Finished my morning explore at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow up in Orleans. As I’m pulling into the lot, young guy, in his twenties, with a tall cup of coffee, climbing into his pickup, getting ready to pull out.
My cell happened to ring at that moment.
“I want a pickup truck,” I said in what I’m told is my annoying habit of beginning phone conversations in the middle of a thought.
“What are you talking about?” said the friend on the line.
“What’s more. I want to be a young guy climbing into his new pickup with a big cup of coffee on my way to work at a job that requires me to drive a pickup truck on Cape Cod.”
My friend is quick and my thought processes are simple. She figured out right away what was going on on my end.
“What kind of pickup?”
“A red Chevy. Full sized.”
“What kind of young guy?”
“Tall. Slim. Good looking. Lots of wavy dark hair. Do you watch Smallville?”
“That’s ok. He doesn’t look all that much like Tom Welling. But, you know, sort of.”
“I don’t know what Tom Welling looks like. I don’t watch the show.”
“He looks like Superman.”
“This guy in the red pickup looks like Superman?”
“Not really. He does look a little like the Green Arrow, only with dark hair.”
“Who’s the Green Arrow?”
“You really don’t watch Smallville, do you? You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Let’s get back to the guy in the pickup before I slap you.”
“What about him?”
“Why do you want to be him?”
“I don’t want to be him. I want to be like him. I want to own a pickup truck and get to drive it to work on a beautiful summer morning on Cape Cod.”
“How do you know he’s on his way to work?”
“I’m just guessing.”
“You’re not on your way to work. Maybe he’s on vacation too.”
My friend wasn’t being contrary. She was just curious. She’s the type who likes to know all the details before she makes a judgment.
“I suppose. But he had that going to work look about him.”
“What makes you think you’d like the work he does? Do you even know what he does?”
I thought about it. I knew what he didn’t do. He didn’t fish for a living. He was wearing a work shirt over a t-shirt and jeans that looked lived in but they were still too neat, too clean, not weathered or battered or stained enough. And his truck was the same, not enough hard miles on it. I think all fishermen on the Cape are required to buy their trucks used and then they don’t drive them until they’ve left them out for a year or two to be further faded by the sun and shat on by seagulls and then they take them to a playground and let little kids beat on them with baseball bats and throw golf balls at them. And they never, ever wash them. It’s against their religion.
Also, I noticed, he’d been relatively careful about pulling out of the lot. As a rule, fishermen drive their trucks with reckless hostility. They have two speeds, eighty miles an hour and park. They fly down the roads as though they’re on a mission from God to scare the hell out of pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers, whom I’m guessing they assume are all tourists and whom they feel obliged to hate as invaders. The Hot Chocolate Sparrow is by the crossing for the Rail Trail and the road out in front is crowded with tourists on bikes even at seven in the morning. The young guy drove as if he was giving all the bikers the right of way, which no self-respecting fishermen would ever do. The object is to cause as many bikers as possible to veer wildly off the road in terror that that they’re about to be mowed down.
And, although I hadn’t gotten a good look, it appeared the bed of his truck was empty. The beds of fishermen’s trucks are never empty. Usually they’re filled with a jumble of nets, clam rakes, waders, big plastic buckets, coolers, tools, and some piece of scrap metal or wood that’s got to be good for fixing something around the house or on the boat so it’s worth carting it around for a year or two until a use for it arises.
The empty truck bed seemed to rule out construction work, repair work, and landscaping too.
For a second I considered the possibility he was a scientist of some sort. The National Seashore headquarters is a few miles up the road in Eastham. The Audubon Society has a sanctuary not too far beyond that in Wellfleet. Maybe, I thought, excited by the vicarious prospect of putting out to sea, he was on his way up to Provincetown to lead a whale watch. The Dolphin Fleet boasts of the cetologists who act as guides aboard its boats. Maybe, maybe, I thought, growing even more excited at my own day-dreaming, he’s on his way to Rock Harbor to take a boat out to hunt for sharks. This is the summer for sharks!
But the newness of his pickup made me think twice about this and decide against it. I’ve never known a scientist who drove a new pickup truck. Although they’re not as devout about it as fishermen, the kinds of scientists who do most of their field work in the actual field, biologists, geologists, oceanographers, have a principled objection to owning new trucks. I think the principle is they can’t afford them.
An engineer then?
“Maybe he’s an architect,” I said to my friend, “Lots of tear-downs and rehabs going on. The Cape must be lousy with architects. I always wanted to be an architect.”
“Since I was a kid.”
“Who are you? George Costanza?”
“I’m serious. There was a time when that’s what I was going to be. I even bought a drawing table and a book about it.”
“What stopped you?”
“I couldn’t draw a straight line.”
“That’s why they make T-squares.”
“I was the only kid in class who used a T-square to draw circles. But that’s what I think this guy is, an architect.”
“And you’re wishing you were him?”
“Like him,” I reminded her.
“Sure. Why not?”
“Do you think you’d like being an architect?”
“If I could draw a straight line.”
“Maybe you’d hate it.”
“Why would I hate it?”
“I don’t know. You might not. But you might. This guy might hate it.”
“He might think he has a terrible life.”
“He didn’t look like he thinks he has a terrible life.”
“What did he look like?”
“He looked like a young guy on his way to work in his pickup truck. You know what else he looked like?”
“He looked like a boss. I think he owns his own business.” I went over some things in my head. The relative neatness of the work clothes that still looked like they’d seen work. The expression of thoughtful intelligence and seriousness of purpose, which I was probably imagining in retrospect, since all I could actually remember noticing about his expression is that he looked a little sleepy. “Yes,” I said positively, “I think he owns the business.”
“And you want to own your own business?”
“I don’t know. I just think it must feel great to be a young guy on your way to work at your own business on Cape Cod on a beautiful summer morning.”
“In this economy?”
This stopped me. You can’t tell by the tourists how hard the Recession’s hit the Cape, but you can’t tell anything about the Cape from the tourists except that there are lots of places to get sunburned and buy T-shirts with the names of Cape towns and the logos of restaurants on them, which means you can tell there are lots of restaurants too, but that’s about all you can tell. It’s probably like most places that haven’t been totally devastated, maybe a little better because of the tourists and their money. Some people are doing well. Some people aren’t. It wouldn’t be fun to own your own business and not be doing well. The young guy might have been on his way to work at his own business outdoors on Cape Cod on a beautiful summer morning, but his first stop could very well be at the bank where he was going to be told he’d been turned down for the loan he needed to keep that business going another week.
Then I started thinking of other ways his life could be less than idyllic.
Maybe he was a boss but in name only, in that way that makes being a boss humiliating because nobody actually respects you. Maybe he didn’t own the business. Maybe his parents owned it. Or his in-laws. Or his wife. It’s no fun to work for your father says everybody I know who ever tried it. The nicest, most indulgent, most well-meaning parents, when it’s their company at stake, often think they have to be harder on their child than on any other employees, if only to show they aren’t playing favorites. And they naturally expect more, demand more, worry more, second-guess more since they’ve spent your whole lifetime thinking second-guessing you is their main job. How much fun can it be, having your boss yell at you all day because he loves you and can’t stand to see you failing, which you can’t help doing because you’re not him and he can’t think of any other way of doing well at the business other than by being him who built the business in the first place? You’ve been disappointing him since you were a kid by failing to be him, now you’re going to do it some more while losing his company money or by his fearing that you will?
And of course it’s worse working for your in-laws or prospective in-laws. Nobody respects a son-in-law or that even lower worm the boyfriend. And what if you find you don’t want to be with the daughter anymore? You love the job but you can’t stand her and want out of the marriage or the relationship? How do you make that choice? How do you like going to work facing that choice? And how about if it’s the other way around, you love her but you hate the job but a condition of her loving you is the job, she’s dreaming of the day when you two take over the business together?
I went over this with my friend.
“See,” she said, without any trace of smugness, just an insufferable reasonableness, “You don’t want to be him.”
“Like him,” I corrected but without spirit.
“You don’t know if you’d like being like him because you don’t know what it’s like to be like him.”
“I know what you really want anyway.”
“You want his pickup truck.”
I perked up. “That’s true! That is what I want! I want a pickup truck. A Ford though. Not a Chevy. That’s what I should do. Buy a pickup.”
“You don’t need a pickup truck.”
“You know, I have a wife who sounds just like you.”
You’re looking at the handiwork of bugs and birds or some very tall beavers.
How’s this for a lucky shot? I happen to be standing right there with my camera up and aimed just as this rotted old tree snaps and begins to topple?
Ok. You got me. It’s snagged on another tree outside the frame. Who knows how long it’s been hung up in mid-fall? The still healthily brown exposed heartwood looks to me as though it hasn’t been exposed to the weather all that long, but I’m no judge. I can’t even tell you what kind of tree it is. An oak of some kind or a pine. On the Cape, scrub oaks and pitch pines are the predominant trees in woods like this, a town conservation area seven or eight miles north of here in Orleans.
I can tell you what kind of tree it probably isn’t.
There aren’t a lot of adult American chestnuts anywhere. That’s because for over a hundred years there’s been a blight loose in the land that kills American chestnuts before they can grow tall enough to reproduce.
Somewhere out here there are chestnut trees that blossom and drop nuts.
I didn’t see them. They must be off the paths with the poison ivy and deer ticks.
I went to the woods to blog deliberately about chestnuts. I got tired of letting newspaper reporters do all my journalism for me. I’d hoped to interview a chestnut for myself. I failed. There were a couple of beech trees that were willing to talk to me, but not on the record. I’ll have to leave it to the professionals once again.
B is for books that he drew and sometimes wrote the words.
C is for cats who played with his ink.
D is for Dracula that made him rich clink clink clink
E is for Elephant House which he bought on a whim.
F is fur coats in which he looked quite trim.
No Edward Gorey, am I?
Better skip it.
Here are some notes on the visit, unrhymed and unalphabetized:
The skull on the table in the kitchen, wearing polarized sunglasses, is not Gorey’s.
People often ask, thinking that the keepers of the museum his house has become are as macabre as they assume Gorey himself was, their judgment of him as the kind of person who would want his skull displayed for the amusement of tourists based on his long career of producing pen and ink drawings that looked like they must have sprung from the mind of the kind of person who would want his skull displayed for the amusement of tourists.
Gorey died in 2000 at 75.
He keeled over on the couch in the living room of this house.
He was cremated and his ashes were divided.
One third were sent to be buried in Ohio in a family plot.
One third were set out to sea right here on the Cape.
And the last third were held in reserve, at his request, to be mingled with the ashes of his cats when the last of them died.
The last of the cats, Jane, died this spring.
Arrangements are being made.
Gorey drew his first cartoon when he was one and a half years old.
At the age of 6, he decided it was time to read a book by himself.
The book he chose to read was Dracula.
He was working on his own version of Dracula when he died.
In between, Dracula made his fortune.
He designed the sets and costumes for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula starring Frank Langella.
He won a Tony for his costume designs.
He was miffed that he didn’t win one for his set designs.
Gorey’s drawings of young women were influenced by the ballet.
You can categorize your own brand of geekitude by whether the title of this post made you think of Herman Melville or Star Trek or both.
Late this afternoon, after we’d set up our chairs and towels on a high spot on the beach at Nauset, I spotted a white-hulled sailboat far out on the horizon. The rest of our gang rushed headlong towards the water to throw themselves into the breaking waves but I stayed put with my binoculars, thinking that a closer look would show me that another Edward Hopper painting had come to life for a moment.
Today happens to be Hopper’s birthday---he’d have been a hundred and eighteen---and it would have been a nice coincidence if it was one of his sailboats hauling by.
But just as I got my sights trained on the boat something black and rounded broke the surface in the foreground. It rose with a splash and disappeared with another toss of white foam and I thought:
Whatever it was broke the water again. And disappeared. I swept the binoculars back and forth and found whatever it was just as it came up another time but I couldn’t hold it in my line of sight. Couldn’t be a whale, I decided, though, not this close in. I thought:
And I tucked the binoculars in their case and the case in our beach bag and sauntered down to the water to think about a swim.
A while later, having thought my way into the fifty-seven degree water up to my waist and having had a wave breaking over my shoulders make up my mind to dive all the way in for me, I was swimming along, contentedly numb to the cold, when I suddenly felt all alone in the water. I looked towards shore and saw lines of people standing along the berm at the high point of the beach, looking intently and pointing out to sea.
By this time I had forgotten my own earlier thought that I’d spotted a whale. I figured these people were watching a return of the seal. But then they seemed a little too rapt. Seals are fun, but they’ve become common enough that they shouldn’t enrapture a whole crowd like this. I thought:
You might recall that some Great Whites have been causing consternation around the Cape lately. Nauset Beach was closed one day last week because a shark swam by. The snack stand now sells t-shirts that say “Let’s Do Lunch” with a cartoon of a grinning shark leaning on the lettering.
But if there are sharks, I said to myself, sensibly, wouldn’t there be screaming? And the lifeguards would be acting concerned and waving for me to get out of the water, wouldn’t they?
I turned around to see what the crowd was looking at and took a wave smack in the mush.
After I came up for air and cleared my eyes and mouth of salt water, I trudged up the beach to our spot and dug the binoculars out of the beach bag.
I got them focused just in time to see a long white flipper lift itself out of the water, wave, slap the water, and disappear.
But Uncle Merlin already had his binoculars out and was sharing them with the blonde and the young men Mannions.
Of course there are whales here. That’s why there are two companies up in Provincetown that make their money taking tourists out on their ships to watch whales.
But the whales have tended to stay farther out to sea. The two times we went on a whale watch, it was an hour and a half cruise out of Provincetown to their preferred feeding grounds on the Stellwagen Bank. Uncle Merlin, who has been spending summers on the Cape far longer than any of the rest of us and can reasonably claim to have grown up on Nauset Beach, can’t remember ever having seen whales along here before.
At first Uncle Merlin doubted these were humpbacks. He’s had more recent and more up close encounters with humpbacks on his Hawaiian vacations the last two years. In the mornings he would take his coffee down to the beach in front of his hotel and watch the humpbacks playing offshore and listen to them sing when he took a swim. These looked smaller than their Hawaiian cousins and their backs looked black. The Hawaiian humpbacks are more bluish gray, he said.
The black backs and the white undersides and their to his eyes relatively smallish size had him thinking, at the blonde’s suggestion, minkes.
But the light’s very different here and perspective plays tricks. What’s blue in the soft morning light off Maui can easily turn black in the late afternoon glare off Cape Cod and judging size at long distance without references points isn’t easy. There were a couple of boats out there, sport fishing boats, thirty and forty footers, that looked awful small to me, toy-sized even, next to those whales. Except I couldn’t be sure they were next to the whales and not much farther out. You’re better off making these calls based on behavior.
To start with, there’s the spouts.
We counted spouts from at least three whales blowing at near the same time. Minke whales’ spouts are too low to be seen at a distance. Humpbacks blow columns of air up to sixteen feet high. That’s what you’re seeing when a whale spouts, by the way, air. They’re not blowing water, they’re exhaling, but the heated air from their lungs condenses when it hits the cooler air outside. Whales expel up to ninety per cent of what’s in their lungs when they breathe out. Humans breathe out a mere fifteen. Other whales, whales larger than humpbacks, blue whales and finbacks, blow higher spouts, but humpbacks blow more often, three to five times in a row, the spouts coming ten to twenty seconds apart.
Like the ones we were watching.
And none of the other whales common in these waters at this time of the year, blue whales, finbacks,right whales, seis, and minkes are as playful as humpbacks.
None of those other whales breach as high as these did.
None lift their tales in that show-offy way.
None leap from the water and turn themselves over to smack the surface as if to see how big a splash they can make.
None raise their flippers as if waving hello and slap the waves, again as if to see how big a splash they can make. None of the others can do it because none of the others have flippers as large. Humpbacks’ flippers can be a third as long as their bodies.
And they look like they’re waving because they are waving. I’ve seen them do it, wave hello to the boat we were on when they first appeared, wave goodbye when they were about to swim off. They wave goodbye with their tails too.
Some people of a more scientific turn of mind might say that what looks like play is actually work, that the humpbacks are doing what they’re doing to scare up fish to eat, but those people wouldn’t include the cetologists aboard the boats we went whale watching on, who watched the whales themselves every day and were convinced the whales knew what the humans aboard the boats came out to see and put on a show to oblige.
And they wouldn’t include Herman Melville who called humpbacks “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales.”
I’m sure the whales off Nauset today knew they were being watched.
How they would know I don’t know. I don’t know how far a whale can see. They stuck around for another hour, at least, which I’d guess for a whale isn’t enough time for a quick snack, never mind a full meal, so I have to think the point of the show was the show.
Ok. I don’t have to think it. I like to think we were watching the cetacean equivalent of sidewalk performance art.
Better than a mime, I’ll tell you that.
While we were watching, three women in their early forties, at least two of them sisters, and a passel of their junior high school age daughters and the daughters’ friends, set up their beach chairs and spread out their towels nearby. Naturally they were curious about what everyone was looking at. We loaned them our binoculars.
We didn’t get them back for twenty minutes.
We didn’t mind though. They were having too much fun as they handed our binoculars back and forth and their excitement re-ignited ours.
There happened to be a television camera crew on the beach. They were there to do a story on the snack stand, I learned later. But they went down to the water to try to get some shots of the whales and a crowd formed around them, lots of people, mostly kids, looking to be on TV, and the daughters dashed off to join them.
One of the mothers chased after them, determined, she told us, to drag the camera crew back so they could interview Uncle Merlin. She’d enjoyed his stories about his encounters with humpbacks in Hawaii and thought that the fact that he’d been coming to Nauset all his life and this was the first time he’d ever seen whales here made him just the person the TV people needed to get a comment from for their story.
The other two mothers agreed but they couldn’t tear themselves away.
They told us they’d been thinking they’d go up to Provincetown and go on a whale watch sometime this vacation and now they didn’t have to.
“This is better,” one said. without lowering the binoculars. “Because it’s a surprise. On the boat it might be feel like you’re just going to see them in a zoo. This way, it’s like you bumped into them in the wild.”
Photo of humpback leaping via Wildlife Extra. Photo of humpack flipper by Christopher M. Keane for Earth Magazine.
South Beach is an extension of the barrier beach that stretches out below Lighthouse Beach, and we stick to Lighthouse Beach when we’re in Chatham, so if the sharks had made their appearance in the same spot while we were on vacation we we wouldn’t have seen them or had to get out of the water just when we thought it was safe to get back in.
Other day. Tuesday. I’m bobbing about in Oyster Pond, not exactly swimming, more like engaging in some directed drift, around the barrel-supported rafts at the farthest reaches of the roped in swimming area, lazily batting aside moon jellies, which I don’t see but feel on the backs of my hands as sudden and a subtle pockets of tautness in the water, ducking my head when the green head flies come find me, but except for the flies and the jelly fish all alone and mightily enjoying the solitude, until I realize I’m hearing voices. A young couple, a boy and a girl in their late teens or early twenties, have swum out and climbed aboard the nearest raft while my attention was on something else.
They’re stretched out in the sun, she lying full-length on her back, he propped up on his elbows beside her, and they’re holding a quiet but apparently cheerful conversation. I don’t know what they’re talking about because I don’t speak whatever Eastern European language they’re speaking.
College students working on the Cape for the summer. Tip jars on the counters of coffee shops and snack bars around here are labeled with the names of schools like Southwestern University of Bulgaria and Odessa State.
I couldn’t make out their faces. I don’t wear my glasses when I’m swimming. But they were lean and fit and deeply tanned and beautiful in outline. Their voices were filled with affectionate familiarity, flirtatious but not intimate, although a couple of times she shrieked and then laughed nervously in an embarrassed but thrilled despite herself way at something he said and then spoke sharply quite clearly telling him to cut it out in their language. Mostly, though, their talk was just the this and that back and forth of a young couple contentedly in love enjoying each other’s company.
They weren’t taking any notice of me but I felt awkward and intrusive for taking notice of them and I pushed off towards shore to give them the privacy I thought they deserved.
Back on the beach, I looked out at the raft. They were still there, still talking. “Were we ever that young?” I thought to myself with amusement, affection, nostalgia, and a touch of regret. “We must have been. So how come I don’t remember it?”
I’m telling you this so that when I tell you about this other couple and you suspect a Hey you kids, get off my lawn quality in what I tell you, you’ll give me some credit and not dismiss me as an old fogey grumping that youth is wasted on the young. I’m an old fogey who likes to see the young making the most of their youth and the sight of couples like the boy and girl at Oyster Pond make me happy even while I mourn my own lost youth.
This other couple though…
Saturday. Lighthouse Beach. The Mannions and Uncle Merlin are frolicking in the numbingly cold surf. Turning blue, I take a quick look up at the beach and the long dash across the sand to the nearest warm towel and I see that this couple has spread out on their towels and blanket right next to our stuff where they have gotten busy making the most of their youth.
I confess to having gotten carried away a few times in my day. There were moments in open fields and shady glens and empty classrooms and parked cars and parents’ basements and, once, a library stairwell where the privacy I assumed we had stolen was more of a lucky gift and there was no reason that no one came along to interrupt except that no one ever did.
That I know of.
But I never went looking for an audience.
It wasn’t as if they could think they had stumbled on a temporarily secluded spot that they were too young and too much in love to resist taking advantage of. While our towels and chairs were empty, other towels and chairs and blankets around and about were not.
They had company on all sides, a dozen or so people of all ages and sorts and conditions sharing a single thought.
“Get a dune!”
She was on top, straddling his hips, and she was not sitting still. He held her gently, his hands just above her waist. They were like the other couple lean and fit and deeply tanned and beautiful in outline, but they were also beautiful close up too. Not movie star beautiful or model beautiful or even professional athlete beautiful. Beautiful the way averagely good looking people will be for a relatively short period in their youth when a combination of good health, good spirits, genetic luck, and a suffusion of hormones cause them to blossom like gorgeous wildflowers. This happens to different people at different times. For some it occurs in their late teens or early twenties, for others it holds off until they are in their late twenties or even early thirties. These two, who I judged were twenty-one or twenty-two, were blossoming together.
I’ve always believed that couples who engage in prolonged public displays of affection have no other way of engaging with each other. They don’t talk because they have nothing to say.
I can’t swear this was the case with this couple. But they stayed on the beach the whole while we were there and they weren’t lip-locked or hip-locked the whole time and the only time either of them did any talking at length was when he saw a friend of his and went over to say hi. She tagged after him but she didn’t join in and he showed no sign of wanting to include her. She hung back, the conversation stayed between the two guys, and when it ended the couple went back to their blanket and their mutual near silence.
It’s easy to imagine that they had nothing in common but the fact that they were both perfect at the same time. And it’s satisfying to think that in the not too distant future she’ll be out with friends and see him with his new girlfriend and say, “Can you believe he’s going with her? She’s fat!” or that he’ll be out with his friends and see her and say, “What’s she doing with him? He’s a geek!”
And it’s pleasant to imagine that the first couple’s conversation will continue, with the same affection and cheerfulness and flirtatiousness on through their Fiftieth Anniversary.
But life doesn’t work that way, does it?
Because they talk to each other and listen, the first couple might figure out sooner that they’re on different paths and need to go their separate ways.
Because they don’t talk, the second couple might never figure it out and proceed happily towards their Fiftieth Anniversary with no clue and no thought that they each might have had a different sort of life.
The first couple might be talking themselves out of a romance and into a friendship. The second couple, having exhausted themselves one night, might start chatting amiably and discover they can’t shut up and they’ve begun a conversation full of affection and good humor and flirtation that will go on year after year without end end until one of them can no longer talk anymore.
But for sentimental reasons my money’s on the first couple. The second couple’s having their fun now and it’s enough and good for them. Good luck to them both in whatever comes next. But I want to believe that twenty or twenty-five years from now the first couple will be down here with their kids and he’ll look out from the beach one day and see another couple on the float, talking, and he’ll think with more amusement and affection than nostalgia and regret, “Were we ever that young?”
I don’t just mean that they’re cute and likeable and the source of endless sight gags.
The minions are key to making Gru, the evil genius who is the despicable him of the title, sympathetic as a villain.
It’s a given that the three young orphans Gru “adopts” to help further his plot to steal the moon and prove he is the greatest villain of our time will melt his heart and cause him to change his evil ways. So, wisely, the filmmakers don’t spend much time on showing us Gru’s not such a bad guy after all. The little girls do what we know they’re going to do but they do it by being Gru’s antagonists. As in they antagonize him, deliberately and accidentally, and for at least the first half of the movie the question is when they will bring about his change of heart but how much trouble they will cause him and how much he’ll put up with before the inevitable happens.
The girls are presented as another occupational hazard for a professional villain.
It helps that Margo, Edith, and Agnes have minds and needs and an agenda of their own and they don’t act as if they “know” it’s their job within the story to turn Gru into a good guy. As far as they’re concerned, it’s Gru’s job to do that for himself by taking care of them which he’s required to do because he is the grown-up and they are the children.
It’s only in the movies that children make it their business to be responsible for grown-ups.
But from Gru’s point of view, the girls are simply components in the complicated machinery of his scheme and they’re causing him headaches---not to mention other sorts of aches and pains---by refusing to be managed as components.
In every evil scheme, things will go wrong. A smart villain expects setbacks and is ready to adapt. Frequent returns to the drawing board are a routine part of the job. The girls turn out to be more trouble than they’re worth. They’re getting in the way. And the filmmakers expect us to understand and sympathize with Gru’s frustration.
They’ve got us rooting for Gru’s evil scheme to succeed even as we’re looking forward to his change of heart.
We’re meant to sympathize with Gru just as we’re meant to sympathize with Wile E. Coyote---and as Oliver Mannion pointed out on the way out of the theater Sunday, many of the things that go wrong for Gru along the way as he pursues his schemes are straight out of Looney Tunes.
Of course, we don’t want the coyote to catch and eat the road runner. Well, most of us don’t. But he puts so much effort into it and suffers so much that we can’t help feeling sorry for him.
We don’t feel sorry for Gru in that way. We want him to steal the moon and we feel sorry that he has to go through so much trouble.
That’s because Gru is a professional and a craftsman.
Wile E. Coyote improvises all the time and his various schemes are bought and prefabricated. He expects the genius as ACME to do his work for him. Gru is a thoughtful, careful, hardworking villain. We can’t help feeling he deserves to have his plots succeed.
The point I’m taking too long to make is that Gru truly is despicable. He’s a bad guy. And the filmmakers don’t expect us to overlook that. They want us to like him, but not in spite of the fact that he’s a villain, and not because he’s really a hero on the wrong path. They want us to like him because he is very good at being a villain.
The girls help us see that. The contrast between Gru and his arch-nemesis, Vector, helps even more.
Vector is every bit the evil genius Gru is. But he lacks discipline. Gru’s evil scheming is his vocation. With Vector, it’s an indulgence.
Everything about Vector signals his laziness. His flopping Moe Howard haircut, his fanny pack worn front ways round because it’s too much trouble to have to reach behind, his orange track suit, his boneless slouching, this is a self-indulgent child-man who can’t be bothered. He’s an evil genius because it beats working for a living.
Here, Gru is helped out by the animation. He is an aesthetic anomaly in his own movie. All the other characters are short and rounded, either cuddly or squishy, with oversized heads that cause many of them to look squatty and crumpled as if collapsing under the weight of their own noggins. Gru is drawn evilly, dark and scary, but he’s also tall and taut and his lines are trim. Stylistically, he owes much to Charles Addams and more to Edward Gorey, and although he’s a broad in the shoulders and chest as Bluto, he still has a Gorey character’s fluidity. This is a villain who knows how to move. Tall, strong, and supple, he’s macabrely heroic in his villainosity.
But it’s the minions who sell us on Gru as a secret good guy. They are absolutely devoted to him and giddily happy in their work. On Gru’s birthday he probably gets a thousand mugs with The World’s Best Boss on them and they’re all heartfelt and well-meant and he appreciates each and every one.
Gru may be an evil genius but he’s smart enough to know the value of a good employee.
Display case. Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. This morning. Monday. July 19, 2010.
Hot and oppressively muggy again today. Tooled on over to Brewster and paid the Museum of Natural History to use their air conditioning for a couple of hours.
Last few years the museum has featured displays highlighting the careers of writers who have made Cape Cod their home or their subject.
One year it was Henry Beston, who wrote The Outermost House, about the year he spent living in a tiny cabin tucked back into the dunes up at Eastham.
Another year it was Rachel Carson, a stretch in her case, since she lived most of her adult life near the Chesapeake Bay and then in Maine. But her subject was really the whole of the northern Atlantic coast and what she wrote about marine life up and down there in Under the Sea Wind, The Edge of the Sea, and The Sea Around Us, applies here. Pluck a lobster out of the Chesapeake or Penobscot Bay and drop him in the drink off Brewster and he wouldn’t much notice the difference.
Burgess was a children’s author who wrote stories about animals in the manner of Beatrix Potter.
So much in the manner of Potter that his main recurring character was a rabbit who before he---that is, the rabbit---changed his name in fit of vainglory to Peter Cottontail was called Peter Rabbit and he wore the same blue jacket with brass buttons that Potter’s Peter Rabbit had to leave behind in Mr McGregor’s garden.
To be fair, the blue jacket was a touch added by one of Burgess’ illustrators. As far as I’ve been able to learn, the text is silent on Burgess’ Peter’s sartorial preferences. Burgess’ favorite illustrator, Harrison Cady, made Peter’s jacket red.
Burgess was very popular in his day, which lasted from the early part of the 20th Century---1910, to be exact, when he published his first book---into the 1960s---he died in 1965---and he still has a following and many of his books are still in print.
Whatever age you are when you read Beatrix Potter and Winnie-the-Pooh for yourself, that’s the age when you would pick up and fall in love with the works of Thornton Burgess. And whatever age that is when I was that age I must have been reading only Potter and Milne, because I’d never heard of Burgess until I learned that he was one of Old Father Blonde’s favorites when he was that age, whatever it was, and I didn’t learn that until about ten years ago when he and Old Mother Blonde, visiting us for a couple of days on the Cape, made a stop on their way here at Burgess’s home in Sandwich, which is now a museum.
Up until that visit, as far as I knew, Father Blonde had cut his literary teeth on a diet of Bomba the Jungle Boy and John Carter of Mars. He didn’t instill his affections for Burgess in his daughter and she has only the vaguest memories of his reading her any of those stories. Her recollection is that he loved the Oz books they read together more but of course he might have been loving them for her sake as much as or more than for his own fond memories of them. But when he arrived full of excitement at what he’d seen at Burgess’ house he was delivering news to me of Burgess’ existence and since the Mannion guys were very young at the time and not only still enjoyed being read to, they demanded it, I decided to share with them their grandfather’s enthusiasm.
It didn’t share.
I went down to the library and checked out a few books and that night we started one. The guys were quick to let me know they weren’t taken with it.
Freddy and his friends on the Bean farm were the last talking animals the guys allowed in their hall of fame, not counting Gaspode the talking dog in Discworld, and he wouldn’t count himself. Gaspode resents the fact he can talk. The ability is the result of a sort of industrial accident, magic leaking out the windows of Unseen University onto the sidewalk where he was begging, and it’s brought him nothing but trouble and heartache. (See, particularly, Moving Pictures and The Fifth Elephant .)
I was relieved when the guys made it clear they wanted to move onto something else.
The stories weren’t bad. But very quickly they’d become no fun to read out loud.
I didn’t like the tone the prose forced into my voice and the words didn’t flow naturally. Burgess’ style is simple and straight-forward but he gets too deliberately cute in too many spots and all too often adopts a folksy form of direct address that’s clumsy and phony and old-fashioned in the way he seems to be talking down to his young readers as if assuming he has to make things very easy for them and keep them constantly reassured that nothing difficult or scary is going on.
His favorite adjective is little.
Followed by dear.
Potter, although she is his near contemporary, is much more modern both in her style and in her confidence that her readers are right with her, maybe even a little ahead.
Her prose is more varied and musical without being any more wordy and she has an eye, and an ear, for telling, eccentric details, like the fact that the counter in Ginger and Pickles’ store is a convenient height for rabbits and red handkerchiefs sell there at a penny and three farthings.
Spotty red handkerchiefs.
This was my rule when we were still reading out loud to the boys. If it’s work for the grown-up to read it, it’s no fun for the kids to listen to it.
And it’s as true for writing for adults as for writing for children. The best-written make the best-listening.
Good writing has a sound and it’s the sound of a human voice speaking naturally. When you hear it, it should sound like somebody talking, which, by the way, is not the same as saying that to write well you should write the way people talk.
Nobody talks like Burgess writes, except adults trying too hard to make small children think they’re having fun.
That, of course, is the judgment of the middle-aged Lance Mannion. The seven or eight year old a long way from being Old Father Blonde had a much different opinion. It may be that Burgess’ stories are best read silently by children who have discovered him while looking for something to read all on their own.
The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History isn’t celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Old Mother West Wind just because Burgess was born and lived some of his life on the Cape.
The fields and woods and orchards his characters call home, Peter’s dear Old Briar-patch and the Lone Little Path he skips along on his way through the Green Meadows are based on the landscape Burgess grew up in around Sandwich, but they could easily have been modeled on the woods and fields around Burgess’ other home, off-Cape in Hampden, Massachusetts, and it’s those woods and fields that the Audubon Society bought after he died and turned into the Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary.
It’s the fact that people thought the best way to honor Burgess’ memory was by turning the models for his fictional landscapes into nature preserves that’s the other reason the Museum of Natural History has included him in a line with Rachel Carson and Henry Beston and John Hay and Robert Finch, my two favorite Cape writers whose work the museum highlighted two years ago.
Burgess was a self-taught naturalist and an active and life-long conservationist. He wrote his first stories to teach his children about the land they were growing up in and the animals and trees and plants living there with them.
It was one of his main objects when he wrote to convey a realistic sense of place and depict something close to the real life behaviors and characters of the animals and birds he loved, a tricky thing to do when those animals and birds had to talk and wear clothes.
One of the great features of the museum is its snug little library---that little is literally descriptive, not an homage to Burgess, but I’m under the influence. Maybe I should have written small, snug library. Whichever. It’s there and it’s a pleasant place to sit and read so that’s what I did, sat and read chapters of The Burgess Bird Book for Children, while the other Mannions poked around among the fish tanks and glass cages and display cases downstairs.
The book is written in story form. Peter has multiple encounters with birds as he wanders about the Green Meadows and the Old Briar-patch and each bird tells him its story, which tends to go pretty much like the one Spooky the Screech Owl tells him in Chapter Forty-Two:
Spooky the Screech Owl, for that is who it was, came out of the hole in the tree and without a sound from his wings flew over and perched just above Peter's head. He was a little fellow, not over eight inches high, but there was no mistaking the family to which he belonged. In fact he looked very much like a small copy of Hooty the Great Horned Owl, so much so that Peter felt a little cold shiver run over him, although he had nothing in the world to fear from Spooky.
His head seemed to be almost as big around as his body, and he seemed to leave no neck at all. He was dressed in bright reddish-brown, with little streaks and bars of black. Underneath he was whitish, with little streaks and bars of black and brown. On each side of his head was a tuft of feathers. They looked like ears and some people think they are ears, which is a mistake. His eyes were round and yellow with a fierce hungry look in them. His bill was small and almost hidden among the feathers of his face, but it was hooked just like the bill of Hooty. As he settled himself he turned his head around until he could look squarely behind him, then brought it back again so quickly that to Peter it looked as if it had gone clear around. You see Spooky's eyes are fixed in their sockets and he cannot move them from side to side. He has to turn his whole head in order to see to one side or the other.
This passage could also be reworked for a field guide.
Peter nodded as if he quite understood, although he couldn't understand at all. "I'm ever so pleased to find you living here," said he politely. "You see, in winter the Old Orchard is rather a lonely place. I don't see how you get enough to eat when there are so few birds about."
"Birds!" snapped Spooky. "What have birds to do with it?"
"Why, don't you live on birds?" asked Peter innocently.
"I should say not. I guess I would starve if I depended on birds for my daily food," retorted Spooky. "I catch a Sparrow now and then, to be sure, but usually it is an English Sparrow, and I consider that I am doing the Old Orchard a good turn every time I am lucky enough to catch one of the family of Bully the English Sparrow. But I live mostly on Mice and Shrews in winter and in summer I eat a lot of grasshoppers and other insects. If it wasn't for me and my relatives I guess Mice would soon overrun the Great World. Farmer Brown ought to be glad I've come to live in the Old Orchard and I guess he is, for Farmer Brown's boy knows all about this house of mine and never disturbs me. Now if you'll excuse me I think I'll fly over to Farmer Brown's young orchard. I ought to find a fat Mouse or two trying to get some of the bark from those young trees."
There are facts in there, yes, sir. Young readers will learn a thing or two. For instance, that Spooky’s a cannibal.
Bully the Sparrow and his family are regular recurring characters in Burgess’ stories, unpleasant characters, because they tend to act like real sparrows and push other little birds out of their nesting places, but they talk and they think like the other animals, which is to say they talk and they think like people, and the possibility that they’re going to get eaten conjures up thoughts of people getting eaten. At least that’s the way it’s always worked on me, and it’s been my complaint about books and movies featuring talking animals since I was a kid and explains why they were never among my favorites.
Few of the writers bothered to write their way around the fact that people eat animals and animals eat other animals.
Pooh doesn’t count. He and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are actually toys.
Potter’s stories take place on another planet where the animals go back and forth between being furry and feathered people and animals.
And in and around Toad Hall, Toad and his friends are people. Furry and feathered people with odd tastes in architecture but otherwise very middle-class and British tastes in their living arrangements. In fact, Mole’s and Rat’s and even Badger’s homes remind me of Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End. In fact, Mole and Rat and Badger and Toad are a lot like hobbits and I wonder if anyone’s done a study on Kenneth Grahame’s possible influence on J.R.R. Tolkien.
But I never liked Charlotte’s Web. Yes, it’s a relief that Wilbur’s not going to wind up as pork chops and bacon, but his escape just means that some other poor sensitive, thoughtful, talking pig who doesn’t have a spider friend who can write will wind up as an Easter ham.
Maybe I’d have been less squeamish if I’d read Thornton Burgess’s stories when I was the right age, whenever that is, and learned a few things about nature.
Maybe, though, I’d have rooted for Reddy Fox to catch Peter Rabbit.
I had a sentimental streak, but I could be a hard and cynical kid.
What kind of kid were you and what books did you love?
BOURNE — Created in the angular art moderne style of the 1930s and '40s, the Cleveland East Ledge Light Station is far from traditional.
But government officials say it is unique and hope they can find an individual or group to take ownership of the historic lighthouse.
Situated eight miles southwest of the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, the lighthouse is being offered free for the second time in three years by the federal General Services Administration to an eligible party willing to pay for its maintenance.
The United States Coast Guard, which maintains the structure, has deemed it "in excess" of its needs, the GSA said.
They like their players on the thin side in the Cape Cod League.
Give them time and lots of weight training and some of these kids are going to fill out. And now and then a real bruiser will step up to the plate. But most of them are built the way ball players used to be built until one day when somebody invented Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn, not like linebackers and tight ends and fullbacks who happened to have quick wrists and keen eyes, but like, well, anybody.
Up until a generation ago, team photos featured few Adonises and only the occasional lumberjack. Scarecrows, bantams, and plowboys big of bone but light on muscle and fat filled the rosters. Mickey Mantle, a coal miner’s kid, and Willie Mays, son of a factory hand, looked like they arrived at their first spring training with their lunch pails and were each less than six feet tall and under 190 pounds.
Now days, Adonises and lumberjacks are the norm and Derek Jeter, who could play Superman, looked slight and fragile beside other All-Stars on the field in Anaheim Tuesday night.
Cape League players come in all shapes and sizes, just usually not thick in the chest, gut, or shoulders.
Tonight, Chatham Anglers down 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh, two out and a man on first thanks to being hit by a pitch, kid comes to the plate, thin kid, young Joe DiMaggio thin, not quite young Ted Williams thin. Six-two, one-ninety it says in the program.
Center fielder. The crowd erupts for him. I figure he’s a local favorite, having a great summer for the Anglers, who, as a team, are having a fairly mediocre summer. But I think I hear somebody in the stands behind me explaining the applause is for a catch the kid made earlier in the game, before I got here in the top of the fourth. But whoever said it might have had him confused with the left fielder who’d made a beaut of a sliding catch of a foul ball in the sixth.
First pitch. The pitcher burns one high and tight inside.
And the kid grins.
He looks straight out down the left field line. The grin is not for the pitcher and definitely not for the umpire, at least not for the umpire to see well enough that he can’t ignore it, because you can tell by the way the kid holds it, the way he keeps looking down the line, as if pointedly not looking in any other direction, especially not behind him, and the way he lets his shoulders go loose and his bat resting on his shoulder dip, and the way the grin turns into a small laugh as he shakes his head that he disagrees with the call.
That he’s disagreed with it all summer.
This is a silent argument he and this ump have had before and he knows he’s lost it. I don’t know if they’ve ever had it out. I’m just sure that the kid is convinced he’s made his case persuasively and he thinks this ump is being stubborn, to put it mildly.
Ninety years ago or so. Pitch comes in. A perfect strike. Ball, says the umpire. The young catcher turns around, surprised.
What was wrong with that one, ump?
Son, says the ump, it’s not a strike until Mr Hornsby says it’s a strike.
The kid squares his shoulders, cocks his bat, the argument’s over.
Second pitch comes in, same spot, high and inside. Strike two. No reaction this time from the kid. Neither the pitch nor the call surprised him.
No way the pitcher was going to resist throwing it there again. No way the kid was going to swing.
It’s 0 and 2 now.
Third pitch, another heater, and I can’t see where it would have crossed the plate, I can only see where it’s going to land in right field.
It bounces once, twice out there, deep, the right fielder turns the wrong way on it. Kid’s in with a stand-up double and the runner who was on first is walking back to the dugout accepting high fives and fist bumps from his teammates, scores now Chatham 1, Yarmouth-Dennis 2, and the crowd’s thinking rally time, and I’m thinking, Who’s the last player I saw who liked hitting 0 and 2?
Some sabermetrician have the numbers, how many doubles Boggs hit with two strikes on him?
But I go home happy, telling myself this is one to remember, like the time I was there for Boggs’ first game at Fenway. Write the kid’s name down, I tell myself, so you won’t forget. You’ve seen Jason Bay play here. Evan Longoria. Now this kid. This kid who knows how to hit.
The trouble with this story is that it’s fiction. The kid’s future is a long way from certain. Best there ever was, best there ever will be…Only one hitter his age ever knew that about himself.
Brian Humphries is not exactly tearing up the league. Batting .240 as of Thursday night. The grin and the chuckle I took to be at the umpire’s bad eyesight might have been at his own continued struggles at the plate. He has major league potential, according to a couple stories on the Google. He hit .305 for Pepperdine last season. Drove in 32 runs in 52 games.
Seventeen doubles, 427 slugging percentage.
Not a lot of walks though, but only 25 strike outs in 220 at bats.
Humphries knows what he’s doing at the plate. Still way, way too early for comparisons to Wade Boggs or Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams.
My imagination and my memory combined to tell me a story I believed to be true because it’s the kind of story that ought to be true.
But it’s also the kind of story that sometimes comes true.
That’s one of the things I love about baseball, though. What might happen, what might have happened, what did happen, once upon a time, somewhere else to somebody else, what should have happened, and what is happening all happen together.
You’re never just watching this one game, this one hitter, this one play.
You’re watching every game that has ever been played, every batter who has ever come to the plate, every great catch, every bad hop, every can of corn, every ball that ever left the park and appeared to keep on going.
Brian Humphries takes a strike high and inside and laughs quietly at a joke known only to himself and at the same time it’s not a strike until Mr Horsnby says it’s a strike.
Stopped in at Parnassus Book Service this morning and almost lost the vacation right there. Could’ve spent the next week and a half searching the stacks. Had to be dragged out, but not before I was finally able to complete my set of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens with American Notes and Pictures From Italy . Yarmouthport. July 15, 2010.
Every year, Kemp’s Ridleys travel to Cape Cod for the summer, when the water is warm. Most migrate back to warmer waters in the winter, but experts believe some young turtles get into trouble when they are swept north of the Cape by currents.
Since the turtles are still young — ages 2 to 4 — they are not strong enough to navigate back down the East Coast, so they end up stuck in Cape Cod Bay.
Because the turtles are coldblooded, their body temperatures decrease with the water temperature, LaCasse said. By November, their body temperatures are in the low 50s, a critical level. Then “the first winter winds drag them to the beaches of the Cape,’’ where volunteers patrol hundreds of miles of shoreline, looking to rescue them.
Ten of the rescued turtles were released yesterday from Dowes Beach in Osterville. Wish I’d known it was going to happen, I’d have gone to take a look.