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In The Details.

When I took the picture I thought it said NIT, and that was funny to me—I had this whole essay about nitpicking and attention to detail planned out—but then when I got home and looked at it on my computer I realized it said NITE. And that’s okay. The artist who created this still paid a lot of attention to details, from the interesting color pattern to the odd design of the E which is placed off to the right, cleverly changing NIT to NITE.

And by a funny coincidence I just read an article by New York Times critic Jason Farago about his decision to spend half an hour with Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MoMA, before it closed for the summer for an expansion project. Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s most popular works—one that’s become as ubiquitous as the Mona Lisa or, well, it’s hard to think of another painting that’s appeared on everything from coffee mugs to pens to t-shirts and just about any other swag you can think of, and inspiring countless copies and even animated versions. Maybe that’s why people who see it at the MoMA take so many selfies with it or pictures of it. When Farago decided to spend half an hour in front of it he picked the worst possible time, from 5:30 to 6:00 on a Friday afternoon, and he was understandably distracted by fellow visitors and their screens and had a hard time focusing on the painting itself. This is my second-favorite of his observations:

5:46 p.m. It’s a little calmer now. Smart teenager to my left tells her friend: “This was my favorite painting when I was, like, 13.” Friend responds with a weary postmodern admission that would make Jean Baudrillard proud: “I know this is the real painting, but it’s like I can’t see it.”

My favorite observation, though, is one he makes a few minutes later:

5:55 p.m. Move to the extreme right side. Only from this angle can I see van Gogh’s impasto; never had I seen the thick, canary-yellow lines in the hollow of the crescent moon.

I’ve never seen Starry Night in person but this does remind me of the experience of seeing other paintings in person that I previously only knew from books. To really appreciate any painting you have to see it alive and up close, although also with the understanding that paintings change over time. Van Gogh’s paintings are praised now for their slightly muted colors but were originally much brighter–dust and the breakdown of chemicals have changed the look of his paint.

What would I see if I looked at Starry Night? I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful painting but I also know Van Gogh painted it while in an asylum after the famous ear-cutting incident. Hannah Gadsby in her show Nanette had a brilliant takedown of an audience member who tried to tell her Van Gogh wouldn’t have been a great painter if he’d been medicated. Spoiler alert: he was medicated. Maybe that’s why sometimes when I look at it, albeit in reproductions, those swirling lines don’t look beautiful; they look terrifying, like worms consuming the universe. It’s what happens when I look at the details too closely. And then I step back and it becomes beautiful again. It’s all in how you look at it.

Source: Wikipedia


Message In A Bottle.

Every summer my family went to Florida for two weeks. My grandfather left my mother his house down there so we always had a place to stay. The average age of everyone who lived on the block was a hundred and five so there weren’t a lot of kids for me to hang out with. The year I was eight we left the day after school let out so I’d miss the start of summer with my friends in Nashville. Maybe that was what gave me the idea to put a letter in a bottle. Or maybe I just got the idea from something I read or saw. The message in a bottle, or even just the floating message, has been around for thousands of years, a floating idea. I’m not sure where I picked it up; probably from cartoons or comics where someone stranded on an island writes “Send help!” on a piece of paper, puts it in a bottle, and throws it out to sea. I always wondered about that. Where’d they get the paper and ink? For that matter where’d they get the bottles? I’d heard about milkmen who’d leave glass bottles of milk on the doorstep and even though there weren’t any in my neighborhood, and it would be a few years before there’d be Dead Milkmen, I heard there were still places where people got their milk delivered. I thought maybe that’s where lonely island castaways got the bottles. So each day they’d put a plea for rescue in one bottle and a note that said “No more cheese!” in the other. And there were even more questions. How’d they seal the bottles? And how would they make sure the bottles would make it past the waves and not just be washed back up on the shore? And perhaps most puzzling, how would anyone who found a bottle with a message in it know where it came from? If you’re stranded on a desert island chances are you don’t know where it is and if the milkman hasn’t offered to give you a lift he’s probably too surly to give directions too, or maybe no castaways ever got up early enough to meet the milkman on his rounds, which is understandable since living on a desert island must be pretty exhausting.

Anyway I got this idea that it would be fun to put a message in a bottle and see where it went. I wrote a note asking whoever found it to write to me and tell me where they found it and about themselves. I included my home address in Nashville which I thought might make whoever found it wonder how it got from a landlocked state to the sea. I also didn’t know anything about ocean currents so it never occurred to me that since we were in St. Petersburg where the beach faces west right into the Gulf of Mexico it was unlikely the bottle would go somewhere really distant like New Zealand or Poughkeepsie, but I still hoped it would find its way to a distant shore and be picked up by someone interesting and we’d become steady penpals and maybe someday meet and have a series of wacky adventures. Or at least exchange postcards.

My father gave me an empty plastic Coke bottle, and even though I had some qualms about throwing trash into the sea I thought a plastic bottle would be better than a plastic one since it would float better and be less likely to break. We always went to a stretch of beach known as Treasure Island which is less of an island and more of an overgrown sandbar. I walked down to the John’s Pass Bridge and threw it into the water. And then as I was walking back to the spot my parents had staked out on the beach I saw a kid carrying a plastic Coke bottle and I was annoyed not just that my message had been found so soon and so close to where I’d sent it on its way but he looked a lot like me, only a few years younger, and I was hoping for someone, well, not like me—someone whose perspective on the world would be different. Then the kid poured water out of the bottle into a moat of a sandcastle he’d built and I realized it wasn’t the one I’d released, so my bottle, and its note were waiting to be picked up.

It never was picked up, or if it was whoever found it didn’t answer the message. Even though plastic lasts a really long time it still breaks down, gets broken up, sinks. In the end it’s just an idea I had that’s still out there floating.

A Little Cheese With Your Dog?

So my wife sent me out to pick up some wine while she went to a dog training class, and while I was in the store a young man came in and asked if they had any Moet & Chandon and I said, “Oh, yeah, she keeps it in a pretty little cabinet. Let them eat cake, she says, just like Marie Antoinette,” and everyone just stared at me and I invited everyone to come home with me just so I could yell at them to get off my lawn, but that’s another story. At least it all came together in this pop quiz: Dog breed or wine?

  1. Marsanne
  2. Spitz
  3. Griffon Nivernais
  4. Bandolino
  5. Pomeranian
  6. Malbec
  7. Maltese
  8. Dolcetto
  9. Mad Dog
  10. Amontillado
  11. Keeshond
  12. Frascati
  13. Xoloitzcuintli
  14. Muscat
  15. Sauterns
  16. Schnauzer
  17. Gewürztraminer
  18. Lambrusco
  19. Weimaraner
  20. Briard
  21. Traminer
  22. Vizsla
  23. Borzoi
  24. Syrah
  25. Courgette


Woman In White.

All kinds of people ride the bus I thought as she got on. She wore a solid white long-sleeve ankle-length dress and leopard-print shoes. When she sat down I could see she was wearing aqua-colored jeans, and she carried three purses: one gold, one silver, and one fuschia, which matched the frames of her sunglasses. Her hair was blonde, almost white, and in shiny curls.
What’s your story? I wanted to ask. Not just her, really–like I said, all kinds of people ride the bus, and I really would like to know everyone’s story, but I’m too shy to ask and I also worry it would be intrusive and rude to go around to people and ask them to tell me about themselves. I want to know people’s stories but I don’t want to make anyone feel pressured or uncomfortable. It’s why I have a problem with tabloids and celebrity gossip. People who are in the “public eye” still have a right to privacy. Once when I was a kid I rode along in the backseat while my parents took a visiting family member on a tour of Nashville. We went by Johnny Cash’s house which was surrounded by a high fence. The fence, my parents explained, was put up after a reporter hid in the bushes one night and saw Cash walking around his home naked. That’s probably far from the craziest thing that ever happened at Johnny Cash’s house, but why the reporter felt compelled to share it or, for that matter, to hide out in Cash’s bushes in the first place, is still beyond me.
Anyway there was something about this woman, from her shoes to her sunglasses, that seemed to invite conversation–as though she had a story she wanted to share. This is Nashville, and even though the recording industry has spread out, even though Music Row is now listed as one of America’s most endangered landmarks, there’s a reason it’s still known as Music City–people still come here to record albums, or just hoping to be discovered. I know someone who decided to go to a local karaoke bar on a whim and regretted it, saying, “I was the only one who wasn’t there for my career.”
Maybe I was assuming too much, though. It’s not fair to judge a person by how they dress, and I’ve since seen two other women carrying multiple purses which makes me wonder if it’s a new fashion trend and also just how much stuff they could possibly be carrying, but that’s another story.
Several blocks later she got off the bus without saying a word to the driver. At the next stop a guy got on and took her seat. He was wearing jeans, sneakers, a dark button-down shirt. From our clothes alone, I thought, we could be twins, except he was tall and bald. And I sat there wondering, what’s this cat’s story?

We’re All Bird Brains.

Source: Netflix

When I heard about Lisa Hanawalt’s new show Tuca And Bertie I was excited. Hanawalt’s a very funny artist and I really like her work, and she did most of the design for the characters and overall look of Bojack Horseman. Then I wondered…will it be anything like Bojack? After all Hanawalt is an exective producer of Bojack and Bojack’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is an executive producer on Tuca And Bertie. And the answer is no, in spite of the cross-pollination between the two shows. Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges—or maybe even like comparing apples and pineapples. Bojack inhabits an alternate reality that’s not too far off from the one we live in, but with anthropomorphic animals and the occasional animal-pun. One of my favorite aspects, which I’ve written about before, is the art references. Tuca And Bertie live in a very different universe—although Bertie does work for the publisher “Conde Nest”—where almost everything—including plants and buildings—is, if not anthropomorphic, then at least weirdly sentient and mobile. The jokes are subtler, the humor more conceptual. In one of the first episode’s funniest gags Tuca, who’s just moved out of the apartment she shares with Bertie, decides to visit her old friend. The style switches to a video game with Tuca jumping over a graphic rat on her way to Bertie’s apartment. Which is in the same building. Two floors down. If you want a comparison Tuca And Bertie could be sort of described as Broad City meets Adventure Time.

Among other things, as Hanawalt explained on a recent episode of the Bullseye podcast, whereas Bojack is tightly scripted the direction and writing of Tuca And Bertie is much looser. She tells the directors they can add scenes, cut scenes, and change styles if they want, and as much as she loves sitcoms she wanted to get away from the traditional sitcom structure.

Tuca and Bertie, played by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, are very funny characters and very appealing, and the overall vibe of the show is upbeat, although with occasional sad touches. Tuca is loud and outgoing but with a vulnerable side, and Bertie is shy and quiet, but ambitious. It’s great to see her get a promotion but disappointing when she realizes what comes with it. That same episode also deals with sexual harassment both seriously and in a hilariously weird way.

Really though it’s the distinct artistic style—or rather styles—of Tuca And Bertie that to me makes it so fun to watch. It’s frenetic and weird, and I’ve had to pause and rewind several times during an episode to catch details I missed the first time around. It’s fun to see the funny, sometimes intense drawings from Hanawalt’s books transformed into an animated TV show. Hanawalt talks about how different the communal process of making a TV show is from drawing cartoons, and also how Tuca and Bertie represent different sides of herself. She’s multi-faceted, which is reflected in both the stories and the look of the show, but also reflects us–we’re all muti-faceted. We’re all different animals.


So I was walking into work and saw the streetlights go out. It was a strange thing, and not just because it’s the summer and the days are getting longer which means the sun is pretty well up most days when I’m on my way into work. And unlike sunrise and sunset which are slow events the streetlights going out, or coming on, is a sudden change. Blink, look away, or just not look at the right time and you’ll miss it. It reminded me of when I was six or seven and had a strange obsession with streetlights. When I was riding in the back of the car at night I’d lean up against the window and look up at them as they went by, and I felt like they were looking back at me like giant cyclopean eyes—mostly amber, but also the silvery white ones, brighter than the moon. We lived on a cul-de-sac and I’d stand under the street light and look up into it, fascinated by the black blotch in it where insects had crawled in and died, and I’d watch moths bounce around it and wonder if they’d ever break free. Or I could turn away from it and see how our house cast a sharp shadow. It was so easy to step from light into infinite darkness and back again. Even then, even in summer when I’d be out in the street with my friends, it was rare that I would see the lights come on. It was as though it were something I wasn’t meant to see. Our house was also on the edge of a hill, and from my window in the back I could look out at the cul-de-sac parallel to ours, or at the intersection at the bottom of the hill. On humid nights or when there was fog or a light rain there’d be a halo around the streetlights, as though they were growing brighter.

Once when I was staying with my grandparents they took me to visit some people who had a basketball court in their backyard. They had a high power lamp that hung over it that looked like a streetlamp, and I thought, oh, they must have taken one from the street and put it here. I didn’t think of them as having stolen it. Instead I just thought how interesting it was that a streetlamp could be pulled up and transplanted, like a tree. I wondered if my parents could take one and put it in our backyard. Maybe, I thought, the streetlamp on our street is lonely and it would like a friend.

Seeing the streetlights go out also brought back a more recent memory. I was sitting in a coffee shop one evening, next to the window. It was just on the cusp of darkness but the streetlights hadn’t come on yet. A guy parked next to the sidewalk and got out and started putting change in the parking meter. He was bald and skinny and in the half-light his silhouette looked like Nosferatu. While he was still putting change in the parking meter a woman walked up and started hitting him. It looked like she was really hitting him hard, too. I wondered if I should say something, but “Help! Some woman is beating up Nosferatu on the sidewalk!” just didn’t seem like it would get much response. And he was continuing to put money in the parking meter—maybe he was using pennies, or planning to park there for three or four days. He seemed oblivious to the pummeling. Then the streetlights came on and I looked away from the couple for just a moment. When I turned back Nosferatu and the woman were hugging and then they began to rock back and forth slowly, and I wondered, for a moment, if I should yell, “Help! Nosferatu and some woman are slow-dancing on the sidewalk!” but I couldn’t decide if that was a bad thing or not. The whole scene had been so strange, as though it were something I wasn’t meant to see.

TB or Not TB.

Sometimes when I’m watching TV I pay attention to the commercials and think about whether I’m the target audience. Sometimes I’m not—that is unless I happen to have a grandchild I don’t know about who also happens to have a rare and unpronounceable disease, all of which seems pretty unlikely, but, still, maybe there’s a reason I’m sitting up late watching reruns of Barney Miller. The Sixties were a crazy decade and a lot of stuff went on that I don’t remember, mostly because I wasn’t alive in the Sixties. Anyway I saw this ad on the bus and started wondering if I was the target audience:

Well, I’m pretty sure I am the target audience for the “Walk. Bike. Ride.” ad on the right since I do at least two of those things on a regular basis, maybe even three–this is a crazy decade and maybe I’m out there riding and don’t know it–but what’s with the ad for tuberculosis on the left? Well, specifically it’s an ad for tuberculosis prevention—if there’s a “Want tuberculosis? Call now for a free offer!” ad out there I’m pretty sure I’m not the target audience for it.

The ad is also a little unnerving. Didn’t tuberculosis go out with the Victorians and other dinosaurs? I thought these days the only consumption anybody worried about was the conspicuous type. And when I hear that some atrocious fashions are coming back I assume people mean bellbottoms and not coughing up blood, even if it was chic among the Pre-Raphaelites.

In all seriousness tuberculosis is a terrible disease and while the number of cases worldwide is decreasing about one-fourth of the world’s population is believed to be infected—a number that’s even higher in Carson McCullers novels—and if anything we should be doing everything we can to make it unfashionable.

Looking In.

Normally I don’t look in anyone’s windows, even office windows just because it’s rude to stare at people even if they’re working, or maybe especially if they’re working, since I always make more mistakes when someone’s looking at me, and I like to keep my windows open to let in natural light to balance out the glare of the fluorescents, or at least I would if I had windows in my office, but that’s another story. Anyway the other day I glanced over at a ground-level office window and saw this:

It made me laugh and also a little sad. Offices are our natural habitat? And then I thought that maybe this is the office of someone who really loves what they do and that made me feel better, and they probably work better when they’re being stared at, which made me feel even better, but then I thought maybe they missed their calling as an actor, and that made me sad again.

It also reminded me that Edward Hopper would ride trains around New York and was sometimes inspired by people he saw through windows, creating paintings like this one:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s an interesting painting for a lot of reasons. The title Office At Night suggests that this couple is working late and that there may be more than work going on once they pull down the shades. It’s also ironic that Hopper took what might have been a fleeting glimpse and turned it into a painting which we, the viewer, can linger over and study in detail.

It also reminded me of this, from the back cover of The Far Side Gallery, which I got for my birthday when I was a kid. This portrait of Gary Larson seemed like a bonus joke which made me laugh, but then I thought, holy mackerel, they’ve got him in a really small space, which made me sad, and then I thought, yeah, but he probably has an outdoor enclosure where he can go and hang out, and that made me feel better.

Source: Reddit

Also I think a person’s “natural habitat” is wherever makes them happy. That’s just me, though. What’s your natural habitat?


Dear John…

Restaurant patrons in New York have a problem: they can’t find the loo, the head, the john, the restroom, or the bathroom. Apparently the problem is that old buildings are being turned into gourmet restaurants, because with rising rent prices making it harder for people to actually live in the city the most important thing New York needs is more places that serve upscale kale, quail, yellowtail, pale ale, and escargot. And that reminds me of the time I was in an English pub and asked the bartender where the bathroom was. “Why?” he asked sarcastically. “Do you need to take a bath?” I said, “Well, we are in Somerset…”

What I don’t understand is why New York diners are treating the hard to find heads—such as the Crosby Street Hotel restaurant that, according to what I’ve read, requires people to go downstairs and through five closed doors, one with a sign that says “Beware of the leopard”—as an inconvenience rather than a feature. Why isn’t an outhouse that’s actually outside and probably formerly someone’s house seen as charming, fun, part of the adventure of going out to a restaurant? After all one of the rising industries is what’s known as—I’m not making this up—the “experience economy”, which is a new term for something that’s been around forever and encompasses everything from amusement parks to safaris. As businesses look for new ways to compete and attract customers many add features that may not be part of the original plan but that add that extra flavor that draws people in and keeps them coming back. And with these added features businesses can charge more, claiming to offer more bang for your buck, even if it is more like extra bangs you aren’t sure you wanted for more bucks than you really wanted to spend, or, as my grandfather used to say, “All the extras are free until you get the bill,” but that’s another story. A really good example of this I can think of is an Irish pub that used to be in downtown Nashville—although given its location I guess technically it was about as Irish as Lucky Charms. Still I liked it because it was a nice place to get a pint of Guinness, and they’d decorated the place to look like an old-fashioned Irish pub, and one room was even elaborately designed to look like a Dublin street from the 1920’s. They did kind of overdo it by having the waiters dressed up as Irish writers, though—having Oscar Wilde tell you “The only thing worse than having the fish and chips is not having the fish and chips” was a little odd, although not as bad as James Joyce bumping into tables and dropping hot soup in your lap because he couldn’t see anything, or Samuel Beckett who just never showed up. And then there were the restrooms. They weren’t that different from the restrooms you’d find in most other restaurants, but they had a recording of an Irish comedian playing on an endless loop, and I’d get so involved listening to his jokes that when half an hour later I got back to the table the only explanation I could give was that there was this nun and this priest forced to sleep in the same room, and the nun kept asking the priest to get up and get her another blanket. My wife would then ask me where the restrooms were located and, as she always does when we’re in a restaurant, she’d say, “Don’t point. Just tell me.” And, well, all those little extras the pub offered were enough to make the slightly higher prices, not to mention the headaches of trying to find a parking space in downtown Nashville, and for that matter the headaches the next morning from too many pints of Guinness, worth it.

It was the exact opposite of a dingy little dive where I’d worked years earlier, part of a chain of dingy little dives, but this particular one did have an added feature. Any woman who came in alone didn’t have to dine alone, even if she wanted to, because the manager made a point of always joining her. He also always made a point of letting a cigarette dangle from his lips while he cooked to give everything a nice smoky flavor, but that’s another story. Some women, I think, paid extra just so he’d go away, and I think his wife did too.

So anyway to come back to my original point, assuming I can find it, I’m pretty sure it was around here somewhere—I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque—the New York restaurants with distant restrooms should advertise that fact and give out maps with the menus, or GPS coordinates, to diners. They should make it a game, part of the experience du jour, and since diners might get hot and sweaty in their long search for a water closet they should include a place to take a bath.

When You’re A Stranger.

The other day the podcast I was listening to finished just as the bus arrived, so, instead of starting another, which I think is an unfriendly way of shutting out the strangers around me, I decided to read a book, which is a completely different unfriendly way of shutting out strangers. Then I overheard a woman with a baby in a stroller asking for directions and I realized she would be getting off at my stop. She’d have a bit of a hike getting to the store she was headed to, but I gave her directions. I felt bad for her too that she’d have to make the walk, pushing a stroller, along a sidewalk and across a large parking lot on such a hot, sunny day, although that was probably better than rain or cold or snow or fog or fish falling from the sky, which could happen.
Anyway when we got off the bus I pointed in the direction she wanted to go and even though we were both going the same direction part of the way I was prepared to walk by myself but she fell in step with me and started chattering away.
“Thank you so much for helping me. I’m a nanny and this is my first week with this family and they couldn’t let me have the car today so I had to take the bus.”
What kind of family hires a nanny but makes her use the bus? I thought. Then I yelled at myself for judging the family when I really don’t know what their circumstances are, that maybe for them a nanny is a necessity because they work very difficult jobs just to get by, and then a third voice added that it was a good thing I didn’t say anything bad about that family out loud because it might encourage her to say something negative about them which would be a terrible thing just in her first week. And even if she didn’t say anything negative I didn’t want to badmouth the family right there in front of their offspring. It also occurred to me that maybe she was being so talkative because she was nervous about sharing a sidewalk with strangers and, let’s face it, I’m a pretty strange guy, and also things were getting pretty crowded. With the voices on my head there were at least five of us on the sidewalk. So instead I just said, “Well, I hope things get better and good luck!” Or maybe that was one of the other voices talking.

Also not related to anything but something something another story, so this is for Memorial Day.

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