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Big Love.

There’s a generally held idea that art that’s overly sentimental, that plays a little too loudly on the heartstrings, is bad art. I think this is a relatively new idea that traces its origins back to 18th century neoclassicism which admired ancient works of art and architecture for their subtlety and lack of color, not realizing that back when they were made those works were brightly painted, but that’s another story. Anyway, yeah, I agree, anything that overdoes the weepiness or, worse, cynically tries to reduce us to a sobbing puddle as an excuse to pry a few extra dollars out of us is bad art. Not feeling, or pretending not to feel, though, can be just as bad. Ray Romano has a joke about how when he goes to buy an anniversary card for his wife he looks for one that says what he would say if he were drunk. It’s funny but also sad that too many of us, especially men, feel uncomfortable with expressing powerful emotions.

That brings me to this:

It’s appropriate that this was done as a mural, that it’s big because the emotions it evokes are so large and so powerful. And yet at the same time it hits that perfect balance. The color palette is subdued and the narrative force, while strong, isn’t over the top.

It’s dramatic without being melodramatic, and while effective at a distance becomes even more so up close where the subtler details reveal themselves.

If my analysis seems somewhat cold and unfeeling, I can say, in my defense, that I feel it’s important for critical purposes to maintain a certain distance, to not be so overcome by emotion that I lose sight of what makes a work like this good. However I’d be perfectly comfortable expressing just how this mural makes me feel if I were drunk.

 

The Party’s Over. [Part 2 Of 2.]

Read Part 1 here.

When we got to Dale’s house my parents let me out while they went to park the car. As I was trying to cross the driveway unnoticed a tall blonde girl spotted me and said, “What is HE doing here?” There were only a few kids outside and they ignored her and me. I went into the house to try and find a secluded perch.
Dale was somewhere in the party, moving around with an entourage. I didn’t try to talk to him, just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. There was no place to sit, no place I could disappear to. It seemed like the only kids from school who weren’t at Dale’s house were ones I’d want to talk to. I hadn’t eaten because of nerves and the belief that there’d be food at the party, and there was food in the kitchen, but the entire football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and golf teams were between me and it. That was a grand total of just nine guys—small school–but the kitchen was crowded and they were hungry and there was still no way I could grab a sandwich without losing a hand. Eventually they moved on to the den to graze on cheerleaders. I sat down next to a basket of tortilla chips and a fondue pot of cheese dip. A guy with a mullet and a wispy moustache sat down and slapped me on the back. “You like nachos?” he yelled, then pointed at me. “Hey, dude’s all right! Dude likes nachos!” And I thought, hey, if this is all it takes to fit in I could have done it years ago.
I couldn’t eat nachos forever–well, I could, but the athletic department was working its way back–so I drifted off to a spot on the stairs where I stayed until Dale’s stepmother, who was nice and always seemed to zero in on me with some idea for getting me “involved”, asked if I’d go upstairs and choose some music. In Dale’s room there was a setup with a turntable and speakers that leaned out the window toward the patio below. I played some of Rush’s 2112, “Burning Down The House”, then switched to “Mr. Roboto”, really digging being a DJ. During the long version of “The Safety Dance” I dug through Dale’s milk crate full of vinyl and found an old recording of “The Hokey Pokey”. I thought that would be fun in an ironic way and danced happily by myself until a guy with a mullet and a wispy moustache, not Nacho Man but a different one, told me to get out.
For a long time I sat at a picnic table in the backyard sipping Kool-Aid. While the evening darkened and the multi-colored party lights strung around the patio grew brighter I watched couples who’d been blocked from the bedrooms disappear behind the toolshed at the back of the yard.
A pretty girl who ignored me at school sat down and said hi to me.
“Have you seen Stevie Wonder’s new car?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Neither has he.”
She laughed and put out her hand then slapped the table between us.
“You’re a smart guy. Maybe you can help me. I took my mom’s boyfriend’s car out the other night, you know? Anyway I dented the the right front fender and my mom’s boyfriend is gonna kick my ass when he finds out. What should I do?”
I didn’t even know where to begin since “Why were you driving your mother’s boyfriend’s car when you haven’t even even got a learner’s permit?” seemed like a bad way to start. Besides, I thought, we all make mistakes, we all do things we wish we could take back. It wasn’t advice, but that didn’t matter. Horns were honking in the driveway and parents were coming out to point and snap their fingers. The party was ending.
That summer there was a growing schism in the church with my parents on one side, Dale’s father on the other, and most of their mutual friends uninterested in taking sides.  The big gatherings where our parents got together and that had been, for most of our lives, the times when Dale and I would get together, stopped happening. And even when our parents did get together we were both getting too old to tag along.
Most Sundays Dale brought some new friends he’d made in his new neighborhood, or occasionally Keith, to church with him. I was never invited to join these groups. Neither of us played soccer anymore, he’d dropped out of the Scouts, and I’d lost interest in the church youth group. When we passed we rarely said more than “Hey” to each other. In the fall, even though we went to the same high school, it was a much bigger school, and we rarely saw each other, and moved in different circles, although his circles were so much bigger. I was still so awkward, an outsider, alone most of the time, although I’d gotten good at blending in, wearing jeans and an Oxford cloth shirt. Sometimes Dale would walk by me in the hall and not even see me. One night a month into our freshman year my parents went to Dale’s house and I went along. Dale was alone in his room and for several awkward minutes I was alone with him. Then for some reason I started to spill about my latest obsession, interstellar travel, and how much I wanted to get off this planet. I rambled about wormholes and warping space, and I thought I sounded like the biggest dork in the universe, but I couldn’t shut up which made it even worse. Dale didn’t say anything until I finished and flopped into the beanbag chair.
“If you find a way,” he said, “take me with you.” It was a simple, quiet request, and I thought, what problems does Dale have that he wants to escape? And I thought, how could we possibly have this in common? Neither of us said anything after that. It wasn’t awkward, just the airless silence of two people who have nothing to say.
Dale and I would never be alone again after that. My parents left the church and a lot of their friends. Dale and I, I thought, who had so little in common, were only friends because circumstances forced us together. When those dissolved so did the friendship, but after years of feeling I was being pushed away there was that moment when Dale admitted he didn’t want to let go. At school I found friends, friends who were more like me, friends I chose. And yet I realized that you never really replace friends you’ve lost; new ones will never quite fill the void the old ones left.

This story doesn’t have a clear ending. If I could go back, if I could do it over, would I give it one? Would I do something differently, would I do everything differently? Maybe this is the ending it needs, to fray in different directions that will trace out their own paths, like people leaving a party.

 

Riding The Route: #25

“This is the opportunists’ route,” the bus driver told me when I said something about being the only passenger. “We might pick up one or two more people, but they mostly want another bus. They just see this one and get on not knowing where it goes but it connects to so many others.” And he had a point: the number 25 route has stops that are transfer points with bus numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 52, 55, and 93. “I don’t mind ridin’ alone,” he went on, “but there are too many turns!” Again, good point. A lot of buses travel a more or less straight path but there were a lot of places where the number 25 seemed like it turned every other block, winding through an area of Nashville known as “The Gulch”.

This route could also be called “the hospital route” since it takes riders by Meharry Medical Group, the St. Thomas Hospital Complex, the TriStar Centennial Hospital Complex, and within a block of Vanderbilt Hospital.

It also goes near a Krispy Kreme, if you want to get a doughnut on your way out of the hospital. Or in.

It then veers off through the historic Edgehill neighborhood, the one long straight stretch. Look out for the famous polar bears, originally there to advertise Polar Bear Frozen Custard shops. The bears are still there but the custard shops, unfortunately, aren’t.

Then it’s past Fort Negley and Greer Stadium, former home of the Nashville Sounds.

Along the way it goes through some nice neighborhoods, including past the Pruitt branch of the Nashville Public Library, which is in a former firehouse.

Then things take a really weird turn and the bus goes into the MTA garage on Nestor Street, next to a disused stretch of train track where some old rail cars are slowly rusting away.

And then it’s through Riverfront Park with some interesting public sculpture and some interesting party pedal cars.

Also there’s a Rolling Stones exhibit at the Musician’s Hall Of Fame here in Nashville, but that’s another story.

Four other people got on as we made the loop, and everybody had the same question: “You goin’ downtown?”

The driver always had the same answer: “Eventually.”

And eventually we did return to the Music City Central bus station. The number 25 arrives at and departs from the lower level, and as I was climbing the stairs to catch my next bus I turned around and looked back. The driver was already pulling out, this time alone.

Go Figure.

One of the oldest themes in art is the human figure, or at least one common subset of variations of it. Most works of art history that follow the standard Hegelian model of a linear progression start with a work like the Venus of Willendorf and trace its evolution up through Picasso’s Le Demoiselles D’Avignon and maybe even later. There are many reasons for art’s interest in the human figure including the fact that all art is inherently self-reflective. That is, whatever an artist creates is in essence a self-portrait. Whatever the intended message is the work itself tells us who the artist is.

I’m being deliberately high-falutin’ here to heighten the hilarious impact of this:

What does this tell us about the artist? I’m not sure, although it does make me think about the tension between high and low art, and the tension between art that’s designed to hide the ugly realities of our bodies and art that exposes, even elevates and celebrates, those ugly realities. Consider Jonathan Swift’s poem The Lady’s Dressing Room and the line, “Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” Then consider Frida Kahlo’s painting Henry Ford Hospital that deliberately, brutally expresses her feelings about a miscarriage with both the reality and symbols.

Let’s come back to the work at hand because there’s a lot going on here. And by “here” of course I mean my head where it’s like I’m on a fun ride going “Whee! Farts! Whee! Meta-textual analysis!” Anyway context is also very important here.

The placement of the work so centrally on a former fast food place, I think elevates it, although you’re probably thinking, “Such low criticism from a critic who sounds pretty high.”

 

The Party’s Over. [Part 1 of 2]

“You’re coming to my party, Chris.”

It wasn’t a request. For Dale it was simply a statement of fact, made while we were sitting in his bedroom. Actually he was half lying on his bed and I was sunk into the beanbag chair next to the stereo. He was throwing a party to mark the end of our eighth grade year, the end of junior high, the end of our time at MacMurray school, and he’d decided I was coming. I wasn’t so sure. The one thing I was sure of that Dale and I had been growing apart for years even though Dale had been one of my oldest friends. Our parents went to the same church, our mothers were close friends, and our birthdays were only a few months apart, so of course we bonded. We grew up together. At Dale’s tenth birthday party, the same one where I broke my front tooth but that’s another story, I tried nachos for the first time, although back then our idea of “nachos” was a corn chip with a slice of pasteurized processed cheese and a little bit of onion. Dale and I went to summer camp together. When we weren’t at camp we spent a lot of days walking to the video game arcade. That was when Dale lived near enough that we could walk to each others’ houses, which only lasted a couple of years. His family moved at least three times, but when he lived farther away we still saw each other at least three times a week. Our parents got together most Friday or Saturday nights. There was also church and its youth group, and we joined the Scouts together. We played on the same soccer team for three years. He was team captain and lead goal scorer and I was, well, there. Even though Dale loved horror films and I hated them—they’ve since grown on me—so we watched horror films. And Dale convinced me to sneak out late at night, which wasn’t hard because I wasn’t going to get a lot of sleep after watching The Beast Within, and we ran around the neighborhood filling mailboxes with shaving cream. And I’ve never forgotten the day we were home alone and decided to kill time making prank calls, asking people if their refrigerators were running. Then Dale dialed a random number and asked to speak to Jim. “This is Jim,” the guy on the other end of the line replied. Dale started laughing and looked at me and mouthed Oh shit. “Hang up!” I hissed. Dale said, “Hey Jim, it’s Dale, how’s it going?”

“Dale who?”

“Aw, come on, you know, it’s me. How’ve you been?”

Jim paused and then carefully said, “Well, all right, I guess, how about you?”

And the conversation went on for about fifteen minutes with Dale reminiscing about how they went fishing and their trip to Chattanooga and Jim trying to remember whether he’d ever been to Chattanooga.

During the summer between fifth and sixth grade Dale’s mother had to go into the hospital. Cancer, which she’d been dealing with for years, had come back and was much worse. Dale came and stayed with us. At first I was excited about this; to me it was like an extended sleepover. I didn’t think about what Dale was going through, and it frustrated me that he wanted to spend hours on the phone with Keith, another friend of his who lived next door to him. Keith was an athlete and a football fan, like Dale. It didn’t occur to me that, given the emotional stress of his mother’s illness, Dale would rather be at home.

When she got worse he did go home. When she died he and I didn’t talk about it, not until his next birthday when I was one of a half dozen guys he invited for a sleepover. We had pizza and watched movies and played games, then, late, things got quiet and one of the other kids asked Dale if he missed his mother. He talked quietly about how hard it had been, how the last time he talked to her she was unconscious, that the last thing he’d said was “I love you.”

I didn’t say anything but just listened, deeply aware that Dale, a few months younger than me, was years older.

As we went into sixth, seventh, and eighth grade we saw less of each other. Dale dropped out of the Scouts and his father moved the family to another part of town. There was also a growing schism in the church and his father was on one side while my parents were on the other. There were still occasional get-togethers but it had all changed. Dale and I went to the same school but we were in separate classes and moved in different circles. Most days he wore the usual cool kids’ uniform of a pale blue or white Oxford shirt and jeans. Most days I wore plaid shirts and corduroy slacks, the usual uniform of a kid who wants his ass kicked. When Dale and I were together we had less to talk about. Mostly he tried to convince me I should get my hair feathered and listen to Journey, and I was more interested in reruns of Star Trek.

When he invited me to his farewell to junior high party—not that it had a name or a theme because it was too cool to be anything but a party—I assumed it was out of pity, or maybe just habit for him. None of my other friends from school were invited but a lot of kids I didn’t like were. So I came up with a brilliant plan for getting out of it: I wouldn’t tell my parents about the party, which might have worked if Dale’s stepmother hadn’t asked my parents to help chaperone, and my parents of course thought, hey, what fourteen year-old shy geek wouldn’t want to go to a party full of jocks and cool kids with his parents?

 

Special Delivery.

One of my first jobs out of college was in a library mailroom. It was a good job that combined plenty of exercise with a plethora of reading material—this was back in the day when bound and printed books were still a primary source of information. The one downside was that I had to deal with a building manager—this was an office building that housed lots of different companies. I’m being nice when I say the building manager was a bit of a jerk. The truth is he was a really big jerk. The first time we met he started, for no reason I’ve ever been able to figure out, telling me things about his girlfriend I didn’t want to know and which I did everything I could to block out. One of the work-related areas where we butted heads, though, was over a construction company that also had offices in the building and whose guys frequently blocked the loading dock so the company I worked for couldn’t get its deliveries in or out.

One day one of the construction guys asked me, “Why don’t you get a real job?” and ever since then I’ve been trying to figure out what a real job is. If he was an example then a real job is starting renovation projects then disappearing for months so they never get finished, but that’s another story.

Once when I was trying to get the building manager to get the construction guys to move he just blurted out, “You know what I’d like to be? A UPS delivery guy because they can park anywhere they want.” That was the kind of non sequitur that was typical of him and meant I had to go talk to the construction guys, if I could find them, myself.

All this came back to me one afternoon when I was on my way to the bus and had to maneuver around a delivery truck that was parked over the crosswalk.

This driver was not stopped at a light. This was where the vehicle was parked.

I don’t want to impugn the Mrs. Grissom’s Salads company or its line of quality luncheon substances, but their delivery drivers should know that at a busy intersection, especially one where cars regularly run red lights, a delivery truck driver shouldn’t make crossing even more difficult for pedestrians. Delivery truck drivers can’t just park anywhere they want, and ones who think they can should get a real job.

Avatar.

Furries are people who have anthropomorphic animal avatars. They draw or commission pictures of their avatars and many dress up as their avatars. Even in the weird wide universe of geekdom they’re sometimes mocked or regarded with suspicion which I don’t understand. I’m not going to stand in the way of anyone’s fursuit of happiness. There was even a really happy story back in March 2016 of Syrian refugees placed at a hotel that was also hosting a furry convention, bringing together two groups that are often subject to unreasonable prejudice.

Anyway I was listening to an interview with Lisa Hanawalt on the Bullseye podcast and was surprised to hear her describe herself as a “furry”. Hanawalt designed the anthropomorphic animal creatures for Bojack Horseman and also wrote a book called The Hot Dog Taste Test which I really, really, really recommend. It’s a collection of illustrated essays more or less connected to food and it’s smart and funny and while the picture of Hanawalt with her family watching Blade II dubbed in Spanish is fantastic, but that’s another story. What surprised me about her describing herself as a furry is in the book she draws herself pretty realistically, never as an animal, but then her drawings of herself and others are still, in the traditional sense of the word, avatars. They are representative, not necessarily idealized but not exactly warts and all either.

And that got me thinking about how we all have a version of ourselves in our imaginations that may or may not match up with how others see us. If we’re uncomfortable with ourselves it’s not necessarily about who we really are but because we don’t like that image of ourselves. Similarly if we’re unhappy with the world around us it’s because it doesn’t match what we want it to be. If we are happy with ourselves and the world around us it’s, hopefully, because how we imagine ourselves and the world matches the way we think it should be.

So what’s your avatar?

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