Quote of The Week

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them.”

Laurence J. Peter


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Getting the Job Done

Houses are like people. They go along for months or years without having any problems and then, all of a sudden, everything goes wrong at once. When this happens to a person you call the doctor, unless it’s already too late to be worth the expense. When it happens to a house there is no single individual you can call. You are plunged into the anarchic hell of the Yellow Pages and the classified ads. where all kinds of repairmen advertise their arcane skills.

Unless you have a personal recommendation it is as hard to choose a repair company as it is to choose a doctor. Many of them claim that they are “Family owned operated.” This sounds warm and reassuring, until you remember that the Mafia was family owned and operated, and so was Italy under the Borgias and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. With the arrival of the Trump dynasty the United States is well on the way to being family owned and operated. This is not necessarily a guarantee of anything. We are forced to place a lot of trust in these businesses – to trust their estimates and trust their competence to do the work honestly, correctly, safely, and more or less on time. We would never trust any politician half as much.

We’ve been through a period of weeks in which a lot of trust was required. Scarcely a day passed without a visit from a workman of some kind. I mentioned a few weeks ago our multiple visits from the heroic oil service repairmen. These turned out to be just the beginning of the deluge.

It started with a literal deluge from the chimney, which began to leak dramatically during one of our January rainstorms. Then various indoor appliances stopped working one by one, according to that miracle of modern engineering that guarantees that everything will break down three days after the end of its guarantee period.

So, here came the repairmen, one by one. If you have a house you know the routine, which I guess they learn at repairman school. Stage one is where they terrify you with the awful consequences of failing to fix you problem. These include but are not limited to floods, electrocution, carbon monoxide poisoning, natural gas explosions, oil spills, fires, food poisoning, and hypothermia. Then they give an estimate, which seems almost reasonable, given the terrible danger you are facing from your malfunctioning appliance.

Stage two is usually a phone call on the lines of: “Mr. B. there’s something we need to change about that estimate. Seems you’ve got one of those special models with the computer controlled electronic womble-piffler. We have to get the spares from China (or South Korea or Italy or worst of all New Jersey),” and back comes a new estimate for twice the original amount. At some stage it becomes cheaper to buy a new appliance, or a new house. In the meantime you learn to get along without various appliances you thought were essential to life, so there is an educational benefit.

If your luck is in, stage three is the actual repair. I prefer it when only one repairman is involved. When there are two they tend to argue, and it’s disturbing to hear phrases floating up from the basement such as: “No, no, if you put it on like that it’s sure to explode.” Finally, the loading of tools into the truck signals the completion of the job, we pay the bill, and check our date books for the next repairman’s visit. One day soon every single appliance in the house will have been repaired or replaced. There goes my social life.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Italian Job

During our visit to Italy we stayed on a farm in the Tuscan countryside The landscape was so like a Renaissance painting that we scarcely dared to drive into it for fear of ripping the canvas. It was quiet, it was idyllic, and we could walk for miles without encountering another human being.

The farm was in the business of “Agriturismo.” That is, it is a working wine and olive farm, with some accommodation. This Agriturismo is a subject for a (funny) PhD thesis in itself. In brief, it is invented in the 1960s so that the peasants could move out of their leaking, freezing farmhouses into nice centrally-heated flats, and the derelict farmhouses could be bought by (mainly British) townies with a dream of sunshine and freedom. Our host, Tony, a Brit and an ex-journalist, had written some pretty funny stuff about this himself. Fortunately he had a strong sense of irony. His Italian wife did not. We were their first visitors of the season, so we got a very good welcome.

The farm, situated right in the middle of the Chianti region between Florence and Sienna, was a good place to stay, in spite of the idiosyncratic availability of heat and hot water, The old buildings had been converted into independent flats, each with a kitchen, terrace, fireplace etc. Wine from the vineyard is always on tap, and the nearby village had three good restaurants. The owners made a decent pretense of running a “working farm,” but as far as I could see they spent most of the day talking on their cellular phones, and instructing the peasants to do the actual work.

They also provided some really interesting touring suggestions in the region, most of which involved precipitous dirt roads. This didn’t do my vertigo any good, and the car is soon virtually covered in mud. But we saw some out of the way places – the village where Leonardo painted La Giaconda, for example, although Diane remarked that it had no art supply shop, and the village where Much Ado About Nothing was filmed. We even bumped through one or two tiny hamlets not yet discovered by the New York Times Travel Supplement.

But, as everyone knows, it is a violation of the rules of international tourism to visit that part of Italy without going to Florence. So we did. Florence has never been a peaceful place. Julius Caesar founded the city 59 B.C. as a fortress against the primitive northern tribes. The northern tribes keep coming, even today, and still cause trouble in the gift shops. From the eleventh to the seventeenth century, Florence was regularly torn apart by internal power struggles, fought over by Tuscans, Romans and Lombards, and oppressed by rulers who were less than one hundred per cent democratic such as the Médicis and Savonarola. Machiavelli was a typical product of Florentine politics. In 1797, Florence was annexed by Napoleon, and it was bitterly fought over in World War Two. Then the tourists came.

After an absence of some years we had forgotten just how many tourists could be crammed into this small city. Florence has some of the greatest art and architectural treasures of the world and, even though we were there midweek and out of season, it seemed as if the whole world had come to see them on the same day. We added our own small contribution to the crowding problem, the parking problem, and the pollution problem, when we should have stayed in the country.

The streets were literally choked with compact masses of people, each group shuffling along, shoulder-to-shoulder led by a tour guide with a flag or some kind of symbol held aloft. We saw one tour led by a man with an ear of corn on a stick, presumably a delegation from Iowa. These groups moved steadily ahead regardless of obstacles, including us. In some streets there was nothing to be seen but a mass of bobbing backpacks. The line outside the Uffizi Gallery was half a mile long, and the electronic counter inside the door of the Duomo showed that it had almost reached its maximum capacity of eight hundred people. Overhead, jumbo jets laden with more tourists were droning into Amerigo Vespucci airport every few minutes. When we wanted to take photographs we had to wait until a gap in the crowd revealed a piece of actual scenery, then take a shot quickly without worrying too much what it was.

If you wanted a picture of yourself in front of some famous monument the local street photographers were happy to oblige. They used digital cameras to create a montage of your image standing in front of an empty scene.

A lot of the visitors were high school students from all over the world enjoying an educational tour. “Enjoying” and “educational” may both be the wrong words to use here. I’ve not seen so many bored, unhappy and rebellious young people gathered together in one place since the last time I taught a college class. The only things that seemed to attract their attention were the pizza and ice cream stands, video game arcades, and Internet cafes, which were strategically placed along the main tourist routes. These so-called educational tours may be fun for the teachers, although their haggard faces make me doubt it. I’m certain that they are counter-productive for the students, who probably learn only to detest beauty and culture for the rest of their lives.

“They say that travel broadens the mind,” wrote G.K.Chesterton, “But first you must have the mind.”

It made me glad that my old school never offered anything as fancy as educational tours. As a teenager I got a tremendous kick out of doing Europe on my own – arriving in Rome by motor cycle from London at age seventeen. I knew nothing about Rome after 400 A.D., when the history in our school textbook ended. But my visit was all the more memorable because of more recent developments, which came as a surprise.

I have mixed feelings about mass tourism, because I’m a part of it. Everybody should be able to see unique and wonderful places like Florence. But, with almost seven billion people in the world, we can’t do it without destroying the places we want to see. We felt doubly guilty because both of us had been to Florence before so we really didn’t have to go again. Just to compound the felony we later drove to Venice, where the crowds were ten times worse. Soon they will need pushers, like those on the Tokyo subway, just to shove people into Venice. In short, Italy is full. They must do something to control the crowds. The Greeks have the neat idea of reducing traffic in Athens by allowing drivers to enter the city only on alternate days, based on their license plate numbers. Florence could use a similar system, perhaps based on nationality: Germans on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Americans on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and so on.

Travel agents could help to rationalize mass tourism by exercising a little discretion at the point of sale. A few simple questions such as: “Do you like to stand in line for five hours to see a lot of very large, very dark religious paintings by artists who died four hundred years ago, or do you prefer to play Blackjack?” would help to distinguish the people who would enjoy Florence from those who would have a better time in Las Vegas. But, like all brilliantly simple solutions, this one will never be implemented. Only Savonarola could solve the problem of tourists in Florence.

Charles Baudelaire captured the spirit of tourism in poetry much better than I can say it in prose. Here’s a free translation of Baudelaire’s poem, “Le Voyage” (The Journey):

The true tourists are those who leave just in order to leave;
Their hearts are as light as balloons,
They never shrink from their fate,
But, without knowing why, simply say “Let’s go.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

Summer Visitors

When I was growing up, the most formidable insect killer in the house was a fly swatter. Then DDT was invented, and we sprayed it indiscriminately on anything that moved. My grandmother preferred bugs to DDT, and swore that our spraying would kill her. When she died, a few days short of her hundredth birthday, we went back to the old fly swatter. Grandmother was always right.

The war on bugs has become more sophisticated since those days. Every summer, displays of deadly chemicals appear in the local supermarket, thoughtfully located between pasta and frozen foods. The ads read like publicity from an arms dealers’ convention: KILL, STOP, DESTROY, TERMINATE. At home we have electronic zappers, citron candles, and closets full of chemical sprays. Some pesticides carry the mysterious warning: “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” It makes you think twice before whacking a passing ant on the head with the box. But the bugs love our hospitality so much that nothing will keep them away. For the next four months we will live in a state of siege.

There are more than 700,000 species of insects, and most of them come to our house for their summer vacations. Ants, roaches, silverfish, beetles, flies, hornets, wasps, earwigs, centipedes moths and fleas all converge on our little quarter acre. They are not impressed by our sprays and foggers, baits and powders. They have been around for two hundred million years, and there are a lot more of them than there are of us.

Insects are survivors. They adapt like viruses to anything we can throw at them, and even the most potent chemicals are getting less effective. Just as we humans have made victims of ourselves by overdosing on antibiotics, we have toughened up the insect population with decades of toxic doses, which were almost, but not quite, one hundred per cent effective. As any scientist will tell you, it’s the “not quite” that matters. Not to put too fine a point on it, the insects are winning this contest. We may even be breeding a race of super bugs, like those in the old sci-fi movies.

My perspective on this invasion was somewhat modified by, of all things, a French film. It’s called “Microcosmos” and, like most of the movies I see, it’s about ten years old. I hate to watch movies until they have stood the test of time, which this one has. Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s incredible film is simply a microscopically magnified portrait of insects in a meadow on a summer’s day, with a sophisticated musical score.

The insects are astonishing – not just the familiar ants and bees but creatures from another world. Their activities are amazing too. I watched a beetle re-enacting the Myth of Sisyphus, trying to push a ball of dirt up a hill. But it always rolled down again until the beetle – smarter than his human model – found ways to prop it with stones and sticks, and so push all the way to the top. Intelligence? I think so.

I can’t claim that this powerful documentary reconciled me to the intimate company of ants, termites, and flies around the house and on the deck. But it did remind me of the astonishingly beautiful alien world that exists under our feet and over our heads.They are not so unlike us. They are just interested in self-preservation, the rule of survival from the lowest life form to the highest.

It’s a tough decision, whether to continue the losing battle, or live and let live. It may not be too late to go back to the old methods – the fly swatter and the briskly stamping foot. There is no good choice. What Winston Churchill said about General Montgomery may well be applied to our fellow creatures, the insects: “In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Ideal Village

A couple of years ago we visited a long-lost relative of mine who lived with his wife in a beautiful spot in the Loire Valley, in France, with very little other company apart from some donkeys, some sheep, two dogs and a whole lot of cats. Heredity must count for something. There wasn’t a strip mall or a housing development anywhere in sight. It seemed to us, coming from Long Island, an impossibly isolated place. But the fact is that my relative, in his remote house, knows all about his not-very-near neighbors, their families, and their life histories. Here in the closely packed subdivisions, we scarcely know any of our neighbors. They might as well be on another planet.

There must to be a middle way between the seclusion of the deep countryside and the blank anonymity of the suburbs and there is: the village. I love villages – I love looking at them, and reading about them, and living in them. Some of the villages I’ve been lucky enough to live in have been absolute gems – beautiful to look at, convenient, and above all friendly. There’s an urban myth that you won’t be accepted in a village until your family has lived there for three or four generations, but that’s a hundred years out of date. Most villages these days are full of immigrants and “strangers,” like us, and a new resident is always an object of curious, usually friendly interest. Villagers need something to talk about.

Another myth is that everybody knows your business in a village – there’s no privacy. But, once you close your front door, you can have exactly as much privacy as you could have anywhere else. Neighbors may observe your comings and goings, and take note of your visitors, but nosy neighbors are as common in London or Los Angeles as they are in any village. You can have privacy in a village, but not anonymity – and that’s a good thing because most antisocial behavior depends on anonymity. It’s not true that, as many readers of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books may assume, that every picturesque village is a war zone with a murder every week. Villages are safe. I was living in a lovely village in Suffolk, England, when the local vet was murdered in mysterious circumstances. But that sort of thing is not as common as Public Television would have us believe, and in any case the locals soon figured out who did it, and why. They just didn’t care to mention the fact to the police

Murders apart, a village is comforting because you know the whole place and most of the people. It’s typically quiet, which is worth a lot these days, with instant access to the surrounding countryside. With any luck, there are no shops, and therefore no temptation to go shopping.

Urban dwellers always complain that a village can’t have great art galleries, theaters, or symphony orchestras, which is true. But they can have something better: real artists, real actors, and real musicians, who are creators rather than consumers of culture. There’s nothing more satisfying than a nice amateur village performance or exhibition. It makes us feel that we ourselves may not be hopelessly without talent, and that we can be creative too.

This fondness of mine for villages is ridiculously nostalgic, I know, and quite unrealistic, like a taste for steam trains. But I’m not going to give it up. As Miss Marple pointed out, a village is a microcosm of the world, with all human nature in it, including the essential village idiot. That, I think, is why I feel at home here.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Body Beautiful

The local fitness center, where I pretend to exercise from time to time, is quiet during the day. The young high-energy fitness fanatics come and go in the early hours of the morning. When the sun is well up a more mature crowd arrives, and we run through our gentler regimes. These include the cautious lifting of rather small weights, short walks to nowhere on the treadmills, and long stretches of relaxation on the seat of one of the muscle building machines, reading the instructions but not actually doing anything. We have sweat suits, but sweat is not a big feature of our fitness programs.

Our placid routine was interrupted the other day. The gym was occupied, and indeed dominated by a muscular young man who was being stretched to the limit by a ruthless trainer. He was lifting enormous weights, doing excruciating things on what appeared to be large plastic beach balls, and crunching his body on various nasty-looking apparatuses. It was hard to ignore his grunts, groans, and agonized facial contortions. Sweat was flying off him like a yard sprinkler.

If torture is to be outlawed in civilized societies, which it certainly should be, surely self-torture should also be banned. It hurts to watch, and it arouses one’s deepest humanitarian instincts. What could this handsome young man possibly have done to deserve this kind of pain?

The teachers at my old high school – most of them in poor physical shape – were fond of tormenting their pupils with the Latin tag Mens Sana in Corpore Sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). The school curriculum carefully balanced its intense academic program with a lot of idiotic sports, and we were supposed to be good at both. We were not. Then, as now, there were the brains and the jocks. Then, as now, the performance of the jocks in class suggested that their sound bodies had been achieved without any corresponding improvement of their minds.
The seventeenth century French Philosopher René Descartes proposed that the human body and the human mind have nothing in common. They connect, if at all, rarely and imperfectly. This is the essence the famous “Mind-Body Problem” in philosophy or, more succinctly, “Dualism.”

It makes sense to me. My mind knows where my fingers should go on the piano keys, but will they go there? No. When I try to dance I discover that my feet are not connected to my head. Mind and body go their own ways. You may have a magnificent body with a pea brain, or a brilliant brain perched on a wreck of a body. There’s no contradiction. But we can choose to focus our efforts at self-improvement on one aspect or the other. Life is too short to aim for both.

The excessive cultivation of the body seems out of sync with the modern age. Physical strength was important in the distant past, when we had to plow the fields, fight with swords, and even wind our own car windows. Now all that is redundant. Plowing, war, and window winding call all be accomplished at the touch of a button. Brute strength scarcely matters any more, except to immature men who are caught up in the romance of old-fashioned masculinity. In the course of future evolution we may hope that the body will fade away altogether, leaving only a brain, a pair of eyes, and a vestigial finger to operate the remote control.

At this stage of our history, we need brains much more than we need muscles, however beautifully sculpted. Grunting and flexing won’t get us out of the mess we’re in. A little intelligent thinking just might.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Too Many Vegetables

Spring should be a season of optimism and happy expectation. But, as always, there’s a catch. he big farm stands on the east end of Long Island are gearing up for business. Any day now they will throw open their barn doors to reveal a cornucopia of vegetables so fresh that they have the dirt and pesticides still on them. This sends my wife into a kind of vegetable frenzy. She comes home loaded with the things, and I am expected to eat them.

There’s nothing wrong with eating vegetables. They are even classified as food by some nutritionists. What upsets me is the all-too-common prejudice, often strongly expressed, that we must eat vegetables. This is the voice of the Puritan down the ages: “You are not here to enjoy yourself . This may hurt, but it’s good for you.”

There’s a restaurant that I regularly patronize because it has good food. But it is run by direct descendants of the Puritans. When you place your order, the waitperson says: “I’ll send your order into the kitchen as soon as I see you go to the salad bar.” Some cunning diners are prepared for this, and pass their salad through the window to an accomplice. The rest us just have to hide the salad in our pockets or briefcases, so we can get to the main course.

It’s hard to imagine such totalitarian tactics working with other consumer choices. Imagine being told that you have to drive a Yugo before you can buy a BMW, or that you must watch Touched by an Angel before tuning in to Masterpiece Theater. However, I have never seen anyone protest against the compulsory salad. We all troop over to the salad bar like sheep, who would probably enjoy it much more.

The theologians of the vegetable religion preach that an adult person, in full possession of his or her faculties, must eat five servings of green stuff per day. For those of us with modest appetites, this regime would use up our entire eating capacity, leaving no space at all for real food.

To be fair, vegetables have improved a lot since I was young. I can remember shelling peas, peeling potatoes and trying to dismember a cauliflower without destroying it. Now the fruits of the earth can be found in the freezer section, neatly packed in square boxes with pretty pictures on the front. As a bonus, the good farmers often add a hefty dose of simulated cheese, or Teryaki sauce, which does not occur in nature. Cauliflowers with snow peas do not occur in nature, or strange concoctions called ‘New England’ ‘Bavarian’ ‘Californian’ or ‘Italian’ vegetables. Food science has transformed the vegetable experience.

Everyone has a least favorite vegetable. For ex-President George Bush it was broccoli; for me its eggplant, in all its devious forms. But there’s no escape from them. Vegetables used to be seasonal. Eggplants would appear, and then mercifully vanish for months on end. Now, every green and purple thing is on the menu year round, imported from the ends of the earth to remind us yet again of the old Puritan lesson that we are not here to enjoy ourselves.

Of course, some vegetables are more edible than others. The noble potato, for example can be made into French fries, hash browns, or mash. It can be baked and stuffed with bacon, diced and served with gruyere cheese, boiled, microwaved or barbecued to perfection. In my opinion, the potato is one of the four major food groups. The others are poultry, meat and fish.

Even the inferior vegetables have some good qualities. They make a colorful display at the entrance to the supermarket. They don’t induce queasy feelings in the sensitive soul, who may look at the all-red meat counter with misgivings. They fill dinner plates cheaply when you have unwanted guests, and guarantee that they won’t come again.

But will vegetables make us healthy, as their boosters claim? The fact is we don’t know, because the research is all one-sided. Scientists never look for the bad effects of vegetables. For all they know, carrots may cause depression and broad beans may make your teeth fall out. The only food they ever test is the food that tastes good. So common sense and observation must be our guide. If you have ever traveled to Belgium, for example, you must have noticed that people who live in Brussels are no healthier than the rest of us, in spite of their wretched sprouts. Cabbage is a favorite dish in Russia, a nation with the worst health record in the developed world.

We can always learn something from history. Nineteenth century sailors lived on a diet almost completely devoid of fresh vegetables. Because of this, they occasionally got a disease called scurvy. But this could be cured or prevented by drinking grog, a mixture of rum and lime juice, at the rate of about two pints a day. Perhaps, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are here to enjoy ourselves.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Show Must Go On

Every spring for as long as I can remember I’ve read articles by experts forecasting the imminent end of marriage and the demise of the traditional family. Every spring I find myself almost run off the road by gigantic white limousines racing from one wedding ceremony to the next. We live near a spot much favored for wedding photographs and, every weekend for the next couple of months, the happy couples will be lined up like jumbo jets waiting to land.

Marriage will never die out as long as there are weddings. I venture to guess that the desire to have a wedding is usually much stronger than the desire to have a marriage, but one thing tends to lead to another, and both of them tend to lead to children. So the traditional family is probably safe as long as the fifty billion dollar a year wedding industry continues to flourish. If it goes the same way as many other American industries we can say goodbye to marriage and the family.

It is often said that marriage is too much to expect of human nature. “Till death us do part” is a big commitment, especially now that people are determined to live so long. Young men in particular are said to be commitment-phobic. Yet they readily make lifetime commitments to things like tattoos, body piercing, football teams and Harley Davidsons. What’s so special about marriage?

It may be the idea of a thirty-year mortgage that gives them pause, or the wedding itself, or the fear that marriage and adulthood will be the equivalent of a police raid that closes down a long and enjoyable party. Teenagers couldn’t do anything when I was young. Now they can do everything, and the teenage years can be stretched into decades.

Young women too are becoming more attached to their freedom, and marrying later and later. In fact it’s not so much marriage that is endangered as early marriage, and that’s probably a good thing. This is a decision that requires a lot of maturity. If the trend continues we’ll see more newlyweds hobbling down the aisle on Zimmer frames and taking their honeymoons with Elderhostel.

One problem with modern marriage is it’s no longer a once-in-a-lifetime event. Most people have to march down the aisle twice, or maybe three or four times. Celebrities, who must remarry (and quickly re-divorce) every time they need a bit of extra publicity must do it even more often. It’s a daunting thought, unless you actually enjoy the wedding process, and it raises once again the old idea that marriage should have built-in time limits.

One cynic has proposed the model of a car lease. You could return your partner in good condition with a modest mileage after three years, or take the option to make the relationship permanent. Another suggestion is that marriage licenses should be renewable after a certain time, like drivers’ licenses or passports. Renewal could be a simple matter, involving an eye test, a physical, and a brain function test, and it would be voluntary. Either party could let the license lapse, and take off for California with a clear conscience.

Ideas like this upset romantics, who adore weddings. But I don’t see why. The result would be more weddings, more tears, more bad poetry, and more family drama. A wedding is theater, and marriage is a soap opera. Here, if anywhere, everyone gets to be a star.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Spring Song

Spring in the suburbs is a total audio-visual experience. From my window I can see the signals that nature thoughtfully provides for anyone without a calendar. The daffodils are out, the first tiny leaves are sprouting on the trees, the Grackles are decimating the bird feeders, and a neighbor who believes herself to be unseen is gathering up handfuls of brush and sneakily tossing them over the fence into the next yard.

The sound effects of spring are turned up full volume. The men of the neighborhood, released into the outdoors by warmer weather, have rediscovered their machines. Nothing makes the suburban male feel happier or more masculine than the roar and stink of a two-cycle engine. Alost any kind of machine will do: a chainsaw, a leaf blower, a drill, a saw, a mower, a pump, or simply an engine. One of our neighbors keeps a small gas engine on top of a box in his yard. It’s not connected to anything, and has no apparent purpose except to make a hellish noise, and send a haze of oily blue smoke drifting over the daffodils.

Contractor’s trucks flit around the suburban streets, like skirmishers ahead of an invading army. Spring brings on the urge to make home improvements, to paint and fix and extend the family home so that it more closely fits the ideal homes illustrated in all those catalogs and magazines. Already we’re seeing the landscaping services, the pool services, the air conditioning services, the exterminator services, and all the other specialists whose mission it is to make suburban life a more or less perfect experience. No heat shall touch us, no weed shall grow, no insect shall bite, no plastic siding shall offend our eyes with streaks of dirt. This is it: Nirvana.

What saves us from going totally crazy in this Disney-ish environment is that not everyone plays the game. If you walk around your local streets you will find little patches of anarchy, suburban plots where no contractor or lawn care person has set foot, lo these many years. There are three quite near our house – not abandoned or derelict, but homes belonging to people who have declared war on suburban conventions.

My favorite is a 1950s ranch that the owner decided to turn into a palace, or perhaps a castle. He added a random mixture of rooms and turrets, slapped on to the original building at odd angles, and lost heart halfway through the building process. The resulting half-finished structure looks like the result of a bombing. The garden is completely bare, apart from some large trees that were felled two years ago, and just left lying there in the dirt.

Not far away is a classic older house in high Victorian style, disheveled, dark and sinister, that could have been designed for the Addams Family. I’ve never actually seen Morticia, Gomez, and Uncle Fester, but I know they’re in there. After dark, when all the surrounding houses are lit up like Christmas trees, dim lights flicker behind the windows of the Addams house like will-o’-the-wisps.

Just down the street there’s a cottage that I call the Little house in the Prairie, surrounded by high grass and weeds that soar half way up to the middle of the first floor windows, defying the cardinal rule of suburban life: cut the grass.

The inhabitants of these eccentric houses aren’t poor. New and expensive cars decorate their overgrown driveways. I don’t think they’re lazy either. They are striking a blow for individualism and against conformity. Their houses are a challenge to Home Depot and all that it represents. They will make it through the spring unchanged, and unimproved. I hope to do the same.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Musical Appreciation

It was a sad day for the human race when the first electric amplifier was attached to a wind-up gramophone in the 1920s. Before that, music was a private pleasure. Immediately afterwards it became a public nuisance. As I was driving through the strip malls of Long Island the other day I saw a sign: “Outdoor Speaker Sale.” Now it seems to me that outdoor speakers should be subject to the same kinds of controls as handguns and dangerous drugs. If people are allowed to buy them, they will inevitably use them, and there goes the peace of the entire neighborhood.

Outdoor music is becoming a major environmental hazard. There’s nothing wrong with it in principle, for example if the New York Philharmonic chooses to hold an outdoor concert, as they do every year, it’s a wonderful experience because the audience wants to be there. But when the teenagers next door crank up their vile music in the middle of a quiet afternoon, that’s not fine. We don’t want to hear it. That’s putting it mildly. We feel homicidal after the first few howling notes.

But the modern concept of “living” necessarily includes background music. Decades of Hollywood movies have done their insidious work. Nobody feels truly alive unless they can hear their music playing. (Confession: music is playing in the background as I write this, because I can’t think without it – a calming piece by Edward Grieg broadcast by WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut).

Whatever the critics may say, there is such a thing as good and bad popular music. I’ve lived through the evolution of pop all the way from Bill Haley and his Comets, and a lot of the recent stuff is awful by any standards. It began with rock but really took off with the Punk bands of the ‘70s. At that point, some diabolical convergence occurred between the natural rebelliousness of youth culture and the urgent desire of recording companies to make a lot of money. The trouble with this kind of cycle is that there’s no end to it. As each generation of parents becomes harder and harder to shock, the record companies and their ephemeral bands have to work harder and harder to make their music nasty enough. The children of the current generation of teenagers will listen to their parents’ music, and say: “All that schmaltzy stuff about death and pornography, that’s for old people.” They will look around for something worse and, believe me, they will find it.

Music must change and evolve, of course. Beethoven shocked the traditionalists of his day, as he intended. But although annoying old folks like me must be very satisfying, it shouldn’t be the only justification for new music. Yet this is what seems to have happened. Commercial pop music is caught in an accelerating downward spiral of musical styles that are developed for no other reason than to capture younger and younger audiences, and allow the kids to shock their parents with packaged explosions of obscenity, violence and rage.

Not all youth-oriented music is nasty, of course, and not all nasty music is pop. The serious twentieth century composers who fancied themselves as “modern” committed some very horrible noises indeed. This made me think that, if I can’t win this battle, then at least I can fight back.

My musical education is being widened, whether I like it or not. The least I can do is return the compliment. I found a pair of old but powerful speakers in the basement that will serve for outdoor use, along with an antique but powerful amplifier. I also found, at an incredible bargain price, a four CD set of the works of the German serialist composer Karl Stockhausen. When I’m out of the house these will blanket the whole neighborhood with intellectually challenging avant garde music for hours. I hope the neighbors get the hint. I hope they notice the difference.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Home of the gods

I’ve been to Washington DC many times over the years, but I never feel comfortable there. The architecture is too monumental, too reminiscent of the Roman Empire at its unsteady peak. Nothing is human scale. Even cultural institutions, like the superb National Gallery of Art, force us to climb a giant marble staircase to the entrance. We are made to feel like peasants approaching a medieval cathedral, where we will be privileged to worship the really important gods.

It doesn’t really surprise me that so many Americans find the Federal government alien and remote. When people work in big, fancy office buildings – especially ones as overpowering as these – they suffer from what I call “Edifice Complex.” The offices look so monumental, so important that the people in them must be important. Those of us who work in modest offices or spare bedrooms or converted garages don’t necessarily share this view. Folks who don’t work in offices at all, but do real things with their hands, may be even more skeptical. Indeed, you only have to drive a few blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue to see slum building covered in subversive and even revolutionary graffiti. The further outside the Beltway you travel, the more disconnected Washington seems. The IRS and the Department of Justice routinely deal with cases of people who would prefer to opt out of the whole federal thing. They fervently believe that Montana or Idaho, or even California, have nothing at all to do with Washington DC. I have it on good authority that these claims do not usually result in the refund of federal taxes; so don’t bother to try it.

From the point of view of location and climate, Washington DC is a terrible place for the capital. It made political sense in the 1790s to put it on the boundary between north and south, but not now. The south is already another country, and the nation is so vast that any government in any single place will be far away from most of its citizens, and therefore an object of suspicion.

This set me thinking about the European monarchies of the late middle ages and the renaissance. Those kings and queens didn’t rule such huge territories but transportation was so slow that their problem was essentially the same as Washington’s. The far-flung territories were hard to govern. Monarchs solved the problem by moving around. Queen Elizabeth I of England or Henry IV of France, for example, would go walkabout with their entire court, and inflict themselves on citizens who lived far away from the official capital. They might stay for months, eating the locals out of house and home, and governing from there. This “Progress” from place to place established the monarch’s authority all over the realm, and reminded his more distant subjects who was in charge.

This is surely an idea whose time has come again – a mobile government that would be at the same time closer to the people, less expensive to run, and more secure from the threat of terrorism. The modern federal bureaucracy, with its almost three million employees, would be frankly impossible to move. So they would have to be slimmed down to a nice, tight, manageable team that could work and be accommodated in small towns all over the country. In Thomas Jefferson’s time the government employed about sixty people. That should still be enough, now that they have computers to do the work.

Just to start things off, I would like to see the federal government come to Long Island. Our local professional building in Stony Brook has several vacant offices. A few weeks crammed in there might give them a different perspective on things. Then they could move on, perhaps to Topeka, Kansas. It would be a liberal education for the Washington elite. Of course they would soon want to stop and settle somewhere out of sheer exhaustion, just as the royal courts did in the seventeenth century. Probably, they would settle in Texas, or in Florida, close to Orlando. But that’s fine. At least they would be out of downtown Washington DC, and all those imposing buildings would be empty, and would fade slowly into the grass and weeds like the ruins of ancient Rome.

Copyright: David Bouchier