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A Simple Plan.

Source: WPLN’s Curious Nashville

In the summer of 1984, when we were between eighth and ninth grade, my friend John came up with a simple plan. John was, and still is, a smart guy—he’s a lawyer in Atlanta now, and using his powers for good, but his scheme forty years ago was a little more shady. He told me his parents were buying him a season pass to Opryland and that our friend Jeff’s parents were buying him one too and I’d better get one or I’d be left out while they were off riding the Tin Lizzies and the Screamin’ Delta Demon.

Opryland was Nashville’s country music-themed amusement park, Disneyworld as reimagined by the producers of Hee Haw. The Tin Lizzies were Model T’s that could be driven around a track, the Screamin’ Delta Demon, a later addition, put riders in in scaly green cars that slid down a tube, there was an antique carousel, boats that meandered around the Cumberland River on a track, and a few roller coasters. It was a fun place and my family would go at least once every summer—usually only once because the admission price was pretty expensive and also there was an additional charge for parking because of course the owners wanted to bilk the tourists and the locals alike. If we didn’t go by the middle of June I’d start getting anxious. Opryland was only open eight months of the year and I worried we’d miss it. My favorite ride was the Tennessee Waltz, a swing ride. I’ve never liked roller coasters—I thought about going on the Wabash Cannonball which had a full loop but always chickened out—but the Tennessee Waltz which lifted all of us riders several feet in the air in bucket seats and spun us around over spiked fencing was exhilarating to me. I always made sure to ride it at least once during the day and once after dark when it lit up with red and white lights. There was also a train that went all around the park, and the Skyride, boxes suspended from cables that carried riders high up and from one section to another. There a long stretch of game booths with giant stuffed animals as prizes. All of it was pretty standard amusement park stuff but to a young child it was magical; I remember being surprised by music literally in the air, thanks to speakers placed behind bushes along walkways, and people dressed up as musical instruments walking through the park. It was even more amazing they didn’t pass out in the heat. Even as I got older it was still fun to go and ride the rides. It was a shock when it was abruptly closed in 1997. The park was still profitable but the owners didn’t think it was profitable enough so they tore it down and put up a mall, which was definitely a downgrade even if parking was now free.

John didn’t tell me about his scheme. By letting me believe he and Jeff had already been promised season passes he was evoking an honest performance from me. There was a small risk that Jeff and I might compare notes but John was clever enough to talk to me while Jeff was away visiting his grandparents. If the plan had worked by the time Jeff got back John and I would have season passes and Jeff’s parents would, well, they probably wouldn’t have bought him a season pass since he’d just gotten an Atari console for Christmas, but maybe he could have joined us a few times. What John didn’t count on was that it was a large enough financial commitment that our parents would talk to each other. He also might have stretched it a bit too far when he said both his sisters were also getting season passes. There was also the question of who’d be driving us. John and Jeff both lived within easy walking distance of my house; Opryland was about a half hour drive. Food was also not included in season passes and it wasn’t as though we could slip through the gates with sack lunches. Like all simple plans John’s idea, under scrutiny, became entirely too complicated.

Although we live in different cities now and haven’t seen each other in a really long time John and I have stayed in touch, and he recently told me he might bring his family to Nashville some time this summer. I hope we can get together, maybe have a meal or two, even find something to do as a group. Something simple.

How D’You Like Them Apples?

Every few weeks my wife and I drive an hour east to take care of the animals at a friend’s farm when she’s out of town. It’s pretty simple: we collect the eggs from the chickens and put out some food for the cows and the sheep. The only thing I have a problem with is going into the cows’ enclosure. Sometimes their food trough gets moved around or turned over and I have to go in and put it where it belongs. And I’m scared of cows. People think I’m kidding when I say this and it’s not as though I think cows are deadly, vicious animals that will attack me. I know they’re really gentle, even shy creatures, but a three-thousand pound animal can still hurt you pretty badly even if it doesn’t intend to. When the cows know we’re about to put out food they come running and I have to get out quickly because I don’t want to be pinned between a cow and the fence.

Still I’ve gotten to like the cows as long as they’re on the other side of the fence. I pet them and talk to them and try not to think about the fact that they’re destined for what our friend calls “Freezer Camp”. And she told me that if I wanted to do something nice for the cows I could bring them some apples. So the last time we went I took a bag of apples, halved so they’d know what they were being offered and for easier swallowing.

One of the cows sniffed an apple half, snorting hot air and cow snot over my hand, before cautiously taking it. Another eyed an apple half and then slurped it up with her enormous tongue. The rest were not interested. One even sniffed an apple half, rolled its eyes, and ran away as though I’d threatened it with an evil talisman. Or a ticket to Freezer Camp.

The bright side of this, at least, is that next time I have to go into their enclosure I can just carry half an apple for protection.

Just What I Needed.

It’s been ten years now since my cancer diagnosis, the perfect time to see that the hospital where I went for treatment offers an Introduction To Chemotherapy class. It’s a great idea and I’m glad it’s being offered, but where was it when I needed it? I could have used something like that when I was at the beginning of treatment—it would have been even better to have it before the first day I walked into the clinic scared out of my mind because I had no idea what chemotherapy was going to be like or what it would involve. I’d watched Breaking Bad and seen Walter White go the clinic for treatment but I don’t recall actually seeing what that involved until close to the end of the final season, when he was living alone in a cabin in New Hampshire. And, in spite of knowing far too many friends who’d been through cancer themselves, I didn’t realize he was getting chemotherapy. I’d also read memoirs by people about their own cancer battles, specifically Robert Schimmel’s Cancer On $5 A Day (which was originally supposed to be called I Licked The Big C), Gilda Radner’s It’s Always Something, and Julia Sweeney’s God Said Ha!

So I was prepared to face cancer with a lot of humor. And I was prepared for side effects, which I got. My hair fell out, I had bouts of nausea, and my fingernails got dark and crusty. I got a rash from sunlight. And I felt tired all the time. What I wasn’t prepared for was what the process of getting chemotherapy actually meant. Nothing I’d read or seen, I thought, actually showed what happens to a person getting chemo, so I imagined it was too gruesome to be shown or even described. This may sound really stupid, and my wife and other people have even asked me, “Why didn’t you ask about it before you started?” Because I was terrified of what it meant but also trying to put on an unnecessary brave face. And whatever chemotherapy involved I was going to go through it because the other option was, to be blunt, death.

Here’s what happened on my first day, and every subsequent full session after that: I went into the clinic and sat down in a room. Some nurses came in and gave me a few pills and a cup of water. Because it was really cold in the clinic, in spite of it being 90 degrees outside, they offered me a warm blanket. They brought in an IV pole with a bag full of fluid, stuck a needle in my arm, and said, “Call us if you need anything” and left me there by myself for three hours. When the bag of fluid was empty an alarm went off, they came and took the needle out of my arm, and that was it.

When someone gets a cancer diagnosis they’re bombarded with information: what it means, what their chances are, what their treatment options are. I get that a detail like “At least part of your treatment will involve sitting in a chair for hours so figure out something to do with your time” is not something most doctors will think to say.

And I doubt any of them would recommend filling that time with some bad lip syncing.

Summer Lights.

There have been more lightning bugs this year than I can remember seeing in a long time. Last night I walked through the yard and lost count of how many there were, each one drawing a distinct J shape in the air as they lit up the darkness. And yet I always feel guilty when I see them because I remember how many I sent to their deaths when I was a kid. Not that I wanted to—there were just some things I didn’t understand, mainly that if you put a bunch of lightning bugs in a jar and leave it next to your bed overnight it doesn’t matter how many holes you punch in the lid. Unless the holes are big enough for them to get out. It’s something I only did a few times but still I think I should have learned the lesson after the first time I woke up to find a jar full of tiny corpses on my bedside table. That also didn’t stop me from performing some pretty disturbing science experiments, like the time I put a lightning bug in the freezer for one minute. When I pulled it out it had stopped moving so I ran outside to the air conditioner and held the lightning bug under the hot blast of air. After a minute or so—I didn’t think to time this part of the experiment—it revived and flew up into the air. So I caught it again and took it back to the freezer for two minutes. Again the air conditioner was able to revive it, although I might have gotten the same result if I’d just left it on the warm ground. At three minutes it took much longer to revive and, sensing I was at a crossroads with one divide leading to a possible career as a serial killer, I let the lightning bug go off into the night, hopefully to find a partner.

It wasn’t until several years later that I read an Appalachian folk tale that, had I read it earlier, might have stopped me from experimenting with lightning bugs. Maybe it would have even convinced me to just let them be. It seems a man was sitting out on his porch with a bunch of his buddies one night watching the lightning bugs and he remarked that they must be cowards, afraid of the dark, to carry their own little lights. A lightning bug heard this and challenged the man to a fight.

“Meet me in the town square tomorrow night,” said the lightning bug, “and I’ll show you how cowardly we are.”

“Will you be bringing any of your friends?” the man asked.

“I won’t need to,” the lightning bug replied.

The next night the whole town showed up to the square, everyone having heard that one of them was going to fight a lightning bug. The lightning bug was there, all lit up.

“All right,” said the man, putting up his fists, “let’s have this fight!”

The lightning bug immediately flew up his nose and the man punched himself in the face. He fell down unconscious and the lightning bug flew out his ear. Another man, not entirely sure what happened, put up his fists and challenged the lightning bug. It flew up his nose and he knocked himself unconscious. A dozen of the town’s biggest, strongest, and not exactly brightest men went down in this way.

Circling over their bodies the lightning bug asked if anyone else was up the challenge but the remaining townspeople just quietly backed away.

Now I also let the lightning bugs alone, even if I’ve got my own reasons.

It’s A Gas, Gas, Gas.

My father used to drive me crazy, which, admittedly, isn’t a long distance trip, because he’d go for miles with the needle of the gas tank firmly pointed at “E”. When I was in high school he had some kind of large car that also had a yellow warning light that came on when the fuel was low. It often seemed like every time I got in the car that yellow warning light was on and I’d be in the back seat sweating over the thought of having to get out and walk. And yet he was a master of timing. The engine never even sputtered; drawing on fumes it always managed to get us to the store, or to school, or wherever, then home again without ever once stopping for gas. I suspect that whenever I wasn’t around he’d stop somewhere and put exactly one gallon of gas in the car and calculate the mileage in his head so he’d know exactly how far he could go.

I’ve never been able to master the skill myself, and yet I find all the time I get the warning light that the car is running low on gas. That’s because I get distracted by other, more important things, like whatever’s on the radio or, hey, look, there’s someone out walking their dog. And also I believe my father is responsible. If just once he had run out of gas while I was in the car, if we’d had to walk to a gas station or, worse, push the car somewhere, I might have something to make me more focused on the fuel level.

Although he did run out of gas once and ended up having to walk about a mile to the nearest station. Which he enjoyed telling me a few weeks after it happened since of course I wasn’t there.

The Rainbow Connection.

Source: Wikipedia

The Muppet Movie is the ideal movie for Pride Month.

That may sound like a completely random thought but it’s something that occurred to me both after I watched the new documentary Jim Henson: Idea Man about the life and work of Jim Henson and also reading the article On the Cultural Significance of ‘The Muppet Movie’ in the Nashville Scene.

Neither of those make any connection between the Muppets and LGBTQ+ community–in spite of its title the Scene article is really too short to do anything but highlight a few aspects the original film’s significance–but it’s something I thought about because, like many LGTBTQ+ people—and, for that matter, most of us who’ve felt like outsiders for whatever reason—the Muppets are a diverse bunch of odd characters who may seem like they have nothing in common but who form a family anyway. Jim Henson himself did the same thing, bringing a wide range of performers together into what ultimately became a family as they all worked together and shared time together through multiple projects. Although most of the performers behind the Muppets were straight there were a few who were gay, like Richard Hunt, who was hired to work on Sesame Street in its early years and he performed the character Scooter who was introduced on The Muppet Show.

Jim Henson wasn’t gay and neither is Frank Oz, but they were very close friends. Friendship is a form of love and I think they expressed that through the Muppets’ most endearing, enduring, and difficult couple—the on-again-off-again-who-knows-what’s-going-on-or-off relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy. A relationship between a frog and a pig may seem transgressive, if not downright impossible, but love is love. Henson and Oz also originated another long-term Muppet couple, Bert and Ernie, who also love each other enough to stick together in spite of–or maybe because of–their differences.

There’s another old Muppet couple, Waldorf and Statler. I don’t like to stereotype but others have pointed out that they’re apparently single men who spend all their time together, and most of it at the theater where they sit in a booth making catty remarks. Whatever their relationship is they make each other laugh, and that counts for a lot.

Speaking of theaters Henson chose to model The Muppet Show theater on British dance halls, Theaters have a long history of being safe places for LGBTQ+ people—it’s not a coincidence that Polari, slang used by gay men to communicate discreetly—was also popular among actors, singers, and circus folk. And the Muppet theater, like Sesame Street, is a place where everyone is welcome.

These are just a few thoughts I had but the Muppets are multi-layered and complicated and, more than anything else, they’re for everyone. The Muppet Movie begins with Kermit singing “The Rainbow Connection” and ends with all the Muppets singing it together, and accepting each other. It’s why the Muppets still matter, and because they’re united by what they share rather than what makes them different we can see ourselves in them. Personally I’ve always felt a kinship with Fozzie Bear, who manages to make the worst jokes funny, but the point is that there’s at least one Muppet for everyone, and those lines still ring true:

Someday we’ll find it,

the rainbow connection,

the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

Survey Says…

Because I worked for three lousy months at a call center I know what it’s like for customer service people. I know how it feels to be on the other end of the phone when some angry, frustrated person calls. Maybe I’d be nice to customer service people anyway but experience makes me especially nice to them because while I have no idea what their day so far has been like I assume it hasn’t been good. So I had to call a customer service person the other day and it was even more of a relief that she was friendly and understanding, apologizing for the problem even though it wasn’t her fault. She also took down all my contact information in case we got cut off. That also turned out to be helpful because the issue was too complicated to resolve over a phone call so she promised to email me a follow-up when she had more information. During this conversation I could hear a baby babbling in the background and I thought it was great she got to work from home, which can be a real stress relief, and I was grateful that the dog three feet away from my desk didn’t jump up and bark like he usually does whenever I have to make a phone call. Instead he stayed curled up, sound asleep and farting, which I was really glad the customer service person didn’t hear.

Pictured: The dog. Not pictured: The farting.

She did send me the follow-up message, the whole issue was resolved, and then I got a survey that asked, “How did our customer service person do?” I don’t know if these surveys really make any difference or if the results even get back to the person. When I worked in customer service there were a few repeat customers—it was a small company—who told me they always appreciated my professionalism and courtesy, and all I ever got was a lousy coffee mug with the corporate logo. And even Kevin, who sat in the corner station with his phone turned off playing solitaire got one of those. But just in case I always fill out the surveys, especially when the person I talked to did a really good job. That’s what I said, too: “Great, five stars, and not too shabby!” Or something like that.

That’s when things took a strange turn. I got a follow-up to the survey that said, “We’re always happy to hear that our customer service people do a good job. How would you like to reward the person who helped you? (a) Treat them to a nice dinner (b) Give them a night out at the movies (c) Send them on vacation”.

At first this seemed like a great idea—a concrete way to reward someone for a job well done. But now I was faced with a choice. I hadn’t gotten to know the person I spoke to well enough to know what she might like. A nice dinner, maybe, but does she like to go out? Would she have to get a babysitter? If she ordered delivery would the cost mean she’d be stuck with a burger and fries? A night out at the movies came with similar concerns. Even if she’d rather watch a movie at home it didn’t seem like much of a thank-you. Could she get that and dinner delivered? I finally opted for the vacation, but I still had concerns. Did she have enough time off to take this vacation, whatever it might be? Would she be able to take the baby with her? Was it even her baby?

I spent more time sweating over this than the problem I called about in the first place. I wish they’d sent me a survey asking what I thought of their survey so I could say, “It sucks. Whose idea was this? It was Kevin, wasn’t it?”

Open Doors.

I like to explore. Most of the time this just means wandering around the neighborhood where my work building is located because the businesses are always changing—the cupcake place now serves hot chicken, there’s a new spot that used to be a law firm and now sells bagels, and so on. Sometimes too I like to explore the insides of buildings but because just wandering around can lead to uncomfortable questions I usually only do that if I have some legitimate reason to be in the building. My dentist used to be in a multistory tower and once when I had an appointment and arrived really early I decided to wander around the other floors and see what else the place had to offer. My dentist’s office was on the twelfth floor and I was on the ninth and, with my appointment time getting closer, I decided I’d just take the stairs up. For some reason this was one of those buildings where the stairwell doors are locked from the inside so once you’re in the stairwell the only way out is the first floor. Side note: the building where I work used to have the stairwell doors locked on both sides so you couldn’t take the stairs as all. The doors were supposed to unlock automatically in the event of an emergency which seemed reasonable as long as the emergency didn’t knock out the power.

Anyway since I couldn’t get to my dentist’s office by going up I went down to the first floor where I was met with a sign that said EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY. For me this was an emergency. I really had to get to my appointment even though I wasn’t looking forward to the cleaning. So I pressed the bar on the door and suddenly there was the loud wailing of an alarm. The exit also took me out of the building entirely and into an alley and fortunately once the door closed behind me it muffled the alarm or I would have been looking for an otolaryngologist next.

I went around the building and into the front entrance where a confused looking security guard asked if I’d seen anyone coming out from behind the building. “No,” I said, and this was true—I hadn’t seen myself.

This is just an extremely roundabout way of saying I appreciate that a local dive bar decided to open their emergency door making it easy for people to get out in case of an emergency. And it makes it easy for people to get in although if you look closely you can see that’s where the dart boards are so if you do go in the emergency might be you.

Source: Film Experience Blog

Both Baked In That Pie.

There are two quotes from Shakespeare that I’ve heard cited several times as evidence of The Bard contradicting himself. First is probably the most famous:

O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…

That, of course, is from Romeo & Juliet, Act II, scene 2. Then there’s:

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

That’s from Othello, Act III, scene 3, and it’s spoken by Iago. It’s a noble thought and I understand why people quote it but of Shakespeare’s villains Iago is one of the worst.

Even if these ideas are contradictory, and I think they’re much too complicated to say they are, Shakespeare didn’t speak through his characters. Maybe he spoke through his plays—there have been whole books written about how the death of his son Hamnet might have prompted him to stop writing light comedies and turn to the darker subjects of his tragedies—but that’s a controversial idea.

Anyway both Juliet and Iago understood that names carry a lot of weight which is why the Oprah tag I’ve noticed around Nashville caught my attention. And it’s been noticed by others too. Is it a callout to Oprah Winfrey? She did live in Nashville and attended both high school and college here, winning Miss Black Nashville in 1972 and Miss Black Tennessee and started her career at a local radio station.

Maybe it’s just someone else named Oprah, or someone who chose it as their tag for aesthetic reasons. Whatever the story behind it is I don’t think the famous Oprah has anything to worry about. If she were inclined to quote Shakespeare herself she might say, “Let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.”

And if you recognized the line from Titus Andronicus, Act V, scene 3, “Why, there they are both, baked in that pie,” give yourself ten bonus points.

Blood Donor.

There was a red smear on my arm where I’d slapped a mosquito. It’s not even really summer yet and already I can’t sit out on the patio at dusk without being poked by at least a dozen tiny needles. It’s like a visit to the emergency room, but the bill doesn’t come in the mail—it shows up as a bunch of tiny, itchy red bumps. Some years mosquitoes completely ignore me, and supposedly what you eat can keep them away. As a kid I was told swallowing a spoonful of vinegar kept mosquitoes and other parasites away, and from what I’ve read eating a lot of onions, garlic, and beans will deter both mosquitoes and everyone else. As I looked at that red stain on my arm and the crushed mosquito body, such a dangerous, even deadly thing and yet so tiny and fragile, I started to feel something for the mosquitoes. I wouldn’t call it sympathy but I felt a kind of understanding of them. I’m not ignoring the fact that mosquitoes are responsible for at least a million deaths a year—even if it is indirect. The diseases they carry, especially malaria, cause so much suffering. Still the mosquitoes didn’t ask to be carriers. They just want to pop in, fill up on a few milligrams of a protein drink—which just happens to be blood—and go on. And eliminating the mosquitoes isn’t a great solution because there are so many other insects, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles that feed on mosquitoes that they’re an important, if extremely annoying, link in a lot of food chains. Malaria, on the other hand, we could do without. Malaria is the guy who shows up at a party and says, “You know, homelessness could be eliminated if people would settle for renting instead of getting into debt with a mortgage” and no one knows who invited him.

Also there have been a lot of times when I’ve been bitten by mosquitoes without even realizing it. They have the decency to inject an anesthetic when they plunge their snouts into our skin, and mostly it works. Sometimes it doesn’t and I’ll feel a little sting. Again it’s like going to the doctor’s office. Some nurses can slide a needle right in and I won’t feel a thing and some jab me and leave me feeling it for at least an hour afterward, and once a nurse said “You’re going to feel a little prick” and I said “You could at least take me out to dinner and a movie first” and somebody else had to come in and draw my blood, but that’s another story.

There is something amazing about the tiny, fragile mosquito. Just a few drops of our red corpuscles can produce hundreds, even thousands. And think about them this way: they’re shapeshifters, transforming from aquatic wrigglers to denizens of the air. They emerge at dusk, find an unsuspecting victim, and drink its blood.

The last thing that went through that mosquito’s mind was the flat of my hand. But I wonder if the next to last thing that went through its mind was, “Sure, when vampires do it you think they’re all sexy and cool, but when we do it we’re a nuisance.”

Then again I’ve never heard of a vampire bringing malaria to a party.