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Unchained Malady.

How do you know if it’s a cold or an allergy? Here’s a helpful guide to distinguishing the two.

  1. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, or a sore throat.
  2. Symptoms include fever.
  3. Symptoms include itchy, watery eyes.
  4. Symptoms include general achiness.
  5. A skin rash is present.
  6. Caused by a viral infection.
  7. Caused by the immune system reacting to something usually harmless.
  8. Symptoms last several weeks.
  9. May be treated with an antihistamine.
  10. Only requires medical attention in extreme cases.
  11. Was the star of an ‘80’s sitcom.
  12. Speaks fluent Portuguese.
  13. Prefers West Coast hip-hop.
  14. Never leaves a tip.
  15. Always falls for spam email.
  16. Doesn’t make threats, only promises—oh, and a good pork roll.
  17. Doesn’t know the way to San Jose.
  18. Arrested several times for jaywalking.
  19. Can’t read cursive.
  20. Presents as blisters on the hands and feet after exposure to cold and humidity.

For What It’s Worth…

Source: Pinterest

When I was a kid my friends and I had a board game called Masterpiece. The main thing I remember about it was that I was fascinated by the cards of various famous works of art—mostly Twentieth Century works like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wood’s American Gothic, a Thomas Hart Benton, a Picasso. There might have been a few Renaissance paintings in there, or maybe the game makers thought it would be too ridiculous that, say, the Mona Lisa would ever be on the market even though I think it was supposed to be an educational game. And it was educational in a way. The idea was to bid on and win the various works of art. The winner was the one who collected the most valuable paintings and the amounts were completely random—in other words it was almost exactly like the real art world.
In each game one or two paintings would turn out to be a forgery. This made them completely worthless and if you were the sucker who’d bid on and won one chances were you lost. That was funny to me because I always thought, well, you’ve still got the painting, so why does it matter if it’s a forgery?
I was reminded of when I listened to a Studio 360 interview with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck about his film Never Look Away, based on the life of the German painter Gerhard Richter, although the artist in the film is named Kurt Barnet. There’s a scene early in the film where the young Barnet is taken to the Nazi’s infamous exhibition of “degenerate art”, modern paintings and sculptures pulled from German museums and held up for mockery. Some of the works in that exhibition were sold, but most were destroyed. Talking about the scene in Never Look Away Donnersmark explained that many of the paintings and other works of art shown at that exhibition were painstakingly recreated. The recreations then had to be destroyed. The recreations were so perfect there was a risk, even though it was small, that the recreations would be mistaken for the originals. Donnersmark admits that it was hard and I get it: destroying the recreations was a tragic historical reenactment. And, really, were the recreations any less valuable than the originals?

Maybe they were.

Source: Ernst Barlach Haus

Ernst Barlach was a sculptor whose works were in the “degenerate art” exhibit. Born in 1870 he was struggling as a sculptor when World War I broke out. Believing the war would usher in a new artistic age he volunteered as an infantry soldier on the front but was discharged after just three months because of a heart condition. The experience would profoundly change him, though, and he became a pacifist. His highly stylized figures with protruding, but often closed, eyes reflect, I think, a deep sadness. Or maybe I’m just imposing what I know about Barlach onto his works.

If you like a painting or other work of art just because it speaks to you, without knowing anything about the artist, that’s okay, but the artist’s history, the context, the background can add value. The connection to an artist who lived and suffered, whose work came out of deep personal experience, can make the difference between a forgery and a masterpiece.


Going To Extremes.

Since Spring has sprung Venus flytraps have started popping up in garden stores and big box stores and grocery stores and convenience stores and pet stores. They’re everywhere in stores which is ironic because in the wild the Venus flytrap is endangered. This is because it’s adapted to a very specialized habitat—humid, sunny, highly acidic swamps—and its habitat is rapidly disappearing under encroaching development. That’s the downside for any organism that’s adapted for a very specific environment: it’s hard to adapt to change when it comes, and it always does. And it’s why I’m always irked whenever I watch a nature documentary and the narrator gets breathy and swoons over plants and animals that survive in “hostile” or “extreme” environments. Some organisms are even labeled “extremophiles” because adapted to live in places like active volcanoes or under Antarctica, and, sure, to us that seems badass, but think about things from their perspective. To the starfish that’s used to crawling along the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles under the sea, the beach seems like an extreme environment.

Fortunately for the Venus flytrap it’s very easy to grow and will thrive in cultivation as long as its specific needs are met which is why most of the ones for sale are also endangered. Most people who buy one don’t have the patience to do all the care and feeding, or at least the care since the feeding is the coolest part of owning a Venus flytrap and pretty much the only reason most people buy one. And a few people who buy one will make the effort to make their Venus flytrap thrive, which may be part of the plant’s plan.

I remember reading about the Venus flytrap in an issue of National Geographic when I was a kid, and I was fascinated. A plant that would lure in insects and then trap and digest them seemed like something out of science fiction. Maybe they didn’t pull up their roots and walk around but they do move. Some time after that my parents gave me one that they found at a garden store. It eventually died because I didn’t know how to take care of it, but that fascination stayed with me and as an adult I’d get another one. And then I branched out to growing all kinds of carnivorous plants. I filled pots with peat and sphagnum and trays with distilled water and my wife helped me put up shelves with lights because our house mostly gets what plant growers call “indirect semi-shade”. The ideal place to grow such specialized plants is a greenhouse or, well, the wild, but I did the best I could to recreate their bright, humid environment. I ordered plants from strange and distant places like Oakland, California. The Venus flytrap may be the coolest one because it’s the only one that you can really see trapping its prey, but I liked growing sundews too. It was pretty fun watching their mucus-covered tentacles snag a mosquito and slowly wrap around it, suffocating it and eventually digesting it. That’ll teach you to suck my blood, I’d think, although I really didn’t care whether the mosquito had bitten me or even planned to. I liked growing pitcher plants too—both the North American varieties that grow their pitchers straight up in rosettes and the Asian nepenthes that send out vines and grow pitchers at the ends of their leaves. Although all pitcher plants do is just sit there and let insects fall in and slowly drown they’re interesting to look at. And once I’d made that commitment I started adding others. I grew butterworts which don’t eat much but their flat sticky leaves are used to make cheese in Scandinavia, so I don’t know why they’re not called “cheeseworts”, and put up pretty flowers so I could plausibly pass as a bona fide horticulturist and not a garden-variety psychopath taking pleasure in miniature dramas of life and death, mostly death.

For a while I even tried my hand at orchids, following a family tradition: my grandfather grew orchids in a greenhouse he built himself, and anything else he wanted to grow, including a pineapple plant from a pineapple he brought back from a trip to Hawaii, although he probably could have grown one from canned pineapple since he had a green thumb, a green hand, and a green arm pretty much up to his elbow, but that’s another story.

Eventually my plant collection would suffer a triple attack of aphids, whitefly, and neglect—my ambitions outstripped my patience with the difficulty of growing unusual greenery and everything I had died, but there are some growers who will devote their lives to the careful cultivation of rare and endangered plants like the Venus flytrap, and who will even succeed, which brings me back to the idea that the plants themselves have a plan. Imagine a species that, sensing its impending extinction, cultivates a somewhat symbiotic relationship with a more successful species. Is it really miraculous that we see the Venus flytrap as such a cool plant, or is that just one of the ways it’s adapted to survive an increasingly hostile environment?


The Long Walk.

I like to walk. If I didn’t taking the bus home from work most days would be a lot more of a chore because I have to walk a few blocks to the bus stop–and these are Nashville blocks which are variable in size and can be large or small, and there may not be sidewalks, and even where there are sidewalks they tend to be pretty narrow. Nashville is a city built on the idea that everybody drives everywhere, probably because most people do, although I wonder which came first: the drivers or the narrow sidewalks? And, funny enough, even on days when I drive to and from work I park in a parking garage that’s at least half a mile from where I work, which means I have to walk a pretty good distance no matter what, so it’s better if I’m not carrying anything heavy.
Once, outside the building where I work, which is at the corner of West End and 21st Avenue, a young woman carrying a tuba case came up to me and asked where the Blair School of Music was, and I felt really bad about telling her that it was about a mile away because I couldn’t imagine having to schlep a tuba all that way. Even worse there’s really no convenient bus route that would take her there. Then, later, I realized that, as a tuba player, she was probably used to having to schlep it all over the place, and also sharing this story gives me a convenient excuse to use the word “schlep”, but that’s another story.
Anyway the other day I made my usual long walk to the bus stop and, for a change, it was a nice day. Nashville had forty days and forty-one nights of rain in February alone and even though I like to walk the rain tends dampen my enthusiasm. As I got close to the stop the bus passed me so I started running, hoping the driver had seen me. The bus stopped at the stop and a couple of people got off. I kept running and got to the bus. The driver smiled at me as I got on.
“I saw you running,” she said.
“Yeah,” I panted.
“It’s a really nice day,” she said. “You coulda walked.”
Sure, and I’ve even thought about it, but there are stretches with no sidewalk, even places where there’s almost no shoulder, and it’s really too far to walk the whole way, even without schlepping a tuba.

Repetition, Repetition.

One of the repeated stories of art history is that Impressionism began with the invention of the camera. Artists, seeing that there was a technological device that could capture an image of the world as it really is, stopped painting in studios and went outside to capture the effects of light with rapid brushstrokes. Like everything else it’s more complicated than that when you start to look closely—the two major artists of the Impressionist movement are Manet and Monet, and there’s a lot more than just a vowel that separates them.

Still in an overarching way it’s true that’s true—the invention of the camera did coincide with a major change in  art, and it makes me think about repetition in art—how artists went from trying to copy nature to creating more and more individualistic works. Before the camera there was less emphasis on individuality and more emphasis on making something that could easily be copied. And maybe—I’m taking a really big leap here, but it’s an educated leap—something similar happened earlier with the printing press. Poetry, with its emphasis on repetition and rhyme and regular meter, was easy to memorize—in a sense easy to copy, because before the printing press literature had to be copied by hand. After the printing press more writers were free to write in prose, free of the restraints of poetry because they weren’t as concerned about creating works that could be easily memorized and therefore more easily copied.


Questions I Asked My Grade School Teachers That Made Them Regret Telling The Class “There Are No Stupid Questions”

How much skim milk do you have to add to half and half to make it a quarter and a quarter?

How many liters are in a kilogram?

Is there such a thing as a cake chart?

How do you pronounce a semicolon?

Which of the four food groups is Jell-O in?

Did the first person to say “originality is overrated” recognize the irony?

How much does the Tooth Fairy give for dentures?

Will a trip to Helsinki finish your vacation?

How do I get my grandfather to give my nose back?

Isn’t AC/DC’s music always current?

If there’s just one is it THE moeba?

Why does the sign on the restroom door say “Teachers’ Lounge”?

Take A Stand..

An article over at CityLab looks at seat design for public transit around the world, taking in the good, the bad, and–in the case of the Los Angeles bus lines–the psychedelic designs. Many use moquette, which is the peculiar fabric so popular on planes, trains, buses, and and occasionally hotel pillows, although as I’ve mentioned previously Nashville’s new WeGo buses have plain plastic seats that may be easy to clean but are also slippery and with their complete absence of any design are just begging for a permanent marker makeover, although I haven’t seen any redesigned just yet. And there are the moquette-covered seats with a musical design, pictured at left, which is an interesting idea–Nashville being known as Music City–but the printing job was so badly botched no one can name that tune.
The article’s author, Feargus O’Sullivan, gets a bit snarky–a Warsaw, Poland bus seat design evokes “some biblical rain of blood”, Boston’s old MBTA trains have a seat design that “looks like a diagram of a serial killers brain synapses”, and seats on Dublin’s Luas light rail have a design that suggests the city’s “monuments apparently sinking Titanic-like into a sea of fire”–and those are some of the nicer descriptions. He acknowledges the difficulty seat designers face, though:
Seat-cover fabric designers have to create something that looks pleasant for—or at least doesn’t actively offend—the eyes of hundreds of thousands of people. That’s an all-but-impossible task. It’s somewhat cheering that fabric intended to please as many people as possible ends up being not bland, but often wildly eccentric. If nothing else, the interiors of these public vehicles are certainly way more interesting than the interior of almost any private car.
Almost any private car. I think we’ve all had that friend–or maybe I’m just lucky–who eats a lot of fast food and has never cleaned the interior of his 1976 Dodge Dart so when you hitch a ride with him your feet rest on a decade-old detritus of drink cups and burger boxes.
And distinctive seat design–whether creative or horrifying–does serve the function of drawing attention to public transit, which it desperately needs. With increasing traffic congestion public transportation is increasingly important. As a guy I used to work with would say, “People really should use public transit. It’s better for the environment, better for the city, and I’d have an easier time finding a parking space.” And I’d look at him and think about suggesting he should get rid of all those burger boxes on his floorboard, but that’s another story. It just has to be the right kind of attention. An important thing about seat design, O’Sullivan says, is it “shouldnt be so bright and busy that it turns stomachs”. The reason for that is practical as well as aesthetic. A lot of riders of public transit–kids, pregnant women, people too drunk to drive–are already likely to be sick, and a dazzling design could just serve as camouflage. With some designs I’d rather stand and admire them than worry about what I might sit in.

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