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Things Are Different Today, I Hear Evry Muvah Say

I noticed this video was posted to YouTube three years ago, almost to the day. I notice all sorts of things..

I can’t help but notice that the cat is dead. I’ve noticed that my wife misses that cat. He lived forever, but not forever enough. It’s a testament to how accustomed animals become to being around a family, and vice-versa, that he wanders in and out of a trap set and amplifiers and isn’t spooked, and doesn’t spook anyone, either.

I noticed that if it was posted to YouTube on April 28th, 2013, that means that it was recorded well before that, because my boys’ video editing rig has always been pretty barbarous, and it takes a long time to get anything out the door. That means it might have been recorded in late March, when the drummer was still nine years old. Yikes. I noticed he’s like four inches taller than his mother now.

I especially noticed that the boys recorded this out on our front porch three years ago, nearly to the day, because it’s been snowing here for the past three hours.

Perfect Pitch and Perfect Suits

Here’s a video of my two children, AKA Unorganized Hancock, appearing on The Breakfast Club on Z 105.5 a couple of weeks ago. The host is a genial fellow named Matty. The woman’s voice you hear in the background is Bonnie McHugh, the station manager, who took this video with her phone. She’s a peach.

The kids enjoy appearing on the show. Nice people like nice people, I guess. This is the third time they’ve been on. The radio station is over an hour away from our house, and the show is on early in the morning, so we have to roust the kids out of bed extra early to make it on time. You’ll notice the young feller yawning and stretching to illustrate the hour. He has Perfect Pitch, sometimes known as Absolute Pitch. He can identify any note he hears without any other reference. He can even do it with ambient noises out in the world, like bird songs or sirens. They didn’t get around to it in the video, but you can play multiple notes on the piano, and he can tell you all of them. It’s a very unusual ability. Of course his father, in his infinite wisdom, taught him how to play the drums.

My sons have a certain amount of aplomb, I must say. The little fellow, Garrett, is about to be put on the spot, but he’s never nervous before a show. When he was only ten, the boys played under a little tent outside the Pickup Cafe in Skowhegan, Maine. They played one set, and then took a breather. There was a little courtyard behind the restaurant where the kids took their break. When they returned, the little fellow handed my wife one of his teeth. He had pulled it out while they waited around. Then he sat down and did the second set.

The big one is poised, too. He does get nervous before shows, but he doesn’t reveal it. I can tell, though. The boys entered a contest sponsored by Z 105 and the Lewiston-Auburn Fighting Spirit hockey team to write their fight song. There was a battle of the bands to decide the winner. Miles, the big one, had mononucleosis, and was very sick during the weeks before the show. His first day out of bed in three weeks, he appeared on Z 105, and the next day, he played at the Lewiston Colisee, and the boys won the contest. No one knew he had been sick. But I knew what an effort it was for him.

After the Perfect Pitch interview you see in this video, the radio station hired Miles. I knew they were nice people. Now I know they’re smart people, too.

[Update: Many thanks to Donald P. from California for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is much appreciated]

The Genuine Article

I prefer my lugubrious fuzz-wah guitar playing to be accompanied by good singing, thanks. Sly Stone is Ray Charles from Saturn.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. King

[If you just stumbled in, or have very poor short term memory, I am recounting the story of a free clothes dresser we rescued from the curb during our town’s Festival of Trash]

My wife’s abandoned dresser didn’t stay on the lawn very long. An old feller pulled up in a pickup truck while the boys from across the street were still carrying bits of it out of the house. He tried to mangle it into his truck by himself. He thought he was in luck when the kids helped him load it, but of course he had no idea that the dresser was made in Beelzebub’s Country Classics Furniture Factory. My wife, bless her soul, tried to warn him that all that glitters isn’t glitter, but he wasn’t interested. He was a man newly smitten who wasn’t appropriately curious about exactly how the new object of his affections became someone else’s furniture version of an ex-wife. Good luck, my unwary friend.

A sense of urgency had now crept into the proceedings. My wife’s clothing collection is somewhat meager, but it looked much more extensive now that it was on the loose in our bedroom. Steps must be taken. Her new bureau must be pressed into service sooner than later.

The boys had deposited the old ark in my basement workshop. It was already after lunch. I began to take a real interest in the thing, mostly because I had to. It couldn’t be one of those projects that lingers languidly over the years, waiting for a supply of free time to make its appearance. I once had free time, back when Johnson was president, if memory serves. You’ll be glad to learn it wasn’t Andrew Johnson.

I needed to understand this wooden beast properly, or I feared I’d end up like the guy who was currently listening to the shrieking drawers in my wife’s old dresser. I looked for clues. The drawers were lined with newspaper from 1960, which were a hoot to read. That sort of clue works on TV, but in the real world it just means the dresser was at least that old.

The style looked postwar to my eye. It was sort of colonial without being slavish. The grain was mostly obscured by the muddy brown finish, but it looked like maple, which has bland grain. It was stupid heavy, though, so I knew it was birch. Birch was cheaper than maple back then, and got used in normal people’s furniture a lot. The dresser was made in a factory, but not a modern sort of factory. More like a workshop with a bunch of people in it. It still looked like humans had made it.

The drawers were dovetailed front and back. That’s pretty old school. I decided to stop using my spider sense to determine the age of the thing, and looked in the drawers instead. I found the spot where my neighbor’s big brother had written his name and the number 1943 in it. It might not have been brand new in 1943, of course, but hey, close enough.

The finish had been subject to extremes of sunlight and temperature and humidity. Not left outdoors, but I figured an attic or something. My neighbor later told me that it was left on an enclosed porch for many years. Bingo. The finish was missing here and there, but what there was looked like suede when you ran your finger across it. It was completely crisscrossed with fingermarks going every which way. I pawed at it a bit, running through the rusty filing cabinet of my mind to figure out what I was looking at. It came to me in a vision — all at once.

I knew it was shellac. Of all the dumb luck. No one had “fixed” this piece of furniture in 75 years. It didn’t have any new, improved finish that wouldn’t last but couldn’t be fixed. It wasn’t “eco,” another word for wasteful useless disposable plastic crap. The finish was made from the nasty ooze that comes out of a lac bug and dries on a tree branch. Your favorite Hindoo used to gather the stuff by putting tarps on the ground under trees where the lac bugs congregate, and then beating the limbs with sticks to make the amber flakes rain down. When you mix lac leavings with alcohol, you get shellac. It’s wonderful stuff.

Shellac sticks to anything. Anything sticks to shellac. Shellac can be diluted till there’s barely a whisper of lac left in it, but it still makes a coherent film. It seals knots. Shellac can be polished to mirror shine if you want to. A technique called French polishing is the finish you saw on Baron Percy Devonshire Smythe XXIVth’s harewood and mahogany gaming table back when King George was still gibbering on his throne. You can make shellac look like anything you want. Our dresser had pigment mixed in with it to make a kind of varnish stain that could be sprayed on in one coat as an all-purpose stain/finish.

Shellac is so safe for humans to handle that you can eat it, and you might have. They used to make the capsules that drugs and vitamins come in out of shellac. And the greatest thing about shellac, at least for me, is that no matter how old it is, it immediately dissolves and gets loose in the presence of alcohol, just like everyone at your office Christmas party.

My wife and I play a game. We talk about what we might accomplish if we had twenty-five bucks. I always come up with things like fixing one of many leaks in the roof with one bundle of shingles, while her mind wanders to a new shower curtain and rod, or something of the sort. We put our ideas into practice whenever fortune favors us with a quarter of a C note. It’s amazing how much pleasure you can bring into your life with a little sum if you set your mind to it. I set my mind to it.

I brought my 13-year old to the hardware store with me. That makes it a pleasure excursion instead of a chore. He made me stop on the way home at the waterfall, where we sat on the battered bole of a 75-foot tree that had drifted down the river and washed up on the granite ledge. We watched the water roar for a happy moment, and it didn’t even eat into our twenty-five bucks. Here’s what we bought:

That’s about all we would need. I could scrounge whatever else was necessary from around the house. I let my boy remove all the knobs, so that he could be part of his mother’s gift. Then we got to work. I poured alcohol into the spray bottle, misted the top of the piece of furniture, and then misted it again until it stayed wet-looking. Then I unwrapped a piece of steel wool, re-wrapped it into a flat pad, and went back and forth on the surface. The shellac quickly became a kind of porridge, which I wiped off with the paper towels. In a few minutes, the top was clean.

There was a lot of elbow grease involved, but it was easy work because it was effective, and showed continual progress, which is important to avoid discouragement. I went over every surface, laying the furniture down flat whenever I could to make a very shallow swimming pool for the alcohol instead of a waterfall. Keeping it wet is important, because alcohol evaporates very quickly, and when it does, you’re back to the beginning. After an hour or two, here’s what it looked like:

It looked kind of blah, of course, but it was clean. If you refer back to my comment about shellac retaining its ability to cohere no matter how much you thin it out, you’ll understand that even though the dresser looks stripped, it’s really just very thinly shellacked. It’s sealed enough for a coat of finish, if that’s the way you wanted to go. I could stain (dye) it if I wanted, but that would add days of work I didn’t have. I put my thinking cap on.

Now is the part of the proceeding where the expert on TV mumbles, “And then a miracle occurs,” and then shows you the finished product in the next scene. Well, I might own next to nothing, but everything I do own is useful. I went rooting around on the shelves, and found this:

I bought this tub of Briwax in 1986. I was working for a rich A-hole on Cape Cod at the time. His carpenters had installed the kind of elaborate built-in closet interiors that are common today but mostly unknown then. They were fabricated in place from birch plywood and solid maple trim, and then finished with varnish. They were as rough as sandpaper, and he wasn’t happy. Like an idiot, they asked me how to fix it, and I told them to sand with emery cloth and then wax with fine steel wool applicators. Lucky me, they let me put the rich guy’s money where my mouth was, and I spent half the summer rubbing the insides of closets. I still had a half empty container of the pigmented wax I used. Golden Oak, if you’re interested.

The stuff never goes bad. I rubbed it all over using fine steel wool, and then buffed it with an old t-shirt. There was prodigious elbow grease involved, but the work wasn’t really difficult. This is what it turned out like:

I replaced a couple of drawer stops that were rattling around under the drawers, banged in a couple of nails that had worked loose, waxed the drawer runners with regular wax, and washed the inside of the drawers with Windex. I started the project after lunch, and was done at dinnertime.

The thing smelled great, in addition to looking right smart. Shellac and wax is one of the oldest finishing methods for furniture there is, and one of the best. The next day, my older son and I carried the dresser upstairs in time for the birthday party, and we had a feast and a cake.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. King.

Grass Is Good as Carpet, Anyplace Is Fine

When I mentioned that the Festival of Trash saved my bacon, I wasn’t kidding. It’s my wife’s birthday, and I gots no moneys. I don’t even have a money. What was I going to do?

People used to say, “The Lord will provide,” and mean it. That led morons with opinions to deduce that the Christian religions consist of pulling a lever and out pops the candy. If no candy showed up, you’d lose your faith, or Richard Dawkins would call you a rube. Simple faith doesn’t work like that.

“The Lord will provide” really means that you’re supposed to do everything in your power to help yourself, first and foremost, and then trust that the universe isn’t entirely malignant, and maybe you’ll catch a break. Assume the world is not entirely carpeted in banana peels. Don’t expect every apple to have a fishing supply store in it. Don’t mistake every pineapple for a hand grenade.

The operative part of this faith that the world isn’t out to get you in particular, just in general, brings a duty, not a benefit. Saying, “The Lord will provide,” means you have to be on the lookout for good fortune that might come your way. You have to recognize it as an opportunity. It might come in disguise. It might come dressed up as a battered dresser:

This is what the festival of trash offered up as my salvation. It might look light an old dresser to you, but it looked like redemption to me. One of my nearby neighbors, who is a hell of a guy, put this dresser out on the curb for the Festival of Trash. He also put out some easy chairs with a substantial mixture of duct tape in their DNA, a semi-lethal crib, some skis you could stand still on, and assorted other items jetsamic. My wife and I were standing in front of our house, unloading shipping pallets from my truck to leave as my offering for the Festival of Trash. My wife’s nose went into the air like a wild animal on a scent. “Hey, lookit that.”

She made a beeline across the street. She’s wanted a dresser. She’s wanted a dresser, bad. She’s wanted a dresser, real bad. She’s wanted a dresser, real bad, since her husband bought her a real bad dresser about a dozen years ago.

My wife had always done without stuff. Our life was always spent crawling upward and onward out of the primordial poverty ooze, and generally being pushed back in by people that can’t be bothered to worry about every undercapitalized business in the country. We never really had any disposable income we could trust. I was self-employed, and worked day and night, but there was never any surety in it. We never bought much of anything, it seemed.

Then I got a job, a real job. It lasted four years. I went from the lowest man on a very big totem pole to a division manager in three years. Just like now, my income started with a 1, but it had an additional zero for a change. It was time, finally, to buy my wife something.

I bought her a dresser. It was a very expensive dresser, at least by my standards. I went to what I considered a fancy-pants furniture store, Ethan Allen, and bought a cherry Shaker dresser for my wife’s birthday present. It was fool’s gold furniture.

That dresser was never right. I paid for delivery. They scratched it, which I wouldn’t have done if I did it myself. I always seem to be paying people to do what I wouldn’t do, but not in a good way. This is the basis of government and furniture delivery. We were faced with sending it back and waiting for them to bring a new one to scratch again, or putting up with it. Oh, it’s not so bad, we lied to ourselves.

I looked at it every day when I woke up, of course. I didn’t make furniture then, but I knew what a Shaker chest of drawers should look like. I began to notice this one was stretched a bit. Too low, too long to be considered in proportion. It had the kind of drawer glides that you see in kitchen cabinets. They began to malfunction. The drawers got harder and harder to slide in and out. Unlike all our hand me down furniture, there was no way to wax the runners or anything. They were no-maintenance. That means “disposable” if you’re telling the truth.

The dresser was heavy without being strong. It was made from particle board covered with a thin cherry veneer. The finish was sprayed on to make the exact same boring reddish tone all over. The grain was obscured. It wasn’t pretty at all if it got a mark on it, and couldn’t be effectively fixed. And it came with a mark, remember?

The top was very strong, but not stiff like solid wood would have been. The design was too long for the four legs, so it began to sag in the middle. I’d been to architectural school for ten minutes, so I knew all about “creep.” The top became swaybacked, and the drawers began to have a lot of trouble going in and out.

My wife wrestled with that stupid, expensive dresser for a decade and more. It was her nemesis. She never complained to me about it, but I would hear the shriek of the drawers as she shoved them home, and the little grumble that followed. She would never say it, but I knew that I had gotten one chance to delight her, and I had fumbled it.

So here it was. The Lord, or my neighbor who had too much furniture, would provide. It’s a testimony to my wife’s good nature that she would have put that battered dresser in our bedroom, just as you see it, and used it. She just wanted to keep her clothes in something that didn’t shriek at her.

My good fortune continued. My neighbor is minding two high school exchange students. One is from Denmark, and one is from Germany. You can tell they are foreigners because they are polite and speak perfect English. My neighbor directed the kids to carry  the dresser over to our house. This was beginning to look like luxury to my eye. I was standing there on my neighbor’s lawn, socializing, when those two foreigners appeared from my front door, following my wife. They were carrying that shaky Shaker dresser, and they plunked it on my lawn.

My wife knew that sometimes the Lord provides a pretext, and that’s as good as a reason.

[read the conclusion of the story of treasure among the trash here]

How The Festival of Trash Saved My Bacon


Most years, our little town has a Festival of Trash. They don’t call it that, of course. If they called it The Festival of Trash, it would be more interesting, and become more popular, eventually turn into a rock-solid tradition, get famous, and make the town notable. Boosters of all kinds are continually trying to make the town notable with unfun fun runs and unjolly holiday fetes and parades with more people on the floats than the sidewalk. No one understands the organic nature of a successful tradition anymore. The Festival of Trash has potential. No one sees it but me, I guess. That’s not an uncommon sensation in my life.

Anyway, I like the Festival of Trash. Once a year, the public works department instructs the citizens to deliberately place threadbare sofas on the lawn on a specific day, instead of simply placing them on the front porch and sitting on them like the rest of the year. They suggest you place old mattresses, car tires, metal, brush, wood debris, and other similar detritus out on the curb as well. Town workers come around with front end loaders and trucks and so forth and pick it all up, and the town is made incrementally less tawdry.

It’s an early Spring thing. Early Spring is late spring if you’re not in Maine. The stuff can be  put out on the curb for up to a week before the appointed date, but most people use only the weekend before Festival of Trash Monday. It helps to generally declutter yards and homes in preparation for the impending good weather. I’ve lived here for 6 years now, and the good weather continues to impend. I’ll be ready for it when it pends.

Very little is ultimately left for the trash man, because everyone turns the occasion into a gigantic swap meet. It’s considered very bad form to try to sell anything during the Festival of Trash. A few people have yard sales to coincide with the event, but they get snickered at. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk-stained couch for free? A kind of general reckoning happens. Like water finding its own level, vaguely useful things find vague uses in the eye of the beholder, and they get swapped without deals being struck. If you see it, you take it. Things that are no longer useful to one household get picked up by other households and put to use. I think it’s grand.

I find treasure, every year. We’re stupid poor, so it’s easy to find things we could use sitting on other people’s curbs. The whole town is poor, so you don’t find Faberge eggs or anything, but if you know how to make use of raw materials, there’s always something.

There are hardcore people that cruise the town in battered pickups towing rusty trailers. Some pick up anything metal, and bring their booty to the scrapyard for a meager payday, I imagine. We put out eight wood pallets left over from a year’s worth of heating pellets for our stove. They were gone in about five minutes. If you live in wealthy suburbia, those pallets would be repurposed and upcycled into home and garden projects only slightly less useful and attractive than the pallets themselves. Here in Uppastump Maine, they’ll be broken up and burned for heat, or burned in jolly campfires in the summer. I used to burn all the pallets I could get my hands on in my own furnace, but I don’t burn firewood anymore, so I gave mine away to an anonymous someone who will get some use from them.

In years past, we found a perfectly good 8-foot tall turned porch column. We used it to mount a birdhouse I made, and placed in our garden. Tree swallows have used it for three years running, and made our lives more interesting. A couple of years ago, we discovered four kitchen chairs out on someone’s curb. My wife said she was tired of dragging chairs from the dining room into the kitchen whenever she wanted to sit down at the kitchen table. The chairs were cheap wooden things popular in the 1930s and 40s. They had a sort of Art Deco veneer on their flat backs, and disreputable padding and cloth on their slip seats.

I put them in the car hole “for later,” and the moisture down there made all the veneer peel off. One Christmas season, I sneaked them into my basement, re-glued the veneer, sprayed them with shellac and varnish, and reupholstered the seats with jolly coral-colored cloth with a bit of crewelwork on it. I had to complete the whole process in little bits and bytes every time my wife went to the supermarket, and hide everything in the interim. I eventually put them under the Christmas tree as a present for my wife, who never suspected a thing. We sit on those chairs every morning and look out the window at our tree swallow house, and know the pleasure of possessions that are part of the fabric of your life, not just stuff.

I’ve made local handymen happy by putting out a busted tablesaw, and a broken compressor, and various other things that seemed valuable if you didn’t know better, so I feel I’ve done my part. I must say, however, that this year’s Festival of Trash made our lives better than I could have imagined. The Festival of Trash saved my bacon.

[continue reading about treasure from the Festival of Trash here]

Month: April 2016

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