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Raise It Up.

Back in the ‘80’s when I first saw a documentary on New York graffiti I was surprised that some people went to jail for tagging subway cars or walls. I’m not sure why that surprised me, although I still think that if someone gets busted for graffiti it would make more sense to put their talents to good use doing some community service or something than it would to throw them in jail, which could just make the problem worse. Back in the ‘80’s I also heard a joke that’s stayed with me: a cop tells a kid, “A night in the slammer will teach you a lesson,” and the kid says, “Yeah, if I want to learn to be a junkie, hooker, or thief,” but that’s another story.

Every time I see graffiti, something that isn’t obviously there legally, I think about the risks the artist took, especially the risk of getting caught. And then I see something like the tag MENAS left and I’m even more impressed. This was going to eleven. I had to go by there at least a dozen times before I could get the picture above, and I could only get it from a moving car while my wife was driving. It shows up on Google Maps so here’s a picture that gives you an idea of its placement and how difficult that must have been.

Embiggen for the full effect. And here’s an aerial shot, also from Google Maps, although the red circle is mine, that also gives an idea of how difficult placing this tag must have been.

There’s also something to be said for the sharp, clean lines. Whoever Menas is they’ve clearly shown some skills, and a willingness to take some risks. Do they really deserve to go to jail for that?

Piece Of Pie.

Even though summer’s almost over there are still some warm days left and a chance to revisit one of childhood’s simple pleasures: making a mud pie. The following is excerpted from the recipe book Get Baked: The High Art Of All Forms Of Pastry by Eunice Phelan.

How To: Make A Mud Pie.

Locally sourced mud pies are best but this may not be possible if you live in a coastal area or in parts of the American southwest where the soil is too sandy to adhere properly, creating more of a sludge than bona fide mud. In these areas, or if you live in a city and don’t have easy access to topsoil, try commercial potting soil. Its dark color and perlite can give your mud pie a nice chocolate cookie quality similar to Oreo or Hydrox. Commercial potting soil tends toward dryness, though, so check on local water restrictions.

For added appeal you can blend commercial potting soil with lighter brown soil, if you can find it. This blending is a very advanced technique that requires more patience, skill, and practice than most mud pie makers are going to have, but the results are worth it.

In much of the southeast you’ll find a dense clay-rich soil that’s a perfect mud pie base. Add enough water to give it a consistency that’s easy to shape but not too soft. You can always add more water but it can take hours or even days for any excess water to evaporate. Mud pies always benefit from being served right away and can be spoiled if it rains or if you just forget about them.

Once you have the right consistency place your mud base in a pan. I find a round 9-inch metal baking pan works best. Metal is prone to rust, especially if left outside, but holds its shape better than plastic. I find mud pies in metal pans also dry faster.

Once your pan is filled add finishing touches like a crimped edge and vertical cuts in the center. Garnish with leaves for color.

Serves 6-8.


Thank You.

Every time I get off the bus I tell the driver “Thank you.” I never leave through the side door, even if it’s closer to where I’m sitting when the bus stops, and if the side door is closer I hurry to the front so I don’t hold up anybody just so I can offer a nice parting word to the driver. It’s Labor Day today which got me thinking about that, and about bus drivers I’ve known.
If you rode a bus to school do you remember your first day? I distinctly remember that a few blocks from my house a kid came running out into his yard. I’d seen this kid around the neighborhood–he looked like a miniature Harpo Marx, minus the trench coat and the horn, and I never heard him talk either. I just knew he was younger than me. The driver stopped opened the door just as Harpo Jr.’s mother ran out to grab him.
“Does he ride this bus?” the driver asked.
His mother shook his head and we drove on.
That bus driver was Ms. Owens, who always wore sunglasses and a bright pink shirt and jeans, and who had a frizzy mane of bright red hair. You’d think this would make her stand out but there was at least one other driver who looked just like her, which is why, that first week of school, I got on the wrong bus. One by one, or sometimes in clusters, other kids got off until I was the last one and the poor bus driver had to drive around asking people if they knew where I lived until we passed my mother who was driving around the neighborhood asking people if they’d seen me. I don’t think I ever thanked that driver; I still appreciate all her effort and I don’t mind that she kept insisting I was a girl, but that’s another story.
A few years later Mrs. Owens was still my regular bus driver when a major snowstorm hit and she did her best to get us all home, creeping along through snow and darkness at inches per hour at times. She made all of us give her our home phone numbers as we got off and once she got home she called every one of our parents to make sure we’d gotten home safely.
In high school my regular bus driver was a funny little gnome named Russ who could barely see over the steering wheel and who I’m pretty sure had checked out the school library’s copy of Moby Dick so he could sit on it. We always said “Thanks, Russ” when we got off the bus, and he always said, “Y’all have a nice day.” He never said anything else. We even made a game of trying to get him to say something different, because we were teenagers and therefore jerks.
“Thanks for the ride, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have a nice day, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have they found the white whale yet, Russ?”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
Even now I thank bus drivers, even when it’s the only thing I say to them, although it’s the chatty ones I remember. There was the older woman who liked talking to passengers, and who one day asked me what my name was. Then she told me I’d never forget her name: “Loretta Lynn.” She was right, and I thanked her for also recording Coal Miner’s Daughter.
There was also the driver who I saw every day for a couple of weeks, then my schedule changed so I took a different bus for about a week, and then it changed back, and the first day as I was getting on the driver grinned and said, “Where you been?” It was nice to know someone was looking out for me.
I even thank the bus drivers who annoy me, like the one who kept pulling over every few blocks, frequently between stops, to check his phone, even though bus drivers are supposed to put their phones in a box while they’re driving. As frustrating as it was I know I shouldn’t make hasty judgments about people, and I had plenty of time to make a slow judgment about him. Maybe someone in his family was having a baby, or major surgery, and he couldn’t get someone else to take his shift so he had to keep checking his phone for news. Maybe there was something else big going on in his life, like an offer for a different job.
Anyway I’ve got the day off from work today so I won’t be riding the bus, but tomorrow if I do I’ll thank the driver.

Enough Isn’t Enough.

Minimalism was an art movement that rose to prominence in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, probably because, if there are two decades that absolutely screamed excess, it would be the 1960’s and ‘70’s. If the recent fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock should remind us of everything it’s how weird it was that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Sha Na Na all performed on the same stage. Not at the same time, and, yeah, okay, maybe it wasn’t that weird, but still if that’s not excess I don’t know what is.

Anyway it’s a principle in art as well as physics that every movement has an equal and opposite movement. Well, maybe not really opposite, and not necessarily even equal—a counter-movement may always be as popular as the movement that inspired it. Such is the case with Maximalism, although it can be hard to define. In art how much is too much? A friend of mine says that certain films, like 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, “make excess into a virtue”, which is a phrase I love, but it’s hard to define, and kind of like that famous definition of pornography: you only really know it when you see it.

Maybe that’s why Maximalism is a term that mainly gets applied to things like David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel Infinite Jest, or Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that he performs non-stop over twenty-four hours, which has gotta take a toll not just on him but the audience too.

And then there’s this that I found stuck to a wall of an industrial building.

From a distance it looked so small, but the colors got my attention, and the closer I got the more the depth of the design made it look bigger and bigger and bigger. Within its own small space it really stretched to excess.

Punctuate The Positive.

Review Of Punctuation Marks


Period -This simple dot was the first punctuation mark invented. It was created accidentally by medieval monks who tapped their pens on the parchment when afflicted with writer’s block, then eventually gave up. In British grammar this punctuation mark is known as the “full stop” because the British still communicate by telegram.


Comma-A dot with a tail dangling below the line of text the comma is used to divide sentence clauses, items in lists, and occasionally exhausted boxers.


Colon-Two vertical dots. The colon is the punctuation mark commonly used to both divide and indicate connections between two items or clauses, as in the case of analogies, and is also the punctuation mark most likely to invade an undeveloped territory and claim its resources.


Semicolon-A dot placed vertically over a comma. The semicolon is frequently used to divide sentences of clauses of the same or similar value. Although serving a slightly lesser function than the colon the semicolon prefers fair trade practices, and both punctuation marks should be checked regularly in texts aged fifty years and older.


Question mark-A curved line with a straight section pointing downward over a period the question mark indicates an interrogative even in the absence of words such as “Why?” or “Where?” An upside down and backward-facing question mark is placed at the beginning of interrogatives in Spanish because it’s a polite language that doesn’t want to spring a question on you when you’re not expecting it.


Exclamation point-This straight line over a period is used to indicate excitement, surprise, or emphasis. In British grammar this punctuation mark is known as “the boingy dance stick”.


Quotation marks-Essentially commas, but placed at the top of the text line, quotation marks may be either straight or inverted to indicate speech or conversation within a text. In British grammar only one quotation mark is used at the beginning and end of a statement, but in American grammar two quotation marks placed together are used, because Americans are twice as loud.

( )

Parentheses-Curved lines used to close off a section of text. The beginning of the parenthetical is indicated by a line curving outward to the left while the closure is indicated by a line curving outward to the right. Text within parentheses should be treated carefully and may be poisonous.

[ ]

Square brackets-parenthesis made of straight lines, also known as hard brackets or crotchets, square brackets are used in mathematical equations and parentheticals inserted by a computer.

{ }

Curly brackets-also known as moustache brackets these are for parentheticals written in cursive.


Pound sign-While traceable back to Roman times for a measure of weight this became a popular symbol for the British pound in the 19th century, although some computer keyboards recognized Shift-3 as £. Now popularly known as a “hashtag” it’s served with eggs and bacon.


Ampersand-This punctuation mark is used as a substitute by people who are too lazy to write out the word “and” but still have the energy to say “ampersand”.


Asterisk-This star-shaped punctuation mark is commonly used to draw attention to a footnote.

Dagger-This punctuation mark is for secondary footnotes and used to stab people who don’t read the first footnote.


Umlaut-Two dots placed vertically over a letter, the letter U in this example. The umlaut is the only punctuation mark that does not have a grammatical or phonic use; its sole function is to indicate Scandinavian death metal.



Getting Elevated.

Even though I ride in elevators almost every day I still like them. The elevator is a wonderful piece of technology. For those in Britain it’s called a “lift”, which seems weird to me. If you’re in an elevator going down in Britain is it called a “lower”? And it would have been weird if Roald Dahl had written a book called Charlie And The Great Glass Lift—it would have sounded like a heist committed by glaziers, but that’s another story.

It does bother me that most of the elevators I ride in now are the ones with four solid metal walls. I like elevators with a window that looks out onto the world. That’s probably because when I was a kid my father would sometimes take the family out to dinner with business clients and then we’d go to the Sheraton hotel, back then called the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, in downtown Nashville. It had a revolving restaurant—which is still there, and looks like a flying saucer landed on top of the building, although the restaurant doesn’t revolve anymore. Watching the skyline change was interesting but what I really liked was the Sheraton was one of those hotels that had elevators with curved windows that faced the interior of the building, and I’d stand there and watch in amazement as we zoomed up from the lobby to the top floor.

Recently the maintenance guys in the building where I work have shut down one of the elevators for, I hope, some good reason, so the two that remain in operation get pretty crowded. I find myself talking to a lot more people now, and I recently discovered that the ride from my floor to the lobby is just long enough to tell Steven Wright’s elevator joke:

I got into an elevator at work and this man followed in after me… I pushed “1” and he just stood there… I said, “Hi, where you going?” He said, “Phoenix.” So I pushed Phoenix. A few seconds later the doors opened, two tumbleweeds blew in.

And it even leaves a little extra time for people to laugh uncomfortably and move away from me.

Then the other morning a woman got into the elevator with me and as she did her phone suddenly said, “Turn left. Your destination will be on your left.”

We laughed and I said, “I hope you put in the right directions and this is where you’re going.” It didn’t occur to me to ask if by any chance she might be on her way to Phoenix.


Hooked On A Feeling.

Not everybody likes art. Let me back up and rephrase that: not everyone’s interested in art. And that’s okay. Nobody’s interested in everything. I find all kinds of things fascinating—sometimes things I didn’t even think about will interest me, and I’ve gotten drawn into long conversations with people about their hobbies, but even I have things that just can’t hold my attention, as my college economics professor learned, but that’s another story. So not everybody’s interested in art but I think almost all people appreciate having it around. Imagine if hotel rooms, lobbies, or other spaces were just blank. It’d be pretty dull. It might even be unnerving. You might not realize what it is that’s missing, just that there’s something that’s not quite right. Or maybe hotels just hang up pictures to distract you from the bedbugs.

Anyway this is what got me thinking about that:

It also got me thinking about when I was younger and had this idea that the way to define “good” art was that it inspired some kind of emotional reaction, and let me add that this was years, maybe even a decade, before I first read Aristotle, although he limited the emotions he thought art should inspire to pity and terror, and I eventually realized that, hey, pretty much all art inspires some kind of emotion. Even if you stand in front of it and say, “Well that sucks” that’s still an emotional reaction, one that might even be strong enough to distract you from the bedbugs.

Here’s a wider view of that graffiti:

I like the words–I especially like the way the artist has used cursive and the way the artist has made a U that kind of looks like a Y, and the possibility that the artist is asking, “Why feel it?” But it’s that figure on the left that makes it something even more. Here’s a closer look:

That the figure is headless suggests mindlessness, disappearance, invisibility–but it also invites us to put ourselves in the position of the art. Instead of looking at me, it might say, put yourself in my place. What do you see? What do you feel?

It’s Hard Out There.

It started a few years ago when breweries in the United States began to offer “hard cider” or, as it’s known in the rest of the world, “cider”. It caught on. People liked having an alcoholic fruit beverage made with a fruit other than grapes, and the convenience of having alcohol in their apple juice without having to go to prison or add their own alcohol since the combination of apple juice and vodka has the taste, smell, and many other attributes of butane. Soon pear cider followed, and although cider from other pomaceous fruits hasn’t caught on yet someone out there is cultivating medlars right now.

What did follow was “hard” versions of other beverages. “Hard lemonade” was soon offered, and then “hard orange soda”, quickly followed by “hard grape soda”, which caused red wine producers around the world to say, “Why didn’t we think of that?” until they tried it and realized they hadn’t tried it because it was terrible. There was “hard ginger ale”, and “hard iced tea” for people who wanted all the Southern charm of a mint julep without the mint or the julep or anything else except the alcohol. There was “hard cream soda” and “hard fruit punch” for people who wanted to combine all the joys of childhood nostalgia with a DUI. At some point someone started making “hard root beer”, or, as it’s known in the rest of the world, “what is wrong with you?”

Source: gifimage

Maybe it started earlier than that. The flavors of amaretto and Irish cream had been added to coffee for decades by people who wanted to combine the taste of liqueurs with being able to stay jittery all night. In the early ‘90’s a brewery west of the Rockies started making a beverage called “Zima”. It was very popular with a previously untapped demographic, guys who wore turtlenecks all the time, even though it was really just a combination of Sprite and vodka and had all the taste, smell, and many other attributes of sparkling butane. In chain restaurants glazes and barbecue sauces infused with bourbon and other whiskies became a staple and were slathered on steak, chicken, fish, and pork, which meant some nine-year olds who ordered the all-you-can-eat rib platter were able to combine all the joys of childhood with a DUI without the nostalgia.

As history has shown there is no idea so terrible that it can’t be made worse by marketing. Not content with “hard” sodas, teas, juices, sparkling waters, and milk, as well as milk substitutes made from soy, almonds, oats, rice, and eggplant, the industry started offering “hard” versions of other items. Salad dressings, pretzels, breads, peanut butter, mashed potatoes, garden gnomes, and pies had new labels indicating proof. “Hard cheese” took on a whole new meaning. Candy bars couldn’t be purchased without ID. Editorials suggested the Eighteenth Amendment hadn’t been such a bad idea after all.

Still the trend continued. It wasn’t until one morning in the shower when we opened a bottle of shampoo and were hit by the fragrance of aquavit that we looked at our shelves and admitted we had a problem.


Back Of The Bus.

I was stopped behind a school bus. It’s amazing how quickly the summer has flown by. School is already starting again which means the buses are rolling and kids are out walking. While I was behind the school bus one of the kids in the back looked out the window at me and for a moment I thought he was Chucky, who always sat in the back. Chucky was a short, scrawny blonde kid, a sixth-grader which meant he was a couple of years older than me. In spite of his stature Chucky was the biggest kid on the bus. He sat alone in the back seat, or rather stretched out across it, and kept up a running commentary through the whole ride. No matter where you sat on the bus you could hear Chucky. There were the anecdotes, like the time he referred to a teacher by her first name, “Irma”, and when another teacher said, “Oh, you’re on a first-name basis now?” he replied, “No, we’re really on a first-syllable basis. I call her Ir.” There were the stupid jokes: “You know what I’d do with a million dollars? I’d buy a new butt. Mine has a crack in it.” And there was the occasional question like, “Hey, when’re we gonna stop for ice cream?” and that got us all chanting “ICE CREAM ICE CREAM ICE CREAM” until the driver stopped and yelled at us to be quiet. Chucky complained about being grounded for a bad grade, about the math teacher with the hairy lip, about the kid who threw up in the middle of the hallway, and how many people walked through it without noticing. When we had a substitute bus driver who got lost Chucky said, “She got her license out of a Cracker Jack box.” When that same substitute bus driver got stuck on a hill because she couldn’t figure out the gears and put the parking brake on, then took it off so the bus started slowly rolling backwards, Chucky said, “We’ve secretly replaced your regular bus driver with Folger’s crystals.” Chucky was old enough and smart enough that he probably could have helped her out, but that would have meant leaving his seat in the back.
Not everyone was a fan of Chucky, though. Once, early in the school year, another sixth-grader named Jim decided he wanted to sit in the back seat. I’m not sure what made him want to challenge Chucky’s claim to the throne, or at least the closest thing the bus had to one. Jim was a nice guy but quiet, and if he’d taken up the backseat it would have changed the whole tone of the ride home. He’d gotten to the bus first but Chucky wasn’t giving up his seat without a fight, which would have been terrible in the tight quarters of the back of the bus if their fight hadn’t been so ridiculous. With their eyes closed they threw light punches at each others’ stomachs, grunting, until the bus driver came and broke it up. Chucky was restored to his place at the back and Jim was forced to sit at the front. In spite of keeping his position Chucky was strangely subdued that afternoon. There were no jokes, no comments about that weird looking little house we always passed, no requests to stop and get a Coke.
The next day the old Chucky was back as though nothing had happened–and, really, nothing had happened. Childhood events that seem enormous in the moment have a way of dissipating just as quickly, and the bus that I was behind rolled on, carrying that kid who’d glanced back at me away.

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