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Winter School.

The winter break should have been longer. I envied kids in the southern hemisphere because they got Christmas or whatever December holidays they celebrated if they had any, right in the middle of summer. Having to go to school in the summer didn’t seem so bad to me because I figured in Australia or Brazil the weather was pretty much summer all the time, sort of like living in Florida, so it’s not as though they were missing out on anything. In the northern hemisphere summer school is a punishment, a purgatory for kids who flunked something vital like math or shop class so badly but whose parents didn’t want them to be held back. In the southern hemisphere summer school is just school. Granted the winter break seemed like it stretched on forever because it spanned not just two whole months but two whole years, and compared to Thanksgiving and Easter holidays that were just a couple of days at most the winter break that stretched out for two whole weeks seemed at the start almost like an eternity until it was over and then it seemed like hardly any time at all, not even long enough to get bored with whatever we’d gotten for Christmas. And I realize that part of it was going back to school in the middle of winter. At least in the fall we’d go back to school just as the weather was changing, or at least as it was supposed to change; since this was Tennessee summer lasted through the middle of October, but that’s another story. The winter break just pulled us out of school toward the end of dull, gray, cold December where we at least had Christmas to look forward to and sent us back to school at the beginning of dull, gray, cold January with nothing to look forward to but dull, gray, cold February and slightly less dull, gray, cold March and perhaps there were months beyond that were brighter and warmer but our bodies and brains were wrapped up in so much cotton we couldn’t imagine that far. And all through grade school we were going back to the same classes, the same schedule, we’d been on before. It wasn’t like the fall and starting over when everything was new and there was a chance to start over. Coming back from winter break meant coming back to the same crappy chewed up pencils, getting back the exams we’d all failed because no one could concentrate on anything school-related in late December, and the baloney sandwich I’d forgotten in my locker. At least in college going back after the winter break meant the start of a new semester, new classes, but then it was hard to make that shift in the cold. I should have picked a college in Australia.
Here’s a winter back to school poem.

Insecurity is like acne: at its worst when we need it least,
But it still pops up unexpectedly throughout our life.
We can be impeccably decked, our hair coiffed and our pants creased,
And still be filled with interior strife.
And even the most grizzled and avuncular
Will occasionally be stricken by lesions carbuncular.
Why can we never be happy with ourselves as we are?
And why must we pop that pustule when we know it’ll leave a scar?
They’re afflictions we associate with adolescence
And yet they drag on all through senescence.
Insecurity and acne hound us as life’s trails we wend,
Like a poem whose writer can’t figure out how to end.

The Biggest And The Brightest.

Source: SkyView App. I made this on my way to work.

It’s been rainy and overcast for several days now, but over the weekend the clouds finally broke up, the sun came out, and in the mornings Venus has been bright in the southeast. This morning I noticed something almost as bright underneath it: Jupiter. Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the night sky, after the Sun, Moon, and Venus, which always makes me wonder, why did ancient astronomers call it Jupiter? How did they know it was the biggest planet in the solar system? Venus is brighter, and closer, which makes it appear closer. Jupiter is so large some astronomers think it’s really a failed star–which kind of makes sense since it’s really a big ball of mostly hydrogen and helium, with no solid surface, which seriously undermines the plot of Clifford D. Simak’s Desertion, although it does make sense that the climax of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 revolves around Jupiter becoming a second sun in our solar system even though in his novel 2001, unlike the movie, the ill-fated Discovery One heads to Saturn, but that’s another story.
Jupiter spins around the Sun taking almost twelve years at a time to make a full orbit. Ancient Chinese astronomers associated it with prosperity, and Babylonians associated it with their god Marduk who gradually rose to become top of the pantheon.
And it’s got that big swirling red spot, a hurricane so large Earth could fit into it three times, that was definitely first seen in 1831, but may have first been spotted in 1664 and there have been signs it might be clearing up but somehow it just keeps going. Then there are Jupiter’s moons–at least seventy-nine. The four largest, Europa, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto, were first seen by Galileo, who started the tradition of naming them after Jupiter’s lovers, and luckily for astronomers the Roman god, and his Greek counterpart, got around a lot, and more than five hundred years later we’re still learning new things about them. Europa’s ice may hide life, and just last month astronomers got pictures of a volcano erupting on Io, which is the most active moon in the solar system.
Anyway, after a lot of digging I could only figure that it was just dumb luck that the biggest planet in the solar system just happens to be named Jupiter. And in an interesting astronomical coincidence about twelve hours later, hanging in the same part of the sky, was Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Source: SkyView app. I made this one in the backyard in the dark so you can’t see anything except stars, or maybe pixels.

The Driving Force.

There’s a story about a country farmer who’s never seen or heard of a car and when one drives past his farm he runs and gets his shotgun and fires at it several times. The driver jumps out and runs off into the woods. The car, still running, rumbles off down the road. The farmer’s wife comes out and says, “Well, did you kill it?” The farmer says, “No, but I made it let go of that poor feller it had a hold of.” Maybe it’s just a story, or maybe it’s based on a real event. I had a distant relative named Uncle Rupert who was known for shooting at almost anything that came onto his property–squirrels, deer, encyclopedia salesmen, endangered birds–although he never, as far as I know, shot at a car. He did, during World War II, try to drive to Europe only to turn back when he realized it was full of foreigners, but that’s another story.
I thought about that story the other day when I heard about people in Phoenix, Arizona, violently attacking self-driving cars, including at least one person who fired a gun at one, not realizing there was a passenger in there and that a self-driving car may not be as quick as the older models to let go of whomever it’s got a hold of.
Anyway it got me thinking about the major cultural shifts that self-driving cars will bring, and I do think they’re coming. The recent developments of self-driving vehicles may not be the nail in the coffin of the traditional automobile but I think the undertaker’s making measurements. And as a modern mode of transportation the automobile has had a profound cultural impact in its time and the self-driving car doesn’t represent that big a change. It’s merely the next stage of a gradual evolution. Over the 20th century the automobile changed from a novelty to a necessity, from a short-range way of getting around to a device that can carry a person hundreds of miles. The cell phone has made it possible to reach a person even if they’re driving, and GPS devices make it almost impossible, or at least really difficult to get lost, unless you’re out of signal range, and it’s increasingly hard to find a place where there isn’t a signal. The days of unfolding a giant map and trying to figure out if you should have made that left turn at Albuquerque are gone. It’s hard to predict what changes self-driving cars will bring but, among other things, the driver’s license will no longer be a rite of passage. Kids will no longer need their parents to shuttle them around, not when the car that carries them to soccer practice can drive itself. I’d like to think the drive to and from work would be a nice chance to grab a quick nap but for most people it’ll probably be work time, which gives a whole new meaning to telecommuting.
It was that last thought that made me realize I was contemplating all this on the bus and that, aside from removing the driver and being a little more convenient, or a lot more convenient, driverless cars won’t be that much different from public transportation, which has me already looking to the horizon to wonder what the next big advance will be.
I hope it’s that we can drive to Europe.

Deadpans.

Source: USA Today

The recent passing of two performers has really taken me back to my past, two performers in very different genres but whose similar deadpan styles were a great education in comedy. Which is funny because one of them wasn’t even a comedian, but Mean Gene Okerlund was the funniest person in wrestling, and given how over-the-top and ridiculous wrestling is that’s saying something.
I’ve never really been a fan of wrestling–watching guys throw each other around just isn’t entertaining to me even when they have crazy characters and wear brightly colored leotards–but a couple of my friends were. One of them also had an illegal cable descrambler, which made his house the place to watch a lot of movies even though he felt compelled to throw a towel over the cable box every time a police car went by but that’s another story, and a large group of us gathered there one afternoon to watch Wrestlemania III. For my friends it was all about the grudge match between Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant. For me the best part was Mean Gene Okerlund’s interviews with the wrestlers. Even though Okerland wrestled some his main career was announcer, ringmaster, and interviewer. The “Mean” was ironic, of course; Okerlund was known as one of the nicest people in wrestling, and his quiet gentility made him the perfect contrast to the wrestlers. While wrestlers screamed and raged and threatened to destroy their opponent in an upcoming match Okerlund would stand there holding the microphone, saying nothing. He’d glance at the camera, the faintest twinkle in his eye hinting at “Can you believe this guy?” But, like the wrestlers, he never let the mask drop. His only judgment at the end of an interview was to quietly say, “Wow.”

Source: MeTV

And then there was the purposely funny but just as understated comedy of Bob Einstein. I was never a fan of Evel Knieval but some of my friends were–it seems to be a pattern–so I loved the stunts of Super Dave Osborne, whom I first saw on David Letterman. Although the running joke of Super Dave Osborne’s daredevil stunts always going horribly wrong was predictable Einstein’s deadpan delivery always killed me, and while I was in college his animated series Super Dave: Daredevil for Hire was always a welcome study break. Most of the time when I hear about the passing of a famous person I learn something surprising about them. Yet I wasn’t surprised to learn that Einstein was the older brother of Albert Brooks and that he worked on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with Steve Martin. Just like them, and just like Mean Gene Okerlund, Bob Einstein would fully commit to a ridiculous premise and make it funny by playing it completely straight.
Hail and farewell.

High, Low.

When Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and stuck it in a museum he was making a point about what’s art and what isn’t, but what point was he making? Was he saying that a mass-produced object in the right setting becomes a work of art, or was he saying that people should look at mass-produced objects as art no matter where they are? After all somebody had to design a urinal, and something can be useful as well as aesthetically pleasing. Or at least aesthetically interesting.

What I’m getting at is that the definition of art is pretty loose, even arbitrary. Actually Calvin & Hobbes put it best:

Source: Pinterest

Decorating a dumpster turns it from, well, just a dumpster, into art. Or at least turns it into a background for art, a place for art. Put a picture on it, any picture, and a dumpster becomes a museum too.

And I can’t think of a way to segue fluidly into this but years ago I was in Edinburgh and a homeless man came up and asked me for some change. “I’m not gonna lie to ye,” he said, “I just really want a pint.” I couldn’t resist that honesty so I gave him a pound. He hugged me and thanked me. He told me his name was Hamish and we started talking. He asked where I was from. When I said Nashville he yelled “Elvis! My favorite singer!” I didn’t have the heart to say that while Elvis did a lot of recording in Nashville his home base was Memphis, but the more Hamish talked the more I realized there was plenty he could tell me about Elvis. Hamish was the first person to tell me Elvis was a Monty Python fan which I believed but which also completely changed my perspective of Elvis because it’s not something that often comes up when people talk about The King. It turns out the Pythons themselves didn’t know Elvis was a fan–Eric Idle only learned what a fan Elvis was a few years ago–which still surprises me. Elvis wasn’t shy about contacting people—consider his meeting with Nixon in the White House—so the only thing I still wonder about is why he never called up any of the Pythons to tell them he was a fan.

 

High Resolution.

When making goals the key is to remember the acronym SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rank, and something that starts with T. With that in mind here are my goals for the coming year:

Lose ten pounds.

Exercise daily.

Make healthier eating choices–I might even try these “vegetables” everyone talks about.

Do at least twenty minutes of exercise daily.

Read a book.

Always use reusable bags at the grocery store.

Join a volunteer group.

Learn to make my own olives.

Take up smoking.

Find out what that smell is.

Run fifteen minutes in under a mile.

Write thank you notes to complete strangers.

Pay homage to the Roman god Janus.

Quit smoking.

Climb a tree.

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

Get some new underwear.

Use “rugby” as an adjective, but irregularly so no one can tell whether it’s good or bad.

Rock this town, rock it inside out.

Get less sleep.

Get into fewer arguments with lawn furniture.

Spy on llamas.

Find out the difference between liniment and salve.

Talk to myself in the elevator.

Buy a scented phone.

Meet friends for lunch in the middle of the night.

Offer free wi-fi to turtles.

Take off, you hoser.

Take a shower.

Find out the difference between jelly and jam.

You fools, don’t you realize you’re in danger? They’re here already!

I wish I could be like David Watts.

Solo Nixon podria ir a China.

Drink more liquids.

Bury pennies.

I’d like to make it a true daily double, Alex.

Go into a studio to record an album. Get in an argument with myself over creative differences.

Fletcherize.

Weave window blinds into baskets.

Air out my feet at least twice a week.

Slam a revolving door.

Play chess with Death on a Scandinavian shoreline. Cheat.

Would sixty gallons be sufficient?

Find out what “T” stands for.

Give my regards to Broadway.

You know who you never meet anymore? Guys named Clarence.

Find out if there’s a noun version of the word “crotchety”.

Never wear a leopard-print leotard in public.

Introduce myself to everyone by saying, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

Give the people a light and they will follow it anywhere.

Appear in a feature film, or at least pay full price to see one in the theater.

Answer that letter from the Queen.

Get hives. No, the ones you keep bees in.

Gain £10.

Do laundry. It’s been six months.

Find out the difference between a cape and a cloak.

Run away from the circus, join a normal family.

Anthropomorphize.

Dress up as a priest. Walk into bars.

Get a credit card. Use it only for gourmet salsa.

Harness the power of static electricity.

Offer unsolicited advice to hackberry trees.

Try ziplining as a creative way to get to work.

Remember the three most important things in genetic engineering: mutation, mutation, mutation.

Try club soda. If that doesn’t work do you have any linseed oil?

Give the conn to my first officer a couple of times a week.

Right, but dogs can look up.

Getting There.

Source: Safely Endangered

Last year I wrote a post about the length of years throughout the solar system, comparing all the planets and Pluto to an Earth year. To recap: it takes Pluto 248 years to orbit the sun, 165 years for Neptune, 84 years for Uranus, a little over 29 years for Saturn, 12 years for Jupiter, 687 days for Mars, 225 days for Venus, and 88 days for Mercury. This year I thought I’d do something a little different, inspired by Voyager 2, which, on December 10, 2018, left the solar system and became the second human-made object to enter interstellar space, following Voyager 1 which crossed over in 2012.
Voyager 2 is currently moving along at more than 34,000 miles per hour, and it took a little more than forty-one years to travel eighteen and a half billion miles. Radio signals from the craft, still being sent, take about sixteen and a half hours to reach Earth. That got me thinking about speed, specifically the speed of light. Voyager 2 isn’t anywhere close to the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second, and technically can’t reach that speed since mr = m0 / sqrt (1 – v2 / c2 ), but that’s another story.
Light from the sun, on the other hand, can travel at the speed of light and to put things in perspective here’s how long it takes to reach different markers through the solar system:
It takes light from the sun three minutes to reach Mercury.
It takes light from the sun six minutes to reach Venus.
It takes light from the sun eight minutes to reach Earth.
It takes light from the sun about twelve minutes and forty seconds to reach Mars.
It takes light from the sun about forty-three minutes to reach Jupiter.
It takes light from the sun more than seventy-nine minutes to reach Saturn.
Does sunlight ever reach Uranus? Yes, it does, but it takes sunlight more than two and a half hours–almost 160 minutes–to get to Uranus.
It takes light from the sun more than four hours to reach Neptune.
It takes light from the sun five and a half hours to reach Pluto–just under how long it would take to fly from New York to Los Angeles, minus the time you have to spend in security, which takes about two and a half hours if they have to examine Uranus.
And it takes that same sunlight four and a half years to reach Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. At its current rate Voyager 2 will get there in about eighty-six thousand, two hundred years, minus the time it’ll have to spend going through security.

Alpha and Beta Centauri. Source: Wikipedia

Will we eve get there? Maybe, but the future is very hard to predict.

Art Matters.

When I took my first art history course it was simple. In fact it was just as simple when I took my last art history course. Art history was like regular history: a linear progression of events, or movements, starting with cave paintings, which were prehistory really, and going up through the millenia with widely spaced high points: Egypt, Greece, Rome, then there was the Renaissance, and the rediscovery of perspective. Neo-classicism gave way to Romanticism and then Impressionism was followed by Fauvism or Expressionism. As the chronometer ticked over to the 20th century everything exploded into a bunch of isms: Cubism, Orphism, Futurism. World War I prompted Dadaism and Surrealism. Before World War II the major center of art was Paris. After World War II it was New York, with Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop Art followed by…well, if they made it to that point the art history classes just sort of fizzled out there. Nothing was left: art history had ended. For some art historians Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the capstone. For others the end had come before that: the first time a prehistoric person placed pigment on a cave wall was leading up to the moment Jackson Pollock dripped a blob of paint, breaking the connection between brush and canvas that had been the basis of all art. The greatest emphasis was on artists who were mostly white and mostly European and mostly men, artists who were centered in Italy, Paris, and New York, with brief asides to Berlin, Moscow, and London, because they were the Artists Who Mattered.
Even from the beginning, from that first art history class, there was a question in the back of my mind: what about artists in other parts of the world? Artists from Japan, the South Pacific, South America, and Africa influenced a lot of those 20th century isms, so why did the mostly anonymous artists who produced those works matter less than Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso? The history of art history follows a pretty simple pattern. Vasari, whose Lives Of The Artists is considered the first work of art history, focused on artists he knew. In the 16th century the internet was pretty rudimentary and unreliable; dial-up hadn’t even been invented yet, and that remained true up to and even through 1950 when E.H. Gombrich published The Story Of Art, the book that was either used or influenced every art history course I ever took. And I get it. In order to make sense of art, in order to make a story of art, a few scholars had to pick what they liked and cram it into an alley. And to keep the art history classes simple we students were supposed to ignore the buildings, the whole cities, the whole world on either side.
I like taking pictures of graffiti I find but I’m also always curious about the artists behind it, and some time ago created an Instagram account just to follow them, and through that I learned that an artist I’d seen, whom I only knew by the tag Betor, had died of a drug overdose on Christmas Day 2016. Or rather it helped explain some pictures I found. Through Instagram I learned Betor was part of a group of artists who worked together and influenced each other–what art historians might call a movement, or what they might label with an ism.

These works aren’t done by Betor. They’re done by friends of Betor, artists who admired his work. They’re tributes. There are more on Instagram, and messages too from artists who knew him, and others who are sorry they never met him but admired his work. I feel the same way. Betor was a person who mattered. An organization, A Betor Way, was founded in his memory to help anyone struggling with addiction.

There is no one story of art. Art doesn’t end with the death of any artist, or with any particular movement. And if I had to give only one explanation for why I’m so interested in graffiti it would be this: because it matters.

 

So Long, And Thanks For All The Coffee.

Every possession and every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour.

-Schopenhauer

Some of my best ideas come to me in coffee shops. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s the change of scenery, although I’ve had those best ideas in coffee shops I know well. Maybe it’s the combination of the familiar and the strange—the constant interruptions of people coming and going. Once while I was writing a story in a coffee shop, a story that wasn’t going that well and that I was only writing down to get it out of my head, a woman asked me, “Are you journaling?” I said yes and we talked for a minute and then she got her latte and left. Then as I went back to writing the story took a weird turn and became so much better. Don’t knock the person from Porlock, but that’s another story. Or maybe it’s because I’ve had some good ideas in coffee shops and those have just happened to foster other good ideas.

I also prefer local coffee shops. They all have some features in common but every one is unique, too—unlike those chain places that you find everywhere. So I’m sad that one of my favorite coffee shops, JJ’s Market, closed December 22nd, 2018.

JJ’s has been around since 1971—almost as long as I’ve been alive. When the Noshville Delicatessen next door, a more recent arrival, closed and a developer wanted to raze the block the owner of JJ’s went to court. His lease, after all, was good through 2022. That was a few years ago, but when I talked to the owner he said a lot of circumstances meant he had to close. The leaky roof would cost $100,000 to fix, and JJ’s was the last tenant on a block in an area where new buildings, and prices, are going up. The midtown area of Nashville used to be a funky place with bars and coffee shops, but thanks to gentrification it’s rapidly getting defunked. In spite of JJ’s being just a block away from a major chain coffee shop, not to mention a chain that specializes in pastries and, just one block over, a chain bagel place, it remained popular and crowded. Some mornings there I listened in on business meetings with four people in suits, and it tickled me to think high-powered deals were being made at JJ’s funky, wobbly tables and overstuffed sofas. The leaky roof with exposed ductwork and the bare brick walls added to the charm. Once I overheard a musician talking to an agent—and being around creative people might be another reason I get good ideas in coffee shops. People left books lying on tables or in the bookcase by the register, where there was also a selection of board games.

JJ’s was more than just a coffee shop. You could even say it was world famous, included in Ariel Rubinstein’s Atlas Of Cafes. The front section had coolers with a wide selection of craft beers. You could also get some local brews on tap, or fill a growler to go. They had a selection of European chocolates, magazines, Japanese snack foods, and ceramic mugs made by a local artist. And there’s something really funny about a place with its own specialty coffees called “Studying Nietzsche” and “James Brown”.

Companies like WeWork are creating workspaces for people who want to get away from the traditional office, and hotels are redesigning their lobbies to be community hangouts, but JJ’s created a community space decades before just by being what the community wanted.

A poem literally stamped into one of the tables ends, “You are marvelous./The gods want to twilight/in you.”

It’s a sad but fitting epitaph for a coffee shop that was part of the community, was even a community unto itself, for almost half a century.

Hail and farewell, JJ’s Market.

 

Dragon Through The Holidays.

Source: Washington Post

Around the holidays, if we can find time, my wife and I make a couple of travel mugs of hot chocolate and drive through neighborhoods looking at people’s Christmas decorations. For some reason once the season is over I always forget that the lights are one of my favorite things about the holidays. When I was a kid I begged my parents to get Christmas lights because I envied other houses that had them, and then we did get them and I realized it’s not that exciting to have lights on the outside when you’re inside the house.

Putting up lights and other decorations is a way of sharing the holiday spirit with the community, but it’s also a personal expression. The holidays bring people together but everyone also has their own ways of celebrating. There’s a house I pass every day on my way to work that has a large inflated Santa on one side of their yard and a bear holding a dreidel on the other and it always makes me smile.

I thought even more about the overlap between the individual and the community at the holidays when I read about Diana Rowland, a writer—her books include My Life As A White Trash Zombie and How The White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back and they sound fantastic—who made a Christmas display with dragons in her front yard. And that sounds fantastic too. I love creative decorating and the dragons are also a Halloween-Christmas crossover. The best decorations, I say, are the ones that can multitask.

Anyway Rowland got an anonymous letter from a neighbor:

Source: Washington Post

There’s a lot to pick apart here. Why are the dragons only “marginally acceptable” at Halloween? Since when are dragons “demonic”? And isn’t the real spirit of Christmas, or, for that matter, this time of year no matter what holidays you celebrate, the spirit of joy?

Rowland had the perfect response to the anonymous complaint, too: she put up more dragons.

After all it’s also the season of giving.

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