American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

It’s Another Story.

This is the first slide in my presentation. Turns out I’m kind of a PowerPoint junkie. The Kandinsky picture is courtesy of Wikimedia.

Someone at work asked me to give a short presentation on writing stories. A funny thing about the current situation that has many of us working from home is that it prompted some of the people I work with to start holding weekly afternoon chat sessions, usually based around a hobby someone has, and it’s really been great. I’ve learned a few things about homebrewing beer and collecting antique cameras and, even better, I’ve learned quite a bit about some of the people we work with without ever leaving the house. So if we ever bump into each other—assuming we’re no longer staying six feet apart—I can ask them something intelligent about something they’re interested in, rather than just shuffling awkwardly and saying, “How about those Bears?”
Anyway I’m not sure where anyone I work with got the idea that I know anything about writing stories, but I decided to take up the challenge, and since it’s a pretty broad category I decided to narrow it down to a favorite genre of mine: flash fiction, which, among other things, gave me the chance to share some examples from Mydangblog. And even that’s a pretty broad category. It’s amazing how much you can say about extremely short stories. In fact I can tell you from experience that sometimes when I try to write an extremely short story it just ends up making it even longer, but that’s another story.
I offered, among other things, some examples of how broadly “story” can be defined, including, as an example, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” which, although it’s a poem, also tells a complete story with elements of both comedy and tragedy in just twenty-eight words. Poems, after all, can be stories, and vice versa.
I also highlighted the importance of word count rather than number of pages in defining flash fiction since, technically, you can fit the entire Bible on a grain of rice if the font is small enough.
The subject of word count provided a nice segue into the sub-genre of the six word short story. Perhaps the most famous example is the story that’s often printed with the simple title Tragedy:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

That story has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway but the earliest version was published in 1910 when Hemingway would have been just ten or eleven, several years before he started writing but two years after he started growing a beard. I also directed them to the website Six Word Memoirs, and shared an example of my own, titled The Pharos Of Alexandria:

In the darkness I found light.

It helps to know that the Pharos of Alexandria was a massive lighthouse and one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And that’s where the discussion took a bit of a philosophical turn. One of the questions an author asks in writing any story is, How much do I want to leave up to the reader’s imagination? Or how much should I assume the reader will know? Another important question, especially with short stories, is, Am I being paid by the word?
I gave the presentation again for my local writing group, still over Zoom, and I noticed a funny thing. People politely muted themselves, except when I gave them a writing exercise and let them read the results if they wanted, and most turned off their cameras to save bandwidth. So whenever I slipped in a joke I’d pause awkwardly and hope they were laughing. And that’s why, as much as I enjoyed giving these presentations and hope to keep giving them, and I’m available for TED Talks, corporate gigs, bar mitzvahs, whatever, I hope even more that at some point I can do it in person, although probably still standing awkwardly six feet away.

Past And Present.

Source: Nashville Scene

The Nashville Scene is featuring three paintings of George Floyd. They’re really extraordinary, at least in pictures, and I wonder how long they’ll be up. Hopefully they’ll be around long enough for me to see them in person. I’m not leaving the house much these days, and even when I do it’s only for short trips for necessities, and while I do think art, especially seeing art in person, is a necessity, it’s not one I can justify right now.

That got me thinking about George Floyd and how, as far as I know, he never came to Nashville. He did spend much of his life in the south—he was born in North Carolina, and lived in Texas before moving to Minneapolis in 2014. And his murder, as we know, sparked outrage around the world, and has intensified discussions of race and history in the United States. Some say “prompted” but, really, race has been an issue here even before the United States was a country.

The public portraits, painted by local artists Wayne Brezinka (whose painting is available as a free download), Paul Collins, and Ashley Doggett, are a visual reminder of what will hopefully be a continuing conversation. George Floyd didn’t ask to be a martyr, and he is, unfortunately, one of far too many who deserve to be remembered. Many of their names are included in Wayne Brezinka’s portrait.

I thought too about the civil rights leader John Lewis, whose recent passing comes at such a difficult time. Lewis’s own life is another reminder of just how long and difficult that conversation has been. He lived in Nashville and was a student and activist here before he’d lead the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7th, 1965, which we now know as Bloody Sunday. Lewis was attacked for asking for the right to vote, a right that’s supposed to be granted freely to every citizen.

The bridge Lewis crossed, which was built in 1940, is named for a Confederate brigadier general and Ku Klux Klan leader. There have been calls to rename the bridge for years, and it would be more than fitting to rename it after Congressman Lewis who not only crossed it but worked so hard to build metaphorical bridges between people throughout his lifetime.

The bridge’s current namesake is part of a very powerful recent essay by another Nashville native, Caroline Randall Williams. You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is A Confederate Monument is a powerful statement about history and its influence on the present. Despite claims to the contrary changing the name of a bridge, or a military base, won’t erase the past. We can’t change the past either. We can, however, change how we let the past inform the present.

Here’s Williams reading her essay.

Feed Body And Mind.

Source: Instagram user iohnyc. Artwork by @hugogyrl

Things are tough for a lot of people right now, especially in the big cities, and some people are dealing with that in New York City by stocking refrigerators with free food. That’s free as in completely free, available to anyone without question, which I think is a good idea. Yes, there’s the possibility of abuse, of some people taking more than they actually need, or people who don’t really need the food taking it, but–and I may be naïve, which you could also say about the people stocking the refrigerators–I’d rather take that chance than let some people who are genuinely in need go hungry. For some reason it reminds me of a book of Anansi stories I had when I was a kid, and while I don’t remember the exact story I do remember Anansi being caught in a flood and washed away from his home. On his way back he’s hungry and takes a few vegetables from a garden, and I remember the storyteller saying that it was a local tradition that a hungry person was allowed to take food if they needed it. Typically Anansi is lazy and a trickster, although his schemes often go wrong, but in this particular story he really was hungry and just wanted to get home and only took what he needed. So every individual’s behavior varies, and often people can be trusted.

What I really like, though, is that some of the refrigerators are being decorated, like the one above that was painted by artist Hugo Gyrl, who’s based in New Orleans, and, sad as it may be, I like the tribute to George Floyd next to it. Community, after all, isn’t strictly local. Check out The Friendly Fridge on Instagram for more. Putting out free food is a friendly enough act but adding the decoration makes them even friendlier; it makes them part of the community. I don’t want to oversimplify this because there are a lot of complicated issues here involving poverty, hunger, and also race. At the same time maybe some of what’s needed here is to simplify things, rather than relying on complicated schemes, to trust people.

 

A Little Late For Midsummer.

Every year in late summer the Nashville Shakespeare Festival puts on one of The Bard’s plays, and every year I plan to volunteer. Although I’ve been to several of their productions over the years, starting with their first when they put on The Merry Wives Of Windsor in an unused corner of Centennial Park behind the building that houses the ice skating rink, I’m not sure what a volunteer would do. The productions are always free but there are people who wander around with baskets of programs asking for donations, so it would probably be that, and I’m okay with hitting up strangers for money. Once in college a friend and I collected a dollar by asking various people around the campus for change, and we set a rule for ourselves that we couldn’t accept anything larger than a dime. The truth is we were going to buy a pack of cigarettes–he was an actor so of course he smoked, and he got me hooked on it–but I think we were trying to discourage our tobacco habit in the guise of a weird performance art project, but that’s another story.

Anyway I’ve always made plans to volunteer to help out with Shakespeare In The Park and for some reason those plans have always fallen through. The car breaks down, someone–sometimes me–gets sick,or there’s some other crisis. This year, well, the performance itself is not to be. And I’m okay with that. Well, I’m not really okay with that, but under the circumstances I think a bunch of people gathering together, even if it is in an open air park, just isn’t a great idea. The plays have always been free and open to everyone but limited by the fact that actors can only project so much. Any live theater, but especially live theater outside, requires that the audience and actors be close to each other–sometimes really close. During a production of Much Ado About Nothing ,when Benedick is supposed to be hiding in the garden, the actor playing him wandered through the audience. He put on one person’s hat and another person’s sunglasses, and helped himself to food from picnic baskets. Then an ambulance went by with its sirens blaring and all the actors stopped and stared in the direction of the road. When it was gone they shrugged and went on.

And that got me thinking about how theater is an ephemeral art form. That’s why no theater critic should ever review an opening night. Every actor I’ve ever known told me the third night is the earliest you want to go. Sure, people have been putting on Shakespeare’s plays for more than four hundred years now, and we’d all be in a heap of trouble if he suddenly rose up from the grave and demanded royalties, and Shakespeare In The Park has been a tradition that started in New York in 1954. The current pandemic shall pass too, and people are finding creative ways to carry on the tradition. A four-part radio version of Richard II is being broadcast by WNYC starting July 13th and PBS will rebroadcast its 2019 recording of Much Ado About Nothing on August 14th.

So Shakespeare goes on, and maybe next year I’ll actually get to volunteer, or maybe I’ll just wander through the crowd hitting people up for money. I won’t be buying cigarettes, though–I quit smoking.

 

It’s The Destination, Not The Journey.

It seems like really bad timing with the number of flights so low but Nashville’s airport just had a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a new expansion. Of course it’s a development that’s been years in the planning and building, and in some ways it seems like perfect timing. With more space it’ll be easier to stay apart. They’re adding more parking so your walk to your car can be even longer, pretty much guaranteeing you’ll have to pay an extra five bucks when you go to leave because you were just a couple of minutes over the time limit. And they’re adding a “pedestrian plaza” that will include public art, green space, more seating, and a dog park. I assume the dog park will be separate from the green space because the last thing some business traveler wants while enjoying a few minutes of sunshine during a layover is to put his foot in a brown space, but that’s another story.
All this makes it sound like they’re making the airport even nicer, and it really is a pretty nice airport already. In fact every airport I’ve ever been in has been pretty nice, and I think most of them are nice, even the Sioux City Falls airport in spite of its airport code which says it SUX. They’re not meant to be destinations in themselves, and the price of a bottle of water in any airport store always makes me want to get out of there. Still I think it would be fun to visit different airports around the United States and around the world just to see how different they are. A few years ago I was stuck in the Atlanta airport because of a hurricane, and you know it was a big hurricane if it could hit Atlanta. Anyway there was a lot of nice local art and I had a lot of fun riding The Plane Train from one end of the airport to another. The Dallas airport also has a light rail that carries passengers back and forth. I had a stopopver there while flying across the country for a work conference and I was going to ride it back and forth but a rather austere coworker was traveling with me and I felt like a schmuck for wanting to ride the rail just for fun. The conference itself was in Palm Springs, California, which is a really cool airport–oh, wait, it’s actually really hot, but there’s almost no humidity so it only feels cool. Anyway when I got off the plane I stepped out into an open area without a roof. I looked up and said, “What do they do when it rains?” and several people laughed and I felt like a schmuck for not knowing that Palm Springs gets about three inches of rain a year.
I’ve also been through Chicago’s O’Hare airport a couple of times and the last time I thought there was a light rail that carried passengers around it, and I thought I’d take a ride while waiting for my flight. I was looking for it and saw a woman sitting at a tourist information desk. I was about to ask her where the airport train was when she said, “Are you looking for things to do in Chicago?” and I felt like a schmuck for just wanting to ride the train around the airport. So we had a nice chat about all the cool things there are to do in Chicago, and I thought, hey, that seems like a fun job. Maybe I should contact the Nashville airport and ask if they have people like that and, if not, maybe they’d hire me to sit at a tourist information booth. I’d really like to do that, greeting people and making their time in the Nashville airport a little nicer, and I could tell them about all the cool things there are to do in Chicago.

Puppet Up.

When I was a kid I went through a period of being obsessed with puppets. I don’t remember how long it went on—it really doesn’t take much to say “I’ve been into something my whole life” when you’re five or six. I know it was partly inspired by The Muppets and Sesame Street, but really I didn’t discriminate. If it had puppets in it I would watch it. I think it was also at least partly inspired by the fact that I had an imaginary friend named John. For a long time John didn’t have any corporeal form, leading to an unfortunate incident when he jumped out of the window of a moving car on a long road trip. John wasn’t around for a couple of weeks but then one day he showed up again, having walked home. He would have arrived sooner but had mistakenly taken interstate 44 out of St. Louis, but that’s another story. One night I was with an aunt and uncle and saw a dilapidated puppet flopped out on a shelf in a store. Having done some digging I’m pretty sure it was what was sold as “The Anything Muppet”.

Source: Mikey’s Muppet Memorabilia Museum

It had been unboxed, however, so the associated pieces were missing. My mother sewed on some eyes and the puppet became John.

What started me down this particular memory lane is the fact that the Nashville Public Library has started offering curbside pickup and they put together an amazing puppet video to explain how it works. And that took me down a parallel memory lane to the puppeteer and children’s book author Tom Tichenor, also a Nashville native, who put on puppet shows at the public library. I remember being absolutely fascinated by a production he did of Grimm’s Three Little Men In The Woods, mostly with marionettes. He also worked on the TV show The Letter People—a fact I didn’t know the one time I met him. I wish I could have talked to him about that, but we did talked about his book Sir Patches And The Dragon, which is a great fairy tale too. Or at least I tried to talk. I was kind of tongue-tied.

Anyway the Nashville Public Library still has puppeteers on its staff, part of Tichenor’s lasting influence. Here’s the curbside pickup video.

Adding Layers.

Like a lot of kids I was fascinated by dinosaurs. I had at least a dozen dinosaur books and even more dinosaur toys and I loved imagining a world ruled over by giant reptiles–not just oversized versions of the lizards I kept as pets but wildly varied reptiles unlike anything that was around now. It’s a funny thing that what scientists think dinosaurs might have looked like has evolved, and evolved really quickly. Sure, there have been changes in the view of dinosaurs even from the very beginning—the early 19th century paleontologist Gideon Mantell thought the iguanodon had a horn on its nose. Later fossil finds would lead scientists to the realization that the “horn” was actually a giant thumb, leading the late 19th century paleontologist Louis Dollo to say to Mantell, “Look up, look down, look at this dinosaur thumb. You’re dumb!”
And then there’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, which should have been the villain of the first Jurassic Park movies but the real villain was the fact that the oxygen content of the Earth’s atmosphere was much higher 65 million years ago which is one reason we don’t have giant reptiles running around anymore. It isn’t just that a giant meteor hit the planet and wiped them all out. Ecological changes made it impossible for reptiles to get that big again, although for a while humans shared the planet with giant mammals, including armadillos the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. And that makes me wonder why Volkswagen named their car after a bug when bugs never have gotten that big–on this planet, anyway, although I guess the Volkswagen Glyptodon doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
To get back to Tyrannosaurus Rex, though, recent discoveries and careful examinations of the fossil record have led scientists to think that dinosaurs had feathers, so instead of a big scaly and terrifying reptile T. Rex probably looked more like a goofy oversized turkey.

Source: Reddit
That might seem less terrifying although if you’ve ever been up close to a wild turkey or any other large bird you know they can be pretty scary. I’d rather take on a full glass of Wild Turkey, just like I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy, but that’s another story.
Recreating what dinosaurs may have really looked like is as much of an art as it is a science–or rather it’s an art that’s informed by science, and science has to admit that sometimes mistakes or made, or that what we know isn’t complete. The facts don’t really change, but how we understand them does, and sometimes that understanding is shaped by new facts, things we didn’t know before, adding new layers.

Am I Overthinking This?

Sometimes I think my definition of art is just too broad for my own good. Basically what it comes down to is that “art”, in my mind, is any form of human expression, which means it can be as long-lasting as the pyramids or as brief as a single dance move, and it doesn’t have to be something you can hang on the wall or stick in a museum. You could stick the pyramids in a museum but it would have to be a really big museum. And then there’s this which got me thinking:

Source: Neatorama

In painting artists are sometimes praised for their use of a limited palette, making do with just a few colors. The Italian artist Giorgio Morandi whose simple still lifes are frequently pale, almost monochromatic. A friend of mine once scored bonus points in a painting class for using shades of pink by saying it was a tribute to Morandi when the truth was she’d been in a hurry and didn’t realize she’d left everything but her red and white paint tubes back in her room. And it also reminded me of the movie Lust For Life, with Kirk Douglas playing Vincent Van Gogh—specifically the scene where Vince meets Seurat, who lectures him on the importance of having a carefully organized palette. And, yeah, maybe that was how Seurat, who made paintings out of dots, liked to work, but it didn’t work for everybody.

And that got me thinking about something else: the idea that creating art by committee, or collectively, is a terrible thing. Maybe sometimes it is, but not necessarily always. Yes, if you ask the internet sometimes you end up with Boaty McBoatface, but art made by a single person can be terrible too. No matter how art is created there are always hits and misses, and besides all art is, in a sense, created collectively, because it’s influenced by the surrounding culture.

And, yeah, people asking for feedback about what color to paint your house isn’t exactly art by, well, most people’s definition of it, but still it makes you think, doesn’t it? And isn’t one of the functions of art that it makes you think?

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