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Under The Sea.

Source: Wikipedia

When I tell people I’m a fan of Aquaman they laugh and say, “Nobody’s a fan of Aquaman.” Who’s been buying his comic books all these years then? I want to ask but then I remember in the ‘80’s there was a comic book buying bubble when every comic would double or triple in price within a week of hitting the rack and some people were buying everything. Anyway I have an older friend who started collecting comics when he was a kid in the ‘50’s and I said to him that I’d like to see an Aquaman movie. “Aquaman’s just not a strong enough character,” he said, and that’s when it hit me that I’ve always been a fan of the idea of Aquaman even though I’ve never read an Aquaman comic. I don’t know what villains he fights, although plastic, oil tankers, and whaling ships are probably high on the list. I didn’t read comics at all when I was a kid, really. My parents didn’t object to comics—as far as I know they weren’t fans of Estes Kefauver—but I didn’t know where to find comic books. I grew up in the suburbs and if there was a corner drugstore with a comic book rack then it was not only far out of even my wide-ranging explorations but it was a drugstore we never went to. Even my neighborhood friends who had comic book collections had inherited them from older relatives. My main exposure to comic book heroes was through cartoons, and even there Aquaman was mostly absent. He was part of the Super Friends but it seemed like he showed up so rarely he was more of a Super Acquaintance or even a Super Remind Me Where We Know That Guy From.
When my friends were old enough to drive we’d travel across town to one of the comic book shops, which were a new discovery for me, but the comics I collected were mostly new indie titles and I didn’t think to pick up Aquaman comics because I didn’t want to dive into an established comic. It wasn’t because, as my friend said, he’s not a strong enough character—even with those green tights and bright orange pullover. I didn’t know anything about his character and it’s not as though any superhero’s identity has to be fixed. And it’s not because of the running joke that Aquaman’s powers are that he can breathe underwater and talk to fish. Those are actually some pretty impressive powers and anyone who doesn’t think so is missing that the Earth’s surface is mostly water.
The oceans are where life originated and even after the first multicellular life appeared, some time between 1.2 billion and 900 million years ago, it was only 500 million years ago that the first organisms came out of the water. The oceans are the source of all life on Earth and life on Earth still depends on it. And yet for most of human history we’ve literally been skimming the surface of the oceans. What we knew of deep sea life came from what fishermen brought up or the occasional specimen that floated up because it was dead or dying. There was a common belief in the Middle Ages that there was a whole undersea society of fish people, that everyone on land had an aquatic counterpart, which was easy to believe because there was no evidence to the contrary and it was also fun to point at a knight eating a large piece of swordfish and yell “Cannibal!” but that’s another story.
The first real submersibles date from the late 1700’s, but when Jules Verne first published 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1870 the idea of a submarine like the Nautilus was still science fiction. In 1930 the first bathysphere was designed and built by the engineer Otis Barton, assisted by the naturalist William Beebe. It was a hollow metal ball on a string–not exactly high tech, although it was specially built for going deep. Before taking a ride themselves they sent it down on an unmanned trial run and got a grim reminder of how dangerous ocean pressure is: the craft sprung a small leak and when they opened the hatch a strong jet of water shot out over the deck. After patching everything they made their first nervous descent to 803 feet. They may not have been the first people to descend to that depth but they were the first to make it back alive. Beebe described creatures of the deep, never before seen in their natural habitat, that were so weird other naturalists thought he was making them up and they were disappointed there were no fish people even though it meant they could eat salmon with a clear conscience.
Aquaman’s first appearance in comics was in November 1941, almost a year before Jacques Cousteau would secretly test the first open-circuit scuba gear which opened up a little more ocean exploration and promised more but even now, even with specialized equipment, human divers are limited to a few hundred feet. It wasn’t until 1960 that the bathyscaphe Trieste, piloted by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, made the first dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, so far down that if you cut off Mount Everest at its base and dropped it down there its peak would be a mile under water. It’s so deep, so far from sunlight, that it was assumed nothing could live there, and yet there is life–even seasonal life affected by what drifts down from above. Decades later we’ve explored more of the ocean but it’s still difficult to get down there. More people have walked on the surface of the Moon than have been to the Challenger Deep, and the only way that depth record can be broken is if somebody goes down there and digs a hole.
Aquaman can go anywhere, to any depth, at great speed, and come back up without having to stop and decompress. And he can talk to fish while he’s down there because he doesn’t need any bulky equipment blocking up his face. Still think he’s too lame to be a superhero?
Yeah, I think Aquaman is cool because I love the ocean and love to swim and wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid, but there’s something else. We’ve finally started to get greater cultural and gender diversity in superheroes but Aquaman adds ecological diversity in a way that’s subtler and smarter than that unbelievably stupid Captain Planet cartoon of the early 1990’s that is currently resting where it belongs, in a hole at the bottom of the Challenger Deep. And Marvel Comics has its equivalent of Aquaman–his fish person–in Namor Of Atlantis, who’s an interesting character, a brooding anti-hero who wreaks havoc on landlubbers because of our mistreatment of the oceans, but then Namor isn’t human. He’s immortal and laughing in the face of death loses its punch if you’re not in any danger of dying. Aquaman, at least originally, was the child of a scientist and his mastery of the oceans is a throwback to the water that first gave us life, and that we still depend on. Aquaman reminds us that what happens in the sea affects the land and vice versa. When we harm the oceans we are the villains of our own story.
And, by the way, there’s an Aquaman movie coming.

Getting By.

Some days I drive to work. It’s a nice change because I can decide when to leave and when to arrive–more or less, since timing depends on traffic. Sometimes I get stuck behind a bus and have to stop and start which I know annoys most people but not me. Within a block or two it’s possible to pass the bus and I always figure that most other days it’ll be me on the bus, annoying some other driver, but that’s another story.
The other day as I came out of the parking garage I turned right into a long line of cars waiting to move. I could see the green light at the intersection so I couldn’t figure out why everybody’d stopped. Then gradually I could see the cars ahead pull into the left lane and go around a car that was stopped, and I was annoyed. What was the problem? Probably somebody looking at their phone, I thought, oblivious to the traffic around them. Then I moved up into position and I could see the stopped car was an old pickup truck. It wasn’t old in a cool, eccentric way, like an early model Ford or even the truck that Lamont drives around on Sanford & Son. No, this truck was ten or maybe fifteen years old, which is old since newer vehicles aren’t really built to last, and it had been rode hard and put up wet. There were holes in it and large rusty spots and the rear gate was held in place with duct tape. And I saw the driver: white hair, deeply lined face, and he was looking around anxiously.
As soon as I was through the intersection I pulled into a parking lot and stopped. My plan was to go and offer the guy some help, maybe give him a hand schlepping his truck into a spot where it wouldn’t block traffic. Maybe I could give him a lift, or at least help him call someone. Mostly I wanted to help because it was the right thing to do. We were next to the Vanderbilt hospital where he was either an outpatient or visiting someone. I could only hope that medically his news had been good but vehicularly I knew the prognosis wasn’t good. And if there’s one thing a lifetime of reading fairy tales and myths has taught me it’s never to pass up a chance to do a good deed. You never know when the help you extend to a stranger is going to come back around to you and even if it doesn’t, well, like I said, it’s just the right thing to do.
By the time I parked and the light had changed so I could cross the intersection a phalanx of garage security guys had surrounded the truck and they were all helping move it along. The old man stood on the sidewalk talking into a phone. I hurried back to my car before one of the security guys could notice that I was parked in some doctor’s reserved spot and decided to ticket me, although I hoped that if that did happen he’d let me explain the situation and would agree that giving me a free pass in this case was just the right thing to do.

It’s No Accident.

There’s a funny story about Jackson Pollock and a critic who called his paintings “accidental”. Pollock picked up a paintbrush, flicked a blob of paint across the room where it hit the doorknob, and said, “There’s the door. Don’t let it accidentally hit you in the ass on your way out.”

It’s probably not true, or at least embellished, but I like it because it speaks to how Pollock’s paintings really aren’t as accidental as they seem. For the 2000 film Pollock starring Ed Harris art students were able to faithfully recreate several of Pollock’s paintings, and Pollock himself was very careful about detail. He didn’t just throw paint at a canvas. Well, he did, but with a pretty good idea of where it would land. There’s also a funny line from an episode of Frasier where Niles explains that he was at an art opening and accidentally flicked a canape onto a painting and now has to pay to have it restored, adding, “How he could notice a fleck of foie gras on a Jackson Pollock is beyond me,” but that’s another story.

One of the things that fascinates me about what look like scribbled tags, stuff that somebody just dashed off without any thought, is how, when I look closely, I see a lot of detail that appears to be anything but accidental, and when I see the same tag multiple times–usually in different places–I’m sometimes surprised by how a seemingly random scribble can be repeated.

There are a few subtle differences but it’s pretty cool how similar these two are.

Aesop’s Prequels.

The Fox Tries Some Grapes

The Stag offered the Fox a bunch of grapes.

“Hey, I’m really full and don’t want these. You want some?”

“No thanks,” said the Fox. “I really don’t like grapes.”

“Come on!” snorted the Stag. “What do you mean you don’t like grapes? Everybody likes grapes.”

“Well I don’t,” said the Fox. “So clearly not everybody likes grapes.”

The Stag threw the grapes down. “Look, I was just trying to be nice. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. You say you don’t like grapes, fine, don’t eat the damn grapes then.”

“Fine!” yelled the Fox. He bit off a few grapes and chewed them up. His mouth puckered at how sour they were but he forced himself to smile anyway.

“Good, aren’t they?” said the Stag.

The Fox nodded, suppressing the urge to spit chewed up grapes in the Stag’s face.

Moral: Sometimes you just have to eat the grapes.

The Grasshopper & The Ant

The Grasshopper was a hard worker who diligently prepared for the future. From morning to night the Grasshopper collected food and cleaned house. One day, carrying home a heavy parcel, the Grasshopper bumped into the Ant who dropped its load of seeds wrapped in a leaf.

“I’m sorry,” said the Grasshopper, putting down her own parcel and helping the Ant gather the seeds.

“I don’t have time for this,” muttered the Ant.

The Grasshopper placed more seeds on the Ant’s leaf.

“It must have been hard work collecting these. Why don’t you take a minute to rest?”

“No time to rest,” said the Ant, collecting the rest of the seeds. “We have a saying: If you rest it’s the death of the nest.”

The Grasshopper held up a seed. “You really should take a break once in a while.”

“No breaks,” said the Ant, snatching the seed and wrapping it up with the others in the leaf. “We’re born, we work, we die.”

After the Ant left the Grasshopper sat and thought for a long time. Finally she stood up.

“I’m never going to be like that.” She turned toward home. “And I really need a drink.”

Moral: What are you busting your ass for if you’re not going to enjoy life once in a while?

The Tortoise & Friends.

The Hedgehog looked to the Rat who looked to the Goose who looked to the Tortoise.

“So,” said the Hedgehog, “we’re all agreed. We’re sick of his bragging, we’re sick of hearing about how fast he is, and we’ve got to take him down. We just need to decide who’s going to run the race.”

The animals all looked at each other.

“Well,” said the Rat, “there’s only one of us who hasn’t raced the Hare and lost.”

“Fine,” said the Tortoise. “I’ll do it. I just have one question. Who’s gonna slip him the sleeping pill?”

Moral: Fill in your own answer here.

Walking In History.

One hundred years and one week ago the deadliest train crash in U.S. history occurreed here in Nashville at a now mostly forgotten spot called Dutchman’s Curve. Officially the death toll is 101, although historians think that’s low, and since most of the victims–68 in the official count–were African-American there probably were many who weren’t counted, or who died later. Most of the victims were African-American because they were forced to ride in old, dilapidated train cars–many from the Confederate era, part of the history of oppression that didn’t end with the Civil War, and that, in many ways, still hasn’t ended. There’s a historical marker for Dutchman’s Curve on White Bridge Road–an ironic name, considering the tragedy. Local author and historian Betsy Thorpe has written about the tragedy in her book The Day The Whistles Cried.

At the time it happened the tragedy was overshadowed by World War I, but the centenary was marked by speeches and walking tours. Decades ago the path of White Bridge Road was altered slightly, and a new, higher, wider bridge was built. The old bridge is gone but has been replaced by a footbridge. Nearby, next to a transformer station, is the Richland Park Greenway. People can walk by Dutchman’s Curve today. History and nature are preserved side by side.

The new White Bridge can be seen from the old one.



It Comes And Goes.

Source: Google Maps

If you were traveling west along I-440 through Nashville, approaching the West End exit, you might notice this colorful mural on the side of a gas station and mini-mart. In fact the exit ramp that will take you east on West End runs right by it. It’s difficult to get a picture from a moving car, which is why I turned to Google for this particular view. You might stop here if you were on your way to the Parthenon, or anywhere in the midtown area, although you wouldn’t see the mural from the front of the building.

And now it’s difficult to see anyway. The gas station has closed, after competing for years with another one on the same block, that’s a little farther down and not quite as colorful. Large honeysuckle bushes have grown up in front of it, obscuring the view from the road.

The plans for the spot are immaterial. What matters is it’s a piece of public art that, for a few years, tried to attract customers and provided a bright spot for people just passing by. Places like this will appear, be noticed, and then be forgotten once they’re gone, like the travelers who pass by.




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