Saturday, October 09, 2004

of roofs

One of the most widely commented on phenomena in the wake of this season's hurricanes was the success or failure of roofs. Old roofs failed more often and more thoroughly than newer ones. Round and geodesic shapes fared better than rectilinear dwellings. Shingle roofs, unless quite new and up to the latest wind codes, held up pretty poorly, while metal roofs stood up like fortresses rising like ancient bulwarks against centuries of weather and war. Tile roofs often turned into batteries of cannon, blasting everything within hundreds of yards with flying stone. Again, the specifics of roof construction mattered greatly. Metal roofs built to current code and anchored with screws did well; those simply nailed on turned to shrapnel.

The roof is really the final cause of the house. In Mexico, many houses-under-construction stand empty while their owners work abroad to earn enough to complete them. These unfinished places invariably stand roofless, often with rebar sticking up from the walls. The first thing one does when building in Mexico is enclose the space with walls. The walls stand bare and open to the elements sometimes for years, as Mexicans don't think in terms of immediate gratification, they'll sometimes be adding walls and roofs over generations, because it is the family developing through time that is building it, not this or that mortgage holder.

But when Mexicans want a place for picnics, for food and beer and family outings, they produce pavilions that consist of nothing but roofs sitting on columns which can be of metal, stone, or wood. The palapas on the beaches are just woven roofs attached to sticks. These are designed not to weather storms, but to collapse under them and to rise again from the sands as soon as the waters recede. Flimsy construction is intimately bound up with the borders between human pleasure and natural bounty. Man perches and poaches, but nature rewrites the landscape at her pleasure.
Well I can't read and I can't write
And I don't know my left from right.
Which all just goes to say I'm happy to be back under roof, and a very nice one it is, a small rented cottage on the coast, close enough for me to keep an eye on our house while it's being rebuilt, but far enough to be outside the zone of devastated homes, stressed vegetation, and neverending rubble. The past seven or so weeks have given me a new appreciation for roofs, for artificial environments, that enable us to introduce additional artifices of order into the day. But it's only because there was this moment in which I really didn't live anywhere that I see how much our being is bound up with how we dwell. Poets, for instance, tend to not thrive where roofs protect walls that offer regular rectangular vistas of the outer world. This could be why Mexicans, who are entirely musical and poetical, prefer their roofs without walls when they're having fun (and why they often build doorways, called portiles, unconnected to walls or roofs, that stand in the middle of nowhere, a sort of trace architecture of pure liminality.)

Poets can't abide walls or windows in part because of the restrictions they impose on one's view. They sort of say: "Look here, this is your house, and over there, those people live in their house, and you and they agree there will be no loose dogs, no pickup trucks in the driveways, and a great deal of macho leafblowing on Saturday afternoons." That is to say, there is a contractual and prosaic tinge to the affair before one has even had coffee, a little like bloggers who assume the relationships they build through blogging must have all the cheesy bits that have burdened human social relations formed via every other mode of interaction, when in fact it's more likely that we are bursting with words in part because something wants us to bust out of all those old tattered social tics and to tie new knots. Poets again are more likely to have potent relationships with the non-human, and why should blogging not contain that too? But what I really had in mind to say simply was, I feel very fortunate to have stumbled upon this cottage on this bay, with its dolphins and manatees and snook and mullet popping and splishing, and its green old oaks and philodendra and palms. To me, this place feels like it found me and said,
I can't tell if the sun's gonna shine
And I don't know if you'll ever be mine,
But I'll make love to you any old time at all.
Which of course was actually said by JJ Cale, who until today I did not know actually (update: or not - WP says no) bears the first and second names of the archpoet of the conundrum of human/nature, Rousseau, and who, Jean Jacques Cale, I mean, seems more a force of nature than Mark Knopfler, who is more the social blogger, taking Cale's roughness in more and more beautiful, perfected dimensions, while Cale's casual lyrics offer a richer sampling of human bonds and predicaments than, say, Garcia. Listen to Lonesome Train, to Ride Me High, to Mississippi River and Guitar Man and tell me he didn't set the troubadourial ambits of both those guys, who are two of my favorite creatures of all time, not to speak of accounting for Clapton nearly altogether, the way Elmore Leonard before he was celebrated for being Elmore Leonard seemed to be the self-evident end result and origin of any number of voices. In June, Cale released To Tulsa and Back. Check out The Problem:
Have you heard the news that's going round yeah
The man in charge has got to go
Cause he dances round the problem boy
And the problem is the man in charge you know...
Anyway, nice to be under roof again.

I can't swim and I can't fly,
I ain't no fish, ain't a bird in the sky.

I can't tell if the sun's gonna shine
And I don't know if you'll ever be mine,
But I'll make love to you any old time at all.
I can't count from one to ten,
And I don't know the shape I'm in.
I can't tell if the sun's gonna shine
And I don't know if you'll ever be mine,
But I'll make love to you any old time at all*.

*I'll Make Love To You Anytime
by J. J. Cale


Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

I'm belatedly finding this appreciated comment, with which I have much sympathy. I suspect a lot of USians would prefer this sort of "vagabondage" if it were practicable. What strikes me in both Mexico and Canada, where it's easier to do, is that there is very inexpensive camping or open space available for this, and there is also a much better organized public availability of food preparation and, and a shared common memory of nature as where we live, as opposed to something we visit in conquering Hummmmmmers. Also, other countries have less general fear of psychopaths, perhaps with reason. We could also devise homes that remain more open to the outside world, but don't. There seems a deliberate turning away. Paradoxically, homes with "enclosed" gardens seem more as if they're admitting nature. Thanks too for the good wishes.

10/16/2004 8:44 AM  

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