Friday, February 26, 2010

I'll take one of everything

This morning I drove east and south to Corinth, Vermont, to continue my hunt for the beams we need for a major kitchen renovation. Tillotson's, an architectural salvage operation on the left side of the road heading toward Bradford, made me weak with pleasure; I've never seen so many doors,windows, floorboards, grilles, knobs, hinges, doodads, you-name it, all in one place.

Customers are allowed to wander through what seems like an infinity of buildings (although I learned that this spring they are erecting yet another storage barn), each with its own category of surprises--this section is all fascia and trim (several miles of it), over there are the windows, clear and stained, in here plinths and columns, around the back the wide floorboards and the fire surrounds, to say nothing of the sinks, the boxes of hardware, and enough beadboard to finish off a medium-sized colony of summer houses.

I found and bought my beams but couldn't leave, and the longer I was there the happier I got--I wanted to take one of everything and cobble together for myself a shed, a gazebo, a fence, a funky, drafty greenhouse. I even wanted the doorknobs for pete's sake already-- even though as far as I know I have the right number of doorknobs at home.

All this abundance is surrounded by the default but trademark Vermont silence--the only sounds were the ones I was making as I slithered between piles of window trim, shutters, and newel posts. The anxious little patter song that seems to run forever in my head simply stopped, along with my sense of elapsed time; I got there about ten and emerged in the early afternoon. I'm already looking forward to going back to Tillotson's--it's been a while since I have been so thoughtlessly happy, caught up in an unmediated and uncomplicated joy in the things we make that are poised to be used again.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

my first haircut

What do we know when we are in first grade?

Here's what I knew at about the time this picture was taken: My mother and father liked to drink, mostly to excess, and that they each had streaks of cruelty running through them, though of different sorts. My father was a pedophile, and this was back when that kind of behavior wasn't challenged--what a man did to his children in his own home was a man's business. My mother was at once timid and neglectful, trapped between my father's predatory sexual desires and the demands of having produced four children in two and a half years. She didn't have the energy or the sobriety needed to protect even herself, and most of my early memories of her seemed to be marked by her walking away, turning away, driving away, or just being away, inaccessibly drunk.

She was around for my first haircut, though. As you can tell from the picture, I started first grade with pigtails, and one of the household chores was untangling yesterday's braids and putting in today's. I knew, the way children do know, that she disliked the task of brushing and rebraiding, and disliked me for being the source of so much useless, repetitive labor. I didn't help matters much--I tended to squirm and whine from the start of this ritual until the bitter end--and one morning about halfway through this process she took by the wrist me into the kitchen, got out the blunt, all-purpose scissors used for snipping up chives and opening packages, and simply cut the two braids off. "There," she said. "I guess that settles that." She put the amputated, unraveling ropes of hair into the trash, showed me her back, and went on with whatever mysterious things adults did during the day. I went to school, surprised by the lightness of my new head and mostly unconcerned with my appearance. And I am unconcerned to this day.

We don't know very much in first grade, and I think I knew less than most other first graders, but this transaction bothered me.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

hearts in the frozen north, again

We get a fair bit of snow, and we by-gum know what to do with it. The goal, it seems, it keep us cheerful until Town Meeting Day.

Valentine Phantom in Montpelier

This annual tradition of plastering hearts all over the capitol makes me love the city a little more each February 14. Nobody knows who's responsible --it's a secret guerrilla operation and we hope it stays that way.

It's a lovely mystery, on a par with the presents left for Edgar Allen Poe, although we hear he didn't get his roses or his cognac this year. We got our red hearts, though, and the crosswalks of Montpelier are filled with people wearing smiles.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Auden and Breugel

It's possible to be bullied into reading too much poetry--you learn not to care. And it worked because for the most part nobody does, except intermittently.

Still, the first time I read any Auden, it happened to be, "Faces along the bar/Cling to their average day:/The lights must never go out,/The music must always play."

These forgettable-unforgettable lines have traction: Auden is interested in automatic pilot, and neglectfulness, and the soothing and empty properties of doing today what we did yesterday. And yes, today we did what we always do--changed the sheets, did the food shopping, listened to to that junky NPR cooking show on the ride up the hill to the market--all the while wondering privately what kind of catastrophe, exactly, was lying in wait. We are both worried, although I think about slightly different things. When I got home I took the trouble to look up and re-read:

"In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

--Musee des Beaux Arts

Sunday, February 7, 2010

it pays to be peculiar

If you want to live a long time, there is a line of research that hints that it helps to be peculiar. Eccentrics—a rare and perhaps dying breed of humans—go to the doctor once every eight or nine years and have a tendency to live healthy and prolonged lives. These lives, according to an elderly and rumpled back issue of Psychology Today, are free from stress and full of diverting adventures. The symptoms of eccentricity are insatiable curiosity, obsessive but curiously happy preoccupations, the constructive use of solitude, and an absence of that modern plague, stress. Other people almost certainly tell eccentrics to floss, be on time, and chew with their mouths closed, but the eccentrics simply do not listen.

There was once a librarian at the British Museum during the 18th century who was an overcommitted angler: to outwit the fish, he designed a costume “to make himself look more like a tree.” Which makes the reader wonder how much he looked like a tree to begin with; his name, we are told, was Birch. A modern eccentric, Alan Fairweather, is a potato inspector for Scotland’s Department of Agriculture. He lives for potatoes—he talks about them incessantly, eats nothing else, and takes his annual vacation in Peru, the homeland of the potato, so he can study the potato’s, um, roots. Henry Cavendish so disliked having to talk to his domestic staff that he sent them letters; upon meeting a maid accidentally on the stairs, he ordered another whole staircase built. But Cavendish was the same useful citizen who determined that water was not an element but a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.

Clinical neuropsychologist David Weeks sought out and interviewed more than a thousand eccentrics for his 1995 book, Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness. In it, he finds that the incidence of “classic, full-time” eccentricity is only about 1 in 10,000, and that there is an inexplicable concentration of eccentrics in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Or at least he finds it inexplicable; folks in Minnesota would probably blame the weather, which they blame for just about everything, and which is frankly a lot like the weather here.

The health of eccentrics, Weeks thinks, is directly linked to their peculiar brand of happiness—they are marked by resourcefulness and engagement, and follow their impulses without fretting over all the possible consequences. This makes them unpredictable and at times downright annoying, but it also makes them surprisingly tough: Chronic stress, which damages the immune system and triggers depression, is largely absent in eccentrics. And they also have what Weeks calls “positive forms of stress, such as those associated with sex, exercise, and the intellectual excitement of new ideas.” These, he says, tend trigger the release of slightly higher levels of growth hormone, and it is growth hormone that counteracts many of the diseases associated with aging such as osteoporosis and muscle atrophy. “Growth hormone,” he writes, “has also been shown to have a good effect on memory, and eccentrics even tend to look younger than their biological age.”

Because his collection of contemporary eccentrics were all still uncompromisingly alive, Weeks turned to the historical record to investigate longevity. His historical sample of oddballs, which was drawn broadly from 1551 to 1950, revealed that all lived to 60 and beyond—even, and perhaps especially, during the periods when live expectancy was hovering around 35. If it’s true, it’s a remarkable finding—it must be added that Weeks has been criticized for the softness of his data and his tendency to rely on small samples, impressions, and anecdotes. Undaunted, he has gone on to write Secrets of the Superyoung, which explores why some people can show up at their 25th reunion looking wonderful while the rest of us are plump, droopy, or taller than our hair.

The criticism doesn’t really mar the central finding Weeks insists on—a happy breed is a healthy breed, and people who don’t worry about conforming never suffer the side effects of angst. Of course, they may trigger it—living with an eccentric is no doubt exasperating. They hate electricity or love insulation or write long, crackpot essays about clown college or nematodes or tropical fish; the inventor Nikola Tesla had a deadly fear of women wearing pearl earrings and the painter Salvador Dali ate mountains of soft-ripened cheese to enhance his dreams, which is not only eccentric but expensive.

But the bad news is that eccentricity—true eccentricity—is apparently diminishing. It helps to be the first born in a family, upper middle class, and a voracious reader, but despite living in a culture with smaller families, more money, and more books, the breed declines. Or, perhaps, they are merely perfecting their disguises; for all we really know, Mr. Birch may well be thriving, after 300 years, in the English countryside.

Robert Frost once defined a civilized society as one that “tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity”; using this as a yardstick, it’s hard not to wonder if we really are civilized or whether we have decided instead that a little medication will settle everybody down. But to be settled is not always to be happy—or healthy—and too often “settled” means eating cinnamon toast in front of the television. We should cherish our eccentrics when we find them, or when they allow themselves to be found. Fancy cheese is a small price to pay for a Dali; I’ll take the truth about water in exchange for an unnecessary staircase.

Friday, February 5, 2010

the rules of the game

It's not my place to criticize football, since I don't understand the rules. And I like it that way--every now and then someone decides to correct this defect and begins the Lecture, but I don't listen. I'm 58, and life has gone pretty well up to this point without understanding football. Why risk it?

But I've been on a little jag lately, looking at the things people do to their animals that do not need to be done, and I'm disturbed by this. I do know enough about football to know that they are a common target for a well-placed kick. This outfit has a subtext.

I am not now, not have I ever been, a member of PETA--from reading what the PETA people write, it's obvious that most of them have never had prolonged or meaningful contact with the animal world, and most have no grasp of the important difference between a wild animal and a domesticated one. The difference matters, but we won't go there--it's a good idea not to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the gallon.

It's tempting to wonder, "What were they thinking?" But the real question is "What were they not thinking?", since putting a football outfit on a dog is more about mindlessness than its opposite. People who do things like this invariably insist, sometimes over and over, that the animal "doesn't mind." But the lack of minding isn't coming from a compliant and dependent dog, but from an owner whose neurons aren't firing correctly. After the requisite Super Bowl beers have had time to work their magic, what's the outcome? And what's the dog's position about that?