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De-Faced.

face1Most graffiti is a person’s name or nickname–what’s commonly known as a tag. And when you think about it a name, especially when elaborately drawn, is more than just a word. It’s a picture. It says as much about how the artist sees him or herself as a self-portrait would. And it’s the most personal expression an artist can make and have a history that spans artists as different as Rembrandt and Kahlo. So it was really interesting to me that someone tagged a couple of different places with what I think it a self-portrait. It’s a caricature and not realistic, but it’s meant to be a self-portrait. At least I think it is since as usual I don’t know the artist and I can’t ask them about it. So I’m just speculating, but bear with me here.

face2

What made me think of the connection between signatures and self-portraits wasn’t just the fact that this graffiti is a face rather than the usual name. I also thought of Salvador Dali’s massive painting The Ecumenical Council, from his religious period, finished in 1960 when he was fifty-six. In his youth Dali had been an ardent atheist but later would meet Pope Pius XII and converted to Catholicism.

Source: Wikipedia

Or did he? Scholars interpret this painting at representing the union of Heaven and Earth. The figure in the upper center is believed to be God whose hand is up because no one can look on the face of God. The interesting thing, though, is Dali’s self-portrait in the lower left. He’s painted himself as a painter. This has been interpreted as his substitute for a signature. And yet Dali signed most of his paintings with just his name. Self-portraits are extremely rare in his work. He occasionally painted himself as a child but almost always facing away from the viewer. In a few of his early surrealist works he painted himself or figures that represented him but with a hand over the face.

Maybe this is really Dali’s not so subtle jab at religion–suggesting that the real creator is the artist. Isn’t that blasphemy? Well it might have been a blast for Dali anyway. Yes, he went though the motions of converting to Catholicism but at a time when being an atheist among artists was common, even expected. He claimed to support Franco then the Spanish monarchy when most artists were joining the Communist party or at least claiming to be apolitical. I think he did these things solely to shock people, and throwing a little blasphemy into his work was his way of playing both sides. He didn’t take anything too seriously.

I know I’m not saying much about graffiti here, especially not the graffiti pictures above, but I am trying to tie graffiti into the more respectable world of serious art criticism and art history. Why? Because I think it’s funny that it shocks some people who take art way too seriously.

Milking It.

Source: SkyView app

Source: SkyView app

The other night I was dragging the garbage can up to the curb, one of those routine chores I always enjoy because I always do it after dark and walk through patches of shadow where anything could be lurking which, now that I mention it, is starting to make me wonder why I enjoy doing it and why I don’t do it earlier when it’s still light out even though it’s better to do it late to make sure I’ve gotten as much trash as possible because if anything’s left over we’ll be stuck with it for a week. And I enjoy it because while I’m dragging the can I look up at the sky which is another thing I didn’t think about until just now: the contrast between the earthy, grimy, trash and the ethereal, seemingly eternal sky above me. Really I’m just looking for planes. Or at the clouds. Most of the time I see the stars. At this time of year the night is also noisy. Even in our suburban neighborhood the children of the night, what music they make. I mean mostly bugs and frogs, of course, since we don’t have any wolves, or at least I haven’t seen any, but the little critters of nature know that they’re noisy. And they’re noisy because even though it doesn’t feel like it yet the summer is coming to an end. Their biological clocks are winding down and there’s a special urgency, one last desperate chance to meet that special someone. They’re brooding on the need to make a new brood.

It’s really the stars I focus on, though. Last night at the edge of the street I looked up and even through the pale orange glare of the streetlight I could see three bright stars in a line. They were part of the constellation Sagittarius which might have been more visible if that streetlight hadn’t been there. Beyond Sagittarius, though, is the Milky Way.

Strictly speaking Sagittarius is part of the Milky Way, and so is Earth, which is why it confused me when I was a kid when people talked about seeing the Milky Way. We’re in it, albeit far out in one of the outer arms. If it really were an arm I think we’d be just past the wrist and our galaxy also has more arms than a Hindu deity. So I thought saying “I can see the Milky Way” would be like standing in your closet and saying “I can see my house”. It wasn’t until one night on a camping trip in an extremely remote area on a cool late summer night that I actually saw the Milky Way, the band of shining, stellar clouds that stretches across the sky. According to the ancient Greeks it was formed when baby Heracles suckled on Hera in her sleep and some of her milk spilled out across the sky—a myth that was meant to explain the origins of the breast pump, but that’s another story.

There was something strange about looking into it, knowing that even though I could only see a small part of it I was still looking into the very heart of our galaxy. How did astronomers feel when they first realized our sun is just another star, and a pretty puny one at that? How did they feel when they first realized we only see mere ghosts of stars, that interstellar distances are so vast it takes years, even centuries, sometimes millennia, for the light of stars to reach us? The ground under their feet must have seemed a lot less stable. And in my lifetime alone astronomers, working with geologists, have come to understand the Earth’s long history of being hit by big rocks on a disturbingly regular basis—one about every twenty-six million years. The idea that a nearby star might be throwing wild pitches was dismissed almost as quickly as it was proposed, but the regularity might not be a cosmic coincidence either. Our solar system doesn’t stay in one place. Even as the Milky Way slowly turns the regularity of mass extinctions may be the result of the way our solar system bobs and weaves in its arm, perhaps taking us sometimes into dangerous territory. And some people get a kick out of saying we’re overdo for an interplanetary sucker punch, but a million years is a really long time. It may not happen.

Closer to home is the issue of light pollution, the growing number of photons we’re spewing into the sky nightly that make it harder and harder to see features like the Milky Way and smaller, dimmer stellar neighbors. It’s a scary thought that the more lights we use to light the night here on Earth the more we lose a perspective on our place in the universe, as if we were standing in a closet with no way to know what lurks in the patches of shadow.

It’s That Time Again.

bottleIt’s been much too long since I did a pop quiz. It’s state fair time, at least in the northern hemisphere where we’re moving into fall and the inevitable grim reaping of winter.

So here’s the latest pop quiz: amusement park ride or cocktail?

Because cocktails have a long history and are more diverse and weirdly named than Seattle bands I’ve tried to limit that list to the classics by pulling them from the 1922 Cocktails & How To Mix Them, and the list of amusement park rides is pulled from Wikipedia. What I’m getting at here is I didn’t make any of these up even though just about any name I could make up has probably already been the name of either a cocktail or amusement park ride somewhere. In fact I used to hang out in a bar that served a drink called Alien Secretion, which I’m pretty sure was developed by a bartender who read too much Burroughs, but that’s another story. And also I’ve given you easy links which means you could easily cheat on this quiz, but why would you?

 

Enough of my yakkin’. The topic of this quiz, since you’ve forgotten it by now, is, Amusement park ride or cocktail?

  1. Highball
  2. Singapore Sling
  3. Alpine slide
  4. Depth bomb
  5. Cliffhanger
  6. Rum punch
  7. Devil’s wheel
  8. Stinger
  9. Double Shot
  10. Silver Streak
  11. Gravitron
  12. Bosom caresser
  13. Reverse peristalsis
  14. Hayride
  15. Motion simulator
  16. Bloody Mary
  17. Power Surge
  18. Shoot the Chute
  19. Monkey’s Gland
  20. Topple Tower

answerkey2

drink1

School Of Hard Knocks.

busA book hit me in the back of the head. Hard. It was a textbook. Introduction To Trigonometry, maybe, or European Classics For Dummies. Whatever it was it was thick and it had been thrown from several seats back.
It was the first day of my sophomore year of high school and the first bus ride home. Things were not starting well.
Kevin, a freshman I didn’t know, was in the seat behind me. He was laughing like a hyena. I punched him.
“Dude,” he yelled. “I didn’t throw the book at you.”
I’m still not sure who threw the book at me, and even then I didn’t care. I should have thrown it out the window but I’m pretty sure the thrower wasn’t the owner; I’m pretty sure it was stolen from someone. I had a sense of ethics. I didn’t want to get them in trouble.
I didn’t want to get me in trouble either, and I was sure I’d be held responsible for throwing a school textbook out a bus window regardless of how it came to me.
So I threw it back. My aim was off and hit my friend Angie in the head.
“That’s it!” yelled the bus driver. He slammed the brakes on and stormed back to my seat.
“You’re going to the principal’s office first thing,” he said, poking a finger in my face.
“Sure,” I said. And I stomped to the front of the bus, pulled the door lever, and got out. I went straight to the woods, cut through backyards up to the condos then down the hill to my house and let myself in through the back door.
The phone was ringing. I answered it.
“Chris?”
It was Angie. I felt horrible. I launched into an apology but she cut me off.
“Shut up.” She knew I hadn’t meant to hit her in the head with a book. She didn’t know who’d thrown the book, whose book it was. What she did know was the bus driver and several kids were freaked out by my sudden disappearance. Two of my friends were being driven around by their parents looking for me.
Good, I thought.
The next day I was in my first class of the day, gym, and got called to the principal’s office. I’d later learn that I’d be reported as absent, blowing my perfect attendance record because the gym teacher was a jackass who didn’t pay attention, but that’s another story.
In the principal’s office I told my story. As soon as I mentioned Kevin the principal rolled his eyes and I was told to watch it in the future.
Nobody ever threw a book at me again.
What lessons did we learn here?

  • It’s not necessary to fight back against bullies to make them stop. Sometimes bold action is all it takes.
  • It’s helpful to know your neighborhood.
  • Kevin was a prick. He’s now a moderately successful insurance salesman.

It’s Complicated, But Not Unusual.

It’s not unusual for bloggers to hit on similar themes at the same time. What is unusual is that I happened to run across graffiti that seemed to speak to the theme that I felt three of my favorite bloggers had in common recently. Admittedly it’s also not unusual for me to extrapolate wildly and tie together completely unrelated things which meant that sometimes in English classes my interpretations of stories and poems were so wildly off the mark one of my teachers suggested I stop freebasing banana peels in the parking lot at lunch, but that’s another story.

This week Ann Koplow of The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and while she writes daily about a variety of subjects and started the week with Wishes. But more broadly there’s something significant about her time there right now because her son is going to be attending the University of Edinburgh.

That’s why it struck me that Gilly, whose blog is Anything Except Housework, has a post contemplating her empty nest, and reflecting on her time raising two boys and what she might have missed, but more importantly she reminds herself of the need to remember the good she’s done.

And Chuck Baudelaire of Always Drunk contemplated moments that changed her life, moments that led her to where she is now.

All three were reflective and I somehow had all three in mind when I saw this:

simple1simple

And it made me think about how quickly a life can change but every moment is complicated. Every moment is embedded in every other moment. Singling out one is like extracting a crystal from a matrix.

If the connection seems vague it’s because, like I said, it’s not unusual for me to tie unrelated things together, but maybe that’s because everything really is related.

And that also reminds me of a joke. A guy goes to the doctor and says, “Doc, every time I pass a park I start singing ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ and every time I see a cat I start singing ‘What’s New, Pussycat?'”

The doctor says, “It sounds like you’ve got Tom Jones syndrome.”

The guy says, “Tom Jones syndrome? I’ve never heard of that. Is it rare?”

The doctor says, “It’s not unusual.”

Entrances, Exits, and Errors.

This year for its annual Shakespeare in the Park event the Nashville Shakespeare Festival is putting on A Comedy of Errors. So of course I walked down to Centennial Park on my lunch break to check out the set.

I went to a university with a highly respected theater program and went to see every play but the one thing I still regret not doing is sneaking in and taking a look behind the scenes. Not that there was ever that much to see, but I like to look at theater sets from the back, to see the inner workings, even when they’re not particularly complex. And I’m used to being in the audience so I like to get some idea of the view from the actors’ perspective, although in my limited acting experience it’s best to pretend the audience isn’t even there.

And with its hilariously tangled plot full of mistaken identities–it’s probably the closest thing to slapstick you’ll find in Shakespeare with a story about two pairs of twins who keep getting mixed up–it’s fitting to check out A Comedy of Errors from the other side.

shakespeare1   shakespeare2 shakespeare3 shakespeare4 shakespeare5 shakespeare6Given the topsy-turvy plot it’s also fitting that the stage has its own ersatz version of the world-famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

shakespeare7

Him & His Shadow.

Source: The Guardian

Another kid and I were arguing about Star Wars. This was the late ‘70’s and we were both kids so of course Star Wars was on our minds. If we weren’t talking about it we were acting out scenes and making up our own stories, and if we weren’t doing that we were arguing about it. I was telling him about an article I’d read about the special effects in Star Wars and how they were done. He was shocked that C-3PO and R2-D2 were played by people, that they weren’t real robots. He got pretty upset about it too and finally went off in a huff saying, “Well the spaceships didn’t have people in ‘em! They were real!”

I feel kind of bad for spoiling the illusion for him but for me, as much as I would have liked to be in a world of real robots and spaceships, there was something just as cool about knowing the robots were real people.

Kenny Baker, the very real person who played R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, passed away recently.

The funny thing is when I heard the news I didn’t think about Star Wars. My first thought was Terry Gilliam’s movie Time Bandits, which came out between the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I saw it in the theater and while there was a lot about it that stuck with me—I was just discovering Monty Python at the time—the main thing was Kenny Baker was in the main cast. I purposely looked for him in the film, always thinking, That’s the guy who plays R2-D2.

That seems strangely poignant now considering that Time Bandits is about a young boy who gets dragged into a fantastic adventure by a quintet of time travelers—one of whom is Kenny Baker. Fantasy in Time Bandits isn’t an illusion; it’s simply another layer of reality. And he helped make it real.

Hail and farewell Kenny Baker.

Look Out Above!

Sometimes when I’m waiting at a bus stop I get the feeling the drivers speeding by are looking down on me. Metaphorically, I mean. I think they see me and think, “Hah, look at that schmuck. He has to stand in the heat and wait for a bus while I’m moving along comfortably in my 1978 Gremlin with its 8-track deck and AC that I’m gonna get fixed someday.” It’s a lousy attitude because I’m pretty sure most drivers don’t even notice me, and anyway once the bus arrives I step up into the higher seats in the back. Who’s looking down on whom now, suckers? Anyway, what if I could really look down?

The Chinese government has been experimenting with a bus that goes above and beyond…traffic. It’s not a double-decker bus but a bus that’s designed to straddle the lanes, passing above cars rather than simply passing them, and it’s environmentally friendly because it’s powered by its own awesomeness as you can see in this picture.

straddlebus

Source: Shanghaiist

Part of that may not be true but it is a cool idea for making bus routes more efficient, and making public transportation cool. In fact that may be its literal downfall. I could see this bus being so popular it would collapse under the weight of too many riders. On the bright side if it collapsed on a car below it might be the final excuse that guy in his 1978 Gremlin needs to get his air conditioning fixed.

Attention, Attention.

attention“Here and now, boys,” the bird repeated yet once more, then fluttered down from its perch on the dead tree and settled on her shoulder.

The child peeled another banana, gave two-thirds of it to Will and offered what remained to the mynah.

“Is that your bird?” Will asked.

She shook her head.

“Mynahs are like the electric light,” she said. “They don’t belong to anybody.”

“Why does he say those things?”

“Because somebody taught him,” she answered patiently. What an ass! her tone seemed to imply.

“But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?”

“Well …” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”

That’s from Island, Aldous Huxley’s last novel. It’s not as famous as Brave New World, which is a shame. Huxley said that his earlier novel was a failure because it only offered a choice between two insane societies. There had to be a third way and Island was it: a novel set on a small Pacific island that has developed a good and just and sane society. Sanity, though, isn’t self-sustaining–it takes some effort. The island’s mynah birds, trained to say “Attention, attention,” and “Here and now, boys, here and now” provide gentle reminders to be mindful of the present, to be aware.

In a small well-organized society that’s easy but it’s not hard to imagine the whole program breaking down on a larger scale and the mynahs dropping f-bombs eventually fading to background noise. The problem with Huxley’s ideal society is there’s no room for jokers, tricksters, or chaos–which makes it far from ideal.

Both Brave New World and Island raise big questions about the nature of freedom and its limits but neither one really offers any answers. Answers are beyond any single person, but the key to finding the answer is to first know what the question is.

Maybe the question is down there in the weeds.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to freethinkers@nerosoft.com, located in a small island somewhere.

Dayswimming.

swimmerSeptember’s coming soon.

I’m pining for the moon.

And what if there were two

Side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?

-R.E.M., “Nightswimming”

 

Every time the Olympics come around I make the same joke: I’m gonna move to a small island nation and take up a sport and that’ll be my free ticket to the big event. And I think there would be other advantages to living on a small island. Vanuatu for instance has a cool volcano—actually a really hot volcano, which is kind of the point. And Tuvalu is less than eleven square miles, so pizza delivery must be really fast there, and its capital is Funafuti and it would be great to live in a place that starts with “fun”. Sure there are disadvantages like not being able to find a decent pool hall or eventually being swallowed up by rising oceans, but every place has its ups and downs. I thought about this the other night while watching Olympic competitors swim—specifically the butterfly stroke, which, believe it or not, used to be my event back when I was part of a swim team. Oh yeah, believe it or not I was part of a swim team.

I wasn’t exactly a good swimmer, although I was pretty good at the butterfly stroke which is really challenging, especially over long distances. At least I was the only member of the swim team good enough to do it in competition so they put me in. It seems strange to me now because I never really did care about being part of the swim team. It was when we were members of the Dolphin Club, although calling it a “club” was a stretch. It was a plus-sign shaped swimming pool in a field on the outskirts of town, past a small collection of warehouses and auto shops that I’m pretty sure would be happy to take that car of yours that you “lost” the keys to with no questions asked, but that’s another story. There was a weedy tennis court with a rotting net next to the pool that I think was the only thing that qualified the place as a “club”. And the membership was small enough that the swim team really needed all the members it could get, so even though I was a mediocre swimmer who didn’t really care and never won anything I was never in danger of being cut. You may be wondering why I bothered with being a member of the swim team in the first place, especially since I did feel kind of self-conscious about my diving ability, or lack of it. All my teammates and fellow competitors could dive cleanly off the starting blocks into the water, but I never got the hang of that and could only just sort of flop, and by the time I got oriented and going I’d already be eating everybody else’s watery dust. But the swimming season wasn’t that long, especially since the Dolphin Club never made it to the semifinals or playoffs or Swim Series or Swimmerbowl or Swimmly Cup or whatever the big finale is in swimming. And I liked to swim and being part of the team meant getting into the pool early, before the crowds—which at the Dolphin Club meant about a dozen people—arrived. It was also fun on hot summer mornings to jump right into the cold pool and do a few lazy warm up laps, twisting my body around under the water, thinking about humpback whales migrating from the iceberg-laden waters of the Arctic to the tropical regions every year. That was worth humiliating myself in competition every Saturday because, in case I haven’t emphasized this enough, I really didn’t care about competing.

Anyway my wife pointed out that being from a small country isn’t enough in itself, that there is a minimum requirement of ability needed to qualify for the Olympics, so even if I did pack up everything and move to a small island in the middle of nowhere I still wouldn’t qualify for a free ticket to the big event even if I could finally learn to dive.

And I don’t want to treat the efforts of the athletes from these countries as a joke. Every athlete who goes to the Olympics has worked hard to get there and they all want to win. For the ones from small counties, the ones with delegations of a few athletes, or the ones who are only sending one athlete, the chances of bringing home a medal may be slimmer but the stakes are so much higher because so much attention is focused on them. They’ve made incredible efforts just to be able to qualify.

That is something to care about.