West Winfield, NY. One otherwise forgettable morning a miraculous spring welled up from beneath the wall that separates the downstairs water closet and the kitchen. As my wife showered a glistening pool spread outward, and by the time she stopped it had come to lap at my feet, a sort of inland sea beside which I drank coffee while brooding on the monumental unfairness of a universe that would confront me with this sort of situation before the sun had finished rising. Though a failure of imagination can comfortably persist for a lifetime, a failure of plumbing cannot. I put down my mug and set to work.
An interrogation revealed that two girls (a daughter and a niece) had conducted an experiment the previous afternoon. It was sloppy, with no clear hypothesis beyond wishing to “see what would happen” and no measurable metrics by which to assess results, but the methodology clearly bore on the situation, since it consisted of selecting squarish chucks of kindling from the woodrack and flushing them down the toilet.
I assembled the tools, chief among them a plumber’s snake, which is a long length of corded wire fashioned with a fine balance between pliancy and rigidity. This allows it to follow the contours of a drain pipe, but to do so backed by enough force to push through a clog. With a drywall saw I cut a hole in the pantry wall. The dust soon cleared to reveal the drain stack cleanout I had included during construction to appease the county inspector. At the time I judged it so superfluous that I’d walled over the threaded plug, but now it was saving me from having to lift a toilet, which proves even institutional standards as voluminous as the building code can represent prudence as well as bureaucracy.
A few cranks with my largest crescent wrench to open the portal, a miasmal stench, the slithering insertion of the snake, its spastic springing forward, the resistance of the blockage, and the feeling ineffably translated up the length of twisting metal as the knitted hair and wood chips and sodden tissue and who knows what else broke apart. The work was over. I ran the faucet to confirm that drain water could resume its subterranean journey and that I could start cooking the bacon.
There are received methods for building every part of a house, and an amateur departs from them at considerable risk. Most practices are a balance of speed and effectiveness, and while it may be fine to take longer for a better result, it is a singular failure that both takes longer and works poorly or not at all. While I didn’t do anything exotic with my house’s electrical system or plumbing, I now find myself interrogating other choices that could generously be described as risky. These flights of fancy mostly ended up on surfaces—lime plaster on much of the exterior, milk paint on the interior, and an obscure amalgamation to preserve the wood siding and trim.
It is this last that occupies much of my thought as summer settles about me. In central New York the days suitable for outdoor painting are long but few, and so I find myself rubbing my hands together with a nervous energy as I look up at the weathered clapboard that covers the gabled triangles of the second story. It’s gone all gray and mildewed where the rain has prematurely washed out its vitality, and some boards have begun to cup so that the heads of the trim nails have come proud and will need to be tapped flush with exceptional delicacy. But tucked up under the eaves the wood remains pristine. In those sheltered areas the siding looks much like it did when the house was new and viewing it now I remember the satisfaction of brushing on the final coat.
As such things usually do, my venture into nautical wood finishes began with an uncle. This one stopped by for an hour or so on his way from the San Juan Islands of Washington to Philadelphia. Being on vacation, he had decided to make this journey via rural New York. As we looked over my half-built house, he described a traditional nautical finish called boat soup, a mixture of pine tar, linseed oil, and turpentine that could make wood last forever.
I remember well enough the feeling of excitement this left me with—the discovery of something more permanent than the norm, the beautiful reddish-black look the decking took on in the pictures I found on obscure traditional boatmaking websites, the unlikely permanence of the Scandinavian stave churches—which proved to my satisfaction that pine tar had the same utility on landlocked wood as seaborn. These helped to push past any initial reservations, but more than that it was the synchronicity of the thing. I had been resigning myself to simply painting the siding the way anyone building a perfectly normal house might, and then a superior alternative came to me as if bidden by desire. Never mind that when I’d actually mixed the stuff up the smell landed somewhere between new asphalt and an old Christmas tree or that it went on thin, so that even after three coats the wood had only darkened by the barest shade—this was destiny.
I don’t recall so clearly what I thought would happen in the years to follow. I’m sure I knew that to have any chance of working the finish needed to be reapplied regularly. Only after the boat soup had been layered on so often that there was more tar than timber would it achieve semi-permanence. Did I imagine myself to be the sort of man who would twice each year set up the scaffolding and ladders necessary to do this job properly, that I would block out fleeting days in the midst of a short summer already busy with work and family to splash a traditional finish all over the place? I must have, just as I sometimes imagine myself to be the sort of man who might choose to read Finnegans Wake for pleasure.
But unlike literary pretensions, which can float along endlessly as vague intentions to be taken up next month (a remarkable time when all boring, notionally character-building duties will have miraculously transformed into austere pleasures), something so inarguable as the condition of wood siding makes self-deception impossible. I can’t delude myself that there’s any point in clambering around with a pungent bucket and a brush in a frantic attempt to make up for lost time, for time has already won. External circumstance has forced me to know both myself and the world a little better; rains will come, and my capacities are limited, so whatever I do now had better last without coddling.
In recent days I have familiarized myself with the literature, meaning I have read the online articles and searched the online DIY forums, which seem to be populated by an invisible choir of uncles more conventional than the one who got me started on this path. Though there is some variation in opinion about which particular primer best adheres to aged wood, there is none on the basic process. Preparation is critical, so I will scrub and scrape clean the siding down to a virgin surface. I’ll spend a bit extra on the base coat, not because I know the premium stuff to be better for a certainty, but because a few dollars a gallon seems like reasonable insurance, which is most likely exactly how Benjamin Moore wants me to feel. Then I will paint it and pray for at least a decade of chastened repose.
The trouble with information is that there’s so much of it floating around. I can be trying to suss out the practical differences between oil and water-based finishes and end up reluctantly nodding along to a materialist analysis of the global economic order. I can be trying to find a convincing rebuttal to a materialist analysis of the global economic order and end up looking at a map of wild hog populations in America or learning that the giant pangolin subsists on termites. At this point I’m already on Wikipedia, so I’ll at least take a moment to be heartened by the fact that in addition to eating termites the giant pangolin’s habits of reproduction remain unknown, which suggests the internet has yet to completely finish off romance and mystery and all that.
It’s infernally tricky that while I’m out pursuing ideas they’re out pursuing me and that it’s never quite clear who’s getting the better of the chase. The number of facts I have thrust upon me if I don’t strenuously avoid them is unsettling, as is the experience of having any random opinion that happens to slip through an eye socket bounce around inside my skull all afternoon, so it is doubly strange that I seek out both with such enthusiasm.
Sheer volume may be the most obvious symptom of informational bloat, but grim certainty is the more dire. As a rule, the stridency of the voices making the case for one side or the other of a topic increases with its significance, so that an argument about anything from the farm bill to foreign adventurism becomes an exercise in screaming, enraged putdowns, or at best a bad-faith engagement with the most overwrought example of the opposition. I suspect this state of affairs does more harm than good to the collective, for I know how much harm and how little good it does me.
The action of a stream will often pave its bed with a near impermeable layer. “These coarse gravels and stones,” writes William deBuys in Home Ground, “under the endless pushing of the water, may gradually settle into a smooth and durable surface called armor, which is capable of resisting the disturbance of powerful floods.” So it is with minds (or at least with my mind) when subjected to online discourse. The infinite flow of words can serve as a diversion from the first pinch of boredom, the enclosing vice of existential terror, or anything between, but rarely does it introduce uncertainty. As a rule it does the opposite, bolstering the stable beliefs that undergird my consciousness, leaving it awash in thought but never moved.
A sorting takes place, in secret unless I make a point of looking, to shunt ideas into three categories. There are those that agree with my existing opinions, those that are neutral or stupid enough to be ignored or dismissed, and those rare works that are a meaningful challenge, and so must be immediately shot down. If I don’t have the firepower in my personal arsenal it is easy to find someone shouldering a lower gauge who’s already blasted the utilitarian defense of industrial agriculture or whatever else actually looks like it might threaten a comfortably held notion. Though facile, this way of processing has its pleasures. Occasionally, a view both congruent and novel will slot into a previously unnoticed gap between two entrenched beliefs, and I will for a time have a flush of self-regard as I become even more right about everything than I was before.
“In theory, however, no armor can last forever,” deBuys continues, “for a flood mighty enough to tear it out and rearrange its component materials must inevitably come.” Perhaps in streambeds, but I doubt this part of the analogy extends to mental pavement. I foresee no onrushing argument of such irresistible force that my substrate of settled ideas will be reformed. And, to be fair, there would be little point to a simple rearrangement of concepts or a substitution of one suite of arguments for another, since I well might end up with worse views and no way of knowing it.
The tragedy of thought unmoored from any particular situation—thought abstracted wholly from life and place, thought about matters so nebulous, complex and omnipresent as to invite endless, unfalsifiable interpretation—is that it has such a powerful appearance of meaning on its own without providing any actual meaning to mere humans, or at least not to this mere human. Such thought is a way of sense-making that does nothing to make sense of a life well lived. There is, I concede, a creature I might call a true philosopher, possessed of a gimlet eye sharp enough to poke the occasional hole in the veil of circumstance. But in moments of clarity I am able to admit that my aptitude for transformative abstract rumination is as distant from Plato’s as my aptitude for being a seven-footer with a euro step is from Joel Embiid’s.
And so I’m left with painting and plumbing and talking about tadpoles with my kids. And more, if I pause for a moment. There are good books and the view of the hillside pasture each morning, friends to meet for a beer and a stand of maples in their fullest summer foliage, burgers to grill and thunderheads building in the west, letters to write and weeds endlessly sprouting in the garden.
Home repairs may be revelatory, but they arise as they please and are such annoyances that only a masochist would actively court them. Luckily, there are positive approaches to a deep experience of irreducible reality, among the most powerful being pork belly. A rectangular slab taken from the side of the beast, pork belly consists of meat striped with fat, or, depending on the pig, fat striped with meat. It is usually cured and smoked and sliced for bacon, a treatment unlikely to disappoint any right-thinking person. But fresh belly can do more. Classically, if it is large enough and still has its skin attached, it can be used to make porchetta, but such ambition isn’t required.
When cut into chunks, tossed with salt and some brown sugar, and then roasted all afternoon in a very low oven, perhaps with a bit of sauce for the last bit, pork belly becomes a gateway to the real. I am not going to attempt to describe how good it tastes. Words can better evoke the sort of love on which an enduring marriage is founded than the savor of properly cooked pork belly, and so it would be an insult to both pigs and matrimony to waste them on the effort. Like much that is worthwhile, pork belly must be encountered, preferably with friends and a chilled bottle of exceptionally dry cider.
A companionable meal lacks even a trace of the world-historical, which is precisely why it can be so human. There’s no confusing pork for public policy, a revolution can’t be founded on a misadventure with pine tar, and there’s little to learn about economics in a clogged pipe. Yet the truth remains obvious when viewed from a position of repose, with one hand on belly and the other wrapped around a cool glass. Laws, elected officials, and other obscurities only matter to the extent that they help fatten a hog.