Art isn’t necessarily something you hang on your wall. Or something you see in a gallery or a sculpture garden, or performed on a stage or projected on a screen and, yeah, one of my pet obsessions is trying to figure out a comprehensive definition of art. The best I’ve come up with so far is “anything people make or do” but that includes a lot of things that even I wouldn’t consider art, and, as you can tell, my own definition of art is pretty broad. I felt like I should include “do” not only because art includes live theater but also performance pieces like, say, Joseph Beuys’s “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”, in which the artist carried a dead hare around a gallery and talked to it.
Of course Beuys was a known artist and announced what he was doing and did his performance in an art gallery, but I think the definition of “art” could be stretched even further to things like flash mobs, which easily fall under the much broader art concept of “happenings” first coined by the artist Allan Kaprow—four years after Beuys carried a hare around a gallery. An event doesn’t have to be announced to be a work of art, although that makes it harder to define “art”.
Anyway this has all been running through my head, and boy are its feet tired, ever since I read about a guy with a TV on his head leaving old TVs on peoples’ porches in Virginia. He must have known he’d be caught on video doing it, which may be part of the point he was trying to make, if he was trying to make a point. Maybe it was a statement about obsolescence, disposability, and surveillance. Who watches the watchers, and when we look into our TVs do our TVs look back into us? It wasn’t that long ago that our devices didn’t record what we watched, unless you were a Nielsen family, and even then, especially in the early days, those who collected the ratings had to rely on the honesty of the participants. Now practically every device we own collects data on our habits and we’re not always aware that our data are being collected or by whom or for what purpose.
Of course the guy responsible may not have thought of putting TVs on porches as a work of art. It may have just been an elaborate prank without any intended deeper meanings, but does that make a difference? And, hey, who are we to split hares?
Although summer’s heat isn’t diminished in the dog days the season is definitely winding down. The mornings are darker, and the sunsets sooner, which reminds me of when I was a kid. My room was at the back of the house and our house sat on the edge of a hill so that looking out was like looking down into a bowl. And some evenings or late afternoons throughout the year I’d watch the sunset, and watch how the sun moved to the south—meaning it didn’t really always set in the west, and I realized adults lied to me, but that’s another story.
Something else that took me back to childhood is the other day my wife and I were on our way home and passed a couple of kids with a lemonade stand in their front yard. We didn’t stop—I don’t think either of us had change and I’m not sure the kids could take a credit card unless we bought a lot of lemonade—but there were some people there so I hoped the young entrepreneurs were doing well. At the very least they were smart enough to stake out a corner lot, although they were probably lucky that it was just where they happen to live. It would be really embarrassing for a new startup to be shut down early by a guy yelling at the owners to get out of his yard, which I understand has happened to a lot of juice companies. In fact when I was four some older kids on the next street set up a stand selling Kool-Aid for a dollar a cup, which meant they only had to sell one to repay all their investors, but the operation was shut down because of lousy marketing. If they’d promoted it as an artisanal flavored water made in small batches by a fair-trade company, well, they still would have failed because this was the seventies, but at least they could have said they were decades ahead of their time.
What I also remembered was a few years later when my friend Troy and I decided to set up a lemonade stand in my front yard. I’m not sure why we thought this was a good idea, and the only reason we even got the idea was probably because the front yard lemonade stand is a classic piece of Americana even though lemons are native to southeast Asia and lemonade originated in India—although that could just as easily be part of its Americanness, a country that’s one big melting pitcher.
It was probably boredom more than anything else that inspired Troy and me. We weren’t all that interested in sales or even crafting our product, which I’m pretty sure was made from a powdered mix that had never been near a lemon. I’m not even sure we got the right mix, just that we got some powder that smelled lemony and mixed it with water, and it’s probably just as well we didn’t sell any because we didn’t have the insurance to cover the possibility of someone drinking laundry detergent. Our stand consisted of a dilapidated card table that I’m surprised could hold up the plastic cups, let alone the pitcher of lemonade, and a few years later it did collapse under the weight of a game of gin rummy.
We stood next to our stand in the front yard for hours, or maybe half hours, or maybe half an hour, before realizing that running a lemonade stand was even more boring than just sitting around being bored so we used the lemonade to water the maple tree in the front yard, and it only occurs to me now, writing this, that putting our stand in my yard was a lousy idea because I lived on a cul-de-sac and Troy lived on a corner.
At this point I feel there should be some wrap-up, some lesson learned, or mission accomplished, or deed done—something other than poisoning a maple tree which was hardy enough that it not only survived but turned the laundry detergent into a pest repellent. There’s really nothing to be said about our ersatz Norman Rockwell moment, though; it was just something that we came up with on our own and did to spend a little time before we moved onto something else, which is what summer is for.
A few weeks ago the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression put out a call for books about depression—specifically books that “get it right”. I missed it at the time or I would have put in a word for The Epic of Gilgamesh. That might seem like a weird choice; most of the selections listeners offered are recent books, but I think even a five-thousand year-old Sumerian epic poem can tell us something about depression. In fact I think part of what’s important is the fact that it’s a five-thousand year-old Sumerian epic poem.
First a quick plot recap: Gilgamesh is a tyrannical king of the city of Uruk. The people cry out to the gods and the gods, working indirectly, send a wild man, Enkidu, who fights Gilgamesh. Even if you haven’t read the epic itself you might have gotten this much from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, but that’s another story. Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends and, being heroes, set out to defeat the demon of the cedar forest. When they return the gods, concerned that the pair are too powerful, send down The Bull of Heaven, which Gilgamesh and Enkidu also defeat. The goddess Ishtar then tries to seduce Gilgamesh but he insults her, and Enkidu throws part of the Bull in her face. Enkidu gets sick and dies, and this is an important turning point in the story. Gilgamesh experiences shock and anger, then leaves Uruk and travels in total darkness:
He ran for three days and there was no light,
He ran for three days and there was no light,
He ran for three days, and on the third day light broke.
This is the depression stage of his grieving process. What’s so telling about Gilgamesh’s journey is that it is in total darkness, a pretty accurate metaphor for serious depression. Many people describe depression as being a distortion, a veil, a prism, or, as The Bloggess Jenny Lawson says, “Depression lies.”
I’ll stop the plot summary there and just say that next come bargaining and finally acceptance.
It’s pretty easy to become obsessed with The Epic of Gilgamesh. I own at least nine different translations and there are dozens more, from children’s books to graphic novels, and I think part of the reason it’s so popular, the reason it speaks to many people, is what it says about loss and grief. Five thousand years ago a writer understood it, and it’s a message across the millennia: depression is not new, and you are not alone.
Nashville’s Hillsboro Village is, depending on how you count it, a one or two block stretch of densely crowded shops, including, among other things, the historic Villager Tavern, which is now a friendly and welcoming place but for decades was perhaps the deepest dive bar in the southeast. It was a place where dark creatures in flannel and leather leaned over glasses smelling of turpentine, muttering secrets in prehistoric tongues, recoiling in horror from the light when one among them would strike a sulfur match and set fire to a thick, tarry cheroot and exhale clouds of smoke indistinguishable from the haze of disintegrated dreams that filled the tavern’s dry, fetid air. So anyway now it’s pretty much a family place—if your family is over twenty-one, and if not there are plenty of other options, including Fido’s, the coffee shop that makes a pretty good red velvet cake, or the Pancake Pantry, where people literally line up down the street waiting to get in.
Anyway I had an appointment at noon on the other side of Hillsboro Village. And that seemed easy enough. I knew to catch the #7, a route I’ve ridden all the way to its terminus and back, that would come by around 11:30, although in retrospect that was cutting it a bit close, and if there’s one thing I hate it’s even the possibility of being late. It’s just one of my quirks. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “fashionably late”. Invite me to a party and you’ll probably see me drive by your house five or six times because I’ve gotten there unfashionably early and I don’t want to come in before you’ve even had a chance to get out of bed, but that’s another story.
The bus was a few minutes late and I was already sweating bullets, and not just because it’s August and around these parts the air has somehow figured out how to have 300% humidity. I was terrified of being late, but we were speeding along our merry way. Then we hit Hillsboro Village.
Back when it was a quiet little neighborhood there was nothing wrong with parking on the street. Now, though—and you can even see this in the satellite image—cars are allowed to park along a two-block stretch of 21st Avenue that passes through, and they’re not allowed to park on the street on any approaching block, which creates a funnel of crawling traffic. And buses, by their nature, have to stick to the right-hand lane, so the driver, approaching this passage, had to wait for a lull in the traffic to pull in, further slowing our progress.
One of many things that’s predicted in the future of self-driving cars is that parking will no longer be a problem. Some claim that your self-driving car will simply drop you off and circle around the block as you do your business then pick you up when you’re ready to go. The potential fuel costs and increased carbon footprint of this notwithstanding I’d hate to run down my self-driving car because it didn’t recognize me.
Anyway all this just illustrates an annoying problem of city planning, especially as cities, and the neighborhoods within them, change and grow. Parking is always an afterthought.
I was three minutes late for my appointment, by the way.
Several years ago I went to Russia—to give you an idea of how many years exactly it was a school trip and when I signed up for it we were going to the U.S.S.R., and the day I boarded the plane there was a newspaper headline that the Soviet Union had officially dissolved. I sat next to a friend on the plane and we started speculating that Lenin’s tomb could be turned into a nightclub, and then we started inventing cocktails like The Opium Of The People, The Stalin Stormtrooper, and The Soviet Union–a layered drink of fifteen different liqueurs that don’t mix.
One of my favorite parts of that trip—really my favorite part of a trip to any other country—was learning to talk to the locals, and I was reminded almost immediately after I got off the plane that Russians don’t just have a different language; they have a whole ‘nother alphabet. I didn’t bother to study up on Cyrillic before I left, figuring I could pick it up as I went along, and for the most part I was right. There’s enough overlap between the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets to give me a leg up so it wasn’t all Greek to me, and there are quite a few words that are the same in both Russian and English. There were still phone booths in those days and the word телефон was a big help, as was having read A Clockwork Orange. While I was there I also went to МакДональдз and was kind of disappointed that the Биг Мак wasn’t called a большой Мак. And a few years later when Pizza Hut opened in Russia it made me laugh that they spelled it пицца хат, which tranlisterates back to the Roman alphabet as “pitstsa khat”, but that’s another story.
One letter I couldn’t figure out on my own was Ж, but it intrigued me–it was such a cool looking little letter that I had to know what it sounded like, so I broke down and got a guidebook. When translated to English it sounds like “zh” and you hear it in words like “vision”. Joseph Brodsky mused on the letter in his poem The Fly:
What is it that you muse of there?
Of your worn-out though uncomputed derring-
do orbits? Of six-legged letters,
your printed betters,
your splayed Cyrillic echoes…
Anyway I thought it was strange to see some Cyrillic graffiti next to a sidewalk in a Nashville neighborhood. Who put it there, and why? It looks like a name–someone just leaving their mark, I guess, with no political overtones. Maybe it was their way of calling back to where they came from, in the same way it took me back to a place I’d once been.
Historically many measurements have been derived from the human body, which has caused some confusion because every body’s measurements are different and some are even known to change over time. It’s in part what prompted the creation of the metric system—that and no one could remember how many quarts are in a furlong, but that’s another story. Measurements derived from the human body are known as “anthropic” and here’s a brief review of some of them and their origins:
Foot-originally based on the human foot a “foot” is now standardized as twelve inches even though very few feet are that big. A unit of measurement of approximately this length was used by the Romans, and for a long time was adhered to as a standard by European cobblers.
Hand-Primarily used now to measure horses and other livestock and standardized at four inches, the “hand” is one of the oldest and most widespread units of measurement. The standard hand still in use today can be traced back to ancient Egypt.
Finger-Originally this measurement seems to have been used for small quantities of liquid in a container of a specific size. Although no longer in use it appears to have been set at approximately half an inch. It’s still used informally in high end bartending where patrons will sometimes request “two fingers of whiskey”.
Nose-Informally used in horse-racing the “nose” was used by the ancient Romans and measured approximately five and three-quarter inches. According to Juvenal this unit of measurement was derived from the Roman emperor Cochlea who was nicknamed “nasus limax”, usually translated as “conch face”.
Head-Although this measurement is no longer in use it remains in the present word “ahead” and expressions such as “to get ahead”. This measurement was approximately six and a half inches and chiefly used in determining short distances.
Arm’s length-Records indicate this measurement was approximately thirty inches and derived from the safe distance for holding a burning torch before “torch” became the British term for “flashlight” which you can hold right up to your face or stick in your mouth and puff out your cheeks to freak out fellow campers.
Elbow-Unlike other measurements used for length or distance the elbow was used to measure angles in carpentry. “To the shoulder” was a forty-five degree angle while “across the chest” was a right angle.
Hair or hair’s breadth-A very narrow measurement the hair was actually standardized by the Romans. Although infrequently used the measurement was based on a hair from the tail of a horse that belonged to the emperor Gaius Caesar and stored in the library of Alexandria.
Knee-high-Now informally used to describe small children the “knee-high” measurement was approximately seventeen inches and was primarily used to measure the ideal length of a single piece of firewood for a standard fireplace.
Penis-Nothing is known about this measurement except that it was always exaggerated.
I had an appointment and the only way I could get there was by bus. Since it was in the middle of a work day I wanted to spend as little time getting there and back as possible. The appointment itself would be just an hour, but I knew I couldn’t count on the bus being on time. And while I could have walked it, well, it’s summer in Nashville, and while some people say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” the heat is also a problem too, and I didn’t want to get to my appointment looking like I’d taken a shower with my clothes on and smelling like I hadn’t showered in a month. Also whenever possible I like to be parsimonious with the time I spend away from work. For one thing I like to save my allotted vacation time for vacations, and for another it’s a great excuse to use a cool word like “parsimonious”.
While I was waiting at the bus stop I did some idle browsing with my phone. I’m still annoyed that the Nashville MTA, which has rebranded itself as WeGo, although it could just as easily call itself MightGo or DoneGone, but that’s another story, has scrapped their app that gave exact arrival times for buses on various routes. I can’t say enough good things about the app and I even included some of them in a message I sent to WeGo asking why they got rid of it. I’ve never gotten a response so I can only assume such messages are forwarded to the department of WentNowhere.
What I did find, though, is that Google has helpful information on nearby bus routes and bus schedules. And by “helpful” I mean “completely useless”. Because of privacy concerns I’m a little relieved that Google’s geographic tracking is so far off, but surely there’s a happy medium where it could throw a few targeted ads at me while at the same time giving me accurate information. The “nearby bus stops” it gave me were, admittedly, within walking distance, but only if I wanted to look like I’d been showering with my clothes on.
Nashville’s public transit service has suffered years of budget shortfalls, and those shortfalls are big enough that they’ve raised fares. Budget shortfalls a problem that’s shared by public transit departments around the U.S., even around the world, and I worry that the budget problems threaten the very existence of public transit. For me riding the bus is an option but for a lot of people it’s a necessity. And I realize that maintaining an app with detailed tracking information is expensive, although not nearly as expensive as building an app then ditching it because it doesn’t fit with a big new rebranding campaign. I think transit authorities need and deserve more money but if they mismanage the funds they’ve got now they’re potentially speeding up their own extinction.
The bus I was waiting for, by the way, was right on time.
A few weeks ago my wife and I went to the exhibit of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other modern Mexican artists at the Frist Art Museum. It was pretty cool seeing some of Kahlo’s works in person. Until now I’d only seen reproductions in books and reproductions, no matter how good, don’t give any sense of the scale that you get when standing in front of the original, or the connection to the artist’s hand. And yet I wondered, what could I say about Kahlo, or Rivera, that hasn’t already been said by experts? I only took a few pictures—and in fact I was surprised I could since most museums don’t allow visitors to take pictures, maybe because they want you to buy the ones in the gift shop—because I was so focused on the paintings themselves.
It was funny and reminded me that one of the explanatory placards for the Frist exhibit said that it Frida Kahlo were alive today she’d be “puzzled” by her status as an international pop icon. Yeah, I don’t think so. It’s true that Kahlo has gone from being a well-known artist in Mexico, but hardly known outside of it, during her lifetime, to one of the world’s most famous and popular artists, even the subject of the terrific movie Frida starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, but during her all too brief life, even before she became known as a painter, she carefully cultivated her image—including that unibrow, which she emphasized with makeup. The exhibit even included a selection of Mexican dresses Kahlo wore, all with deep cultural meanings, and her paintings are often heavily layered with deeply personal symbolism. A funny thing my wife said was, “She was really beautiful, why did she make herself so ugly in some of her paintings?” There are a lot of possible answers to that—Rivera’s unfaithfulness and the bouts of extreme pain she suffered throughout her life might have made her feel ugly. She also had a wonderful sense of humor and I think that’s part of it too.
I may not be an expert but I don’t think the right word for for Frida Kahlo would feel about the symbol she’s become would be “puzzled”. I think the right word would be amused.
A lot of different things influenced my dream of becoming a writer. One was the summer in my early teens read Fritz Lieber’s fantasy stories about his sword-wielding heroes Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser. One is the tall, burly, quiet type, the other is small and nimble, and they wander the world of Newhon, working as mercenaries or occasionally thieves, in their never-ending quest for a good time. At the time I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. That evolved as my reading widened, and by the time I got to college I’d changed my focus to poetry, and now, well, I’d just like to be published, although there is some fun in amassing a record-breaking collection of rejections.
Lieber’s stories inspired me to write a series of my own, set in a faux medieval world with wizards and monsters and castles. Rather than a pair of heroes the focus of my stories would be a lone thief named Latham Poloniat. I’d created him for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign and he was, well, me, but with some extra skills and a name I’d made up while browsing the periodic table. “Latham” was shortened from “lanthanum”, or so I thought until I actually met a guy named Latham, but that’s another story. And “Poloniat” was from “polonium”, back before it made headlines for poisoning people. I just liked the sound of it and didn’t know then that Marie Curie discovered it and named it somewhat controversially for her homeland of Poland, but that Slavic connection is kind of funny to me now.
My series started and finished, or never finished, depending on how you look at it, with what I thought was a pretty clever story that would introduce Latham as a thief but essentially a good guy who’d rob from the rich and, well, at least he wouldn’t rob from the poor, but would tip generously and move on. The story was called “A Balance Of Power” and found Latham trapped in a small town ruled and terrorized by dueling wizards, Vanados and Thoros—more funny periodic table derivatives—who have each other in a stalemate. Early drafts started with Latham in Vanados’s castle, being made an offer he can’t refuse. At this point a little world-building was necessary, so in an aside I explained that magic, like electricity, could be lethal if conducted through the body, so wizards wore special medallions to draw the magic away, and also focus and direct it. A wizard without a medallion would be powerless, or overpowered. And all Vanados wants should be a simple job for an expert thief: steal Thoros’s medallion.
I thought I had everything I needed, but after a few drafts realized the conflict didn’t really set up the ending. The stakes weren’t high enough, so I rolled the opening back a bit to a dark and foggy night—stormy would have been overdoing it—and put Latham in the local tavern, chatting with his friend the bartender, a jovial guy named Dinoy. I have no idea where that name came from. They’re alone with the light-fingered Latham pulling his usual amusing trick of stealing glasses from behind the bar without being seen until one of Vanados’s minions—a shadowy, floating torso with an egg-shaped head and glowing eyes, none of which served any purpose other than sounding cool—enters to tell Latham the wizard is looking for a thief for hire. And here’s a minor flaw: it’s a bad idea to go around advertising yourself as a professional pilferer, at least in a small town where everybody knows your name.
What happens next has already been established, but, having accepted the job, Latham returns to the bar for one last drink, and confesses to Dinoy what he’s got to do. Dinoy tries to talk him out of it, reminding him that either wizard unchecked could wipe out the town, the surrounding countryside, perhaps the whole world. I didn’t realize it at the time but the magical standoff sounds like a vague allegory for the Cold War. Something else I didn’t realize is that committing grand theft wizardry would require time for careful, sober planning, and the last thing a professional thief would want to do is share his next move with a garrulous drink peddler.
Latham is on the horns of a dilemma, which, now that I think about it, sounds like a terrifying mythical creature, although the word actually comes from a Greek term for “double proposition” which sounds even more terrifying, but that’s another story. Anyway he’s stuck between risking his own neck or everybody else’s, so of course he immediately sets off for Thoros’s castle at the other end of town.
Some might want to quibble over geography since, as far as I know, there are no towns, especially small towns, anywhere that are presided over by two castles, but this is fiction and you can get away with anything in fiction. Besides you couldn’t have a fantastically powerful wizard living in a trailer.
Thoros’s castle, as you might have guessed, proved to be the most difficult part of the story. While I wrote at least a hundred complete drafts this was the act that changed the most. At first it was simple: Latham creeps into the sleeping wizard’s bedchamber, grabs the medallion, and slips away unnoticed. I know I just said you can get away with anything in fiction but this stretched the suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. Wouldn’t a wizard guard something so valuable a little more assiduously? Then I tried having Latham stab the sleeping wizard, but he was a thief, not a murderer, and it still lacked drama. I needed a lot of smoke to obscure the carefully arranged mirrors of the denouement. Vanados had minions so his brother should too, so Latham finds his way into the front hall of Thoros’s castle—torchlit, of course—and into an underground moat where he fights through giant albino salamanders and zombies. Then I scrapped the salamanders and had Latham duel with Thoros who, once disarmed and de-medallioned, is turned upon and torn apart by his own undead horde. This still seemed too easy; my idea of Latham was that he was someone who depended on brains more than brawn, and besides it seemed obvious that a rapier-wielding thief would lose in a brute force face-off against a powerful wizard. I needed Latham to escape, so I kept trying different things. Even fantasy has to abide by certain rules, and the main rule is that the hero’s journey should be difficult but not impossible. Here’s where I should have taken a little more inspiration from Lieber; Latham could have used a partner, a strongman who’d make up for his lack of stature and who could provide a distraction, facing down Thoros while Latham pilfered the prize. I’d conceived of Latham as a loner, though, so he was on his own and would have to find a way by himself.
Once out of the castle Latham’s journey across town is a bit of a slow point in the story but I wanted to take a little time to dwell on his thoughts. Behind every door he passed were real flesh and blood people I’d made up, and he has to live with what his actions would mean for their lives, but he continues on to Vanados’s castle. The wizard is overjoyed at his success, hugs him, performs a quick and easy spell to destroy Thoros’s medallion, and hands over a bag of a thousand gold pieces. I hadn’t delved deeply enough into the world I’d created to come up with a name for the local currency.
And now it was time for the wrap-up. I’d reverse-engineered the entire story from this conclusion in which Latham, a heavy bag of gold at his hip, sets off on the road out of town in search of his next adventure. Then, at a sufficient distance, he stops, pulls Vanados’s medallion out of his tunic, and smashes it with a rock.
It was supposed to be the first in a series, and I did have other ideas for Latham—a demonic plant, a sea voyage—but no matter how many times I rewrote it I never could get “A Balance Of Power” quite right. Eventually I’d scrap the idea, and all the copies I’d made as I wrote and rewrote it, and moved on to other things. For a long time I thought of the story as a failure. I assumed any “real” writer could knock out a similar story in a few drafts, while I kept tinkering and tinkering. Even retelling it here I’ve made some changes. Now I look back on it with a strange fondness. It’s like an old friend who taught me as much as a summer can.