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It’s A Perennial Problem.

Last weekend my wife and I cleaned out a flowerbed in the front yard. It’s where she’s planted irises but over the years it’s gotten overgrown, mostly with honeysuckle which had to be pulled out by hand. I would have been fine with just setting the whole thing on fire, but that would have a deleterious effect on the irises and probably wouldn’t make the neighbors too happy either. And there was something really satisfying about lopping the thick stem of honeysuckle plants or, where I could, tearing out the entire plant by the roots, although it’s not personal. Well, it’s sort of personal. Honeysuckle is an invasive species imported from Asia sometime in the early 19th century and it tends to destroy other plants around it by competing for resources–its longer growing season gives it an advantage in this—and it also changes the soil chemistry to cut down on competition. Sure, I have fond memories of sucking the nectar out of honeysuckle blossoms, and it’s also an important food source for hummingbirds who also have fond memories of sucking the nectar out of honeysuckle, and it also has other advantages. Even though it’s a vine in some spots honeysuckle has grown up so much it forms a natural fence between adjoining yards, and it’s as true now as it was when Robert Frost first said it: honeysuckle fences make good neighbors.

Also I feel like a hypocrite for ripping out honeysuckle just because it’s an invasive species when I’m such an ardent defender of the dandelion, which, in North America, is also an invasive species, something people remind me of whenever I say how great dandelions are, or whenever I blow dandelion seeds all over their yards, which is kind of hard not to do. It’s not just that it’s fun to blow dandelion seeds, but also when you do it you get to make a wish, and who doesn’t wish for wishes? Also usually I’m not purposely blowing dandelion seeds into anyone else’s yard but they have a lot of lift so even if I’m in the middle of my own yard it’s inevitable that a few of them are going to drift over the border, even if there’s honeysuckle in the way, although not even dandelion seeds can cross the Atlantic. Even though the dandelion is spread across the Eurasian continent it probably wasn’t introduced to North America until European settlers brought it on the Mayflower in 1620—which means its arrival predates that of honeysuckle by about two centuries, but being here longer doesn’t make it better.

Still it’s complicated. Are invasive species necessarily a bad thing? The changing of the landscape is a natural process and it can raise complicated questions, like, how the hell did I get poison ivy on the back of my right knee? I was wearing jeans and how could it get back there and not anywhere else? And there are thorny issues, such as, what is that thorny vine that grows up around the honeysuckle? Actually I don’t care what that stuff is or whether it’s invasive or a native species. If it stabs me through my work gloves again I’m going to set it on fire.

Previously on Freethinkers Anonymous…

 

Let’s Go Over This Again.

It must be because the warm weather brings out so many people walking that I feel I have to go over this once more. In front of the building where I work there’s a crosswalk. In Britain they call them zebra crossings, or that thing the Beatles were in blocking traffic for the Abbey Road album. Anyway this seems to cause an immense amount of confusion. I’ve seen fellow pedestrians step right into the street and glare at oncoming traffic which has to come to a screeching halt, and I’ve seen drivers come to a screeching halt when there are pedestrians on the sidewalk patiently waiting for the traffic to go by so they can safely cross the street.

Also “sidewalk” is a U.S. term. According to Wikipedia’s Simple English it’s also called “a footpath (Australian English, Irish English, Indian English and New Zealand English) or footway (Engineering term)”, all of which make sense and in Britain it’s called a “pavement” which makes no sense because pavement is what streets are made of and the Beatles could have walked on it without blocking Abbey Road, but that’s another story.

Anyway here are some terrible and unhelpful diagrams made with the help of Google Earth that I hope will clear up confusion about everything except why the British call a sidewalk a “pavement”.

In this first diagram I am represented by a blue dot in the middle of a tree. Actually I would be standing on the sidewalk because the trees really aren’t that good for climbing. As long as I am on the sidewalk the oncoming car has the right of way and the driver doesn’t have to stop and give me that condescending little hand wave. As you can see in the picture there’s also a bus stop that looks like it’s out in the intersection. The bus really stops right in front of where the blue dot is which I’m sure is convenient for people who want to get out on that side of the street but buses tend to sit there so pedestrians who want to cross can’t see oncoming traffic and vice versa. Thanks, bus drivers!

 

In this next diagram I am again the blue dot on the other side of the street even though I’m not that round and haven’t been that blue since one Halloween. Again the oncoming car has the right of way. Also that redbud tree I appear to be standing in has been cut down so it’s even worse for climbing but Google hasn’t updated the picture yet.

In this next picture I am represented by the blue dot in the middle of the intersection. I now have the right of way but should only step out into the crosswalk, zebra crossing, or Abbey Road thingy when there is no oncoming traffic.

In this picture the oncoming traffic is a triceratops. If you’re riding a triceratops you always have the right of way even though they’re slow-moving and will probably stop to eat the trees.

Twistered.

It was in the spring when I was in sixth grade that I developed this weird obsession with tornadoes. Some might call it “morbid”, but I didn’t think about the death and destruction caused by tornadoes, and even though I really wanted to see one I would have preferred that it not cause any damage. Maybe if one could touch down near enough to get us out of math class I’d be okay with that. It was prompted by one of the teachers showing us the same scratchy old film about tornadoes that we’d all been shown since kindergarten because they thought information that was at least a decade old should be reviewed annually, or maybe it was just a chance for the teachers to skip down to the lounge and have a smoke and a drink before math class and films were a good way to keep us occupied which is why I could recite most of The Lorax, but that’s another story. I didn’t think of tornadoes as destructive natural occurrences but rather really, really, really cool natural occurrences. The film we watched made tornadoes seem fascinating, mysterious, and only dangerous in a completely abstract sense, like Donald Sutherland. My Boy Scout handbook also had instructions for dealing with tornadoes if we were out camping that included getting into a low-lying ditch or, if at all possible, moving to the side to get out of the oncoming tornado’s path, and, interestingly, it had the exact same instructions for dealing with Donald Sutherland.

For a while this obsession even had me thinking I might like to be a meteorologist, to study tornadoes to try and figure out what really powered and caused them. All the film really told me was that tornadoes formed when a cold front and a warm front came together, so sometimes I’d stand out on the playground and try to see if I could feel cold air on one side of my body and warm air on the other, the sure sign of a tornado. I was also intrigued by different kinds of tornadoes including water spouts—tornadoes that form over water—and especially dust devils, which are like miniature tornadoes, but not as intense. Dust devils became a spin-off obsession because while I knew it would be dangerous to get close to a bona fide tornado I thought a dust devil would be safer, that I could get up close and personal with it and study it closely.

And one day while I was out walking around in the vacant lots near my house I thought I saw one. It didn’t last long enough for me to get close but I saw a few scattered leaves rise up, move in a circular formation, then drift back to the ground. I was so excited the next day at school I told my friends who mostly didn’t care but quietly feigned interest, probably in the hopes that if they went along with it I’d shut up about tornadoes. They all agreed that, yes, I probably had seen a dust devil, but Matt had to disagree.

Matt and I weren’t friends. We just had a large circle of mutual friends. Somehow we’d made the same friends over the years but he and I didn’t meet until sixth grade and for some reason we just took an instant dislike to each other. I don’t remember our first meeting or anything about why we disliked each other, and with my friends Matt seemed like a decent guy. The fact that my friends were also his friends says something, so maybe it was me that was responsible for this nebulous animosity between us.

Anyway Matt vehemently disagreed that I’d seen a dust devil because it was leaves. He didn’t deny that I’d seen something that sounded a lot like a miniature tornado but a “dust devil” would be mostly dust. And also strictly speaking in the United States they’re primarily found in the southwest, and what I’d seen was so small and so short-lived there’s probably not really a term for it. And yet this somehow spawned an argument with some of our friends leaning on way and some leaning the other but mostly they were divided over who could care less about the whole thing.

Later that same spring I’d see a real tornado, or at least the beginnings of one, during a wave of storms that swept through the area one weekend. There’d been tornado warnings I was in the basement with my parents, prepared to run for the enclosed space at the back, but of course we were staring out the windows. There were brief hard rain showers, then a few minutes of tiny hailstones like pearls, and then everything got very quiet and still. Over the hills in the distance a line of clouds pressed down, its bottom edge so straight it looked like a piece of black paper, and below that the sky was bright whitish green. I saw a line twisting down from the clouds, mostly solid but dissipating at its end, and then, as though it had touched something foul, it drew back. The sky cleared and after that I didn’t have any more interest in tornadoes.

A Matter Of Time.

There’s a clock on a pole across the street from where I wait for the bus most afternoons.

I’ve never bothered to calculate exactly how much time I spend waiting for the bus, and it varies from day to day. Some days I sit for five minutes, some days it’s half an hour, and it’s a little annoying that I always rush to get to the bus stop but the bus driver isn’t necessarily in as much of a hurry to get to me. There was one driver who was consistently late and every day loudly complained that it was the driver before him who’d been running late causing a domino effect. I noticed whenever there was a substitute that driver would be on time.

Not that waiting is necessarily a bad thing. I used to sit and read books. Some days the wait was just long enough for me to read, really read, a poem. Or I’d pick up the free newspapers like the Nashville Scene which, for a while, published a poem a week.

Now I mostly listen to podcasts which I feel has kind of brought me back to when I was a kid. My father always listened to talk radio in the car. In some parts of the country, some pretty close to home, he could pick up bizarre preachers expounding on their theories of how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark was really a 666, or how the prevalence of triangles on the show Buck Rogers was a Satanic plot. For more serious fare he listened to public radio, so I’d sit in the backseat and hear stories from the BBC or the news. Some mornings we’d listen to Dick Estell’s Radio Reader, which was both fun and frustrating if we got wherever we were going before the story ended. Or, since Estell tended to read long books, I’d hear a chapter and say, “Yeah, so what happened then?” I also remember when they ran the original radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and an audio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, although those came on early enough on Sunday mornings that I could listen at home and never missed an episode, but that’s another story.

So it’s actually good if I have some time to wait, although one of the nice things about listening rather than reading is I can do it while walking. My usual stop isn’t one of the fancy ones with a digital display that tells me exactly when the next bus is coming. It’s just a standard old bench where I can sit and watch the clock.

Except that the clock hasn’t worked in months, maybe even years. It’s permanently stuck at 2:55, so while a broken clock is right twice a day it’s never right at a time when I’m there.

 

Torn.

I’m deeply conflicted about this. On the one hand this is a picture of an advertisement. These ads have started showing up on sidewalks around the city and at first I thought they were an interesting art project, and then I realized, no, they were advertisements. Yes, I believe advertisements can be art, but I also cling to this Romantic notion of ars gratia artis, even though that phrase itself has been coopted by a major movie studio. And I also realize that artists have got to eat and if at least some couldn’t make a living by creating art, even if it often means playing the tune they’re paid to type, there’d be a lot less great art in the world.

On the other hand advertising is supposed to send a single, simple message. It’s supposed to tell you what to think—or rather what to buy—and I believe art should raise questions rather than provide answers. Any art that gives you a simple unvarnished idea is, in my opinion, very bad art.

And on the other hand—I’ve lost count of my hands here—something interesting has happened. This advertisement has been partially torn in a way that subtly changes its meaning. It’s presumably an accident, and that does raise a lot of questions. The tradition of “found art” is one that has a fairly long history—although not nearly as long as Romantic notions like ars gratia artis, but still there’s room for debate about whether art always has to be something that’s made or whether it can just happen. The idea that art is always created with a plan, that artists are in control, can be a source of comfort in a cold and chaotic universe, but even some of the most detailed and crafted works of art started as, or benefited from, accidents. Every artist has more misses than hits, and if every work of art had to start from a deliberately conceived plan there’d be a lot less great art in the world, and the fact that we can sometimes benefit from accidents can also be a source of comfort, especially in a cold and chaotic universe. Creating art, just like living life, means maintaining some semblance of control while at the same time accepting that accidents will happen and adapting to them as best we can. As a friend of mine in high school put it, “When life gives you lemons make orange juice.”

As I was turning all those over in my head and my approximately nine hands I walked past a restaurant where Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, a song that I remember from high school, was playing. Actually it was the DNA remix that came out after I’d graduated, and which was created without her permission, but Vega liked it. The song sounds simple, even improvised, but is carefully structured. I felt like the universe, cold and chaotic as it is, was pushing me to write this, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

 

Out With The New, In With The Old.

Feel free to use the comments section to offer your ideas about what this is. The correct answer gets nothing because no one will know if it’s right.

When I was a kid I loved it when someone threw out some crappy device, and it was a wonderful time for it too because in those days all devices were crappy. It was the time when digital clocks, digital radios, and digital clock radios were all the rage and considered high-tech because no one really knew what “digital” meant, other than that it would have those funny block numbers that you could use to punch in 773440, which, when you turned it upside down, spelled “OhhELL”, which my friends and I thought was hilarious because we were idiots, but that’s another story. I loved it when someone threw out a digital clock that had stopped working because I could then pull it out of the garbage and take it apart to see how it worked, and maybe even fix it and put it back together, assuming the extensive rinsing I’d had to do to remove the tartar sauce, old spaghetti, and coffee grounds from it. And also assuming I had the skill and knowledge to fix it or put it back together, which I didn’t. I quickly learned that taking things apart was much easier than putting them back together, or at least it was in those days. Now if I really wanted to take apart my phone just to look at its inner workings, which I assume must be pretty cool, I’m not sure where I’d even start. At least old digital clocks and radios were held together with tiny screws that only required a rusty penknife and a tetanus shot.

Digital clocks and radios and other small devices also regularly got thrown out in those days because they were cheap enough that they could be easily replaced. It was the beginning of the end of the era of the repair shop, and I even remember the end of the television repair house call. We had a large wooden-cased TV set that weighed approximately three and a half tons and had actually served in the war, although it never specified which war, and would become surly and short-circuit if questioned too much or if you changed the channels too quickly which, strange as it seems now, you did by turning a knob built into the TV set itself. And once when that happened a guy in a uniform came to our house and I got to watch him take several parts out of our TV set, which was the coolest thing I’d seen because Star Wars hadn’t come out yet. Then when he was done he put it all back together without any parts left over and turned it to an episode of The Munsters, which had long since been cancelled and was in syndication because I’m old but not that old.

With my own “repair work” I did have some successes. For instance I had a pair of old walkie-talkies that stopped working so I took them apart and after a bit of playing around I discovered that if I placed one of them near the small black and white TV I’d gotten for Christmas and turned a round metal thing I could get faint, crackly TV audio to come out of the walkie-talkie speaker. Making the walkie-talkie produce a low-grade version of what the TV could already do was the coolest thing I’d seen since Star Wars which had come out a couple of years earlier, because I was an idiot. And it was pretty cool that I could accomplish something, although there was also a certain satisfaction in being able to take some old items and smash them to pieces, especially if I’d had a bad day.

All of this was a fond but distant memory until recently. I was outside taking a break from work when I found a…thing. I’m not sure what it was, just that it was metal and plastic and had a speaker at one end and tucked inside the other was a circuit board. I don’t make a habit of going around picking up trash because I try to avoid getting tetanus shots, but something about this thing intrigued me, mainly that it was broken and had been left on the sidewalk and mostly free of tartar sauce, old spaghetti, and coffee grounds.

Technologically speaking I’d been having a bad day. In fact I’d been having a bad week. I’d had issues with multiple devices, but as tempting as it is I’ve never been able to bring myself to smash a CPU or throw my stupid smartphone against a concrete wall so it was as though this thing of unknown provenance and function had landed, or been lying, at my feet just when I needed it. I sat down and broke it apart and found I still find circuit boards strangely beautiful. And there was something therapeutic about being able to use something valueless as a proxy for the stuff that had been driving me crazy.

Also when I was done I put it in a trash can. I’m no barbarian.

And then I realized that must feel this same frustration. I bet some of you reading this right now know exactly how it feels to want to break a device when it breaks down on you because we live in a world that’s driven by technology. In fact I’m going to guess that most of you are reading this on a computer, except when you paused to Google “funny words you can spell with calculators”. And this gave me a brilliant idea for a business.

Have old devices that don’t work anymore but that you can’t be bothered to dispose of properly? We’ll take ’em off your hands! Concerned about privacy? When we’re done that old CPU tower, laptop, or smartphone will be so thoroughly obliterated the only way to extract any data from it would be magic.

And for those of you who, like me, know the frustration of nonfunctioning technology, the heartbreak of data loss, who want to punish your computer’s crash with an actual crash, come on in! Customers must provide their own fists, hammers, concrete walls, and tetanus shots.

And now a moment that never gets old.

Source: Giphy

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