I’d fallen asleep Saturday afternoon reading John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the undisputed heavyweight of allegories. Bunyan is, to my knowledge, the only author in the canon who’s taken a position against napping; it’s right there in Book I: “O wretched man that I am,” says Christian, “that I should sleep in the day-time.”
I don’t want you to think I spend the whole weekend snoozing on the couch. It was only my second nap of the day, and Sunday lay ahead, a blank slate on which to write new daytime dreams.
John Bunyan: “You writin’ ’bout me, suckah?”
Allegories are great because you don’t have to spend a lot of time on character analysis. You go straight to their names–Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Obstinate, Ignorant–and you know exactly who they are and what their motivation is.
“We have to be at a cocktail party in an hour,” my wife said as she stuck her head in the den, waking me up.
“Whose house?” I asked as I rubbed my eyes.
“The Volunteers,” she said.
“Who?” I asked, genuinely befuddled.
“You know–she brings oranges and water to soccer even when it isn’t her turn, and he shows up to coach teams that don’t want his help because he doesn’t know the rules of lacrosse or field hockey or whatever.”
“Right, now I remember,” I said, still a bit confused. And then it hit me; through overmuch study of Bunyan I’d absorbed his allegorical naming function, which had apparently overridden my long-term acquaintance memory lobe.
“Sweetie, I’d like you to meet the Golf Bores.”
I shaved and we got in the car, where my wife proceeded to give me some inside dope to help me navigate the social shoals and eddies that lay ahead. “The Private Schools will be there,” she said, “but don’t ask how their daughter’s doing.”
2 horses for ev-e-ry girl!
I recalled the couple–our #1 in the state K-12 school system wasn’t good enough for their little girl, nosirree. No equestrian program, no deal!
“Why, something the matter?” I asked.
“She’s had her heart set on Bryn Mawr, but had to settle for Penn.”
“Bummer! Recalls the old Diane White gag–what’s failure for a WASP?”
Diane White, Boston Globe humor columnist of the ’80’s
“I don’t know, what?”
“Getting into Penn.”
We pulled up to the curb and saw the Venture Capitals getting out of their car just in front of us. They like to pretend they don’t know us, but they couldn’t ignore us.
“Hey there, strangers!” my wife called out cheerfully. She can wear the mask better than I.
“Well, hello!” Mrs. VC says. “Haven’t seen you two in a long time!” Probably because you dropped us like a purple swirl bowling ball once you figured out you were worth five times what we are, I thought–but didn’t say.
We chit-chat as we walk up to the door where we’re greeted by our harried hostess, who brushes a bang back from her brow to show how hard she’s been working on making everybody feel . . . at home.
As with most suburban parties, contrary to the wishes of the hostess everyone has gravitated to the kitchen, the one room of the house she’d like to get out of for a change. It’s her fault, however–she put the liquor in there.
We start to enter but standing next to the refrigerator, blocking the door, I see Mr. Golf Bore. “Oh, God,” I say.
“What?” my wife asks, thinking from my anguished tone that I’ve got some kind of gastrointestinal problem.
“I want a beer, but I don’t want to get caught in the web of Mr. Golf Bore over there,” I say.
“. . . and how’d you do on the back nine?”
“Is he that bad?”
“He taped the Buick Open one year so he could watch it . . . again.”
“Dear God in Heaven!”
“He said he thought he’d missed the rhythm of the final day of play.”
“Well, I certainly don’t want to talk golf,” my wife said. “What are we going to do?”
We looked at each other and shrugged, then resorted to our regular dispute/controversy resolution mechanism: single-elimination rock-paper-scissors.
We were just about to “throw down,” as R-P-S pros like to say, when our hostess–as always–volunteered to assist us.
“Can I get you two something to drink?” she asked, her forehead plowed in little horizontal furrows of concerned hospitality.
“That would be terrific,” my wife said, and we gave her our drink orders: a glass of oaky chardonnay for the lady, and a beer for me.
“Any one in particular?”
“Whatever you’ve got. A blueberry wheat Alsatian cockapoo I.P.A. would be fine.”
“Hints of asparagus, with overtones of cumin and cigar box.”
“Coming right up!” Mrs. V said. It’s no wonder she retired the Horace Mann Middle School Volunteer-of-the-Year Award after winning it three years running in the late 1990s. She was to after-school activities of that decade what the New York Islanders were to pro hockey in the 80s.
She returns with our drinks and leaves us to our own devices–an iPhone in my wife’s case, a BlackBerry in mine. We check on the kids through our local alarm service–nope, haven’t burned down the house yet–and are just about ready to start enjoying ourselves when I see one of the most baleful characters of the allegory of my life–Mr. Can’t Hold a Job–approaching.
“Those guys–they didn’t understand their own business!”
He’s “in-between jobs,” according to his wife, who then importunes me sotto voce to ask if I know anybody who’s hiring in his field. “He’s outstanding in his field,” she adds.
I’m tempted to give her a snappy comeback that I recall from my youth–“And that’s where we all wish he was, out standing in his field”–but I bite my tongue.
“Things are slow everywhere,” I say, hoping that’ll make her feel better about the lousy life choice she’s made. “It’s been a really weak recovery.”
My offhand remark is unfortunately picked up by the two people I try hardest to avoid at these little shindigs, Mr. All Republicans Are Pigs and Mr. All Liberals Are Idiots. “Worst ever!” says Mr. ALAI.
“If Republicans would only approve the President’s job bill . . .” Mr. ARAP begins, but ALAI cuts him off.
“If you had half a brain, you’d understand why I’m right.”
“And hire more mailmen and billboard inspectors and toll takers,” ALAI sneers. “Yeah, that’ll get this country moving again.
I give my wife the eye and we put our drinks down, making sure we plant them on coasters so as not to leave a ring on the table top, and we discreetly make our way to the door.
“Sorry, we’re going to have to run!” my wife says to our hostess, making a little frown of disappointment.
“Nothing the matter at home, I hope,” Mrs. Volunteer says, right-back-at-ya with a grimace of genuine concern.
“One of the cats has a hairball,” I say. “And the other forgot how to give him a Heimlich.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”
At the end of each summer they would cross
Uncle Tim’s Bridge in Wellfleet and clip some
beach heather—sea lavender, some people
call it. Soft, pink-purple flowers, that
she would dry upside down and then put
in a pitcher or a vase, to give some color
to the apartment over a grey Boston
winter, as a remembrance of summer.
One winter it wasn’t enough, and he moved out.
There were periodic attempts to reconcile
but he had settled down, and she still
wanted to be wild in her ways, to prolong
their bohemian days. Never one to save,
she’d spend her paycheck on a harpsichord
concert, or violin lessons for herself, still
a beginner at twenty-five.
He laughed at that behind her back,
but she laughed too, at the dinners
they had to go to now, where the laughs
were poured out in miserly fashion like
the more-expensive wine they drank now;
Instead of manic tears flowing down their
cheeks, each little titter was weighed and
savored; good God, she said one night,
I hope we don’t grow old like that!
But he saw nothing wrong with the men
who’d given him a job that paid the rent
at the lovely little terrace apartment
she said was what she’d dreamed of
for so many years in the woods of
Connecticut. He reminded her of
that one night; love isn’t logical, though,
and that was the end of that. She moved
to a garrett on the back side of Beacon Hill
where the sun seemed never to shine, while
he moved to the sunny side of the street in
the Back Bay. Eventually he met and wooed
and won a woman more like the man he’d become
and they went to Wellfleet, where he wanted to
show her where the beach heather grew.
They crossed the bridge, and he was bending over
to clip a sprig at the end of the summer, just as
he had before, when a voice called out to him:
“This is the National Seashore—you’re not
supposed to cut any plants,” a woman said.
He stood up and turned around, and yelled out
“But I’ve been doing this for years.”
“Well, you never should have, so stop now.”
Not one to break the law now, he put the clippers
back in his pocket. They crossed the bridge,
got in their car and drove home. On the way
they bought some beach heather—
and much more–at a cute gift shop that
his wife had spied. Things, he thought,
that were free before, were now bought
at a high price, and came wrapped in bags.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology replaced negative memories of electric shocks in mice with the pleasurable one of mingling with mice of the opposite sex.
The Boston Globe
After working as an experimental subject for six months–half my lifespan–I was ready to relax a bit. No more running round in mazes, responding to stimuli all day for me; these were supposed to be my golden months fer Christ sake, a time to reflect on what I’d accomplished on behalf of the institution of higher leaning I’d served so well.
But my plan to glide to a soft landing in the eternal quiet of the grave was hit by crosswinds, a downdraft and a stupid seagull in my right engine, so to speak. I’d been shocked so many times that the slightest sound–a fellow test subject chomping on Charles River Rat Pellets, the Grey Poupon of mouse lab cuisine, for example–would send me up the wall and out of my cage. That sort of behavior–as you might imagine–is frowned upon by underpaid adjunct lab assistants.
“I don’t care if you got an audition with the Boston Pops–pipe down!”
So out of the kindness of the humans’ hearts–I’ll continue when you stop laughing–they came up with cutting edge genetic tools to try to alter the emotional context of painful memories. The hope is that someday they’ll be able to use them to erase the painful recollections that torture humans like Jerry, my personal human lab rat. I see them come over his face whenever somebody brings a Diet Coke into the lunch room here at the Otto and Ruth B. Tucker Memorial Science Building; he recalls his senior high school prom, the pinnacle of his adolescent dating experience, when he spilled a cup of the brown beverage all over the white gown worn by his date, the zaftig Clydia Jean Wingo.
I want to help the poor sap, so I volunteered, hoping both he and I might find surcease of our respective sources of pain.
And so here I am sniffing xenon gas, hoping that I won’t be so jumpy when I hear loud noises from now on. This better be the decaf version.
Hmm–colorless and odorless, sort of like vodka. Swirl it around the old nostrils, then with one big gulp like a swimmer getting a mouthful of air on the breath stroke, I swallow it down.
Not bad–not bad at all. Now, to see if this stuff works.
They start flashing images designed to recall the pain of electric shock; an electric chair, a toaster oven, an annoying solo by a “shred” guitar player. Okay, I can handle this. Is that all ya got? C’mon, show me a live 220 volt wire or something.
They keep ‘em coming, but all I can think of is–mingling with mice of the opposite sex. How . . . pleasant.
So this is what my new life will be like; all the pain and suffering I’ve been through before to earn my daily bread–gone! And in its place images of Veronica, the cute little Peromyscus leucopus over in the hamster wheel division. Gosh, she’d be so nice to come home to, as the old Cole Porter song put it.
What? What’s that? Her image seems to be speaking to me, as in a dream: Please put the lettuce away in the fridge, you don’t like it room temperature? Don’t take a nap with my head on the throw pillows? Could I at least send my mother-in-law a birthday card for once? Would it kill me not to roll my eyes when Grey’s Anatomy is on?
Call the FDA–the cure is worse than the disease.
It has been more nearly four decades since I returned to work from a noon union meeting to find myself, along with about twenty others, locked out of the printing plant where we worked. Thus began a labor dispute that began in confusion, descended into torpor and ended in disarray.
The difference between labor and management at the time the dispute started was miniscule; less than twenty-five cents an hour. When a union rejects an employer’s last and final offer the employer is entitled to prevent employees from returning to work–hence the term “lock out,” which is now familiar to millions of Americans because Americans making millions–pro football and basketball players–have both been locked out in the past few years.
When we learned we’d been locked out, we organized a picket line, as was our right. For five weekday shifts of three hours a day each union member would receive $100. Not a big weekly wage, even in the mid-70′s, but if you found a part-time job or one with night hours, you could do all right.
Our picket line was set up not on a city street but on Route 20 in central Massachusetts; to steal a formula from radio comedian Fred Allen, a nice place to visit–if you’re a truck. There are no sidewalks along that highway, which was originally the Boston Post Road, the first mail route between Boston and New York, and which subsequently developed into a major trucking route. With no foot traffic, our picket line was visible only to cars and trucks speeding by, and we must have struck passers-by as pathetic, or even ridiculous. The scenery rarely changed except for the weather and the flora; in the winter the field beside us was covered in snow, and in the summer a few blue cornflowers bloomed. I recall once or twice people stopping their cars–at significant personal risk–to give us donuts. More frequent were uplifted middle fingers–the state bird of Massachusetts.
In the United States picketing is legal as long as workers do not intimidate others or obstruct a public way; hence, the need to keep moving, so as not to block other’s passage. As is the case with most employers, the owner of the printing company hired an off-duty policeman to make sure we complied with that requirement, but given that the only object likely to cross our picket line was a truck, we eventually worked out a compromise. As long as we didn’t throw nails in the driveway, the cop wouldn’t force us to keep moving.
In another, less isolated location, our picket line might have attracted students, politicians or even an entertainer or two; the young and idealistic, and those who live by publicity and like to make a show of solidarity with the working man. A forlorn stretch of highway an hour’s drive from Boston is, as you can imagine, an inconvenient forum for grandstanding by elected officials and actors.
If you are planning on picking a fight with an employer, my recommendation is that you consider not merely location, but also the season. Picket lines are manned (and womanned) by human beings, whose enthusiasm for concerted action may be expected to cool along with the temperature. We chose the month of November to take a stand, which meant that we were soon walking in a New England winter.
You learn a lot about a person when you’re assigned to walk with them in the cold and they skip out on you; to paraphrase an old country song, when nobody shows up, I’ll know it’s you. For the most part, such absences passed without comment. Our shop steward, who received and handed out the strike pay, might give someone a look of disapproval as she handed over his weekly check, but she had kids, and couldn’t spend her off hours taking attendance, and we weren’t going to turn each other in; it would have made what was a boring task into an unpleasant one.
As one considers the various players in the drama that a picket line affords, the difference in economic status begins to grate. The plant owner, who ultimately decided to sell his business, made out all right. The union bosses drove nicer cars and had nicer clothes than we did. The lawyers for the two sides, we were told, were paid hundreds of dollars an hour–a sum beyond our wildest dreams of avarice–and yet nothing of consequence ever seemed to happen as a result of their efforts.
Ultimately, running a union is a business, and the men who controlled our union weren’t going to pay us to picket forever. Just as we had been locked out of the plant, we were eventually told that we would receive no more strike pay. We could continue to walk the picket line, but there’d be no money in it.
At about that time the National Labor Relations Board handed down its decision; the owner was within his rights to lock us out, and our claims of unfair labor practices were denied. We could go back to work at the hourly wages that had been in effect when the dispute started, but none of us would receive back pay–except for one man, Hector, who had not yet become a member of the union when the dispute started, nine months before. The boss’s actions were deemed unfair in his case.
I got nine months’ worth of strike pay for my time on the picket line, plus the material for a play that has been performed twice in New York but never in Boston or Worcester, a prophet being without honor in his own country, I supposed. It’s ironic that each time the cast was composed entirely of non-union actors. I paid them only what I could, not union scale, and still lost money.
I also gained a few lessons which have proved useful over the years. First, taking a stand on principle can be costly, and you can’t eat principle. A good thing to know when you feel the urge to sacrifice yourself for a noble cause, or the theory of an armchair radical. (That knowledge notwithstanding, I’ve taken the plunge a few times since in support of the cause of inner-city education.)
And second, if you pick cornflowers for your girlfriend, by the time you get to her apartment they will have lost their blue color and turned a mottled, grayish white.
The bloom fades from some bright ideas more quickly than others.
OXFORD, Miss. This college town of approximately 19,000 was once home to William Faulkner, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, but before he became famous, Faulkner was postmaster at the University of Mississippi Substation Post Office here, a fact that endears him to postal employees around the world.
“He could have been one of the great ones,” says Dewey Norman, a letter carrier for the past three decades. “Instead, he took the easy way out and became a Nobel Prize-winning author.”
The link between Faulkner’s experimental, stream-of-consciousness style and first class mail is celebrated every year in September as postmasters from around the country converge on Oxford to celebrate the Nobel Prize winner’s life and mail-sorting techniques. “Faulkner was known for ignoring customers and playing cards in the back room,” says Mitchell Helms, Assistant Postmaster of Tarkio, Missouri. “That’s a style that will endure when the go-go methods of Federal Express and UPS fade into oblivion.”
Faulkner eventually quit his job as postmaster, saying that he was tired of being “at the beck and call of every son of a bitch with a two-cent stamp.” “My sentiments exactly,” says Oren Daily, Jr., a postman in Muskogee, Oklahoma, “even though the price of stamps goes up every year.”
Faulkner even used the imagery of first-class mail to describe the setting of his writings. “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it,” Faulkner said of Lafayette County, Mississippi, the basis for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. “I also found that if you lick the two of them, neither one tastes good.”
The anniversary of Faulkner’s birthday is September 25th, but postmen are sending out invitations well in advance of that date in order to insure a good crowd. “We waited until the week before one year,” says Faulkner’s postal descendant Gregory Hollins, “and the letters didn’t get there until Halloween.”
Refinishing furniture can be a fun–and profitable!–hobby for those who have a creative side and enjoy inhaling toxic fumes. Mr. Furniture answers your questions and helps you turn “gunk” to “glow” and “crap” to “crapola.”
Dear Mr. Furniture–
I have a bone to pick with you. I have been after my husband for years to refinish the chifferobe in our bedroom. I inherited it from my mother, just barely gettting it out of her house before my sister-in-law had a chance to grab it.
Well, “Floyd” (not his real name in case his sister is reading this) finally agreed to start on it Labor Day weekend but he is not very “handy” so he asked me what he should do. I read Chapter 3 of your book “From Junk to Jewels!” where it says it takes about a quart of alcohol to remove the finish from an average-sized chifferobe. I told “Floyd” and went to the regional meeting of the Daughters of Ruth at our church, figuring I was entitled to some time off after hectoring that man for the better part of a week.
Well, when I come back he was asleep on the couch, passed out with a fifth of Old Crow in his hand. I shook him until he woke up and I said “This is how you repay me for having sex with you once a week, regular as clockwork, for 29 years?” It was a rhetorical question, I wasn’t expecting any real answer.
He blinks and says “Sorry, honey. Burton’s Liquors didn’t have the quart bottle, so I had to make do with a fifth.” This is all because of you Mr. Furniture, and I am going to complain to your newspaper syndicate.
(Mrs.) Opal Lee Vacca
Dear Ms. Vacca–
I must plead “innocent” to the charges. I said use “wood alcohol,” not bourbon whiskey. Had you followed my directions closely, your husband would be dead and this argument could have been avoided.
Dear Mr. Furniture:
I bought an old commode–I suppose there is no other kind with indoor plumbing being nearly universal now–which I would like to refinish and turn into a decorative conversation piece for my front parlor.
I considered a sewing table, then a buffet, then a coffee table, but it really is not suitable for any of these uses. I have decided to make it into a baby grand piano and was wondering what color stain you think would go best.
Eve-Elise Brisker-Norton, Shrewsbury, Mass.
What a great idea–you certainly have an imagination!
I would use a darker stain, such as mahogany, English chestnut or Minwax #2718, “Espresso.” Be sure to add plenty of white and black keys and your little project will be a “hit” the next time you have your artistic friends over.
Dear Mr. Furniture–
My husband Evan and I are practicing vegans, and strictly abstain from the use of animal products, even those that may have dinosaurs in them, such as motor oil. I read the column in which you said “shellac–the traditional finish of the old cabinet-makers–is still the most widely used by the home refinisher.” You said nothing about any animal products being used in its manufacture, did you?
Well, when we had our fellow vegan friends Tim and Lisa over for dinner of lentil soup, lentil bread, lentil loaf and and macrame pudding, I told them I had used shellac on an end table I found on the curb where a student had discarded it, and they were horrified. “Don’t you know shellac starts out as a resinous substance deposited by the female lac bug on the trunks of trees in India?” Tim said. He has been on Jeopardy! and won over a thousand dollars, and so is very smart.
Female lac bug, making a resinous deposit.
Well, of course word got out–Lisa is like that–and now we are no longer invited to the “nicer” vegan affairs and our children are shunned by other vegan children on the playground.
I have a hard time being sarcastic because I am a nice person, but any suggestions, Mr. Furniture?
Miriam Konitz, Evanston, Ill.
Don’t get your animal-friendly underpants in an uproar! No lac bugs are killed in the making of shellac, and they survive the process quite well unless you paint the stuff over them–which I’m sure you wouldn’t do. In order to get back in the good graces of your vegan friends, why don’t you go through Tim and Lisa’s garbage and see if you can find a Burger King Whopper wrapper!
“Haven’t you got something a little more damaged?”
Dear Mr. Furniture–
This question may be more legal than refinishing, but here goes. I import new furniture from my native Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, and sell it at a mark-up as antique. There has been an anonymous posting on my store’s website making the absurd claim that this is unfair and deceptive–I suspect a disgruntled law student who tried to return a coffee table kit because he couldn’t figure out how to put it together. “Mycket svar!” I told him, because it was more than 30 days after purchase and he did not have the sales receipt.
I am now afraid that he may take legal action. Is there something I can do to bring myself in compliance with your annoying U.S. “consumer protection” laws?
Sven Bjorklund, Croton-on-Hudson, New York
Welcome to our country, where commercial chicanery is now somehow suspect after two hundred years of robust economic growth under the motto “Caveat emptor.”
In order to satisfy the Fair Trade in Antique Furniture Act of 1994, you should follow this “safe harbor” procedure: Take all new furniture as soon as it is uncrated, and fire a shotgun at it. Attach by a log chain to the back of a vehicle and drag around an asphalt parking lot for fifteen (15) minutes. Drop down a basement stairway, then place in an open pickup truck bed and drive through a carwash.
Your “new” furniture will look as “good as old” when you get through, so don’t forget to mark it up another ten percent!