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In-Flight Entertainment.

I haven’t got any immediate plans to fly anywhere but the other day something popped up that reminded me that whenever I do fly I’d take British Airways if I could. It wouldn’t matter where I was going. Even if it were some ridiculously short flight, like from Nashville to Dickson, Tennessee, which I’m not sure is even possible since it would take less time to drive there than it would just go through security, but that’s another story.

I’m not trying to promote them or do a commercial—I’m certainly not being paid, and, well, for me flying is like getting my teeth cleaned. I don’t hate it but there are other things I’d rather do. Thirty years ago I went to Britain for the first time I flew British Airways.  What stayed with me most, aside from the fact that drinks were free, was the in-flight radio. This was before airlines put video monitors on the backs of seats but they did have a headphone jack in the armrest and a dial with a selection of channels. Most other airlines only offered this, like free drinks, in first class but British Airways made it available to everyone. I had my Walkman with me so when I got tired of listening to my cassettes of Kate Bush and David Bowie I could plug my headphones into the armrest and listen to, well, Kate Bush and David Bowie. But they also had a comedy channel. Since it was a transatlantic flight it was like getting my teeth cleaned for eight hours, so I guess they figured I needed a laugh. The channel only had about an hour of material it would cycle through, but, oh, what great material it was. There was Bob Newhart and Allan Sherman, and I was also introduced to Jasper Carrott and Tony Hancock’s “Blood Donor”, and I’m pretty sure I listened to it at least five times, finally falling asleep to Steve Martin’s “Grandmother’s Song”.

Anyway here’s what popped up on some feed or another of mine that reminded me of that. Why it popped up now is a mystery. I guess someone figured I needed a laugh.   

 

Bigger Bird.

Source: The Art Newspaper

The artist Alex Da Corte is putting Big Bird on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he’ll stay from April 16th through October 31st. Strictly speaking it’s a sculpture of Big Bird, painted blue, which is a nod to Big Bird’s Venezuelan cousin, who’s named Garibaldo. Da Corte was born in the United States but his father is Venezuelan and Da Corte spent several years of his childhood there. Big Bird also has a blue cousin in The Netherlands named Pino, and in the 1985 film Follow That Bird Big Bird is captured by a circus, caged, dyed blue, and forced to sing as “The Bluebird of Happiness”.  

It’s weird to me to think that I’m part of the first generation to literally grow up with The Muppets. From The Muppet Show and Sesame Street through so many movies and spinoffs and appearances—Oscar The Grouch even once came to a church some friends and I were going to for a weeklong Vacation Bible School when I was five—that it’s hard to know what to say about them, or about Da Corte’s sculpture, other than that I absolutely love it and wish I could see it in person. Talking about The Muppets is like talking about Greek myths. More specifically it’s like talking about Greek myths in, say, 400 B.C. Jim Henson—the Muppet Homer, if you follow my metaphor—is long gone but the stories are still very much alive, very much part of our current cultural fabric.

Maybe that’s partly because the Muppets are such a reflection of who we are. They don’t look human—most of them aren’t even supposed to be human; they’re frogs and pigs and bears and dogs and rats and shrimps and whatever the hell Gonzo is supposed to be. (Yes, I know, he’s an alien.) That’s the thing, though: we can project ourselves onto the Muppets because, like us, they come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities. And they’ve been brought to life by a wide range of very talented performers who, though they’ve mostly stayed behind the scenes, projected themselves through the characters. Carol Spinney, who played Big Bird—who, you could even say, was Big Bird, told a funny story about Jim Henson moving the Ernie puppet out of the way.

Ernie was on the floor, right where Henson needed to stand. 
‘So he kicked it to the side,’ remembers Spinney. ‘After the scene I picked Ernie up and said, “Are you alright after that bad man just kicked you?”‘
As Spinney recalls, Henson replied, ‘Oh that’s funny, are you sentimental about the puppets?’
‘I said, “Well yeah, they’re kind of real to me,” while Henson said, “To me they’re just tools.”

Yeah, if you grew up watching Sesame Street and the Muppets that might seem pretty dark, but the Muppets are alive because of the people behind them, which is also why we can project ourselves onto them.

Da Corte’s sculpture, by the way, gives Big Bird a ladder, giving him the power to climb even higher, and he’s perched on a crescent moon in imitation of Donna Summer. The title of the sculpture is As Long As The Sun Lasts, taken from an Italo Calvino short story. So there’s a lot of cultural layering here, but at the heart of it is Big Bird, which reminds me of something a friend said when the Muppets, who were on SNL in its early years, returned with Jason Segel in 2011: “It doesn’t matter who you are, whose show it is, or what else is going on. When you’re with the Muppets they’re the stars.”

Full Circle.

Source: Nashville Public Art

It won’t be long now before I start going back to my office which is kind of a strange thing to contemplate, especially since the only thing that’s really changed over the last thirteen months and counting, aside from now knowing I can work from home if I have to, is that my wife will be working from home permanently and after thirteen months and counting she’ll be really glad to get me out of the house, but that’s another story. For most of our respective careers we’ve worked in buildings that were close enough together that we’ve been able to share a morning commute. We’d park in the parking garage next to where she worked and I’d have a nice morning walk. I’d take the bus home while she’d work a ten-hour day and then on Fridays I’d drive in by myself and she’d have one day with the house to herself.

Now that she’s permanently working from home we’re looking at cheaper parking options, probably in one of the lots near where I work, which is fine with me because I have a love-hate relationship with parking garages. Or rather I love to hate parking garages and would be fine with an open-air lot. Even if it’s cold or raining, or cold and raining, at least I won’t have as far to walk. And on nice days, well, there’s nothing preventing me from taking a nice morning walk before I start the workday, and the best part is that, unlike the current arrangement which has me stuck walking only one direction, I can ramble wherever I want. I’ve even thought about where I’d go—a walk I’ve taken many times on lunch breaks because when it’s a nice day I like to just get out and walk, and many times I’ve found my way down Division Street, which takes me past The Red Door Saloon and the local Gilda’s Club, a place for anyone who’s been affected by cancer, and sometimes I even walk up to the famous, or infamous, Musica statue.

Designed by local sculptor Alan LeQuire, who also made the Athena sculpture in the Parthenon, it’s nine naked figures dancing. It’s very tasteful, done in a classical style, but it’s a little bit controversial. I guess the city has a love-hate relationship with it: some people love it, some people hate it, and some people have put clothes on the statues, which I love because it’s hilarious and I hate to have missed it.

The only problem with walking that way is the Musica sculpture is in the middle of a roundabout and I have a love-hate relationship with roundabouts. As a driver I like roundabouts—they make everyone slow down and be conscious of where they’re going and if everyone behaves no one has to stop. They’re actually safer than four-way stops and the Freakonomics podcast just did an episode called Should Traffic Lights Be Abolished? that looks at just how much safer roundabouts are and tries to answer the question, why aren’t they more popular in the U.S.? Spoiler alert: no one knows.

Except as a pedestrian I hate roundabouts because, well, no one has to stop. The roundabout that surrounds the Musica sculpture is called The Buddy Killen Circle and I think it could just as easily be called The Pedestrian Killen Circle. Or maybe I should just skip the walk and drive there.

Being There.

One wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Source: Wikipedia

April is National Poetry Month which got me thinking about poetry as an art form and also poems about art. And there are so many, from poems on Grecian urns to multiple poems inspired by Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”.

However recent events made me think about a very specific one: Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem Facing It, about his visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Komunyakaa is Black, descended from a grandfather who came to the United States as a stowaway from Trinidad. He grew up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, just sixty miles north of New Orleans, and he’s written about exploring the woods and picking blackberries to sell by the side of the road. He also served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

I met Komunyakaa once, which was a real thrill for me because I’m a fan of his poetry, after he’d given a talk about William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily, which he described as “a distinctly American short story”—a story of terrible secrets, death and resistance to change, but also a glimmer of hope in the possibilities of revelation and understanding, and life going on. Then he read some of his poems, including Facing It, and I thought about how great poetry should be read aloud, how the sound and sense go together.

I also thought about the first time I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, just a little over two years after its installation, just under a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. It was a school trip and the teacher talked about how Maya Lin, the memorial’s designer, was the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

The poem “Facing It” is a distinctly American poem: a grandson of an immigrant standing before the work of the daughter of immigrants, seeing himself in it, but also finding hope in reflection and understanding, and life going on.

Miss Universe.

Source: BeverlyCleary.com

I can’t remember how many Beverly Cleary books I read as a kid. There must have been at least half a dozen on my bookshelves, not counting the ones I got from the library. I’m pretty sure a battered hand-me-down copy of Ribsy was the first full-length non-picture book I read by myself, and there were several Cleary books I went back to again and again. It wasn’t just that she wrote about childhood in a way that was really appealing—in Henry And The Paper Route, one of the ones I owned, one of Henry Huggins’ newspaper customers is a woman who’s nice but mistakenly calls him “Harry Higgins”, and Henry is too shy to correct her. He’s also bothered on his paper route by his friend Beezus’s younger sister Ramona. It’s not high drama but I could relate to it. And Cleary could get into some heavy topics. The book Ramona And Her Father dealt with unemployment: Ramona’s father loses his job, her parents argue, and even the family cat becomes a point of contention as the family tries to save money but Ramona’s father still spends money on cigarettes. And yet the heaviness is balanced out with lighter drama, like when Ramona builds a crown out of cockleburs and then puts it on her head. Her father has to carefully cut out the ones that get stuck in her hair. And Ramona Quimby, Age 8 would do a similar job of balancing the heavy and the light as Ramona’s father goes to college, her mother keeps working, and Ramona is left in the care of the Kemp family after school. Ramona’s expected to be nice to their daughter Willa Jean, who’s younger and who annoys Ramona. And, in a memorable scene, Ramona’s parents are late picking her up and the Kemps eat dinner in awkward silence while Ramona sits in the corner of the room. I’d had that same experience once. I think lots of kids have. And even if you haven’t had that specific experience I think we can all relate to learning that adults are fallible.

As a kid I didn’t appreciate how revolutionary Cleary’s books were for their time—how they were really a new kind of children’s books. Sometimes they looked at adult problems from a child’s perspective but more often they dealt with how the world of childhood can be strange and baffling—how matters that are, from an adult’s perspective, minor or even inconsequential, can seem like, well, heavy drama to a child who lacks an adult’s experience. Even as an adult Beverly Cleary remembered how it felt to be a kid.

There was something else, though, something I haven’t read in any reviews of Cleary’s work, ever. Maybe you remember it too, or maybe you’ve spotted it while reading this. She didn’t write fantasy or science fiction like Madeleine L’Engle or even Tolkien—aside from the Mouse And The Motorcycle series—but her books were sequential, following a single character’s life over years, but while Ramona is a character in the Henry Huggins books she’d go on to get her own series. Like many science fiction and fantasy authors Beverly Cleary created a shared universe. It just happened to be one we, the readers, were also part of.

Hail and farewell, Beverly Cleary.

So Happy Apart.

Source: Wikipedia. I didn’t have my phone with me so I didn’t take a picture of the turtle but this is what he looked like.

So I was walking to the mailbox after approximately forty days and forty nights of rain which is supposedly the amount of time it rained when Noah took all the animals into the ark, but if you’ve ever read Julian Barnes’s A History Of The World In 10 and ½ Chapters you know that much rain is “an average English summer”, but that’s another story. And it reminded me that one of the things I won’t miss when I finally go back to the office, which I’m pretty sure is going to happen in a matter of weeks since I’m getting my second shot soon, is a giant puddle that forms around a corner next to my building and which I have to navigate around if I want to get to the other side of the street. That giant puddle forms every time it rains, even if it’s just forty seconds of rain, and it’s right around a fire hydrant which makes me think that when it rains the hydrant is sitting there saying, “I’ll just let out a little to release some of the pressure, no one’s going to notice” and it ends up flooding the area.

All this is completely irrelevant to what happened next: I found a box turtle in the middle of the street. Turtles traditionally are seen as wise creatures, and, admittedly, it took some brains to write “Happy Together”, a song that I’m pretty sure has made a mint because it’s been used in so many commercials. Seeing a turtle out in the middle of the street, though, is enough to make me question their intelligence, especially since this one had gotten to the middle of the street and appeared to have decided to take a nap. It might have been in the sweet spot to avoid cars going either way but I didn’t want to take a chance and picked it up and carried it to our yard. I took it all the way to the wooded area beyond our yard so it would be safe from our dogs and hopefully other predators. And while I was doing this the turtle apparently woke up and came out of its shell, waving its legs and hissing at me, maybe saying, “Okay, this is fine, this is past where I was headed, buddy!” but I kept going anyway.

When I got back my wife asked what I was doing at the back of the yard. I told her I was relocating a box turtle I’d found in the middle of the street.

“Oh no,” she said, “now you’ve taken him out of his range and he’ll be confused.”

At least I carried him in the direction he’d been heading—when I found him he was facing our house, and I felt guilty for a minute but then I started thinking, hey, how much of a sense of a direction or place do turtles even have? Why would he even care? Wouldn’t he be happier in the woods anyway? Maybe he’ll find some other turtles—I know they’re back there because I’ve seen them—and they can have a reunion tour.

All this is completely irrelevant to the fact that this happened about halfway through last week and I’ve just realized I forgot to pick up the mail.

 

Writer’s Block.

Source: Nickelodeon Fandom

Centuries ago cable TV finally came to my neighborhood. People of a certain age will understand the significance of that just as there will presumably be a time when people will remember “cutting the cable”, assuming that time hasn’t already come and gone. Anyway my friends and I would run home after school—usually to my home, which, for some reason, was where we gathered—and turn on this new network called Nickelodeon so we could watch You Can’t Do That On Television and Danger Mouse. And then, later in the evening, usually after my friends had left, there was Kids’ Writes.

If you’re feeling nostalgic right now for that era of Nickelodeon the YouTube channel poparena has a playlist called Nick Knacks that are an incredibly deep and entertaining and explore the channel’s history and shows. They track how Nickelodeon went from a commercial-free “green vegetable channel” of mostly cheap PBS castoffs that struggled to fill a twelve-hour broadcast day to a massive multi-media conglomerate.  

The premise of Kids’ Writes was simple: kids wrote in with ideas for sketches or songs and a troupe of adult performers would act them out. At the end of each show they’d put up an address and encourage kids to send in their ideas. If that sounds familiar PBS’s Zoom had the same idea.

I’ve been trying for years to write something about Kids’ Writes, trying to find some hook that would lead into it, something I could say, like maybe how I sent in an idea and they performed it. Except I didn’t. The fact is I never could come up with an idea even though I wanted to so badly. I thought it would be so cool to see my idea performed—maybe I could even convince my friends, who hated Kids’ Writes, to watch it. But I couldn’t come up with anything. I was completely blocked. It was weird because, before that, I had no trouble coming up with stories, but somehow as soon as Kids’ Writes came along, as soon as I had what seemed like a place to share those stories, all those ideas I’d had either seemed wrong or just disappeared.

That may be just as well—it turns out the show only had one season and all the stories performed were selected before production started. I don’t think they were being dishonest when they asked kids to send in ideas. Maybe they hoped they’d have a second season, and I’m sorry they didn’t. But I also imagine I’d be disappointed to have my idea rejected or, worse, get no response even as the same episodes of Kids’ Writes ran over and over. There were just seventeen episodes and they continued airing until 1987, although I quit watching it long before that. I don’t think I even made it through one cycle of reruns and, really, I think I liked the idea of the show more than the show itself.

Anyway I was recently asked to write something for work, which was a pretty cool thing. Creative projects don’t come along often in my job and I was excited just to be asked. And then, of course, I couldn’t come up with an idea. I struggled to find a hook, some way in, something to say, but the well was dry. Performance anxiety of a hell of a thing.

Finally I sat down and just started writing. I won’t say it’s that simple—I did have an idea of what I wanted to do, so I had somewhere to start, but it was so vague I kept putting off even starting. I couldn’t take that first step, metaphorically, because I didn’t know what the next step would be. But when I finally did sit down and start writing the next step appeared, and the one after that, and the one after that.

And, as an added bonus, I finally came up with a way to write about Kids’ Writes.

Fast Walker.

So I’m a fast walker, at least when I’m going somewhere. Back before the lockdown, before everyone started working from home, we’d regularly have work meetings in a building other than the one where we normally worked because I work for a library and we have departments spread out all over the place, not only because there are multiple library branches but also because some departments were moved out of the library long ago to, well, make room for more books. We were working remotely before it was cool, but that’s another story. Anyway when we have those meetings in other buildings sometimes the people I work with will tell me, “You go on ahead, I’m not going to try and keep up with you!” And what they don’t realize is there’s coffee and pastries at those meetings so I walk fast because I want to get there before all the cheese Danish are gone.

To be clear I’m not a speed-walker and I’m not going to win any Olympic race walking competitions—which really is a thing. I’ve got fairly short legs and I’m not that athletic. It’s just that when I get walking I set a pretty good pace. Once when I was taking a bus somewhere I got off at the wrong stop, and rather than sit and wait for the next bus I decided to walk back to the bus station. I wasn’t in any great hurry and enjoyed what I thought was a leisurely stroll through some nice neighborhoods. Later, just out of curiosity, I used Google Maps to figure out how far I’d walked, and, having checked how long I spent walking, I calculated that I’d kept up a pace of about four miles an hour. That’s no four-minute mile but it’s not too shabby either. At that rate I could walk from New York to Los Angeles in less than two years which, yeah, may not be the best illustration.

Anyway I do have a point here even if I’ve taken the scenic route getting to it, and it’s this from Science Daily:

Slow walkers are almost four times more likely to die from COVID-19, and have over twice the risk of contracting a severe version of the virus, according to a team of researchers from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Leicester Biomedical Research Centre led by Professor Tom Yates at the University of Leicester.

That’s really good news, or at least it would be if I hadn’t already gotten my first vaccine shot and I’m scheduled to get the next one before the end of the month. I’m glad to know that for the past year while I’ve been avoiding people and not going out so much I was at least doing something that reduced my risk even if I didn’t know I was doing it. And while I don’t want to jump the line I will be walking briskly to get my second shot, although mostly because the place where they’re giving out the shots they also have free coffee and if I get there early maybe I can get a cheese Danish.

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