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Supposedly there’s a Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” I say “supposedly” because I once asked a Chinese scholar about that and she said, “I’ve never heard any such thing in my life.” It’s probably an expression some guy cooked up and to make it sound more interesting he decided to claim it was a Chinese curse. Uninteresting times can be a curse too. Recently I took a trip by Greyhound bus to Cincinnati. I made the same trip last year and then it was interesting because it had been about a quarter of a century since I’d taken a Greyhound bus anywhere and things had changed significantly. This time all the things that were different before were still the same. Well, almost all the same. The men’s restroom had just been repainted and I went in there and literally watched paint dry. Then, because I have a smartphone and the station had free wifi, I went out and looked up “watching paint dry” in Wikipedia. Smartphones mean we never have to be bored ever again, and I had mine loaded up with podcasts and music, and even if the battery went dead I had my bag with my journal and copy of Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. I didn’t expect my battery to go dead, of course, because I knew from my last trip that the bus seats have plugs you can use to recharge your device.

I got on and grabbed a seat and a young man in a purple hoodie sat down next to me and we both had our phones out and that’s when I noticed there were no plugs at the seat I picked. My phone died about half an hour out of Nashville so I followed Twain’s progress to New Orleans while I went northward.

When we stopped in Louisville I went into the restaurant/gift shop to get coffee. Then, still holding my coffee, I wandered out then tried to go back in. “Sir!” yelled the man behind the counter. “This is for customers only! Once you go out you can’t come back!” This was more baffling than it was interesting.

Back on the bus I found a seat with wall plugs and my phone was full and so was my bladder by the time I arrived at the Cincinnati Greyhound station where the men’s room had not been freshly repainted because such a coincidence would have been too interesting for this trip.

I went to Cincinnati, by the way, to see some old friends and a talk by Neil Gaiman which was extremely interesting. There’s an old saying that’s also been attributed to the Chinese that the journey is more important than the destination, but sometimes it really is the destination that matters, especially when it’s the destination that’s interesting.

Free For All.

“I really thought if I ever learned to draw properly I would try to change the world for the better.”

Ralph Steadman

I first saw this mural in Cincinnati from a moving car, which is funny because I don’t know where to start with it. In fact I was so excited when I saw it I almost jumped out of the car, and that was before I realized it was by Ralph Steadman. Steadman is best known for his work with Hunter S. Thompson, a long collaboration that began with Steadman providing illustrations for The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. Steadman’s slapdash style looks decadent and depraved, at least from a distance, but up close is exquisitely detailed. He combines accidents and precision, an interesting contradiction given that Steadman himself seems very contradictory. His art is often brutal and angry, raging at state of the world, and yet he also does commercial work. You may not be able to buy an original painting by him–he’s really very reluctant to sell his work and has said, “If anyone owns an original Steadman it’s stolen”–but copies are cheap and easy to find.

Among other things he’s done the labels for Flying Dog beer, and it’s not surprising that when my friend James, who was driving the car I’d later almost jump out of, and I were perusing the beer aisle of a store I pointed some out to him. He’s lucky he can find Flying Dog beers since they’re no longer available in Tennessee, and I once drove a really long way to find some. Then I sent them an e-mail describing my ordeal and got a really nice reply and they sent me a t-shirt, but that’s another story. He’s also a prolific author of numerous books.

As for the mural, it is an original Steadman.

Who owns it, though, or if it’s really owned by anyone, is another question. Public murals are contradictory in themselves: they’re commissioned and approved and an artist gets paid but once done they belong to everyone who happens to pass by. You don’t have to go into a gallery or museum; most of the time if you see a public mural it’s an accident, but hopefully an accident that makes your world a little better.

This reminds me of that great quote from Winston Churchill, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

What Time Is It, Anyway?

Source: Wikipedia

“Florida Legislature OKs year-round daylight saving time…”

-Herald-Tribune, March 6, 2018

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We moved the clocks up an hour and then just left them there. Most people forgot about it until November and there was a decision that since it worked so well we should fall forward and no one lost any sleep over it. Well, technically we all lost an hour of sleep, but nobody was counting at that point. Then the next spring came around and we all looked at each other and said, okay, let’s do this again, and there was another hour. And we did it again in the fall. Then someone suggested we “overwinter” and everybody was okay with this since it meant we could get through the holidays faster. Spring came earlier than usual that year and then someone said that as long as we were “overwintering” maybe we should also “undersummer” and figuring out what that meant took care of a few more hours.

We can’t say exactly when the idea to go to metric time got started, but it wasn’t an easy transition. No one could figure out why the Egyptians and Chinese decided days should be divided into twenty-four hours, but some argued that we’d been doing it for so long it didn’t make sense to change. Others said that it was confusing and that we should have scrapped it long ago. Finally each side was given one week, or ten days, to prepare and an hour, or one hundred minutes, to make their case. Even now some people believe the metric side won because they made their case I only seventy-five centiminutes so we could all leave early.

All this would have created a lot of work for clockmakers if we hadn’t already digitized everything.

Everybody liked that the addition of three extra days to every week meant a longer weekend, but adjusting the calendars was still controversial. Corporate sponsors suggested  additional names for days of the week, but instead there was some compromise and nod to tradition. In English we added Fimmday between Thursday and Friday, Shaniday between Saturday and Sunday, and Hermsday between Tuesday and Wednesday.

Proposals to get rid of Monday entirely were rejected.

Once this was done it was easy to knock out two months. Since August is usually the hottest month some people suggested getting rid of it could slow down global warming. Ultimately though everybody agreed there was no need for March and September, for reasons no one can remember.

Well, that about wraps up this brief history of lost time. Since it’s now midnight let’s go get some lunch.


Looking Outward.

Source: Wikipedia

In 2010 Stephen Hawking said that humans should stop sending signals out into space because we run the risk of letting aliens know we’re here. According to Hawking it could be very bad if aliens find us, and he compared it to Europeans discovering Native Americans. The Europeans did bring syphilis and smallpox, but they also brought horses, so aliens could potentially do something similar.

I really do respect Stephen Hawking and I don’t think he offered up his opinion lightly. He has a history of carefully thinking things through. When he was at Oxford-–this is absolutely true-–he was a lazy and unmotivated student but told his professors that if they gave him a first he’d leave to go study at Cambridge and if they gave him a second he’d stay at Oxford. So naturally they gave him a first.

I once did something similar: I managed to pass sixth grade math by telling the teacher that if she flunked me I’d just come back the next year, but that’s another story. Sometimes I imagine his old Oxford professors getting sloppy drunk. One of them says, “Dude, we let Stephen Hawking go.” And the other one says, “He was such a slacker then. How could we know he was gonna write bestselling books and play poker with Data and Einstein on the Enterprise holodeck? And stop calling me ‘dude’. We’re both in our nineties.”

If I could ask Stephen Hawking one question, though, it would be, “What led you to the conclusion that aliens are a threat? And show your work.” I have to include “show your work” because, even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t just leap to this conclusion I would like to know how he arrived at it. I think Hawking may be completely wrong about aliens, but it’s an interesting question to debate, and I credit Hawking with making me think about my own position.

The problem I have with the assumption that aliens are going to come and put an interstellar smackdown on us if we let them know we’re here is that, as far as I know, we really don’t know what aliens are like or what their interests are. I think Hawking was right when he said the universe is likely teeming with life, and given how diverse life is just on this planet whatever forms that life takes are likely very strange, even unrecognizable. If he’s smart enough to have figured that out, though, he should be smart enough to realize that if aliens are capable of advanced interstellar travel they’re probably already aware of us. And if they’re not aware of us they’ve probably already scanned this solar system and discovered that there’s a nice rocky little planet full of water and silicon and heavy metals and Viagra and whatever else they might need to continue their galactic cruise. And if their technology is that advanced then everything we have is theirs for the taking whether we advertise our sentience or not. That’s also why I admit that Hawking may be right. I hope someday we’ll meet aliens on friendly terms, but the universe is a cold, hostile place. Some nights when I look out and see the moon cut into pieces by the spreading branches of a tree I wonder what is out there and I am afraid.

Hail and farewell Stephen Hawking.

Rides From Strangers.

It was early in the year and early in the morning so I was standing at the bus stop in the dark. This was before a new bus shelter with a light had been installed–I was just next to the BUS STOP sign, and while the bus drivers always stopped for me I wondered how they even managed to see me there in the dark. Traffic zipped by so fast I figured I was a passing blur while I waited to be a passenger, but whenever I saw the bus coming I stepped up and waved to make sure I’d be seen. I was standing back, though, when a guy in a white pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window.
“You wanna ride?”
I wasn’t hitchhiking or even walking–there were times when a neighbor would see me walking home and would pull over to offer me a lift since they were going my way. And this got me thinking about hitchhiking, something I’ve never done. It’s funny that I can only think of two hitchhiking stories, both fiction. There’s Roald Dahl’s The Hitch-Hiker, which is a fun story about how he picked up a hitchhiker with an extraordinary talent (there’s an audio version here), and also Larry Niven’s The Deadlier Weapon, which is a fun story about a guy who picks up a hitchhiker who puts a knife to his neck, but it turns out the driver has, well, the title kind of gives it away. Anyway I thought it might be interesting to have a story of my own from the rider’s point of view, and while some people would have good reason to not hop into a stranger’s car I felt like I’d be able to take care of myself if things took a wrong turn. And I knew that, as a driver, I often see people at bus stops, some of whom I recognize from having ridden the bus with them, and I think about offering them a lift, but only if I happen to be going their way.
Then I realized I didn’t recognize this guy, but at the same time what were the odds that someone with nefarious intentions would happen to be just passing by me at that moment? And it’s not like I was standing on a streetcorner in a miniskirt at two in the morning. I’m not sure I’ve got the gams for a miniskirt so I’m going to wear something at least knee-length, but that’s another story. I was doing all this mental calculus at a rate I’m sure exceeded the speed limit–it probably took you longer to read all this than it took me to think it is what I’m saying, but while he was waiting for an answer I saw the bus coming along.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Sure.” He sped off down the road, which kind of confirmed for me that it was a friendly offer. If he’d wanted something, I reckon, he would have been pushier.
The bus stopped and I got on.
“If that truck hadn’t made me slow down I might have gone right past you in the dark,” the bus driver told me as I got on, and I sent out a mental note to the guy in the pickup truck. Thanks for the ride.

Dragon Soup.

Nashville’s Fannie Mae Dees park is a local curiosity. Created in the 1970‘s as part of the urban renewal craze it’s named, ironically, after a woman who opposed its development and other changes to the neighborhood around it. Its real attraction is the sculpture at its heart which has earned it the nickname “Dragon Park”, although the sculptor originally called the work a sea serpent. It was built by Pedro Silva, a Chilean-born New York artist who earned national attention for his whimsical benches around Grant’s Tomb. Meant to revitalize the area he employed local graffiti artists and when Silva came to Nashville he enlisted the help of local volunteers, using a few rough sketches but mostly improvising. Near the Vanderbilt hospital complex it’s attracted a lot of visitors over the years, including R.E.M. who took pictures in the park for the cover of their 1987 album Document, so I guess it’s not just a local curiosity.

Anyway right now the dragon is in trouble, in need of repair and closed off to the public while funds are being raised for restoration. And a curious thing has happened: the walls put up to block off public access have become canvases for local graffiti artists. A lot of graffiti now covers the walls, and most of it is…not very good.

In fact most of it might be unintentionally contributing to the fundraising because people will want to get rid of it. I’d like to see the dragon come back too. It’s an important piece of Nashville history. And yet, while it’s good that most of the graffiti is temporary, some of it is pretty good.

It may even be good enough that it deserves to be recognized as part of Nashville’s history too.


Lost & Found.

So I found a Fleetwood Mac CD while I was walking home from the bus. Maybe whoever it belonged to tried to fit it in their smartphone and realized it wouldn’t play so they threw it out in frustration, or maybe they were fighting off hordes of attackers, although I would have thought Tusk would be a better weapon. It reminded me of the time I found an egg along the same route, which still baffles me, and also generally how much trash I see strewn alongside the road, usually when I’m on my way to or from the bus. A lot of what I see is expected: paper, fast food containers, bottles. My pottery instructor uses blue glass in some of her works so whenever I see a blue bottle I pick it up and I realize that probably looks weird to people driving by to see a guy walking along carrying a big vodka bottle, but I try to make it look less weird by carrying a big bottle of orange juice in the other hand. Sometimes I find unusual things, like the time I found a nice dress jacket, maybe worn by someone whose job interview went badly, or odd little containers or toys, that I think I might take home and turn into an art project, and also just to a little bit of the trash off the street. It’s surprising that an average of four large cargo containers are lost at sea every day but less surprising that I found one while walking home and I can’t tell you how hard it was to pick that up and carry it home, but that’s another story. I think you can understand that the lesson here is that you can pick your friends and you can pick up trash but if you’re picking up your friend’s trash a guitar player should always have a pick.


It’s Only Money.

Source: iSpotTV

Whenever I see graffiti used in advertising, like in a recent Coca-Cola ad, it makes me laugh. Graffiti is supposed to be worthless, or maybe even less than worthless as far as people who think it brings down property values are concerned. And then advertising comes along and uses graffiti to make money, and presto, it’s worth something, at least as long as it’s being used to push a product. If it’s advertising of course it’s not technically graffiti, it’s just advertising that’s made to look like graffiti. It’s masquerading as graffiti, but to me the lines there get kind of blurry. Is advertising any less of an art form than art? Let’s consider that from a few different perspectives, starting with Bill Hicks, the ultimate artistic purist who famously said, “Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call.” And there’s long been criticism of product placement in movies. A 2016 post over at Assholes Watching Movies considered the myriad forms that’s taken, and if you want to go even further back the June 11, 1990 issue of Time had a backpage essay by y called “These Foolish Things Remind Me Of Diet Coke” that imagined product placement in everything from Shakespeare to the Bible, and also the Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey standard that’s been covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to Bryan Ferry, but that’s another story.

At the other end of the spectrum artists have been singing for their suppers probably as long as there’s been art. Going way back the Greek poet Pindar (c.522–c.443 BC) would write lyric celebrations of anyone who paid him. The more money you gave him the longer your poem would be, and yet now he’s regarded as a great artist and his poems are hated by students of the classics because his Greek is so damn hard to translate.

Source: iSpotTV

And more recently selling out isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing. Artists have gotta make a living after all. Some artists have even raised seeking fame and fortune to an art form in itself, primarily Andy Warhol, who the critic Robert Hughes said, “went after publicity with the voracious singlemindedness of a feeding bluefish”, a sharp contrast to earlier artists who were usually surprised to find themselves the subject of any public attention. And to quote another comedian, Steve Martin said,

I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.

In fact it’s a fairly recent notion, traceable to the Romantic period, that artists are beholden only to themselves and their principles. Where did this idea come from? Probably at least in part due to the rise of advertising. Art is a refuge from a world that wants us to consume, or is it? I’m not talking about the price of a painting or even a song download. I’m talking about something much more abstract. If you buy into the idea that art–any art–means something, that it conveys an idea, a message, then it is trying to sell you something. The difference is that good art isn’t going to push a specific principle or idea. Instead of telling you what to think good art gives you a range of perspectives and treats an idea with enough ambiguity that you’re left to make up your own mind.

At least that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.





The Eyes Have It.

So I need glasses. This is something I should have seen coming but age has blindsided me while I wasn’t looking and I think you smell what I’m saying here. For most of my life I’ve taken pride in having 20/20 or better vision even while a lot of my friends had glasses, although there was a time in first grade when that had me feeling left out and I told my mother I thought I might need glasses, but she talked me out of it. Then in second grade my teacher thought maybe I was having trouble seeing the blackboard when the truth is I’d just decided math was stupid and boring and I wasn’t going to do it anymore, but that still earned me a trip to an optometrist who freaked me out by wanting to put eyedrops in my eyes. I didn’t want anything in my eyes, even if it was just a liquid, and it didn’t help when he told me it was just saltwater like tears or the ocean. I knew enough biology to know that tears come out of the corners of your eyes and that the ocean is full of plankton and sand and various bodily fluids. After that I was happy to not need any eyewear aside from goggles I wore for swimming, especially in the ocean, although there were times when I wished that, like the horned lizard, I could squirt blood out of my eyes as a defense mechanism for dealing with school bullies since I could only use the “You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses” line while standing behind one of my friends. In the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Forward March Hare” Bugs is given an eye exam and freaks out the doctor by reading the tiny print at the bottom of the eye chart, and I thought this was hilarious so I freaked out my family doctor by doing the same thing during a checkup, although I’d actually gotten up close and read it while he was out of the room.

In high school I took an advanced biology class and when we did the chapter on the eye I found it really fascinating, especially how the images that are projected onto our eye are upside down but our brain turns them around so we see right-side up, and I said, “So when I’ve got my head upside down why doesn’t my brain turn that image around?” and the teacher told me to get my head off the floor and sit up straight in my seat and not put my feet up in the air. And we were supposed to dissect cow eyes but for some reason the teacher wasn’t able to get them that year which was disappointing because I was also taking a film studies class and was looking forward to recreating the opening scene of Un Chien Andalou, but that’s another story.

Anyway things started well enough at my latest optometrist appointment when an assistant asked me, “Can I dilate you?” and I said, “How about dinner and a movie first?” Actually getting my eyes dilated is my favorite part of any eye appointment because it doesn’t take much and I once had a late afternoon appointment and went out to dinner afterward and spent most of the evening playing with the candle on our table. Then the assistant said, “Read the smallest line of the chart you can make out,” and I said “What chart?” The good news is that I was facing the wrong direction but the bad news is even the largest line of the chart was blurry to me. I tried to fake my way through it but I’m pretty sure I gave the game away when I said, “E, G, M, mushroom, Oscar Wilde, ampersand, upside-down E.”

Then the doctor came in and started talking about giving me a prescription and I said, “For some pills or something?” She explained that I needed progressive lenses. I said, “Well I wouldn’t want any lenses that weren’t cool with equality and social justice.” And then I realized what she was saying and I’m pretty sure I started bleeding a little from my eyes and I said, “Wow, doc, you really know how to hit a guy with glasses.”

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