So Maybe I Should

The universe is speaking to me through my Squeezebox again, and I have no idea what it’s trying to tell me.

Our network music player is just one of many technical innovations my good husband bestowed on me for the sake of improving my quality of life. It can access the server on which all of our purchased music is stored, as well as numerous subscription services and even—shocking Luddism—the broadcast radio. Through its infinite electronic doors and virtual pathways, I can make my way to millions and millions of musical treasures. But at the conclusion of every symphony or jig, ballad or boogie-woogie, I can count on one thing: it will all come back to Robbie Dupree.

You remember him? Sure you do. Back in my freshman year of high school, he put out the song that now acts as a thumping period at the conclusion of every musical statement I hear. After thundering tympani, jangly banjo, or throaty clarinet, I can count on the plodding keyboard intro, followed by:

C’mon and hold me / Just like you told me / Then show me /What I want to know…

What I want to know is: Why? What misfiring of electronic synapses has led Squeezebox to conclude that no matter what path my mood has led me along musically that day, the next stepping stone should be “Steal Away”? Why can’t my device accept that, at the end of a selected piece, I might prefer silence for reflection? Why does it insist on force-feeding me on yacht rock? I know it ain’t right.

I thought that I’d escaped this kind of algorithmic insistence when I stopped using Pandora. At least with that service, I could thumbs-down a song when I disagreed with Pandora’s assertion of common traits. But with pushy Mr. Dupree surfacing across multiple platforms—from Napster to the server in my own basement—I must conclude that the universe is trying to deliver a message. What could it be? I consider.

I suppose I have felt a pressing wish to steal away lately. Away from my addictive consumption of Axios. Away from sandwich generation anxiety. Away from the decaying house and the jungle verdure of the neglected yard, and the relentless neediness of our domestic livestock. Just away. But where?

Assuming that the benevolent universe wouldn’t ask the question without having an answer in mind, I google, “where should i go” and accept the first hit. It is a quiz. Based on the data I contribute to its algorithm, the universe informs me that I should steal away to Thimpu, Bhutan.

Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know, Universe. I’m not sure I’m up to Thimpu.

I try plugging “steal away” into Napster track search. Maybe if I let it play all the way to the end, I’ll receive a different instruction. Maybe Christopher Cross or Toto could point me in a more realistic direction. But as it fades out and the next tune cues up, all I get is more “Steal Away.”

From the Underside

For the past two summers, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at my house from this angle:

Perched on a ladder, armed with an array of scrapers and poky tools, I contemplated the elusiveness of expertise.

It must have been an expert of some sort who advised my house’s previous owner—a young fellow with more pluck than experience—to caulk under every course of narrow clapboard siding. I expect this person gave solemn assurance that the tedious task would pay off by preventing moisture from working up under those laps during all of the hurricane-force rain storms the North Coast is known for.

Maybe it was a different expert who convinced him that the newfangled Tyvek housewraps were for people who had more money than sense. “Better let that house breathe, or you’ll have toxic mold,” the expert warned. “Mark my words.”

Our seller never really lived in the house, so he might not have had the chance to develop any level of expertise about house respiration. It’s easiest to observe on a day of gentle but persistent rain. Having inhaled deeply of the humidity-laden air, my house exhales through its pores, rather like an earthworm. An especially moist earthworm clad in a latex leotard.

I’m guessing that the experts who advise against clogging up your home’s pores now outnumber those who still favor it, but I don’t really know. After a long day of digging out petrified caulk, prying off rotten siding, and mourning mildewed sheathing, I’m not that interested in anyone’s predictions about my house’s future. I’d welcome any expert who drops by with a Sawzall and a spirit of neighborly helpfulness, but they don’t. Like I said: elusive.

The Glittering Domes of Parma

I consider the basket of cherry tomatoes: their watercolor streaks of scarlet, orange, and sunset gold, their smooth, tight skins and savory sweet scent. I will take these to her.

As I turn onto the highway, I decide that this I time I will make a beeline. But the domes of St. Josaphat catch me by surprise every time, and I slow down as I turn south on State Road.

Several months ago, during the hectic transition period from home to hospital to hospice, I tried to use this sparkling sight to distract her into graceful cooperation. “Watch for them out the ambulance window,” I suggested as I scurried around the room stuffing her meager belongings into a plastic bag. “They are so bright! You will be amazed!”

She made a face as if she had detected an unpleasant odor and turned away. For the past half-century, at least, she has seldom been amazed, and if she ever experiences delight, I am not a witness.

At 20 mph, I think of other tasks. I will stop for gas, even though there’s more than half a tank. I imagine my son noticing this the next time he needs to use his car, and briefly reflecting on what a nice mom he has. He does that sometimes.

As I pump the gas, I can still glimpse the domes above the awnings of the Marathon station. Could they be genuine gold? What else could remain so untarnished by time and tree pollen? Can a suburban Ohio church raise enough money for so much gilding?

At the last minute, I take a sharp right and head toward the mall. I will pick up honey for her tea. In the grocery store, I wander the aisles. Flowers? I didn’t bring a vase. Last time I was here, I filled her standing order for mint tea, mint candy, mint gum. I pick up a bag of Mint Milanos. My husband likes these, my son too. Maybe she will?

I put them back down and wander some more. I pick them back up. I need to get on with this day.

She is awake in her chair and staring out the window when I arrive. I invite her to admire the tomatoes. “I’m thinking of saving some seed to start in the spring,” I say. She makes the bad smell face. “I wouldn’t know what to do with them,” she replies. I excuse myself to use the restroom.

While I am in there, I do some quick housekeeping to tidy up the evidence that she’s recently gotten there on her own steam. All the residents of this place have a terminal diagnosis, but she is more ambulatory than most. When I emerge, she reminds me to take the tomatoes when I leave. I excuse myself to check her supply of root beer in the common room refrigerator.

The thoughtful staff keeps a supply of magazines and pot of soup in this sunny spot for anyone who needs a break. Today it is California medley—almost as good as potato. I crumble crackers into a paper bowl and remember how my slender father could eat potato soup until he nearly burst. I try to decide between “6 Questions You are Embarrassed to Ask” and “Eat Like a Norwegian.” Well, I have always wanted to know what makes toenails turn yellow.

Back in her room, I ask her if she’s had any guests recently. She says she has many guests, and she reads me a card from someone who shares her birthday. Then she hands me the unopened bag of cookies. “I think these should be shared with someone else.”

On the way home, I pull into the parking lot of the Tradesman Tavern to admire the domes up close. As I nibble cookies, I google. I am not disappointed to find that the sun-catching glimmer is tinite, not gold. A ceramic, is that right? Wonders never cease.

First Responder

The blood is draining from her fingers and retreating down the weary arm, the elbow of which rests in the palm of her other hand. Perhaps she is in the third or fourth grade.

A few years ago, the fingers of that now-droopy hand would have fluttered with excitement; her eyes would have sparkled. Now, she does not even glance in the teacher’s direction. In fact, she avoids eye contact with teacher and classmates alike, lest their implied epithet become explicit. I am not a know-it-all, she thinks resentfully. I just know this. In a few minutes, the teacher will be forced to accept the fact that no one else is willing to answer the question.

A few years in the future, she will graduate with honors, and with hope. She has heard that no matter how big of an academic fish you may have been in school, you will find college a much larger pond. She will look forward to the novelty of a classroom filled with answers and debate, and she will be disappointed. If anything, the majority of 18-year-old undergraduates disdain question-answering even more than 8-year-olds.

In college, she will learn to keep her intellectual powder dry. It doesn’t matter anymore whether she positions herself eagerly near the front of the classroom, because by the end of the first week of class, professors can detect her presence anywhere in the room. Even now that she redirects her hand to the business of doodling instead of thrusting it high at every question, the experienced instructor notices the cock of an eyebrow, the intake of breath that signals her subtle engagement. As the warmth and silence of the seminar room becomes oppressive, both of them feel grateful for written assignments, and office hours.

All this time, classmates and many of her teachers have wrongly assumed that her primary goal was attention, but that hasn’t been the case since she left the droopy-propped-hand stage. If anything, she has found the attention claustrophobic. What she longs for, what her smarty-pants soul demands, is counterpressure: informed disagreement and sound, sourced proof of her wrongness. It would be a relief. She is not a know-it-all; she is only a wonder-at-all. Her readiness to supply answers does not mean she is not filled with questions of her own.

As she begins a career, this pervasive misunderstanding of her motives can even threaten her livelihood. At any time, an insecure manager may bristle if she lifts her head above the team to look around. If the environment is one in which questions or disagreement equal insubordination, she must keep her head tucked down or risk a sharp nip from the pack leader.

Cresting the hill, it’s finally easier to see that there is a choice in paths to follow, and she picks the one that seems to avoid the thorns and bitter berries. Maybe those classmates back in kindergarten, the ones who gazed around at her with surprise and expectation as she almost sprang from her chair in her eagerness to respond—even the ones who smirked and glanced sideways at each other—maybe they already understood something that she is only grasping decades later.

Maybe intellectual passivity really does lead to bliss. Rather than seeking that counterpressure by standing into the wind, maybe she can achieve it by lying on her back, gazing into the sky and letting the winds of knowledge, information, analysis, prognostication all blow over her. True, in this position, they do not stir her inwardly. But at least the unmoving earth below her provides a place where she can rest.

The Art of Living

On the corner of East 152nd Street and Aspinwall in Cleveland, just a few steps north of the Collinwood library, is the spot where one of Ohio’s most famous authors committed to his decision to become a self-centered jerk. At least, that’s the way Sherwood Anderson told it.

The guy who went on to publish many short stories, articles and novels—from the great Winesburg, Ohio to the not-so-great Many Marriages—ended his own first marriage shortly after stumbling, bedraggled and incoherent, into Robinson’s drugstore late one wintery afternoon.

A few days earlier, on Thanksgiving morning, he had walked out on his family and his once-successful career as a manufacturer in Elyria. Where exactly he had wandered over the course of the weekend was anyone’s guess, and when he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer basic questions, he was carted off to Huron Road Hospital to recover his senses. How much of his breakdown was authentic has been subject to debate ever since.

But if his own distorted retelling of the life of this self-described compulsive liar is to be believed, by the time he walked into Robinson’s, he was turning the sharpest corner of his life. He was preparing to abandon not only his business obligations, but also his three children and his spouse—because that seemed like the proper way to follow art.

For a fair chunk of this summer, I tried wrestling with Anderson’s memoirs to figure out how he came to the conclusion that such a step was necessary. After about the tenth time he began explaining that it was actually the sight of his Italian neighbor gardening that pushed him to toss in the domestic towel—only to wander away from his point and into some other series of exaggerations and lies—I finally gave it up. But I came back to it again after copy editing an article about the painter John Nativio in the current issue of CAN Journal.

“The painter” Nativio is also “the contractor” Nativio, as most people who write about him point out. Probably he also fills a variety of family and community roles, but it’s the fact that he’s a successful business owner, a man who builds practical structures, who can boast an A+ from the Better Business Bureau, that grabs the attention when you read about him before seeing his work.

After you see his work, as I did today at UH’s Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery, your attention heads off in a lot of different directions. Glowing planets and clouds drift over and among peacefully surreal landscapes with the smooth, tactilely-satisfying structure of thermoformed packaging. Combining structural precision and a gentle atmosphere, Nativio’s paintings possess a restorative quality that’s amazingly well-suited to a hospital gallery. But as mesmerizing as these beautiful images are, eventually you also wonder about the artist who possesses this technical skill and obvious creative vision. Does he want to ditch the day job? Don’t all artists resent the gig that pays the bills?

Sherwood Anderson surely did. He objected so much to the mundanity of his position as a roofing products manufacturer, a husband, a dad, a homeowner, that he felt driven to craft a sort of performance art piece of his own escape. For the rest of his life, he returned to that Thanksgiving, compelled to embroider the story again and again, in both his fiction-laced memoirs and fact-based fictions. His apologists doggedly insist that he always supported his family financially. But they are undermined by Sherwood’s ghost, who drunkenly slurs, “Ah, I was such a cad! But I did it for literature!”

Possibly before I had a mortgage and kids, I could have admired Sherwood Anderson for his artistic risk-taking; now he just makes me tired. But when I see Nativio’s paintings, I imagine a busy contractor who, gazing into his empty drill case, suddenly sees a different universe. And this strikes middle-aged me as infinitely more inspired and inspiring.


Eleven Grandma Campbell’s cupcakes arrived at my front door this afternoon. As you can see, that’s a lot of cupcake.

Happy birthday, me!

Fortunately, at that very moment, I was meeting with the contractor who will be rebuilding our crumbling house foundation. Or, to be more accurate, we had just finished meeting, and this fellow was disemboweling an antique clock that has been sullenly silent ever since I accidentally damaged it several years ago. The contractor, an experienced clock repair hobbyist, had been itching to get his hands on it ever since he’d glimpsed it several weeks ago.

He took the Chocolate Lovers cupcake, and that left 10.

A few weeks ago, I’d managed to unload about half a peck of my gorgeous but over-abundant tomatoes by stealthily depositing a basket of unsolicited produce on my sister Beth’s kitchen counter, pretending it was a sort of brunch centerpiece. But I didn’t want to lure skunks to another sister’s porch by leaving boxes of treats on her doorstep, so I texted to get the okay before dropping off the M & M, Red Velvet, Strawberry and Butter Pecan selections.

“Here’s your tomato basket,” Katy said when I arrived. “That was too many tomatoes for any one family to consume alone, so we ended up with half.” Noted: I need to make smaller centerpieces next summer.

As I left her house, I got another text reply giving me the okay to deliver three more cupcakes to a friend’s house. Handing over the Buckeye, the Sea Salt & Caramel, and what we speculated might be a seasonal Caramel Apple creation, my friend said, “I lost my contacts from my phone, so I wasn’t sure who was bringing cupcakes. We decided to just wait until you showed up to find out.” Cupcake Secret Santa!

Back at home, having reduced my cupcake supply to match the actual population of my home, I sat down with a cup of tea and a laptop to think about what kind of blog post I might be able to fashion from this pleasant afternoon. And upon opening my email, I walked right into a conversation about hunger in my America. Because that’s how God rolls sometimes.

The email was from a neighbor who was concerned about the child of a mutual friend. While I was coping with the challenge of too many cupcakes, this child was maybe suffering from malnutrition.

Now, you may assume that at this point I will wrap up this post with a good old-fashioned liberal guilt-wallow. It’s tempting. It would make for a simpler conclusion, for sure. But the alert reader will have noticed that the wealth described above is more complex and more protean than any treasure trove of fancy pastry, and so much more difficult to redistribute.

Relatives, friends, neighbors and bearers of pink-striped boxes make up a wealth of social capital that enables my family to negotiate life without feeling totally overwhelmed. Even the contractor becomes part of this capital when, in the course of a normal business transaction, his interests and mine overlap and one of my little problems is solved.

If food were the only resource lacking in the home of the friend with the possibly-malnourished child, it would be an easy problem to fix. But hunger is often just a symptom of systemic malfunction on a monumental scale. Free school lunches and breakfasts, community grocery pantries, after-school snacks served by libraries and rec centers—these treat the cough but can’t touch the cancer. That requires the chemo of social capital.

Clickety Clackety

Sometime tomorrow, a tired and achy international flight attendant with a scratchy throat will arrive back at her home base. As she stops in the airport restroom, at the drugstore for Theraflu, at the grocery for canned soup, she will scatter deadly microbes. This is no simple cold or even influenza, but a plague for which we have no remedy. So, unfortunately, by this time next year, a third of the population of the United States will be dead.

Looking on the bright side, though, if ever there is to be a moment for the great free market in labor to blossom and for a glorious, true libertarian democracy to flourish on the earth, this is it. With 30% of the workforce hastily cremated, labor will be a seller’s market. Even the people who spend half the day planning their next vacation and the other half on a smoke break can command whatever wage they want.

These lucky survivors will live it up for almost six months before the hammer comes down. That’s how long it will take a cabal of capitalists—who weathered the bubonic storm on a sunny coral atoll in the South Pacific—to resume their god-given place in the international economy.

The first thing they need to do is to pick an acceptable wage and codify it. Since virtually all of the surviving legislators depend on campaign donations from members of this cabal, they are willing to oblige with a hastily-crafted bill.

Claiming that it is needed to keep the economy from collapsing, Congress will set a stratified maximum wage based on a formula derived from pre-plague earnings. At the same time, to relieve the worker shortage, they will also eliminate welfare for all unemployed able-bodied adults. This seems reasonable even to most of the liberal-leaning workers.

And that will be that. The spark of possibility for libertarian democracy will be extinguished. We will be back to a 1% economy before the snow flies next winter.

I don’t retain a whole lot from my studies in medieval history. I have always struggled to retain facts in the form of dates, names and numbers. But stories tend to adhere to my gray matter, and every so often, I will come across a speech or a piece of political analysis that strikes me as a tale I’ve heard before.

That is what happened not too long ago when I ran into an argument in favor of a free market in labor. Suddenly, backlit by the rosy glow of the writer’s imagination, the clackety skeletons of the Black Death began to dance, like that picture in the Nuremberg Chronicle.

From the Beloit College copy

In the second half of the 14th century, when Europe was ravaged by pandemic, it seems to me that the conditions for a free market in labor were about as good as they would ever be. With crops rotting in the field and between a quarter and half of the laborers rotting in plague pits, the landowners were forced to pay up to secure the services of the more canny able-bodied.

But organized capital is always more powerful than disorganized labor. The landowners were able to effect pretty much the exact maximum wage conditions I described in my sci-fi scenario above. Although there was a modest uptick in wages over the next several generations, it wasn’t sufficient to balance power or resource distribution among the rich and the poor. The 1% remained the 1%. Eventually, revolutions ensued.

It’s hard for dreamers to heed the lessons of history. Their vision is focused ahead, on the glittery soft-focused view of what ought to be. I don’t fault them for this so much as envy them their peace of mind. The rattle of history’s bones can be awfully unnerving.

Vermin Summer

First, the bright side: until a couple months ago, I was never sure that I could be awakened by a scent. Now that the neighborhood possum/skunk feud has thoroughly tested this, I can feel more confident that I will arise at, say, the smell of smoke, should the First Alert batteries fail or the camping tent begin to smolder. Good to know.

In terms of verminous intruders, the aroma of alarmed American polecat that wafted through my open windows in the wee hours was the least of my concerns this summer. I expect other neighbors who are heavier sleepers or more devoted A/C consumers may have missed these episodes all together. By breakfast time, only the basset hound out for her constitutional found anything worth getting excited about. If only the dawn breezes rising off Lake Erie could have blown away my other troubles so easily.

While I was only a bystander in the conflict between the Hatfield-Skunks and Possum-McCoys, I did get pulled into some tense rumbles with the Cimicid and Ectobiid families―fortunately, not on my home turf―as well as the usual seasonal tussles with those pesky Culicids. But the antagonists that have cost me the most in terms of time, money, and emotional well-being have been the deplorable Rat Gang. Because of them, I lost a kitchen floor.

As I stood back admiring with hopeful relief the lovely, clean, three-inch slab of concrete we had just poured into the crawl space under our kitchen, my fretful anxiety finally diminished enough for me to consider the whimsical nature of inter-species relationships.

We couldn’t have done it without the help of friends, relatives, and Tyvek.

For most of the year (the part when the college kid is not helping to balance the human end of the family seesaw) the authorized non-human residents of our home outnumber the humans. They damage our property, eat our food, and stink up the place with some regularity. And yet we thrust our noses deep into their neck fur while murmuring baby-voice endearments, pay a couple thousand dollars in upkeep costs, set aside a whole room for their almost exclusive use, and stoop (in full view of friends and neighbors!) to collect their waste from the treelawn.

The rats, on the other hand, dwelt peaceably in our crawl space, demanded not our menial servitude, and apparently subsisted entirely on fiberglass insulation. And yet I hated them with such a scourging passion that I took pleasure in the demolition of an otherwise perfectly good kitchen floor if only it might mean ridding our crawl space of these creatures we smelled plenty but never glimpsed.

Which, come to think of it, probably explains my animosity: that furtiveness. In my 23 years of continuous animal co-habitation, I’ve never harbored one of those stand-offish characters you see in the memes and comic strips. None of our two dogs and six cats ever played hard-to-get with me―not even Camille, the grouchy, sickly puss who distrusted others but gained the nickname “My Hat” because of the comfort she took from sleeping next to my head.

Such acknowledgement of valued association is worth a lot. Had the rats sought out my companionship, maybe we’d still have baseboards. Maybe in addition to the 45 minutes I spend every morning tending to the bodily needs of the less self-sufficient livestock, I would be spending another five minutes delivering fresh fiberglass to their cozy crawl space nest.

But they didn’t. And as with any toxic relationship, I donned my Tyvek suit and pushed them out of my life.

What Grammar Taught Me about Government

Okay, so i once believed i could become artistic through mimicry. My anti-capitalization libertarian period occurred while, in my reckless teens—in imitation of a more poetic schoolmate (and e. e. cummings)—I abandoned capital letters beginning with the first person singular subjective. This was before social media and cell phones made this a pervasive practice.

But your better-quality liberal arts colleges don’t hand out degrees in English if you can’t prove that you can capitalize, so I had to drop that treasured affectation. And pretty soon, there I was in front of a class of surprisingly pliable college freshmen, sternly indoctrinating them in the gospel of grammar.

I learned the rules, I taught the rules, I even enforced the rules, and for a while I was content. But in time, I became a bit over-invested, and I entered a nasty punctuation Pharisee phase, demonstrating the usual zeal of the convert. How I’d hoot when I saw all those extra apostrophes ignorantly making possessives where there should have been mere plurals! Superiority is so soothing.

Unfortunately, the same progressive brain chemistry that made it possible for me to grasp the reasonableness of all those grammar rules and to apply them to my composition eventually caused me to see the even more superior logic in a whole lot of “errors.” This became really problematic when I began tutoring adults for the GED—next to child-rearing, the most mindset-molding experience of my life. When an adult who has figured out how to transit life without the diploma passport sits next to you, arms folded insubordinately, and demands a rational explanation before moving the period inside the quotation marks, you begin to see the allure of anarchy.

And now it’s come to this: I am sitting here writing this very blog post because, while copy editing an article for one of my several micro gigs, I have become immobilized by the writer’s use of single versus double quotes. Caught in a global gridlock of contradictory usage, outdated grammar legislation, and semantics special interests, I cannot move forward. The bureaucracy of English grammar has stopped working for me. With fingers fluttering indecisively over the keyboard, I feel profound empathy for Senator Portman.

The stubborn stability of the rooted zealot can seem enviable, and that’s why I have at different points in my life tried to inhabit both tips of the horseshoe of opinion. When, instead, you occupy that middle place where you know the rules, believe in the rules, but can see all sorts of good reasons to bend, break or amend them, then you risk being deemed either a gutless grammarian or just a screw up. The middle ground of any field is tactically challenging (even expensive) to hold. Unless you enfeeble your own prose with parenthetical comments declaring that you used “ain’t” for stylistic reasons or employed the “singular they” out of kindness, a few of your critics will chortle victoriously and point derisively to your fallibility/hypocrisy/inconsistency while an unknown number will just silently lose their confidence in your grasp of mechanics.

At least in copy editing, there is some comfort in deadlines. You have only so much time to vacillate between the single quotes and the double quotes before you must pick one and move on. In writing, there is some security in style. You can decide to use “transit” as a verb or begin sentences with conjunctions or build wobbly word nests with commas, em dashes and parentheses all in the same sentence, without worrying whether you will offend a major campaign donor. I suppose that’s why the ratio of pundits to working politicians is so very, very high.

Get Your Own Golden Fleece

My friend Birdie and I really try to respect posted boundaries. It’s the least we can do for the neighborhood that’s been so good to us. But when we came across this sign posted repeatedly along the streets near our house, we weren’t quite sure how to respond.

Usually, the messages our neighbors post for us contain a clear instruction that we can try to follow. For example, we know that “P.U.P.” is a very reasonable direct order with which we are honored to comply. We have come to think of a plastic grocery bag dangling from a pocket as a badge of respect for our community.

But this sign? This sign is just an ambiguous statement. It lacks the essential element of command. And, moreover, it contains this word “commodity” that seems hostile compared to, say, “bed,” “treat,” “out” or “walk.” So in trying to decipher its meaning, we turned to the Oxford English Dictionary.

There, to our relief, we immediately learned that commodities are not necessarily nasty things. The word is related to “commodious,” after all, and that implies ampleness, plenty, roominess.

Which is sort of the way I’ve always thought of my neighborhood. There’s a lot of potential here. A lot of space. Granted, much of it is currently paved with asphalt and surrounded by chain link fence, or simply decaying from neglect. But there is a lot of opportunity here. And in this context, it seems like you’d want to have as many commodities in your community as possible.

Glancing back at the OED, I noticed the first cited use was by John Lydgate in 1430: “There was al that myht do pleasaunce To any harte and all commoditee.” Assuming some fairly close cognates, we could render that into modern English as, “There was all that might give pleasure to any heart, and enough commodities to go around.” Sounds so delightful! I proposed probing this thing a little further. Perhaps we’d find something that would enlighten us.

So while my colleague studiously snored under the desk, I poked my way from the OED to that mysterious “Hist. Troy” source to Lydgate’s Troy Book, and there I found the word “commodity” in one of its earliest settings. It turned out that Lydgate was indeed talking about a charming city when he used this term in his translation of a Greek myth. We were on the right track!

The city he was describing was in the kingdom of Colchis, and boy was it a commodious community. It was “like a paradyse” blessed with a bounty of wonderful things for all the people who lived there. Plenty of game to hunt, plenty of grain to harvest. And, on the surface at least, there was also a generous welcome to newcomers. See, there are Jason and his Argonauts being warmly greeted by the king.

From the amazing Ryland Medieval Collection of the University of Manchester

But as I waded forward in the text, it became more clear that I had not encountered a story about hospitality, welcome, and sharing. Because among this city’s chief commodities is a Golden Fleece.

Now, if you’re familiar at all with Greek mythology, you probably already know that these stories have a tendency to wind all over the place, change all the proper nouns willy-nilly, and in sundry ways confuse and contradict. But to simplify:

This Golden Fleece, a symbol of power and authority, had been bestowed on the king of Colchis after he had welcomed a grateful stranger. When an outsider (Jason) arrived and announced that he wanted this commodity for himself, the king decided not to simply “pay it forward.” Just because he had a relatively easy time acquiring this valuable property and deciding what to do with it didn’t mean he needed to make it easy for the next guy.

Instead, he set a bunch of impossibly difficult tasks to be accomplished. Only if Jason earned the unanimous approval of the development corporation, the Landmarks Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals—or something like that—could he ever win this particular shiny/fluffy commodity. Even if Jason managed to complete all of those tasks the kings and queens of the Colchis block clubs might still object to sharing the fleece, and might chase him down as he fled with his prize.

The story turns out gorey and awful, as such stories generally do. But I didn’t need to go much further. I got the picture.

I decided against telling Birdie what I’d learned. Ever since someone sank their teeth into her ear a few years ago, she’s lost some of her faith in the neighborliness of neighbors. But I still think these signs could be improved by switching from the indicative to the imperative mood. That way, when strangers are sailing through our neighborhood on a quest for their new dream home, they’ll be more likely to think twice about disembarking.