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).

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.

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”

The Day After the Storm

conn_river_afterstorm.jpgThe day after the thunder-laden steambath called Hurricane Hanna passed through, we went out to survey the aftermath. The air was cool and crisp, with an almost cerulean sky. We drove through the hills around town, entertaining one of Gigi’s favorite pasttimes which was to check out the local housing market. We later went down to the river at the Rocky Hill ferry landing, where there was a little park and nature trail that skirted the river. The river was still light brown, muddied from the churn of the storm yesterday, but overall it was still a good postcard view.

tobacco_barn_2.jpgJust down from the ferry were a couple of picturesque red barns. We had seen them before, and they had an unusual set of openings that Gigi realized were for drying tobacco — still a cash crop in these parts, though much less so now since the housing boom caused so many farms of all types to sell their land to developers.

tobacco_barn.jpgThe loss of farmland to subdivisions is one of the big issues in this area, with the usual battle lines drawn, and strong feelings on many sides. The local farmstands sell a DVD documentary of Connecticut agriculture called “Working the Land” (narrated by Connecticut’s own Sam Waterston) whose proceeds go to the preservation of local farms, as intact operations. There are also several farmland festivals held in the area each year that promote the cause.

The Wheelbarrow

I’ve been asked about the wheelbarrow in which we put the weeds in a previous post. It came with the house, is painted red, and appears to be of recent vintage. The weeds are what give it that rustic look. I had forgotten to remark then that the wheelbarrow reminded me of piece written by one of Enrico’s favorite poets, William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

As we speak, our wheelbarrow is now empty of weeds and glazed with rain water from the tropical remains of Hurricane Hanna. No white chickens on the grass, alas. The nearest white chicken is a block and a half down from our house, and if outside is itself most likely glazed with rain.

But I doubt that anywhere near so much depends upon it.

Weeds, and The Squirrels at High Noon

Thurber once wrote about an odd fellow with some annoying habits, who used to haunt the halls of his literary cocktail parties . One of his more annoying habits was to pick up some common-place object, such as a light bulb, and present it to the group with dramatic flourish, announcing that he had just invented this thing called a “light bulb”. He would pronounce those two words slowly, as if no one had ever heard of them before. After having the audience repeat the words “light bulb” in unison several times he would continue on to demonstrate — see? — how you could screw the thing into another device he invented called a “light socket”, and when you throw a switch, the room is filled with light. “Just a little something I’ve been playing around with,” the fellow would claim, “I think it might sell. What do you think?”.

I sometimes wonder if these online notes from my Connecticut Journal are cut from a similar cloth. “Look,” I will say, “I have discovered these things I call trees. And over here is a long-eared thing I call a rabbit.” Readers who hail from a less urban landscape than is seen in Southern California might roll their eyes at each other, amused at the stop-the-presses discoveries of this brave pioneer into the demi-wilds of semi-suburban New England. Whether or not this is the case, the fact remains that it is all new to me.

It is in that spirit that I report to you now about some things called weeds.

weeds.jpg Apparently, if you surround a house in the woods with a flower bed, plant flowers in that flower bed, and then let a summer’s worth of rainstorms come and go, all sorts of other plants begin to appear that you had not planted, which they call weeds. The owners of the house were going to be coming by this weekend to pick up their mail, and so we took it upon ourselves to go out and try to clear out some of the weeds before they arrived. After three hours digging around on a warm and muggy afternoon we were able to make some progress. We were drenched in sweat and filled an entire wheel barrow with weeds We had to stop though when it got to the point that we could no longer tell what was a weed and what was a flower.

Gigi called a gardener who came out and weeded the place yesterday. By the end of the day the house was bordered by what looked like a garden, with identifiable plants each in their own spot, the rest of the ground nearby clean and bare. When he had finished, Paul the Gardener showed me around, describing what he had cleared away, and pointed to some little plants he uncovered which turned out to be strawberry. He said he had to stop because he got to the point where he couldn’t tell what was a weed and what wasn’t. Guess it happens to everybody.

“Don’t know if you want to mulch or not,” he said. “Not much time left before winter comes.” I nodded my head as if I had some clue what mulching was and how one did it, leaving aside for the moment the issue of how one would know whether one wanted to do it or not before the winter came.

It seems like I often find myself in the situation of nodding my head in response to someone speaking about some facet of life about which I am completely ignorant but which they assume as a matter of course that I am intimately familiar. At long last I have come to terms with this by concluding that, early in my grade school years, there was some absolutely essential class, possibly called “How The World Works,” in which the teacher sat all the kids down and explained everything they were going to need to know to get through life in an ordered, systematic way, find a purpose in life, avoid catastrophic relationships, and in the end how to be happy — but that I was out sick that week and missed the class.

I was not aware of the ferocity of the turf wars that went on between squirrels. Gigi had noted that there were a lot of squirrels running around lately, which reminded me that while she was out in Texas I was witness one day to a small event of high drama in our backyard. There were two squirrels chasing each other around with a bit more energy than I was used to associating with squirrels. It seemed to be some sort of land dispute, centered on the picnic table under one of the larger trees. One of the squirrels was sitting in the middle of the bench seat of the table, staring down another squirrel which was clinging to the tree. If the bench squirrel had been a lizard he would have been doing push-ups (the way lizards do), but as it was he was just staring at the other one. I assume that they were both males; it didn’t seem like a mating dance at any rate.

At some point the squirrel on the tree decided to throw down the gauntlet, and ran over to the picnic table to challenge his foe. But before he got up onto the bench the other squirrel had already leapt off of the bench and laid claim to the spot on the tree where the other one had just been. And so this dance went for a while, to the point that it was not clear who was chasing whom. At long last one of squirrels decided (by whatever mental capacity squirrel brains have to make choices) to hold their ground on the picnic table bench, so that when the other one ran over and hopped up onto the bench, the two squirrels were now face to face, waiting to see who would blink first. If you wanted to add some additional drama to the event, I seem to recall that this was around lunchtime, and so it could very well have been High Noon. Neither squirrel looked much like Ian Macdonald, but one of them had a bit of Gary Cooper’s squint (or was that Clint Eastwood?). They stared at each other for a long time.

In any case, it was a bit of an anti-climax, but I had to go back to work and never found out how the crisis was resolved. It has been a couple of weeks now and I have not seen a similar battle flare up since then. All I can assume is that the squirrels realized that they were not going to be able to settle this amicably, and so they sought out a third party for binding arbitration.

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.

Country Mouse

Noticed a mouse puttering about the kitchen the other evening. It was a little guy, definitely not a rat. At least it didn’t look ratty. If you can believe wikipedia, the word mouse comes from an old Sanskrit word meaning to steal, and that the word muscle derives from mouse in that muscle cells look a bit like mice. This mouse seemed to be unaware of any of these facts. It just puttered around the kitchen for a bit, did not steal anything and then was gone. There is a cat-door that leads down to the basement, but no cat — the only thing that I have had to feed in the house is a Jade plant (a gallon of water once a month). I assume that the cat, like its owners, is on sabbatical, leading one to recall the old couplet that goes:

when the cat’s away, on sabbatical,
the mouse will play, indefatigable.


bears_prev.pngI am relatively happy to report that while the ten o’clock rabbit still makes its occasional appearance, there is no eleven o’clock bear. This report is for the benefit of those who may have read the news in the local papers about bear sightings in and around Connecticut. I too have read the reports and so decided to conduct a little investigation of my own.

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection maintains a webpage on Black Bear Sightings in the state, including a table of statistics, broken down by town. As a newcomer to the state I had of course no idea where Wafflebury or East Noodleham was, and so was hoping that they also had a map. No dice. The table was also unhelpful in being sorted by name rather than number of bears spotted, so I fired up my spreadsheet program, google maps, and an image editor and produced the much more visually informative map seen here. I sorted out the table by decreasing numbers of bears, and then plotted them out on the map, with bigger circles for the larger number of bear sightings.

There are a number of take-aways from this map. The first is, that life in and around Simsbury must be very exciting (235 bear sightings last year). The second thing to notice is, none of the sightings substantial enough to plot on the map occur east of the Connecticut River. Now bears can of course swim, but they seem to have a preference for rivers shallow enough for them to be able to stand around and swat out salmon with their paws, and are otherwise land dwelling creatures. This means that all those bears who are currently raiding the bird feeders in Simsbury have only two or three options if they decide that they’d like to check out the honey farms here in South Glastonbury.

  1. One option is to get on Interstate 91 south through Hartford then cut across to the 84 East that crosses the river at the Bulkeley Bridge
  2. The other option is amble their way down to Rocky Hill and take the little ferry boat.

Now black bears, though blessed with excellent navigation skills, are notoriously bad drivers, and very few have the three dollar fare to pay for the ferry ride at Rocky Hill. So, what I get from all this is that until the economy improves, we are relatively safe here in South Glastonbury from the North American Black bear.

If the rabbit decides to go carnivore on us, however, we are in deep trouble.

Raptors Revisited

Heard from Gigi (out doing research in Texas) that my entry on Erik the Falconer got Rob and Jackson’s attention. They had read the “My Side of the Mountain” books about the boy who went off to live in the woods on his own, and who had a peregrine falcon named Frightful. I never read the book(s), but I did see the movie when I was eleven and it left a lasting impression on me. In the movie version at least, the boy was a big fan of Thoreau’s, had a racoon named Gus, and brought a microscope in his backpack so he could do experiments while living for a year in a forest, in the hollow of an old tree. Gigi tells me that the author of those books had worried about publishing them, in fear that boys would get the idea in their head to run away and try to live in the woods like the boy in the book. The thought certainly occurred to me, back then.

I never had a falcon, but back when we were living in the Warm Springs district of Fremont our family had a hawk. It wasn’t so much that we adopted a hawk, but that the hawk adopted us. We had just moved out to California and were renting a house near the General Motors plant where my step dad Jim had gotten a job. In those days the whole area around the GM plant was agricultural, and the house itself was a bit isolated, surrounded by fields of tall grass. The hawk, which we later named Henry, landed on our backyard fence one day, and seemed to trust us well enough to let us get near and feed it a piece of raw meat. At some point Henry moved on, but you never really forget your first raptor. They mean business.


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.


On August 7, a hailstorm hit our neighborhood.

sound_icon1.pngHere is a recording I made of the hailstorm. It needs a bit of narrative. The hissing sound you hear at the beginning is neither static nor rain, but the sound of wind, powering its way through the trees around our house. There are a few rounds of thunder, followed soon by the unmistakable pinging of the first hailstones on the ground. This was recorded from the cover of our front porch, and so you will hear the sound of hailstones hitting the concrete sidewalk, as well as the windows and metal rain gutter on the side of the house. A few more thunderclaps and the storm eventually fades out, leaving only the wind.

A few weeks into our stay, it has become clear that when the weather report indicates a “chance of thunderstorm,” the actual probability of a thunderstorm in this area hovers around 100%, and the storm usually includes a few close strikes — at any rate, they sound close. I would have thought that, out here, there would be little chance of an earthquake. This is true, but it ignores the possibility of the ground shaking from a nearby lightning strike and the bowling ball thunder that follows.

I mentioned the hailstorm while at the local wine shop and was told that (unlike the thunderstorms) hail is not very common around here. Worried about the local farms. After all the trouble they went through, hiring falconers to chase off the starlings from their blueberries, the blueberries are all out in the open, where one bad hailstorm could destroy in ten minutes what ten weeks of hungry birds could not.

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.

A Murmering of Starlings

starlings.pngI met a fellow yesterday during my morning walk through the Rose family farmlands, who works for the farm as a falconer. He said his name was Erik and was on a “starling control” mission at the moment. Erik had a whistle around his neck, that he used to signal trained falcons to chase after the starlings that peck at the blueberries. The starlings were now so conditioned to associating the whistle with a dive-bombing falcon that the whistle alone was enough to scatter them (for a while at least).

The starlings swarmed around in a wave so thick that it looked like a cloud of locusts. My friend Rob tells me that the collective noun for such a cloud of those birds is called a “murmering” of starlings.

Synchronity: just this morning I read in our local paper (The Courant) an article on Erik and his falcons. The story has some nice photos of the whole area around the back of our house.

Link To the Story in The Hartford Courant
Photo gallery

Oak Tree Branch

branch.jpg The branch of an oak tree was lying in our driveway on a recent morning. It was about fifteen feet long, and took some effort to lug out of the way. In Los Angeles the main reason for keeping your car in the garage is to avoid dust and thieves. Here, you also need to worry about having the roof of the car caved in and the windshield broken.

…at this point you are most likely thinking: how the hell did this urban denizen identify the tree as an oak ? It was really just a simple process of elimination: every Southern Californian knows that there are only five kinds of trees on the planet, which are

  • Palm (ubiquitous in LA)
  • Maple (identified by the leaves, which are said to look like the Canadian flag)
  • Pine (which smell like air fresheners sold at car washes)
  • Christmas (identified by their ability to support ornaments), and
  • Oak (aka, none of the above)

I have heard rumors that there are other trees, and now have evidence to support it. Have made plans to identify the trees around the property, as some of them do not appear to be on the list. Expect to see updates on this front as they arise.

Hello Connecticut


Life is beginning to settle down here in South Glastonbury. I spend much of my day in this one corner of the living room, where I have set up my office. There are two windows facing out towards the back yard, which is decorated in various shades of green and brown. Thunderstorms have punctuated just about every day this week, and we have learned to recognize the locals in the parking lots of stores, because they are the ones who make no effort (any more) to use an umbrella in between the car and store during a sudden outburst. The wisdom of this is becoming apparent, as the storms are so short that by the time you leave the store, the rain has past, and all that the umbrella does is to drip all over the store’s floor making things hazardous for everybody else.

ant.jpgLiving things are everywhere. The only purpose of wire-mesh screens, it appears, is to filter out only the very largest of the insects of every stripe and leg-count which amble their way through our house. The ants, in particular, can be very large (right). Their saving grace is that they all appear to be “scouts” who travel alone. Quite honestly, these ants do not seem to be trying very hard. We found completely open boxes of sugar in the cupboard when we arrived here — which in Los Angeles would have been swarmed by a line of ants within hours — but not a single ant was near. It could be that there are simply so many things to eat outside (e.g. an entire farm’s worth of blueberries) that these ants are all spoiled, and have lost the teamwork spirit that drives their southwest cousins to march in lock step. Mostly poet-ants, then, who have all gone off to the woods to find themselves. They could also be rebellious protest-ants, but they don’t look very religious…

ten_oclock_rabbit.jpg The ten-o-clock rabbit was a bit late this morning, passing under the picnic table around 10:15am by my watch (EDT). He does the rounds, chews on a few flowers, and then moves on. There are strawberries and blueberries right next door, so my guess is that it just comes through here for the roughage.

kitten.jpgIn the afternoon we went shopping for food, making a point to stop at the local farmstands which dot the countryside. Got some corn, tomatoes (as sweet as plums), and some squash, under the watchful eye of the proprietor’s black kitten, to whom everything seemed surprising.


Our home life is now about boxes and packing, and getting rid of junk. If it won’t fit into our car on our roadtrip to Connecticut, it is going into long-term storage. If it is not worth storing, we are either giving it away or tossing it out.

It is just now sinking in to our friends in Southern California that we are really going to be moving out. For good, most likely. Time is short; in less than a month we will be on the road and heading into the unknown. Economic news is grim. Global warming with its storms and droughts loom metaphorically on the horizon, if not literally on the road ahead. It is a good time to be travelling light, agile and quick on our feet. The fewer posessions to bog you down, these days, the better.

“To lead an empty life, fill it up with things” — H. D. Thoreau.

Next Stop Connecticut

Looks like we are heading out to Utah… by way of Connecticut. It is looking more and more like we will want to wait one more year before submitting new bids. So, my thinking is, given that Gigi can write her thesis anywhere and I can telecommute, why not take advantage of this time between California and Utah and go somewhere else in the world? We looked around at a lot of places, but given that we wanted a place

  • Near a university
  • close to water
  • quiet
  • affordable
  • historically interesting
  • rural-ish
  • near an area related to Niles’ novel

the Connecticut area seemed about right. We looked at a couple different places in the sabbatical homes website, and finally decided on renting a place in Glastonbury, near a blueberry farm. We expect to be there for nine months, after which we plan on heading back west to Utah.

And someday… Springdale.

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!

House Appliances

To solidify some of the plans, we need to specify the appliances. After some field work and a trip to the Great Indoors, here’s what we’ve come up with (click on each named appliance for a link to that product’s description and specs):


  1. Sink: Blanko 1 1/2 Bowl undermount (black)
  2. Cooksink: Kohler Pro Cooksink Model K 3396
  3. Dishwasher: Kitchenaid Architect II custom-panel (U Series)
  4. Cooktop: Kitchenaid Arch. II series 36 inch (black)
  5. Oven: Kitchenaid Architect Series 30inch True Convection (black)
  6. Hood: GE Monogram Euro style 36 inch hood

We have not settled on the refrigerator. We want to move it from the side wall to the “wall of books”, directly behind the counter. The goal here is to minimize the “work triangle” between the sink, the range/stove and the refrigerator. To avoid going too deep through the wall we have been looking at the “cabinet” depth refrigerators.


  1. Shower control / valve: Hansgrohe Solaris ThermoBalance (Item 06635000)
  2. Shower bar (for handheld): Hansgrohe “Unica’A set” (Item: HG 27825000)
  3. Hand-shower: Hansgrohe Clubmaster
    or else Hansgrohe Aktiva A8

Haven’t decided whether to go with chrome or brass finish. Everything comes in chrome, of course, but with the craftsman motif we will have some copper touches and the brass would go with that a bit better.

Great Room

  1. Fireplace: Heat-n-glo Gas 3-sided Fireplace

We’re hoping to get the plans into shape for submitting for bids in September or October. We’ll see how it goes…

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