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I Looked Down, And There It Was (Again)

[Editor’s note: This was originally offered in 2007. I’m pleased that these things make a certain amount of sense even though they are not new. Authors who are famously wrong need new material all the time, I guess.]
{Author’s note: Being lazy, I tell the truth. Saves effort. Also, there is no editor.}

It’s a hoary old joke my friend tells: There’s a man of few words, in a restaurant slightly more elegant than he’s used to. The waiter brings the check, and asks, “How did you find your meal?” He answers: “I looked down, and there it was.”

Everything appears like that now, through a process so complex that no one can fully understand even a small portion of it. Persons that say they understand the machinations necessary to place the most mundane thing in front of a great many people well enough to regulate the whole affair, with an eye towards improving everything, are spouting nonsense. If a man walked up to you and confessed he didn’t know your name, but claimed he could list all the atoms in your body, would you hand him your wallet? How about your skin? All day long, I hear the groundskeepers telling me they should be the quarterback. And I can’t help noticing the grass has gone to seed, and the hash marks are crooked.

You look down, and there it is, all day long. There is a large chance that if you’re reading this, you have never participated in the actual making of anything in any meaningful way. And as the world gets more complex, we all get further and further removed from the ultimate source of all of our prosperity. How far removed? To the point where it gets obscure enough that it can be blithely strangled in its crib, on the supposition that it can be improved by infantile wishing, followed by fiat.

See the man on the sleigh, bringing the sap back to the shed to boil? He knows the tree like a brother. He knows the woods like a mother. He knows fire like a caveman. He knows commerce like a loanshark. He knows cold like a wintertime gravedigger. He knows sap like you know the alphabet. But he doesn’t have the slightest idea what you’re about, because you labor in a vineyard far removed from his. A place where the meaning of your efforts is likely always obscure, as all intellectual pursuits must be.

Remember always what you don’t know about the man on the sleigh, lest one day, you look down, and there it ain’t.

I’m Going To Say Something Rude Now

[Editor’s Note: Written two years ago. In the interest of verifying “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is,” one cannot help but notice the author and his family moved into a somewhat larger version of this shed one year ago. Reposted with comments intact, as they are so trenchant.]

[Author’s Note: There is no editor, and there are a lot more squirrels and bees in my house than in that shed.]

Here it comes: I would rather live in this shed than in your house.

Click on the picture. It’s a very high resolution shot. Look at it. It’s beautiful.

I’m generalizing, of course. It’s possible that I’m not referring to you. But there are so few of you that are exceptions to my impertinence that I simply say it matter-of-fact-like: Your house has no soul. It’s got no anima. It’s a misshapen plastic lump dedicated to the exaltation of your car and your television. It is the bastid love child of a realtor with the taste of a vegas hooker and a contractor with a prominent eyebrow ridge.

It makes you unhappy. You don’t know that, because many of the ways it does that are subtle. Paying for the damn thing, though it brings you little pleasure, is not so subtle.

I do listen to people a little in these matters. I watch them a lot. And what they do about their house cancels out what they say about their house every time.

You tell me that absolute neatness is paramount. Then I see you camping out in one little corner of your house in a midden of messy but prized possessions.

You tell me you want to luxuriate in a whirlpool while reading poetry with candles next to an open window. Then I see you showering in a hurry in a room with all the shades drawn. The spiders like your jacuzzi, so it’s not going to waste, exactly.

You tell me that you like your television over the mantel in the living room. I see you turning one room after another into a “den”, then eventually building additional rooms, trying to make a comfortable place to look at a screen. I call your living room the “Furniture Mausoleum” when you’re not around. Sorry.

You tell me how much money and effort you’ve spent to make your home perfect. Then I watch you leave it, gladly, on any provocation. You can’t wait to escape your homemade Colditz.

You’ve explained to me in some detail that under no circumstances should you be expected to pay any attention to the maintenance of your house. If a material can deteriorate in any way, and so require the touch of a hand, it’s verboten. So you flee your vinyl house for a vacation in Tuscany and wish your house had soul like the one with grime from the 17th century still visible in its stucco.

You spent $35,000 on windows, and then boarded them up with blinds and drapes because they don’t look at anything.

No stranger can ever find anything in your kitchen without asking, or find a bathroom.

The sun doesn’t shine in your windows, except in your eye when you’re trying to sleep.

It’s impossible for guests to sleep comfortably at your house, though it covers 3500 square feet and is two stories high.

You can’t prepare actual meals from raw materials in your kitchen.

You feel isolated but have no privacy.

You exit and enter your house every day by bumping into a trash can in an unlit warehouse for your car. Your dog wouldn’t.

There are birds in your yard and you’ve never seen them.

You tell me all the live-long day you adore your house, but when your mortgage is ten cents more than your Zillow estimate you mail the keys back to the bank.

It may just be that my idea of what a house should be is dead. I have to respect other people’s opinions, after all, especially about their own affairs. I might tell people they shouldn’t do things, but I’m not interesting in telling people they can’t do things. I mostly try to dwell on the positive in these matters, but if my opinions about housing were unleashed, I’d make Gordon Ramsey look circumspect in comparison. In a way, my cottage furniture business is a rearguard attack in this regard. I’m trying to save the entire stock of housing in America one end table at a time. Big job. It would be unwise to bet on me. But it’s always unwise to bet against me, too. I sense that many are dissatisfied with their abodes now but are confused about the genesis of the feeling.

I’ve watched the “Let’s Wander the Earth with a Floozy Realtor and Choose Between Three Tawdry Split-Level Houses” show with my wife, and my advice to all the prospective homebuyers is the same. I yell at the screen: nuke all of them from orbit, and maybe you can make something pleasant out of the hole.

Edgey Music

Here’s the wonderful Hot Club of San Francisco:

Django Reinhardt and The Quintet of the Hot Club of France? Maybe you’ve gotten a look at the elderly Stephane Grappelli, heard the sweet violin counterpoint he provided his whole life through to whoever would have it, and gotten this sort of antimacassar impression of the original scene.

These were Gypsys. Romani. Wild men. They were considered profoundly unsavory and subversive. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a modern equivalent. All sorts of people would like to claim the mantle, and not just in music, either — but there’s something incredibly milquetoast about having skulls all over your black T-shirt and your skin alike while selling Stratocasters to suburbanite kids; or maybe torching a half-built condo complex to save the earth while getting away in your mom’s minivan; or perhaps declaring that _________is Hitler loudly into the microphone at your function-room-class performance. Django always wore a suit and tie, BTW. He’d probably stab you if you tried to stiff him after a performance, though.

Django walked out of the hospital because his leg was burned so badly they wanted to amputate it. Hardcore. He returned to Paris, even when the Nazis overran it, gassing gypsies like him in their thousands. Fearless. Not “I married my stepdaughter but still get invited to all the best cocktail parties fearless.” The real kind of fearless.

It’s nice that people still keep the memory of the music alive like you see in the video. It’s a wonderful amber they’ve produced, with a marvelous fly in it. Me? I’m always on the lookout for the new Romani. I need fellow-travelers.

Traditional, Now

Do Flowers Grow On Pork Chop Hill?

He gazes out of the photo, mute, enigmatic, not quite smiling, and speaks to me across the decades.

When I was a little boy, amusements were few and far between. Television was still in black and white for us, and after the reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Three Stooges, not much was on the idiot box, as my father called it.

I remember my father and me trying to watch a hockey game broadcast from the west coast featuring the California Golden Seals, who were setting a new low in sports sumptuary and getting pasted by our mighty Boston Bruins — Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Pie McKenzie and… well, I can still recite all their names down to the most obscure, even Garnet (Ace to his friends)Bailey. On a thirteen inch black and white TV with rabbit ears. We might as well have used the Etch-a-Sketch.

Eisenhower’s X-Box, the Etch-a-Sketch was.

And so it always seemed a real treat when we could wheedle our mother to drag out the elegant but battered silverware box, left from some set our family never owned, filled with the family photographs. The pictures were mostly black and white too, the current cutting edge of photography being Polaroid’s prehistoric b&w instant photos. They’d come out of the camera, and you’d count to a now forgotten tempo, and pray, and pull off the cover paper to expose the image and stop the developer, and smear your clothes, and hope the picture was vaguely done.

We’d see the usual babies on the shag carpet, buns up; confirmation and communion suits that fit like either a tent or a rubber glove, never any degree in between; little girls in their Easter jumpers and patent leather shoes, with their mothers wearing a hat, a real hat, ready for church. Father, grim, unsmiling in his workday suit, a little shiny at the elbows and knees.

Those photos were only the littlest bit interesting after a while, because they were for the most part, well — us. The exotic ones were always deeper in the pile, instantly recognizable as special by that magnificent sepia tone that photos used to have, and spalling and cracking like a fresco in damp cathedral.

There they’d be, the southern Italian or Irish immigrant faces, looking stoically at the camera, surrounded by extended family on a stoop in Cambridge or Dorchester or Roxbury Massachusetts, or perhaps Antigonish, Nova Scotia. They had their hard lives written all over their faces. But always calm looking. Serene, really; not introspective or egoist. And they looked into the lens in a way that we never do. Not at it, but through it.

Our parents would strain to remember all the names, and who did what and from where, and why and when. And I figure, with the small wisdom that I’ve accumulated with age, that when we pestered them too much about someone obscure, they made stuff up.

And then his face would turn up. Handsome, mysterious, forever young. Forte.

Who’s that?

That’s my brother Bobby, my mother would answer. And that was that.

I was young, and still in the thrall of my parents, and sensed it. Here is a place you do not go.

The years passed, and the TV was in color, and my wrists and ankles began to show from my hand-me-down cousins’ clothes. And the box came out less often. But when it did, the tantalizing face, handsomer than all the others, undiminished by time or care, resplendent in a uniform, always caught your eye. He died before I was born I learned, by osmosis I think, I don’t remember ever having the nerve to ask, and I’m sure it wasn’t offered.

In Korea.

And the earth spun, and the seasons changed, and then I was a man.

One day, my mother came to me. She had a picture. it had lain stored and untouched for fifty years, coiled, and she couldn’t unroll it without destroying it. We slowly, ever so carefully unrolled it, the flecks of black and white popping off, as I stared at the faces. Hundreds and hundreds of faces. Five rows, stretching right off the page, four feet long, all in identical infantry uniforms, except the six cooks dressed all in white. C Company 506- Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Camp Breckinridge, KY. December 27, 1952.

And there was only four ways to stand out in that mob of faces. The cooks, of course. One man in the hundreds wears an officer’s hat, and looks ten minutes older than the rest. One man is holding drumsticks over a military style snare drum. And in the very center, in the very front, one man holds the company colors on a lance. Two crossed muskets, a Capital “C” and a “506.”

And he has the face that speaks to me.

Now when I was in college, on a lark, my friends and I went skydiving. We trained all day in a sweltering hangar in upstate New York amongst the farms. They strapped army surplus gear on us, hung us on straps depending from the hangar roof, and shook us around violently by our heels until we demonstrated that we could unbuckle our main chute from the straps on our shoulders, then pull the cord on our belly chute. Fun.

We climbed resolutely into a DeHavilland Beaver, which now seems to me an odd name for a plane, and knelt in rows in the fuselage. A few long minutes later we launched ourselves, some with difficulty, out the open hole in the side and into a whirlwind far over the patchwork quilt of the fields. A tether pulled our chute for us, and we drifted down and found a place with a liquor license.

I called my father, and told him what I had done. Expecting praise, I guess, or some such. And he called me, gently, the fool I was.

I protested: but you were in a bomber plane. They must have made you jump. And he told me, son, if that plane was on fire, filled to the brim with rabid rats, and piloted by a dead man, I’d still take my chances in the plane. And to jump from a perfectly good one, he said, is foolish. Click.

My father was in the Army Air Force. Ball gunner, hanging in a plastic bubble under a B-24J, Les Miserables, over the Pacific. Air Medal. Distinguished Flying Cross. After I pestered him enough, he once told me a sort of a story about the war. He reeled off the names, Tarawa. Pelelau, Kwajalein, Tinian. He mentioned, in an offhand way, that after some island had been bombed flat, they later landed on it. It looked like the island had been picked up ten feet, he said, then dropped. His CO told them that some planes were coming. On these planes were some people. They were coming from somewhere. They were going somewhere else. When the planes landed, my father and his compatriots were instructed not to talk to these men, or even about them; and if he said so much as hello to one of them, or said “boo” about them to anyone else, he would spend the remainder of the war in a military prison, incommunicado. My father lost his desire, if he had had any, to speak about those men. He surmised some of them later flew a plane named the Enola Gay.

My father seldom talked much about being in the military.

And my mother never talked about the brother in the photographs.

Now the picture, the coiled picture, was ruined. But then, we don’t watch black and white TV any more, do we? My mother took that picture, and a bankroll, and had a necromancer or an alchemist or something at a digital photography studio restore it, perfectly, and make copies for all of us nephews. Mine hangs today over my kitchen table.

He watches over me.

I was forty years old. My mother told me, Uncle Bobby hated his real name.

His real name?

Francis, she said.

My middle name is Francis. I never knew.

Building A House With Found Materials

I can’t recall who sent me this link. Self-identify in the comments if you like.

It’s a testament to the extant groupthink that these are called “recycled” materials. Doesn’t look it to me.

Recycling generally picks up raw materials in finished but discarded forms and turns it back into new finished materials. It’s a colossal waste of time and energy in almost all its forms. I’ve done more recycling than forty-five Ed Begleys, so I’ll clue you in on a little secret: after you sort through your trash like a raccoon and put it on the curb to try to resurrect Bambi’s mom through clean living, it all gets thrown in a landfill when you’re not looking. It’s a kabuki theater, not a real process.

Lots of stuff is worth recycling. It’s very simple: if someone will pay you to take it, or at the very least defray the cost of disposal with the value of the material, it’s worth recycling. Almost all metals fall into this category, for instance. No fair cheating with government funds.

The house here is not recycled. It is made from found materials. That’s different. To take that which others are not interested in and make it useful is an interesting and challenging thing. But others only think many things are useless because they have no imagination. They conversely value worthless things because of a kind of groupthink — the kind of groupthink that unironicly touts $28 per square foot backsplash tile as: “Green.” The general public will go along with any scheme to require uneconomic recycling, while simultaneously passing five hundred laws that make building a house like the one in the pictures illegal. It’s a form of intellectual delirium tremens.

Useful things should not be discarded. Everyone focuses on the discarding part. Maybe we should concentrate on the useful part, instead.

Every home and garden show pretty much proselytizes 24/7 that everything they’re doing is “green,” whatever the hell that means. But I guarantee every thing they are installing today will be ripped out inside of a decade, usually much faster, because it’s faddish. They go to great lengths to trumpet their use of recycled glass backsplashes, for instance, as if we’re going to run out of sand to make glass anytime soon. In two years, they’ll be wandering into people’s kitchens with a camera and looking horrified to find all the stuff they recommended to homeowners, and telling them to rip it out. They call it “updating.” It’s all waste.

Try to build a house that others would hesitate to demolish or “update.” Now try doing it cheaply. I’ve repaired many, many houses that are pushing three hundred years old, and they were all made with found materials, more or less. No matter how crazy the “We’re running out of everything” crowd gets, a tree is, and always will be, a found material — even if you mill it into a rectangular shape and sell it as a 2 x4. There will never be a three hundred year old house that was built with vinyl siding and bamboo laminate flooring, never mind recycled vinyl siding and bamboo laminate flooring. And the only rare commodity in this world is useful imagination.

(Update: I’ve answered some questions about this essay here: Sippican The Rag Man

Have A Pleasant Thanksgiving (Yer Mother!)

[Editor’s Note: From 2006. I was Thankful I could run it again instead of being original]
{Author’s Note: Happy Thanksgiving. And there is no editor}

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever been in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving? I hate the preening socialites and politicians that visit there on Thanksgiving to get face time on TV. I think much more kindly about the people that feed those poor souls on November 25th and November 27th, when the cameras aren’t interested.

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

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

Can You Love People?

Real, live people. I’m afraid I do. It makes me lonely to love people.

Not people as an abstraction. I’m talking about persons. When people start talking about their ideas for “the people,” I know some “persons” are going in the proverbial oven. Can you love your fellow man? Not the ones just like you. All sorts of other people. Everyone seems interested in fixing all the other people in the world. It’s not a new idea, but everyone thinks they’ve just invented the wheel or fire or something every time they try it. Persons always suffer when ideas about perfecting people get going. It’s an iron law, like gravity or the 1040 form.

People are raucous and noisy and they jostle and fight. They smell. Occasionally they smell good. They have ambition where you wish they’d lie still. They are somnolent when you’d prefer they push your cart. They are rotund and jolly and easygoing whether you think everyone should be a humorless ectomorph scold or not.

An ideal human’s behavior is being laid out with plumb bob and ruler right now, by people for whom I have no regard. The persons they are trying to make from the magnificent clay of humanity would be contemptible, if it was possible to produce them, which it isn’t. They wear the authenticity of real people like a cannibal wears the skin of his victim.

Above all, they hate the sight of children. They’re all still potential persons. Can’t have that, can we? Me? That’s why I love them.


I’m ashamed of myself. No; really.

I kept waiting for some kind of commotion. Wild stunts to break out. The grocery bags would be placed and filled in some Lucy-workin’-at-the-chocolate-factory-at- warp-speed gymnastic exercise.

I thought the contestants would be insane. Mannerless monomaniac weirdos who had dedicated their lives to acting the fool to cadge attention at any cost. Face painters. Balloon boys.

At the end, I figured there’d be some battle royale with everyone going like Kalis on crack, smashing strange items into paper sacks and hurling every third one at each other. Then a congregation of nitpicking semi-celebrities, culled from a kind of gutter filled with the vomit of barely-know-their-name fame, would choose a winner based on which one was least likely to take their jobs.

I apologize unreservedly. I forgot there are places still left in the world where honest effort and manners is neither sneered at when displayed nor held back as a pointless posture of rebellion.

We should consider going back to humiliating entertainers for our amusement and exalting productive citizens for our edification. The approach built our world, and everything in it, once.

The Naked City

A while back I had a kinda corporate job. After a time, they made me a manager, and a while after that, they made me the managers’ manager. I had to travel from office to office, firing people, mostly. It made me a kind of tethered vagabond, expected to see everything in an instant and to be mean without malice. I found out that to be really lonely in this world, you have to be included but feared; and I was certainly that. A city is like that, writ large. In a city everyone is included, but feared. It’s not lonesome in the woods. It’s lonesome hanging on a strap in a tube full of people trying not to look at one another much.

The company was based in New York, and I had to start going to their… my… the office out on the island from time to time. When they canceled the plane from Providence to Lawn Guyland, I had to drive it a lot. I remember the first time I drove into The City as part of my job. I’d driven through it before, but to be a part of it, a participant in its affairs, is an entirely different thing. I was accordioning into one of its many tunnels, the cars jostling and pushing their way into the maw of the underpass, and I can still recall the feeling of immense power invested in the place. When London was the center of the world, they called that feeling The Hum. I’d read that, but until The City digested me and I passed into its bloodstream instead of passing right through, I didn’t really understand The Hum.

If you don’t have a skin in the game, and visit it as a tourist, you might miss that. If you’re a denizen, you might become inured to it and miss it too. But someone that’s in it, but used to observing his surroundings with a bit of a detached eye, now that’s a valuable guy to have around. My friend Gerard of American Digest is such a man. Bookmark the Tumblr stream of photos of the city he called home, taken right after the foundations of that city were rocked to the granite ledge beneath them. He left it after that, but he was smart enough to make an impression of the key to the city in the wax of his camera before he made his escape. Feel The Hum.

Get Out Of My Way (2006)

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. Douglas Adams

I found out something fascinating yesterday. You can be educated, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for free.

No, I don’t mean the rheotorical you; I mean you. And me. Anybody.

Well not anybody, of course, because not everybody is educable. But there are no entrance requirements, no interview, nothing; they just put the curriculum up on the internet and let you use it. As Lawrence of Arabia says to Ali, pointing across the trackless waste of the Nefu desert towards Aqaba: “It’s just a matter of going.” Simple, really.

Indeed. Now, you’re not going to get to ask anybody any questions, get help from your peers, go to any keg parties, or clap any erasers for brownie points or anything. The stuff is just laying around there. You’ve got to do something with it, no one’s going to show you the way.

Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn at no other. Ben Franklin

Now, if you know the vernacular of the 1700s, you’d know that “dear” means “expensive” or “difficult” in that aphorism. And Ben knew what he was talking about, because he was talking about himself, really. He’s one of a long list of people that taught themselves what they wanted or needed to know. Like most auto-didacts, he knew amazing and voluminous things, but there were large gaps in his learning. This is the danger in not having a curriculum set out for you.

I’ve never been able to learn things properly. I always just wanted to be left alone in the library with the information that interested me. But you’ll notice that Ben Franklin didn’t espouse his method of learning, and neither will I. It’s a self-selecting cadre I inhabit, and if you join because you think it’s sexy, you’ll likely make a mess of your life. Try going into IBM and telling them you know the things an MIT education encompasses, but you have no credentials to prove it. The tests you didn’t take online aren’t in the Human Resources person’s desk, either. Grab a broom.

The only real way to learn anything in this world is to do it alongside someone that knows what they are talking about. But the person that knows what he’s talking about is a rare thing, and rarer still is that person that will help you. They’re busy. But sometimes they write it down. And you can learn it from them, even if they’re halfway across the planet, or dead as a Pharoah.

People drop out of college now, and say: “Bill Gates dropped out of college, and he’s rich. No problem.” Believe me, you’re not Bill Gates. If you were, you wouldn’t be looking around to see what other people were doing, and mimicking their approach. Being an auto-didact is a force-play. You run to second base on a ground ball or you’re out. There’s no deciding in it. You are or you ain’t. Bill Gates and his ilk stole second and third and home, and you’re still trying to bunt.

A sympathetic Scot summed it all up very neatly in the remark, “You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk dancing.” Sir Arnold Bax

Regular people make the world go round. By definition, most people are regular people. But if it’s enough for you to have the stuff in your head, because you can use it, and know how to pan through the whole placer to find the glittering dust that’s there in the ore, it’s there now.

It’s just a matter of going.

Tag: life

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