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Roses Are Red, Buses Are…

The Nashville MTA has been undergoing some major changes lately, mostly cosmetic, although that’s still a pretty major undertaking. A new coat of paint still costs money. They’ve renovated the downtown bus depot–and even getting a bus depot back in 2008 was a big thing. Before that the main place to catch buses downtown was a row of shelters stretched out over a couple of blocks and if it rained you might be stuck outside. Anyway the Nashville MTA doesn’t even call itself the Nashville MTA anymore. It’s now We Go which seems kind of presumptuous because lots of people go.

The biggest change though is a set of new buses that are purple. Why purple? I don’t know, but I like it. I also wonder how long they’ll stay purple. Most Nashville buses, as in every city, are basically giant moving billboards. Some are completely covered with a single ad–even the windows. Most of them are advertising a couple of local law firms also known for their cheesy commercials and I’m not including any pictures of those because they’re not paying me to put their ad here, but that’s another story.

 

The inside of the buses are clean and shiny and new, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising are the seats. They’ve replaced the traditional burgundy upholstery with slick blue plastic.

Full frontal.

Full backal.

I’m no style critic but don’t purple and blue clash? Why not make the seats purple too, or maybe a nice contrasting orange? In more practical terms, though, I understand the plastic is less likely to hide stains of questionable provenance than the old carpet, but it also means my ass slides forward about five inches every time the bus judders to a stop. They’ve made all these changes and never thought seat belts might be a good idea.

Risky Business.

Several years ago my wife and I went to see Penn & Teller. At one point in the show Penn came out juggling flaming batons and everyone cheered. Then he put on safety glasses, made a wisecrack about OSHA regulations, cracked the bottoms off a couple of glass bottles, and started juggling those. I think a few people applauded politely and Penn explained that we should all be a lot more impressed. The batons, he explained, were made to be juggled–they were balanced–and if he grabbed the wrong end by mistake he could drop it quickly enough to only get a slight burn. Glass bottles, on the other hand, were never made to be thrown around and if he grabbed the wrong end, well, the first three rows would probably be sprayed with blood.

In short for those who didn’t know the physics of juggling the flaming batons really looked more impressive than they were and the broken bottles were more impressive than they looked. It’s something that can be true in other art forms too: knowledge of technique can make something that appears impressive seem a lot less so, and something that at first glance doesn’t seem all that great can actually demonstrate a surprising amount of skill. So should artists always take risks? All I can say is we all would have been really impressed if he’d come out juggling flaming broken bottles.

After the show both Penn and Teller came out to the lobby and stood around talking to people and signing autographs. I joined the big crowd around Penn and looked over and noticed there were only a couple of people around Teller. I wanted to go over to him but at the same time I didn’t. I think Teller’s a fascinating character–they both are, but I’m especially intrigued by Teller, especially after hearing him talk about how he developed a floating ball routine on an episode of This American Life–the podcast, so I was really just hearing a voice. He talks about how a trick has to be perfect, that any flaw is a risk no magician can take:

 I mean, magic is a fantastically meticulous form. You forgive other forms. A musician misses a note, moves on, fine. He’ll come to the conclusion of the piece. Magic is an on/off switch. Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.

That night that we saw Penn & Teller perform I worried that speaking to him would have spoiled part of his illusion, but I wish I’d been willing to take that risk.

Life In The Sublurbs.

Book Blurbs Written About Blurb, My New Novel Written Entirely In The Form Of Book Blurbs:

“Stunning!”

-The New York Herald

“Incredible!”

-The Boston Spectator

“Thrill-seeking!”

-The Tuscon Citizen

“I couldn’t put it down!”

-Stilton Blue, The Seattle Scene

“Surprising!”

-The Leavenworth Leader

“Staggering!”

-The Breckenridge Post-Dispatch

“You’ll wonder where it’s going!”

-The Steamboat Springs Chronicle

“Leaves you wanting something!”

-The Ketchum Banner

“A novel idea for a book!”

-The Bismark Telegraph

“The novelty quickly wears thin!”

-The Sturgis Herald

“An unusual premise that keeps you turning the pages, hoping it will eventually develop into something!”

-Emmental Dickinson, The Bay Times (Omaha, NE)

“Not really a novel!”

-The Ontario Olympiad

“Like no other novel I’ve ever read!”

-Caerphilly Wells, The North Platte Telegraph

“I can’t believe this is a book!”

-Brie Rogers, The Davenport Mirror

“Why would someone do this?”

-The Duluth Star

“About three-hundred pages!”

-Bloodstone Publishing

“About three-hundred and forty grams!”

-Fynbo Shreeve, scientist

“I couldn’t pick it up!”

-Allen Walker, The Catchall

“Just keeps going!”

-Terry Cheshire, The Whitehorse Observer

“Completely messes with your head, and not in a good way!”

-Feta Hampton, The Telluride Post

“The most entertaining drivel I’ve read this year!”

-Red Windsor, The Winnipeg Inquirer

“We only publish reviews of academic non-fiction in the field of biology!”

-Nature

“I keep it next to the toilet!”

—S. Clemens, author of The American Claimant

“Floats well!”

-Boaters Digest

“Responsible for an outbreak of diphtheria!”

-Tiverton Tribune

“Reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake, and by that I mean completely unreadable and people will only refer to it to sound pretentious!”

-The Ely Telegraph

“Makes you look at aardvarks in an entirely new way!”

-Annapolis Reader

“Opened up a trans-dimensional portal that I fell into and now can’t escape! Please send help!”

-Terry Weiss, The Marfa Bugler

“You might want to read it!”

-The Dorset Times-Picayune

“Potential best-seller.”

-Poughkeepsie Plain Tribune

Coming next year: the sequel, Disblurbing The Peace.

Taxi Driver.

Source: Orlando Sentinel

So there’s an Amish guy in Michigan offering buggy rides for $5 which he calls an “Amish Uber”, although you don’t use an app to get a ride, you just wave him down and say you’d like a ride and hope he hasn’t already got a fare. And I thought, wait, isn’t that really an Amish taxi? It turns out I was wrong. An Amish taxi is something completely different: it’s when a non-Amish person provides a ride for the Amish who need to get somewhere and some have considered it a problem since at least 2008 when I’m pretty sure I still had a flip phone but that’s another story.

What stands out for me here is a not so subtle shift in terminology, not to mention technology. In just a few years Uber and services like it have become so uberbiquitous that “taking an Uber” is part of everyday conversation. I have friends who drove for both Uber and Lyft—they quit after a short time—and in spite of current controversies and crackdowns it seems like these services are here to stay. I don’t know if the traditional taxi is going the way of the dodo—personally I like riding around in an old-fashioned yellow taxi, or, in London, one of the large black models. Actually I like the idea and can’t tell you the last time I rode a taxi. It was probably when I was in college and some friends and I splurged to get to the mall and took the bus back even though the town’s public transportation was terrible, and, like Wallace Shawn at the end of My Dinner With Andre, we splurged on a taxi which, in a small midwestern town, was not a usual way of getting around. Even though Nashville a growing metropolis they’re an unusual sight in Nashville, even around downtown. They’re associated with big metropolises, and that show with Judd Hirsch and Danny DeVito. I think that’s part of why Uber and Lyft are becoming so popular. They’re not driven by professionals in distinctive vehicles, but by regular cars you might see in your neighborhood A local Nashville celebrity with a show on the cable public access station was the Bat Poet, whose day, and sometimes night, job was a taxi driver, and who passed away in 2011, long before ride apps would have put a dent in his business, which seems likely. In Nashville a taxi driver is almost as unusual as a guy in a painted Batman mask performing poetry on TV.

The word “taxi” is really a shortening of “taximeter”, the device used to measure the distance traveled and the fare invented in Germany in 1890. It’s literally a tax on the distance traveled, which makes me wonder how far I’d have to go to make a joke about death and taxis, but thats another story. Uber and Lyft as terms are therefore consistent with history. Taxis were named for the meter installed on their dashboards, and the ride-sharing services are named for the apps they rely on. Will Uber as a term replace taxi, the same way ride apps seem to be replacing taxis? I don’t know. Heck, there’s still a business in horse and buggy rides.

No Regrets.

Several years ago on a water tower that stands over downtown Nashville someone spray painted the words “DEFY MEDEOCRITY”. It wasn’t the most impressive graffiti I’ve ever seen. It was large and obviously someone had put a lot of work into it, but the letters were made with simple white lines so aesthetically it wasn’t that impressive. And then there was the obvious misspelling. And it always bothers me that some word processing programs insist that misspelling is spelled with one ‘s’, although the Oxford English Dictionary insists that it’s spelled with two and I’ll take that as the authoritative source even I refuse to accept the editors of the OED getting rid of the Oxford comma, but that’s another story.

I always wondered if the person who spray-painted that message realized they’d made a mistake and regretted it. Or maybe it was intentional. Maybe their way of defying mediocrity was challenging the arbitrary standards of spelling.

Anyway I look at the graffiti above and wonder the same thing. It’s in a cramped stairwell so it’s really hard to get a good picture, but here’s the door where the ‘T’ would have gone:

Clearly there was a lot of work and thought put into this—it really is some seriously impressive graffiti—so I wonder, was this intentional? Maybe the artist purposely left this unfinished to make a statement of really being unrepentant about making something great.

Back To School.

The biggest lie I was told as a child was that school was preparing me for a career. I don’t mind having had to learn a lot of stuff that I haven’t had to use. A basic understanding of science, economics, history, and culture make me a well-rounded person and a killer at Jeopardy!, at least sitting on the couch at home. I can rack up thousands of dollars and imagine just how wealthy I could become if they’d let me compete in the annual kids’ tournament so it doesn’t matter that I’ve completely forgotten what the quadratic formula is and what it’s used for. The problem, one I’m reminded of every year when kids go back to school, is that school wasn’t like working at a job at all. Well, there are some resemblances. Depending on where you work you might have a cafeteria where you go and get lunch every day, although chances are you don’t have to deal with a bully who takes your milk money because those kids all grew up and went into the telemarketing industry. And in a lot of jobs there are breaks for holidays. They’re just a lot shorter than they were when we were in school, and the main thing, the most important thing, is that there is no summer recess. Summer was all we looked forward to when we were in school, except for those weird kids who really liked school and grew up to be actuaries.

I’m not saying I want a three-month vacation every year, although I wouldn’t turn it down either. What I really remember fondly, aside from having a three month vacation every year, is that feeling of going back to school when summer was over. It was a time when I felt energized and excited, like my whole life was going to change for the better. I’d start school saying to myself, this is the year everything changes, this is the year I will get straight A’s, turn in every assignment on time, and be like one of those kids who actually likes school, but not weird about it because I don’t want to be an actuary. This is the year I will become such a model student I’ll be set on the path to Harvard and becoming president of the Lampoon, because I was an ambitious and worldly eight-year old. Every new school year was a chance to sweep away everything that happened last year and start over with a clean slate–oh yeah, this year, I’d say to myself, will be the year I stay after class and clean the slates!–or at least a nice new notebook that this year, I’d tell myself, I’ll fill with actual schoolwork and not terrible song lyrics and cartoons of my teachers turning into Lovecraftian monsters. And I stayed naively optimistic about turning over a new academic leaf well into high school. There was the year when, instead of a notebook, I got a set of folders, a different color for every subject. On the first day of school we were sitting quietly doing nothing because our homeroom teacher, Mr. Dobson, was still recovering from his two and a half-month bender. Well, I was sitting there memorizing the first twenty digits of pi, and a friend of mine who was very artistic, asked if he could decorate one of my folders. “Sure,” I said, and handed him the red one. “This one’s for English.” So a few minutes later he handed it back to me covered with pictures of punks and goblins and demons and a squid riding a motorcycle, all under an elaborate banner that said “I ♥ Urine Soaked Bread” and I swore I would kill him when I stopped laughing, but since I figured I’d be the only one to see it I kept it. Then my English teacher announced that she wanted us to keep our work in folders and once a week we’d have to turn them in so she could make sure we were keeping up with our assignments. And I could have switched folders or gotten a new one but instead I just handed in the red one. She didn’t say anything about it. The next week she didn’t say anything about the portrait of her sprouting tentacles out of her skirt either, although she did write in red marker on the song lyrics, “Sounds like third-rate Pink Floyd,” but that’s another story.

Anyway, I miss that fresh and excited feeling of starting over, of potential greatness, even if it was followed by an inevitable crash that left me feeling like I’d ruined everything, had no clue what was going on, and would never succeed at anything, which usually hit about halfway through the second day of school.

Midsummer’s Not Over Yet.

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s annual Shakespeare In The Park play this year is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The set looks very impressive and detailed. It’s more than a little surprising to me that palatial doors form such a large part of the set and there’s only a little greenery on the left and right. This is strange because if you know the play you know that most of it takes place in the woods with events in Theseus’s palace only happening at the beginning and end. In the past the NSF’s productions have used more open, minimalist sets, so it’ll be interesting to see if the background changes as the play progresses.

I love the view from the stage.

If there’s a downside it’s that they’ve done A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And done it. And done it. This will be the fourth production in its thirty year history, although I get it. They’ve done some of the darker plays—like a brilliant and haunting production of the Scottish play—but when you’re hanging out in the park, maybe with your kids, you want to watch something light as the sun goes down. And actress Denise Hicks, who’s now the NSF’s director, played Puck in the troupe’s first production back in 1994. It was her idea that the spirits use tai chi moves and at dramatic moments would stomp on the stage, making the unearthly characters menacing, but in a good way. So if I happen to have offended think but this and all is mended: there’s always new life in an old play.

Her Conviction.

Source: Goodreads

Maybe you have, or had, an older family member, an aunt, say, who was nice to you but whom you never thought that much about because you only saw her at family gatherings. She’d take an interest in you, give you a piece of cake and some milk, and ask about what you were up to, what you liked. And you never thought to ask her anything about herself and you only discovered later in your own life that she had a rich history, that she was intelligent and interesting and there were so many things you wish you could have asked her.

If you know that feeling then you’ll understand when I say that’s kind of how I feel when I heard about the passing of Charlotte Rae. Yes, she never took any interest in me personally—we never crossed paths, and I know it’s weird to feel that way about someone I really only knew as a television character, but I was seven when Diff’rent Strokes debuted and once a week lost myself in the goings on of the Drummond family. And even though I thought it was the kids I related to there was something about Rae’s Mrs. Garrett that was warm and familiar; there were women like her in my family, although none of them lived with us.

It’s a surprise to me now that she only spent one season on Diff’rent Strokes. I immersed myself in The Facts Of Life too–yeah, I was a kid who watched too much television–but in my memory it’s as though she lived in both the Drummond house and Eastland School simultaneously. The younger cast members may technically have been the focus of both shows but she was a vital part of both.

And it never occurred to me at the time that she had a rich history and an interesting life outside of those shows. Her memoir, The Facts Of My Life, co-written with her younger son Larry Strauss, traces her history from the pogroms of the early 20th century that drove her family out of Russia and to the United States, through her career in cabaret and television–including a stint on Car 54, Where Are You? as Al Lewis’s wife Sylvia Schnauser. The Facts Of My Life opens, though, in 1971 while Rae was working on Sesame Street as Molly The Mail Lady. Her older son Andy had been put in Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment following a violent outburst just before his sixteenth birthday. It was a tough time for her and she says,

I had to be back on Sesame Street in the morning delivering mail to Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird and those bright-eyed children who would sit on my lap. They were so adorable and precious and I was in such pain. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t think I could do another scene with those beautiful children. I tried to talk myself into it: Come on, Charlotte. You’re an actress. You can love them and admire them and admire and marvel at them.

That was really only the latest in a series of difficulties and things would get a lot harder for her.

Something else I didn’t even think about until now is that Rae was also a singer, and in an odd coincidence this morning on my way to work I was shuffling through songs on my phone and “My Conviction” from the Hair soundtrack popped up. I’ve listened to that whole album countless times and yet it never occurred to me that it’s Charlotte Rae singing, that, in addition to her talents for acting and comedy, she had some serious pipes too.

Hail and farewell Charlotte Rae.

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