A few years ago I wrote a post about worms and how whenever I see one struggling to get somewhere I like to help it along. Little did I realize that would come back to haunt me, and I’ve agreed to allow a member of the community to offer some further thoughts.
An article over at Mobility Lab got me scratching my head with this: “When public transportation makes a rare silver-screen appearance, it’s often the butt of a joke.”
How rare are the silver-screen, or, for that matter, small-screen appearances of public transportation? It’s not hard for me to think of movies that have scenes set on public transportation, and not all of those make where the actors put their butts a joke. And then I thought a little harder and it occurred to me that pretty much every movie and most of the TV shows I can think of that has at least one scene set in public transportation has another thing in common: New York. The major exception would be The Fugitive—the film, not the TV show, in which Chicago’s “L” train is an important element in at least two different scenes. So it’s not surprising that the article notes that New York’s subway system averaged one filming request per day just in the first two weeks of February and the Chicago Transit Authority allowed 152 in 2017. There must be a lot of filming on Chicago trains and buses that I’m missing.
Meanwhile most movies and TV shows set on the west coast—Los Angeles specifically—depend on cars because the LA public transportation system is, from what I’ve heard, an even bigger joke than the traffic-clogged freeways. I have ridden a free bus around Long Beach, but it only went about five blocks before I had to pay so I got off, but that’s another story.
I get it. I’m even sympathetic. One of the reasons I write about my adventures in busing is because I hope to encourage more people to ride buses. As the article says,
Featuring public transportation on TV shows and movies normalizes it. Characters riding public transportation makes transit another setting – a place where life happens. Seeing it on screen makes it easier to envision it in your life.
And I don’t want to sound like a starry-eyed idealist but I think public transportation helps create a sense of community. I’m not just talking about making places accessible. And I’m not saying you have to strike up conversations with strangers on buses, but public transportation gives you an idea what other peoples’ lives are like.
At the same time I sometimes need to get away. Sometimes I need to go to places that aren’t easily accessible, where there aren’t other people around, and I know other people feel that way too. That’s one reason I also drive. Right now Nashville is considering expanding its public transportation, but I think there are reasons we have not so great system we have that aren’t completely accidental. There’s a lot to be gained from better public transportation, but there are some important things we’d also lose.
Why would someone go to all the trouble of printing up stickers with what look like letters and sticking them up around town? Presumably this is someone’s personal symbol, a stylized version of their initials, and that got me thinking. We all know Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Juliet, said, “What’s in a name?” but Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Iago, says, “But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed” although Iago isn’t exactly a trustworthy fellow and he’s in another play, but that’s another story. The writer Idries Shah also has a very funny story in his book The Natives Are Restless about the time he was in a market in Beirut and found a man selling “An Idries Shah signature” for about twenty pence in local currency.
When I asked for one the man concentrated for a moment, and then inscribed my name on crimson paper in gold ink, with many a flourish. It looked far more impressive than the real thing. Why, I asked him as I pocketed it, did he not sell originals? It seemed that they were ‘difficult to get, he is a most busy man, you see.’ Was a copy as good? ‘Ya Sidi, O Sir! Most people here cannot even write…’
Would the man whose signature he was forging, this Idries Shah, I asked, not object to such a trade?
‘Such a man, Sidi, written about in the newspapers, and a man of learning, undoubtedly a man of generous habits, surely would not grudge me a living?’
No, I supposed not. Besides, I reflected, next time I felt like being a bit reckless, I could write my name down a few times on a piece of paper–and throw it away. Even twenty pence is money.
This got me thinking even further about language, especially written language. February 21st, 2018, was the 190th anniversary of the first publication of The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper published in both English and in the Cherokee syllabary created by the Cherokee Sequoyah who felt his people needed a written language.
Written language depends on a collective agreement about what symbols represent, just as spoken language depends on a collective agreement about what’s represented by sounds we make with our face holes, although language is also by necessity flexible and many words change meaning over time. So what I’m getting at is maybe those stickers aren’t meant to represent a person but a new and, for me anyway, unpronounceable name for whatever they’re stuck on. After all, what’s in a name?
It’s difficult not to get swept up in the grandeur and majesty of the Olympics. People are drawn to watch, to spend hours watching brave and dedicated athletes perform incredible feats in bitter cold from the comfort of their warm couches. It’s powerful and mesmerizing. It’s like a fever, which is why, looking at the incredible number of events, all I can think is this:
Olympic Sport or Illness?
- Beri beri
- Nordic combined
7-10: Rubber ball on a string
4-6: For crying out loud, it’s only once every four years. Would it hurt to take a little interest?
1-3: You will be forced to give a humiliating interview about your loss
It’s been unseasonably warm lately even though it’s technically still winter and therefore should be seasonably cold. It’s also been pretty rainy. The weather is something I talk about with almost every person I run into, at least after the shock and the accusations and the exchange of insurance information, but that’s another story. It occurred to me that the weather is such a popular topic for conversation because it’s something we all live with and something most of us can agree on, unless you go to a meteorologists’ conference and there will be at least a dozen fistfights over whether cumulus or cirrus clouds are better.
Whenever we get rain, and especially when we get a lot of rain, in the middle of the winter someone will inevitably say, imagine if this were all snow. And I always wonder why we never seem to get as much snow as we get rain–that is, we’ll get two or three inches of rain at a time and according to at least one reasonably scientific-sounding site one inch of rain equals approximately ten inches of snow. Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t get that much snow here in Tennessee where I am. Here’s a helpful guide to what happens when it does snow:
1 inch or less: Wild, disorganized rioting in groceries begins. Children are automatically released from school because snow’s mysterious beguiling properties will keep them from learning anything as long as it’s coming down.
1-3 inches: Grocery stores set up special barricades to prevent looting. Checkout-people are issued handguns. This is the only time that the “ten items or less” rule in the Express Lane is enforced.
3-6 inches: Cars entering the state are stopped. Any with license plates farther north than Kentucky are refused entrance for fear that drivers with experience driving in snow will interfere with locals intent on causing as many wrecks as possible. Children who have been given sleds by Yankee relatives test their reaction time by careening around assorted wreckage and gasoline fires.
6-9 inches: Salt trucks are fired up and used by public officials as escape vehicles. As snow levels reach the upper limit, the emergency broadcast system is used to inform people that “all hell is about to break loose.”
Over 9 inches: The mayor will declare martial law from a hotel room in Florida.
And in the words of the southern Roman scholar Cletus, “Permittet ningitere!”
My father loves talk radio. On long road trips we listened to a lot of NPR, and when we were out of range of that he’d switch to the eccentric local preachers who had their own radio shows on backwoods stations all across the southeast, and who’d ramble on about how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark, if viewed from the right angle, would form a clear 666, and I swear I’m not making that up. Broadcasters with weird conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, only the way some of them have managed to go global, but that’s another story. And since this was before I got my first Walkman, or, even after I got one, after the batteries had run dry, I’d sit in the backseat and beg for some music other than the admittedly catchy theme song for All Things Considered. So of course now that I’m an adult and can choose what I want to listen to, especially on my afternoon commute, I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to people talking, in case I need to underscore the irony for you, which I probably don’t but for some reason I can’t seem to shut up.
The importance of this really hit me about a month ago when I downloaded an update for the Apple podcasts app which had been working fine for years. The update came out in September so I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner, or why I did it at all since people discovered almost immediately it was awful and, on my phone at least, crashed frequently because in the computer world if it ain’t broken some developer will have to tinker with it until it is.
Anyway I switched to another non-Apple podcast app and just because here are some of my favorite podcasts that frequently make me wish my commute were longer and glad my phone at least has a pretty long battery life:
Snap Judgment is mostly true stories with each show taking a theme. Some episodes offer multiple stories from different people, but a few are devoted to a single speaker. Host Glynn Washington also seems to have a bottomless series of his own life stories that he uses to introduce each show. And I’m pretty excited that a live event is coming to Nashville, to the Ryman Auditorium of all places.
Says You! is an NPR show that’s also available as a downloadable podcast. Says You! is a series of word games and puzzles. Recorded live its two three-person panels of supposedly educated and well-informed people who nevertheless don’t know what a bream is. It was sad when the show lost its original host and creator Richard Sher, but the current host Gregg Porter has filled in nicely.
The Dork Forest is comedian Jackie Kashian’s long-running podcast in which she has guests on to talk about what they dork out about although the conversations tend to get off into the weeds. The other day I was listening to the Labyrinth episode with comedian Virginia Jones while walking to my stop and I swear I thought I was going to miss my bus because I was laughing so hard I had to sit down.
The TED Radio Hour features snippets of three TED talks. Speakers are also interviewed by host Guy Raz and I always get a kick out of how they tie sometimes seemingly disparate topics together.
Lightspeed is a podcast of science fiction stories read aloud and even though they’re contemporary they take me back to my youth of devouring science fiction stories. It’s interesting to compare how authors, styles, and themes have changed since Mikhail Gorbachev was a world leader.
The Hilarious World Of Depression is usually hilarious and sometimes depressing as host John Moe talks mostly to comedians, although sometimes other sorts of performers, about their battles with mental illness. Also, completely unrelated, I have a humor anthology called More Mirth Of A Nation with a piece by John Moe in it, and I tweeted to him, “I’m sure you hear this all the time but” and that I loved his piece in that book,” and while it’s true I love his piece, “Terrible Names for Hair Salons”, I assume no one else has ever mentioned it to him. And he tweeted back that it was his first published piece, he was really glad I like it, and no one else has ever mentioned it to him, and now I feel incredibly embarrassed and if I ever meet him in person I’ll feel stupid and awkward and he will have completely forgotten it and I’ll feel compelled to explain it and start the cycle over.
In Our Time is a BBC podcast in which host Melvyn Bragg talks to three experts in a field about topics ranging from feathered dinosaurs to Picasso’s Guernica and I can feel my IQ tick up a few points just listening to it. Bragg is a longtime broadcaster who, every time he comes on the radio, always starts with, “Hello,” maybe because he wants every listener to feel they’re being addressed individually. A recent episode was about Moby Dick and it was kind of weird listening to three British scholars talk about Melville’s work as an example of The Great American Novel.
A Creative Mind Fiction Podcast is another podcast of fiction with authors Alice Nelson and Carrie Zylka doing most of the writing and other heavy lifting and a recent featured story, Hello. This Is Siri, by Nelson, really stuck with me for reasons that should be obvious once you listen to it.
Anyway those are just a few from my weird and eclectic listening list. What are some of yours?
One of the fascinating things to me about art history is the way decorating styles have changed over the millennia. In most cultures decoration—which I’ll just define broadly as little fiddly bits added on to something that don’t really need to be there but make it look nicer—is used to some degree or other. In Europe decoration really reached its height in the Baroque and Rococo periods with decoration getting so elaborate I’m not sure the eye could take it all in, and in a lot of cases there were details that were missed. Once, while I was visiting a late Baroque cathedral in Austria, the tour guide pointed out a carving on the armrest of a pew of a couple in the 69 position, and it probably went unnoticed for a really long time because it was dark wood and there was so much other stuff around it. And eventually there’d be a decline and some movements, particularly in architecture, aimed for more utilitarian designs, such as the Bauhaus which had an aesthetic based on straight lines and little decoration but then moved into singing about Bela Lugosi, but that’s another story.
Even the sparest, least decorated art can also be very emotionally effective. Some people point to Mark Rothko’s large blocks of color and say, “Well, hell, I could do that,” but his paintings can be very haunting and up close reveal a lot of detail in the brushwork. It’s also worth noting that he designed a special building with carefully controlled lighting to give people a very specific experience of seeing his paintings.
Because graffiti is illegal it usually has to be quick and dirty—as opposed to elaborately carved couples in flagrante delicto which would be long and dirty–or at least quick, so there’s not a lot of time for decorating, but I always appreciate it when it adds a little something to an otherwise bland space.
It’s difficult for me to talk about race, mostly because when I do I realize how little I know. As a white kid growing up in the suburbs my parents never had to have The Talk with me. I didn’t even know about The Talk, which many African American families call a matter of life and death, until a few years ago.
On some, but not all, Nashville buses there’s a memorial plaque to Rosa Parks, and when I see it I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Turner, who taught us the story of Rosa Parks. This is the version we were given: Parks had a long, hard day at work and was sitting in a seat close to the front on a bus. A white passenger asked her to move to the back and she was so tired she couldn’t get up so she was arrested. Her case ultimately led to a boycott of the city buses and, after a court decision, city buses were no longer segregated.
That is more or less how it happened, but when the teacher told us that I wanted to ask, isn’t there more to it than that? I thought, and still think, Parks was very brave for refusing to give up her seat, but I couldn’t believe she did it just because she was tired on that particular day. I believed she was tired of having been asked to give up her seat repeatedly, and I wanted to know if she’d committed a deliberate act of civil disobedience which, I thought, and still think, would be even braver.
Since then I’ve learned that the story of Rosa Parks we were taught, while true, was also more complicated. She was a secretary for the NAACP at the time of her arrest and had attended a social justice training school. Her refusal to give up her seat was a decision she made in the moment but, in a sense, she’d been preparing for it for a long time.
But I didn’t ask, and I’m still not sure why. One of the things that made Mrs. Turner a great teacher is that she loved it when we asked questions. If she didn’t know the answer she’d tell us to go get a book and we’d read it together because she believed learning should be interactive. Mrs. Turner was also black and grew up in a segregated area. She told us how once, when she was very hungry and out with her father, she didn’t understand why they couldn’t stop at a particular restaurant, and why, when they went to another restaurant, they couldn’t go inside but had to sit out back. She wasn’t shy about sharing her experiences. I wish I hadn’t been shy about asking questions, not just about Rosa Parks but about Mrs. Turner. Had she always wanted to be a teacher? Did she ever imagine, growing up, that someday she’d be teaching kids of all races?
What Rosa Parks did, and Mrs. Turner sharing her own experiences, have one thing in common: they created an opportunity for conversation, and I’m responsible for being willing to take part.
From up close it looked like a random scribble. There wasn’t anything unusual about that. I see a lot of random scribbles on benches and walls and gas meters. Most of the time they’re done in pen although sometimes they’re done in paint. And I always wonder when they’re done in paint why the person who made them even bothered. Then I think maybe they were practicing. Or maybe they’re gang signs, although that seems unlikely. The random scribbles are so, well, random, and so generic I can’t imagine any gang being able to identify them as their own.
“Is this one of ours?”
“Beats me. They all look like that.”
The random scribbles, I always think, lack more than purpose. They lack passion, intent, a desire to share something.
And then for some reason I crossed the street and looked back, and I was glad I did. What looked like a random scribble turned out to be something a lot more interesting. Maybe it was still someone practicing, or maybe its distinctive look was intentional. The mark at the end certainly seemed to signal more to come.