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A Matter Of Time.

There’s a clock on a pole across the street from where I wait for the bus most afternoons.

I’ve never bothered to calculate exactly how much time I spend waiting for the bus, and it varies from day to day. Some days I sit for five minutes, some days it’s half an hour, and it’s a little annoying that I always rush to get to the bus stop but the bus driver isn’t necessarily in as much of a hurry to get to me. There was one driver who was consistently late and every day loudly complained that it was the driver before him who’d been running late causing a domino effect. I noticed whenever there was a substitute that driver would be on time.

Not that waiting is necessarily a bad thing. I used to sit and read books. Some days the wait was just long enough for me to read, really read, a poem. Or I’d pick up the free newspapers like the Nashville Scene which, for a while, published a poem a week.

Now I mostly listen to podcasts which I feel has kind of brought me back to when I was a kid. My father always listened to talk radio in the car. In some parts of the country, some pretty close to home, he could pick up bizarre preachers expounding on their theories of how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark was really a 666, or how the prevalence of triangles on the show Buck Rogers was a Satanic plot. For more serious fare he listened to public radio, so I’d sit in the backseat and hear stories from the BBC or the news. Some mornings we’d listen to Dick Estell’s Radio Reader, which was both fun and frustrating if we got wherever we were going before the story ended. Or, since Estell tended to read long books, I’d hear a chapter and say, “Yeah, so what happened then?” I also remember when they ran the original radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and an audio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, although those came on early enough on Sunday mornings that I could listen at home and never missed an episode, but that’s another story.

So it’s actually good if I have some time to wait, although one of the nice things about listening rather than reading is I can do it while walking. My usual stop isn’t one of the fancy ones with a digital display that tells me exactly when the next bus is coming. It’s just a standard old bench where I can sit and watch the clock.

Except that the clock hasn’t worked in months, maybe even years. It’s permanently stuck at 2:55, so while a broken clock is right twice a day it’s never right at a time when I’m there.

 

Torn.

I’m deeply conflicted about this. On the one hand this is a picture of an advertisement. These ads have started showing up on sidewalks around the city and at first I thought they were an interesting art project, and then I realized, no, they were advertisements. Yes, I believe advertisements can be art, but I also cling to this Romantic notion of ars gratia artis, even though that phrase itself has been coopted by a major movie studio. And I also realize that artists have got to eat and if at least some couldn’t make a living by creating art, even if it often means playing the tune they’re paid to type, there’d be a lot less great art in the world.

On the other hand advertising is supposed to send a single, simple message. It’s supposed to tell you what to think—or rather what to buy—and I believe art should raise questions rather than provide answers. Any art that gives you a simple unvarnished idea is, in my opinion, very bad art.

And on the other hand—I’ve lost count of my hands here—something interesting has happened. This advertisement has been partially torn in a way that subtly changes its meaning. It’s presumably an accident, and that does raise a lot of questions. The tradition of “found art” is one that has a fairly long history—although not nearly as long as Romantic notions like ars gratia artis, but still there’s room for debate about whether art always has to be something that’s made or whether it can just happen. The idea that art is always created with a plan, that artists are in control, can be a source of comfort in a cold and chaotic universe, but even some of the most detailed and crafted works of art started as, or benefited from, accidents. Every artist has more misses than hits, and if every work of art had to start from a deliberately conceived plan there’d be a lot less great art in the world, and the fact that we can sometimes benefit from accidents can also be a source of comfort, especially in a cold and chaotic universe. Creating art, just like living life, means maintaining some semblance of control while at the same time accepting that accidents will happen and adapting to them as best we can. As a friend of mine in high school put it, “When life gives you lemons make orange juice.”

As I was turning all those over in my head and my approximately nine hands I walked past a restaurant where Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, a song that I remember from high school, was playing. Actually it was the DNA remix that came out after I’d graduated, and which was created without her permission, but Vega liked it. The song sounds simple, even improvised, but is carefully structured. I felt like the universe, cold and chaotic as it is, was pushing me to write this, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

 

Out With The New, In With The Old.

Feel free to use the comments section to offer your ideas about what this is. The correct answer gets nothing because no one will know if it’s right.

When I was a kid I loved it when someone threw out some crappy device, and it was a wonderful time for it too because in those days all devices were crappy. It was the time when digital clocks, digital radios, and digital clock radios were all the rage and considered high-tech because no one really knew what “digital” meant, other than that it would have those funny block numbers that you could use to punch in 773440, which, when you turned it upside down, spelled “OhhELL”, which my friends and I thought was hilarious because we were idiots, but that’s another story. I loved it when someone threw out a digital clock that had stopped working because I could then pull it out of the garbage and take it apart to see how it worked, and maybe even fix it and put it back together, assuming the extensive rinsing I’d had to do to remove the tartar sauce, old spaghetti, and coffee grounds from it. And also assuming I had the skill and knowledge to fix it or put it back together, which I didn’t. I quickly learned that taking things apart was much easier than putting them back together, or at least it was in those days. Now if I really wanted to take apart my phone just to look at its inner workings, which I assume must be pretty cool, I’m not sure where I’d even start. At least old digital clocks and radios were held together with tiny screws that only required a rusty penknife and a tetanus shot.

Digital clocks and radios and other small devices also regularly got thrown out in those days because they were cheap enough that they could be easily replaced. It was the beginning of the end of the era of the repair shop, and I even remember the end of the television repair house call. We had a large wooden-cased TV set that weighed approximately three and a half tons and had actually served in the war, although it never specified which war, and would become surly and short-circuit if questioned too much or if you changed the channels too quickly which, strange as it seems now, you did by turning a knob built into the TV set itself. And once when that happened a guy in a uniform came to our house and I got to watch him take several parts out of our TV set, which was the coolest thing I’d seen because Star Wars hadn’t come out yet. Then when he was done he put it all back together without any parts left over and turned it to an episode of The Munsters, which had long since been cancelled and was in syndication because I’m old but not that old.

With my own “repair work” I did have some successes. For instance I had a pair of old walkie-talkies that stopped working so I took them apart and after a bit of playing around I discovered that if I placed one of them near the small black and white TV I’d gotten for Christmas and turned a round metal thing I could get faint, crackly TV audio to come out of the walkie-talkie speaker. Making the walkie-talkie produce a low-grade version of what the TV could already do was the coolest thing I’d seen since Star Wars which had come out a couple of years earlier, because I was an idiot. And it was pretty cool that I could accomplish something, although there was also a certain satisfaction in being able to take some old items and smash them to pieces, especially if I’d had a bad day.

All of this was a fond but distant memory until recently. I was outside taking a break from work when I found a…thing. I’m not sure what it was, just that it was metal and plastic and had a speaker at one end and tucked inside the other was a circuit board. I don’t make a habit of going around picking up trash because I try to avoid getting tetanus shots, but something about this thing intrigued me, mainly that it was broken and had been left on the sidewalk and mostly free of tartar sauce, old spaghetti, and coffee grounds.

Technologically speaking I’d been having a bad day. In fact I’d been having a bad week. I’d had issues with multiple devices, but as tempting as it is I’ve never been able to bring myself to smash a CPU or throw my stupid smartphone against a concrete wall so it was as though this thing of unknown provenance and function had landed, or been lying, at my feet just when I needed it. I sat down and broke it apart and found I still find circuit boards strangely beautiful. And there was something therapeutic about being able to use something valueless as a proxy for the stuff that had been driving me crazy.

Also when I was done I put it in a trash can. I’m no barbarian.

And then I realized that must feel this same frustration. I bet some of you reading this right now know exactly how it feels to want to break a device when it breaks down on you because we live in a world that’s driven by technology. In fact I’m going to guess that most of you are reading this on a computer, except when you paused to Google “funny words you can spell with calculators”. And this gave me a brilliant idea for a business.

Have old devices that don’t work anymore but that you can’t be bothered to dispose of properly? We’ll take ’em off your hands! Concerned about privacy? When we’re done that old CPU tower, laptop, or smartphone will be so thoroughly obliterated the only way to extract any data from it would be magic.

And for those of you who, like me, know the frustration of nonfunctioning technology, the heartbreak of data loss, who want to punish your computer’s crash with an actual crash, come on in! Customers must provide their own fists, hammers, concrete walls, and tetanus shots.

And now a moment that never gets old.

Source: Giphy

Transference.

The Nashville MTA has asked for a budget increase that would include the restoration of transfers. I think this is a great idea even though these days all my bus rides are one way, and also my employer pays my bus fare as long as I’m going to and from work, but that’s another story. For me riding the bus is an option, and I’m lucky it is because Nashville really isn’t a bus-friendly city. Or a pedestrian or bike-friendly city. Several people have told me they’d take the bus if they didn’t have to drive to the nearest stop.

If you’ve never ridden the bus or have only ridden it in places where they don’t offer transfers–like Nashville in the last fifteen years or so–a transfer is a ticket you can get with your regular bus ticket that allows you to get on another bus route without having to pay the full fare again. Back when they had them the cost of a transfer was a pittance–when Nashville got rid of them a transfer cost ten cents, a price that had probably been maintained since the ‘70‘s, even though in those days a dime was worth a lot more. A transfer was also technically only good for half an hour and would be stamped with the time you received it although I never knew a single bus driver who bothered to look.

The price of a regular fare at the time was $1.75, but you could also get an all-day pass for $3.50, so if you were going more than two places the pass was actually the better deal by twenty cents and you didn’t have to worry about some driver suddenly deciding to enforce the half-hour time limit. Now the regular fare is $1.70 and an all-day pass is $5.25. Go figure.

As I said Nashville is not a particularly bus-friendly city but I’m in favor of transfers because quite a few people who ride the bus depend on it because, to be blunt, they can’t afford a car, and really could use every little bit of money they can save. In fact I remember the first time I learned about transfers. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t have to pay the full fare every time you got on the bus. One day, when I was in college and living off-campus, I took the bus downtown to drop off my rent check. I came out of the office and waved down the bus going my way. I was close enough to the end of the line that the same driver who dropped me off had just dropped me off and was turning around.

I got on and started to put my fare in when he said, “Hey, didn’t I just drop you off? You could have just gotten a transfer.”

I wish he’d said that before I started handing over my money. I really could have used that dollar.

 

Just Keep Looking.

And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

From Beyond Good & Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, as translated by R.J. Hollingdale

I’m tempted to say that somewhere along the way art went from being purely decorative to having to mean something. And then I have to take a step back and take a really deep breath because, well, first of all I’d have to clarify which artistic tradition I’m talking about–probably a Western European one, and even then I’d have to really narrow down the definition of “art” because even though there have been works–mostly paintings and sculptures–we could call strictly decorative aesthetic touches are still often added to everything from tables to teapots so even those things could be–and sometimes are–treated as works of art, especially if they’re really old.

And speaking of really old things the book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis devotes almost all of its space not to analyzing what the cave paintings may have meant but rather how what archaeologists and art historians think the cave paintings meant has changed, and changes, depending on who’s doing the looking.

And to get back to my naïve assumption that at some point art went from being decorative to having “meaning” if I had to pin down when exactly I might have thought that happened I’d say it occurred with the invention of photography and the birth of Impressionism and then Fauvism and really took off after World War I when art–at least in Western Europe–split into a million different isms and people started to need a philosophy degree to understand why a bunch of squares or scribbles should be considered great art.

Except it’s not that simple. Throughout art history, and throughout art traditions around the world, art has often “meant” something, but what it means has been determined by both cultural context and the eye of the beholder, which raises the question, if a work of art can mean anything, does it really mean anything?

And that’s when I start to wonder, am I looking at art or is it looking back at me?

Pierced.

Source: Ornament Studio

Remember when getting your ear pierced was cool? If you’re a woman you’ve probably said, “No, it’s practically expected,” and if you’re a guy, well, it largely depends on your age and where you grew up, and while it was popular during the Renaissance very few people from that time are still alive. So let me be clear that I’m referring to the fad that, in North America, spiked in the ’80’s, although it spilled, or rather dripped, over, into the twenty-first century since I’ve known a few older men who’ve gotten an ear pierced. And, like leg warmers and head bands, it seems unlikely to come back, even as shoulder pads, high tops, denim skirts, off-the-shoulder tops, perms, and fanny packs are making an unwelcome return, something we should have known it was inevitable. As a child of the ‘80’s—or rather someone who was a teen during the ‘80’s—I remember it as the era that, in addition to its dubious cultural contributions, packaged and sold nostalgia for an era most of us had never lived through. At least half my graduating class had t-shirts that said “If You Remember The ‘60’s Then You Weren’t There”, unaware of the irony that most of us had been born at least a decade after the day the music died. The first person I knew to get a CD player invested heavily in bands who were older than he was, and sometimes I think our motto was “Don’t trust anyone over thirty unless they appeared on Top Of The Pops.” This was partly marketing and also, I think, the fact that there was the threat of nuclear immolation, which seemed to be brought about by people who fondly remembered the Cuban missile crisis, but, like many reboots, was an overextended rehash of the original with an unnecessary batch of new characters and the feeling that the original had been so much better. There were also famines in Africa and the rising specter of AIDS, so it’s not surprising that the ’80’s were a time when black was the new black, and it’s why I sometimes say that if you fondly remember the ’80’s then you weren’t there.

The ‘80’s didn’t invent nostalgia, although some people like to remember it as the decade that did, but it did popularize it and reboots and sequels, so it’s fitting that the decade should get its own reboot. And I can’t completely knock it. For one thing a decade is a really long time so there’s inevitably some wheat among the teased-up and ripped-denim chaff, and, to reboot Philip Larkin, it was also the time of my own Annus Mirabilis, between the hearings on Iran and Nirvana’s first CD, but that’s another story.

I know I’ve harped on the ’80’s before, but I’m producing this sequel because there seems to be a new wave of nostalgia for the Dayglo decade but it’s interesting to me that, as I said, of all the ’80’s things that are coming back earrings for men aren’t, and that annoys me a little. It’s not because I’ve ever thought about getting an earring myself. It worked for some guys, but it never seemed to be my style, and I learned to be cool with that even though it’s never been hip to be square, not even in the ’80’s. No, it bothers me because a couple of my high school chums got their ears pierced on a whim and showed up at my house after they’d gotten it done.

Yeah, they didn’t think to invite me to go with them to the mall, although the after party was kind of fun. They proudly showed me their shiny new ear studs which were really metallic balls, although somehow even then teenage boys, a group not usually known for self-awareness or deep insight on matters of gender, knew better than to say that getting an ear pierced took balls.

And then they left and I started to go back to what I’d been doing, which was probably either watching a rerun of The Twilight Zone, or possibly a broadcast of The Twilight Zone, the 1985 reboot, when my father came into my room.

He closed the door and said, very quietly, “I’m only going to say this once. You’re not going to get your ear pierced as long as you live in this house.” Then he turned around and left.

At the time I resented it but now I feel a strange fondness for that moment, for the irony that I was in trouble for something I hadn’t done, for something that had happened when I wasn’t even there.

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