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Stop Making Sense.

When is graffiti not graffiti? When it’s authorized and approved, obviously, but it’s funny to me that sometimes completely authorized murals adopt the graphic styles—usually either blocky or balloonish letters—of a lot of graffiti. In fact some artists first get noticed by legitimate dealers through their graffiti and then they get paid to do the same thing they previously would have been arrested for doing and if it made sense it wouldn’t be art, but that’s another story.

This is a really roundabout way of getting to a very straight stretch of Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue where a storage building takes up an entire city block and Off The Wall Nashville Charlotte, a project of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, has turned it into a canvas.

And I really wish I could reproduce the whole thing here, but my camera doesn’t work that way and if anyone from the ABCGN happens to be reading here do y’all think maybe you could get a photographer or two to, you know, document this?

There are currently four sections, all subject to change—one of their rules is “It’s not forever” and this one of a train is the final section.

The cars are appropriately tagged. Why train cars attract graffiti is always an interesting question to me. Obviously they’re large and stand still long enough for artists to create some really amazing works and then they move on, giving those artists greater exposure, although it’s also hard for legitimate dealers to track down an artist whose work could be from anywhere, but making sense is not a priority here. The streamers trailing after the final car is also a cool touch.

What’s even more interesting is there are some local tags hidden in the mural itself. Or maybe not so hidden, if you recognize them.

To-Do List.

At home Billy Joel maintains a large garden and does many of the household chores himself. “It’s very relaxing,” he says, “and helps me take my mind off the big things for a while.”

-Philadelphia Post, June 31, 2017

Mow the lawn, pull some weeds, time to plant the spring seeds,

Patch the brickwork, seal the deck, now replace the back door screen,

Cut the bushes, prune the trees, thank goodness for a cool breeze,

Paint the shutters, fill the feeders, trimmer needs more gasoline.

Yell at squirrels, mulch the beds, why are all my roses dead?

Move the rocks, spray for pests, time to take a little rest,

Clean the gutters, feed the soil, now the mower needs some oil,

Spray the rails, step on snails, watch out for that wasp nest!

I didn’t start the dryer!

The clothes are in the washer and they’re full of water.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Cut the lettuce, pull the beans, squash is looking real keen,

Now it’s time to hoe the row, zucchini is a no-show.

Check the pumpkins and the chard, broccoli is really hard,

Onions, those are beets, when did I plant cilantro?

Cabbages should start to sprout, marigolds keep rabbits out.

Cauliflower’s growing great and I think I saw a snake.

Peppers are up in smoke, I thought this was an artichoke,

Get the sprinkler and the rake, this tomato is a beefsteak!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Hang some pictures, make ‘em straight, and the foyer’s looking great,

Clean the blinds, take down the drapes, throw away those plastic grapes,

Get the polish, move some chairs, put new carpet on the stairs.

Clean the windows and the panes, time to get more duct tape.

Time to clean the fireplace, chaise lounge takes too much space,

Make a list for the store, put the flashlight in the dresser drawer,

Dust the table, feed the fishes, gotta wash those dinner dishes.

Scrub the toilet, mop the floor, I can’t take this anymore!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

The laundry needs tending

Because it’s never ending,

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Death Of A Clown.

Source: Wikipedia

When I was a kid the local UHF station would show a Jerry Lewis movie every Sunday afternoon, and I loved them. Every weekday after school there was the Three Stooges marathon, but I realized Lewis’s humor was a much more mature, sophisticated slapstick, and getting the jokes made me feel grown up. He could also somehow take a punchline you’d see coming a mile away, like the setting up of chairs In The Bellboy, and make it hilarious. Some of his films, including Three Ring Circus and The Nutty Professor, could also get pretty dark, and I liked it that he could balance comedy and drama, that he wasn’t restricting himself to one or the other. I think I was also dimly aware that there was a connection between Lewis and the contemporary comedians I also saw, although it would be years later before I’d realize he was kind of a transitional figure between the old vaudeville comedians and the ones for whom a big break meant television or, if they were really lucky, film. Jerry Lewis, who wrote a serious book called The Total Film-Maker, really did appreciate film as a medium few comedians before him had. Unlike others he understood that comedy on film meant more than doing or saying something funny in-frame. He understood the value of the close-up, the cutaway, the edit. That he could also act while keeping every detail of the scene in mind is extraordinary.

I get that he was also a difficult person to work with, demanding, sometimes outright cruel, but people who worked with or knew him also described him as generous, kind, and understanding. He famously never won an Oscar but in 2009 the Academy did give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Go read Chuck Baudelaire’s very poignant post about that.

While I loved Jerry Lewis’s comedies as a kid the film of his I enjoyed, and still enjoy, most as an adult is The King of Comedy. Granted it’s not really one of his films, but working with the tag team duo of Scorcese and DeNiro he really shows his full range and depth as a dramatic actor. In an early scene when he talks to DeNiro, who plays an ambitious comic who wants to jump straight to the top, about the business Lewis has a faraway look in his eyes as though he’s lecturing a classroom. It’s powerful in its subtlety and says so much about his character. Even in the back of a dark limo in front of an audience of one he’s still a performer. In other scenes with DeNiro he’s more direct and personal. These moments the fantasies of a possibly psychotic mind, but Lewis has no trouble playing them as completely real.

A short time later, after telling DeNiro he’s having dinner with “some people”, we see him sitting alone at a table eating. He’s not reading or watching TV or doing anything except eating. His posture and expression, though, still exude confidence and dignity. Even when he’s alone he can’t drop the mask.

Maybe there was still a lingering miasma from his “comeback film”, Hardly Working, released three years earlier, or a shadow from what would be his last film, Smorgasbord, which had a limited U.S. release in 1983, but Jerry Lewis deserved an Oscar for his performance in The King Of Comedy. Of course, it’s DeNiro’s character in the film who calls himself “the king of comedy”, but the irony is we all know who really wore the crown.

Hail to the King. Hail and farewell Jerry Lewis.

 

 

Home Run.

Baseball was desegregated in 1947, and on January 13th, 1961, a growing American pastime–standup comedy–would be too. Dick Gregory stepped to the plate at Chicago’s Playboy Club and hit it out of the park. It wasn’t exactly a planned moment. Gregory was still working a day job at a car wash when he was brought in as a last-minute replacement for that night’s scheduled performer. He then broke other barriers, refusing to go on The Tonight Show unless he could sit down and talk to host Jack Paar. This was something other guests routinely did, but only if they were white. Gregory was uncompromising but also simply asking to be treated equally. As comedian and actor Dr. George Wallace, who shared memories of Gregory on NPR tells it,

He’s going, hey, my jokes are just as good as theirs. Why can’t I get attention? Why can’t they treat me like they treat the white – equally. Bring me to sit on the sofa. I’ve got a few words to say. He first hung up on Jack Parr. That was NBC at the time. That’s what you call groundbreaking material right there, hung up on NBC.

And he was funny and his jokes were just as good as those of other comedians, and while he told some conventional jokes–like one about how he’d read so much about smoking and cancer he quit reading–his personal perspective as an African American gave greater depth to some of his jokes, like,

I sat at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated they didn’t have what I wanted.

While Lenny Bruce was doing a bit about how amazing it was that performers get paid so much while teachers get paid so little Gregory offered a more pointed perspective, saying,

I love America. Where else can I ride in the back of the bus, have a choice of the worst schools, the worst restaurants, the worst neighborhoods–and average five thousand dollars a week just talking about it?

He didn’t just talk about it either. He would drop a club appearance to attend a civil rights rally, although he’d always make it up later. As the sixties went on too he dropped the genial tone that originally made him a success and became a sharper, more caustic comedian, and not just a comedian. He ran for mayor of Chicago, getting 22,000 votes, then for president. He was shot in the leg during the Watts riots. He committed himself to working for the civil rights movement and while racism is an issue of moral health his concerns extended globally and he also became an advocate for physical health. In 1984 he founded Health Enterprises, Inc. and specifically addressed the health of African Americans which he felt was impaired by alcohol and drug abuse and also poor nutrition because of poverty. Although he continued working as a comedian his lifelong passion was making the world better through more than just laughter.

Hail and farwell Dick Gregory.

 

Cartooning.

Because I’m a bit of a wordy guy I get a kick out of etymology and the whole history of words, especially common words that we use without thinking about their backgrounds. Sometimes when I use a word I start thinking about where it might have come from and then I go and look it up and I feel a little disappointed, like when I thought “awful” and “offal” must have a common ancestor so I went to the internet to look it up and found they didn’t and then I had to pay to get my laptop fixed because it’s one thing when you throw a book and another thing when you throw the internet, but that’s another story.

Anyway I’d never really thought about the origins of the word “cartoon” until I was reading a book about art and I ran across something about Caravaggio drawing cartoons and I had a funny mental image of his painting The Sacrifice Of Isaac with the angel saying, “He’s a little young to start shaving, isn’t he?” and yes, I am a horrible person.

“Have you tried one of those new electric razors?”

Now we use the word “cartoon” to refer to an animated film, usually a short one, although it’s also used for one-panel funny drawings, like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son that appeared in The New Yorker with the caption “Tastes like chicken,” and I’ve really got to stop doing that.

I like the kitty.

The word “cartoon”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used to mean

A drawing on stout paper, made as a design for a painting of the same size to be executed in fresco or oil, or for a work in tapestry, mosaic, stained glass, or the like.

It was a preparatory drawing often used by Renaissance painters and has the same origin as the word “carton”, which is interesting because both words contain so much history, and they’re also flexible and can be applied to very different things.

Circles And Streets.

Source: Google Maps

The street I grew up on was a cul-de-sac called Tobylynn Circle. Parallel to it was Ashley Court, another cul-de-sac, and houses on both shared backyards separated only by a drainage ditch. When I met Shawn he was on his yard’s side of the ditch and I was on mine and I don’t know which one of us hopped over first but we were immediate friends. We were both eight and lived in adjacent homes so it would be stupid to not be friends although I don’t think either of us thought about it that way. He invited me to his house and I met both his parents. Shawn and his family had just moved to the neighborhood. They seemed nice, but I felt a little uncomfortable with the way his mother asked, “Do your parents know you’re here?” I’d been to other kids’ houses and no one’s mother had ever asked me that before. I felt uncomfortable, though, because I said “Yes” even though Shawn and I had just met ten minutes earlier and I hadn’t thought to tell my parents where I was. Years later I’d realize there might have been a subtext to her question that was “Do your parents know we’re black?” I knew Shawn and his parents were black but I don’t remember giving it much thought beyond that. As a white kid in the suburbs it was easy to be naïve, to think racism was an old problem that no longer existed, or that, like smallpox, it was confined to small, enclosed places. I’d been brought up on Sesame Street so I was used to puppets and people of all colors living in harmony. And before Shawn there were no people of color that I knew in the neighborhood which caused me to develop some weird ideas. Once I asked my mother if I could have hair like Shawn’s because I’d seen his father using a hair dryer–the first time I’d ever seen anyone use a hair dryer–and I thought, “So that’s how he gets his hair all curly.”

I gave Shawn’s skin color, and my own, a lot more thought when he met my friend Troy who lived at the bottom of the hill, on Tobylynn Drive. As soon as Troy saw Shawn he froze then stepped back, then turned to me and said he had to go. I knew what racism was but until then it had been an abstraction. It was something I’d never, or at least thought I’d never, encountered. Shawn and I didn’t talk about it, and later when Troy told me I had to choose between playing with him and playing with Shawn I just quietly accepted it and spent a lot of time after that with Shawn because he was fun and we had some things in common, like a love of the Japanese monster movies that were on every Saturday, and he didn’t try to boss me around. When Shawn wasn’t around I still played with Troy and would keep my dislike of having to keep my friends separated at the back of my mind.

Somehow it never really became a problem, probably because Shawn and his family moved away a few months later. They arrived some time before Easter and were gone before school started. While I missed him he eventually became yet another in a string of short-term friends who moved into the neighborhood and then moved away. Troy and I would be friends for years but, looking back, I think we were only friends because we were close in age, and without a lot of other kids in the neighborhood it would be stupid to not be friends. As we got older, though, we would drift apart. What friendship we had would simply fade away and would not be missed.

As for Shawn, well, it’s awkward for me to talk about this because I’m so white I’d be mistaken for a marble statue if I didn’t wear clothes, and white guys have dominated conversations for so long that I’m reluctant to add my voice to the din. I wish I still knew Shawn so that I could talk to him about this experience, if he even remembers it. It’s likely it wasn’t his first experience with racism and even more likely it wasn’t his last and there have probably been those who make Troy look restrained. At the same time I don’t want to reduce Shawn to a stereotype or stand-in. It wouldn’t be his, or anyone else’s, responsibility to tell me about white privilege and how I’ve benefited from it without realizing it, without being aware it exists even though it has shaped who I am. He was–let me rephrase that. Even though I don’t know if he’s still alive I hope he is so he deserves the present tense. He is a person, and while his skin color may be part of who he is, while it may or may not be part of how he sees himself, he’s an individual. He doesn’t speak for all people of color any more than he speaks for all guys named Shawn.

That may seem obvious but it took me a long time to realize it. Even after that early experience with Troy and Shawn I still clung to the racism-as-smallpox view. If you had asked me, although no one did and I didn’t ever bring it up, I would have said that since we were the same age and lived in the same neighborhood there wasn’t that much difference in our experiences. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that there are differences in our backgrounds and family histories that shape how we see the world. There was a portrait of a relative of mine who fought for the Confederate side in the U.S. Civil War that hung in my grandparents’ house. He wasn’t a slave owner but defended the right of others to keep slaves. For a long time I didn’t think about it, although now I think of it as a part of my heritage I’m not proud of. I don’t know how Shawn would think about it but his perspective might be very different.

It’s been a long time since Shawn and I knew each other and the conclusions I’ve come to here have been the result of talking and, more importantly, listening to other people. I don’t know if my views would be any different if I hadn’t known Shawn, but I still think of them as having started with him, having started with us being friends.

 

Behind The Scenes.

I’ll draw the curtain:

My lord’s almost so far transported that

He’ll think anon it lives.

The Winter’s Tale, Act V, sc.3

Every summer the Nashville Shakespeare Festival puts on at least one play in Centennial Park. This summer they’re being especially ambitious with two plays: Antony & Cleopatra and The Winter’s Tale. Really they’re being extremely ambitious by putting on The Winter’s Tale in Nashville in the summer, although part of the play does take place in the summer, but that’s another—no, wait, it is the story. Never mind.

The funny thing to me is I read both of these plays in a college Shakespeare class under the tutelage of a professor who pointed out that they’re two of The Bard’s least-produced plays. Productions of Romeo & Juliet or Twelfth Night are like episodes of M*A*S*H—always on somewhere, and obviously the NSF, which put on its first play in the park in 1988, has decided there are only so many times they can do The Comedy of Errors (3), Much Ado About Nothing (3), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (3), The Taming Of The Shrew (2), or The Merry Wives of Windsor (2).

And they’ve done The Winter’s Tale before, in 2005, which makes me think the the rerun is a little early since the play itself covers a span of sixteen years.

While the plays themselves are always great I also like to go and look behind the scenes. I didn’t interrupt but I did catch some of the cast at work.

Here’s the stage still under construction. Notice that they’re using one stage for both plays, which is one of the interesting things about Shakespeare. The original productions were in a grassy area behind the Centennial Sportsplex with no sets, only a very few props, and almost no costuming. Well, the actors did wear clothes, and for that we should be grateful—Falstaff couldn’t get the wrinkles out of his birthday suit—but originally the dress code for cast and audience alike was come as you are.

And since all the world’s a stage who could resist a look behind the scenes?

Hip To Be Square.

Source: Goodreads

When I was a kid I read the newspaper comics section every Sunday while eating breakfast. The rest of the week I didn’t have time for it—if it was winter I was getting ready for school, if it was summer I was getting ready for the day’s excursions, and if it was Saturday I was too busy watching cartoons to read anything, and I only bothered with the Sunday comics because that was the only day they came in a special all-color section. I’d read through them and maybe laugh a little and not give them a lot of thought.

That changed with the introduction of a little cartoon called The Far Side, drawn by Gary Larson, whose birthday is today. I’d seen cartoons like it before, but never in the newspaper, and I started looking through newspapers for the comics sections during the week to find it. And I didn’t just start looking for The Far Side. A Far Side cartoon prompted me to look up Olduvai Gorge, and I got a kick out of Larson’s references to science, psychology, his anthropomorphic cows, ducks, and occasional slipping in of darker subjects like cannibalism.

Most newspaper comics were—and still are—aimed at kids and very general audiences. The Far Side was one of the few that took a more highbrow approach, that made it cool to be smart. Nowadays people are proud to let their geek flag fly. Being a nerd isn’t necessarily an insult or something to be ashamed of anymore, and I think The Far Side is partly responsible for that change.

Having said all that I won’t reproduce any Far Side cartoons here. Gary Larson has issued a statement asking that his cartoons not be spread via the web:

So, in a nutshell (probably an unfortunate choice of words for me), I only ask that this respect be returned, and the way for anyone to do that is to please, please refrain from putting The Far Side out on the Internet. These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”

I respect that. I also think about a hilarious bit he shared in The Prehistory Of The Far Side about the time a newspaper printed one of his cartoons next to Dennis The Menace but reversed the captions so in the Far Side a snake is saying, “Lucky thing I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved to death by now.” And Dennis is saying, “Oh brother!…Not hamsters again!”

This was a huge improvement to Dennis The Menace and only made The Far Side slightly more surreal than usual, but I can see why he’d have concerns about his kids being passed around.

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