Tuesday, April 1, 2008


... with apologies to Cardinal Newman and anyone else who really knows Latin

"I don't know who lives over there, or what they do, but they do it an awful lot of it" -- thus our neighbor in her dotage, looking across the lawns toward our house and the driveway that led to the barn.

My family did do a lot. My father maintained the house, an eight-room structure built during the Civil War with another eight-room house stuck onto the back shortly before 1900. A house of that age and size always needs something. Dad did most of it himself, only partly because of a constitutional disinclination to spend money. He was an engineer by profession and a jack of all trades by avocation. He once owned a machine shop. He knew, or could figure out, how to do carpentry, plumbing, bricklaying, wiring (subsequently checked by the electrician), and most of the other stuff that keeps a house together. On the whole, he enjoyed doing it.

His sister pointed out that no one he could hire would do the work as well as he did. His brother-in-law, a carpenter and general handyman, was impressed with Dad's workmanship on the baseboard heating he installed in my mothers' parents' house: every joint perfectly soldered, every drop of stray solder carefully cleaned up -- and this in the cellar where no one was likely to see it, or appreciate it if they did. A person who does things that way won't be in a hurry to trust the repairs on hishouse to anyone else.

Mother painted and wallpapered, cooked and canned, sewed, washed windows, and raised flowers and vegetables. She cleaned our share of the house (all the time, it seemed to us and probably to her) and the dormant back half once a year when Dad's family were due to come and use it. She mowed the lawns with a power mower, and the field around the house -- eight acres, they tell me -- with a tractor mower. In her spare time, she tried to raise us (I resisted raising, but that's another story).

Mother and Dad served on town and church committees. Mother taught Sunday school. Dad sang in the choir, and directed it for a while. He sang solos as well (if you want to be busy, be areally good tenor in a small town). He played string bass in a dance orchestra: one of my archetypal childhood memories is of Dad threading the bass carefully into the 1935 Chevrolet and its successors. Mother substituted in the local school system and later taught full time. We had a lot of relatives. There was much coming and going up and down that driveway.

Most of Dad's hobbies and projects aren't describable in a word or two. He and a friend moved organ pipes and other parts in and out of Dad's barn, and Dad eventually launched his own organ-building project in the house. He was always scooting up and down the driveway with his old green open trailer. The driveway is narrow, with a bank on one side and an unforgiving brick and cement porch on the other (he built the porch, too). Most of us have all we can do to back down that driveway at all. Dad did it with any of several trailers that he owned, including the one that carried the boat.

Dad's venture into pottery was typical of him. An interest in ceramics as most people understand it means buying greenware-- unpainted and unfired vases, sugar bowls, cream pitchers, whatever -- painting them artistically, and either firing them oneself or having the local ceramics studio do it. Dad began byreading everything he could find on ceramics in the library and in books that he bought. Then he built a potter's wheel, probably partly from objects that were lying around the premises or recycled from the local dump. When Dad took a trailer-load of unwanted objects to the dump, he could come back with more stuff than he left with.

For the kiln, he bought firebrick and wound the electrical wire into coils himself. Even the ordinary clay Dad was using is fired at some inconceivably high temperature. I hope the kiln was one of the projects he had the electrician look at before he plugged it in. However that may be, he used it for some years and never set fire to the house, or even blew a fuse that I know of.

One of his books cautioned the fledgling potter to forget about gathering clay from the wild: the process of extracting it from the surrounding soil is much too complicated for amateurs. But Dad did exactly that. He dug clay from a disused local brickyard and shooshed it around in an old washing machine to separate it from the soil. He poured the resulting slip, as it's called -- very thin, watery clay -- into a plaster of Paris basin which, over a period of some days, absorbed the excess water. Hemade two or three of these basins, as well as something called a wedging board: a box filled with plaster of Paris with a taut wire attached to one side. "Wedging" the clay to drive out air bubbles meant using the wire to cut a lump of clay in half and then throwing first one piece and then the other with some force onto the plaster board; gathering up both pieces into a reconstituted lump; and repeating the process many times. Dad's crockery wouldn't have made Crate & Barrel, but he kept at it for several years. Some of his creations are still on the premises, stored in closets or in use for one thing or another.

The room in which all this activity took place had been known as the "back kitchen" -- a summer kitchen, I think, in thedays of monumental cast-iron wood-burning stoves. I can'tremember what was there before it became the "pottery room," withshelves and the potter's wheel and other equipment and supplies. There was a piano out there for a while, an upright that Dad bought, presumably for little or no money, and brought home in the green trailer. He must have unloaded it and moved it into the house himself. He moved many, in my sister's phrase, unimaginably large and heavy objects, relying less on his size and strength than on his engineering techniques. However the piano got there and however it left, I can't picture it coexisting with the pottery. It must have come and gone before the pottery era.

When Dad decided the two-story woodshed behind the house wasn't earning its keep, he took it down by himself, having first moved the sleigh that had been stored on the second floor from time immemorial. I seem to remember that getting to the upper level of that structure was nontrivial -- can it be that there were no stairs? Taking the sleigh down without damaging it or himself must have required all his ingenuity.

When he got tired of hearing the hundred-year-old plaster in the house trickling down behind the walls when someone slammed a door, he took off the wallpaper, plaster, and lathe one room at atime, and replaced it with wallboard. The day he stripped the front hall and sent the debris down a chute from the window at the top of the stairs to the ubiquitous green trailer below, my sister, then eight or nine and famous for allergies, couldn't be kept out of the fray. Predictably, she filled her respiratory system with plaster dust, essence of rat's nest, and whatever else one finds in hundred-year-old walls. The resulting asthma attack is one of our family legends.

Dad's jury-rigs were likewise the stuff of legend. The carpenter brother-in-law, who came into possession of Dad's boat after he died, remarked on the repairs to the wirng that he found: as meticulously done as the grandparental baseboard heating but clearly cobbled together out of whatever wire was on hand. Dad hated to drop what he was doing, drive to the hardware store, and spend money. He knew to a nicety the condition and capabilities of whatever material was lying around, and made use of it accordingly. The boat wiring didn't catch fire either.

I once asked my son if his friends' parents enlist them in projects as I do him. He didn't think so: "My friends' parents don't seem to do much." Not much, that is, of the kind of activities my parents went in for and modeled to us. Justin's friends' families are an urban- and suburbanized group. My grandparents on both sides were farmers. Aldo Leopold observes in A Sand CountyAlmanac that farming is twenty percent agriculture and eighty percent fixing things that break. Farmers aren't big on waiting for some handyman to have a free afternoon and then paying him money.

In my family, that kind of thinking has outlived the farm by two or three generations. I don't have my father's tools or know-how; but when something needs addressing, I, and my son after me, think first of cobbling together a solution, preferably out of materials on hand, and second of doing without. Parting with serious money and/or hiring someone is a bad third choice. And like my parents and other down-home types of my acquaintance, my son and I can be shockingly indifferent to informalities that would send most Americans scurrying to the Yellow Pages. We don't all necessarily accept the same informalities; but that too is another story.

In my youth, I moved into in a third-floor apartment that had no doorbell. Worse still, it had two or three buttons that had been and still looked like doorbells but were, by that time, inert. My roommate and I were nervous about bothering the landlord and didn't know how to install a real doorbell. I attached a piece of twine to the light fixture at the top of the stairs and ran it over the top of the window (which we had to leave open a crack to accommodate it, until someone drilled a hole in the window casement for us; we weren't even equipped to do that). From outside the window, the twine led to a hook beside the back door that opened onto our staircase, in the vicinity of the defunct doorbells. I attached some bells to the upstairs end of the piece of twine, between the window and the light fixture. When someone at the back door pulled the other end, the bells rang. It took some trial and error to make it operate smoothly, but once we worked the bugs out of it, it was satisfactory enough that our successor in the apartment kept it.

More recently, Justin smiled with admiration at the tape dispenser in my office. It is perilously easy to discard the plastic hub, which is part of the dispenser, along with the empty cardboard spool that comes with the tape. The dispenser costs a couple of dollars, and I'm sure that normal Americans just throw away a widowed one and buy another. I substituted an empty ChapStick tube attached to the dispenser with Velcro. That was at least ten years ago, and that dispenser is still at my elbow.

Justin in turn pointed out to me a table that he and one of his housemates had built out of crates, a tabletop, and a curtain. He reports having made a toilet paper dispenser under a table in his room -- presumably because toilet paper is cheaperthan tissue -- using the strap from a luggage bag, a piece of string, and a length of PVC pipe that had previously been part of a sword (if you want to know about PVC-pipe swords, ask somebody who plays D&D).

He adopted a collection of bricks left behind in one of the houses his group has lived in, and has used them for a number of minor and ever-changing purposes (supporting the air conditioner and raising the bed, currently). I have watched him hold anobject in place with one hand while groping with the other to find something to prop it up with while he goes off to develop a more durable solution. That always makes me smile because it's so familiar from my own life and activities.

It can look as though our jury-rigs and projects are economically motivated. We would probably mention that first if asked; but if your goal is to save money, you would do better towork some extra hours at whatever it is you usually do, even if that's data entry or pumping gas, and spend the money to hire somebody. The human race invented division of labor a long time ago, for good reason.

Dad could have bought a potter's wheel and a kiln, but he liked making things and derived satisfaction from creating his projects from the ground up. I make bread and soup and grow herbs and vegetables, and come home from the slaughterhouse with bags of bones to boil down into stock for the freezer. I make fruitcake as Christmas gifts. The economics of all the above are unclear, except that fruitcake certainly saves no money. The process and the end result are the point.

When Justin first thought of visiting the Brazilian rainforest, he envisioned getting off some boat, hacking his way into the forest with a machete for a week, and back to the dock in another week. He gradually modified and ultimately abandoned that approach in favor of an organized eco-tour (to my relief); but for two or three years he had a marvelous time planning how he was going to manage. His projects and jury-rigs may be motivated partly by a desire to save money, but I'm not sure he doesn't sometimes create problems for the fun of solving them.

My father didn't blunder into things; my son is more a diver than a blunderer; but I can find myself up to here in some dubious process, largely because I didn't know about or think of the normal thing to do or way to do it. Unclear as my vision may be at the outset, I'm sure that if I set out in a certain direction and operate along certain lines, I'll wind up with what I want. I have found myself out money and time and in possession of a totally unworkable end product, but it doesn't happen often.

When I run into trouble with the original approach, I am quite ready to modify the plan. What I can't do is change visions. Once I start one of these activities, I'm committed to it unless I abandon the whole idea, which I am at all times profoundly reluctant to do. At one time, I tried long and hard to provide myself with a couch without actually buying a couch. At the outset, I probably was trying to save money -- but the couch took on a life of its own, and at every twist and turn of my relationship with it, it didn't quite occur to me that I could scrap the whole project and start over at the used furniture store. I can't answer for my father's or son's experience; but for me, doing my own thing, my own way, for my own reasons is like folding, or mis-folding, a piece of paper: an originally small deviation from what is wanted keeps getting larger, and at no point along the way does there seem to be a bridge back to what other people do.