The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

In Full Flower.

Source: Wikipedia

The first art history class I ever took, which I mainly took because I was interested in art but also because it was held at the same time as another class which had ended the semester before leaving me with an hour to fill in my schedule and which I thought would be an easy A, which it was, started with the Impressionists. I’m not sure why the teacher decided to skip right over approximately thirty-thousand years of global art history, or even just several thousand years of European art history, but, hey, if it ain’t Baroque don’t fix it, and if it ain’t Rococo your mind may be Roman, and something something Gothic, but that’s another story.

The teacher also had video quizzes we’d watch and we’d have to guess which artist painted what, and the video quizzes started with a group of Impressionists. Maybe that was because, in spite of a general similarity—the Impressionists were really the first artists to see the invention of photography, and most adopted looser brushwork, painted outside, and were interested in the effect of light—they were fairly easy to distinguish. We were even given some helpful mnemonics: Mary Cassatt mainly painted mothers and children, and Degas painted (and sculpted) ballet dancers and that’s all I can remember. Manet and Monet were easy to distinguish because one painted people in bars and one painted buildings and water lilies, and the only trouble there was remembering which was A and which was O. And it’s interesting to me that some artists are so distinctive you can tell their work right away. In some cases it’s their general style and in others it’s their specific subject matter, or maybe even both.

What got me thinking about this is one of the first graffiti pictures I took—a work I’d actually seen years earlier and helped give me the idea to start writing about graffiti:

And then there was this that I saw a few days ago:

The style and technique have evolved and changed slightly but it’s definitely the same artist. I can tell. I’ve studied art history.

Rejected Again.

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it doesn’t fit our needs at this time.

Best,

Terry Wilkins, PLM Review

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thank you for your recent submission. This time we’ll have to give it a pass.

Regards,

Adrien Kösz, Catchall Quarterly

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thanks for the submission. It’s not quite what we’re looking for. Try reading some back issues.

Sincerely,

Finley Paldies, Rubbertree

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thank you for your submission. It’s a good idea but reads too much like a first draft. Thanks for considering us.

Best wishes,

Davis Evental, The Palanquin

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thank you for submitting to the sixth annual Lawn Chair Short Story Contest. We’re pleased to announce you were one of the semifinalists and qualify for a discounted subscription. Click the link below for information on how to order.

Congratulations!

Editors-Lawn Chair

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thank you for your submission letter. I think you forgot to include the attachment.

Cordially,

Andy Kerrem, Happy Hour

Dear Mr. Waldrop

Thank you for your submission but this isn’t the sort of thing we publish. Perhaps you have us confused with another publication.

Sincerely,

Morgan Darrenton, Assistant Editor, The Huxley Biological Journal

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thanks for sending this. We all liked it a lot but I’m sorry it’s just not what we’re looking for. Good luck and thanks again!

-Evelyn Watkins, publisher, Bass Fisherman

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thank you for the manuscript. It was only out of morbid curiosity that I opened this package. According to our records you have, so far, sent us The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with all instances and variations of the word “young” replaced with the word “xeriscape”, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe with all instances of the word “boat” replaced by “badass motorcycle”, and what appears to be a “Mad Libs” version of William Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell with all the blanks filled with a crudely handwritten “and Jerry Mathers as The Beaver”.

However your submission of Hamlet rewritten in contemporary speech with characters’ names randomly changed is, I believe, your crowning achievement. I only recognized the source material because it fell open to a random page where I read, “Hey, this is from that guy Yorick. I knew him, Dingo Jingleberries.”

Please stop sending things to me.

Daniel Lackham, Assistant Editor, Farrington Books

Dear Mr. Waldrop,

Thank you for your message. I think you sent it to the wrong address though.

Angela Stewart

Human Resources Department

Warrenton Finance

Drinking Driver.

Recently a law went into effect in Tennessee that requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, since the state is the highest in the country when it comes to distracted driving deaths, one of those things where you really don’t want to be ranked number one although I guess statistically someone has to be. It’s mainly aimed at people using their phones—any kind of hands-free communication is still legal, although I’m one of those people who can’t talk without using my hands, so if you ride with me while I’m ever in the driver’s seat please excuse my silence—but applies to anything. I didn’t even think about the implications until one morning when I was in the elevator and a woman next to me was talking on her phone and said, “Well, you’d better not be talking on your phone while you’re driving anyway.” She got quiet for a minute then said, “What do you mean I can’t drink my drink?” Yes, it applies to eating and drinking too, which reminds me of a joke Paul Reiser made about how the only time you enjoy sitting in traffic is when you’re trying to eat something, but that’s another story.

And I realized that rule must apply to bus drivers too, which might be a little bit of a problem for a bus driver who used to be on my route. Every day she’d stop at a certain fast food place on the route and get a cup of water. I understand bus drivers need breaks just like everybody else and at least she didn’t linger but got her water and came right back out, but from her conversations with riders I learned that it was always her first run of the day. She was also always running late. She blamed this on the driver before her and yet whenever there was a different driver on the route, which happened at least once a week, they’d be on time. Once she was so far behind schedule that when she stopped at the fast food place someone in the back yelled, “Can you please wait to get water?”

She ignored this request and spent an unusually long time in the fast food place.

It may be purely a coincidence—bus drivers change routes all the time—but I stopped seeing her on my route not long after that.

Anyway I wonder how bus drivers will cope with having to keep their hands on the wheel while driving. I have an idea, but it involves a really long straw.

Falling With Style.

The swimming pool had two diving boards over the deep end. There was the low diving board that hung about three feet above the water. The only difference between jumping from the low diving board and jumping from the edge of the pool was that the low diving board put you a little farther out over the water. And it was kind of springy so you could bounce at the end of the board and it would propel you upward slightly. I liked to jump from the low board into the deep end and swim all the way to the bottom, twelve feet down, and look up. The watery surface overhead was like a shimmering screen, and the sun was like a sapphire. Then I’d have to come up. Or, on slow days when the pool wasn’t crowded, I could jump off the low board and swim all the way across the pool without surfacing. The first time I did that it was exhilarating. I felt like I’d really accomplished something, and what I accomplished was nearly hyperventilating at the edge of the pool because I was breathing so hard, which reminds me of the time I was at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother picked up the phone. She listened for a moment then said to my grandfather, “All I hear is heavy breathing.” My grandfather grabbed the phone and began sternly lecturing the person at the other end about decorum. Then he got quiet and listened and said to my grandmother, “Jim’s car broke down and he just pushed it two miles uphill to the service station.”

Anyway the high diving board, twelve feet high if I remember correctly although it seemed like it loomed a hundred feet overhead. It might as well have been that high. I wasn’t going up there. Well, I did. After all it was there, a mountain to be climbed, or rather a ladder to be climbed and jumped off of. I told myself that I was interested in swimming, not airing, and that if I really wanted to drop twelve feet I could by going from the surface of the pool to the bottom. It drew me, though. I had mastered everything else at the pool—not that there was much to master. After swimming from one end of the pool to the other without taking a breath about the only other thing that was left was talking the guy who ran the concession stand into letting me have a full cup of orange soda without ice so I got more orange soda and spent about half an hour sitting in a beach chair feeling bloated and miserable, but that’s another story.

The same summer I made the first swim from one end of the pool to the other I made up my mind I was going to jump from the high dive. The worst that could happen, I figured, was that I’d fall in the water.

It was about that time, on a slow, hot afternoon when there was hardly anyone around, when even the lifeguard was barely paying attention, that another kid walked out to the end of the high dive, bounced a couple of times, lost his balance, and fell sideways. He landed flat on his back on the concrete below. I didn’t see it happen. I just saw him stretched out as though sleeping, and the emergency team with the stretcher that took him away. He survived, and word got around that he recovered, but he never came back to the pool.

Later that summer, on a busy day when the pool was crowded, I got in line with all the other swimmers who were going off the high dive. I climbed the ladder, walked onto the board, and gripped the handrails. The handrails ended about halfway. Beyond them was just the board and open air. I stood up there holding the handrails for what seemed like an hour, then climbed back down. No one laughed or made fun of me. The next person in line, an older guy, just nodded at me, climbed the ladder, and did a spectacular dive off the board.

The next summer I watched a couple of my friends go off the high dive. Sometimes we’d do synchronized jumps, me going off the low dive and, of course, hitting the water much sooner, or I’d wait and try to time it so we’d hit the water at the same time. And finally one day I decided I was going to do it. I climbed the ladder. I gripped the handrails as I walked out toward the end of the board, then let go. I didn’t bounce and I walked slowly, and when I got to the end of the board I jumped, feet first. It wasn’t an impressive dive, or even a dive really, but I plunged into the water. That was all I wanted—to make that leap.

Twenty-six years ago, on June 27th, 1993 I married my wife. It wasn’t as frightening, probably because the justice of the peace who performed the ceremony looked so much like John Cleese that my only regret is that when he read the vows I didn’t say, “What was the thing in the middle?” It was really her by my side that assured me, though, and every day I look forward to a new leap.

Let’s Meet!

Tips For A Successful Meeting from How To Succeed At 7 Highly Effective Top Level Managerial Habits (Gale & Hoover, 2015)

-Create a detailed meeting agenda. Send it out at least one day in advance of the meeting.

-Expect everyone to arrive on time.

-Remain focused on the agenda topics.

-Use a timer to keep the group focused on agenda items for the appropriate amount of time.

-Assign a note taker, preferably someone who can write.

-Prepare a seating chart based on astrological signs.

-Avoid distractions by making everyone wear a blindfold.

-Have an orchestra ready to play off anyone who goes on too long.

-Fire tranquilizer darts at anyone who whispers.

-Limit the scope of the meeting.

-Use paper for handouts and copies, not Silly Putty™.

-Require that all responses be phrased in the form of a question.

-Don’t tell Kevin about the meeting.

-Command people’s attention by making presentations in Sumerian.

-No one can speak without holding the bicycle pump that for your own personal reasons you call “Jimmykins”.

-It wouldn’t kill you to put out some chips or something, would it?

-Before moving on to the next item on the agenda remind everyone that the universe is expanding and that all matter will eventually dissipate, leaving a cold, empty void.

-Tell me more about your mother.

-Take that finger out of your ear.

-Take that finger out of the ear of the person next to you.

-Avoid negativity. Begin all suggestions with, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one…”

-Whatever happened to clipart? It’s like that stuff was on everything in the ‘90’s.

-No one knows why the one chair is painted yellow.

-Have some card tricks ready in case people get restless.

-Conclude meetings with a dramatic flourish. Take off your mask and yell “It was me all along!”

-Set a time for the next meeting. Aim for consensus by suggesting never.

Message In A Bottle.

Every summer my family went to Florida for two weeks. My grandfather left my mother his house down there so we always had a place to stay. The average age of everyone who lived on the block was a hundred and five so there weren’t a lot of kids for me to hang out with. The year I was eight we left the day after school let out so I’d miss the start of summer with my friends in Nashville. Maybe that was what gave me the idea to put a letter in a bottle. Or maybe I just got the idea from something I read or saw. The message in a bottle, or even just the floating message, has been around for thousands of years, a floating idea. I’m not sure where I picked it up; probably from cartoons or comics where someone stranded on an island writes “Send help!” on a piece of paper, puts it in a bottle, and throws it out to sea. I always wondered about that. Where’d they get the paper and ink? For that matter where’d they get the bottles? I’d heard about milkmen who’d leave glass bottles of milk on the doorstep and even though there weren’t any in my neighborhood, and it would be a few years before there’d be Dead Milkmen, I heard there were still places where people got their milk delivered. I thought maybe that’s where lonely island castaways got the bottles. So each day they’d put a plea for rescue in one bottle and a note that said “No more cheese!” in the other. And there were even more questions. How’d they seal the bottles? And how would they make sure the bottles would make it past the waves and not just be washed back up on the shore? And perhaps most puzzling, how would anyone who found a bottle with a message in it know where it came from? If you’re stranded on a desert island chances are you don’t know where it is and if the milkman hasn’t offered to give you a lift he’s probably too surly to give directions too, or maybe no castaways ever got up early enough to meet the milkman on his rounds, which is understandable since living on a desert island must be pretty exhausting.

Anyway I got this idea that it would be fun to put a message in a bottle and see where it went. I wrote a note asking whoever found it to write to me and tell me where they found it and about themselves. I included my home address in Nashville which I thought might make whoever found it wonder how it got from a landlocked state to the sea. I also didn’t know anything about ocean currents so it never occurred to me that since we were in St. Petersburg where the beach faces west right into the Gulf of Mexico it was unlikely the bottle would go somewhere really distant like New Zealand or Poughkeepsie, but I still hoped it would find its way to a distant shore and be picked up by someone interesting and we’d become steady penpals and maybe someday meet and have a series of wacky adventures. Or at least exchange postcards.

My father gave me an empty plastic Coke bottle, and even though I had some qualms about throwing trash into the sea I thought a plastic bottle would be better than a plastic one since it would float better and be less likely to break. We always went to a stretch of beach known as Treasure Island which is less of an island and more of an overgrown sandbar. I walked down to the John’s Pass Bridge and threw it into the water. And then as I was walking back to the spot my parents had staked out on the beach I saw a kid carrying a plastic Coke bottle and I was annoyed not just that my message had been found so soon and so close to where I’d sent it on its way but he looked a lot like me, only a few years younger, and I was hoping for someone, well, not like me—someone whose perspective on the world would be different. Then the kid poured water out of the bottle into a moat of a sandcastle he’d built and I realized it wasn’t the one I’d released, so my bottle, and its note were waiting to be picked up.

It never was picked up, or if it was whoever found it didn’t answer the message. Even though plastic lasts a really long time it still breaks down, gets broken up, sinks. In the end it’s just an idea I had that’s still out there floating.

Enlightened.

So I was walking into work and saw the streetlights go out. It was a strange thing, and not just because it’s the summer and the days are getting longer which means the sun is pretty well up most days when I’m on my way into work. And unlike sunrise and sunset which are slow events the streetlights going out, or coming on, is a sudden change. Blink, look away, or just not look at the right time and you’ll miss it. It reminded me of when I was six or seven and had a strange obsession with streetlights. When I was riding in the back of the car at night I’d lean up against the window and look up at them as they went by, and I felt like they were looking back at me like giant cyclopean eyes—mostly amber, but also the silvery white ones, brighter than the moon. We lived on a cul-de-sac and I’d stand under the street light and look up into it, fascinated by the black blotch in it where insects had crawled in and died, and I’d watch moths bounce around it and wonder if they’d ever break free. Or I could turn away from it and see how our house cast a sharp shadow. It was so easy to step from light into infinite darkness and back again. Even then, even in summer when I’d be out in the street with my friends, it was rare that I would see the lights come on. It was as though it were something I wasn’t meant to see. Our house was also on the edge of a hill, and from my window in the back I could look out at the cul-de-sac parallel to ours, or at the intersection at the bottom of the hill. On humid nights or when there was fog or a light rain there’d be a halo around the streetlights, as though they were growing brighter.

Once when I was staying with my grandparents they took me to visit some people who had a basketball court in their backyard. They had a high power lamp that hung over it that looked like a streetlamp, and I thought, oh, they must have taken one from the street and put it here. I didn’t think of them as having stolen it. Instead I just thought how interesting it was that a streetlamp could be pulled up and transplanted, like a tree. I wondered if my parents could take one and put it in our backyard. Maybe, I thought, the streetlamp on our street is lonely and it would like a friend.

Seeing the streetlights go out also brought back a more recent memory. I was sitting in a coffee shop one evening, next to the window. It was just on the cusp of darkness but the streetlights hadn’t come on yet. A guy parked next to the sidewalk and got out and started putting change in the parking meter. He was bald and skinny and in the half-light his silhouette looked like Nosferatu. While he was still putting change in the parking meter a woman walked up and started hitting him. It looked like she was really hitting him hard, too. I wondered if I should say something, but “Help! Some woman is beating up Nosferatu on the sidewalk!” just didn’t seem like it would get much response. And he was continuing to put money in the parking meter—maybe he was using pennies, or planning to park there for three or four days. He seemed oblivious to the pummeling. Then the streetlights came on and I looked away from the couple for just a moment. When I turned back Nosferatu and the woman were hugging and then they began to rock back and forth slowly, and I wondered, for a moment, if I should yell, “Help! Nosferatu and some woman are slow-dancing on the sidewalk!” but I couldn’t decide if that was a bad thing or not. The whole scene had been so strange, as though it were something I wasn’t meant to see.

Dear John…

Restaurant patrons in New York have a problem: they can’t find the loo, the head, the john, the restroom, or the bathroom. Apparently the problem is that old buildings are being turned into gourmet restaurants, because with rising rent prices making it harder for people to actually live in the city the most important thing New York needs is more places that serve upscale kale, quail, yellowtail, pale ale, and escargot. And that reminds me of the time I was in an English pub and asked the bartender where the bathroom was. “Why?” he asked sarcastically. “Do you need to take a bath?” I said, “Well, we are in Somerset…”

What I don’t understand is why New York diners are treating the hard to find heads—such as the Crosby Street Hotel restaurant that, according to what I’ve read, requires people to go downstairs and through five closed doors, one with a sign that says “Beware of the leopard”—as an inconvenience rather than a feature. Why isn’t an outhouse that’s actually outside and probably formerly someone’s house seen as charming, fun, part of the adventure of going out to a restaurant? After all one of the rising industries is what’s known as—I’m not making this up—the “experience economy”, which is a new term for something that’s been around forever and encompasses everything from amusement parks to safaris. As businesses look for new ways to compete and attract customers many add features that may not be part of the original plan but that add that extra flavor that draws people in and keeps them coming back. And with these added features businesses can charge more, claiming to offer more bang for your buck, even if it is more like extra bangs you aren’t sure you wanted for more bucks than you really wanted to spend, or, as my grandfather used to say, “All the extras are free until you get the bill,” but that’s another story. A really good example of this I can think of is an Irish pub that used to be in downtown Nashville—although given its location I guess technically it was about as Irish as Lucky Charms. Still I liked it because it was a nice place to get a pint of Guinness, and they’d decorated the place to look like an old-fashioned Irish pub, and one room was even elaborately designed to look like a Dublin street from the 1920’s. They did kind of overdo it by having the waiters dressed up as Irish writers, though—having Oscar Wilde tell you “The only thing worse than having the fish and chips is not having the fish and chips” was a little odd, although not as bad as James Joyce bumping into tables and dropping hot soup in your lap because he couldn’t see anything, or Samuel Beckett who just never showed up. And then there were the restrooms. They weren’t that different from the restrooms you’d find in most other restaurants, but they had a recording of an Irish comedian playing on an endless loop, and I’d get so involved listening to his jokes that when half an hour later I got back to the table the only explanation I could give was that there was this nun and this priest forced to sleep in the same room, and the nun kept asking the priest to get up and get her another blanket. My wife would then ask me where the restrooms were located and, as she always does when we’re in a restaurant, she’d say, “Don’t point. Just tell me.” And, well, all those little extras the pub offered were enough to make the slightly higher prices, not to mention the headaches of trying to find a parking space in downtown Nashville, and for that matter the headaches the next morning from too many pints of Guinness, worth it.

It was the exact opposite of a dingy little dive where I’d worked years earlier, part of a chain of dingy little dives, but this particular one did have an added feature. Any woman who came in alone didn’t have to dine alone, even if she wanted to, because the manager made a point of always joining her. He also always made a point of letting a cigarette dangle from his lips while he cooked to give everything a nice smoky flavor, but that’s another story. Some women, I think, paid extra just so he’d go away, and I think his wife did too.

So anyway to come back to my original point, assuming I can find it, I’m pretty sure it was around here somewhere—I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque—the New York restaurants with distant restrooms should advertise that fact and give out maps with the menus, or GPS coordinates, to diners. They should make it a game, part of the experience du jour, and since diners might get hot and sweaty in their long search for a water closet they should include a place to take a bath.

Riddle Rough Drafts.

What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and when would be the ideal time for it to get health insurance?

A box without hinges, key, or a lid, but you followed the directions when you were putting it together. Did you save the receipt?

A train traveling at forty-five miles an hour leaves Vancouver heading east at 4:45am. A train traveling at thirty miles an hour leaves Poughkeepsie traveling northwest at 1:05pm. Explain to me again why this is so much better than flying.

You have two and a half bottles of conditioner and three quarters of a bottle of shampoo you swiped from a hotel. How many times do you have to travel before you have an even number of both?

On Monday there are five coffee cups in the office break room sink. On Tuesday there are four coffee cups in the office break room sink. On Wednesday there are eight coffee cups in the break room sink. Is anyone going to ask Kevin to just rinse one cup if he’s drinking that much coffee?

As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits, and what are the odds I turned around and went back when I saw what kind of people lived there?

You have three glasses of milk and three bowls of pudding. You drink one of the glasses of milk and, oh, wait, are you lactose intolerant?

What has no beginning, end, or middle and is circular and, oh, I just gave away the answer there, didn’t I?

A father and son are in a terrible accident. The father is killed and the son is rushed to a doctor. The doctor says, “I can’t operate on him, I’m a psychiatrist!”

Which came first, the chicken or the egg, and is putting mayonnaise on a chicken sandwich a double insult?

You’re faced with two guardians. One always tells the truth, the other always lies. Which one do you ask a question since they’re both major assholes?

There are four days that start with the letter ‘T’: Tuesday, Thursday, and I’ll tell you the other two tomorrow and yesterday.

Getting Things Done.

When I was a kid and we’d go over to my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would always start conversations by asking me, “What did you do today?” And I could never think of an answer. I’d just go silent and my eyes would glaze over, and I knew it was rude to not answer, but for some reason the question just wiped everything out of my brain. What had I done that day? Probably played with my friends, watched something stupid on TV, caught some bugs and put them in a jar and studied them, tried to build a log cabin in the backyard only to discover that it’s really hard to build a log cabin when all you can find are twigs, gone to school. We often went to my grandparents’ house on Fridays, so for most of the year having gone to school could have been at least part of my answer. Most days I took my lunch to school, but on Fridays the school served “fish” which was a square of breaded and fried fishlike substance warmed just enough that the slice of cheeselike substance draped over it would start to melt, and I thought it was the greatest food ever, or at least the greatest food the school cafeteria served, which, now that I think about it, it probably was. We all had to walk single-file to the cafeteria for lunch and each kid would get a turn being at the front of the line, and the day it was my turn to be at the front of the line just happened to be a Friday, so that was a pretty good day. And I’m pretty sure when my grandfather asked me what I did that day I couldn’t come up with a single thing.

Looking back I realize at least part of the problem was I wanted to tell him something interesting and, given what I knew about him, that seemed like a pretty tall order. If I’d turned the question around and asked him what he did that day he probably would have said, “Oh, not much. I finished varnishing the cabinet for a clock I’m putting together, pollinated a vanilla orchid in the greenhouse I built, reorganized my collection of fishing lures by color, size, type of fish, and date of purchase, rescued a snake that was caught in the rain gutter, went to the hardware store and demonstrated the proper way to calibrate the scale they use for bolts, and had a banana for lunch.”

Eventually I started anticipating the question. In fact, now that I think about it, knowing that the first thing my grandfather was going to ask me was, “What did you do today?” made me aware of both time and what I was accomplishing, or not. It made me start mentally listing what I’d done during the day, and also prompted me to try and do things, to stretch myself a little each day. Most days I didn’t think about it, but if I knew I was going to see my grandparents I’d try and do something that I could tell my grandfather about. And it’s not a bad approach to life, considering what you’ve done and using that as a prompt to try and do more, or do better, in the future. Maybe it’s why some people keep diaries; not so much to reflect on what they’ve done but as a way to push themselves forward.

Ask yourself, what did you do today? Just please don’t ask me because I know I did something but I’m pretty sure as soon as you ask me I’ll just go silent and my eyes will glaze over.

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