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What’s In A Name.

Why would someone go to all the trouble of printing up stickers with what look like letters and sticking them up around town? Presumably this is someone’s personal symbol, a stylized version of their initials, and that got me thinking. We all know Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Juliet, said, “What’s in a name?” but Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Iago, says, “But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed” although Iago isn’t exactly a trustworthy fellow and he’s in another play, but that’s another story. The writer Idries Shah also has a very funny story in his book The Natives Are Restless about the time he was in a market in Beirut and found a man selling “An Idries Shah signature” for about twenty pence in local currency.

When I asked for one the man concentrated for a moment, and then inscribed my name on crimson paper in gold ink, with many a flourish. It looked far more impressive than the real thing. Why, I asked him as I pocketed it, did he not sell originals? It seemed that they were ‘difficult to get, he is a most busy man, you see.’ Was a copy as good? ‘Ya Sidi, O Sir! Most people here cannot even write…’

Would the man whose signature he was forging, this Idries Shah, I asked, not object to such a trade?

‘Such a man, Sidi, written about in the newspapers, and a man of learning, undoubtedly a man of generous habits, surely would not grudge me a living?’

No, I supposed not. Besides, I reflected, next time I felt like being a bit reckless, I could write my name down a few times on a piece of paper–and throw it away. Even twenty pence is money.

This got me thinking even further about language, especially written language. February 21st, 2018, was the 190th anniversary of the first publication of The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper published in both English and in the Cherokee syllabary created by the Cherokee Sequoyah who felt his people needed a written language.

Written language depends on a collective agreement about what symbols represent, just as spoken language depends on a collective agreement about what’s represented by sounds we make with our face holes, although language is also by necessity flexible and many words change meaning over time. So what I’m getting at is maybe those stickers aren’t meant to represent a person but a new and, for me anyway, unpronounceable name for whatever they’re stuck on. After all, what’s in a name?

Olympic Fever.

It’s difficult not to get swept up in the grandeur and majesty of the Olympics. People are drawn to watch, to spend hours watching brave and dedicated athletes perform incredible feats in bitter cold from the comfort of their warm couches. It’s powerful and mesmerizing. It’s like a fever, which is why, looking at the incredible number of events, all I can think is this:

 

 

 

 

 

Olympic Sport or Illness?

  1. Curling
  2. Scurvy
  3. Rickets
  4. Skijoring
  5. Bandy
  6. Alpinism
  7. Pelota
  8. Roque
  9. Rackets
  10. Croquet
  11. Sauna
  12. Sibelius
  13. Pellagra
  14. Beri beri
  15. Tryptophan
  16. Influenza
  17. Luge
  18. Slalom
  19. Norovirus
  20. Nordic combined
  21. Rabies
  22. Rubella
  23. Monkeypox
  24. Salmonella
  25. Polo

Scoring

23-25: Gold

21-22: Silver

19-20: Bronze

15-18: Copper

11-14: Tin

7-10: Rubber ball on a string

4-6: For crying out loud, it’s only once every four years. Would it hurt to take a little interest?

1-3: You will be forced to give a humiliating interview about your loss

Answer Key:

 

 

 

 

Pod Person.

My father loves talk radio. On long road trips we listened to a lot of NPR, and when we were out of range of that he’d switch to the eccentric local preachers who had their own radio shows on backwoods stations all across the southeast, and who’d ramble on about how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark, if viewed from the right angle, would form a clear 666, and I swear I’m not making that up. Broadcasters with weird conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, only the way some of them have managed to go global, but that’s another story. And since this was before I got my first Walkman, or, even after I got one, after the batteries had run dry, I’d sit in the backseat and beg for some music other than the admittedly catchy theme song for All Things Considered. So of course now that I’m an adult and can choose what I want to listen to, especially on my afternoon commute, I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to people talking, in case I need to underscore the irony for you, which I probably don’t but for some reason I can’t seem to shut up.
The importance of this really hit me about a month ago when I downloaded an update for the Apple podcasts app which had been working fine for years. The update came out in September so I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner, or why I did it at all since people discovered almost immediately it was awful and, on my phone at least, crashed frequently because in the computer world if it ain’t broken some developer will have to tinker with it until it is.
Anyway I switched to another non-Apple podcast app and just because here are some of my favorite podcasts that frequently make me wish my commute were longer and glad my phone at least has a pretty long battery life:

Snap Judgment is mostly true stories with each show taking a theme. Some episodes offer multiple stories from different people, but a few are devoted to a single speaker. Host Glynn Washington also seems to have a bottomless series of his own life stories that he uses to introduce each show. And I’m pretty excited that a live event is coming to Nashville, to the Ryman Auditorium of all places.

Says You! is an NPR show that’s also available as a downloadable podcast. Says You! is a series of word games and puzzles. Recorded live its two three-person panels of supposedly educated and well-informed people who nevertheless don’t know what a bream is. It was sad when the show lost its original host and creator Richard Sher, but the current host Gregg Porter has filled in nicely.

The Dork Forest is comedian Jackie Kashian’s long-running podcast in which she has guests on to talk about what they dork out about although the conversations tend to get off into the weeds. The other day I was listening to the Labyrinth episode with comedian Virginia Jones while walking to my stop and I swear I thought I was going to miss my bus because I was laughing so hard I had to sit down.

The TED Radio Hour features snippets of three TED talks. Speakers are also interviewed by host Guy Raz and I always get a kick out of how they tie sometimes seemingly disparate topics together.

Lightspeed is a podcast of science fiction stories read aloud and even though they’re contemporary they take me back to my youth of devouring science fiction stories. It’s interesting to compare how authors, styles, and themes have changed since Mikhail Gorbachev was a world leader.

The Hilarious World Of Depression is usually hilarious and sometimes depressing as host John Moe talks mostly to comedians, although sometimes other sorts of performers, about their battles with mental illness. Also, completely unrelated, I have a humor anthology called More Mirth Of A Nation with a piece by John Moe in it, and I tweeted to him, “I’m sure you hear this all the time but” and that I loved his piece in that book,” and while it’s true I love his piece, “Terrible Names for Hair Salons”, I assume no one else has ever mentioned it to him. And he tweeted back that it was his first published piece, he was really glad I like it, and no one else has ever mentioned it to him, and now I feel incredibly embarrassed and if I ever meet him in person I’ll feel stupid and awkward and he will have completely forgotten it and I’ll feel compelled to explain it and start the cycle over.

In Our Time is a BBC podcast in which host Melvyn Bragg talks to three experts in a field about topics ranging from feathered dinosaurs to Picasso’s Guernica and I can feel my IQ tick up a few points just listening to it. Bragg is a longtime broadcaster who, every time he comes on the radio, always starts with, “Hello,” maybe because he wants every listener to feel they’re being addressed individually. A recent episode was about Moby Dick and it was kind of weird listening to three British scholars talk about Melville’s work as an example of The Great American Novel.

A Creative Mind Fiction Podcast is another podcast of fiction with authors Alice Nelson and Carrie Zylka doing most of the writing and other heavy lifting and a recent featured story, Hello. This Is Siri, by Nelson, really stuck with me for reasons that should be obvious once you listen to it.

Anyway those are just a few from my weird and eclectic listening list. What are some of yours?

Decorous.

One of the fascinating things to me about art history is the way decorating styles have changed over the millennia. In most cultures decoration—which I’ll just define broadly as little fiddly bits added on to something that don’t really need to be there but make it look nicer—is used to some degree or other. In Europe decoration really reached its height in the Baroque and Rococo periods with decoration getting so elaborate I’m not sure the eye could take it all in, and in a lot of cases there were details that were missed. Once, while I was visiting a late Baroque cathedral in Austria, the tour guide pointed out a carving on the armrest of a pew of a couple in the 69 position, and it probably went unnoticed for a really long time because it was dark wood and there was so much other stuff around it. And eventually there’d be a decline and some movements, particularly in architecture, aimed for more utilitarian designs, such as the Bauhaus which had an aesthetic based on straight lines and little decoration but then moved into singing about Bela Lugosi, but that’s another story.

Even the sparest, least decorated art can also be very emotionally effective. Some people point to Mark Rothko’s large blocks of color and say, “Well, hell, I could do that,” but his paintings can be very haunting and up close reveal a lot of detail in the brushwork. It’s also worth noting that he designed a special building with carefully controlled lighting to give people a very specific experience of seeing his paintings.

Because graffiti is illegal it usually has to be quick and dirty—as opposed to elaborately carved couples in flagrante delicto which would be long and dirty–or at least quick, so there’s not a lot of time for decorating, but I always appreciate it when it adds a little something to an otherwise bland space.

The Conversation.

It’s difficult for me to talk about race, mostly because when I do I realize how little I know. As a white kid growing up in the suburbs my parents never had to have The Talk with me. I didn’t even know about The Talk, which many African American families call a matter of life and death, until a few years ago.

On some, but not all, Nashville buses there’s a memorial plaque to Rosa Parks, and when I see it I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Turner, who taught us the story of Rosa Parks. This is the version we were given: Parks had a long, hard day at work and was sitting in a seat close to the front on a bus. A white passenger asked her to move to the back and she was so tired she couldn’t get up so she was arrested. Her case ultimately led to a boycott of the city buses and, after a court decision, city buses were no longer segregated.

That is more or less how it happened, but when the teacher told us that I wanted to ask, isn’t there more to it than that? I thought, and still think, Parks was very brave for refusing to give up her seat, but I couldn’t believe she did it just because she was tired on that particular day. I believed she was tired of having been asked to give up her seat repeatedly, and I wanted to know if she’d committed a deliberate act of civil disobedience which, I thought, and still think, would be even braver.

Since then I’ve learned that the story of Rosa Parks we were taught, while true, was also more complicated. She was a secretary for the NAACP at the time of her arrest and had attended a social justice training school. Her refusal to give up her seat was a decision she made in the moment but, in a sense, she’d been preparing for it for a long time.

But I didn’t ask, and I’m still not sure why. One of the things that made Mrs. Turner a great teacher is that she loved it when we asked questions. If she didn’t know the answer she’d tell us to go get a book and we’d read it together because she believed learning should be interactive. Mrs. Turner was also black and grew up in a segregated area. She told us how once, when she was very hungry and out with her father, she didn’t understand why they couldn’t stop at a particular restaurant, and why, when they went to another restaurant, they couldn’t go inside but had to sit out back. She wasn’t shy about sharing her experiences. I wish I hadn’t been shy about asking questions, not just about Rosa Parks but about Mrs. Turner. Had she always wanted to be a teacher? Did she ever imagine, growing up, that someday she’d be teaching kids of all races?

What Rosa Parks did, and Mrs. Turner sharing her own experiences, have one thing in common: they created an opportunity for conversation, and I’m responsible for being willing to take part.

All You Need Is Looking.

From up close it looked like a random scribble. There wasn’t anything unusual about that. I see a lot of random scribbles on benches and walls and gas meters. Most of the time they’re done in pen although sometimes they’re done in paint. And I always wonder when they’re done in paint why the person who made them even bothered. Then I think maybe they were practicing. Or maybe they’re gang signs, although that seems unlikely. The random scribbles are so, well, random, and so generic I can’t imagine any gang being able to identify them as their own.

“Is this one of ours?”

“Beats me. They all look like that.”

The random scribbles, I always think, lack more than purpose. They lack passion, intent, a desire to share something.

And then for some reason I crossed the street and looked back, and I was glad I did. What looked like a random scribble turned out to be something a lot more interesting. Maybe it was still someone practicing, or maybe its distinctive look was intentional. The mark at the end certainly seemed to signal more to come.

Looking back I could see passion, intent, and a desire to share something, and I was glad I gave what I thought was nothing another look.

 

 

Risky Business.

A coworker asked me, “What’s the riskiest thing you’ve done in the last week?” and it really got me thinking. Not that that’s unusual. Every question gets me thinking, although I don’t always think enough before I answer, and sometimes I don’t really put enough thought into what I say, like the time at work several of us were sitting down to a meeting and a very talkative coworker next to me said, “I don’t really take notes in meetings, I just doodle on my pad,” and I said, “You probably meant to say that with your in-your-head voice,” and she said, “Oh, I’m not sure I have one of those. Ask me a simple question and you’re likely to get my life story.” I then said, “Why do you think that is?” and everyone else let out a collective groan, but that’s another story. The question of what the riskiest thing I’d done in the last week was put me into such a reverie that I had to take a break and go out for a long walk. Had I done anything in the last week that could be considered risky? What about the last month, or even the last year? Diving into the deep end of the pool? Diving into the shallow end of the pool? Going out with wet hair? Eating grocery store sushi? Doing my Steven Tyler impersonation when my lips were chapped? Nothing that I’d done that I could think of seemed particularly risky. I’m not a timid person, or at least I don’t think I am. Maybe I’m just afraid to admit it. My wife has put the kibosh on me ever trying scuba diving because she says it’s too dangerous, and this raises the question of whether arguing with her about that would be considered an extreme sport. Actually the biggest obstacle to my trying risky things isn’t cowardice; it’s frugality. If someone else were picking up the tab I’d jump at the chance to try bungee jumping or wingsuit flying trying out for the Steelers. I’d just want to make sure I did all those things properly and took all the necessary precautions. There are ways to almost kill yourself without being stupid about it. Believe me, I’ve checked the price of skydiving lessons and for that much money I can get on a plane that will land on the ground someplace I actually want to go. Or maybe the destination could be the risk I take–I could go explore some place remote and dangerous like Death Valley or the Sahara desert or Poughkeepsie. Maybe I could just find ways to challenge myself: talk to strangers, take acting classes, knock over a liquor store. As long as it’s still winter I could try one of those polar bear challenges where people in thongs go outside in freezing temperatures and jump into a cold body of water, and, hey, just wearing a thong in public would be a challenge for me. I could even try the extreme version which involves jumping into a cold body of water with real polar bears. As I walked along my head was so full of possibilities I barely noticed the sound of screeching tires and a voice yelling, “LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, ASSHOLE!” although it did give me the idea that maybe I should look into how much it would cost to try race car driving lessons.

Magic Man.

Source: Chicago Tribune

Any time I get hooked on a show it’s because of the characters. I’m not naïve enough to think they’re real people or even that the actors are anything like the characters they play, although I do always kind of hope they are because the reason I’m devoting half an hour to a sitcom is because I think, if these people were real I’d enjoy hanging out with them. Take, for instance, Frasier. Yes, I could definitely see myself attending the theater or an art gallery with Frasier and Niles, but I also thought I’d be just as happy having a beer at Duke’s with Martin. Again I know they’re not real people but Martin was wonderfully brought to life by John Mahoney. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from the whole series, from the season 3 episode Chess Pains:

Frasier: Oh, hi, Dad. Did you see my new chess set?
Martin: Oh yeah, it’s nice.
Frasier: “Nice?” Well, the inlay was made from the same Travertine marble they used at the Emperor Hadrian’s palace outside Tivoli!
Martin: Really? Well, I’m gonna celebrate with a beverage brewed from the crystal-clear waters of the majestic Colorado Rockies!
Frasier: Good one, Dad. Say, how about a game?
Martin: Nah, I don’t think so.
Frasier: Oh, come on, Dad. You know how to play, don’t you?
Martin: Well, Daphne showed me once. But really, checkers is more my speed.
Frasier: Oh, come on, checkers is a kid’s game. Come on, Dad! I just got it! Please? Nobody will play with me!
Martin: All right, I’ll give it another shot. Those guys at the park make it look great-eating baloney sandwiches, smoking cigars, sometimes a fist-fight even breaks out!
Frasier: Well, let’s just start with name-calling and see where it goes, all right?

It’s a funny bit but it’s really the way Mahoney and Grammer, especially Mahoney, commit to it and play off each other that makes it. Then after I got hooked on Frasier it was a real treat to go back and rewatch Moonstruck, Say Anything, and The American President, and to watch The Broken Hearts Club just to see the different characters he could be–always charming, always distinctively John Mahoney, and yet so different from role to role.

He started acting at the age of thirty-seven but Mahoney was serious and dedicated to the craft. As brilliant as he was on TV and in movies he preferred the theater, working live before an audience. In a 2014 interview he said, “The audience has a job and the actors have a job and when you both do your job and meet the result is just magical.”

He really brought the magic. Hail and farewell John Mahoney.

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