UMASS Dartmouth is the perfect place to take a test about building things in Massachusetts, because it is, without question, the ugliest warren of structures of any kind in the world. It’s not uglier than Boston City Hall, because that’s impossible, but it’s built in the exact same brutalist low-bidder concrete-fetish style, and there are dozens of buildings exactly like it at the campus. If Boston City Hall is just one hobo with a giant carbuncle on his nose, bumming money from you as you hurry to work, then UMASS Dartmouth is a leper colony.

So a couple times a year, they’d schedule test for the license at state colleges. I had the “book,” I read it (shudders) and signed up. I walked down a hallway in some Fuhrer bunker masquerading as a classroom building, and as I walked, the bow wave of air from my passage pulled down all the various photocopy fliers kids in college stick on corridor walls with entreaties to Party! or march on Washington or whatever, and they skirled on the vinyl tile behind me like autumn leaves. The heavily textured block wall wouldn’t allow any hook, and were too rough to hold even a duct-taped flyer. I thought to myself, right then, for the first time, that  I was in an insane place, doing a crazy thing, among daft people. It turned out I didn’t know the half of it.

The arena where I was directed was crazier. It was one of those lecture halls that holds hundreds, the chalkboard turning into nothing more than a billboard in a flea circus by the time you reached the back row where I was seated, because the room was full. And there were people taking the test in other halls like this on campus. And on every state college campus at the same time. And they did it multiple times a year. I was agog. I began to wonder if every single person in the state was going to have a Construction Supervisor’s license, and mine would be worthless.

I have a habit that goes back to elementary school taught by nuns. They introduced competitive aspects to learning that are now out of favor. They taught us that it wasn’t enough to get an A. If you could get an A, you could get every question right, and should try. If you could get every question right, you should work on your penmanship, and get every question right in perfect, florid cursive. And if every form of competitive testing is already covered, you should try to finish first on top of everything else, too. I was determined to try, because I still flinch when I think of the nuns.

(to be continued, with a secret, I promise)


So Me And Paul Newman Walk Into The State House


[If you just came in, I’m explaining how I raised my practically-free house six inches with little money and only a teenager to help. It’s taking much longer to explain than it did to do the work. That’s because a house weighs much less than my ego]

I was, at one time, a general contractor.

They don’t call it that, officially, back in Massholechusetts where I earned the credential. You’re a “Construction Supervisor.” I understand they have differing degrees of construction supervision licenses, but I’ve never met anyone with anything but the “unrestricted” version, me included. I was licensed to pull a building permit for — and bang the nails into — anything from a doghouse to a skyscraper. Whoopty.

I want to share with you, my dear readers, a secret. It’s a secret that might do you some good. It’s a secret that might make you rethink my approach to living in a house that cost less than a Corolla, and perhaps even give it a go yourself. In the story of the license lies the secret.

I didn’t technically need the credential at the time. I thought it would be handy to have. I was rehabbing people’s domiciles, and a lot of times a building permit was required, but I was always working for the owner of the house. The owner of a house can apply for a permit on their own, and then hire someone to do the work whether they have a license or not. That’s how it went for a long time. My expertise, their name on the line that is dotted. The process got unwieldy, so I decided to put a stop to it. I was only doing the work in the first place because the customers had tired of hiring a GC that knew squat and then hiring me to fix everything. They wanted to get rid of the middle man, and so did I, after a while. The middleman was always a rough framing carpenter.

I’m not sure what it’s like now, but in the not-too-distant past, all general contractors were framers. It was the traditional way of life for them and the customers. Deal with a framer. The framer had the most to do with producing the house-y like form of the house, so at one time it seemed to make sense, but it really doesn’t anymore. A general contractor used to employ all the subcontractors and build a house, soup to nuts. Now everyone, including the framing contractor, is just a subcontractor. The subcontractors have subcontractors at this point. There’s no natural center in the general contracting onion anymore.

The framing contractor doesn’t know anything about design, he just reads plans. He doesn’t know anything about foundations, or plumbing, or electricity, or painting or any other finishes. HVAC is alchemy; masonry is a Dark Art. All he knows is cutting bird’s mouths in rafter tails with a skilsaw, and how to get a sheet of plywood onto a roof in a ten-knot breeze. Those are important things to know, but it’s only one or two legs of the housing centipede.

I did not come from the world of framing. I didn’t even know who or what to see or do to get a license. There were courses offered at various Upstairs Stripmall Truckdriving and Mani-Pedi schools, but I had basically stopped attending school after I turned fifteen, so I wasn’t about to submit to sitting at a glorified card table, under a flickering fluorescent tube, with a dull docent reading facts to me off a mimeographed sheet as an adult, either. Give me the book, and butt out, I thought.

Try to find that book. I dare you. This was before the Intertunnel was in high gear, so I had to call and go hither and yon, and no one knew nothing about nothing noplace. Bookstores would try to sell me one stupid International Building Code book after another, everyone else had bupkis. I finally asked a building inspector who was drunk in a bar I was playing music in. Pretty much every third drunk person in a bar is building inspector, anyway. Might as well get some use out of them. He told me I had to go to the State House to get one. It was the only way.

So I went to the same desk in the State House where Paul Newman asks for a phone book in The Verdict, except he’s pretending he’s in a hospital, and I’m pretending I’m in a bookstore. The person behind the counter was pretending to be working in both cases. Only a state worker in Massholechusetts can pretend you’re not there, and avoid eye contact entirely, even though they aren’t doing anything and there’s only 24 inches of formica between you. It’s an astonishing talent.

After they got bored of me, they asked me what I wanted like a forties detective asks a safecracker a question in the movies. I was expecting a hose if I lingered. They sent me away, to another room, to get another non-look from someone for a good long while. I was finally allowed to ask for what I wanted, and wordlessly, the state senator’s good for nothing brother in law, or whatever he was, left the room for two minutes on the clock. I didn’t know whether he went to get what I wanted, or if he had decided that he’d had enough of me, and everyone that reminded him of me, and had quit, and was never coming back, or what. I began to wonder if he was Godot, or I was.

He finally came back, and plopped six hundred pages of  shrink-wrapped drivel on the table, and said, “Fifty bucks.” The pages were originally typed on a typewriter, then mimeographed, and then the mimeographs were photocopied, and then each copy was photocopied from the last copy, so I was looking at the Xerox version of The Telephone Game. You were supposed to figure out what it said back when Jack Hynes’ secretary first typed the thing back in the depression. There was an enormous light blue three-ring binder that went with it, and he plopped that down next to it. I briefly considered asking why he didn’t put the pages in the binder before he handed it out, but I was afraid he’d just say, “Fifty bucks” again, so I left and did it myself on Paul Newman’s counter.

(to be continued)


Month: November 2013

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