The man with the needle

My first memory is from 1960 on the linoleum floor of a kitchen in a house on the corner of Huron and Lexington Avenues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am two years old and crawling. My mother is cooking. At the kitchen table, sitting in front of a manual typewriter, is my father, a student at Harvard Business School. I discover a crumb of something interesting on the floor and put it into my mouth. It’s an old dried-out piece of fried onion and the flavor is intense.

Second early memory: I am sick and still in Cambridge. There is a vaporizer pumping out  Vicks Vaporub steam over my crib. A smiling stranger enters the bedroom with my mother and he picks me up. He opens a black leather bag, prepares an injection, and gives me a shot in the butt. The pain is the worst thing I’ve experienced. The smiling stranger then becomes the dreaded Needle Man and his subsequent house calls are nightmares.

Four years later in the living room of an old colonial house on Central Street in Georgetown, Massachusetts,  I am alone and exploring the forbidden drawer of my father’s desk. I’m afraid to touch his drafting tools, his slide rule, his mementos, but I touch them anyway. Knowing the consequences of desk invasion, I turn to the bookshelves and look for something to read.

I started reading when I was three years old.   I said the word  “stop” when my father stopped the Ford Falcon station wagon at a stop sign in Houston. He asked me why I said the word, assuming I was referring to the fact that he had stopped the car but I pointed at the red sign and the big white word. And the word was “STOP.”  By five I was tearing through the weekly copies of Time Magazine, Argosy, BusinessWeek and the Boston Traveler. I had read all of the series by Thornton Burgess and Tom Swift, and was obsessed with sea stories by Edward Rowe Snow which Ida Anderson, the librarian in Cotuit, recommended I read.

My reading talent earned me with a lot of flattering attention from the grownups, particularly my grandfather, a high school teacher in Exeter, New Hampshire.  I began to associate reading with praise, but I couldn’t pronounce a lot of words correctly (the Nile River was the “Neely River”) and got easily bored.  I could rattle off the names of every one of the state capitols, carry on a conversation about U Thant, the Tet Offensive, and the names of the Mercury astronauts. I was trotted out at cocktail parties like a literary Mozart, a parlor trick who did tricks for treats. Life was good for I was special.

The bookshelves sag with college chemistry textbooks, a Modern Library edition of Rabelais, Boccacio’s Decameron, a Time-Life series of books about the countries of the world, a long row of yellow-spined National Geographics. There are shelves up higher which I can’t reach, so I drag over a chair to climb up for a peek. There is a book way up  on the top shelf with the word “Child” on the spine. Being a child, I take it down, sit on the floor and look on the back cover.

There is a photo of the smiling Needle Man.

I understand why the book is kept so high and out of reach. It is part of the conspiracy to stick needles in me. It is where the pain is hidden. It’s an owner’s manual for raising a child circa 1964.

I open the book. I turn to the index at the back and start scanning for key words. The most important word in my world is there:

Santa Claus

Yes Santa. The opposite of Needle Man. The avuncular giver of good. The chubby red-suited saint on his throne at Filenes Basement who flies around in a Piper Cub with Edward Rowe Snow and drops his presents out of the window down to remote islands for the stranded children of lighthouse keepers.  Santa who brings train sets and itchy sweaters. He who sticks special gift packs of LifeSavers into stockings hung with care by the fire. The mysterious eater of Cookies. He who knows all. He who must be obeyed because he’s always watching.

flying santa

I turn to Santa’s page in the Needle Man’s book by and begin to read. Knowledge flows from the page through my eyes into my empty brain and in an instant the world begins to feel wrong like the hallway of the snowbound hotel in The Shining when Jack Nicholson’s son is riding his tricycle down the carpeted hallways and the parallax perspective shifts and turns the hallway into a endless nightmare with no end.

“How to tell your child there is no Santa Claus…”

No Santa Claus. No Santa Claus? In that moment — as brutal as if the words were written bu chiseling letters chiseled into a tombstone — everything that was magical about my childhood became a sordid lie. The Tooth Fairy. The Easter Bunny … All of it was dashed into pieces made from my parents’ lies. I forgot to breathe. It was my heart breaking moment of existential First Grader despair. A loss of innocence straight out of that madman William Blake’s poetry:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.

Six years old and sitting by myself feeling very alone and faint, I closed Needle Man’s book and pondered the consequences of this terrible knowledge. I had flown too close to the sun, taken a bite from the corrupt apple of knowledge, and lo — Eden was destroyed and I had nowhere to go with with my new found  knowledge. Tell my little brother Tom because I needed a friend to console me? That would be too cruel to destroy his illusions. Run sobbing to my parents? That would certainly bring an end to the annual scam and Christmas would surely be cancelled forever.  I knew enough to bury the secret.

Actually, I had no moral compass and I kept the knowledge of the Santa Scam to myself for another five or six years out of pure greed. The book by the Needle Man went back on the shelf, but I kept returning to it constantly because it was the Dark Book of Parental Knowledge.

I pulled the book down whenever I was left alone in the house. I had no idea I was reading the most provocative influence on baby boomer child rearing since Doctor Benjamin Spock. Needle Man was the guy who told mothers to breast feed, to love their kids freely and not run them through some Prussian schedule of forced feedings and denied urges. After all it was the 1960s, Dr. Spock was getting arrested for protesting the Viet Nam War, and free-range child rearing was still in effect before the dawn of Helicopter Parenting.  Those were the years when Daisy BB guns and bikes without helmets were considered acceptable Christmas gifts. Whenever Mom would run an errand to the IGA to pick up some milk and leave me alone for 30 minutes, that was enough time for me to pull the down the book for a quick exploration. Darker secrets lay ahead, ones far heavier than the Santa Disclosure.

I rode Bus #3 every day to the Perley Elementary School in Georgetown to attend first grade. In the classroom I sat behind a kid who had rickets and was given a special glass of milk every morning by the school nurse while the rest of us watched.  One day, while I watched, he pooped in his pants and cleverly worked the turd down the leg of his pants, shaking it out of the cuff and onto the floor beside his desk, grinding it into the  floor with his shoe to erase the evidence. The entire Perley Experience was weird. The principal had a pet goat who wore a sweater with a big G for Georgetown on it and who came to school on special occasions and could be induced to butt heads with the high school football players who got on all fours and charged it with their helmets.

The dynamics of my life on the playground and school bus were vicious, a Malthusian life of fear and despair.   I was the tallest kid in the first grade, a total smartass because of the reading and my Texan nursery school manners which made me sound like a total suck up whenever I called the teacher “Ma’am” or wore my cowboy shirts to school. So I was the target of many fist fight challenges by the bullies in the second and third grades. I got the shit beaten out of me by one future serial killer on a regular basis.  His last name was McBriarity and he lived in a dilapidated grey unpainted sagging  house next to a rank smelling tannery and was the youngest of 10 siblings. I was forbidden by my parents to ever associate with him,  but he lived in the neighborhood and there was no escaping his torments. My father nicknamed him “Pig Pen” after the character in the Peanuts comic because he smelled a bit like the tannery.

Pig Pen’s throne was the very back seat of Bus #3. His court of cronies were allowed to sit near him if he approved and his approval was earned through gifts of pocket knives, quarters, or penny candy. I wanted to be a back seat rider badly, but I lived on the edge of that clique, listening to their bawdy limericks and forbidden songs which they had learned from the older brothers I lacked: songs about Hitler and Mussolini’s genitalia, three Irishmen working in a ditch, and monkeys who wrapped their tails around flagpoles to keep their assholes from getting ice cold.

The back of the bus crowd was obsessed with sex. It was a  Patriarchy too far from the bus driver to be disciplined and there were profound whispered debates between them like a bunch of Oxford dons speculating about the mystery of girls. Listening to them was like sort of like what it must have felt to sit in the back row of a meeting of the Royal Society in London in 1600 while the great scientists like Newton debated  the miasma theory of disease spread by foul smells.

The prevailing sexual theory held by Pig Pen’s gang was the Belly Button Method of Reproduction. The Stork Model of Baby Delivery had been long discredited because of its appearance in a Loony Tune cartoon.  Nudity, rubbing and the butt were somehow involved in the Belly Button Method.  Pig Pen was the final authority on the Navel Theorem and embellished it with observations about the role of alcohol and public displays of affection in front of him and his siblings before the act took place. There was no challenging his hypothesis, for he had actually committed an act of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” with one of his older sisters and thus had actual field research to confirm that girls lacked the appendage then properly known as a “dingus” by the back benchers of Bus #3. To deny Belly Buttons meant banishment from the back of the bus. (I never could understand the whole civil rights back of the bus thing as a kid watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite because I was so desperate to sit there myself).

stork

It occurred to me that I might earn my seat if I found an definitive answer in the Needle Man’s Book.   I turned to it wondering if there was some scripture between its magic covers about baby making that I could smuggle onto the bus to show Pig Pen and his lieutenants. I had kept the horrible proof of Santa’s nonexistence to myself for over a year, and felt smug knowing that whenever the big kids got worked up in early December during peak Santa Fever when they talked about their visits to Jordan Marsh to sit on the fat man’s lap and got crazed talking about  their Christmas letters to the North Pole complete with a list of wants compiled from the Sears catalog.

“Puny fools,” I thought. “I could make you sob and grovel with what I know.”

Anyway,  Needle Man’s book did indeed contain anatomical diagrams of Fallopian tubes and uteri, testes and urethrae. It was a Cliff Notes to help tongue-tied parents disclose the mysteries of life to their tweens. It was not written for a six-year old autodidact looking for leverage against a bunch of future Massholes riding in the back of a school bus and cracking up over words like “douchebag” and “dildo” — both of which I called my mother to see if she too found them funny but which earned me a savage mouth soaping and spanking with a wooden spoon.

I read about foreplay, intercourse, gestation, birth. The whole biological saga was there for me to consider, but once again my mind was blown and with my world rocked and  as I  sat cross-legged on the hooked rug of the old colonial house on Central Street, my thoughts raced with the horror that OMFG, mother and father had engaged in coitus like frogs in amplexus to produce me and were still doing it as mother was very pregnant with my future sister at the time.

amplexus

The Horror. The Horror. There was no unseeing that truth.

I was so unsettled by the discovery that I could never bring myself to share it with the back seat gang. Santa was one thing. Sex was way too dangerous, so I tucked the nuclear secret away beside the truth of the Santa-Tooth Fairy- Easter Bunny deception and never told a friend nor my brother for another six years.

More than 30 years later, during the summer of 1995, I was at the Hyannis Airport waiting for the 6:30 am flight to LaGuardia. I saw sitting in the terminal the Needle Man. He was perhaps in his late 70s, but still looked as familiar to me as he did when he stuck needles in me. But he had gone from being a young doctor who made house calls to sick toddlers in Cambridge to become the most famous pediatrician in the world, publishing 40 books beyond the magic one I had found, and become a celebrity for his pioneering concept of child raising.

His name was T. Berry Brazelton and he died at his home here on Cape Cod last week at the age of 99.

Dr. Brazelton sat by himself reading a book while we waited for the flight to board. Because the seat beside him was empty  I sat down and introduced myself as a former patient.  He claimed to remember me, or at least to remember my mother, who he correctly recalled had red hair. He laughed hard at my memories of Needle Man, looked concerned and a wee bit wistful when I told him about the Santa trauma, and narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow when I told him about my personal Sex-Ed Education as a first grader.

“That must have been awful for you!” he said. “To carry such a thing inside of yourself for so long. Did you ever tell anyone?”

I told him the story of quahogging in the Seapuit River with my father. I was 13 when the old gent turned to me and ambushed me with the topic of the birds and the bees.  I let him suffer a little as he tried to diplomatically talk me through the realm of manhood and responsibility. I took a little pleasure seeing him stammer with embarrassment, saying nothing until he  asked me if I had any questions.  I dramatically raised a finger to make him wait a second, felt for a clam with my bare toes, then reached down to pull it out of the mud.

Dropping the clam into the basket between us I innocently asked, “So you mean you don’t tickle the woman’s belly button and the baby doesn’t come out of their butt?”

Rest in peace Dr. Brazelton. I forgive you the needles.

dr_t_berry_brazelton
From Wikipedia

 

The Boston Play List

The Boston PlayList Project

Spotify Playlist Link (if you can’t get to the link, my spotify user name is “davidchurbuck”)

In the spirit of former Wall Street Journal and Forbes Editor Norman Pearlstine’s quest to build the ultimate 90-minute rock & roll mix tape: which songs should go on the ultimate playlist of Boston-oriented rock and roll? Candidate songs should be by Boston-area bands or mention Boston in either title or lyrics. Here, with the assistance of my musical colleagues at Acquia (Chris Rogers and his wife Courtney Rau, DC Denison, David Butler, David Pierce, and others Massholes), is the work in progress.

  1. Road Runner, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
  2. Dirty Water, The Standells
  3. That’s When I Reach for My Revolver, Mission of Burma
  4. Musta Got Lost, J. Geils
  5. Please Come to Boston, Dave Loggins
  6. U Mass, The Pixies
  7. Dream On, Aerosmith
  8. More than a Feeling, Boston
  9. Massachusetts, BeeGees
  10. New Hampshire is Alright If you Like Fighting, Scissorfight
  11. Check Your Bucket, Duke & the Drivers
  12. Train, James Montgomery
  13. Shipping Up to Boston, Dropkick Murphy’s
  14. When World’s Collide, Powerman 5000
  15. More Human Than a Human, Rob Zombie (Haverhill)
  16. You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, The Cars
  17. It’s a Shame About Ray, The Lemonheads
  18. Good Vibrations, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
  19. Voices Carry, Til Tuesday
  20. Let’s Go Tripping, Dick Dale
  21. Don’t Run Wild, Del Fuegos
  22. Someday I Suppose, Mighty Mighty Bosstones
  23. Up & Running, Heretix
  24. Back on the Map, Slapshot
  25. My Sister, Juliana Hatfield Three
  26. Here and Now, Letters to Cleo
  27. Step by Step, NKOTB
  28. Candy Girl, New Edition
  29. My Prerogative, Bobby Brown
  30. Poison, Bell Biv Devoe
  31. Weekend in New England, Barry Manilow
  32. Alice’s Restaurant, Arlo Guthrie
  33. Mutha, Extreme
  34. Talk About Love – O Positive
  35. I Think She Likes Me – Treat Her Right
  36. Boston – Kenny Chesney
  37. Sweet Baby James – James Taylor
  38. Jackie Onassis – Human Sexual Response
  39. Lonely is the Night – Billy Squier (Wellesley’s finest, LOL)
  40. Prettiest Girl – The Neighborhoods
  41. When Things Go Wrong – Robin Lane and the Chartbusters
  42. Feel the Pain – Dinosaur Jr.
  43. Taillights Fade – Buffalo Tom
  44. Last Dance – Donna Summer
  45. Hostile, Mass – The Hold Steady, or Chillout Tent
  46. 75 and Sunny – Ryan Montbleau
  47. Airport Song – Guster
  48. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison (see poem about Hyannisport on the album notes)
  49. On the Dark Side – John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band
  50. Massachusetts, Arlo Guthrie (official Mass folk song)
  51. Massachusetts, Alton Ellis
  52. Sunshine, Jonathan Edwards (former summer resident of Cotuit)
  53. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Bob Dylan
  54. Twilight in Boston, Jonathan Richman
  55. Boston, The Dresden Dolls
  56. They Came to Boston, The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones
  57. Boston Stranger, Boston Strangler
  58. Boston, The Byrds
  59. Cannonball, The Breeders

 

MISSING BANDS

Siege, Drop Dead

Staind

Morphine

Tree

The Lyres

Sebadoh

The Joe Perry Project

Mad Angel

Sleepy LaBeef: Raynham resident, long time house band at Alan’s Truck Stop in Amesbury

Seth Putnam and any of his unspeakable bands

GG Allin?

Tavares (Providence, RI but ended up in New Bej)

Ray LaMontagne – Nashua by birth, Massachusetts by residence now (I thought so)

Next steps: put this list in the right sequence per the advice given by John Cusack in High Fidelity about how the order of songs on a mix tape is as important as their selection.

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules. “

Feel free to collaborate in the comment with suggestions or questions.

Restoring a hand-carved sign

A long time ago my father’s oldest boyhood friend, Reid Higgins, presented him with a hand-carved wooden sign painted green with gilded letters in beveled quarterboard  font that said “C H U R B U C K” surmounted by a rampant, gilded eagle facing “dexter” (or to the right.) For as long as I can remember it has been screwed into the southern side of the house’s front porch. It used to be a fall ritual during Columbus Day weekend to unscrew the eagle and sign and store it indoors for the winter. Since 1991, when I’ve lived in the house year round, the sign has stayed outdoors year round too. And lately it’s been showing a lot of wear and tear.

img_20171217_0904562985464755584779939.jpg
This is how it looked after I went at it with a wire brush

It has been cleaned up, re-gilded and re-painted, at least two times I know of, in the past forty or fifty years. My grandmother asked a local woman who restored picture frames to do it once, and Reid himself took it back to spruce it up a long time ago. A few weeks ago, on an impulse, I took it down and into the shop. It was much worse than I thought it would be. Other than a few shreds, almost all of the gilt had flaked off. The name board had barely any paint left on it with white primer dominating what was left of the weatherbeaten green.

This is how I brought it back to life for whomever gets to do it next time. It was a lot of fun, I learned something new and cool, and it kept me from going crazy over the frozen holidays.

PREP

I took a light wire brush wheel and a cordless Dremel and got most of the flaking paint off without over scouring the mahogamy Reid used to carve the eagle. The detailed feathering and layering of his carving is exquisite and I didn’t want to sand it down or otherwise dull the sharp definition of the plumage. I went over it quickly with the Dremel, then fine steel, followed by a light layer of paste paint remover. The paint on the top edge of the eagle wings, the crown of its head, and top of its beak was long gone, and years of sun and water and snow had caused deep grooving to occur in those areas along the grain line. The sign that forms the base was in worse condition, with similar grooving on the top edges and deep splits forming in the end grain on the right and left ends of the Churbuck sign.

img_20171218_2026534637068992893387887.jpg
I thought about sealing the cracks with the WEST System or Bondo ….

After getting off all of the paint remover and washing it all down with mineral spirits, I took a sponge and thinned down some boiled linseed oil with one part of mineral spirits to three parts linseed and swabbed that over the entire bird and base three times, letting each coat sink in and dry overnight for three days.

img_20171218_202822211468706474593603.jpg
The top grain of the sign was in sad shape

Then, with a sanding block and 220 grit sandpaper I smoothed everything down and got ready to prime.

PAINT

I used primer and paint sold by Fine Paints of Europe, the American distributor of Holland’s Hascolac line of paint. I’ve used a lot of this stuff — I painted the entire house myself one year using about $10,000 worth of Hascolac Oborex and knew from their brochure that someday I wanted to restore something with their Brilliant line of enamels. The stuff is not cheap. I spent about $150 on a quart of white primer, a quart of green enamel, and a tin full of Swedish Putty from a local hardware store that carries FPE.

img_20171222_1933045213395261644644918.jpg
Primed twice and skim coated with Swedish Putty

After priming two coats of white, I sanded it and applied a very thin skim coat of Swedish Putty. This is some medieval substance essentially made out of finely ground glass (silica) and oil. It goes on with the blade of a clean putty knife and can be sanded to a glass smooth service with fine sandpaper after it dries. The warnings that came on the tin were of the skull and crossbones severity so I dutifully wore a mask when I sanded the putty smooth. Silicosis is basically “glass lung” and I like my lungs.

img_20171222_1916576547333371841336285.jpg
Weirdest, coolest stuff — basically ground glass putty in oil

I used the putty as a filler to close up the open grain in the wood and repair the deep splits in the end grain. It can be applied to curved surfaces and trim with a sponge soaked in linseed oil, so I did the inside of the carved letters with that method.

I took a long time sanding the Swedish putty obsessively smooth, stepping down from 220 to 400 to 600 grit paper until the surface was immaculate. I hit it with an air gun, cleaned up the workarea to get rid of as much dust as possible and broke out a new Omega brush and the green Brilliant enamel.

The difference between Hascolac paints and other paints are apparent as soon as you dip the first brushload and start painting. I made all my brush strokes in one direction and put the paint on straight up, no thinning, but was very parsimonious about how loaded up I let the brush get with green paint. The coverage is surprising, but the beauty of the paint is how it self-levels and dries into a gleaming, candy apple kind of sheen.

I applied three coats of green, sanding between then with 400 grit paper. I was very happy with the final result and waited for the mails to deliver me my first booklet of 23 ⅓ karat gold leaf, coton gilder gloves and a German squirrel fur gilding brush.

img_20171224_101550-15628891468601427027.jpg
Like buttah — this paint is for sweet tooths

I’ve never gilded before so I wanted a couple gilding videos on YouTube made by custom sign makers. It looked pretty straightforward.

GILDING

The first thing is to paint everything that will be gilded a bright coat of yellow and tape off everything that won’t be gilded with blue painters tape, using an xActo knife to cut out the carved letters. I used a little bottle of yellow Testors paint and covered the bird and all the letters with a single coat. Why yellow? That coat, called the TK coat, acts as a radiant substrate for the gold which is microscopically thin to the point of translucence. It you want a dark, subdued shine, you gild over dark paint. If you want brilliance you first must put down some thing light and bright.

img_20171227_2041004238957932208583666.jpg
Gilding glue, a sheet of leaf, squirrel brush and yellow undercoat

Gilding was pretty simple. First I painted some gilding glue over the surface to be gilded. The stuff goes on a little thick and viscous and is a light tinge of blue when applied. After 30 minutes the blue disappears and the gilding glue is tacky and ready for the gold leaf. Tug a wax paper page out of the little booklet of gold, flip it gold side down over the surface coated with gilding glue, and brush very gently with the squirrel brush. I found that a straight tapping of the brush worked best, pushing the leaf down to adhere to the glue and lifting it off the paper backing.

img_20171228_0729576051360969580633809.jpg
What a leaf of gold will get you in terms of coverage

I didn’t want to mess up. Something told me that stripping a botched gilding job would simply suck so I was determined to do it right. Besides, I bought $50 worth of leaf — 40 3”x2” sheets f– and used about three quarters of it. After the gilding goes down, one just looks for the yellow under paint and dabs a little more gold leaf on it, until everything to be gilded is covered with a layer of gold and fuzzy with loose flakes. Flick it and smooth it with the gilding brush, burnish it with a finger tip in the white cotton gilding glove, and we’re talking a very expensive rainy day project for the kindergarten class.

I cleaned up the lettering with a very fine modeling brush and the green enamel. Then I coated all of the bird and the lettering with two thin coats of shellac to protect the gold from the elements.

img_20171227_2132042924371348306599075.jpg

Finis

And here is the final result.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In another post I’ll talk more about the man who carved the sign, Reid Higgins, and his amazing carvings of local shore birds.

img_20171219_2044023667814291471044409.jpg
Herring Gull by Reid Higgins

 

Harry the Skye Terrier

I’m a dog person who started life as a cat person. I grew up with a pair of yowling Siamese cats acquired in Houston in the early 60s, but will always remember my first dog, a mutt named Sam Houston who rubbed his butt on the floor to my immense amusement. Sam Houston vanished to the “farm” one day and I had to be content with the two cats until the arrival of a black labrador retriever named Mildred Midnight (Churbuck dogs were generally female and named after deceased great aunts or former girlfriends).

Once we moved to Cotuit in 1991 my wife Daphne decided country sea-side life required a sea-side dog. She did her research and found a breeder of Skye Terriers in Western Massachusetts. She had always been a terrier person, growing up around Yorkshire Terriers and had always admired the Skye breed from her childhood in Paris.  She came home with a little puppy whom I named “Harry” because he was hairy.

DCCandHarry1991
Me and Harry in 1991 after hurricane Bob blew through town,

Skye terriers were once one of the most popular breeds in England due to Queen Victoria’s love of them and the legend of Greyfriar’s Bobby — a story that became the subject of a book by the same name which was filmed by Disney. Bobby was a Skye terrier puppy abandoned in 19th century Edinburgh by his owner, a night watchman named John Gray who passed away in a rooming house near Greyfriar’s Kirk, or churchyard. After Gray was buried in the Greyfriar cemetery Bobby guarded the grave for 14 years and became a sensation in the Scottish city, with patrons of a local pub keeping the dog fed and comfortable through its heroic vigil. After Bobby died in 1872 a statue was erected in his honor.

The National Galleries of Scotland
Greyfriar’s Bobby: By National Galleries of Scotland [Public domain or No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Today the breed “one of the most endangered native dog breeds in the United Kingdom” according the the UK’s Kennel Club. When my wife acquired Harry the breed was ranked absolutely last on the American Kennel Club’s list of the most popular breeds.

Greyfriars-bobby-edin
 Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 15 September 2003. 

Skyes are considered the oldest of the terrier breed and are  speculated to have come to Britain from the wreck of a Spanish galleon during the disastrous rout of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in a storm which blew the Spanish fleet across the Irish Sea and beyond. Their name comes from the Isle of Skye on the northwestern coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides archipelago (home to one of my favorite single malt scotches: Talisker.) The dogs were prized for their long coats and low, extended bodies. Think of a full sized dog with tiny legs that looks like a hair covered caterpillar. That hair hangs over their face like a sheepdog’s, giving them face-first protection when they chase a fox or otter into a rocky crevice or hole.

Skye_terrier_800
By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

According to Wikipedia:

“Skye Terriers were first described in the sixteenth century,when it was already noteworthy for its long coat. Some confusion exists in tracing its history because, for a certain time, several different breeds had the same name “Skye Terrier”. The loyal dog, present under the petticoat of Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution, has been ascribed as a Skye Terrier. In 1840, Queen Victoria made the breed fancy, keeping both drop-(floppy) and prick-(upwards) eared dogs.

This greatly increased its popularity and the Skye Terrier came to America due to this. The AKCr ecognized the breed in 1887, and it quickly appeared on the show scene. Its popularity has significantly dropped and now it is one of the least known terriers. There is little awareness of its former popularity.”

Harry and I had a special relationship reflected in his insistence on being near me at all times, and my giving him multiple names ranging from the “Scottish Shit Pig” to “Kenneth Branagh.” He had an immense jaw and a rack of teeth that would make a Rotweiler jealous. I think we waited a bit too long to neuter him as he was oversexed his entire life and was fond of dragging the children’s stuffed animals onto the lawn and raping them while the summer walkers on Main Street marveled at his rutting diligence. His coat was a wiry misery of mats, burrs, sticks and leaves. He was remarkably fast for a dog with nearly no legs, and a great game that amused the children was called “Where’s Daddy?” in which I would hide somewhere in the house while Harry searched for me.

His bad behavior led to enrollment in obedience school. I was elected by my wife to be Harry’s handler and went with him to group lessons at a trainer’s house near the Marston’s Mills airport. Harry did not appreciate his leash and refused to learn his lessons like the other dogs, leading the trainer, a nice young man named Derek, to take him from me to teach him a lesson. That lesson deteriorated into a snarling attack and Derek having to swing the dog in the air with centrifugal force to keep from being bitten. Other than his hatred for the leash and a taste for biting the children if they messed with him, Harry was a very smart animal and went on to impress Derek and the other owners at the obedience school with his very percipient ability to obey and perform various tasks.

Harry also was a roamer and despite investing in an “invisible” electric fence and a shock collar, was able to break free and roam the village like some nocturnal assassin. Where other dogs in my life had been too stupid to avoid the skunks living under the boat shop, Harry managed to kill them without getting skunked, leaving multiple skunk corpses in the flower garden for me to dispose of. During the Labor Day meeting of the yacht club my wife and I watched with horror as Harry lifted his leg and peed all over the back of a nice lady wearing a white Irish fisherman’s sweater.

I loved that dog and still rue the day when he was hit by a van on Main Street in 2000, ending ten years of delightful companionship. He was followed by another Skye Terrier, a rescue I found in Nashville, Tenn. named “Ned” who was perhaps the sweetest, stupidest dog I’ve owned. I’d get another Skye in an instant.

 

 

25 Years of ThinkPad

Earlier this week I received a ThinkPad T25, the 25th anniversary edition of the Lenovo ThinkPad, teased a couple years ago by Lenovo’s lead designer and my former colleague and good friend, David Hill.

lenovo-laptop-thinkpad-25-retro-hero

I’ve been without a ThinkPad for the past four years. In a fit of madness I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 in 2014 before joining Acquia. While my new employer had once supported a few ThinkPads for its more discerning engineers, the standard issue laptop was a Mac Air, an odious little device that somehow brought to mind Christopher Buckley’s observation that a man driving a minivan is half a man. The former CEO of Acquia, hated seeing me with the Surface just because.  I said, like a smarty-pants, that the corporate HR culture wbpage said “Mac or PC? Yes!” He said “Not anymore” and thenceforth I was relegated to forevermore lugging around the Mac to meetings while keeping the Surface docked and hidden at my desk for serious work.

There was something very unsettling and traitorous about going to a competitor’s laptop after five years spent at the dawn of Lenovo marketing the iconic ThinkPad.    I felt like I was missing a phantom limb. The Mac was an act of treachery, a true tergiversation. My allergy to Apple products goes back to when I was a reporter for PC Week (“The IBM-standard News Weekly of Corporate Computing) and competed with another Ziff-Davis publication, MacWeek.  I never met Steve Jobs, thought John Scully was meh, and for the life of me could never figure out the weird propeller key on the Mac’s keyboard. “It just works!” the Mac addicts would tell me, but Apple has always rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it comes down to the lack of a right mouse button, a sense of the void when it comes to file structure, and a general feeling the things are smug and “twee.”

The ThinkPad however….where to begin in my reverence for those black rubberized rectangles with the red mouse pointer embedded in the middle of the keyboard? Is it just that their keyboards are so sublime, so tactile, so responsive that it’s no wonder the ThinkPad became the standard tool for professional writers just as the Leica M was de rigeur for war photographers? Is it the meaty heft of the total package? A feeling of invulnerability that with it’s magnesium roll cage and hard edges that it would be the weapon of choice if one had to charge the cockpit against a mob of hijackers?

In the documentary “Page One,” the late (and sorely missed) New York Times media critic David Carr interviewed the founders of Vice. He whacks away at his ThinkPad during the interview, taking notes directly into the machine (the same way I used to when I was a reporter), keys clacking away as he is shown a video produced by Vice about Liberia to make the point the upstart media company was the future of journalism in the digital age and the Times was a dinosaur. When Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice dissed the Times, Carr interrupted him, looked up from the ThinkPad and said:

“Time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there covering genocide after genocide. And Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”

When I starting working for Lenovo I quickly forged a bond with David Hill, the vice president of design who was the guardian of the ThinkPad’s flame. David came to Lenovo from IBM’s PC group and had been the steward of the ThinkPad’s design since 1995. The first CMO of Lenovo, Deepak Advani (also a former IBM executive) hired me to   establish the new brand online, via Lenovo.com, digital advertising, social media, etc.. While poking around for a theme to hang the first corporate blog on, I rejected the easy path of a ghostwritten, bland affair by our CEO, Bill Amelio and instead homed in on David because of his demeanor and slightly demented passion. I  proposed he become the leading voice of the brand with a new blog called “Design Matters” and offered to help with the writing and production because he was such a busy guy. It hindsight, he was the right person to kick off Lenovo’s first blog, touching an audience who was very skeptical about the future of the ThinkPad as IBM divested itself from the commodity world of PCs and handed over the design to a Chinese company, a company only known for contract-assembling PCs for western brands and inventing a graphics card that displayed the Chinese character set on the screens of IBM compatible clones (which a pretty big deal if consider how enormous the China market for PCs has become).

ny171560
David Hill, Keeper of the ThinkPad DNA

Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005.  Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.

The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.

One day while scanning social media chatter for annoyed customers I found a complaint by a writer named James Fallows beefing that the paint on the keys of his new ThinkPad was wearing off under his fingertips. I brought this to the attention of the product managers who sort of shrugged it off until I told them Fallows was the preeminent China correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, (and the co-author of a piece I had written with him in the 1990s for PC Computing on the myth of the garage and innovation in Silicon Valley). We contacted Fallows, swapped his fading machine for a new one, brought the defective one back in, and realized that indeed the paint had been changed and was prone to defects.

David’s writing on Design Matters attracted more comments than any blog I have ever seen or been involved with. A carefully thoughtout disquisition by David into hinges, a behind-the-scenes look into the design lab in Japan run by Arimasa Naitoh, a reminiscence about the ThinkPad’s original designer Richard Sapper… all of them evoked responses in the hundreds from commentators that confirmed to me the heart and soul of Lenovo wasn’t Lenovo per se, but a simple black laptop that had been sent into space by NASA, which sat on the desk in the Oval Office, was toted into battle by war correspondents and was the only computer any self-respecting Master of Universe would crack open in a board room before announcing a hostile takeover. It had to be defended against the bean counters.

David retired from Lenovo this past summer but is still consulting to the company. When I unboxed my new ThinkPad I thought of it, wistfully, as Lenovo’s retirement gift to David in lieu of the proverbial gold watch. I watched him defend the essence of the ThinkPad during my five years at Lenovo; fighting to keep it pure and free from the bling that our competitors drecked their machines up with. Blue lights. Chrome accents. David would howl at the lengths the competition would go to ruin their machines and was deeply offended when his arch nemesis, Apple, introduced a black MacBook.

kitty

I shared his frustration when some of his team’s greatest concepts were shot down by the product marketing teams when costs needed to be cut to keep the machine competitive. I suffered the failure of the leather-bound special edition ThinkPad, the Scout, in ‘07 with him. And I watched him light up when he was able to invite Richard Sapper back to design the Skylight in ‘09.

sapper_1.1423736594
Richard Sapper, Father of the ThinkPad

David and I shared great barbecue in Raleigh, laughed at the existential insanity of Lenovo’s Chinese-IBM culture,  and hatched numerous schemes and plots to do the right thing by a machine that was inspired by a lacquered Japanese lunch box, the bento box.

The 25th Anniversary ThinkPad has some retro touches — the red, green and light blue ThinkPad logo cocked at its “seemingly arbitrary 37 degree angle” on the corner of the cover and the red-accented mouse buttons under the keyboard. And yes, the keyboard is back, a 7-row throwback to a time when the ThinkPad was the machine for making words happen, a pre-chiclet QWERTY monster that was tweaked and fitted into place with a reverence for the typist’s fingers like no other laptop keyboard before or since. Other than that, the T25 is just a laptop. It runs Windows 10, has an i7 processor, a half-a-terabyte SSD hard disk and a nice touch screen. It doesn’t convert into a tablet, fold back on itself, have a pen, or act like a Swiss army device. It doesn’t have some heart pounding audio system or special gamer capabilities. It’s just the essence of computing from a time when IBM was the greatest computer company in the world, when laptops were the height of technology. When we typed like real writers and didn’t talk to our  smartphones as we walk blindly into traffic.

I have it because I need it to use my hour-long train ride into Boston productively writing  one of the two books I now have under way. The old Surface Pro 2 has a magnetic clip-on keyboard covered in faux-felt with all the tactile pleasure of a cheap, ill-fitting suit. It’s time to write and I need the ultimate writing machine, one worthy of going into battle or space. This is probably going to be my last ThinkPad (and I have six  of them in closets upstairs to remind me of that wild five-year ride marketing the damn things), and it’s a ThinkPad for the ages.

I look forward to opening it, to using it, to deleting the Lenovo bloatware and making it my own. I like the looks it gets in the office, a somewhat covetous look like the ones I get when I wear a good suit and a great pair of shoes. It’s an accessory and a companion that subtly cries out “classic” without shouting.

The machine came exquisitely boxed and packaged. The kind of packaging Apple is great at and David long dreamed of doing. It came with a small book written by David five years ago on the occasion of the ThinkPad’s 20th anniversary. He dedicated this edition “…to the memory and magic of Richard Sapper. He was a great mentor, friend and masterful designer. ThinkPad would not exist as we know it without his vision and determination.”

That may be true, Sapper was a genius, but to also quote the booklet: “David …conceived, along with longtime collaborator Richard Sapper, the evolution design strategy where the core DNA is passed along to each successive generation. David often compares this strategy to how Porsche manages the design of their forever classic 911. This approach is unheard of in a fast-paced high technology market where change dominates. Evolutionary design has created ThinkPad brand value and related design recognition at unprecedented levels within the industry. ThinkPad loyalists are cult-like in their affinity for this highly authentic design classic.”

The end of a long voyage: the Aubreyad

In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists,  I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but  my reading tastes  were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.

master_26_commander_cover

Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester,  Melville’s Moby Dick  and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.

tinkerbelle_by_robert_manrySo last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.

By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full   set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.

For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries  and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).

Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.

Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go,  fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.

 

Coquina

I finally got a chance to tour the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island a few weeks ago and came away inspired to get myself back into a wooden boat.

Just past the gift shop and ticket desk at the museum is a reproduction of Nathanael Herreshoff’s personal boat –the Coquina — a clinker-built catboat yawl that is a true gem.

e11eddd43d27f154e5a35018094c0413

Designed by the “Wizard of Bristol” for his own use on the waters of Narragansett Bay in the winter of 1889, ; the Coquina is 16′ 8″ long and constructed with white Atlantic cedar over oak frames. Herreshoff sailed the boat his entire life and it outlived him past his death in 19TK when it was lost during the Hurricane of 1938. Not a bad endorsement for the boat’s sailing qualities given that Herreshoff was the designer and builder of some of the most remarkable America’s Cup yachts as well as some icons in American yacht design.

Coquina is reminiscent of a sailing canoe called the Rob Roy that was popular in the late 19th century thanks to the writings of the Scottish adventurer John McGregor who toured Europe and the Middle East in a doubled-ended, clinker-built (overlapping hull planks or strakes) canoe. Small boat yachting came into its own in the last three decades of the 1800s as a prosperous middle-class, recovering from the Civil War and the financial shocks that followed it, took to the waters with great zeal.

robroy

The plans for the Coquina are maintained by MIT, Herreshoff’s alma mater, and are available for purchase with construction instructions from D.N. Hyland & Associates in Brooklin, Maine.0914brainiac-sailing6

What’s appealing about the Coquina to me is her lines — there’s something very graceful and neat about the hull that pleases my aesthetic — but also the rig. I grew up in a cat boat rig aboard a Cotuit Skiff and the notion of adding a mizzen sail astern of the helm is intriguing. Would I ever build one? Doubtful, life has other priorities ahead, but it sure is nice to dream of skipping along close-hauled in one on a sultry summer’s day.

 

 

Sesquipedalian Habits

I believe it’s a cruel act of intellectual dishonesty to skip over an unfamiliar word  while reading without noting its existence and tracking down its definition. Starting in high school I got in the habit of reading with a pencil and parking new vocabulary in the flyleaf of the book or on an index card/bookmark for future research with a dictionary.

Kindle made in-line dictionary look ups a breeze just by pressing on a word and waiting for the installed digital dictionary to pop-up a definition. I am increasingly growing anti-Kindle since I’ve been reading the entire “Master and Commander” series by Patrick O’Brian this past spring and summer. After three Kindle books I finally gave up forking over $12 to Amazon every time I wanted the next volume of the 21-volume series and went to E-Bay to buy a complete collection from a used book dealer for $50 with the added benefit of having it on my bookshelf for others to read or me to re-read someday.

Now, as I read the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin on the train to and from Boston and Providence, I have moved to a combined print/digital vocabulary exercise. O’Brian is incredibly erudite and his introduction of delightfully archaic 19th century medical, botanical, and maritime words has proved too good to be true for this long suffering word addict.

Here’s how it works more or less. Basically it means opening a note on your phone and filling with new words and their definitions. Duh.

  1. See a word in the text like “missish”
  2. Turn to the phone and look it up missish
  3. Copy the definition from the search result
  4. open an Evernote file on the phone from a “Vocabulary Widget”
  5. Type “Missish”  and paste in the definitionevervocab
  6. Save and continue reading.

This results in a serious word collection that beats whatever “word of the day” app you may subscribe to, honors the author and makes you smarter and extremely insufferable when you announce on a sunny day that you are going “apricate” on the deck (e.g. “catch some rays”)