It’s fun for me to take some graffiti and relate it to some aspect of art history even if, and sometimes especially if, any connection between the two is a real stretch or simply nonexistent since most, or even all, art comes from a mental leap. This time, though, I want to get more personal. I’m still contemplating my five-year cancerversary—and I know that’s a word I just made up, and I know that since “annus” is the Latin for “year” and “versus” is the Latin for “turn” and that therefore “anniversary” means “turning of the year” and cogito ergo something or other the word should be “annicancer” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue like “cancerversary” and this entire paragraph has gotten away from me and I should start over.
Back in June 2014 when I got the cancer diagnosis I spent two nights in the hospital. The second night I was taken up to a private room, and while the window basically looked out at a brick wall because it was in a wing that was a fairly recent addition I could walk down the hall to a window that looked down at a stretch of 21st Avenue I knew well. I sat at that window for a long time wondering what was ahead of me, looking down at places that held so many happy memories for me, and wished I could be down there. Really I wished I could be anywhere other than a hospital room, but there was something especially frustrating about being so close to places I’d not only much rather be but that I could imagine so clearly.
One of those places was the Sportsman’s Grille where I’d had a few beers. Really I’d had more than a few beers there–in college I did this Dylan Thomas impersonation. I’d imitate his voice and recite “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and guzzle an entire pitcher of Gerst beer in between lines and sometimes, in another imitation of Dylan Thomas, do that three or four times in one night, which would amuse my English major friends and horrify my pre-med friends, but that’s another story.
The Sportsman’s Grille also had an upstairs pool room and it was the only place I knew–and still know–in Nashville that had a snooker table, which is larger than the standard table used for 8 and 9-ball. And I love snooker. It’s so unbelievably complicated it’s best played sober, although I think the reason it’s unbelievably complicated is because whoever wrote the rules had to be drunk at the time.
Anyway the Sportsman’s Grille was brightly lit that night and as I sat at the window, almost certain I could hear the click of billiard balls and maybe even a voice slurring, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right…”
The Sportsman’s Grille in that location is closed now, and the building is currently empty. There’s a billboard over it and someone, or, from the look of it, a couple of someones, added their own tags to the back of the billboard. They’re stark and simple although really well done, and I can’t explain why but it makes me happy to see them up there. I’m sure there’s a reason but I can’t quite make the leap.
I’ll never not be a cancer survivor, at least as long as I survive. What that means has changed and will continue to change as each day puts me a little farther from it, although, unlike objects in the rearview mirror, it will always appear closer than it is. Some days the only reminders are the scars I’ll always carry or the medications I have to take, or the doctor’s appointments I now have to make more regularly than I once did. Then there are reminders I don’t expect. Less than a week ago I went to the dentist for a routine check-up and cleaning, and the hygienist told me she was going to do a routine oral cancer screening.
“It’s a very simple procedure, very straightforward and non-invasive, just like a prostate exam,” she said.
“Well, I can tell you’ve never had a prostate exam if you think they’re non-invasive,” I replied, and we both laughed about that so much I didn’t even stop to think if I should let someone who couldn’t tell the difference put her fingers in my mouth.
This particular cancerversary is a significant one because September 22nd, 2019 will mark five years since I finished chemotherapy. Even though the doctors will say I didn’t get the real all-clear until the surgery I had three months later I was the one with cancer and I get to choose the date. There’s not a lot I could control while I was being ravaged by a cluster of runaway cells so I get to have some say over the things I can. That’s a lesson I’ve taken away from the cancer experience—and one of the lessons I still have to remind myself of on a regular basis.
Being a five-year cancer survivor is significant because, while your cancer may vary and doctors differ in their opinions, there is a broad consensus that most people who have been in remission this long are “cured”. Of course within twenty-four hours of my diagnosis on June 17th, 2014 I had doctors telling me that I was lucky and that my particular cancer had a good chance of being “cured”. I keep putting that word in quotes because another lesson I’ve taken away from the cancer experience is that there’s no such thing. My biggest mistake at the time was hearing the word “cured” and thinking it was going to be easy, that I didn’t have to be responsible, that it was all going to take care of itself.
Not that I really believed it was going to take care of itself. Even before the toxic cocktail of chemotherapy started dripping into my veins, even before the first surgery, even before a gaggle of doctors came to talk to me about my prognosis and options, my brain was stirring up a brew of its own. I say that by telling my wife over the phone rather than giving me the news in person my regular doctor deprived me of the chance to make a joke, but there’s more to it than that.
The day I was diagnosed with cancer the tech who performed the ultrasound spotted a blood clot in my leg, which is why, on our way home, my wife and I had to turn around and rush to the emergency room. Later, at nearly midnight, I was wheeled upstairs in my hospital bed for a second ultrasound and the news that there was no blood clot. I don’t blame anyone for the false positive but it did leave me feeling falsely positive. If the blood clot wasn’t there, I thought, maybe the cancer wasn’t either. It was hard to take cancer seriously when there was a possibility, however small, it wasn’t real, and, being terrified, it was even harder to accept that it was real, and that I needed to take it seriously. I didn’t take it seriously, not even when I was undergoing chemotherapy, not even when I started having side effects my wife shouldn’t have had to point out but that she did. And there’s another lesson from the cancer experience: nobody knows my body better than I do. I have to listen to what it’s telling me because most of the time I’m the only one who can hear it.
And did I mention that I’m easily distracted at the best of times? I might have had what’s known as “chemo-brain”, but who could tell? One day while I was getting chemo I went to the restroom and got lost. A nurse had to take me back to my room. That might still happen now. The infusion clinic I went to has a very confusing layout. That reminds me of a joke: two oncologists walk into a bar and one says…no, wait, never mind, it’s gone now.
Add to that mix of fear and denial a desire to not be a burden, although that probably feeds into the denial. There have only been a few times I’ve gone to a hospital emergency room seeking treatment–in college when I started having stomach cramps in the middle of the night and again when I had a pulled tendon in my foot, decades later when I had what turned out to be a kidney stone, and for that phantom blood clot, but I’m pretty sure the first thing I always said to the admitting nurse was, “Excuse me, I don’t want to bother you, but…” And that, like all the others, is a lesson I have to remind myself of: it’s okay to speak up. I think most people would agree that it’s better to go to a doctor and start treatment, or, even better, be told, “It’s nothing,” than assume it’s nothing or that whatever it is will clear up on its own. Even doctors can make mistakes, miss things, misdiagnose, but I’ll take that chance. There’s always a possibility I’ll be hit by a bus but I can at least lower my odds by looking before I cross the street.
And not everything is predictable. The dental hygienist I was briefly afraid might try to floss my colon and I talked about how cancer isn’t like, say, the measles, or chicken pox. There are vaccines that lower the odds of certain kinds of cancer but there’s no vaccine against cancer itself. The odds that I’ll get the same cancer I’ve already had are many decimals to the distaff side of zero, but having cancer once, or even multiple times, is not a prophylaxis against a repeat performance. Cancer’s ancient association with the crab is apt: it’s tenacious, good at hiding, and it can pop out anywhere. Cancer is unpredictable as a wild animal too. You don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer, spend a lot of time in the sun to get skin cancer, or link independent clauses to get colon cancer.
I wish I could say I’ve learned all these lessons, or that I already knew some of them, but there’s a big difference between knowing and applying what you know. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice I give myself great advice; it’s following it that’s the problem, and cancer is no wonderland. None of this is easy for me, and probably not for most other people. Perspective also changes with time. I’m bound to learn new lessons, and what I think I know now may look different in future hindsight. I’ll take now, though, because now is five years from where I was.
Stickers have been going up on signs on bus stops around the city. Apparently the Number 2 route isn’t the only one going down, and that’s a sad thing. Since riding the bus for me is a convenience it’s easy for me to complain, but what about the people who depend on the bus to get around? Whenever I see a route being eliminated I remember the Number 13 route that I once accidentally got on, back when the buses didn’t have signs with their route number and bus drivers sometimes forgot what route they were on. The Number 13 went down Murphy Road, an side street that curves around through the Sylvan Park neighborhood. Along it you’ll find a vegan bakery, a bagel place, an organic grocery, and the McCabe golf course where, in high school, I made a dismal attempt at joining the golf team, but that’s another story.
I still wonder who rode the Number 13–that one day I accidentally got on the bus was packed–and how they had to change their schedules. Parts of the Number 13 overlap with another route, and getting from that other route to Murphy Road is walkable, for those who can walk a mile or more.
The Number 2 partly overlaps with the Number 7, which I rode as part of my plan to ride every one of Nashville’s bus routes–so far I’ve fallen short, and yet it still bothers me that there’s now at least one less route to ride. The Number 7 goes through the heart of Hillsboro Village, an area that gets so much traffic it could use more buses, not less. The Number 2 goes around a side street, past the entrance to the area’s YMCA. Hey, don’t people who ride the bus also go to the gym? If you look at the schedule you’ll see it’s kind of an odd route that starts running at 5:34 in the morning then stops at 9:28, and only starts up again at 2:15 in the afternoon and stops at 6:49, so it’s mainly aimed at people who work the day shift.
I hope the people who used to ride it can walk.
So I happened to be passing by and noticed that someone had stuck a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence, and of course I had to stop and take pictures of it because I’m weird, although probably not as weird as someone who’d stick a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence and not even try to put them in some kind of order or pattern. Or maybe the original person did make some kind of pattern, reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as kids, and then someone else came along and rearranged the cups so it was just random and looked stupid, also reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as a kid, and it would be even more reminiscent of the Lite Brite I had as a kid if one of my friends had come by and rearranged it to say DICKS.
Some might think it’s a stretch to call this art—and some might think this is a terrible waste of red plastic cups which are more often a common symbol for “YES I AM DRINKING CHEAP ALCOHOL”, but that’s another story. Consider, though, that toys have an aesthetic design which isn’t usually thought of as art for the same reason that most other mass-produced objects aren’t thought of as art.
Speaking of toys and art consider this:
Source: MOMA.orgThat’s The Palace At 4 AM, a 1932 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. It looks like a pared-down dollhouse, doesn’t it? It also kind of reminds me of the Scottish play, specifically Act V, scene 1, but that may be getting too high-falutin’ for, um, play. Giacometti even made some other sculptures that were meant to be played with as toys, but because they were made out of plaster and fairly fragile and because Giacometti went on to become a famous sculptor whose works are now worth millions those “toys” can’t be touched anymore, which ruins the purpose.
Also consider that all art—and all science, too, since science also requires creativity—begins with play. Art and science begin with us learning to play with the world around us, because play is a way of shaping the world and understanding its rules and limits. And that’s why I’ll leave you with this final thought from none other than Captain James T. Kirk:
“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”
I went out with someone and we had a great time. I thought we had a great time, anyway: we had a nice dinner, we laughed a lot. We played miniature golf. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I didn’t even know there were still courses around but he suggested it and I was enthusiastic. He seemed a little competitive about it but I was okay with that. Mostly we just had a lot of fun. The evening ended nicely, and I was certain we’d see each other again. Now, though, he won’t return my calls, texts, or emails. None of my friends can find any hint that I might have done anything wrong. If I did something wrong how am I supposed to know if he won’t answer?
-Ghosted In Gainesville
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb,
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me
I feel for them a transport
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
I have a coworker who’s needlessly critical. It’s nothing to do with work that she’s critical of. She criticizes my hair, the outfits I choose to wear to work. I brought in a jar I made in a pottery class and put it on the main table for pencils and pens. She didn’t know it was mine but loudly said it didn’t fit with the office “look” and put it on a shelf in the storage room. She does this to other people too. It’s not something the managers or HR can or should respond to but is there a way to deal with this?
-Fed Up In Phoenix
A Man may make a Remark –
In itself – a quiet thing
That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark
In dormant nature – lain –
Let us divide – with skill –
Let us discourse – with care –
Powder exists in Charcoal –
Before it exists in Fire –
Our child’s teacher is terrible. He assigns much more homework than I think is appropriate (our child is in third grade), and one afternoon when I took my child back after school to pick up a book I found the previous day’s homework in the trashcan unmarked, like he didn’t even look at it. From what our child has said he’s also unnecessarily harsh and leaves them in the classroom unsupervised a lot. We’re going to move our child to another class but would it be overreaching to report some of this to the school board too?
-Educating In Edmonton
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
I’ve been struggling for several years as a writer. I’ve had some encouraging results, but mostly I just seem to be hitting a wall. It also occurs to me that I’m never going to be able to make a living at writing; at best it’ll be a major hobby. That leaves me feeling frustrated and sad. Should I just quit trying and move on with my life, to see if focusing on my day job really makes me happier?
-Pondering In Poughkeepsie
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
And who am I kidding? If you like it keep doing it. Writing isn’t a bad hobby and it’s cheaper than tropical fish and safer than skydiving. Who knows? You might get lucky and someday smartass high schoolers will go around singing your poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Chucky, the kid who sat at the back of the school bus, and it got me thinking about the city buses I ride where I usually sit at the back. It’s where the engine is so in the winter it’s the warmest seat on the bus which is great, and in the summer it’s the warmest seat in the bus which isn’t so great, but I can sit off to the side. I’m not sure why I always go to the back of the bus. Unlike Chucky, who drew attention to himself by sitting at the back, I do it to be small and unobtrusive. I don’t go dancing down the aisle greeting everyone, although that would be kind of fun to do and get some laughs. And I go to the back to leave seats for other people at the front of the bus. The wheelchair seating is at the front of the bus, and there’s more space for people with kids in strollers up at the front too.
Something I really hadn’t thought about, though, is that, unlike school buses, city buses don’t have an emergency door in the back. I’ve also heard stories of kids who had a tradition of opening the emergency door at the back of the bus and jumping out, which makes me feel like I missed out. We never even practiced going out of the emergency door. My school thought it was good enough to show us a filmstrip about how to get out of the bus in the event of an emergency so if we’d ever needed to get out we might have been stuck there waiting for the beep so we could advance to the next frame, but that’s another story.
What I realized is that, while the city bus does have a side door halfway down the bus, there are also emergency “doors” in the ceiling, one at the front and one at the back, and it’s one of those things that’s strangely unnerving. Sitting in the back does suddenly seem like a better idea, even if it’s in the hot seat, because the back of the bus is elevated, so those like me who are short in stature will have an easier time reaching the ceiling. Supposedly there’s an emergency door in the ceiling of elevators and that’s always bothered me because, first of all, I’ve never seen one, and, second, I’ve never been in an elevator where I could reach the ceiling. That also means that tall people need to sit closer to the front of the bus, and it makes me wonder if there’s a certain height requirement for bus drivers. Sure, they need to be able to reach the pedals, but the seats are adjustable, so has anyone stopped to think about whether the driver could reach the ceiling? And I wonder what kind of emergency would block both bus doors forcing us to go out onto the roof. Whatever it is would probably have the bus surrounded so I hope it’s something like water and not lava or acid or raw sewage. I do, however, feel strangely reassured that the bus company has never given us instructions on how to use the emergency escape hatches via a filmstrip so if there’s an emergency we won’t stand around waiting for the beep.
Back in the ‘80’s when I first saw a documentary on New York graffiti I was surprised that some people went to jail for tagging subway cars or walls. I’m not sure why that surprised me, although I still think that if someone gets busted for graffiti it would make more sense to put their talents to good use doing some community service or something than it would to throw them in jail, which could just make the problem worse. Back in the ‘80’s I also heard a joke that’s stayed with me: a cop tells a kid, “A night in the slammer will teach you a lesson,” and the kid says, “Yeah, if I want to learn to be a junkie, hooker, or thief,” but that’s another story.
Every time I see graffiti, something that isn’t obviously there legally, I think about the risks the artist took, especially the risk of getting caught. And then I see something like the tag MENAS left and I’m even more impressed. This was going to eleven. I had to go by there at least a dozen times before I could get the picture above, and I could only get it from a moving car while my wife was driving. It shows up on Google Maps so here’s a picture that gives you an idea of its placement and how difficult that must have been.
Embiggen for the full effect. And here’s an aerial shot, also from Google Maps, although the red circle is mine, that also gives an idea of how difficult placing this tag must have been.
There’s also something to be said for the sharp, clean lines. Whoever Menas is they’ve clearly shown some skills, and a willingness to take some risks. Do they really deserve to go to jail for that?
Even though summer’s almost over there are still some warm days left and a chance to revisit one of childhood’s simple pleasures: making a mud pie. The following is excerpted from the recipe book Get Baked: The High Art Of All Forms Of Pastry by Eunice Phelan.
How To: Make A Mud Pie.
Locally sourced mud pies are best but this may not be possible if you live in a coastal area or in parts of the American southwest where the soil is too sandy to adhere properly, creating more of a sludge than bona fide mud. In these areas, or if you live in a city and don’t have easy access to topsoil, try commercial potting soil. Its dark color and perlite can give your mud pie a nice chocolate cookie quality similar to Oreo or Hydrox. Commercial potting soil tends toward dryness, though, so check on local water restrictions.
For added appeal you can blend commercial potting soil with lighter brown soil, if you can find it. This blending is a very advanced technique that requires more patience, skill, and practice than most mud pie makers are going to have, but the results are worth it.
In much of the southeast you’ll find a dense clay-rich soil that’s a perfect mud pie base. Add enough water to give it a consistency that’s easy to shape but not too soft. You can always add more water but it can take hours or even days for any excess water to evaporate. Mud pies always benefit from being served right away and can be spoiled if it rains or if you just forget about them.
Once you have the right consistency place your mud base in a pan. I find a round 9-inch metal baking pan works best. Metal is prone to rust, especially if left outside, but holds its shape better than plastic. I find mud pies in metal pans also dry faster.
Once your pan is filled add finishing touches like a crimped edge and vertical cuts in the center. Garnish with leaves for color.
Every time I get off the bus I tell the driver “Thank you.” I never leave through the side door, even if it’s closer to where I’m sitting when the bus stops, and if the side door is closer I hurry to the front so I don’t hold up anybody just so I can offer a nice parting word to the driver. It’s Labor Day today which got me thinking about that, and about bus drivers I’ve known.
If you rode a bus to school do you remember your first day? I distinctly remember that a few blocks from my house a kid came running out into his yard. I’d seen this kid around the neighborhood–he looked like a miniature Harpo Marx, minus the trench coat and the horn, and I never heard him talk either. I just knew he was younger than me. The driver stopped opened the door just as Harpo Jr.’s mother ran out to grab him.
“Does he ride this bus?” the driver asked.
His mother shook his head and we drove on.
That bus driver was Ms. Owens, who always wore sunglasses and a bright pink shirt and jeans, and who had a frizzy mane of bright red hair. You’d think this would make her stand out but there was at least one other driver who looked just like her, which is why, that first week of school, I got on the wrong bus. One by one, or sometimes in clusters, other kids got off until I was the last one and the poor bus driver had to drive around asking people if they knew where I lived until we passed my mother who was driving around the neighborhood asking people if they’d seen me. I don’t think I ever thanked that driver; I still appreciate all her effort and I don’t mind that she kept insisting I was a girl, but that’s another story.
A few years later Mrs. Owens was still my regular bus driver when a major snowstorm hit and she did her best to get us all home, creeping along through snow and darkness at inches per hour at times. She made all of us give her our home phone numbers as we got off and once she got home she called every one of our parents to make sure we’d gotten home safely.
In high school my regular bus driver was a funny little gnome named Russ who could barely see over the steering wheel and who I’m pretty sure had checked out the school library’s copy of Moby Dick so he could sit on it. We always said “Thanks, Russ” when we got off the bus, and he always said, “Y’all have a nice day.” He never said anything else. We even made a game of trying to get him to say something different, because we were teenagers and therefore jerks.
“Thanks for the ride, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have a nice day, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have they found the white whale yet, Russ?”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
Even now I thank bus drivers, even when it’s the only thing I say to them, although it’s the chatty ones I remember. There was the older woman who liked talking to passengers, and who one day asked me what my name was. Then she told me I’d never forget her name: “Loretta Lynn.” She was right, and I thanked her for also recording Coal Miner’s Daughter.
There was also the driver who I saw every day for a couple of weeks, then my schedule changed so I took a different bus for about a week, and then it changed back, and the first day as I was getting on the driver grinned and said, “Where you been?” It was nice to know someone was looking out for me.
I even thank the bus drivers who annoy me, like the one who kept pulling over every few blocks, frequently between stops, to check his phone, even though bus drivers are supposed to put their phones in a box while they’re driving. As frustrating as it was I know I shouldn’t make hasty judgments about people, and I had plenty of time to make a slow judgment about him. Maybe someone in his family was having a baby, or major surgery, and he couldn’t get someone else to take his shift so he had to keep checking his phone for news. Maybe there was something else big going on in his life, like an offer for a different job.
Anyway I’ve got the day off from work today so I won’t be riding the bus, but tomorrow if I do I’ll thank the driver.
Minimalism was an art movement that rose to prominence in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, probably because, if there are two decades that absolutely screamed excess, it would be the 1960’s and ‘70’s. If the recent fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock should remind us of everything it’s how weird it was that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Sha Na Na all performed on the same stage. Not at the same time, and, yeah, okay, maybe it wasn’t that weird, but still if that’s not excess I don’t know what is.
Anyway it’s a principle in art as well as physics that every movement has an equal and opposite movement. Well, maybe not really opposite, and not necessarily even equal—a counter-movement may always be as popular as the movement that inspired it. Such is the case with Maximalism, although it can be hard to define. In art how much is too much? A friend of mine says that certain films, like 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, “make excess into a virtue”, which is a phrase I love, but it’s hard to define, and kind of like that famous definition of pornography: you only really know it when you see it.
And then there’s this that I found stuck to a wall of an industrial building.
From a distance it looked so small, but the colors got my attention, and the closer I got the more the depth of the design made it look bigger and bigger and bigger. Within its own small space it really stretched to excess.