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Weather Witness.

When I was in sixth grade I became obsessed with tornadoes. I read everything I could find which, at the time, wasn’t much because the school library was pretty limited. What sparked this obsession was the annual watching of the tornado awareness film which always happened in late spring. It was the same film I’d seen every year since kindergarten so I don’t know what sparked such an intense interest that particular year. I always thought tornadoes were kind of cool and I thought it would be interesting to see one, but before sixth grade the feeling passed quickly. Maybe the information just hit critical mass with me, having been subjected to the same bass baritone narrator intoning about, “Tornadoes: nature’s tidal wave. They wreak untold devastation, destruction, and demolition. For the next twenty minutes we will begin to understand all that scientists don’t understand about these unpredictable natural phenomena that strike every year with frightening regularity…” The film covered how tornadoes were caused by rotating columns of air when cold and warm fronts collided, and what to do if a tornado was coming, which was mainly get away from windows, preferably into a basement or cellar, put your head down, and wait it out. There was even a shot of a group of kids just like us huddling in a line with their heads down, and what always stuck with me was that there was one kid who turned around and looked up. And I thought, yep, that’d be me, even though in an enclosed space safe from a tornado there wouldn’t be anything to see except the wall and ceiling. Still, I wanted to look. After the film we would have a practice drill. We’d be taken out into the hall because for some reason our teachers thought the ideal place to be during a tornado would be a long corridor with doors to the outside at either end. I never questioned this but I never understood it either. The restrooms, which were completely enclosed and had heavy tile communal sinks that looked like they were designed by Antonio Gaudi would have been so much safer. In the hall we had to squat down and put our heads between our knees, and when the teachers turned away I’d look. Sometimes I’d be close enough to the doors I could see the trees outside, branches moving slowly in the breeze.
One afternoon during my sixth grade tornado obsession I was outside and saw a few leaves blow around in a circle, one of those strange miniature vortices you sometimes see twirling leaves or trash and I got really excited. The next day I told my friends I’d seen a dust devil, one of those small tornadoes described in the film we’d watched. And this started a long argument about whether a dust devil could be made of leaves or if it had to be dust. Not that it mattered: what I’d seen was just a light wind curling around itself.
All this came to me the other night when a cold front came through and for a few pensive hours the area to the north of us was under a tornado watch and I realized it was nearly twenty years ago that a tornado hit downtown Nashville. The date was April 16th, 1998, to be precise. I was at work that day, it was the afternoon and there were reports of storms. A group of us were gathered at an office window and we could see the clouds begin to rotate, curling downward. At the time a tornado had never hit downtown Nashville. I’ve never confirmed this but it seemed all of us thought it was impossible, that the tall buildings acted as barriers to any a tornado ever forming. There was a sense among all of us, though, as we watched the clouds gather into a downward funnel, that something very terrible was happening. Someone said, “I think we’d better get away from the windows.”
It was terrible but short-lived. A few hours later when my wife and I drove home together there was an eerie calmness. I was glad it had passed. I had seen enough.

Judge A Book By Its Cover.

Every year on or around April 1st there’s the International Edible Book Festival which I only learned about because one was held at the Vanderbilt University Library, which is close to where I work. Here are some of the entries from the event:

A popular theme was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. There were at least five entries based on it.

There were also some creative interpretations of the theme with items inspired by scenes from well-known books.

Or just loose interpretations.

And a lot of clever puns.

My favorites, though, were the ones that went for the most literal interpretation of the idea, creating works that were as readable as they were eatable.

Those last ones reminded me of a quote from Gargantua & Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, translated by J.M. Cohen, that I have on the wall behind my monitor at work that always reminds me that you are what you read:

The philosophers, preachers, and doctors of your world feed you with fine words through the ears. Here we literally take our teachings orally, through the mouth. Therefore I do not say to you: Read this chapter, understand this gloss. What I say is: Taste this chapter, swallow this gloss. Once upon a time an ancient prophet of the Jewish nation swallowed a book and became a learned man to the teeth. Now you must immediately drink this, and you’ll be learned to the liver. Here, open your jaws.

That’s a literary equivalent of one spicy meatball.

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out Of The Way.

Have you ever accidentally followed someone? Maybe this only happens to me. I’ll set out in a particular direction and there will already be a stranger fifty or a hundred feet in front of me. They’re going to the same place, or maybe they’re just headed in the same direction to a slightly different destination. Either way I start to get very self-conscious that I’m making them uncomfortable because I’m following them. If I can I’ll stop and pretend to be interested in a flower or sign or fire hydrant to give them some time get farther away, but then I think that just looks even weirder. I don’t want to get close, though, or, worse, pass them, because that’ll make them even more uncomfortable, I assume, but if I’m on a schedule I’ll probably pick up the pace because no matter where I’m going I like to be fashionably early. This is especially true when I’m headed home because I’d rather get to the bus stop early than have to run to catch it or, worse, miss the bus entirely.
So anyway I’d missed the bus entirely. I checked the app and it looked like the driver had been about five minutes early which annoyed me. It’s one thing for the bus to be late, and it usually is which makes me think they should really just adjust the schedule upward by about five minutes, although then every bus would be ten minutes late, but that’s another story. I started walking to catch the alternate bus that stops several blocks away but, since it’s an express bus, drops me off at about the same time so it’s a nice option if I feel like walking an extra half a mile, which is why I never take it unless I have to.
As I was walking I passed a guy waiting at another stop on the regular route and I thought, well, I guess I’m not the only one who missed the bus. I kept going. When I glanced back I noticed he was following me. It made me a little uncomfortable at first so I picked up the pace, but then I thought, hey, maybe he got the same idea I had. And when we got to the bus stop he said to me, “I saw you walkin’ and recognized you from the bus. So I knew we’d have to catch this one or wait around another half an hour.”
I felt oddly happy that I’d helped a stranger in this way, but then he lit up a cigarette. It wouldn’t have been so bad but I was downwind of him and there was a breeze, and I started thinking about ways to get fifty or a hundred feet away without missing the bus.


Where We Live.

Recently Vanderbilt University students, together with Habitat For Humanity, put together an open air exhibit on the quad in front of the library. The simple wooden benches were made to raise awareness of homelessness. Students do this every year in the spring, at a time when the homeless are less at risk from freezing but still face challenges.

The exhibit included a pamphlet with some disturbing facts. Homelessness is a concern in most cities, but Nashville’s rapid population growth has made it even more difficult. There have been some efforts to help; all over the city you’ll find people selling The Contributor, a weekly newspaper written and sold by homeless and formerly homeless people, but it’s not able to help everyone.

During the day the unfinished wooden benches stand out against the green grass, but at night they’re transformed. Solar batteries, at a time when the days are getting longer, store and transfer power to them through the night. They remain visible; they may even be more visible. And the placement of the exhibit in the middle of a university campus is especially poignant. This is a place where students, and some faculty and staff, live. It’s where others spend a great deal of their lives. Vanderbilt is a private university, but it’s also part of and aware of the community that surrounds and supports it.

The exhibit is only temporary, unlike the issue of homelessness which will still be with us.



There’s A Word For It.

“The beauty of language is that every new word spawns new ones whether we need them or not. Usually not.”-Dr. Ruth Addison, Current Linguistics, v.27 no.9 (2017), p.207

Existing word:

Staycation (n.)-When you take vacation time but don’t go anywhere; time off while remaining at home.

Earliest recorded use: 1944.

Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015.

New variations:

Daycation (n.)-When you only take a single day off from work to futz around at home.

Splaycation (n.)-When you miss work or something else because you’ve overslept or just can’t get out of bed. Popular among college students who dozily hit the snooze button on their alarm clocks only to wake up and realize they’ve slept through all their classes.

Spaycation (n.)-When you take the day off to take a pet to the vet.

Buffetcation (n.)-When you take a break from your diet.

Braincation (n.)-When you mentally check out while working on a mindless, routine task.

Draincation (n.)-When you’ve accumulated the maximum vacation time your work allows and stop earning more; see also “maycation”.

Maycation (n.)-When your boss assures you there probably almost certainly could be a chance that you’ll have the chance to take some time off after that big project.

Existing word:

Bromance (n.)-A close but platonic relationship between men.

Earliest recorded use: 2001.

Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

New additions:

Knowmance (n.)-When you and another person have a lot in common and you’re sure you’d be good friends but for reasons of geography or scheduling the two of you never meet.

Showmance (n.)-When everything you learn about a celebrity seems to confirm that the two of you would be great friends if you just had a chance to meet but you’re not going to stalk them or anything because that would make it weird.

Promance (n.)-Similar to “showmance”, but applied to professional athletes.

Flowmance (n.)-The brief but amicable relationship you develop with a plumber or other repair person while they do something around your house that you kind of wish you could do yourself.

Throwmance (n.)-A relationship with someone you enjoy talking to but don’t think about when you’re not around them.

Crowmance (v.)-When you keep talking about a new relationship even though your friends really wish you’d just shut up about it.

Nomance (n.)-You don’t even know them but something about that person makes you want to punch them.

Existing word:

Slacktivist (n.)-A person whose actions toward a desired political or social change require little time or effort.

Earliest recorded use: 1998

Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016

New additions:

Snacktivist (n.)-A co-worker who eats throughout the day, especially chips, crackers, or other loud foods.

Factivist (n.)-That annoying person who asks for your source or says “citation needed” in response to everything you say.

Stacktivism (v.)-Hiding inactivity behind a lengthy to-do list.

Tacktivist (n.)-A co-worker who says “Let’s put a pin in” all your suggestions.

Epicactivist (n.)-Someone whose one-upmanship over you regarding any cause or issue makes you want to vomit.

Other recent additions:

Metraction (n.)-The act of withdrawing from a conversation after realizing you’ve said something really stupid but not admitting it.

Plottery (n.)-Elaborate plans you say you’ll carry out when you win the lottery.

Seemail (v.)-Making sure your emails are read by obsessively attaching receipt/read tags to them.

Celebrenebriation (n.)-Excessive consumption of alcohol on a specific holiday (New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Arbor Day, etc.). Ironically cannot be pronounced by people experiencing it.

Flarking (v.)-Parking illegally or in a non-parking space (in the middle of the street, on the sidewalk, in someone’s yard, etc.) and pretending it’s okay because you’ve left the hazard lights flashing. Employed by delivery people and jerks.

Fare’s Fair.

The university I work for pays me to ride the bus–that is, as long as I’m going to or from work I can swipe my employee ID and ride for free. If I’m riding the bus on my own time, just for fun or going somewhere, of course I pay my own way, because making the university pay for it would be dishonest and unethical and most importantly I don’t know if they check for that sort of thing. And it’s a good program. As a top-level administrator recently put it, “A university is a collection of academic schools all united by a common parking problem,” but that’s another story. Mostly too getting my card out of my wallet when the bus comes trundling along isn’t a problem, although there was one time when I was putting my card back in my wallet and the bus lurched forward. I fell and broke my card into pieces and was prepared to pay the $20 replacement fee but the people at the card office told me the replacement fee was only for lost cards and they gave me a new one for free. So if I ever do lose my card I know I just need to steal someone else’s, smash it, and pretend it’s mine and hope they don’t ask me to prove I’m a 79-year old Sri Lankan professor of entomology.
And I admire an Australian man named Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, and before you ask I admire him in spite of that being his legal name which sounds like something Godzilla threw up after swallowing a Japanese pop festival. Mr. Meow-Meow–I’m going to assume that’s how he signs formal correspondence–had his local transit card implanted in his hand so he wouldn’t have to pull it out of his pocket or wallet or sock or from wherever he might normally keep his card. All he had to do was wave his hand near the kiosk, which could still read the card under his hand, and he could ride. This wasn’t a problem until he was asked by security to show his card which he couldn’t do without ripping it out of his arm.
Now his decision may seem to be well on the distaff side of the line between genius and madness but I’m not kidding when I say there is something admirable about it. I like to think he really thought it through and was willing to accept that in the future the card system may change, requiring removal and possibly a new implant, but he’s willing to accept some possible future inconvenience to have a little more convenience now. And the case does raise ethical questions about implantable technology, the rights of the individual, and the definition of private property. He was fined for failing to produce his card–fair enough, since he couldn’t, but I think the law and the transit system went too far when they cancelled the card, effectively taking his payment even though he didn’t violate the terms of service because he didn‘t “misuse, deface, alter, tamper with or deliberately damage or destroy” the card.
Even though Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow pled guilty in court he’s considering further legal action and he’s running for local office, and I wish him luck. Also I kind of wish when he was stopped by security he’d just ripped the card right out of his flesh because that would have shown a real fare for the dramatic.

Let It Out.

Some places keep drawing me back, mostly because they’re convenient, but also because I know I’m likely to find interesting graffiti there. And it also fascinates me that some places seem to attract repeat offenders, if you consider them offenders. In my mind the jury’s still out, but that’s another story. That brings me back to the old Madison Mill industrial complex on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue which I thought was slated for total demolition and urban renewal six months ago, and which had been scrubbed of all its graffiti.

Now it’s started to return. It appears to be different artists, but they’re presumably drawn to the place for the same reason others were: it’s a large and largely unguarded canvas. What really fascinates me, though, is the compulsion some people have to decorate. That’s what I think produces a lot of graffiti: there are people who have a desperate need to create and no other outlet. It’s like the moment in Spinal Tap when Viv Savage is asked what he’d do if there were no rock’n’roll, and he said, “I’d probably get a bit stupid and start to make a fool of myself in public, ’cause there wouldn’t be a stage to go on.” And, yes, I know Spinal Tap is not a real band and that Viv Savage was actually the musician Dave Kaffinetti, but stick with me here.

Forcing some people to stop creating would be like forcing them to stop breathing—and the effect would be the same. They need a space, and there should be spaces for artists. They shouldn’t have to find illicit places. This was already in my mind when I read a great review of the new film Wild Nights With Emily over at Assholes Watching Movies. The film is about the largely unknown life of Emily Dickinson; she was apparently not the demure recluse whose poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas we all learned about in English class.

What I’m really stuck on, though, is how Dickinson wrote compulsively, and her family allowed her the freedom to do so. She did publish a few poems in her lifetime but mostly she just wrote, filling up private books but certain there was a receptive audience out there. As she says in #162, titled “The Outlet”,


My river runs to thee:

Blue sea, wilt welcome me?


My river waits reply.

Oh sea, look graciously!


I’ll fetch thee brooks

From spotted nooks,—


Say, sea,

Take me!

And I also think about when I was taking pictures of that graffiti. It was a really nice day and there were a lot of people sitting out on the patio of a restaurant that’s right next to the Madison Mill. People probably noticed me and wondered what I was doing. No one asked, though. If they had I would have said, “I can’t help it.”

It’s A Spectacle.

There are things you just don’t realize until you’re in a certain situation. For instance I never realized before that if you take the worst aspects of a doctor’s office and a J.C. Penney’s and put them together you get an eyewear store until I went shopping for glasses and the store was vaguely clinical with a lot of neutral colors and uncomfortable furniture but also mirrors that reflected back the dismal reality that I’m getting old and a lot of pictures of happy models wearing glasses, all of whom seemed to magnify the dismal reality that I’m getting old. And I wondered why none of them were modeling contacts until I realized that contacts don’t have a lot of stylistic variety and that basically this year’s contacts are going to look exactly like last year’s contacts, which actually makes contacts a better option if you care enough about fashion that you’re willing to start each day by sticking a small piece of plastic in your eye.

So anyway I was looking for glasses. And my wife was there with me because she has a much better fashion sense than I do and she’s going to spend more time than anyone else looking at my glasses whereas I’m just going to spend most of my time looking through them. She put the kibosh on one pair I picked up saying, “No, too John Lennon,” and she was right, I don’t imagine I could pull off that look. So we browsed some more and I accidentally wandered from the men’s eyewear section to the women’s section where all the frames looked the same but the models in the pictures were women. And all the lenses had a sticker that said, “Test lenses,” so I asked a few of them if they knew what the capital of Estonia is. Also I was slightly amazed by the prices of some of the frames. At least with really expensive clothing you know you’re paying for the label, but with glasses you’re just paying for some metal or plastic that holds a couple of magnifying glasses together and any label big enough to be worth the price is going to block your view. Or they’d be a monocle because nothing says wealth and class like being able to afford only one lens or a pince-nez because the acme of worldliness and style is glasses that keep falling off. And I remembered why I hate shopping for anything. In a late stage capitalist post-consumerist first-world double-dipped half-caff lightly sprinkled hot buttered and fluoridated society I should be able to find exactly what I’m looking for even when I don’t know what it is. When a very nice young woman came over and asked if she could help us find anything I said, “Have you got anything Elton John would describe as ‘a little too over-the-top’?” Because some of them were expensive enough that they not only should be able to help you see better but also hit that high note in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but that’s another story.

Eventually we did find a pair that my wife liked the look of and that I liked looking through, and I find that when I put them on the world looks a little sharper, the way I remember it used to look, which also reminds me that I’m getting older. Still there are advantages. A friend told me, “Those give you a very intellectual look. Do they also make you feel smarter?” and I said, “Uhhhhh,” and she had fortunately wandered away when I suddenly and for no reason yelled out “Tallinn!” because I only paid enough for the ones that make me look smarter. The ones that would actually make me smarter were twice as much.


Supposedly there’s a Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” I say “supposedly” because I once asked a Chinese scholar about that and she said, “I’ve never heard any such thing in my life.” It’s probably an expression some guy cooked up and to make it sound more interesting he decided to claim it was a Chinese curse. Uninteresting times can be a curse too. Recently I took a trip by Greyhound bus to Cincinnati. I made the same trip last year and then it was interesting because it had been about a quarter of a century since I’d taken a Greyhound bus anywhere and things had changed significantly. This time all the things that were different before were still the same. Well, almost all the same. The men’s restroom had just been repainted and I went in there and literally watched paint dry. Then, because I have a smartphone and the station had free wifi, I went out and looked up “watching paint dry” in Wikipedia. Smartphones mean we never have to be bored ever again, and I had mine loaded up with podcasts and music, and even if the battery went dead I had my bag with my journal and copy of Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. I didn’t expect my battery to go dead, of course, because I knew from my last trip that the bus seats have plugs you can use to recharge your device.

I got on and grabbed a seat and a young man in a purple hoodie sat down next to me and we both had our phones out and that’s when I noticed there were no plugs at the seat I picked. My phone died about half an hour out of Nashville so I followed Twain’s progress to New Orleans while I went northward.

When we stopped in Louisville I went into the restaurant/gift shop to get coffee. Then, still holding my coffee, I wandered out then tried to go back in. “Sir!” yelled the man behind the counter. “This is for customers only! Once you go out you can’t come back!” This was more baffling than it was interesting.

Back on the bus I found a seat with wall plugs and my phone was full and so was my bladder by the time I arrived at the Cincinnati Greyhound station where the men’s room had not been freshly repainted because such a coincidence would have been too interesting for this trip.

I went to Cincinnati, by the way, to see some old friends and a talk by Neil Gaiman which was extremely interesting. There’s an old saying that’s also been attributed to the Chinese that the journey is more important than the destination, but sometimes it really is the destination that matters, especially when it’s the destination that’s interesting.

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