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Call Me Maurice.

When I was seventeen it was a very good year, especially that summer. I took a trip across Europe thanks to my parents and a student ambassador program called People To People. One of my teachers–and to this day I don’t know which one–nominated me for it. This was before the internet, at least as we know it, and it was only by dumb luck that I stumbled–or rather was pushed, willingly, into it. We went through seven countries: Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia back when it was still called that, one night in Germany, France, Spain, and finally Portugal, or, as I like to think of it, Spain’s Canada. We were about thirty teenagers crawling down the Iberian peninsula by bus, stopping in cathedrals and learning the culinary alphabet from Wienerschniztel to calamari, and along the way each of us was dropped off for short stopovers with families in Austria, France, and Spain. There are at least a dozen stories I could share, but for now I’ll stick with my time with the French family and le cheval terrible.
The French family lived just outside of Toulouse in a wonderful rustic farmhouse, and were really nice people. We exchanged Christmas and joyeux Noel cards for several years after my visit. They had a teenage son with whom I shared almost everything in common except a language, although he spoke a decent amount of English and I, well, I could do a passable Maurice Chevalier which cracked him up. In fact I entertained the whole family, especially their two Spaniels, one of whom was so taken with me she left a little present by my bed and I put my left foot right in it. They told me there was a local saying that a man who puts his left foot in le merde will be successful in life and I told them a dumb joke about how my friend came in with le merde in his hand and I said, “Why are you carrying dog shit?” and he replied, “Would you believe I almost stepped in this?” They thought this was worthy of Moliere and had me repeat it for guests which makes me think I could have pursued a career as a Franco-American standup comedian, but that’s another story.

Source: Wikipedia

One evening they thought it would be nice to visit some relatives who lived on a neighboring farm and share my scatalogical humor. And while the mother and son were taking the car they thought it would be fun if father and I went on horseback. I’d ridden a horse maybe twice in my life before then so I assumed I was well-prepared, although there’s a world of difference between impersonating Maurice Chevalier and being even a passable chevalier. And they assured me their horse Coquette–so aptly named–was very nice. She seemed to be nice, too, and very pretty with her dusky coat an flowing blonde mane, although gentlemen prefer brains. She ignored me and ate grass while I introduced myself and when I climbed aboard and said “giddyup” she ignored me and ate grass. And then when I tugged on the reins a little she ignored me and ate grass. When I said, “How do you put this thing in drive?” she lifted her head and started galloping down the road.
The farm, by the way, was adjacent to a French main highway. In the distance I could see a car coming in the opposite direction. “Whoa!” I told Coquette and then behind me the father started shouting “Pull to the right!” In English, amazingly, although even on the back of a galloping horse I think I would have known my gauche from my droite and none of us wanted to turn this into a scene from Equus. I pulled hard on the reins and Coquette suddenly stopped, trotted off to the side of the road, and proceeded to eat grass.
She was taken back for her paddock, the car was sent back for me, and the family kept assuring me “Coquette really is a very nice horse, but she doesn’t speak English.” Which I knew was half true, since I’d already learned she didn’t speak English.

 

You Say You Want A Revolution.

There are two things I remember about the French Revolution. Well, more than two things, actually; even though I wasn’t there I’ve studied history quite a bit and the French Revolution is one of those big events that comes up regularly. Anyway there are two things I remember that my high school World History textbook said about the French Revolution, statements that apply well beyond France. The first is that revolutions tend not to happen when things are at their absolute worst but rather when they’ve started to improve. I suppose this is human nature. When people are at rock bottom they tend to creep along sideways; it’s only when they get lifted up a little that they start to look up and get impatient for what they only now see they’ve been missing. The second statement I remember was that revolutions tend to become the very thing they set out to overthrow. This was certainly true of the French Revolution which not only paved the way for Napoleon’s rampage across Europe but even before that had the Reign of Terror. Here I need to hand the reigns over to Mark Twain and his more eloquent comments on the same idea:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Again I think this is human nature. The intent of every revolution is to overturn the status quo, but the only way to do that is to replace it with another status quo, or “Windows echo your reflection when I look in their direction now,” as was said by Status Quo, but that’s another story. People tend to fall back on the patterns they’re comfortable with, even if those are the wrong patterns.

It’s the tragedy of history that revolutions don’t learn from their mistakes or even the mistakes of previous revolutions, but then maybe that’s human nature too. Maybe it’s why, as Yevgeny Zamyatin said in his book WE, “Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”

Fableistic.

Aesop’s Fable:

A miser turned all his wealth into a single large lump of gold. He then buried it in a field. Each day he would go and dig it up and marvel at how much gold was his. A thief noticed this and followed him secretly. Then when the miser was gone the thief dug up the gold and took it.

The miser was greatly upset by this, but a farmer who had observed it all said, “Place a rock where your gold used to be and pretend that’s it. It will do you as much good.”

Discussion Questions

1. Is it always better to diversify your assets?

2. On whose property did the miser bury the gold? Was it his own or public land? Would this make a difference?

3. How should the thief declare the gold on his tax returns?

4. Was the thief a professional or a guy who just happened to notice the miser going to the same place every day? Spend some time on this question. Your teacher’s fixing a gin and tonic.

5. What kind of profession is “miser” anyway? Have you ever mised?

6. Is this story victim-blaming?

7. Like many of the fables attributed to Aesop this story has been retold in various versions for over 2500 years. How did the farmer basically manage to invent modern economics?

 

Side Walk.

Work in progress.

Sometimes I take the bus in the mornings. Even in the summer I sometimes get up early enough that it’s still dark outside and make the long trek up my street. A neighbor’s dog, a Great Pyrenees, will sometimes come out and bark at me. I wave and say, “Hi, Arthur,” which always makes him get quiet. I have no idea what the dog’s real name is but he looks like an Arthur, although I did find out that he is really a she, which means she looks like Bea Arthur, and now whenever she barks at me I think she’s saying, “God’ll get you for that, Christopher,” but that’s another story.

It’s kind of nice walking through the neighborhood in the morning. Sometimes I see Venus setting in the southeast, and sometimes I pass by neighbors whose names I don’t know who’ve gotten up for an early morning jog, or I see lights come on in houses as other people wake up and start their days.

And then I turn on to the main street and have to walk a couple of blocks to the bus stop, which is one of those plexiglass-walled rectangles. It’s not one of the ones that was targeted for an upgrade even though it desperately needs it and could really use one of those new towers that signals an oncoming bus because when it’s still dark I pretty much have to step out in front of the bus and wave a flashlight back and forth like I’m signaling a train.

Really they all look like they should be named “Arthur” to me. Source: Wikipedia

Also both keep coyotes away. Source: YouTube

That’s not the biggest problem, though. The biggest problem is that there is no sidewalk on the main road. Well, there is a sidewalk, but it’s conveniently placed on the other side of the road which means if I want to use the sidewalk I have to cross the road—in the dark—which would put me in the perfect position to catch the bus going in the opposite direction. I don’t want to do that so I’m stuck walking a narrow gravel trail between a ditch and the roadway, and walking with the flow of traffic. That means fast-moving vehicles zip right by within inches of me and I understand why in school we were taught to walk on the side of the road facing oncoming traffic, but I can’t do that for reasons already discussed.

Now, however, there are apartments going up along the main road, and that’s prompted the installation of sidewalks. It also means more people and more traffic, but at least we have some place to walk.

Don’t Stop Believing.

What’s the difference between graffiti and vandalism? Some would say there isn’t any, but I think that’s unfair and the distinctions are much more subtle. Granted I also think the word “vandalism” is unfair to the Vandals who were a complex and interesting Germanic people, but that’s another story. Even though graffiti may be a criminal act I still think it’s creative. It usually aspires to be artistic, to make a statement, whereas vandalism is nihilistic. Vandalism is wanton destruction that only tries to silence. This is a very fuzzy distinction and we could spend a lot of time on Nietzsche, who I’m pretty sure was a Vandal, and his idea of schöpferische Zerstörung, but bear with me.

I notice there’s a certain respect among most graffiti artists. Even the most basic taggers don’t write over each other. Maybe this is partly practical, but take, for instance, the mural by Billy Martinez which I’ve written about before. It’s in an area popular with taggers, but they leave it alone. Look at this:

On the right is part of Martinez’s mural which is still a work in progress, but that’s for another time. On the left are several local tags. They’ve left the mural alone. This is even a really good example of graffiti artists showing respect for an approved work.

What got me thinking about that is the recent alteration Adrien Saporiti’s “I Believe In Nashville” mural. It’s not a bad motto for the city. I do like Austin, Texas’s “Keep Austin Weird” and Portland, Oregon’s “Keep Portland Weird”–which was weird first is a matter of some debate–and residents of Asheville, North Carolina, take a wonderful pride in their city being called a “cesspool of sin” While the slogan “We Are Nashville” was popular in the aftermath of the 2010 flood “I Believe In Nashville” seems pretty good. Hey, I believe in it too, strongly enough that I bet that if I look out the window Nashville will still be there, although at the rate things are changing I expect it to look different, but that’s another story.

Anyway, five months ago Saporiti’s mural was vandalized with roofing tar. This time, though, it was altered with paint. By my own definition it’s not vandalism–it was, in fact, making what I think is an important and timely statement–but one that didn’t have to cover up Saporiti’s mural. It could have gone alongside it.

Source. The Tennessean

Interestingly the mural started as graffiti–it was put up without permission–but the building owners liked it and have made it clear they want to keep it.

That deserves some respect.

Keep ‘Em Together.

Pop Quiz: Match the animals to their collective noun.

Animals

  1. Butterflies
  2. Cats
  3. Crocodiles
  4. Ferrets
  5. Hyenas
  6. Larks
  7. Gorillas
  8. Eels
  9. Flamingoes
  10. Dolphins
  11. Owls
  12. Trout
  13. Zebras
  14. Snails
  15. Quail
  16. Crows
  17. Monkeys
  18. Jellyfish
  19. Hedgehogs
  20. Prostitutes

Nouns

k. Kaleidoscope

s. Clowder

h. Bask

d. Busyness

f. Cackle

e. Exultation

g. Band

c. Bed

m. Flamboyance

n. Pod

a. Parliament

l. Hover

i. Dazzle

j. Escargatoire

o. Covey

r. Murder

q. Barrel

p. Fluther

b. Array

t. Anthology of pros.

Answer Key:

 

 

Just The Two Of Us.

One of the tough things about public transportation must be that buses never stop running. Well, they do very late at night–in most cities I think it’s between two and five a.m.–but as long as the drivers are working they’re stuck in a non-stop loop. They’re not like taxi drivers who can sit in a queue at the airport or a hotel and maybe get a quick nap before someone jumps in and asks for a ride. Bus drivers have to keep going, burning fuel, even if they’re not carrying anyone.

I thought about this the other day when I got on the bus and I was the only passenger. This was a bit of a shock. There are always at least three or four other people already on the afternoon bus when I board it. And it’s not as though this was a different driver who was running on a weird schedule, causing everyone who normally caught the bus to miss it. In fact just the day before there was a substitute driver, a guy I’ve never seen before, who showed up at my stop about ten minutes early and the bus was packed.

It was the regular driver the day the bus was empty, a guy who’s considerate and recognizes passengers–he always pulls up a few feet past the actual bus stop to drop me off at the corner where I cross the street–but never talks to anyone. The rule is no one’s supposed to talk to the driver, but some drivers, even most, are chatty. They carry on conversations with people. Sometimes they even interrupt other peoples’ conversations to offer their own opinions. Once, as I was waiting at a stop, a driver went right by me without stopping. He then ran a red light and stopped on the other side of the street. I guess he thought this would compensate for his moving violation. I ran and had to tap on the door to get his attention because he had his body turned halfway around so he could carry on a conversation with someone sitting behind him.

It’s never really bothered me that the current driver on my route never talks. The other people on the bus act as kind of a buffer. If he’s not talking to them I just assume he’s not interested in talking to anyone and I can sit in the back and listen to my podcasts. With just the two of us, though, I was suddenly in a difficult position. What if he’s lonely? What if he’d like to talk to someone but just has trouble starting conversations? He and I may be strangers but we pass by each other on a daily basis. Maybe I should say something. I didn’t, though. I stuck to my routine. I sat in the back and listened to my podcasts, but unsure the whole time.

When we came to my stop he pulled a few feet forward. I walked up to the door and, as I always do, said, “Thank you very much.”

Normally he just nods at me. This day he said, “You’re welcome. See you tomorrow.”

Maybe that’s all he had to say.

 

Made To Happen.

We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.

Huckleberry Finn

Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue has, for reasons I don’t understand, long been home to numerous car dealerships. Maybe this is because it runs more or less parallel to some of the city’s main thoroughfares—West End, Broadway—but Charlotte is also on the edge of the city and parts of it are still a little seedy in spite of rapid gentrification. Venture out that far and you’ll want to make sure you have a way to get back. The railroad also crosses Charlotte at one point, so whether it’s the right or wrong side of the tracks might depend on where you stand, although it’s increasingly becoming mixed. Pricey hipster restaurants rub elbows with Bobby’s Dairy Dip, a ‘50’s era remnant that still serves the best milkshakes in town.

The funny thing is the biggest dealerships, the ones that dealt in late model luxury cars, that have fared the worst while independently owned dealers of used cars—let’s face it, they’re not classy enough to get away with calling their flivvers and jalopies “pre-owned”—have stuck it out through thin and thinner.

Some areas around Charlotte Avenue are also thick with graffiti. The fence in front of one of the car dealerships is especially popular. I don’t know why this is or, for that matter, why the dealership has put up white plastic slats behind the chain-link fence. They might as well put up a sign that says “TAGGERS WELCOME!” Sometimes the tags get painted over but they come right back, as unstoppable as the trumpet vine that climbs over the fence.

Maybe there is no clear explanation for any of this. Maybe the way all these things were made just happened.

 

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