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Smart Guy.

Source: Wikipedia

I have a book called The Best British Stand-Up And Comedy Routines with comedy bits by a dozen or so performers. The title is slightly misleading, I think, because it’s not as comprehensive as it sounds. It’s more of a sampling of some really great stand-up and comedy routines by various performers spanning about three decades. An interesting thing about it is there are two American included, only one of whom is still alive—Greg Proops, whose birthday is today.

If you’re a fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway? you know Greg Proops, especially if, like me, you started with the British version where he and Clive Anderson would trade barbs, like the time Proops explained for American viewers that when he said “naff git” that was British for “Clive Anderson”.

Proops also performs solo, does two podcasts, and his book, The Smartest Book in the World, is full of his sharp, intelligent satire. And he really manages the neat trick of being really, really intelligent without being smug about it and he plays to the intelligence of his audience without blowing smoke up anyone’s skirt, maybe because he’s smart enough to know that real intelligence isn’t gauged by what you know but how well you know that everything you know is only a small facet of all that can be known and that the more you know the less you know because everything you know only makes you know what you don’t know.

You know?

Stuck Standing.

Source: Singapore Times

So a sixty-year old man is facing two years in prison for sticking toothpicks in bus seats, which seems horrifying, appalling, even unfathomable, or at the very least excessive. Two years? A bus driver told me about a kid who threw a milkshake out of the window into the open sunroof of a car in the next lane, and, as far as I know, he got off with a warning even though there should be stiff penalties for wasting milkshakes, but that’s another story.

Granted it was in Singapore, which has a reputation for harsh penalties, that the man placed toothpicks in bus seats, but I still think there are extenuating circumstances. He didn’t want anyone sitting next to him, something a lot of us can appreciate. I know there have been plenty of time I’ve gotten on a crowded bus and had to stand and when a seat opened up I offered it to someone else. If the bus is crowded I always offer my seat to a woman, which I realize is either chauvinism or chivalry, although sometimes it’s just so I can get away from whomever I’m sitting next to. And there were times in high school when the bus I rode home was so crowded I had to stand, even though school buses aren’t designed with overhead rails and handles. Maybe someone should have gone to prison for that, although it’s hard to say whether it would be the bus driver, the other students who wouldn’t scooch over so we could squeeze three kids into seats that were only big enough for two, or me for hanging around so long I was the last one to board the bus. And don’t get me started on the problem of manspreading, where one guy will not only take up at least three seats meant for one but a good chunk of the aisle too.

Anyway I think it’s understandable when someone doesn’t want to sit next to another person. Buses often force strangers together and sometimes it can be rewarding and sometimes you can get stuck next to a person you can’t stand.

 

Halo, Goodbye.

In December 1988 I was in a record store, back when those were still legal. I remember it so clearly because there was a poster for The Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup made up of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison, who’d just passed away. Someone in the record store had cut out a paper halo and pasted is over Orbison’s head, a small and a little funny but still kind tribute, I thought.
The halo has a long history in Eastern and Western art, appearing as early as Sumer, around gods, heroes, and kings. Whether the crown, or gold circlet, as a marker of royalty was meant to represent the halo or came first is one of those mysteries that will probably never be solved. Its form has changed somewhat, going from usually solid disks to an open circle. And yet throughout time the halo’s meaning has remained pretty consistent, although “halo” derives from a Greek word that meant “threshing floor”. Maybe it’s fitting that the halo has moved from the very highest in the pantheon to everyone who passes through the pearly gates, although the standard has become a simple gold circle while those at the apex get brighter, grander encirclings.

I see halos a lot in graffiti, hovering over various tags. What do they mean? That’s another mystery that may never be solved; graffiti is very personal and individual, and the reason for adding a halo may vary from person to person. Sometimes it may simply be an accent, or it may be someone copying the tag of an artist who’s since passed on. Some artists do copy the tags of others who are gone but not forgotten. I don’t know if that’s always the meaning but if it is I think it’s a small and a little funny but kind tribute.

Fall Into Autumn.

Fall, the season of cooler weather, falling leaves, and shorter days is here at last. Some prefer to call the season “autumn” after the Latin autmnus, meaning both the season and the harvest. It’s the time to reap the fruits of spring and summer labor and prepare for the winter to come. Whatever you call the season here are some ideas to help you celebrate it.

Store Nuts For Winter

Go to a bank and get a safe deposit box. Specify that you want one low to the ground. Fill it with nuts to see you through the winter.

For extra authenticity do this while wearing a squirrel costume then forget which bank you stored your nuts in. As long as you avoid going back to the same bank you can do this repeatedly over several years. It’s not like it’s going to affect your credit rating.

Make Spider Webs

Spider webs are larger and, thanks to cool morning temperatures which causes dew to collect on them, more visible at this time of year. This makes them an ideal symbol for the season as well as a reminder of the circular rhythms of time. You can craft spider webs of your own out of string or pipe cleaners.

For extra authenticity knit an “egg sac”. Stuff several small children into it. Ce sac n’est pas un jouet. Release them in the spring.

Celebrate Seasonal Differences

Have someone in Australia write “Happy Spring!” on postcards and mail them to you. Notice how they change to “Happy Fall!” when they cross the equator.

Enjoy Seasonal Flavors

Pumpkin spice-flavored drinks have become a popular fall tradition. Try making your own pumpkin spice-flavored beverages at home.

For extra authenticity make a pumpkin spice-flavored latte with only ingredients that would have been available to the early European settlers. So, basically, mash pumpkin and milk together. Yeah, never mind. The result looks and tastes like orange-tinted plaster.

Add pumpkin spice to orange-tinted plaster. Serve it along with some real pumpkin spice-flavored lattes to your friends. See if they can tell the difference.

Do NOT make a rhubarb pie.

Rhubarb is at its peak in the late spring and early summer and is really just celery that’s possessed by demons.

Have a bonfire.

Ideally bonfires should be held in the country or in a large open field, but don’t let living in the city hold you back. Learn from my example, though, and point out to the authorities that technically construction hadn’t started on that site.

Go on a hay ride.

For added fun throw yourself in front of the tractor and get seriously injured, then become the tragic hero of a young adult novel about the rewards and risks of farm life.

Note: Discourage others from following your example. A bunch of injuries can bring down the mood of a fun, jaunty hay ride, and you also want that young adult novel to focus on you.

Have a leaf-raking party.

Raking the leaves that clutter the yard is an annual chore, although no one’s really quite sure why we do it, except that some people are just weird about their yards and have tricked the rest of us into being the same way. Why not make it fun? Everybody loves a party, so invite your friends to help rake leaves in your yard. If you can convince them to bring food, drinks, and their own rakes, well, you can pretty much sit back and rest. Suckers.

Name That Season

Have a debate with a friend over whether the season should be called “Fall” or “Autumn”.

Standard debate rules apply: participants will have their left hands bound together with a one-foot cord, but instead of right hands holding the traditional switchblades participants will try to scald each other with cups of hot cider. It’s educational and delicious!

 

Talk To Strangers. Or Don’t.

The other day on my way to the bus I was listening to the September 24th, 2017 Live From The Poundstone Institute podcast. Paula talked to psychologist Nick Epley of the University of Chicago about a 2014 study he did on subway riders that found that people who talk to their fellow passengers tend to be happier than those who don’t. And it sounds pretty simple, although like most social research I think it should be taken with a salt shaker’s worth of qualifiers, considerations, exceptions, and clarifications. Most people I sit near or even on occasion next to on the bus aren’t interested in striking up conversations. Or at least they don’t seem to be. I don’t know.

Epley’s point is that we’re social creatures and that it’s our natural inclination to talk and interact with each other. He’d probably agree, though, that it’s more complicated than that. I think of a couple of older guys who used to ride my bus regularly. I’ll just call them Jerry and George. They always sat next to each other but the only time I ever heard them speak was when Jerry, whose stop came first, would tell George to have a good evening. George always read a newspaper and Jerry always had a book.

And I get it too that not everyone likes the kind of idle chitchat that strangers engage in, that we pretty much have to engage in to even begin the process of getting past being strangers. I’m one of those annoying people who doesn’t mind small talk, who’ll even start a conversation at inappropriate times. Once when I was sitting in a bathroom stall I recognized the shoes of a friend of mine in the next stall and I loudly asked him how it was going. He quietly muttered that he didn’t like to talk to other guys in the bathroom. I laughed and asked, “Why do you think that is?” And then when he didn’t say anything else as I was leaving I said, “Well, I hope everything comes out all right,” but that’s another story.

The ironic thing is because I was listening to a podcast I had earbuds in my ears, an almost universally recognized sign that says “leave me alone” and yet I thought maybe I should try to start a conversation with a guy who was standing at the bus stop when I got there. He was reading a book, another sign that usually says “leave me alone”, and I thought that in trying to spread a little happiness I might make him unhappy. And I’m also kind of shy. I’m happy to talk to strangers but I find it hard to start conversation unless the other person starts it first. Then the bus pulled up and he closed his book and I saw what he was reading: Catch-22.

 

Think Big.

Some artists deliberately work small. Or not so deliberately. Alberto Giacometti, for instance, once wrote to his brother that he started out making large sculptures but by the time he was finished they ended up small—which is something that tends to happen if your sculpting medium is stone or wood or something that has to be carved down, although he tended to create works in plaster that he then recast in metal, building up. And later he complained to his brother that every time he started to make a small piece it would end up large, which is even weirder.

I see a lot of small graffiti which isn’t weird. Because it’s illegal most artists work fast and dirty, and there are a lot of small tags scribbled around. Once I saw where someone had started something then wrote “Fuck! Cops!” and I wish I’d gotten a picture of it because that’s hilarious, but that’s another story.

Anyway I notice that some artists, even when they get the chance to work big, don’t do much more than larger versions of those quick and dirty scribbles. Is it lack of skill? Are they just not interested in doing something better? I don’t know. Maybe even in places where they’re less concerned about being caught they still feel pressed for time. And then there are those who, given the chance, go big.

Odd.

A year ago I said, “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now.”

So, how am I doing?

Even at the time it seemed stupid but when my second anniversary of being cancer-free came around I was in an emotionally very dark place. Cancer was supposed to change my life, but year two was when I started feeling that it hadn’t really changed anything. It’s not something I should complain about because my life before cancer was good and being able to resume that life, with a few small changes, was something I should have been happy about. I’ll always have the scars, but those are just skin deep, and a year after finishing chemo I was, physically, more or less back to where I was before I’d had cancer. And for most of that year I was fine, but as it went on, the closer I got to the second anniversary, the more depressed I felt about it. September 22rd, 2014, was my last day of chemo. When I was still in treatment I met and heard about people who’d been through cancer and their lives had gone on pretty much the same as before, which is a great thing. There is nothing better than to be able to say, “I survived”. And yet at the time I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be like them. Cancer had changed my life so suddenly and yet, in the middle of it, I couldn’t imagine life without it. I couldn’t imagine what lay beyond. My last day of chemo there was no fanfare, no great celebration. It was just another day at the clinic. I sat in a chair and let a nurse pump poison into my veins, just as I had so many other days, and when it was done I got up and walked out. A year later I hadn’t gone back to the clinic but there had been so much follow-up, so many doctor visits and consultations and new drugs that on September 22nd, 2015, I celebrated my survival even though I felt like I was still fighting cancer. And then over the year that followed, even though I had fewer doctor visits and no reason to think the cancer would ever come back it seemed even harder to accept that it was over. I wondered what “over” meant. On September 22nd, 2016, I looked back on what I’d been through and, difficult as it had been, all I could think was, is that it? The cancer, as far as I knew, was dead and life was back to normal. Was that what I wanted? Shouldn’t things be different? Why had I survived?

What a long strange trip it was.

Last day of chemo–and I couldn’t process it at the time.

Yet I said “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now” because I wanted to give myself something to look forward to. I was staring into the abyss and there seemed to be a strong chance I would fall. Instead I decided to jump.
There’s something powerful about the number three. Three is lucky. Three is the smallest odd number greater than one. The smallest number of straight lines that can create an enclosed space is three. There are three primary colors, three rings in a circus, three laws of motion, three Stooges, three blind mice, three sheets to the wind, three face cards per suit in a standard deck, three miles in a league, three little pigs, three wise monkeys, three men in a tub, the third time’s a charm, there are five stages of grief but you can skip two of them, and three basic particles that make up an atom. If you take any group of numbers, no matter how large, and add them up and the result is three, six, or nine then that number is divisible by three–something that’s obsessed me since I learned it in school. I can’t look at a zip code, phone number, or any string of numbers without figuring out if it’s divisible by three. If it is it makes me happy.
There were three months between my initial diagnosis in June, when I spent three days in the hospital, and my final day of chemotherapy, which came in three rounds, in September. I would have three surgeries–the first orchiectomy, a minor one to install a chest port, and a major one to remove lymph nodes–in the six months between June and December.
So how am I doing?
Every year, every day, every second that I go on takes me farther away from cancer. Maybe it will never be completely out of my mind but I don’t dwell on it like I did. I’m genuinely glad I survived. My wife, the main reason I’m still here, tells me that, according to the doctors, technically the anniversary of my being cancer-free is in December, when I had the last big surgery. I have my reasons for picking September 22nd as my personal marker. The day I finished chemo was a great day, September is when the season just starts to change, and, hey, I’m the one who had cancer. I get some say in this. And yet while I shouldn’t take my health for granted I’ve started to wonder if I’ll even mark the occasion next year, whether September 22nd, 2018 will be anything special, other than a Saturday, and I always look forward to those. Maybe by the end of year three I’ll have stopped thinking in terms of years I’ve survived and instead I’ll only focus on being alive.
So how am I doing?
I’m good. I’m great. I’m odd.

 

Nowhere Is Still Somewhere.

Source: Streetsblog USA

Back when I finally got around to getting my driver’s license I first had to get a new learner’s permit—I’d originally gotten a learner’s permit when I was sixteen, but it expired in the intervening twenty years or so, but that’s another story—and I took the bus to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There was only one bus that ran kinda sorta close to the DMV and it only went there once every three hours. The bus actually ran every hour and a half, but on one of those trips it stopped in a completely different spot where you could still get to the DMV if you were willing to walk three miles and cross a couple of interstates. The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a spot where no one got off and there was really no place for anyone to get on. The driver was surprised I had ridden that far and I thought the driver had made a mistake until I checked the route map and found that, yeah, this really was where every other bus stopped. Why the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere when it could just as easily have stopped about a mile back on the edge of somewhere is still a mystery to me, and fortunately I had the good sense to stay on the bus and ride back to the main station. Instead of having to sit out there in the middle of nowhere for an hour and a half I got to sit somewhere for an hour and a half.

It’s been several years but I wonder if the bus still stops at that same place. If so it could be a contender for America’s Sorriest Bus Stop which currently has stops in Seattle, Washington and Fremont, California going head to head. And those are some pretty sorry bus stops, but they look to me like they’re close to somewhere.

Look Back.

There’s a relatively new idea among art historians, and if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking this is some dry, abstract, wordy theorizing that has no connection with the way non-academics think about art, bear with me. It’s some dry, abstract, wordy theorizing that has kind of a cool connection with how non-academics think about art. It’s called paradoxical history, although as some critics have pointed out there’s nothing paradoxical about it. Paradoxical history essentially considers art history backwards, going from newest to oldest, kind of like when I search my email for something and most of the time I start with the most recent messages first because they’re probably where the problem is, unlike the older messages which are problems that have already been swept under the rug, but that’s another story.

The idea got me thinking about the first art appreciation class I ever took in high school, the one that really got me interested in art history in the first place. The class started with Impressionism which was an okay place to start although Impressionism didn’t just happen, and neither did any other art movement in history. Anyway it then went through Post-Impressionism and Fauvism and took kind of a leap to Cubism and a quick detour into Expressionism, then things kind of fall apart with Dadaism and Surrealism which were also literary movements, and, oh yeah, there were also a couple of wars in there, and then things kind of settled back down into Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art and that’s where the class ended.

These movements were treated as links in a chain but the reality is that art history—like regular history—is messy and complicated with a lot of overlapping events.

Paradoxical history reflects one of the benefits and problems with studying art history, or even just art, in the here and now. Do you remember the first work of art you ever saw? Probably not. You probably don’t even remember most of the works of art you’ve seen throughout your lifetime and yet you’ve probably seen a lot of art. You may even have some pretty strong opinions about some of it not really being art, but whether you think it’s art or not it’s still influenced how you look at and think about art. It hasn’t exactly been in a straight line—almost everyone gets a mix of old and new and various art movements—but paradoxical history is a way of understanding how we got from here to there, and how, whenever you look at any work of art now, what you see is layered with the influence of every other work of art you’ve ever seen, as well as the whole collection of your own experiences, your own perspectives.

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