Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Getting There.

Source: Safely Endangered

Last year I wrote a post about the length of years throughout the solar system, comparing all the planets and Pluto to an Earth year. To recap: it takes Pluto 248 years to orbit the sun, 165 years for Neptune, 84 years for Uranus, a little over 29 years for Saturn, 12 years for Jupiter, 687 days for Mars, 225 days for Venus, and 88 days for Mercury. This year I thought I’d do something a little different, inspired by Voyager 2, which, on December 10, 2018, left the solar system and became the second human-made object to enter interstellar space, following Voyager 1 which crossed over in 2012.
Voyager 2 is currently moving along at more than 34,000 miles per hour, and it took a little more than forty-one years to travel eighteen and a half billion miles. Radio signals from the craft, still being sent, take about sixteen and a half hours to reach Earth. That got me thinking about speed, specifically the speed of light. Voyager 2 isn’t anywhere close to the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second, and technically can’t reach that speed since mr = m0 / sqrt (1 – v2 / c2 ), but that’s another story.
Light from the sun, on the other hand, can travel at the speed of light and to put things in perspective here’s how long it takes to reach different markers through the solar system:
It takes light from the sun three minutes to reach Mercury.
It takes light from the sun six minutes to reach Venus.
It takes light from the sun eight minutes to reach Earth.
It takes light from the sun about twelve minutes and forty seconds to reach Mars.
It takes light from the sun about forty-three minutes to reach Jupiter.
It takes light from the sun more than seventy-nine minutes to reach Saturn.
Does sunlight ever reach Uranus? Yes, it does, but it takes sunlight more than two and a half hours–almost 160 minutes–to get to Uranus.
It takes light from the sun more than four hours to reach Neptune.
It takes light from the sun five and a half hours to reach Pluto–just under how long it would take to fly from New York to Los Angeles, minus the time you have to spend in security, which takes about two and a half hours if they have to examine Uranus.
And it takes that same sunlight four and a half years to reach Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. At its current rate Voyager 2 will get there in about eighty-six thousand, two hundred years, minus the time it’ll have to spend going through security.

Alpha and Beta Centauri. Source: Wikipedia

Will we eve get there? Maybe, but the future is very hard to predict.

Art Matters.

When I took my first art history course it was simple. In fact it was just as simple when I took my last art history course. Art history was like regular history: a linear progression of events, or movements, starting with cave paintings, which were prehistory really, and going up through the millenia with widely spaced high points: Egypt, Greece, Rome, then there was the Renaissance, and the rediscovery of perspective. Neo-classicism gave way to Romanticism and then Impressionism was followed by Fauvism or Expressionism. As the chronometer ticked over to the 20th century everything exploded into a bunch of isms: Cubism, Orphism, Futurism. World War I prompted Dadaism and Surrealism. Before World War II the major center of art was Paris. After World War II it was New York, with Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop Art followed by…well, if they made it to that point the art history classes just sort of fizzled out there. Nothing was left: art history had ended. For some art historians Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the capstone. For others the end had come before that: the first time a prehistoric person placed pigment on a cave wall was leading up to the moment Jackson Pollock dripped a blob of paint, breaking the connection between brush and canvas that had been the basis of all art. The greatest emphasis was on artists who were mostly white and mostly European and mostly men, artists who were centered in Italy, Paris, and New York, with brief asides to Berlin, Moscow, and London, because they were the Artists Who Mattered.
Even from the beginning, from that first art history class, there was a question in the back of my mind: what about artists in other parts of the world? Artists from Japan, the South Pacific, South America, and Africa influenced a lot of those 20th century isms, so why did the mostly anonymous artists who produced those works matter less than Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso? The history of art history follows a pretty simple pattern. Vasari, whose Lives Of The Artists is considered the first work of art history, focused on artists he knew. In the 16th century the internet was pretty rudimentary and unreliable; dial-up hadn’t even been invented yet, and that remained true up to and even through 1950 when E.H. Gombrich published The Story Of Art, the book that was either used or influenced every art history course I ever took. And I get it. In order to make sense of art, in order to make a story of art, a few scholars had to pick what they liked and cram it into an alley. And to keep the art history classes simple we students were supposed to ignore the buildings, the whole cities, the whole world on either side.
I like taking pictures of graffiti I find but I’m also always curious about the artists behind it, and some time ago created an Instagram account just to follow them, and through that I learned that an artist I’d seen, whom I only knew by the tag Betor, had died of a drug overdose on Christmas Day 2016. Or rather it helped explain some pictures I found. Through Instagram I learned Betor was part of a group of artists who worked together and influenced each other–what art historians might call a movement, or what they might label with an ism.

These works aren’t done by Betor. They’re done by friends of Betor, artists who admired his work. They’re tributes. There are more on Instagram, and messages too from artists who knew him, and others who are sorry they never met him but admired his work. I feel the same way. Betor was a person who mattered. An organization, A Betor Way, was founded in his memory to help anyone struggling with addiction.

There is no one story of art. Art doesn’t end with the death of any artist, or with any particular movement. And if I had to give only one explanation for why I’m so interested in graffiti it would be this: because it matters.

 

So Long, And Thanks For All The Coffee.

Every possession and every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour.

-Schopenhauer

Some of my best ideas come to me in coffee shops. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s the change of scenery, although I’ve had those best ideas in coffee shops I know well. Maybe it’s the combination of the familiar and the strange—the constant interruptions of people coming and going. Once while I was writing a story in a coffee shop, a story that wasn’t going that well and that I was only writing down to get it out of my head, a woman asked me, “Are you journaling?” I said yes and we talked for a minute and then she got her latte and left. Then as I went back to writing the story took a weird turn and became so much better. Don’t knock the person from Porlock, but that’s another story. Or maybe it’s because I’ve had some good ideas in coffee shops and those have just happened to foster other good ideas.

I also prefer local coffee shops. They all have some features in common but every one is unique, too—unlike those chain places that you find everywhere. So I’m sad that one of my favorite coffee shops, JJ’s Market, closed December 22nd, 2018.

JJ’s has been around since 1971—almost as long as I’ve been alive. When the Noshville Delicatessen next door, a more recent arrival, closed and a developer wanted to raze the block the owner of JJ’s went to court. His lease, after all, was good through 2022. That was a few years ago, but when I talked to the owner he said a lot of circumstances meant he had to close. The leaky roof would cost $100,000 to fix, and JJ’s was the last tenant on a block in an area where new buildings, and prices, are going up. The midtown area of Nashville used to be a funky place with bars and coffee shops, but thanks to gentrification it’s rapidly getting defunked. In spite of JJ’s being just a block away from a major chain coffee shop, not to mention a chain that specializes in pastries and, just one block over, a chain bagel place, it remained popular and crowded. Some mornings there I listened in on business meetings with four people in suits, and it tickled me to think high-powered deals were being made at JJ’s funky, wobbly tables and overstuffed sofas. The leaky roof with exposed ductwork and the bare brick walls added to the charm. Once I overheard a musician talking to an agent—and being around creative people might be another reason I get good ideas in coffee shops. People left books lying on tables or in the bookcase by the register, where there was also a selection of board games.

JJ’s was more than just a coffee shop. You could even say it was world famous, included in Ariel Rubinstein’s Atlas Of Cafes. The front section had coolers with a wide selection of craft beers. You could also get some local brews on tap, or fill a growler to go. They had a selection of European chocolates, magazines, Japanese snack foods, and ceramic mugs made by a local artist. And there’s something really funny about a place with its own specialty coffees called “Studying Nietzsche” and “James Brown”.

Companies like WeWork are creating workspaces for people who want to get away from the traditional office, and hotels are redesigning their lobbies to be community hangouts, but JJ’s created a community space decades before just by being what the community wanted.

A poem literally stamped into one of the tables ends, “You are marvelous./The gods want to twilight/in you.”

It’s a sad but fitting epitaph for a coffee shop that was part of the community, was even a community unto itself, for almost half a century.

Hail and farewell, JJ’s Market.

 

Dragon Through The Holidays.

Source: Washington Post

Around the holidays, if we can find time, my wife and I make a couple of travel mugs of hot chocolate and drive through neighborhoods looking at people’s Christmas decorations. For some reason once the season is over I always forget that the lights are one of my favorite things about the holidays. When I was a kid I begged my parents to get Christmas lights because I envied other houses that had them, and then we did get them and I realized it’s not that exciting to have lights on the outside when you’re inside the house.

Putting up lights and other decorations is a way of sharing the holiday spirit with the community, but it’s also a personal expression. The holidays bring people together but everyone also has their own ways of celebrating. There’s a house I pass every day on my way to work that has a large inflated Santa on one side of their yard and a bear holding a dreidel on the other and it always makes me smile.

I thought even more about the overlap between the individual and the community at the holidays when I read about Diana Rowland, a writer—her books include My Life As A White Trash Zombie and How The White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back and they sound fantastic—who made a Christmas display with dragons in her front yard. And that sounds fantastic too. I love creative decorating and the dragons are also a Halloween-Christmas crossover. The best decorations, I say, are the ones that can multitask.

Anyway Rowland got an anonymous letter from a neighbor:

Source: Washington Post

There’s a lot to pick apart here. Why are the dragons only “marginally acceptable” at Halloween? Since when are dragons “demonic”? And isn’t the real spirit of Christmas, or, for that matter, this time of year no matter what holidays you celebrate, the spirit of joy?

Rowland had the perfect response to the anonymous complaint, too: she put up more dragons.

After all it’s also the season of giving.

Sing Along If You Know The Words.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without caroling, except in places where it’s not a Christmas tradition. Years ago when I was in Britain, going to school at Harlaxton College, a group decided to go out caroling in the nearby village and I went along even though I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. There was a home in the village that had a pond that was home to three-thousand ducks, though, and every day after lunch I’d take some bread and walk up there and feed the ducks. They must have recognized my voice because as the group marched along singing the ducks came out and joined us in “Here We Come A-Waddling”, but that’s another story. The strange thing is people who lived in the village were baffled by a group caroling just for fun and thought we were collecting for charity so they kept trying to offer us money, and by the third house I’d collected ten pounds. Anyway see if you can identify these Christmas carols just from a few of the words.

1. The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot.

2. Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom

3. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow…

4. We’ll have lots of fun with mister snowman,
Until the other kids knock him down.

5. And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
And surely I’ll be mine!

6. Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither…

7. The bells on Penguins ring,
Make Riddler wanna fight…

8. Don’t cry for me next door neighbor…

9. May we warm him, needy and lying on hay,
With our pious embraces

10. Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf.

11. Goreu pleser ar nos galan,
Tŷ a thân a theulu diddan…

12. The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land…

13. Somebody waits for you,
Kiss her once for me.

14. There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago…

And before you get to the answers go to Mum Revised for a hilarious and accurate list of Twelve Additional Christmas Songs That Deserve to be Removed from the Radio.

Goodbye, Old Friend.

Source: Wikipedia

Friendship must have been very important to Penny Marshall. The first thing I thought of when I read about her passing was, of course, Big, which, until I read about her passing, I thought was her first film. In fact before reading that she was gone I could only think of two of her films off the top of my head: Big and A League Of Their Own. I didn’t realize that I’d seen and enjoyed several other films of hers, including Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which was her directorial debut, until reading one of several remembrances.

Anyway I didn’t think of the famous piano scene in Big but rather the scenes between Tom Hanks, as Josh, and Josh’s friend Billy, played by Jared Rushton, who’s still a child and who, even as Josh starts to take on real adulthood, remains his anchor. The scene where Josh and Billy take Josh’s first paycheck to the bank and ask for “Three dimes, a hundred dollar bill and 87 ones,” then gorge on junk food is exactly what you’d expect a couple of kids to do, but it’s the chemistry between Hanks and Rushton, who don’t just seem like a couple of kids but a couple of friends, that makes it work. Robert DeNiro was briefly considered for the role of the adult Josh and he and Rushton spent an afternoon shooting hoops together, just getting to know each other, and I assume Hanks and Rushton did the same. And David Moscow, who played the young Josh, and Jared Rushton would become real friends, hanging out together even after the movie was done. That, to me, is more meaningful and makes the film more important than the fact that Marshall was the first woman director to have a film gross more than $100 million. Financial success is great but the emotional impact lasts long after all the money gets splurged.

It’s the sort of thing I always hope for with most films I watch—that the actors who portray friends onscreen are friends offscreen too, although I know it rarely happens. Still it’s nice to know that it does happen sometimes, and that it happened in Big and in other Marshall films.

In fact for any of us who grew up on ‘80’s sitcoms it’s also nice to know that the reason Marshall and her Laverne & Shirley co-star Cindy Williams worked so well on-screen is because they got along so well off-screen.

And Marshall’s early sitcom success followed by such a great career as a director completely undermines the saying that there are no second acts in American lives. She had an amazing second act. There was a genuine warmth and interest in people that ran through all her films, from Awakenings to Riding In Cars With Boys, and I keep coming back to Jumpin’ Jack Flash which is less of a spy story than it is about the need to connect with another person—even through a computer screen, and that’s why, even behind the camera, she felt like a friend.

Hail and farewell Penny Marshall.

 

Moving Right Along.

It was early so I boarded the bus in the dark. Well, it wasn’t just early–we haven’t reached the solstice yet so the days are still getting gradually shorter. Every year as the solstice approaches I wonder the same thing, about how early people might have felt about the nights growing steadily longer. Humans first appeared in Africa, close enough to the equator that they wouldn’t have seen much change in the length of days. As they spread to other latitudes was their migration slow enough that they took the change in stride, or was there a year when they were terrified there’d be a time when the sun would dip below the horizon and never return? Either way there must have been an unease that gave way to solstice celebrations that we still have today.
Riding the bus in the dark didn’t bother me but I was annoyed that I’d missed the Geminid meteor shower the night before. It wasn’t because I’d overslept but because the skies were cloudy all night, meaning I’d missed what was supposed to be a pretty spectacular display averaging more than a hundred and twenty meteors per hour. And then I started thinking about how meteor showers are caused by the Earth passing through swarms of meteors, worlds–or perhaps a world and the remnants of one–colliding. And that got me thinking about the approaching solstice and how our planet is in constant motion. Not just our planet, either, but every planet of our solar system, and our own sun is in motion as it bobs up and down in an arm of the Milky Way, itself slowly turning and moving through space, growing ever closer to our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. All this makes specific locations in space, and even time, relative, which raises the question: why is it on Star Trek that the Enterprise always arrives at a planet during working hours?
“Well, we’ve arrived at Tau Ceti Five and we’re ready to beam down, why is no one answering?”
“Sir, it’s two a.m. down there.”
Then again there’s the old saying that in space it’s always five o’clock somewhere, but that’s another story.
All this was buzzing in my head but at the same time I was keeping an eye on the road ahead to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. Then, about four blocks from where I wanted to disembark, the driver pulled over. There weren’t many people riding the bus and he’d been moving along at a pretty good clip so he was probably ahead of schedule and needed to stop. I understand the necessity but it also annoys me when the bus comes a stop. I want to get where I’m going. We were close enough that after a few minutes I stepped off and started walking. And I’d waited just long enough that as soon as I was ten feet ahead of the bus it started up. “Naturally,” I muttered.
Then the driver came to a stop right next to me, opened the doors, and said, “You wanna ride the rest of the way?”
“Sure,” I said, and climbed back aboard. I only had a short distance to go but I wanted to keep moving.

Windows.

With more and more holiday shopping happening online—Cyber Monday has been around since 2005—it’s hard to believe holiday windows are still important. A November 21, 2018 New York Times article gives a brief rundown of holiday windows past and present and explains why they still matter, although there are some stores that are closing. For some this will be their last Christmas. It’s a sad end to a tradition that dates back to at least 1874 when Macy’s created a Christmas window. More than half a century later in the 1926 Handbook Of Window Display, author William Nelson Taft (no relation to the president and Supreme Court justice that I can tell) said, “A number of stores have found that the mere fact of displaying appropriate Christmas goods, attractively boxed, not only stimulates buying but starts the holiday rush considerably earlier.” He’s a bit prosaic. Jean Shepherd, in his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which was partly the basis for A Christmas Story, gets a little more poetic reminiscing about a holiday window from the year he got his Red Ryder BB gun, with a Santa’s workshop display so elaborate it “made Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell.”

Window displays aren’t limited to the holidays, though. For more than forty years Gene Moore created elaborate setups for windows at Tiffany’s in New York. In June 1971 he created a series that told the story of a jewel thief with papier-mache mice. The president of Tiffany’s, Walter Hoving, got an angry letter from the president of Cartier for making light of the “hazards of owning fine jewelry”. Hoving’s reply: “Nuts.” He was right. If you can afford a Cartier watch you can afford a sense of humor, but that’s another story.

This is one of the scenes, from the book Windows at Tiffany’s : the art of Gene Moore (H. N. Abrams, 1980).

Window displays aren’t all fun and games, though. This is from the article:

“We track how many people are taking their photographs and sharing them back out,” said Frank Berman, an executive vice president and the chief marketing officer of Bloomingdale’s. “We also have methods in place to track how many people are passing by the windows, stopping and engaging. We also track the amount of traffic coming into the store and the conversion rates. We’re up in terms of traffic this holiday season.”

Is it weird that I’m creeped out by that? I know marketing is the reason for the season, but it bothers me that when I’m looking at store windows they might be looking back.

That’s partly why I put a picture of Parnassus Books at the top of this post, and here’s another of their main window.

Their window displays of books, I hope, draw people in. Bookstores are probably the most endangered of retail stores, and yet bookstores are places where the whole idea is to browse without necessarily knowing what you might find, and books open windows in your mind. There was an event at Parnassus the night I took that picture, and that’s one of the great contradictions of bookstores: they’re public spaces where people can get together to share the private experience of reading. And also every year my Christmas wish list is pretty much all books.

 

‘Twas The Morning After The Night Before Christmas.

All of us kids woke up early and came downstairs on Christmas morning. The presents were there like always. The fire had burned out overnight but there was still the sweet smell of ashes in the air. Ma was in the kitchen getting breakfast started. We were going to start opening presents when we noticed Pa in the corner, just sort of rocking back and forth. Ma came in, still wearing her bandanna over her hair.

“Why’s everybody so quiet?” she asked. “What’s going on?”

“Something’s wrong with Pa,” I said. “Look!”

“Oh,” said Ma, “so this is where you went after you left the bedroom window open. I had to get up and close it. It was freezing out there. What were you thinking flinging it open like a crazy man in the middle of the night anyway?”

“So much noise,” Pa muttered quietly, still rocking. “There was so much noise outside I had to see what was going on.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” said my big sister Emily. She looked at us. “Did any of you?” We all shook our heads except for my little brother who picked up a piece of candied fruit and started sucking on it.

“He was flying,” Dad said, his eyes wide. “I swear it’s the truth. He was flying along in a tiny sleigh pulled by miniature reindeer.”

“Reindeer aren’t that big,” said Emily. “Some are less than three feet tall at the shoulder.”

“Hush,” hissed Ma.

“He—he had names for them,” said Pa. “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen and Blitzen.”

“Somebody’s Blitzen all right,” said Ma. “What’s with you?”

“And Donner,” Pa added.

“Like the party?” asked Emily.

“They landed on the roof,” said Dad, oblivious to the question. “So much noise. They were stamping all over the roof.”

“It wouldn’t have been so loud if you’d replaced the insulation in the attic this summer like I told you to,” said Ma.

“How’d you know they were on the roof?” asked Emily. “Did you lean out the window and look?”

Pa kept staring ahead. “I came downstairs. I came downstairs and he came in the house.”

“We were robbed?” said my little brother. “On Christmas Eve?” He started crying. I nudged him.

“Cool it. The presents are all here, see?”

“What happened?” asked Ma. “Did he fall through the roof where you haven’t replaced the shingles?”

“He came down the chimney,” said Pa. “Just popped out of the fireplace with a great big bag.”

“Didn’t we have a fire last night?” asked Emily.

“He was a large, round man in a bright red fur suit trimmed with white,” Pa went on.

“Where do you get bright red fur?” I asked.

“Somebody probably threw paint on it,” said Emily. “Fur is dead, you know.”

“I just sat here and watched him,” said Pa, “watched him pull presents out of this great big bag he carried. He put them under the tree and then when he was done he went back into the fireplace and flew right up it.”

I giggled. “Because his ass was on fire!”

Ma gave me a smack and said, “Knock it off!”

“I looked out the window and he just flew away into the night yelling ‘Merry Christmas!’ loud enough to wake up the whole neighborhood,” said Pa. “Didn’t even go to any other houses. Just us. Just us.” He started rocking back and forth again.

We were all quiet for a long time, then Ma said, “Kids, your father’s been under a lot of pressure lately. Let’s just give him a little bit of time. He’ll come around.”

We all got quiet again and stood around awkwardly. The silence was only broken by a loud snap from the kitchen.

“I’d better go check that mousetrap,” said Ma.

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