Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Updates from the new old house

The home improvement task I enjoy the most is probably the least important thing we have to do on our new old house right now, and that’s painting. I really like painting. I like the way color transforms space. Sadly, I have very little artistic ability, but luckily painting a room requires no understanding of perspective or composition or the subtle intricacies of the color wheel. Basically you pick a hue and go. Even at that, it took me nearly an hour to choose the perfect shade of neutral for the first room I took on. The paint I selected looked so smooth and luscious, like crème anglaise. Good thing it had that off-putting painty smell or I might have gotten myself a bowl and spoon.

No, painting a room is not going to keep the house from falling apart, but it is something that needs to be done, and it’s something I can do. Electricity, plumbing, stuff on the roof, stuff in the crawlspace, and anything requiring heavy lifting—not so much my areas, but I’m helping the best I can. The house won’t fix itself. It is tempting, when K and I gripe about aching backs and arthritic hands, like we’ve aged 30 years in the past month, to say things like “Eh, do we really need gutters on the roof? Does it honestly matter that there’s only one grounded outlet in the whole house? Would it seriously be a problem if we never fixed those broken windows that are letting all the heat out? Spring is right around the corner!” 

Of course we know the answers to those questions. Stuff’s gotta get done, and that includes even the little things—which usually end up being not so little. In order to paint that room, I had to make sure the walls really were walls and not just Jenga-like structures of lath and plaster that would crumble the second I applied the roller. Everything matters, everything’s connected, and everything you do is certain to get you dirty. 

Ah, the dirt. We shower, we shampoo, we deodorize and disinfect, we live as best we can in a pristine denial, but a  new old farmhouse is the perfect way to remind you that filth is a universal constant. Case in point, we have a bit of a mouse problem at the moment. At one point K started to put on his work gloves only to find a dried grain of corn carefully stashed in one of the fingers. Clearly some critter was using it as a sleeping bag with built-in holders for midnight snacks. I’ve seen the little things scurrying about when I pick up dead branches in the yard; they’re cute and seemingly innocuous, but poop from cute things is still poop, and when it’s in your kitchen or your clothes, it’s not exactly adorable.

Still, it’s not terribly surprising to find vermin in a farmhouse in the countryside. I’d be considerably more horrified if I’d ever discovered evidence of rodent life in my condo downtown. In a city, even a modest one like the college town from which we are moving, it’s a lot easier to forget about the natural world, to think of it as this sort of fringe element that occasionally threatens the human world in the form of icky bugs or Canada geese. (Say, when are we starting construction on the wall between Canada and the U.S.? Those damn geese are out of control, I tell you.) Away from the city, even though the parcels of land are strictly gridded and the visible plant life is almost entirely there for mass consumption, it still becomes very clear at some point that we humans are the outsiders. The so-called “vermin” and “weeds” actually belong here; we don’t.

And yet we are here, and fringe element or not, we unquestionably impact the natural world. Equally unquestionable, unless you’re into denying uncomfortable facts (and that does seem to be a thing these days), that impact is often damaging, and the damage is often irreversible. Species have gone extinct because of us. Yes, species have gone extinct not because of us, but if a terrible thing happens that isn’t your fault, I really don’t think it nullifies the terrible thing that is your fault, that you could have prevented. There have been instances within my lifetime where a particular species got down to single digits—that is, you could count on your fingers the number of these animals left in the entire world. If that isn’t terrifying to you, well, think of there being only 7 pizzas left in the world, 5 donuts, 4 beers. When those are gone, what the hell are we going to have for breakfast? (Hey, don’t judge.)

I could try to tell you the ecological importance of making sure we don’t wipe any more species off the planet as much as we can help it, but I have a feeling I’d either be preaching to the choir or singing gospel to people with fingers in their ears. You either think this is important or you don’t. If you don’t, and you’re still reading, well, thanks I guess, and, um, bye. If you do care, make sure you pay attention to any buzz involving the Endangered Species Act. This Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1973—yeah, Nixon, so let’s not turn this into a bipartisan thing because as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter if you lean left or right or upside down. This is something many of us can agree upon, and do something about, and do right by the natural world—which, in case you’ve forgotten because you’ve come to see nature as something gross that poops all over the place, we are in fact part of.

I know there’s kind of a lot going on politically right now. I know it can be overwhelming. I also know that what I’ve discussed here isn’t just a superficial matter of saving cute animals. Saving a wolf or a bird is not the equivalent of putting a pretty coat of paint over the more serious issues in the world; if I may continue the admittedly stretched new old house analogy, it’s part of the foundation of life on earth.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ghosts, now and then

Lately I’ve been doing long runs with K’s youngest daughter, J, who will be running her first marathon this April. I’m supposed to be her pacer. I say “supposed to” because even though I’ve run dozens of marathons and ultras, and J has very reasonable and realistic goals for her first (don’t die, do finish), she’s 19 and makes running look easy while I’m very much not 19 and make running look like, well, the way someone not 19 and not particularly athletic tends to make it look. Regardless, it’s been fun running with her. The conversations a person has with a running buddy can range from ridiculous to profound, but no matter what the topic, discussing that topic during a run always seems to make it more memorable.

Last weekend, for example, we got to talking about music, since she’s a music major at the university here, and she mentioned that her favorite song when she was a child was “Hotel California.” “I know that’s pretty weird,” she added. “I was a weird kid.”

I suppose a song that celebrates a self-indulgent lifestyle of sex and drugs might not be the most appropriate thing for a tot to sing along to, but I shrugged, as much as anyone can shrug while trying to maintain good running form. “It’s a good song. You had good taste.” Anyway, my favorite piece of music when I was a child was probably Glenn Miller’s “In the mood,” so weird is in the ear of the behearer.

I could actually see a child enjoying the Eagles’ song, and not just for the cool Mexi-Reggae mix but also for the strange story it tells. To a youngster it might sound a bit like a ghost story: a late-night drive through a mysterious landscape, shimmering lights, scary voices. And who, at any age, doesn’t love a good ghost story? Remember Scooby Doo? Every other episode started with a mansion that was supposedly haunted, and every single time those meddling kids and their dog went right in, and every single Saturday morning four decades ago my sister and I couldn’t wait to see Shaggy and Scooby take on the ghosts again, even though the ghosts always turned out to be greedy people in masks. Greedy people really aren’t too bright a lot of the time.

It’s funny, and by funny I mean unpleasantly ironic, that the ghosts were what scared them so much. In our non-Saturday-cartoon world, greedy people do truly terrifying things, terrifying not just because of the harm they cause but because of the complete lack of caring displayed while doing them—and the complete indifference of bystanders watching them done. Being scared by ghosts is a fun scared. Being scared by people who would cheerfully pollute a child’s water or happily deny a woman’s cancer screening or ecstatically wipe out access to health care for millions, just so they can save a buck or two in taxes, well, send me to that haunted mansion, please, and bring on the shimmering lights and scary voices.

It does seem that being haunted by the present is infinitely worse than being haunted by the past. Our new old house practically screams haunted (well, sometimes it whispers it, when I’m there alone, which is just as bad if not worse). There’s a false door, a floor inlay covering up something beneath it, and a wrecked-up room in the back that almost certainly housed a crazy relative the family wanted to keep secret. Seriously creepy shit. I was dead sure at one point there were people living in the attic—I’d hear sounds just as I was entering which would abruptly stop, and I just knew they were watching my every move, even though most of my moves consisted of really boring things like plastering cracks in the walls. K finally went into the attic (I waited below and got ready to scream “ZOIKS!” and run); he didn’t find any people but found a lot of old junk up there which he had to haul out to the ever-growing junk pile.

“What’s in there?” I asked as he lugged a large blue plastic box down the stairs.

“Sad things,” he said enigmatically.

The box was in good shape so I decided to appropriate it (plus I was, naturally, curious, despite my fear of anything connected to that attic), and in doing so I discovered what the “sad things” were: old toys, left behind in a bedraggled heap. They were sad to see, and to wonder about. It’s possible they weren’t necessarily “haunted” things, imbued with mystery and tragedy; it’s possible that the little girl who once lived here simply outgrew them, shoved them away, forgot about them. But that’s a little haunting all by itself. One way or another, that little girl is gone.

Sad, yes, and yet there’s still something almost comforting about being haunted by the past, because that means it’s not completely gone. In ghost stories, even the most malevolent ghosts are usually after avenging a past wrong, fixing an injustice from long ago. Appease them, and all’s well. How do you fix injustice happening right now, when there’s just so damn much of it? I suppose it’s a situation like getting yourself into a new old house. It’s never finished. Plaster the cracks in the walls, now your walls look shitty. Sand and prime and paint the walls, now the floors and ceiling need work. Do those and realize the windows are broken, the toilets don’t flush properly, the siding is falling off, mice are getting in, and the wrecked-up crazy-relative room is still wrecked-up and you might be the one becoming crazy. You don’t fix everything. You aren’t a ghost or a greedy mask-wearing fiend; you don’t have just one single-minded pursuit. You have a life, right now, in the present, so you keep doing what needs to be done.

Incidentally, I put the sad toys in a plastic garbage bag in the junk pile so I could use the box. The next day I discovered that the bag had tipped over and one of the dolls had fallen out. It lay face down, arms stretched out, reaching forward, it seemed, toward the house. I am sure the wind or some wild animal knocked the bag over, just as sure as I am that there’s no such thing as ghosts. You can also be sure that I shoved the thing back in the bag and hid the bag behind a lot of very heavy things, and if I see that doll again I’m calling The Mystery Machine over.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Entertainment and solace

There isn’t much that works quite as it should in our new old house at the moment. We can’t plug the fridge in, the stove isn’t connected to the propane tank, the windows aren’t weatherproof and the workshop doesn’t have a floor. The one thing that does work, delightfully but impractically, is the piano. It came with the house, and as our friend the piano expert discovered, it was made in 1904, meaning that it belonged to the original homeowners. It sounded terrible when we first came upon it, but our friend put some hours into fixing it for us and now it sounds fine. So even when we are freezing our asses off this winter because the furnace isn’t heating our poorly insulated house so much as all of outer space, we can at least tickle the ivories until our fingers rot off from frostbite.

I played piano for a number of years during my childhood, at first with youthful enthusiasm, then, when adolescence hit, glumly, since I did everything glumly back then. I never had any real talent, just enough to know that even if I practiced (which I didn’t), I would never be all that great, and so on to more glumness. Since then I’ve felt twinges of nostalgia once in a while, the longing for something I used to have for which there really is no substitute. Listening to music is surely one of the great human experiences, but making music is something altogether greater still. I’d always figured on getting a piano again one of these days, with the uneasy suspicion that this might end up being one of those “one of these days” things that never would in fact happen. And then I up and moved to a farmhouse. You never do know, do you.

The first sheet music I got for my new old piano is a book of dumbed-down Scott Joplin rags. I say “dumbed-down” even though this stuff is not for beginners; ragtime piano is incredibly complex, or at least seems that way to someone who never studied music theory and would have to study it to understand it because it sure doesn’t come naturally to me. Looking at sheet music for me is something like looking at a poem written in Braille. There might well be something amazing in there but right now it’s just a bunch of unfathomable glyphs. Struggling to make sense of the glyphs, I’ll often find myself baffled at the seemingly random changes from naturals to flats, flats to sharps, major to minor. Yet when I finally puzzle out the correct notes, there’s that sudden oh, wow, yes! That’s right! That’s just—amazing!

I picked Scott Joplin because his music seemed appropriate for the age of our piano, as his most popular tune, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” was written right around the time our house was being built. Even if his name and background aren’t familiar, you’ve almost certainly heard his music in movies set in the late 19th and early 20th century such as The Sting, which made “The Entertainer” famous for all time. It is unfortunate that many people seem to think of ragtime as somewhat goofy. Those perplexing but astonishing chords always seem a little sad to me. “Ragtime,” after all, suggests a time when everything in your life pretty much sucks but you put on your best rags—because rags are all you’ve got—and you go dancing. There’s exuberance, but there’s also a deep longing beneath it all.  If you want to know what melancholic yearning sounds like, listen to his “Solace.” If you already know all about melancholic yearning, listen to it several times.

Joplin was born in 1868, a hundred years before my own birth year, and died in 1917—a hundred years before the present year. There’s nothing particularly meaningful about those factoids; it’s not much more than a neat coincidence. Still, it’s interesting for me to think about all that Joplin created in the time he had on earth, which is the same amount of time I’ve had on earth so far. Not surprisingly, Joplin’s life appears to have had its share of struggle and hardship. There were failed marriages, tragic deaths, fortune and poverty in rapid succession. Joplin died in a New York City mental institution; he had syphilitic dementia, and he was buried in an unmarked “potter’s field”-type grave. The huge number of honors and awards and prizes he received were almost entirely posthumous. This is all incredibly depressing and an admittedly strange thing to be dwelling on this first day of the new year, and I don’t want to make some easy conclusion from it like “live each day to the fullest because you never know if you might get the syph!” I’m not entirely sure why all this interests me; playing ragtime in the cornfields in the year 2017 is not likely to have much impact on the world, after all. But I guess it’s always good to discover new things, even when they’re old things, maybe especially when they’re old things. You gain a connection to the past even while you step—baffled and exuberant and longing—into the future.