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Turn And Face The Strange.

changesA few years ago I read a list of tips for keeping our minds active as we age and possibly even staving off dementia, Alzheimer’s, and those darn kids who won’t get off your lawn. One of the tips was this: take a different route to work each day.

It intrigued me and for a few days I did try it—at least as I was walking to work. My wife does most of the driving when we’re going to work together and I couldn’t convince her to go off the beaten interstate. It’s even harder when taking public transportation to get a bus driver to change routes except in those rare instances when there’s a substitute driver who isn’t entirely sure of the route. And if I ever commuted by train I’d have to take some pretty extreme measures to get off the beaten track.

I also pretty quickly slipped into walking the same old route I’d gotten used to every day, mainly because it was the easiest and quickest. Like water I always take the best possible path downhill, which is why whenever I schedule a lunch with water and water doesn’t show up it’ll be very apologetic later, saying, “Oh, yeah, I couldn’t get there because it was uphill” but that’s another story.

And I realized something about my daily commute. It’s never really the same. Even if it’s the same path all it takes is being conscious of the differences. There are subtle changes: the light or weather is different. Sometimes it’s dry, sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes I see the sun in the east and once in a while I see it in the west and that’s when I realize I’m running really, really, really late. There are not so subtle differences too. I pass different people. One morning I passed a couple of squirrels fighting over a pile of peanuts. Why someone dumped a handful of peanuts right in the middle of the sidewalk is still a mystery to me, and it was a carefully arranged pile that made it look like it had been done deliberately. I stopped and separated the peanuts into two equal piles about five feet apart. Then I stepped back. Each squirrel went to the pile that was closest to it and took the peanuts then ran off in opposite directions.

There’s a lesson in that, I thought. Life would be so much easier if we were like the squirrels, only I’m afraid of heights and I think I’d be miserable living in a tree. On the other hand I’m sure living in a constant state of terror would be a good way to keep my mind active.


Taking Up Space.

Several times I’ve talked about graffiti as an expression of frustration, as if it serves some purpose. And every time I do that a voice in the back of my head reminds me that without talking to the artist I really can’t know what the intent was. And for that matter it’s kind of presumptuous to assume there was any intent at all beyond the desire to make something. Academics and critics get hung up on meaning and interpretation because, well, it’s a way of taking up space.

Art is also a way of taking up space. Whatever its intent or however you interpret it art is what it is. It serves a variety of purposes or it serves no purpose at all, unless you consider expressing an idea to be a purpose. And the expression of the idea is made so that it occupies physical space.

That’s what I thought about when I saw these great pieces featured on BoingBoing, made by the Italian street art collective Collettivo FX.


Source: BoingBoing

Source: BoingBoing

Source: BoingBoing

They use the space they occupy, adapting and using the empty space too. And the first one strikingly has “All true” in Italian written over it. All that we see is truth, and all that we see is art. What an interesting idea.

Light ‘Em Up.

christmastreeWhen I was a kid decorating your house—the outside, anyway—for the holidays meant throwing a few strings of lights around the eaves and maybe on a tree or the bushes. Some people would put up a statue of Santa or a snowman but I think that was considered gauche. And then one year the neighbor of some friends of my parents decided to go all out. He covered the front of his house with lights, filled the yard with a dozen Santas and at least three nativity scenes plus giant illuminated candy canes, stockings, a workshop complete with elves, and three more Santas in sleds with reindeer on the roof. People would drive by just to stare in wonder at this wonderland, and it wasn’t hard to find: just look for the beam, like a stationary searchlight, pointed straight up. And also straight into the windows of the people across the street. This was before this kind of Christmas excess became a regular thing, before it was the subject of TV shows, although the guy did get featured on the local news which just added to the neighborhood traffic. You had to avoid looking directly at the house or it would be burned into your retina and you’d still see it for months, which is why the place brought down property values through March. There’s a fine line between kitschy and tasteless and this guy was the John Waters of Christmas decorations. And I thought, wow, there’s a guy who really loves Christmas. Or really hates his neighbors. Maybe both. At the time most families—including mine—didn’t decorate the outsides of our houses. It’s not that we lacked the holiday spirit. My mother had approximately three tons of Christmas decorations, including a green ceramic Christmas tree that lit up, rotated, and played “Jingle Bells” and which she placed on top of the TV where it provided the perfect background music to Quincy. All these decorations, though, were for the inside of the house and I had a serious longing to join the cool people who decorated the outsides of their houses. I didn’t want to create a neighborhood eyesore. I just wanted something subtle: a few strings of lights, maybe around the eaves, some covering the low-growing holly bushes in front of the porch to make them less menacing, a string around each of the windows, and a dozen or so around the trees at either end of the house.

I wanted to keep it subtle.

My parents did eventually capitulate to my pleas for bubble lights for our Christmas tree so I not only got the joy of bubble lights but also the added fun of wondering why that one weird holdout wouldn’t bubble, why, when all the others were happily bubbling away it remained still. For so long I’d wanted bubble lights and yet when we got them it was the one that wouldn’t bubble that drew my attention, that, late at night when we turned off all the lights except the ones on the Christmas tree, would speak to me. “Hey kid,” it said, “do your own thing. Be an individual, follow your own drummer, dance to your own tune, and when you bury a body in a shallow grave be sure to use quicklime.” But that’s another story.

In retrospect I’m not sure why it mattered so much to me that our house join the ranks of decorated ones. It didn’t occur to me that the only time I really thought about it was December, and that the strings of lights would spend most of the year boxed up in the attic slowly tying themselves into knots. I think I just liked the way they looked. In the cold winter, when the days shortened and the nights were long and quiet, when the trees were bare and the grass brittle and pale, there were lights. They shone through the darkness in many colors, reflections of all the hopes and dreams of all the people who lived in those houses.

Then one year we did get some outdoor lights—just a few, and my father strung them around one of the trees in the front yard. And that’s when I learned the downside of outdoor lights: you can’t see them if you’re inside the house, listening to “Jingle Bells” and watching Quincy.

Mockery Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I have a theory that in any group of comedians there’s one who’s so funny, so out there, so quick that person is the one who makes the other comedians laugh. It’s not a well-thought out theory and, since I’ve neither performed comedy nor spent a lot of time around comedians–I’m just a fringe fan, really–I don’t have a lot of evidence for it beyond the anecdotes of a few comedians from their time on the road. Oh yeah, there’s one other thing that put this idea in my head: watching Colin Mochrie, whose birthday is today.

I started watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? when Comedy Central aired the British version and although he was a late addition to the show–it started in 1988 and he became a full time cast member in 1991–he stood out to me immediately as a funny guy. In any great episode of Whose Line every member of the cast brings something distinctive. Mochrie was, and still is, the wild card. He responds to good-natured insults from fellow cast members with a deadpan stare but can then go to full-throated lunacy right away. He’s straight man–or woman–or joker, whichever is needed, with a sly, natural goofiness. Whenever the cast joins together for a hoedown Mochrie is always placed at the end of the line. He makes up for his lack of singing ability with non sequiturs that make the rest of the cast laugh.

Oh yeah, and there are at least two dozen “Best of Colin Mochrie” videos on YouTube.

Safe Seat.

busA lot of school buses still don’t have seat belts. I don’t know if there’s an accurate counting, and there probably isn’t because it’s something most people don’t think about unless something happens. The rest of the time if it comes up it’s usually controversial because of the cost–estimated between $7000 and $11000 per bus, although that would, for older buses, be a one-time charge. Seat belts could–and should–be installed in new buses. When I was a kid in school it came up occasionally, usually when there was an accident. I thought about it whenever I had to stand up in the back of the bus because there weren’t enough seats and I was unlucky enough to have a class on the far side of school which meant I was one of the last to get to the bus, although the only time I ever felt like I was really in danger was the time we had a substitute driver who not only didn’t know the route but apparently didn’t know how to drive a bus either and at one point took us up a steep hill, stopped halfway, then shifted into neutral so we started rolling backward. I realized the only safety instructions we’d gotten–keep all body parts inside the windows and in the event of an emergency exit through the back door–wouldn’t do a lot of good.

Admittedly neither would seat belts but it’s still criminally irresponsible that legislators agree that adults in private vehicles should be required to wear seat belts but when it comes to the same safety measure on buses they remain stuck in neutral. That’s what I thought of following a tragic bus crash in Chattanooga. Could any of the kids who lost their lives been saved by seat belts? Maybe not, but if even one life is lost because buses don’t have seat belts then the cost is too high.

Looking Glass.

I’m old enough that I watched Barney Miller when it first ran, although young enough that I didn’t quite get all the jokes. A decade or so it ran in late night syndication I watched it again and enjoyed it even more, but one thing remained the same throughout: Detective Harris, played by Ron Glass, was one of the coolest people ever. He was a dedicated cop but what stood out to me was he was also a writer. I have a lot of literary models but even before I knew I wanted to be a writer Detective Harris was my model for the kind of person a writer could be. He balanced his day job and his artistic ambitions–or sometimes didn’t always balance them. Barney Miller‘s opening credits for at least one season show him banging away at a precinct typewriter, using office supplies for his own personal pursuit. And in one episode he used an office phone to have a lengthy argument with his publisher. The lurid cover of his novel Blood On The Badge, which he described as “hemorrhaging”, made it look like a cheap thriller, not the serious work of fiction he’d written. It was the first time I understood the writer as more than just a storyteller. Detective Harris was passionate and thoughtful, an artist.

A few years later I was majoring in English at the University of Evansville with hopes of being a writer myself and learned that Ron Glass had also been a student there a few decades earlier. The irony was not lost on me, although it wasn’t really funny. It was more a feeling that he and I really did share something.

Others will of course remember Ron Glass from the tragically short-lived Firefly. I loved it too. Even though he was a very different character, gentler and more avuncular, I still felt like his playing a scholarly priest named “Book” was a nod to Detective Harris.

And in between he made an appearance on an ’80’s reboot of The Twilight Zone with the also amazing Sherman Helmsley that I’ve never forgotten. He played a very different character, showing his range, but still as cool as always.

Hail and farewell Ron Glass.


It’s A Gift.

It started as a joke. I noticed a fair amount of graffiti as I was out walking around and I thought it would be fun to take pictures of it and write about it in a tongue-in-cheek critical way, adding references to art history and art criticism. I’ve always kind of wanted to be an art critic, and have written some serious pieces for magazines, although there’s a lot of art out there that I just can’t take seriously.

penguin1And then something happened. I started to see graffiti seriously. I started to realize that there were people behind these anonymous works that popped up in different places, and they were people with something to say. A lot of them have no other place to say it. They don’t have studios or even necessarily enough money to buy the materials to put their ideas on canvas, and even if they did they wouldn’t reach as wide an audience as they can by putting their work out there in public spaces.

penguin2I’ve stretched the definition of graffiti since I started doing this more than a year ago but I’ve tried to keep one thing consistent: whether it’s really graffiti or not I’ve tried to write about works that are publicly visible, that potentially anyone could see. And it occurred to me that a lot of the artists who share their work are giving the city, the world, a gift. I hope by highlighting that I’m giving something back.


Stick A Fork In Me.


We were sitting in the school lunchroom and a friend and I were having an argument. It wasn’t a serious argument because I don’t do serious arguments. It was more of a friendly debate about something arcane and he made a really superb point and I, stumped, just said, “Oh, fork you.” And we all laughed and went on with our conversation.

And then gradually I became aware of a voice behind me.

“Son, I don’t want to hear any more of that kind of language from you.”

It was Mr. Blankley, my algebra teacher, or, as I preferred to think of him, Human Valium. Mr. Blankley was in a perpetual state of slow motion: he moved slowly, he talked slowly. Algebra was my first class of the day and it was more than I could take as soon as he started talking.

“Studentsss, today we will have a quizzzzz on chapterssss ssssixxxxx and ssssseven.”

The one saving grace is he would use up twenty minutes of class time saying that that but I still couldn’t keep my eyes open, much less focus on getting any work done.

Mr. Blankley was also so clueless he had no idea I was one of his students, although I’d be transferred out shortly afterward because half the kids in his class were below average, half the kids were failing, and half couldn’t even grasp simple fractions, but that’s another story.

“I said ‘fork’” I said, holding one up for him.

He sighed for five minutes then said, “Ssson, I said I don’t want to hear any more of that language.”

Fortunately at that moment the end of lunch bell rang and my friends and I quietly gathered up our things and left, a series of actions which, from Mr. Blankley’s perspective, must have looked like hummingbirds around a feeder.

I’m sharing this story now because tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States—the Canadians do it six weeks earlier—and for many it’s a stressful time. For many it means getting together with family and that can lead to arguments ranging from the pointlessly political to the annoyingly personal. If things get too stressful for you just remember that Thanksgiving is a feast and if you feel like things are getting overheated in the kitchen or out, if somebody says something or insists on doing that one thing that gets under your skin…fork ‘em.

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