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Moving Right Along.

It was early so I boarded the bus in the dark. Well, it wasn’t just early–we haven’t reached the solstice yet so the days are still getting gradually shorter. Every year as the solstice approaches I wonder the same thing, about how early people might have felt about the nights growing steadily longer. Humans first appeared in Africa, close enough to the equator that they wouldn’t have seen much change in the length of days. As they spread to other latitudes was their migration slow enough that they took the change in stride, or was there a year when they were terrified there’d be a time when the sun would dip below the horizon and never return? Either way there must have been an unease that gave way to solstice celebrations that we still have today.
Riding the bus in the dark didn’t bother me but I was annoyed that I’d missed the Geminid meteor shower the night before. It wasn’t because I’d overslept but because the skies were cloudy all night, meaning I’d missed what was supposed to be a pretty spectacular display averaging more than a hundred and twenty meteors per hour. And then I started thinking about how meteor showers are caused by the Earth passing through swarms of meteors, worlds–or perhaps a world and the remnants of one–colliding. And that got me thinking about the approaching solstice and how our planet is in constant motion. Not just our planet, either, but every planet of our solar system, and our own sun is in motion as it bobs up and down in an arm of the Milky Way, itself slowly turning and moving through space, growing ever closer to our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. All this makes specific locations in space, and even time, relative, which raises the question: why is it on Star Trek that the Enterprise always arrives at a planet during working hours?
“Well, we’ve arrived at Tau Ceti Five and we’re ready to beam down, why is no one answering?”
“Sir, it’s two a.m. down there.”
Then again there’s the old saying that in space it’s always five o’clock somewhere, but that’s another story.
All this was buzzing in my head but at the same time I was keeping an eye on the road ahead to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. Then, about four blocks from where I wanted to disembark, the driver pulled over. There weren’t many people riding the bus and he’d been moving along at a pretty good clip so he was probably ahead of schedule and needed to stop. I understand the necessity but it also annoys me when the bus comes a stop. I want to get where I’m going. We were close enough that after a few minutes I stepped off and started walking. And I’d waited just long enough that as soon as I was ten feet ahead of the bus it started up. “Naturally,” I muttered.
Then the driver came to a stop right next to me, opened the doors, and said, “You wanna ride the rest of the way?”
“Sure,” I said, and climbed back aboard. I only had a short distance to go but I wanted to keep moving.

Windows.

With more and more holiday shopping happening online—Cyber Monday has been around since 2005—it’s hard to believe holiday windows are still important. A November 21, 2018 New York Times article gives a brief rundown of holiday windows past and present and explains why they still matter, although there are some stores that are closing. For some this will be their last Christmas. It’s a sad end to a tradition that dates back to at least 1874 when Macy’s created a Christmas window. More than half a century later in the 1926 Handbook Of Window Display, author William Nelson Taft (no relation to the president and Supreme Court justice that I can tell) said, “A number of stores have found that the mere fact of displaying appropriate Christmas goods, attractively boxed, not only stimulates buying but starts the holiday rush considerably earlier.” He’s a bit prosaic. Jean Shepherd, in his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which was partly the basis for A Christmas Story, gets a little more poetic reminiscing about a holiday window from the year he got his Red Ryder BB gun, with a Santa’s workshop display so elaborate it “made Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell.”

Window displays aren’t limited to the holidays, though. For more than forty years Gene Moore created elaborate setups for windows at Tiffany’s in New York. In June 1971 he created a series that told the story of a jewel thief with papier-mache mice. The president of Tiffany’s, Walter Hoving, got an angry letter from the president of Cartier for making light of the “hazards of owning fine jewelry”. Hoving’s reply: “Nuts.” He was right. If you can afford a Cartier watch you can afford a sense of humor, but that’s another story.

This is one of the scenes, from the book Windows at Tiffany’s : the art of Gene Moore (H. N. Abrams, 1980).

Window displays aren’t all fun and games, though. This is from the article:

“We track how many people are taking their photographs and sharing them back out,” said Frank Berman, an executive vice president and the chief marketing officer of Bloomingdale’s. “We also have methods in place to track how many people are passing by the windows, stopping and engaging. We also track the amount of traffic coming into the store and the conversion rates. We’re up in terms of traffic this holiday season.”

Is it weird that I’m creeped out by that? I know marketing is the reason for the season, but it bothers me that when I’m looking at store windows they might be looking back.

That’s partly why I put a picture of Parnassus Books at the top of this post, and here’s another of their main window.

Their window displays of books, I hope, draw people in. Bookstores are probably the most endangered of retail stores, and yet bookstores are places where the whole idea is to browse without necessarily knowing what you might find, and books open windows in your mind. There was an event at Parnassus the night I took that picture, and that’s one of the great contradictions of bookstores: they’re public spaces where people can get together to share the private experience of reading. And also every year my Christmas wish list is pretty much all books.

 

‘Twas The Morning After The Night Before Christmas.

All of us kids woke up early and came downstairs on Christmas morning. The presents were there like always. The fire had burned out overnight but there was still the sweet smell of ashes in the air. Ma was in the kitchen getting breakfast started. We were going to start opening presents when we noticed Pa in the corner, just sort of rocking back and forth. Ma came in, still wearing her bandanna over her hair.

“Why’s everybody so quiet?” she asked. “What’s going on?”

“Something’s wrong with Pa,” I said. “Look!”

“Oh,” said Ma, “so this is where you went after you left the bedroom window open. I had to get up and close it. It was freezing out there. What were you thinking flinging it open like a crazy man in the middle of the night anyway?”

“So much noise,” Pa muttered quietly, still rocking. “There was so much noise outside I had to see what was going on.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” said my big sister Emily. She looked at us. “Did any of you?” We all shook our heads except for my little brother who picked up a piece of candied fruit and started sucking on it.

“He was flying,” Dad said, his eyes wide. “I swear it’s the truth. He was flying along in a tiny sleigh pulled by miniature reindeer.”

“Reindeer aren’t that big,” said Emily. “Some are less than three feet tall at the shoulder.”

“Hush,” hissed Ma.

“He—he had names for them,” said Pa. “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen and Blitzen.”

“Somebody’s Blitzen all right,” said Ma. “What’s with you?”

“And Donner,” Pa added.

“Like the party?” asked Emily.

“They landed on the roof,” said Dad, oblivious to the question. “So much noise. They were stamping all over the roof.”

“It wouldn’t have been so loud if you’d replaced the insulation in the attic this summer like I told you to,” said Ma.

“How’d you know they were on the roof?” asked Emily. “Did you lean out the window and look?”

Pa kept staring ahead. “I came downstairs. I came downstairs and he came in the house.”

“We were robbed?” said my little brother. “On Christmas Eve?” He started crying. I nudged him.

“Cool it. The presents are all here, see?”

“What happened?” asked Ma. “Did he fall through the roof where you haven’t replaced the shingles?”

“He came down the chimney,” said Pa. “Just popped out of the fireplace with a great big bag.”

“Didn’t we have a fire last night?” asked Emily.

“He was a large, round man in a bright red fur suit trimmed with white,” Pa went on.

“Where do you get bright red fur?” I asked.

“Somebody probably threw paint on it,” said Emily. “Fur is dead, you know.”

“I just sat here and watched him,” said Pa, “watched him pull presents out of this great big bag he carried. He put them under the tree and then when he was done he went back into the fireplace and flew right up it.”

I giggled. “Because his ass was on fire!”

Ma gave me a smack and said, “Knock it off!”

“I looked out the window and he just flew away into the night yelling ‘Merry Christmas!’ loud enough to wake up the whole neighborhood,” said Pa. “Didn’t even go to any other houses. Just us. Just us.” He started rocking back and forth again.

We were all quiet for a long time, then Ma said, “Kids, your father’s been under a lot of pressure lately. Let’s just give him a little bit of time. He’ll come around.”

We all got quiet again and stood around awkwardly. The silence was only broken by a loud snap from the kitchen.

“I’d better go check that mousetrap,” said Ma.

Look Around.

There’s a Nashville tour bus that passes in front of the building where I work. In the summer months it’s open and people hang out of the windows. I wave at them as they pass by. Some wave back which makes me happy. I want visitors to enjoy themselves and feel welcome and think of this as a friendly place then go home because there’s too much traffic, but that’s another story. Sometimes when the buses pass by me they’re completely empty, and you might wonder why they bother, but people don’t buy just one tour; they buy an all-day ride and can hop on and hop off wherever they want. I’ve been at the Parthenon when the tour bus is there and overheard people say, “We’ll get the next one.” So, unlike most tours, they’re not bound by the schedule can stick around and look spend time at a specific place that interests them.
It’s winter now and the buses that go by have clear plastic windows that hang down like curtains. I can sort of make out people behind them but if they wave back I can’t see it. And the buses have a wreath on front, which is something new, or at least something I’ve never seen before.
One day before a meeting a coworker and I started talking about the tour buses and travel in general, and I said I like small towns and I’m intrigued by islands–that if I could travel as much as I wanted places like New Caledonia, Tuvalu, and Yap are at the top of my list.
“Are you a completist?” she asked. I’d never heard that term before but I loved it. Yeah, I like the idea of a small place because I hate going somewhere and feeling like I’ve missed things. There are places I want to go back to–Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles are high on my list–because there are still things in those places I want to see. And that’s one of the challenges of travel: do you go somewhere you’ve never been or back to someplace you’ve seen for something new? Because everywhere there’s always something new. Every place is always changing, every place has something you’ve never seen before. Even Nashville, where I’ve lived my entire life, has constant surprises.
Maybe one of these days I’ll take that tour to see what the city has to offer that I haven’t seen before, and by taking the bus I won’t add to the traffic.

Let It Snow.

Snow collecting on the roof of a building across from where I work, the first snow of the year in fact, took me back to high school art class and learning about chiaroscuro, the technique of using strongly contrasting lights and darks in drawing. I was always a pretty lousy art student, not that great at drawing, but I love jargon, especially art jargon. It was a cold day, overcast, close the holidays, and there was talk of snow which made everyone a little jumpy. Or a lot jumpy. In every class while we were bent over our desks there was always one kid in the back who’d yell out “It’s snowing!” and then laugh when everybody turned around to look out the window.
Maybe as a way of holding our attention, or at least trying to since it was really futile, the art teacher gave us an extra challenge: draw the setup of bottles and boxes she’d put at the front of the room using chiaroscuro but reverse the values: make everything dark light and everything light dark. My effort was lousier than usual.

My next class was English, and I don’t think my English teacher had anything specific planned for that day because she told us to write about anything, a minimum of five hundred words. So I started writing about chiaroscuro, its nature, the use of natural light, chiaroscuro in still life painting and realistic painting. And then it started snowing. Yeah, that same kid in the back yelled out, “It’s snowing!” and this time he was right: just small flakes, but thick enough and it was cold enough that snow started to accumulate in white patches on the ground. It was unlikely we were going to be let out early but it was still snow. I kept working on my essay, trying desperately, per the teacher’s instructions, to stick to the traditional five-part structure: introductory paragraph, three developing paragraphs, and a conclusion, but I started to ramble. How much can you say about light and shadow? Well, a lot, probably, but I was running out of things I could say and I started writing about how you can use chiaroscuro to sharpen your pencil, brushing the edge of the lead against the paper, and then I concluded with a completely off-topic statement that snow fogs the brain and makes it impossible to concentrate and even though I was mixing my weather metaphors, uh, snow. I believe “uh” got me right up to four-hundred and ninety-nine words.
Even though I fell short I got an A on the essay. I was always a pretty good English student.

Yule Need This.

So a company that makes those coffee makers that use small pods—I won’t name the company because they’re not paying me enough; more specifically they’re not paying me anything, and they’re so ubiquitous they don’t need me to shill for them anyway—has made a machine that makes cocktails from pods similar to the ones that are used for coffee. The problems with this should be obvious. Aside from the fact that the coffee machine already takes up a lot of valuable kitchen counter real estate, leaving precious little for dishes, cups, take-out Chinese food, mail, umbrellas, briefcases, keys, pocket telescopes, pill bottles, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of home life, anyone who wants a wide range of cocktails would be better off going to a bar. I know the same could potentially be said for coffee, but even though the machines can make a wide range of lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, frappes, and draperies there must be a limit to how much they can do, otherwise all those coffee places wouldn’t be so ubiquitous they don’t need me to shill for them. And while you can pick up your coffee at a drive-through window I’ve never met anyone who went to a bar and asked for their Bloody Mary to go. And part of the appeal of the pod-cocktail maker, as it’s advertised, is that it can make beer. Apparently they haven’t noticed that beer is already easily available—to go, even—in bottles and cans. So is coffee, although that’s a more recent development and probably got the idea from beer. And no one who’s interested in brewing their own beer at home does it casually, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been cornered at a party by someone who tells you beer brewing is their hobby and within five minutes you realize it’s really their obsession and fifteen minutes later you realize they can’t talk about anything else and an hour later when you finally get away you feel like you’ve been squeezed into a small plastic pod and had hot water forced through you, but that’s another story. And even though cocktail-making is more of a niche activity people who are serious about it are the sort who take it seriously enough that they prefer the hands-on approach to making a sidecar, a margarita, or a martini, and, hey, how hard is it anyway to combine vodka and vermouth or gin and tonic or scotch and asparagus? And because it’s the end of the year the cocktail maker is being promoted as a great gift or the ideal accoutrement for your holiday parties even though it doesn’t make egg nog, or any other variety of nog, which I think is really the only drink, aside from mulled wine, which is also really easy to make—just think about it—for the season, one that should be shared with friends and family around the yuletide fire, which reminds me, what is “yule” anyway? When I was a kid I thought it was some sort of animal, like a small moose, which made the idea of a yule log really unappealing, and then I thought maybe it had something to do with Euell Gibbons who could concoct winter cocktails from pine needles and sap, or maybe Yul Brynner whose movies always seem to play around Thanksgiving and Christmas, et cetera et cetera, and then I pretty much forgot about it until now. It turns out Yule is an ancient Germanic solstice celebration that provided both the timing and many of the symbols associated with Christmas, including the decorated tree as well as the feasting and drinking. And I wouldn’t have thought to look that up if I hadn’t hitched onto this holiday line of thought, so something useful has come out of that cocktail maker after all.

Missed Connections.

Someone left this on the seat one day when I rode the bus. I still wish I knew who they were.

It’s been a couple of months since I rode the bus home from work. Circumstances have meant that lately I’ve been driving to and from home, and there are a lot of advantages to that. The walk to the parking garage is longer than it is to the bus stop, but my schedule isn’t as rigid because I’m not trying to be on time to catch a bus that’ll probably be late or may not even show up or that may go right by me. I don’t have to stand in the rain or the cold, or even worry about those days where it’s too cold to go out without a coat in the morning and too hot to wear one in the afternoon. Sure, if I drive I still have to carry my coat home, but at least when I get home I can leave it in the car so it’ll be good and frozen when I need it the next morning, but that’s another story.

If there are funny smells in the car I at least know where they came from, and I never have to worry about finding a seat. The stop-and-go traffic is annoying, but at least I don’t have to cross busy intersections on foot.

And yet I miss riding the bus. I miss being able to sit back and listen to music or a podcast, and even though I don’t regularly talk to any other bus riders there are some I’ve come to know by sight. There’s the kid who always sits in the very back and has a sketchpad he’s steadily filling. One of these days, I keep telling myself, I’m going to ask what he’s drawing. There are the two guys who always sit together, one of them always reading a newspaper, the other reading a book. There’s the older woman who’s had several conversations with other riders and sometimes with the bus drivers about her husband’s health. She doesn’t have a lot of good news but as long as she still talks about him I believe there’s always hope. And there’s the guy with the really thick glasses who lives in an apartment complex along the route. There’s no stop at the entrance to the apartment complex but he occasionally asks the driver, “Can you stop here?” Most drivers oblige. Sometimes when I’m driving I’ll see him waiting at a bus stop. One of these days, I keep telling myself, I’ll stop and offer him a ride. And then there are just the chance encounters with strangers, people I might see once and never see again.

It seems strange to miss people I don’t even know, but it’s also been a good reminder of the value of public transportation, of how the connecting routes connect people too.

 

Live And Let Live: 2018.

Chanukah begins at sundown today. One of my annual traditions is that every year at the start of it I take a few minutes to remember a squirrel and the lesson it taught me about life. This is a revised version of an earlier post because each year the lesson always seems slightly different.

Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.

The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange

was featured as merciful, quick at the bone

and the case we had against them was airtight,

both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,

but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

-Maxine Kumin, Woodchucks

I have a contract with the squirrels. They may not consider it legally binding but it should be understood by both of us that they’re supposed to stay out of my attic and not come in to make nests in the insulation and chew the rafters and wiring. Since I can’t retaliate by moving into their nests in the trees I reserve the right to set traps in the attic. A few years ago I woke up to squirrels or mice or used car salesmen or some other kind of vermin scrabbling around in the ceiling over my head. I set traps in the attic and whatever it was avoided the traps and went away. I like to think it or they saw the traps and said, “Holy mackerel, let’s move to some place safer like a nuclear reactor!” This is the way it should work. In December, though, a few dumb squirrels moved in and were holding cocktail parties well past midnight. I announced the terms of our agreement very loudly as I set out traps smeared with peanut butter. I didn’t really want to set the traps, primarily because that meant going up in the attic, which meant climbing that rickety wooden ladder. The ladder has two warnings on it. One, in huge print, says, “Failure to use ladder correctly could result in damage to the ladder!” As far as I can tell “failure to use ladder correctly” means dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire. The other warning, in fine print, says, “Oh yeah, you might also hurt yourself, so please take off those stupid slippers and put on some real shoes.” But the real problem is I don’t like heights, or, to be more specific, landing at the bottom of them. I get the shakes when I stand on a chair. Once in the attic I’m fine because I’m on solid ground again, or at least solid plywood over that insulation that looks like cotton candy but tastes much better. It’s the climbing part that gets to me, especially since I have to use at least one hand to carry the traps. I use the spring bar traps, the kind that are sold under the slogan, “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door,” except I use the larger ones. The slogan for the large ones is: “These will cut your fingers off.” I could pride myself on being able to set these traps and position them with the steady hands of a neurosurgeon or bomb defuser, but there’s nothing good about any part of the job.

In her poem “Woodchucks” Maxine Kumin goes from killing the woodchucks with poison gas to picking them off with a gun. It ends with her saying there’s one woodchuck who eludes her, and she concludes, “If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” It’s not a perfect metaphor, although if it were it wouldn’t be a metaphor. The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is, “a rose is a rose is a rose”. There was no justification for the Nazi concentration camps. The woodchucks, on the other hand, threatened Kumin’s food supply, or at least her rhubarb and brussels sprouts. Interspecies violence is, like it or not, part of nature, and often fundamental to survival. The squirrels don’t know this, of course, any more than Kumin’s woodchucks who saw her garden as an open buffet. When I set traps for the squirrels it wasn’t because of an irrational and unnecessary prejudice against them. It was because they could chew through an electric cord and burn the house down, which would mean we’d all be out of a place to live. And I hoped the squirrels would see the traps and leave. Unfortunately it didn’t work that way. I took several squirrels, their necks broken, to the garbage. Then one night I found a squirrel wounded but still alive in one of the traps, struggling to get away, but badly injured. Its body was twisted and there was a gash down its back where the hard metal rod had cut. I knew I couldn’t let the squirrel go. Even if it survived its injury, even if it avoided being run over by a car, even if it escaped neighborhood dogs, stray cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, werewolves, and pangolins, even if it wasn’t attacked by other squirrels, it would just get back into the house. And if it didn’t it was still in excruciating pain. I’d caused it to suffer and I had a responsibility to end that suffering. I knew all this, but I wasn’t looking forward to what I had to do either. I put the trap with the squirrel still in it into a white plastic garbage bag and took it out to the driveway. I got a shovel out of the basement. The squirrel struggled a little in the bag, which I appreciated because it told me exactly where to hit. I wanted to make this as quick and merciful as possible for both of us. I nearly lost my nerve at the last minute. My wife had suggested I use a hatchet, but I didn’t want to do that because I’d actually have to look at the squirrel.

A history teacher once told me that Mary Queen of Scots, as she approached the chopping block, turned to her executioner and said, “Be mercifully quick.” Her request apparently made him lose his nerve; it took him three tries to finish the job.

After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard someone a few houses away in their backyard practicing “Jingle Bells” on a flute. For some reason this song always makes me think of people and woodland animals sharing the sleigh ride together, a sort of Eden with snow and blinking lights. The sun had just set, and in the stillness I realized that in some houses and places of worship the first candle of the menorah had either been lit or was about to be lit. I’m not Jewish. I’m not even religious in any traditional sense, but I know Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates hope and perseverance. It’s about a miracle of light and life–one day’s worth of oil burning for eight–coming to people who have just been through darkness and death. It’s a celebration by people who survived an all-out attempt to wipe them off the face of the Earth. I also understand that over a thousand years ago two rabbis, Shammai and Hillel, had competing ideas about how Hanukkah should be celebrated. Rabbi Shammai said all candles should be lit on the first night and then one extinguished on each night as a literal representation of the diminishing oil. Rabbi Hillel said that one candle should be lit each night so on the final night all eight candles would blaze with glory. Instead of increasing darkness there would be growing light and hope. Hillel’s tradition is the one that’s survived. None of this has anything to do with the squirrels, but it all came to me anyway. There’s a strange beauty in Shammai’s literalness, and I assume the growing darkness would end with a grand blaze to celebrate the triumph of the Maccabees and the re-dedication of the temple. Still on this night I was glad for Hillel’s tradition; glad that lights were being lit against the dark. I didn’t feel compelled to think about all these things as I emptied the trap at the edge of the circle of light from the patio. It seemed like the universe was conspiring to make me feel bad about what I’d done, but I accepted the responsibility. I deserved it. I can rationalize until I’m blue in the face. I can say that even though one-fourth of all mammal species are presently in danger of extinction squirrels aren’t one of them. I can say that at least I’m not actually harming another person, and that through history people have done terrible things to other people with less justification than I have for killing the squirrels in the attic. Nothing I can say changes the fact that, hokey as it sounds, I don’t want to be directly responsible for the deaths of squirrels. The Netsiliks, like other so-called primitive peoples, had specific rituals for killing seals, polar bears, and other animals they depended on for food. The Netsiliks said the rituals release the spirit of the animals back to the wild so they could return in earthly form. It’s a way of acknowledging their dependence on other species. I don’t think the disappearance of squirrels would tip the balance and lead to the extinction of homo sapiens, but being too casual about extermination threatens us all. As long as the traps were killing them I could shirk responsibility. I was just a caretaker; the traps were doing the work. When the trap failed, I had to face my own role in squirrelicide.

I realized I’d have to take the ladder outside, quit my whining about my fear of heights, find where the squirrels were getting in, and seal it up. And ultimately the problem wouldn’t be fixed until we put on a new roof. It was up to me to keep them out, because ultimately that was the only way to prevent more deaths. I’m pretty sure that, somewhere in the contract, it says that I’m responsible for this because I’m the one with a memory, a conscience, and, for that matter, a big warm attic full of nesting material. It must be in the fine print.

And now, since Chanukah is a celebration, here’s something that I hope will bring some light to the darkness.

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