Sippican Cottage

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Ten Bucks

We’ve had this thing kicking around my basement/workshop/lair for several years. It’s a cottage furniture dresser.

We bought it at a tent by the side of the road, out in the boonies. We used to raid it quite often for junque we could salvage and perch on to save money and collect splinters. It was cheap. How cheap? This cheap:

It was really dirty, but unlike the photos, the item itself is not out of focus. Two of the drawers were wonky. They all stuck and shrieked like a miser at tax time when you tried to operate them.

The term “cottage furniture” has been debased over the years. I oughta know, I helped debase it. Originally, cottage furniture referred to relatively inexpensive suites of mostly bedroom furniture, made from common grades of wood and painted in folk art style to mimic expensive veneers. Floral adornments were often added, or sometimes still life stuff or even the occasional seafaring illustration. They’re often pinstriped like ours is.

The term “cottage furniture” has morphed into painted casual furniture, usually a riff on shabby chic decorating. I used to make cottage furniture and sell it online. The original cottage furniture stuff is about 150 years old now. It was pretty common, so no one thought to save much of it, and now good examples of it are getting rare-ish and valuable-adjacent.

So why was it ten bucks? Because someone had butchered it. There was once an ornate mirror between the twin towers of the drawers, and someone wanted it, so they pried it off with force aplenty, and left the rest of the dresser as furniture carrion. The dresser, intact, was worth something. Separately, the two pieces it was wrenched into were basically worthless.

Our ten-dollar remnant used to look something like this:

Original vintage cottage furniture doesn’t get restored much, because few people know how to do faux bois (grain painting) anymore. You’d have to know how to fix handmade furniture, too. All the drawers in our dresser are hand dovetailed, including the backs. The frames are nailed into the chamfered corner posts with cut nails driven in from inside out. And when you were all done with all of that, you’d be required to be some form of at-least rudimentary artist, and a dab hand at pinstriping, too.

I made a drawer runner and some drawer stops out of scraps from the burn pile, and glued them in. The knobs (pulls, really) had all been scavenged off the thing, so we bought reproductions that were appropriate to the style. Those cost something like eight bucks apiece, so our sugar bowl didn’t escape totally unscathed. The new pulls had a walnut teardrop pull, which we disassembled, sprayed with clear lacquer, and put back together.

You have to be careful with finishes like these. I’ve done lots of faux painting, and researched it quite a bit. You can never tell what the fellows that did the original work might have been using to grain the exterior. It could be shellac, or various primitive water-based stuff. Casein was popular (milk paint). Hell, the really good guys used to be able to do it with stale beer as a medium.

I knew the usual panoply of nasties like acetone and paint thinner and toluene and lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol were just as likely to immediately dissolve the finish as clean it. So after banging all the nails it required, gluing in any missing pieces, and waxing the drawers so they’d slide in and out nicely, I simply took some disinfectant towelettes and wiped the thing down. When it was as clean as I could make it, I gave it a thin coat of water-borne clear finish, applied with a foam brush. The backplate on the pulls fit the craters on the drawer fronts perfectly, so I knew they were probably pretty much an exact substitute for the original.

And we ended up with this:

We have a pantry porch adjacent to the kitchen, and storage is storage. And I’ll bet an afternoon’s effort and some knobs catapulted the value of this ten dollar thing into the fifteen-dollar range, at least.

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]

I Set Up A Web Camera To Document The Building Of My Last End Table

Why yes, I do use a giant buzz saw with the blade installed backward in it. Why do you ask?

As you can see from the screen capture thumbnail, three of the fingers on my hands are webbed. Comes in handy when I’m trying to hold on to screws while using my cordless drill. It’s not supposed to be cordless, I just cut the cord off accidentally when I was using the chop saw; but those buggers are expensive, so I keep using it that way. Takes a long time to set a screw, but it sure gives me big wrist muscles. That’s why I’m able to carry an entire lift of  2x4s on my shoulder over to the table saw that I bought at Snidely Whiplash’s yard sale.

This, people, is why women want me, and men want to be me, and children are warned to stay away from me. 

Sippican’s Christmas Roundup 2014

I’m very grateful to a lot of people for a lot of things. Life is hard, I guess, but so many people are kind to me on a regular basis that I’ve decided that the world is a pleasant place filled with nice people. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Some of the nicer people I could mention are readers here, and they support my sons’ efforts via the PayPal tipjar, and you should think about laying some lucre on them this Christmas season. 32 Degrees North has old skool decorations, ornaments, cards, and gifts, the kind
we adore here at the Cottage. Every year like clockwork they send my children Advent Calendars,
which brings a big smile to their faces and a wistful tear to my eye.
They’ve got Easter stuff, too, which is like Christmas with sightly less snow shoveling, so I like it even better. Go there now, there’s no time to
waste: 32 Degrees North. 

Our friend Nora Gardner sells lovely dresses that make the guys go hubba hubba on Wall Street without stepping over the demure/brazen hussy line once. Nora’s a bright young lady, and she’s better looking than the pretty models she’s got showing off her dresses, which doesn’t seem fair, really.  Her stuff is
made right here in New York City.  Nora Gardner

Now for a bit of a ticklish topic. I’ve gone out of business. Sippican Cottage Furniture and Fastique are no more. I’ve sold furniture on the Internet for ten years now, which I’m pretty sure is longer than the Internet has existed, but it’s dead, Jim. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone that’s ever purchased anything from me in the past. Many of the people that read this blog are former customers, and I am profoundly grateful for your friendship and patronage.

I have four tables left over, including one Evangeline Table. If you check up at the logo at the top of the blog, they’re listed on the navigation bar. Sorry about the pictures; they actually look a lot better than that. You can purchase the tables using your existing Amazon accounts to check out, using a buy now button at the bottom of the page. Shipping is free anywhere in the US, but when they’re gone that’s it. Many thanks, and Merry Christmas.

Direct links to the tables, if you prefer:
Evangeline Table [Update: Sold, thank you! Many thanks to our friend Charles S!]
Cinnamon Mount Lebanon Table [Update: Sold! Thank you to our friends Thud and Anh!]
Honey Pot Mount Lebanon Table [Update: Sold! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Karen in Massachusetts!]
Walnut Mid Century Modern Table [Update: Sold! Merry Christmas to old friend Paul K!]

Sippican’s Christmas Roundup 2014

I’m very grateful to a lot of people for a lot of things. Life is hard, I guess, but so many people are kind to me on a regular basis that I’ve decided that the world is a pleasant place filled with nice people. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Some of the nicer people I could mention are readers here, and they support my sons’ efforts via the PayPal tipjar, and you should think about laying some lucre on them this Christmas season. 32 Degrees North has old skool decorations, ornaments, cards, and gifts, the kind
we adore here at the Cottage. Every year like clockwork they send my children Advent Calendars,
which brings a big smile to their faces and a wistful tear to my eye.
They’ve got Easter stuff, too, which is like Christmas with sightly less snow shoveling, so I like it even better. Go there now, there’s no time to
waste: 32 Degrees North. 

Our friend Nora Gardner sells lovely dresses that make the guys go hubba hubba on Wall Street without stepping over the demure/brazen hussy line once. Nora’s a bright young lady, and she’s better looking than the pretty models she’s got showing off her dresses, which doesn’t seem fair, really.  Her stuff is
made right here in New York City.  Nora Gardner

Now for a bit of a ticklish topic. I’ve gone out of business. Sippican Cottage Furniture and Fastique are no more. I’ve sold furniture on the Internet for ten years now, which I’m pretty sure is longer than the Internet has existed, but it’s dead, Jim. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone that’s ever purchased anything from me in the past. Many of the people that read this blog are former customers, and I am profoundly grateful for your friendship and patronage.

I have four tables left over, including one Evangeline Table. If you check up at the logo at the top of the blog, they’re listed on the navigation bar. Sorry about the pictures; they actually look a lot better than that. You can purchase the tables using your existing Amazon accounts to check out, using a buy now button at the bottom of the page. Shipping is free anywhere in the US, but when they’re gone that’s it. Many thanks, and Merry Christmas.

Direct links to the tables, if you prefer:
Evangeline Table [Update: Sold, thank you! Many thanks to our friend Charles S!]
Cinnamon Mount Lebanon Table [Update: Sold! Thank you to our friends Thud and Anh!]
Honey Pot Mount Lebanon Table [Update: Sold! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Karen in Massachusetts!]
Walnut Mid Century Modern Table [Update: Sold! Merry Christmas to old friend Paul K!]

Desperate Endstage Monomaniac Spanish Shaker Goodness

Well, now. Dude’s hardcore.

I make furniture, of course, but I never have any sort of competitive feeling when I watch videos by other makers. I either find them interesting or infuriating, but the only way to infuriate me is to do worse work than mine, not better, and so waste my time. I can make furniture faster than anyone that can make it better, and I can make it better than anyone that can make it faster. Those are the damp, moldy laurels I rest on.

This video is plenty fascinating to me though. Guy’s working in Spain, I guess, since the video and website is in Spanish, but if my Spanish still works, he’s either from Austria, Holland, South African or Nigeria, or all of them. He’s making a very American, Shaker design, usually referred to as a “harvest table.” It’s cherry. I understand everything he’s doing, and I could be a docent for the whole thing, but that would ruin the aspect of this video that struck me as borderline sublime. No one talks. There’s no goddamn music. The light in that room is remarkable. I have seen a kajillion videos of people making things at this point, and this one has to be the ne plus ultra. No one else has the nerve to shut the hell up and make something with a camera pointed at them.

Un Trabajo Feliz, indeed. 

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother. Or Sister. My Chinese Brother Or Sister, Apparently

I scour the Intertunnel looking for videos of craftsmen of any sort that I can feature on this blog. I make furniture. But you should understand: I don’t LOVINGLY CRAFT anything.

That term is a running, inside joke between my wife and me. It’s shorthand for someone doing handwork as slow as possible, in order that the (sometimes imaginary) customer can tell all their friends they bought something that’s LOVINGLY CRAFTED. Most American craftsman featured on the Intertunnel are running little personality cults. They don’t make enough stuff to reach a threshold I keep in my head to be called a true maker of things. They are  performance artists; or wish they were, anyway. They LOVINGLY CRAFT.

As I said, I don’t LOVINGLY CRAFT anything. I make things with all the intelligence and effort I can bring to bear, as fast as I can, and sell it for as little as I think is necessary and as much as I can get at the same time. Finding that financial fulcrum is deuced difficult. If you charge too little you starve. Conversely, if you charge too much, you starve.

Why do I have to travel the Intertunnel to China to find people like me? These people are exactly like me. They are clean. They are “well-turned-out.” They are not slovenly in their appearance or demeanor. They are all sober. Believe me, I’ve managed hundreds of people at a time. I can tell at a hundred yards if you’re lit. They smile at work. They work really, really hard, and someone else ends up with almost all the money, but they make enough to keep body and soul together. I noticed, in the background, a young woman returning to work from outside, and she appears to be holding a better phone than I possess. There is a child hanging around the workshop. My workshop often has one of those.

That workshop has nothing that I don’t understand going on it it. It’s a very safe place to work, although the State of California would tell you that every single thing in it is known to give you cancer. But they say that about a glass of tapwater. The finish that the woman’s applying is shellac, which you can eat after is dries, and the glue pot is filled with hide glue, which is just horses that came in last, and most of the tools make wood shavings, not sawdust, and the sanding is done by hand, so the sawdust isn’t copious or particularly dangerous. No one in the video is missing a digit, or has any visible scars from working with their hands all day. They all have fans pointed at them, but that’s no doubt because it’s too warm for comfort wherever they are. That place is not full of toxic fumes. You’d pay money to smell the smells in there. Shellac and hide glue and wood shavings smell wonderful. I hear laughter in there, and people smile when a camera is pointed at them. It’s a sheepish smile I understand. They are not used to people being interested in their mundane life. No one is wearing safety glasses or ear protection, and no one needs them, either.

No one is LOVINGLY CRAFTING anything in the video, although the violins they make will be sold for huge money in Europe, and the customers will be told that their violins were… LOVINGLY CRAFTED. But then again, no one I’ve seen in five thousand LOVINGLY CRAFTED videos have one-tenth the hand skills I see demonstrated by everyone in the video. It’s important work to them, so they do it to the best of their ability. People that do things over and over get really good at them. I wish them all well — and hope on my best day, I’m as good as they are on their worst.

I Have No Idea If This Is Funny

Reader and commenter and left-coast Interfriend Charles Schneider sent this one along. He said, “Not sure if this is funny or not…”

I wondered if he was being polite, and thought it was funny, but was worried it might offend me a little, since I make furniture. Or maybe he was like me: I have no idea if it’s funny.

I’m not saying it isn’t funny. I didn’t laugh at it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny, necessarily. It might be a scream. You tell me.

Remember Night Shift? It was back when Michael Keaton was zany and Henry Winkler was trying to Un-Fonz himself, and Shelley Long still had a prayer of a career outside a disreputable bar in Boston. (me too, babe; me too)  It was quite charming, and there were plenty of jokes in it to carry it along. Somewhere in the middle of it, one of the characters is trying to explain just how much of a misguided deadbeat schlub someone else’s boyfriend is. She says he’s quit his job, and is making furniture by hand.  It was 1982’s version of the same joke.

But not the same joke, I gather. I assume that it’s the opposite of the same joke. In 1982, no one cared if you could make furniture. It was assumed that anyone could do it, but no one would. It appears in 2013 that the same joke relies on the assumption that everyone wants to, but no one can. It reminds of how the same thing spoken in two different times means two different things. In 1950, the prosecutor told the jury that the defendant went nuts and killed two people. In 2013, the defense lawyer tells the jury that the defendant went nuts and killed two people.

I’ve seen an episode of Portlandia. It was funny. I’m not immune to their schtick. But in order to get a broad, topical joke like that, you have to be in on the cultural stereotypes that are the moving parts of it. I guess I’m not. Do the young women of today really go wobbly if you’re able to make a chair, unless it’s a wobbly chair? I don’t know. Who are the stereotypical male males in popular culture now? I find Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a handful of other leading men to be interchangeable. They don’t seem to be able to grow a beard yet, though they’re close to collecting Social Security.  I know who Ron Swanson is, but I’m not going to watch that show to figure out if he’s just the handy Archie Bunker I assume he is, or if he now represents an archetype of some sort of an overtly masculine person in a feminine world. If he does, I imagine it’s just to mock him for it.

The actor that portrays Ron Swanson, Nick Offerman, seems affable enough. I’ve seen him here and there on these here Intertunnels. He understands deadpan. Deadpan comedy is best. It’s Ward, via Twain, if you do it right. You can be subversive when you can deliver the payload with a straight face. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants is fun, but it can’t be subversive.

So our friends in Portland shot some seltzer down their pants while they made a chair, and I don’t know if it’s funny. But then again, I’m too busy actually making furniture to keep up. I’ve made furniture for a decade now. Well, I made furniture for two months, mixed in with looking for my bevel square for nine years and ten months, anyway.

Tag: furniture

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