Mark Twain House

“Travel is fatal to prejudice” –Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

twain_house.jpgTwo week ago on Labor Day we took advantage of the sunny weather and went on our first literary pilgrimage, this time up to Hartford to see the Mark Twain House. This was the house where Samuel L. Clemens and his family lived during eighteen of the most productive years in his career, and where under the pen name of “Mark Twain” he wrote Huck Finn, Connecticut Yankee, and almost all of his other famous works.

The House
fachwerk.jpgThe house, which both Twain and his family loved and to which Twain felt a spiritual kinship, has been described as Gothic Revival, but also has some stick work features on its otherwise brick exterior that some say was influenced by the “Victorian Stick Style”, but which make me think more of the criss-cross “Fachwerk” wood patterns on traditional German / Bavarian houses. In any case, the recently restored house was beautiful, and had many touches (including glass and interior work by Tiffany himself) that anticipated the “Arts and Crafts” movement that produced many of the most appealing houses that I have ever entered.

The house was a gift from Twain’s father in law, who was a wealthy and successful businessman. The same could not be said for Twain himself: few of his business ventures ever paid off. After a particularly poor investment rendered them unable to afford the upkeep on their beloved house they were forced to move to Europe, where they lived for a number of years, and where Mark Twain embarked on a worldwide tour, in hopes of earning enough money to return to the states and the house.

“My axiom is: to succeed in business, avoid my example”
— Mark Twain

Writing Room
Twain wrote late at night in the top floor of the house, which was a low-ceiling room in which there was a pool table and his desk, and where, our tour guide claimed, he would entertain male visitors with cigars and liquor. To highlight this, both the ceiling and the south-facing windows were decorated with pool cues and cigars. The windows were notable for being very thin translucent sheets of rock, etched by the architect with a coat-of-arms of billiard ball-and-cue, as well as the date of construction. Other than the occasional guests, the writing room was off limits to all but the cleaning staff. (Alas, I was not able to get a photo of the translucent windows, as all interior photography was forbidden — but you can see a grainy video capture of the room here).

Technology
twain_tesla.jpgMark Twain was always fascinated by science and technology (the picture here taken in 1894 in Nicola Tesla’s laboratory), and the house, though constructed in the 1880’s, already had some very advanced gadgets, such as an acoustic intercom (based I believe on the same principle as the tin-can-and-string phone), as well as a bleeding-edge device known as a telephone. The telephone had of course no end of technical problems, and our tour guide produced some interesting sheets of notation that Twain had used each month to complain to the Bell telephone company. One squiggle mark, for example, apparently indicated “the sound of artillery was heard on the line”, while another mark meant that “no combination of switches on the phone would connect us to anybody.”

The Book Store
The museum book store was filled with books by and about Mark Twain. It is perhaps a testimonial to the interest and popularity of Twain that not only were there dozens of books in the store about Mark Twain, there was even one novel-length book whose title and subject was “How to Write About Mark Twain.” I wondered at the time how that author knew how to go about writing that book, and whether he expected to write yet another book on that topic (and so on…).

How To Tell a Story
I was sufficiently intimidated by the sheer volume of writings by and about Twain that I may well be permanently incapable of bringing myself to the level of arrogance of ego to think I could add anything new to the discussion. If you read more and beyond just the Disney versions of Huck, you begin to see the dark shadows on the edge of the primary colors, and the satirical rage at the follies of the foolish animal called man.

“The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. It is a pathetic thing to see[…] To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct.” –Mark Twain, “How to Tell a Story”

uppercase.jpgUppercase and Lowercase
In the museum adjacent to the house was displayed the Pierce automatic typesetting machine which was Twain’s financial downfall. Besides being a riverboat captain on the Mississippi, a prospector in the motherlode country, and an editor, Twain had also been a type-setter. The Pierce machine failed because they were never able to get all the bugs out of it. For comparison there was also on display an old-fashioned typesetting machine, with its trays of letters used to put together a page of a newspaper. As an interesting bit of trivia, the big letters were kept in the upper tray (case), while all the little letters were in the lower case. And hence, so the theory goes, the origin of “uppercase” and “lowercase” letters.

Cats
One surprising feature, ubiquitous in the bookstore, were paintings and pictures of cats. Mark Twain loved cats, which distinguishes him from another of Connecticut’s resident authors, James Thurber. Thurber was a dog man to the core, and had been known to refer to someone in print as “a notorious cat man”. Thurber did not live in Connecticut until long after Twain had died, however, and even then lived nowhere near Hartford, but up in West Cornwall.

But that is another story, and a literary pilgrimage for another day…

“Always obey your parents when they are present.”
— Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth”

How To Be A Morning Person

If there were any place on the planet that would make a “Morning Person” out of me, it would be here. (Note the telltale subjunctives in that last sentence for future reference). There are chirping birds of all stripes and colors, there are brooks babbling, and the backyard is a verdant forest painted in shades of green that even a color blind person such as myself can see. — Which is a good thing, because this is the only time during the working day when I can get any writing done. Later on the Day Job takes over, and given my obsessive compulsive nature, that activity won’t stop until I am exhausted. And so, for two hours in the morning I sit here at my desk, write in my journal, stare out at the starlings or piping plovers (or whatever those little birds are out there at the moment) get inspired, try to write my 1500 words a day, and then move on to earn the rent money for this house. Morning is therefore the perfect and only time in which I can get anything creative done.

In spite of all this, I am not a morning person. There, I’ve said it.

Not that I have anything against Morning People. In fact, I admire them, aspire to be one of them, and hell, I even married one of them. It did not take me long to realize that Gigi, like many Morning People, has a spring-loaded waking system, in which one minute they are sound asleep, and the next moment they have sprung out of bed as if it was a toaster, now humming and flitting about the house like a song bird, and then on occasion passing by the bed to poke at my inanimate form to see if I am still breathing. I too have a spring-loaded sleep mechanism, but it appears that it only manifests itself on the entry portal to sleep, and not the exit. I can fall asleep moments after my head has hit the pillow, and this after drinking coffee or espresso, even late at night.

But I am slow to wake, and I have found that any attempt to accelerate the process to be painful at best. If for Morning People, waking up is like popping out of a toaster, then for me, the best metaphor I have found is that of swimming through an ocean of cold molasses, far out to sea, the distant shore of the Bright Eyed And Bushy Tailed just past any reachable horizon. Even when with great effort I reach dry land, some vestigial molasses still remains in my ears and brain, gumming up the entire works.

Morning People do not appear to have much sympathy for, or even understanding of the nature of the Slow Riser, to the point of considering their behavior a sign of character flaw. This is much in the same way that extraverts try to claim the high ground over the shy intraverts, and the way in which Men and Women fail to see the other’s perspective at all. This morning, when in a state of particular befuddlement — the Cobwebs in the Brain level — I ran a search on How To Become A Morning Person, and found many articles on the subject. Almost every single one of them written by a notorious morning person type, making the presumptuous assumption that of course everybody wants to be one of them, an affliction not limited solely to Americans and The Beautiful People tribes. The articles all had similar suggestions, such as “stop staying up so late”, and “try to get up the same time each day”, and “find something you like to do in the morning to motivate you to get up.” I have problems with almost all of these suggestions, which would have been obvious to anyone who was not already one of The Chosen.

Let’s take the last suggestion as an illustrative example. Only a morning person finds it self-evident that there could be something, anything, pleasant to do in the morning. Very high on my list of things I Like To Do is to eat Hot Fudge Cake with ice cream on the side. However, if it is early in the morning (which by my definition is any time before noon), my taste buds do not work, my brain feels like it is filled with cotton candy, and I find myself looking out through bleary eyes at the muddled blur of an outside world of which I am only half aware. In that physical and mental state, eating Hot Fudge Cake with ice cream on the side is a complete waste of time and energy, and even a little bit depressing, because I know full well that this is perfectly good Hot Fudge Cake and that it would taste great at about, say, ten pm in the evening with a nice cup of espresso, so why the hell am I eating now when it serves no purpose at all? For a non Morning Person such as me, there is only one pleasant thing to be doing at this hour of the morning, and that is to be back in bed, eyes closed, allowing the dreams of the night gradually fade, and hover in that pleasant semi-conscious state for a few more hours, cocooned in blankets, until the dawning awareness of the outside world begins to creep into view, and (two cups of coffee later), a feeling of being almost awake has appeared, which only becomes fully formed by around lunch time.

I think what most Morning People have not grasped is the possibility that the reason there is a genetic basis for the Slow Riser is that the species has found an evolutionary advantage to keeping on hand a certain percentage of the species with this predilection for slow rising. The morning people must have been the ones to go out and catch the fish, kill the sabre tooth tigers and march on Troy. Those are the CEO’s and the Presidents, the ones that often Do Great Things, and often cause the most trouble. The slow risers tend to be a reflective lot, and indeed many if not most scientist and philosphers get their best ideas in the hypnogogic state, the dreamlike state when ideas can most easily float free. These are your Socrates and Einsteins, the Thinkers who sometimes keep the Do-ers from getting in too much trouble. I believe that they have their uses. It is just that (like the intraverts) they usually don’t win the popularity contests.

I also have an almost scientific hypothesis about the Slow Riser / Morning Person dichotomy, and its genetic basis. In my statistically dubious sampling, I have found that the people I know who are Slow Risers, are also people who thrive in warm weather, and even stay bundled up until the thermometer goes above eighty degrees Fahrenheit. The other crowd, who can sometimes be seen wearing shorts during the winter, seem to process and retain body temperature in a different way from the others. These people I have often found are early risers. So the whole thing may boil down to energy, and how we retain or radiate away heat. If this hypothesis is true, it is easily testable with a set of experiments and interviews.

Hell, if I got up early enough I could write a research proposal for an NSF grant and do the study myself. But for the moment, it’s just started to rain and all I really want to do is to just crawl back in bed and listen to the staccato tapping of raindrops on the window.

Journal

journal.jpgOn the day that we arrived on Blueberry Lane, I started a journal. A real, hardbound leather clad journal, in which I make entries for each day, including weather for the day, a few notes on the events of the previous day, wildlife, etc. My working plan is to try to write for two hours each morning. On some days I have better success with this plan than other days, when the mood or weather or my day job introduce other distractions. In any case, three items in the morning ritual that are inviolate are:

  • Drink coffee
  • Refill fountain pen
  • Write in journal

For the most part, these blog entries are excerpts from the Journal, augmented with sound and pictures. In case you are wondering, almost every entry the last two weeks has begun the same way, which is to say: “August NN, 2008. Sunny in the morning, turning to thunderstorms later”.

The entry today begins in precisely that same way.

Fallen Nest

nest.jpgFound a nest in the backyard the other day, after one of the larger rainstorms had come and gone. The rain must have loosened the mud holding the thing together and finally gravity won out. Gravity is strong at this time of year: abandoned nests falling from branches, whole branches crashing down from trees, and the branches that remain lose their leaves.

I was looking out the window to our backyard last Wednesday, watching some leaves fall during a brief moment of sunshine. Each leaf fell with no fluttering or side-to-side motion, but straight down and slow, like in a dream. They reminded me of the snowflakes that fell in the first snowfall I ever saw in Boston, the winter of 1980. It was early evening, and I could see the snow starting to fall from my apartment window, so ran outside to investigate. The streetlights were on, and illuminated the large, fluffy flakes as they glided down on a windless night. There is something about an early winter snowfall that makes everything suddenly quiet, and peaceful. Many of the people who passed me by that evening had doubtless seen too many winters of snow and took no notice, but to me the moment was magical, otherworldly, and of ineffable beauty.

For the snowflake and the leaf, the fall is inevitable. But even then, a fall can at times be graceful.

Happy Holidays 2007

As Gigi’s buddies on the housing bubble blog predicted, the whole subprime mess has gone to Helena Handbasket, and the median price of a home in the US has dropped for the first time on record. Nervous congress-folk are making noises and passing bills that will make it seem like they are doing something to rescue fools from the consequences of their own actions but the bottom line is that a whole lot of people were fooled (by others or themselves) into thinking they could buy a Maserati house on a Yugo income by playing one great big Ponzi scheme in the real estate/refinance/property flipping/equity loan/ universe. Short of divine intervention, a lot of very unhappy foolish people will be out of a home, out of work, out of credit, out of luck. Recession is all but certain, depression a possibility.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

The housing bubble has burst and new and used home sales have tanked. Interest rates remain at historically low levels, and will probably be held at that point by the Fed for some time, even in the event of new stagflation.

The only thing left on our wish list is for the cost of construction material (lumber, concrete, steel, stone, copper) to come down. Lumber has already gone into decline with the collapse of the residential construction, but the other materials have remained under high demand in the commercial construction business.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is China, which has been eating up all the concrete and steel on the planet the last several years. A lot of this is simply a consequence of a former third-world communist country discovering capitalism and the industrial revolution. At their current rate they are somewhere in the nineteenth century, and robber-barons (with Communist membership cards) are buying limousines and there is a lack of regulatory discipline that would make George Bush jealous. But within a year or two, China will likely also pass through their own 1929, and eventually the anti-materialism backlash of the 60’s and the ecology movement of the 70’s will bring some maturity to their accelerated adolescence.

In the immediate future, however, what has been driving a substantial portion of the Chinese construction demand over the last four years has been the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In addition to the main stadium and the huge new airport, a good portion of the city has been torn down and rebuilt from scratch, all of which requires a lot of construction material. If they stay on schedule, most of this construction must be completed this month so that they will have six months or so to get the “bugs” out of the huge construction projects, and to bring the air-pollution levels down to the point that the participants do not keel over from smoke asphyxiation.

Our plans remain to head out to Utah this summer and find a house to rent in Cedar City, 45 minutes from Springdale and just minutes from our architect. For the moment, we are content to wait and see how the construction market goes. In the ideal case, the economy will go south enough that we can afford to build our house for close to the original $125/sq foot estimate we got in 2004, but at any rate, with luck the economy will not be so bad that everybody is out of work and the dollar completely worthless. If it is, then we will both be out of a job along with half the country, and we’ll have a lot bigger problems to worry about than how to build a house. Like, say, how to locate the nearest soup-kitchen.

This is of course a totally selfish and unsympathetic attitude to take, regarding events that will cause much suffering. But it was pure and simple greed that was the cause of this whole housing bubble debacle in the first place, causing distortions in the market that rendered our own relatively sane and financially responsible approach to building a house of our own, economically unworkable. We knew we couldn’t afford to build a $700,000 house, and so, instead of getting a subprime adjustable like all the other idiots, we said NO. We are not shedding tears over the rise in foreclosures. The sound of high-fives echo down the hallway of our rental here in Long Beach. All we want to do is to build a nice modest little house in a place that we love, live our lives to the full in that house, and then die happy just before the polar caps turn our Utah property into beach-front. If this requires walking over the bloodied corpses of fools to do it, then so be it. No mercy, no quarter.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Christopher Alexander

Started reading Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order,
in which the architect/philosopher describes his ideas about what makes
a (building | place | town | anything) alive in a real sense. I have found it
to be very illuminating, and in particular it has helped me understand why I very
much like some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, but not others.

Alexander is the founder of the “pattern” concept in architecture, which has gone on to
be used (or misused) in software development, design processes, and even dating. He
has catalogued dozens of patterns that may be used to solve a particular problem, in
such a way that has been found to enhance the “living” nature of the place. For example,
the pattern “ROOMS LIT ON TWO SIDES”, Alexander observes that you should design
rooms so that at least two sides have light coming in, to accomodate the movement of the
sun and avoid having the room too dark at any one time of the day.

In one of his earlier works, The Timeless Way of Building, Alexander
talks about “The Quality That Has No Name”, that refers to any building or place,
in which you feel more alive.

The Beginning of the Search



There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same

— “Little Boxes” Words and music by Malvina Reynolds.

I had just gotten back from a business trip when Gigi announced that
she had “made a decision”, as she is known to do. She had decided that
we should look into taking a trip out to Utah to see about buying or building
a get-away home.

It made perfect sense to me. We had been spending the last two years exploring the
borderline psychotic world that the inhabitants call “Southern California Real Estate”,
with its $700,000.00 closets and garish MacMansions. We have often wondered just
what the hell all the people that can afford these things actually do.

The simple fact is that we can’t afford to buy our first home here, so following simple
Alice-in-Wonderland logic, we might as well start out by buying our second home first,
and then working our way up to a first home.

–Niles

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