His regular commentaries are certainly a high-point of my work-at-home week. Reading Willem is not the same as hearing him, but still, I thought others might enjoy the following.
The following is posted here with the kind permission of Willem Lange and VPR. ]
Those of you who have read archy and mehitabel, a collection of poems written, without punctuation or capitalization, by a cockroach named archy back in the 20s, may remember his friend mehitabel. Mehitabel is a cat of easy virtue who in an earlier life was Cleopatra. She shacks up temporarily in a discarded theater trunk with a rascally old tomcat, a retired actor, and between them they lament the passing of the good old days of their respective careers. The theater cat sums it up: mehitabel he says both our professions are being ruined by amateurs
Which is just the way I've been feeling lately. The television is to blame; and if there's one guy who embodies the crime, it's Norm Abrams!
For almost 30 years, most of my life has been taken up with carpentry. I know all about joist hangers, lookouts, box headers, waney lumber, and even twinning sticks. I've watched plumbers plumb, electricians wire, sheetrockers plaster, painters paint, and tilers tile. And though I truly feel modest about what I know, after 30 years I must know something. Which is why it's such a shock to me when on a Friday evening Mother says casually, "Tomorrow I'd like you to build me a couple of bookcases for the living room. I've got the paint and the shelf supports. We've got company for dinner Sunday, and I'd like to get the books put away by then."
That's not possible, and I tell her so.
"Of course it is. Norm just made a couple of bookcases on PBS in about half an hour."
Norm! Norm is wreaking havoc in the lives of professional carpenters and cabinetmakers. Otherwise rational television viewers, who admit that most of what they watch is fantasy, suspend their skepticism when Norm shows how to do something. They think it's real!
"Okay," he says, "today we're going to build a couple of bookcases." He walks over to the lumber rack, selects a few clear, flat boards, and plops them down onto the workbench, where a set of drawings lies handy to the hovering camera. In real life, I stand around while Mother sketches her idea. I make a list of materials, climb into my truck, and drive to the lumber yard, where I paw through piles of lumber looking for a few good boards. Time I get home, Norm's been gone for an hour, and I haven't even started.
"Okay," says Norm, "now we take these side boards over to the bandsaw and cut out the half-circles for the feet." Some pencil marks have appeared on his boards as if by magic. I climb the shop stairs, cross the yard, and dig my saber saw and dividers out of the truck. Every time he sands a board, drills holes, or clamps things together, you see him pick up the tool, start to use it, and then put it down.
Mother hollers down the cellar stairs. "You get those painted by 10 o'clock, we'll break for tea." Painted? Has she forgotten the rabbets for the back and shelves? And the plugs to hide the screws? And sanding everything twice?
Actually, she has. This is the woman who stands up pieces of plywood inside a bookcase to support the shelves, so when you take out a couple of books, the whole thing implodes like a collapsing hotel. Who would holler down the stairs to Michelangelo, "Hey, Mike! You finish that Pietá by noon, there's some soup and toasted cheese sandwiches up here!"
The movie Gettysburg tries to show Pickett's Charge in real time. I wish Norm would do the same in his cheerful little TV show. Maybe the rest of us would get some respect. Mehitabel was right: Amateurs are ruining our profession.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
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