International Talk Like A Pirate Day

This is it, folks! Your opportunity to talk like a pirate – International Talk Like A Pirate Day, September 19th! If you need tuition beyond the basic ARRRR, or aye matey, you’d “be smart as paint” to hustle over to Netflix. Watch the actor Robert Newton use Dorset and Cornish English to simulate what many believe may have been the basis for at least some pirate patois. Treasure Island movies are a great place to start.

It’s important to point out that the actual pirates of the “Golden Age of Piracy” were diverse. There were Europeans, Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, and Africans. Anyone who could handle a belaying pin, lay a gun, and drink Kill Devil Rum. Oh, and have a larcenous spirit. 

Real pirate talk probably was a linguistic wonderland of international four-letter words, descriptive phrases, and nasty things to tell someone to do.

Of course, I have a personal stake in all this having an ancestor hung for Piracy in the Caribbean, and others who sailed with Morgan to raid Panama – Gentleman of Fortune they were!

Mind you, “Porch Pirates” stealing Amazon packages aren’t dues-paying members of the Brethren of the Coast. They are scabs!

The Bevel Gauge

Before starting full-time studies at Boston University, I worked various jobs to pay my part-time tuition at the Metropolitan College. Some of that work was as a personal attendant for older people. There was the doctor who thought he was still in practice in Dorchester and the former wool shipping magnate who dragged me to all the finest private clubs in the Boston area, and at last, there was the ship carpenter.
John was the son of a ship carpenter who had worked in the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay. John’s dad has worked on many of Mckay’s clipper ships. John himself had been a carpenter in several New England shipyards and was proudest of the work he had done during World War II in the South Portland shipyards building Liberty ships for the war effort.

This job did not pay me as well as babysitting the well to do. John’s brother controlled the purse strings and held them tightly closed for his brother’s care. His brother and nephew Paul where all the family John had, and where John was garrulous and generous, the brother was tightlipped and would play games with pay if you didn’t watch. But he paid in cash each week, and that made the tuition bill disappear all that much faster.
John was a motor mouth, but on topics he knew, ship carpentry, his stories were fascinating. He’d been his father’s apprentice late in the old man’s life and had learned old school methods alongside newer ones. His love in later years had been finish carpentry, and once a month or so, John would have the nephew and I dig out the old tool chest that had been his father’s and tell us about each tool and the tricks of how to use them. He maintained that the marine carpenter’s most needed tool was the bevel gauge. The bevel gauge is a long flat metal piece with a slot in the middle. Into the slot fits a bolt and a closure nut on a long brass and hardwood handle. Adjusting the nut and changing the sliding metal piece’s angle allows you to approximate almost any angle you need. Being that there were so many odd angles in marine cabinetwork, John maintained that you could not do without it. ” ninety degrees? Those are hard to find on a boat.”

The nephew, Paul, was a young man in search of a life. His father wanted him in finance with him. But he loved to hear the stories John told about shipyard work and also loved to quiz me about my interest in history and anthropology. His preferred companions were his uncle John and me. We could make an afternoon fly by swapping tales. By four-thirty in the afternoon, I’d leave to go home, feed my cat, and get ready for evening classes.
It was a good year. I had time to study on the job, good companionship, and cash every Friday. It couldn’t last. One day I showed up to find that John had been taken to the hospital. Two weeks later, Paul called to tell me that John had died, and the ceremonies had been family only. Then he told me that his father was planning on selling the tool chest and all the contents. He hoped to “recoup” some of the expenses of the funeral. I thought it was sad that a family heirloom chest of tools dating to the 1840s was going to go to auction, rather than stay in the family.
Paul asked me: ” Dad has no idea of what’s in the chest, and I want something to remember my uncle by. If I took just one tool, which do you think it should be?”
We discussed it. In the chest were a set of well-crafted saws, chisels, and a number of handmade wooden planes. But when we turned all the options over and over, we realized that it had to be John’s well-used bevel gauge, the indispensable tool.
The next semester I began to study full time as an anthropology major at Boston University. I heard nothing further from John’s brother or from his nephew.
Years later, though, I read an article in one of the Boston paper’s Sunday magazines; in the article, there was a photo of John’s nephew in his law office. In a case prominently set on the wall was John’s bevel gauge. The caption read: “My uncle’s bevel gauge is a reminder to me that not everything in life is square or plumb; nor does it need to be.”
Well, it’s true. We are a society that prefers things square, plumb and regular; just so in their place. But life isn’t that neat, and that’s where a sort of mental version of the bevel gauge comes in handy.

The Berry Bowl

I learned about berry bowls my first fall in Maine. Some friends invited me to go searching for the makings.
Berry bowls, I asked “is it alcoholic?” No, it was a large clear jar or brandy snifter filled with reminders of the outdoors that you would take indoors to the ill. Especially in the winter, they served as reminders of more pleasant times during the summer.
A berry bowl would preferably contain different types of moss and evergreen plants. Especially favored for the arrangements were teaberry ( gaultheria procumbens), bearberry ( arstostaphylos uva ursi), partridge berry ( mitchella repens), or cranberries. These plants are favored for their with their bright red berries. The moss and plants would be moistened and arranged in the bowl. The top of the bowl, snifter, or jar would be covered with something clear, like a plastic wrap, to slow moisture loss. In a sunny window, a berry bowl would last the entire winter.
There were as many variations on the theme as there were people who made them. Some people added variety to the bowl with bits of lichen-covered twigs.
I make a berry bowl in this large snifter every fall. In the one pictured here are teaberry, princess pine, and a bit of cranberry. I used an assortment of mosses for different greens. The stone is for contrast with the living components.
Some years I’ve added sundews ( hard to keep going inside) and small pitcher plants. If you try this, remember that you want the berry bowl moist, but not soaking, and it does need a sunny spot; don’t leave it sealed tight in the sun.
If you don’t have an area of your own to gather from many of the listed items, are available online. Please don’t go picking in the woodlands. In many places, laws prohibit the gathering of wild and native plants.

I make one or more every fall, and they serve to remind me of old friends and good times. In January and February, they serve as reminders that spring is coming.

Sound Track for Violence

A shelter for cats I’m familiar with plays music to calm and entertain the felines and two-legged staff. Researchers have composed music that they say cats appreciate. I knew this years ago. My current cat Xenia could care less about what your mp3 player is pumping out. Our dignified black cat Smidgen, enjoyed folk music played on my guitar, but my old gray cat Clancy had particular tastes in music- Warren Zevon.
Lawyers Guns and Money, Excitable Boy, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, especially Werewolves of London (…draw blood…)and many others were on his favorites playlist. He would spend time with the Grateful Dead, Lynard Skinner, or the Stones, but his perpetual favorite was Zevon.
As in many things relating to Clancy, there was a ritualized aspect to his musical appreciation: drawing blood. Yes, listening to Zevon was a combat sport for him.
It went like this you’d slide the cassette into the tape deck and start it up. Within a few minutes into the room would march Clancy. He would either jump onto the bed, desk, or his favorite Windsor chair. He’d take a deep breath and let it out while standing up on his hind legs. This prep was his challenge to you to come and get beat up. Your job was to avoid the lightning ripostes of his paws. As the music played, he tires of using just the claws and would attempt a whole body tackle of your arm with all four legs and toothy mouth. Your task was to thwart this by lightning strikes of your own. Touching lightly on his body or the back of his head, and frustrating his attempts to slash you. Laugh while doing this, and you have made the fatal error of insulting his prowess. Now he leaps for you, and it becomes a wrestling match with his objective being to immobilize your arm while he brings his hind legs into position to rabbit kick you. If you have been so incautious to engage wearing only short sleeves, you will lose the soon-to-be bloody contest. If you have avoided the clinch, you can step back while he plans the next assault. The song ends, and Clancy calmly licks your blood off his claws – mmmm, O negative an excellent vintage, 1946, I believe?
If you have erred and won this contest for some reason, Clancy’s honor requires an instant rematch. Quick, get the bouncy balls out, and challenge him to a round of slapshot Cat Hockey* in the kitchen. You might yet avoid a trip to the emergency room.

*See my post on Cat Hockey for how this game works

Hub Rat*

The House of Pain was staffed with a wide variety of folks. The Human Resources officer who hired me confided that his favorite description of it was the ” Foreign Legion” of workplaces. We had people from all races, ethnicities, and education levels. We had a mini-United Nations in the building and could have credibly fielded students and instructors for every grade from seventh through high school and university.
Within a week of taking over as supervisor of “30 door” I had a note passed to me by way of a Teamsters’ pony express. It was from an anthropologist on the night shift wondering which grad school I had attended. Over the next several years, we exchanged notes regularly on matters that our Teamster colleagues thought idiotic. But they were of interest to an anthropologist – like which dysfunctional society we had read about was most like UPS.
One of the package sorters had a master’s degree in chemistry. After burning out in corporate America, he needed a way to gather a retirement and maintain health care coverage for his family; much as I did. A Shop Steward was a stock market day trader. UPS covered his benefits for his children.
We also had many people who came to us after a “complicated work history” elsewhere— I fell into that category in some ways.
My immediate manager was a guy named Jim. Jim had a master’s degree in special education. None of us knew why he was at the House of Pain. Just like the Foreign Legion legend, people might tell you why they were there, but it was not allowable to ask. Someone leaked the information about his education one night at a party. Jim, had a habit of talking to you while talking to his right shoulder. Some wag cruelly labeled it as him talking to his parrot. The sad thing about it was that they weren’t listening to what the man was saying. And, he had lots to say of great value for surviving in the House of Pain.
One day I was complaining loudly about a new loader who was exceptionally slow and clumsy. Jim did me the courtesy of taking me aside before chewing me out. And then he told me this: ” Louie, this company can’t always hire the very best. It’s up to you to give them the tools they need to become successful.” Over the next several years, Jim struggled to give me the tools I needed to be successful at making my disparate group onto a team of successful individuals.
Success is an interesting item. Start with minor success in one part of your life, and you can learn to build upon it—success upon success.

*Hub Rat -is a UPS’ers term for someone who works at a hub ( a sizeable central package processing center). For many, it’s a badge of honor, and we are never ashamed of describing ourselves as Hub Rats – not everyone can do the job.

Watching the Clock

It’s a bit uncanny the way Sam and Xenia watch the kitchen clock. Their regular meal times are flexible in the morning, depending on who gets up first. Beeing that they are such accomplished actors the time is carefully recorded.

Their feeding time in the evening is a routine that cannot be deviated from. Every evening at five pm, they are supposed to get fed. Yes, I know what you are going to say – their internal clocks and guts tell them it time for food. We suspected it for ages until we began to notice first the cat, and then the dog looking intently at the clock above the fridge.
Here is the scenario. Xenia ( Her Imperial Majesty, Empress of all she surveys, Defender of the Faith, Tzarina of Tokyo, and the Fair Isles) strolls into the kitchen at 4:40, glances at the clock and strolls towards the garden door. At 4:45 on walks, Sam ( Captain of the Palace Guard, Generalissimo of all Imperial troops, and Archduke of Trasimere) looks at the clock, then strolls towards the garden door to watch the birds. They confer. At 4:55, they make a group appearance in the kitchen – they look up to the clock, and offer you a meaningful look. At 5 pm, the cat checks the clock a final time and then starts weaving between the legs of whoever is preparing dinner. The dog does the passive resistance thing by merely blocking your path to wherever you need to go.
Of course, you do the wise thing and feed them. Can the two merely watch the clock? Or can they watch it and understand the time? This or close variations of it happen every night.
By the way, Xenia is not known as the Warrior Princess for nothing. I’m not going to get clawed for suggesting to her that she’s illiterate, and can’t tell time.


When I lived on or traveled to coastal Maine in the seventies, I was tied closely to my wife’s home town by bonds created by that marriage. Back at the university, I was for studying for a career in anthropology. In Maine, I was understudying for the Cap’n on board his 34 foot ketch, being introduced as his son, and learning how to fit in.

It was not too long before seeking one led to studying the other.

There is an old and tired cartoon of natives scurrying to conceal Televisions and other tech items when one of their numbers spots a pair of anthropologists approaching – suitably attired of course in khaki and pith helmets. It plays on old stereotypes about the populations that anthropologists study and the anthropologists themselves. In Maine, the community I was about to study was interested in me much as I was in it.

At the Post Office, I got introduced to the bridgetender. Before I could get a word in edgewise, I was expertly pumped for my life history in New York, and how I liked it here on the coast. As I tried to shift the questioning my informant to be slid away to work. By evening everyone in town knew what the bridgetender knew. And so it went.

Things settled down after a few weeks, but I answered as many questions about myself as I asked about the community.

The Cap’n introduced me to a friend of his named Spinney. Spinney owned a small boatyard and decided that I’d do for a part-time hand. I began at the bottom scraping barnacles, sanding bottom paint and applying a new coat of the stuff to an endless succession of boats. When they discovered that I could carve, I received a promotion to Yaahd Cavah” ( Yard Carver), the guy who produces carved transom work, quarter boards, etc. But I also kept on scraping and painting bottoms.

One day one of the workers stopped and asked innocently enough: “hey Wes, you study anthropology. Can you explain to me what Eskimo kinship is?” Not seeing this coming, I paused, and in my best academic tone, began by explaining that it was the kinship used by most of us in the United States. Seeing some interest, I went into a bit of depth regarding kinship terms used. He asked some well-informed questions, and I enjoyed answering them.

This seemed to set a pattern over the next several weeks. Members of the crew would take an opportunity to ask me, sometimes penetrating questions about anthropology. How did balanced reciprocity systems work, and so on? I began to wonder about it, but not too hard. After answering their questions, they answered mine. But I found it more than a bit curious.

I found the answer quickly enough. I went into our rough and ready lunchroom, and there on the table sat the 1973 edition of Cultural Anthropology by Carol and Melvin Ember. Borrowed perhaps from a former student.

It was well thumbed through. I could now see where the questions had originated. The highlighted sections matched the questions they asked me. I had been subjected to the equivalent of an exam by the people I was interested in studying.

When the Cap’n didn’t keep me busy with his boat or Spinney finding bottoms to paint, I did find time to do some actual ethnography that year.

Years later, I took over a cultural anthropology course from a colleague who was leaving the state. Having inherited the course, I chose not to make any changes in the texts or reading lists. The textbook was Cultural Anthropology by Carol and Melvin Ember, with which I was by then very familiar.

The Shop

I am forever looking for ways to maximize the limited space in my eight by ten-foot greenhouse/ workshop. I continuously shuffle tools from one place to another. Only carving tools have fixed locations because I need to reach for them all the time. Specialty planes, jigs, tool bits, and things I rarely use have no pride of place and get shifted as needed.
A neighbor visited last year and advised that I try the Marie Kondo method of decluttering. I civilly listened for a while, tuning the meaningless chatter out. A copy of Marie Kondo’s book was left leaning against the shop door. The pages were reasonably good for starting the firepit up. My neighbor’s feelings were hurt. But people who use screwdrivers to open paint cans are not to be trusted.
Is the space full? What’s the expression about having ten pounds in a five-pound container? OK, it’s true.
A twelve-step program for compulsive tool buyers might help. But I have a thing about being away from my tools for meetings. Just taking the time to write this keeps me away from browsing the Lee Valley site, not to mention Rockler, Woodcraft, and Highland Woodworking.
My wife has called me in for dinner. I’ve asked her to bring it out to the shop; she just doesn’t understand.


Adventures in Coastal Living – Some Hot!

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Long before we had verification of climate change, my wife, her mother and aunt would fan themselves cool and utter a sound and phrase that I have never heard away from coastal Maine. It's a slight gasp made on inhalation followed an exclamatory expression. In this case," (a small gasp)_-huh. Some hot." It can be phrased as a statement or as a very faint, barely noticeable question. A fanning gesture frequently accompanied it. Long before we had verification of climate change, my wife, her mother and aunt would fan themselves cool and utter a sound and phrase that I have never heard away from coastal Maine. It’s a slight gasp made on inhalation followed an exclamatory expression. In this case,” (a small gasp)_-huh. Some hot.” It can be phrased as a statement or as a very faint, barely noticeable question. A fanning gesture frequently accompanied it. 

On the last several extended trips Down East, I’ve noticed that regionalisms and local words and terms seem to be in retreat. The three ladies I was talking about grew up before standard TV English and pronunciation swamped the hundreds of regional variations of English found in New England.

Ten years ago, I was waiting for the sun to rise over Naskeag Point on the Blue Hill peninsula. I was waiting to take video for a project I was doing for a client. Somewhere in the fog near me were two fishermen. They were oblivious to my presence and chatting in coastal English. When the sun rose and burnt off enough of the fog that we could see each other, they greeted me in rather plain Television English.

I’ve come to miss the local and regional things I’ve picked up over the years. When my kids look at me oddly and ask what do I mean, I patiently explain what a “cat run across the field cousin” is, or what it means to go somewhere by going ’round Robinhood’s barn.

Please, If you speak a local English variant, hold onto it, cherish it and make sure your kids learn it. Don’t allow the “standard” to swamp the individual beauty of your voice.

Back Bay

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"> I had this excellent undergrad course in creative writing at Boston University in 1972. On rare nights after class, about four of us would go out for beers at The Dugout. One evening the prof introduced us to a game: in five minutes or less dramatize an episode in your life. The group then discussed the episode. I chose the events of a November two years previous when a jealous boyfriend had taken a shot at me. My professor asked me if it was true, and I assured him it was. He then gave me a curious look and told me that I was too close to the events to accurately portray them. And, not far enough distant to fictionalize them enough that they'd ring true to a reader. I needed more history between me and the events. Well, here it goes: I had this excellent undergrad course in creative writing at Boston University in 1972. On rare nights after class, about four of us would go out for beers at The Dugout. One evening the prof introduced us to a game: in five minutes or less dramatize an episode in your life. The group then discussed the episode. I chose the events of a November two years previous when a jealous boyfriend had taken a shot at me. My professor asked me if it was true, and I assured him it was. He then gave me a curious look and told me that I was too close to the events to accurately portray them. And, not far enough distant to fictionalize them enough that they’d ring true to a reader. I needed more history between me and the events. Well, here it goes:

So, as we used to say in the Navy…this is no shit, it really happened. This time of year, I always feel just the hint of cold breeze at the back of my neck. 

I was on the run. In my left boot was a sheathed dagger, and in my left ear was the residual ringing caused by the passage of the .38 that had whizzed by just a few days earlier. If this sounds like a passage from a Bukowski poem, or a line from a Tom Waites song, it might be. In 1970 that was the low I had risen to. Without need for further prelude, let’s say that I had succeeded very little up to that point, and it seemed that I was headed fast for a new six-foot low.

It had started several nights previous in a basement apartment in Boston’s Back Bay. I honestly did not know that she had a boyfriend. She insisted that she did not even after her, supposed, ex-boyfriend insisted he had never agreed to the severing. This was after he had attempted to kill me with a single shot. That shot had perforated the bedstead inches to the left of my ear. After several moments of them screaming at each other, he turned, and we started a dialog. We both were scared witless by what had happened; me because it had been my life that had almost been forfeit, and him because murder was not something Daddy could fix. We wound up professing a sort of twisted brotherhood, and he allowed me to finish dressing, and exit the apartment. As I climbed the stairs, they passionately continued their argument without me.

I spent the next day trying to figure out what had happened. Then the word came via a friend. Brotherhood was forgotten. They had split up, and I was to blame for it. He was looking for me, and he still had his .38. So, I was on the run, dagger in boot, and buzz in the ear. 

In those days, I was a known habitue of the backside of Beacon Hill’s working-class neighborhood. The fact that I was a fugitive made it challenging to find a couch to sleep on; nobody wanted the trouble I was bringing with me. I wound up in the next best thing to a squat, the immensely sartorial Beacon Chambers Hotel, where the rooms had wire cages for you to store your possessions in, and the cockroaches had high standards. Even for me, this was a new low.

Several days into my fugitive status, an old girlfriend ( a different one) had taken her boyfriend to my woodcarving shop to feed my cat. He was flipped out on something he had consumed and added to my misery by trashing the shop. She met me in a Harvard Square coffee shop to tell me that the cat was OK. 

During the next several months, I used all the tricks you read about to make yourself invisible. I avoided all my old friends on Beacon Hill, stayed away from all the places I routinely dined and drank. I even avoided the Harvard Square bookshops I regularly visited. Some of these changes became habitual, and it was decades before I returned to my old haunts on Beacon Hill.

Eventually, I forced some significant changes in my life. I worked hard and managed to put myself through Boston University ( yeah, it was a lot cheaper in those days). As happens with these things, the trauma slid into the rearview mirror of life, and I thought less about it except at anniversaries. Then one evening in 1980, I was pulling into the parking lot of a supermarket. As I pulled in, I noticed a man and a woman walking out of the liquor store. The style of the screaming and yelling instantly transported me to Back Bay in 1970. They noticed me looking at them, glared at me, and hollered, “what the hell are you staring at idiot!” I smiled, backed out fast, and peeled away from the scene as I saw him struggling to remember why I looked familiar.

%d bloggers like this: