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Driving In The Dark.

My wife wanted sushi. She’d had a hard weekend at a dog show—not just running two of our kids but also working, doing her part to make the event fun for everyone, which meant getting up early and coming home late. Even doing something you love can be exhausting, so when she said she wanted sushi I responded with an unquestioning and positive, “Okay, sure, if that’s what you want, feel free to change your mind, I mean, there are other options closer and it’s kind of late already, but, hey, if that’s what you really want…”

Because the sushi boom of the 1990’s is over, because the place that was less than a mile from us closed—the one we went to so often they only had to see my name on their caller ID and they’d start preparing my regular order—getting sushi means a long drive. Fortunately for most of it I could take back roads, even if the sushi place itself is right in the heart of the congested Green Hills neighborhood.

It was traversing those back roads that an interesting thing happened. I found myself in darkness. The old money homes sit well back from the road on expansive lawns, and the streetlights are far apart. For long stretches my headlights were the only thing that illuminated the road ahead. I realized the last time I’d gotten sushi, the last time I’d driven to that part of town for anything, had been in the summer, and, I think, earlier in the day. The winter solstice may be more than a month behind us but the sun still slips below the horizon in the late afternoon and the winter clouds blocked any light the waxing gibbous moon might have offered.

I fell into a reverie, still conscious enough to keep my eyes and thoughts on the road, but feeling I could be anywhere, anywhen, the only person in the world.

Then the bright lights and cluttered stores of Green Hills broke the spell. Coming out of the sushi place I looked up at a new apartment building, lights glowing from all windows, active, frenetic life going on. There was also the blinking neon sign of the Donut Den, still serving up pastries to a few late customers.

Then, in just a few minutes, I was back in the dark, back in that reverie, glad for the long drive.

Say It With Flowers.

There’s a long history of flower language, most of which is forgotten now, although we still have the holiday tradition of kissing under mistletoe, and roses, especially red roses, symbolize love, which is why there used to be a flower shop down the street from me that advertised a dozen red roses for just $12.95 for approximately fifty weeks a year, then they’d go up to $35.95 the first two weeks of February.

The Victorians had an extremely complex flower language, so complicated that you had to watch out what flowers you gave someone. Anemones meant fleeting love and abandonment, red geraniums meant stupidity but wild germaniums meant steadfast piety. Freesias meant love in absence—although the comedian David Mitchell says he once gave a woman freesias to apologize for being sick on her floor, so in that case they meant, “I can’t afford to have your carpet shampooed.” Basil—the herb—meant hate, which, continuing the theme of British comedians, makes Basil Fawlty’s name really fitting.

You know I had to do this. Source: gfycat

What I’ve never exactly understood, though, is how the Victorians, or, for that matter, any culture that used complicated flower symbolism, and the Victorians weren’t the only ones, understood what the flowers were supposed to mean. Violets, mainly wild violets, are still mostly understood to represent shyness, although I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard someone use the term “shrinking violet” in a conversation. To the Victorians poppies meant “My heart belongs to another,” but now they’re worn in November in remembrance of World War I.

Even Victorian flower language wasn’t consistent. Depending on which source you check hollyhocks represent ambition but they can also be platonic friendship or love.

Anyway I don’t know what the plastic flowers stuck in a light pole meant to the person who left them there but they made me happy, so that’s what they represent.

And recently I was texting a friend who’s an organist at his church, and I said, “You know, the only thing better than roses on your piano is tulips on your organ.” He texted back, “I’m in church right now you filthy dog!” So it’s really fitting that, to the Victorians, tulips meant, “I’m sorry.”

Subject To De-Bait.

At work I opened a can of worms. It was a simple mistake and, fortunately, I work in a library where, behind the scenes anyway, most of the work that goes on is relatively academic and abstract. There’s a reason one of the patron saints of librarians is Saint Minutia whose miracle was splitting a hair. The biggest problems libraries face come from outside—specifically stupid people who want everyone else to be stupid too, but that’s another story.

And the mistake I made turned out to be productive because it uncovered some other mistakes made by other people which in turn led to other mistakes, hence the proverbial can of worms.

Why a can of worms, though? Or rather why are we still opening cans of worms? Worms as bait for fishing used to be sold in metal cans, but, being alive, you don’t really want a tight lid on your annelids. By the time I was a kid and went fishing worms were sold in paper cups. Paper is easier to recycle and more biodegradable in addition to being easier to open. It’s also more porous, allowing more air in for the worms. It was also easier to tell which end was up with a paper cup and this made a difference because, while we were fishing, we’d keep the cup upside down. The worms, perhaps sensing the gruesome impaling followed by drowning that was their fate, buried themselves at the bottom of the cup which, since it was inverted, was actually the top.

Paper cups were then replaced by Styrofoam which, environmentally, is worse than either paper or metal, but by then I’d stopped getting my fish with worms and started getting it from the counter at the back of the supermarket instead.

If you’ve ever gone fishing with worms you also know they’re generally slow-moving so opening a can of worms isn’t that much of a problem unless you go off and leave the can for, well, at least a few hours. They’re also not upwardly mobile—as previously noted they’re more dowardly mobile, which makes them a lousy metaphor for anything business-related. The can of worms needs to be retired. After all pretty much anyone who remembers worms in a can has also long since retired and, in many cases, is now, well, food for worms.

To replace the can of worms for a business error, though, I don’t think we need to go any further than their mortal enemies. Someone in your office made a terrible mistake that spread out across several areas? Just say, “Boy, Carl really microwaved the fish this time.”

It’s useful because unless you work in a bait shop it’s really unlikely anyone brings cans of worms to work but in almost every office someone makes the mistake of microwaving fish. The smell goes everywhere, it’s difficult to get rid of it, but, hopefully, the person responsible will never do it ever again.

For a lighter, vegan option—that is, for problems that aren’t so serious, like my minor faux pas, I recommend saying that someone “burned the popcorn”.

Again this involves the microwave—something most offices have in their break rooms or kitchens—and a smell that permeates the entire department, although it’s not as bad.

In fact I remember the time a guy I worked with, for reasons I still can’t understand, put a bag of extra butter popcorn in the microwave for five minutes. That’s enough time to cook a twenty-pound turkey in most microwaves, or start a fusion reaction.

When he finally donned a hazmat suit and pulled the bag from the microwave the popcorn wasn’t just burned. It was smoking like Humphrey Bogart. He threw it in the trash where it burst into flames and we had to douse it with water.

It was a terrible mess but the office smelled wonderful for weeks.

Snake On A Plane.

A friend shared the recent story of a woman who tried to smuggle a four-foot boa constrictor onto a plane by saying it was “an emotional support animal” with me, adding, “More proof of what you’ve always told me about snake owners being a bigger threat than snakes themselves.” He hates snakes and while we’ve known each other long enough that I’ve given up trying to convince him that they’re really wonderful creatures I do take this as a sign of progress.

Admittedly this isn’t really a case where either the snake or the owner was really only a threat to people who depend on emotional support animals, which is something I realize is an easy target for jokes and criticism, but I’ve seen how an emotional support animal can help a person. It’s a wonderful thing that shouldn’t be misused or abused.

The story also reminded me of my first up-close and very personal encounter with a boa constrictor. It was at what was then the Cumberland Children’s Museum, now the Adventure Science Center. Back then it had a collection of animals that included possums, hawks, owls, a two-hundred pound snapping turtle that sat in an aquarium on the second floor, some small local snakes, a tarantula—my friend hates spiders even more than snakes, but that’s another story–and a boa constrictor.

Most of the time the animals were kept in their enclosures but one Saturday when I was there one of the handlers was doing a demonstration with an antique camera and kids were invited to get their picture taken with an animal of their choice.

I was the only one who picked the boa constrictor, whose name, I learned, was Betty. Betty White, Betty Grable, Betty Davis, Betty Boop, my aunt Betty, Bettie Page—all wonderful people but there will always be a special place in my heart for Betty The Boa.

Betty just lolled around my shoulders and I had to hold her head up so we could both mug for the camera.

After taking each picture the woman would return the animal to its cage and turn out the lights so she could develop the film. Except with me she just left Betty hanging around my neck and turned out the lights. This didn’t bother me and it didn’t seem to bother Betty either. She just stayed where she was.

When the woman turned the lights back on she picked up the snake and said, “Oh, she must really like you. Betty doesn’t fall asleep for just anyone.”

Which, now that I think about it, sounds more than a bit menacing. Maybe I shouldn’t tell my friend this story.  


Hare It Is.

The weather has been all over the place. Most mornings are chilly, a reminder that it’s still winter, but some are warm, and as the sun rises the days come close to summer temperatures. Or they hover in fall and spring ranges. Seedlings are popping up in the pots that haven’t had anything new planted in them since last year. They may be safflower plants, sprouting where the seeds from my feeder have been dropped by birds.

I can’t explain why but this takes me to the giant bunny at Cheekwood. If there’s a place—a park or a building or even a city—you like to go to there’s probably one part of it that you’re always drawn to, that you can’t leave without seeing. At Cheekwood, for me, it’s the giant bunny. It’s a nice place and I love to walk every part of the grounds there, from the main building down to the model trains, and also the bamboo garden, and the ponds where horsetail plants grow. I was sorry when they tore down the greenhouses that had rows and rows of orchids, but there’s still a lot to see.

The giant anthropomorphic rabbit—actually the piece’s title is Crawling Lady Hare–is the one thing that defines the place for me. It’s the one thing I want to go to as soon as I get there and I always try to make it so I walk back by it at least once more before I leave. 

It’s obviously a sculpture made of twisted wire but, since its installation in 1997, moss has covered it so it looks like it grew up out of the ground. And every time I look at it I think I should find some meaning in it. Now, though, I think it just is. It changes with the seasons, or from day to day, or even minute by minute, like the weather.

Ready To Run.

A friend and I were looking at a large project and he finally said, “Well, I guess we have to run the gamut.” I started to bring out the, “I do not think that means what you think it means” line but then I realized I don’t really know what a gamut is or how you run one. I know how to run a race, and lost pretty much every one I ever ran in school, partly because I never was that athletic and partly because I never really cared that much about getting from one end of the playground to the other faster than anyone else, although I did build up quite a nice collection of participation ribbons. I distinctly remember that when my school held field days where we spent the entire day outside doing various sports that the ribbons for first place were blue, second were red, third were yellow, and the participation ribbons were green which I not only thought was a nicer color but they were easier to collect because all I had to do was take part. And eventually I learned I didn’t even have to do that. There was always an adult walking around with a handful of green ribbons and all I had to do was ask them for one or, if they weren’t looking, grab half a dozen.

I know how to run a marathon although I don’t know how likely it is that I’ll ever run one. It’s much more likely that I’ll walk one, and I know from experience that I can average a rate of a mile about every fifteen minutes. That would mean I could complete a marathon in a little over six and a half hours, which is respectable even if it’s not going to set any records, although the rate I recorded is from my time on a treadmill where the terrain almost never changes. Since marathons cover more than twenty-six miles there’s bound to be variation, as well as some hills, and I should also probably do some training. I don’t want to end up like Philippides, the original marathon runner, who died at the finish line before he could even get a participation ribbon.

I also know how to run a program. Well, I think I do anyway. Most of the time I can start a program, especially if it’s something like Word, but those don’t seem to run so much as just sit there waiting for me to start typing. There are other programs I’m told are always running in the background and I’m not sure I want to know what they’re doing even though they probably know too much about what I’m doing.

Sometimes I’ll run an idea by someone else but mostly when I have an idea I’ll take it and run with it.

Anyway I finally looked up “gamut” and usually it means the complete range of notes in a scale, which my friend, who’s a singer, should have known, and, as a writer, he also should have known the common metaphorical phrase “to run the gamut” means to go through the whole range of something, so I guess he was correct. It still sounds odd to me since I’m used to hearing it in the past tense, once someone has run the gamut, but this is just a roundabout explanation of why our plans never went anywhere.

A Seat For Everyone.

Some Nashville buses installed this plaque after her death in 2005. It’s true on every bus but I like that you never know when you might encounter it.

It’s been almost three years now since I last rode the bus,  but this still seems relevant—maybe even more so now, since we’re seeing the dangers of, if not forgetting history, then outright ignoring it.

It was standing room only on the bus. I’d gotten on earlier so I had a seat, near the front, and a woman who’d just gotten on was standing next to me. She was holding the overhead strap with one hand and a cane with the other. I stood up and offered her my seat.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re a very polite young man.”

“It’s the way my grandmother raised me,” I said, and then felt ridiculous for saying that. I never rode the bus with my grandmother. I can’t even remember riding the bus with my parents. They may never have taught me public transportation etiquette but my grandmother and parents did teach me basic rules of courtesy, and so did teachers and a lot of other adults around me and other people.

The point is there was no single person who influenced me, something I think about whenever I think about the story of Rosa Parks. She helped prompt major changes, but she didn’t do it alone. Before she took a stand on a Montgomery bus she was already working with civil rights leaders. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and met Martin Luther King, Jr. Her decision to defy an order to give up her seat to a white passenger wasn’t spontaneous; she was deliberately acting on principle, which, I think, is even braver than a spontaneous act.

The woman whom I gave my seat on the bus was African American, and, as I said, she had a cane. I thought she needed the seat more than I did, but I also thought about how, not that long ago, within her lifetime, she would have been required to give up her seat if I, a white man, had asked her to move. I thought about how, right then, she didn’t ask me, or anyone else, to give up a seat so she could sit down. I don’t want to be presumptuous; I don’t know what her story really is, but it’s possible, even likely, that experience had taught her not to expect someone like me to give up a seat on the bus for her even if she needed it more. I wonder if, if I’d been brought up in an earlier era if I would have been willing to give up my seat on the bus. I wonder if I would have realized it wasn’t “my seat” but really a seat, open to anyone, but that in the interests of a better world it should be available to anyone, and priority should be given to those who need it most.

It’s difficult for me to talk about this even though these are things I think about a lot, and not just on days like today. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, a day when people remember and celebrate his legacy. And it deserves to be remembered and celebrated, and the work he did should be continued, and, as part of that, I think all those he influenced, all those who worked with him, also need to be remembered.

The Game Master.

I have a painting that was made by three artists. All three signed it but I wish I had a fourth signature: that of the person responsible for making it happen. His name was Rembert Parker.

I’d been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by my friend John and, early in our freshman year of high school, he invited me to go to a weekend D&D convention with him in Evansville. His father drove us and when we got to the hotel John introduced me to Rembert—an older guy who was just a little taller than me, with lanky hair, round glasses, and a friendly smile. John had met Rembert at a previous convention and they’d become friends but then, as I quickly realized, Rembert was friends with everybody. In the few minutes we chatted at least two dozen people said “Hey Rembert!” as they passed by. Rembert was also one of the organizers of the convention, so it wasn’t just because of his outgoing nature that everyone knew him.

Then John and I got invited to join a D&D game and we went off to a hotel room with a group of strangers. The game was part one of a module, called something like Road To Verangia, that would be played over the weekend. At the end of it everyone would vote for the top three players who’d then advance to part two. Those who didn’t advance could find another game.

The next morning all the attendees gathered in one of the hotel conference rooms. Those who’d advanced—including my friend John—went off to play Road To Verangia part two. Alone and unsure what to do with myself I sat down at a table and was soon joined by a friendly group of strangers. We chatted a bit and then a guy came over and said, “All right, looks like everybody’s here. I’ll be your Dungeon Master today. Let’s start the game.”

“What’s this one called?” someone asked.

“It’s called Certain Death To Your Characters” the Dungeon Master laughed.

Oh, thank goodness, I thought. For a moment I’d been afraid it was going to be a repeat of the previous night’s game.

Character sheets were passed around. I looked down at mine and realized I’d been given the same cleric I’d played the night before. I panicked and looked around, but the room was empty. Not knowing what else to do I just played dumb, and stayed dumb, not using my knowledge of what was to come to my or anyone else’s advantage.

Later that day I’d go to lunch with John and his father and they’d talk about a guy who’d been in the previous night’s game and who’d tried to sneak in to a repeat of part one and how terrible it was that some people just couldn’t obey the rules.

“I won’t be surprised if Rembert kicks him out,” said John’s father.

“And he’ll never come back to a convention where Rembert’s in charge,” added John.

I chewed my chicken sandwich glumly, certain that my own crime would be uncovered, wondering if I should throw myself on Rembert’s mercy immediately. But I decided to keep playing dumb instead. And, somehow, over the whole weekend, it went undiscovered—or no one said anything if they noticed.

I went to a lot of conventions after that, most of them organized by Rembert. He and John were still friends but I kind of avoided him. He was a good guy and fun to talk to but, silly as it seemed even at the time, I still carried a slight air of guilt. Over time I just assumed he forgot who I was. Everybody knew Rembert but he couldn’t be expected to keep track of everyone.

Every convention had an art room and on Saturday night there’d be an art auction. I liked a lot of the paintings and would usually bid on one or two. After losing a bid on one someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. It was Rembert.

“Hey Chris, I noticed you liked that painting. I’ll talk to the artist and see if he’ll do one for you.”

This was surprisingly generous and, because Rembert was involved, a couple of other artists got interested and all three of them collaborated on the painting. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the names of all three artists, although they signed the back as well as putting their names on the front so I can always open the frame if I ever get it appraised.

I’ve never forgotten Rembert, though, so I was sad when John told me he’d passed away earlier this month.

I didn’t realize Rembert had a blog where he wrote mostly about old and mostly forgotten songs “that the radio seldom plays”. Here’s his last entry:

Sadly, I’ve been in the Hospital with Cancer for a few weeks.
I hope to return to daily posts within a few weeks!

Funny and optimistic to the end. When John and I talked I brought up the painting, and John, who still goes to gaming conventions regularly, said that the ones Rembert organized were small—at most there’d be about two hundred people, which made it easy for Rembert to know the artists, and everyone else, unlike modern gaming conventions that have thousands of attendees. There used to be a stereotype of D&D players as socially awkward loners, but the small conventions really showed how untrue that was. We all got to know each other, even if it was just in passing, although they were just big enough that some noob who’d never been to one before could accidentally play the same game twice and have their mistake be forgotten while they were remembered.

Hail and farewell, Rembert. You were, as Nat King Cole sang, unforgettable in every way.

Life’s Work.

Source: Giphy

There’s a trend I’ve noticed in commercials of showing people whose whole lives, even whole identities, are built around their careers. It’s not a new trend, nor is it particularly widespread, but it seems to have spread to fast food workers, which is strange and may even be insidious. I spent a summer working at a Shoney’s, a chain that’s rapidly disappearing, but, for those who don’t know it, is best described as a fast food place with printed menus and someone who brings your food to your table rather than making you go to a counter to order it. In spite of presenting itself as a sit-down restaurant, complete with a breakfast bar in the mornings that switched over to a salad bar after eleven in the morning—with the dirty secret that some of the salad bar food was sitting under the breakfast bar food, in case anyone ever wondered why the black olives were so warm—the wait staff were supposed to subtly pressure customers to get their food and get out as quickly as possible. People would sometimes ask a waitress to hold their food so they could spend a little time enjoying the salad bar and maybe give the Jell-o a chance to cool down, but behind the scenes management would penalize waitresses if they didn’t deliver plates to the table in under ten minutes.

So that’s my entire background in the food service industry but, contrary to what some commercials want you to think, I doubt any fast food place is really a fun place to work with wacky employees getting up to various hijinks with each other. I hope everyone, no matter what job they do, can find some joy and maybe even fulfillment in it, but for me and pretty much everyone else who worked at that Shoney’s it seemed we all just wanted to get through our shifts without getting ptomaine or bitten by the rats in the dry storage room and go onto whatever waited us outside the restaurant walls.

The insidious part of the commercials, I think, is not just that they want customers to feel better about going to fast food places but they want to convey the idea that, hey, it’s low-paying drudgery and probably no benefits or sick leave even if you get ptomaine, but at least there’s wacky hijinks to be had.

And to be clear: if you work in fast food and really enjoy what you do that’s great. I’m not knocking anyone’s career choice. I’m knocking the upper management belief that a sense of corporate community and pulling together for the good of the shareholders is a substitute for benefits, decent wages, and even decent treatment—which is an easy belief to hold when you’re pulling down three figures and don’t even know the names of most of the people you manage.

The commercial trope of people who devote their whole lives to their work, funny enough, seems to be more common for insurance. Maybe that’s because insurance is, for most of us, something we don’t think about all the time but it can literally be a lifesaver when we need medical care, or really handy to have when we have a car accident, house fire, or other catastrophe. Insurance commercials work hard to convince us that there are people out there who devote their whole lives, every waking and even every sleeping moment, to lowering your premiums while also working to make sure you’re completely covered if you have a flood or a meteor hits your home. It’s reassuring even if, not so deep down, we all know it’s hogwash.

What’s really funny to me, because I have a weird sense of humor and a degree in English, is the poet Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance agent. It was one of those dual lives you rarely hear about—the sort I’m not sure can even exist anymore, since, even in the real, non-commercial world, only celebrities seem able to manage multiple careers, and even they can only manage that because they can afford to hire someone to design the clothes, the makeup, the power tools they slap their names and faces on.

Sometimes I even envy Wallace Stevens, who I think was in the perfect position—successful enough as an insurance agent that he got to a pretty high level in the company where he worked, and at the same time one of the most widely read and respected American poets of the twentieth century. Imagine being at a cocktail party and saying to someone, “Here’s my card if you need an insurance agent, and here’s my other card if you need two-hundred and forty lines of enigmatic language on the Aurora Borealis.”

Back To Work.

The start of a new year always seems like it should be different. After all I’ve been, mostly, away from work, since mid-December. The one exception was last Wednesday when my boss asked me to come in and take care of a few things that couldn’t wait five days, and even then I worked from home and had to sign out early to go to a doctor’s appointment. In spite of getting a lot done it didn’t really feel like working.

It also gave me an opportunity to clear up a lot of the ten thousand or so junk emails I’d gotten in the time I was away.

This morning I was fifteen minutes late getting to the office. That’s not terrible, and it really just reflects that I’m still getting adjusted to coming back to work in the office. Part of the reason I was late is I forgot the way to get to work. When I started coming into the office I took the same route I’d been taking for years that led to a parking garage that’s approximately half a mile from my office. I don’t use that parking garage anymore, though; I park in a garage that’s next to my office building. So I’d pass by the old garage on the way to the new one. Then, a few months ago, I realized I was wasting time, and that I could take a more direct path—one that’s pretty much the same as my old bus route, funny enough.

Then this morning I forgot to take the direct path. I took the one that went by the old parking garage. I would have waved as I went by but I had both hands on the wheel and was sweating over being late.

The other reason I was late is because time seems to stretch or compress no matter how much I prepare. I got up fifteen minutes early this morning, knowing I’d be groggy and slow because I’ve gotten out of the habit of getting up early and going to work. Somehow, though, in spite of doing almost everything the same way I would on a work day, and moving through at pretty much the same pace, that extra fifteen minutes disappeared and an additional fifteen minutes got added on.

For months now I’ve been arriving at the office on Monday morning at the same time, taking the same route. This morning I went the wrong way, or at least a different way that hadn’t been my normal one, and I was fifteen minutes late. It’s not the most auspicious start to 2023 but at least it’s different.

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