Just Slightly Off Plumb

My Grandpa Spurgeon was a man who liked things just so. His house was a tidy one; even his garage was immaculate. His was the kind of house where, if you forgot to use a coaster… well, you just used a coaster, okay? And at meals, a cloth napkin. Everyone got their own slightly-different napkin ring so they didn’t need to be washed after every meal.

He was friendly and loving. He sang and whistled while he prepared for the morning, sometimes making up songs and rhymes, applying shaving cream with his brush, with all the grandkids gathering around him to watch the spectacle. He read to us. He was generous, giving us extravagant gifts (usually cash) for Christmas when we got older. But he liked things just so. His standards were exacting. I imagine he was not an easy person to live with.

My Oregon family loved to torment him by a coaster-free table. Before Grandpa’s holiday visits, my Uncle Neil would wander through the house and make all the pictures and wall hangings just slightly crooked. “It gave Stanley something to do,” he’d wink at us. They probably made bets as to how long Grandpa would be able to stand a crooked picture.

Inevitably it would happen. “Oh, that picture’s crooked,” he’d exclaim one afternoon. He might make a little song. “Crooked crooked crooked portrait…” The folks in the house would pointedly ignore him, until his near-apoplexy finally exploded into action. “I guess I’d better fix that portrait. It’s crooked, you know. Neil! Have you got a level?”

Of course, Grandpa hung pictures using a level.

He might even invite the kids over to *witness* how far the bubble had veered off true. “See?” He’d proudly exclaim. “That was a crooked picture. Good thing I fixed it.” We’d all congratulate him, and he’d be happy for another day or so, when Neil would walk past and “accidentally” set the picture askew again.

I’ve known lots of people in my years, but Grandpa matches the personality of TV Detective Adrian Monk more closely than anyone I’ve ever known.

We’ve lived in this house for the better part of eighteen months, and haven’t hung a single picture in the house. I think that would bother Grandpa just as much. He had family photos on the writing desk in the entryway. Grandkids on the walls, and on the little table next to “his” chair (you didn’t sit in Grandpa’s chair when grandpa came into the room).


I wonder, when it comes to it, how important the level is.  We like straight lines. They’re the shortest distance between two points. They have some kind of purity that crooked or wavy lines don’t have. Crooked, wavy lines are hard to build onto. It’s the same reason people put a house on a foundation before they start building. You don’t want to wake up one morning, with your kitchen half-buried in the sand. But they aren’t mandatory. People have lived tens of thousands of years on dirt floors. It’s just not quite as comfortable.

I guess we need things just-so. We don’t want our pictures off plumb if we have a choice. Straight lines help our lives.

But I like curves. I loved the road that meandered like an uncoiled yarn from our home to Pistol River. When I attended college, I noticed that the twisting streets of Santa Cruz confounded friends from flatter, straighter places like Salt Lake City and Denver. They could never get their bearings, they said. That was never an issue with me. Maybe I just have that kind of personality. Maybe, coming from a crooked place has informed my sensibility. A crooked picture doesn’t bother me all that much.

Does it bother you?

Robert Frost talks about two roads in the wood. Remember this poem?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sorry, Grandpa. All things being equal, I guess I’d just toss the level in the toolbox and eyeball this one. Sometimes you need to let your heart speak, and not your head.

One thought on “Just Slightly Off Plumb”

  1. Love it! And I have always loved that Robert Frost poem. In fact, it is sung very well by Jim Malcolm, who I got to hear in concert at the Pistol River Friendship club a few years ago. Worth looking up if you haven’t heard it!


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