Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

We’ve Been Here A Long Time.

Source: Griffith University News

I’ve always been fascinated by prehistoric cave paintings. Among other things they’re proof that the artistic impulse is a core part of our humanity. People have always decorated things, always made things. Toolmaking isn’t unique to humans but paintings and other forms of decoration aren’t tools. They serve a deeper, more opaque function. And the record for the oldest work of art just keeps getting broken. Two years ago archaeologists in Indonesia found cave paintings dating back about 40,000 years. Now, also in Indonesia, they’ve found a painting of a warty pig that dates back about 45,000 years, and the stylized nature of the painting suggest the artist might have been practicing and refining a style for some time, or had learned techniques from older artists.

And keep in mind that Homo sapiens had been around a while—we first appeared less than 200,000 years ago and current thinking is that we only reached Indonesia 73,000 years ago, and humans had probably been creating art for a long time before that.

The discovery reminded me of a review I read of the book KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes. We don’t really know why the Neanderthals went extinct–although humans may have had something to do with it, but the evidence suggests groups of Neanderthals didn’t work well together while groups of humans, referred to as Sapiens, did.

There is much more evidence for long-distance trade among Sapiens, and spectacular burials like the 32,000-year-old Sunghir graves clearly reflect the combined effort of more than one band…While individual Neanderthals were perhaps as inquisitive, imaginative and creative as individual Sapiens, superior networking enabled Sapiens to swiftly outcompete Neanderthals.

The reviewer admits that this is just speculation, but it is something to consider, especially now. I’m not saying we should just let go of things in the spirit of cooperation, as much as some who are responsible for inciting violence would like that since it would absolve them of responsibility. It’s because cooperation is so important to our survival that trying to undermine society, especially a democratic society, is treated as a serious crime. Cooperation is something that’s part of the past, present, and the only way there can be a future.

The Change Stays The Same.

The other day my boss said, “When we go back to the office…” Obviously I’ve spent the last ten months thinking about that although the longer things have gone on the stranger it’s seemed. In spite of everything slowing down I feel like I never really stopped to consider things, like the fact that it was a March 16th, 2020 that I used Zoom for the first time, and March 18th, 2020 that I had my first case of Zoom fatigue. And, well, that’s pretty much all I can think of at the moment but it has been a year of big changes.

My wife decided she’ll be working from home even after things get back to normal—whatever normal looks like, and that means we won’t be riding to work together most days. It also means I won’t be riding the bus home most days. It’s the end of my adventures in busing, a change I always knew would come eventually but I never really thought about it because I never knew when it would come.  It also means I need to find a new parking space—we always used her parking permit and I had about a half mile walk to work. I’m still working out the details but my new parking place wherever it is will be closer to my building. I’ll have a much shorter walk, although I think I’ll still walk. The difference is it’ll be voluntary. I won’t need to walk to the bus.

All this made me realize that my daily routine never was routine. Every day was slightly different. We went to the same parking garage but rarely parked in the same place from one day to the next.        We never arrived at exactly the same time. I walked different paths every day. If it was raining or really cold I cut through a lot more buildings which slowed me down but I was fine with getting to work a little later if it meant I could be a little warmer or a little drier. On my way home no bus ever arrived exactly on schedule, and even when I rode with the same bus driver from one day to the next there were different people on the bus, different seats where I sat.

Every day was slightly different, but the differences were something I could count on, which is why I overlooked them. The differences have always been part of my routine.

A New Leaf.

So I’d been kicking myself for not thinking to start the new year with something about O’Henry’s story The Last Leaf. Then violence broke out, encouraged by a group of idiots including both senators from Tennessee, and somehow it seems even more fitting for the moment because it’s a story about kindness and sacrifice and it just happens to be set in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s also about the healing power of art.

O’Henry is best known for his Christmas story The Gift Of The Magi which many of us had to read in school, usually in late December, and then we had to watch one of the three million or so film adaptations of it because our teachers were trying to kill time and probably using the darkened classroom to hide the fact that they were starting their holiday drinking early. It’s not really his best story, though. Yes, it’s a nice Christmas tale and has the ironic twist at the end that O’Henry’s famous for, but Della’s hair will grow back while Jim’s pocket watch is pawned forever. And since it’s the first and in many cases only introduction kids will get to O’Henry they’ll miss out on how funny some of his other stories are. He’s almost as well known for The Ransom Of Red Chief, about a boy who’s so terrible his kidnappers pay his parents to take him back—something his parents have turned into a lucrative business and, oh yeah, I think I just figured out why my teachers didn’t want me reading that one, but that’s another story.

And then there’s The Last Leaf which, although a sad tale, still gets in a little humor, right at the very beginning in his description of why artists flocked to Greenwich Village:

One Street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account!

There have been a few film adaptations, but I think the best one is in O’Henry’s Full House, a 1952 anthology film with John Steinbeck introducing five O’Henry stories.

And maybe it’s just what we need right now.

Stair Down.

Source: Architectural Record

I went to pick up a prescription which feels kind of like practice for when I eventually go back to work because the garage where we park for work just happens to be across the street from the same place where I pick up most of my prescriptions. And on the ride there I was listening to an episode of The Hidden Brain about The Bullitt Center in Seattle that has what its designers describe as “the irresistible staircase” which encourages people to take the stairs with an inviting wood design and great views of the city. They even say the best views in the building are from the stairs, and that people have spontaneous meetings on the stairs which allow them to be more productive in their work.

And, yeah, I’m gonna be that guy who points out that not everyone can take the stairs so those people are missing out on the advantage of spontaneous meetings, among other things. I also thought about how I regularly took the stairs at the office where I work, and I might have missed out on some spontaneous meetings, but I also got the advantage of the exercise which is why I did it even though the staircase in the building where I work is terrible. It’s completely enclosed and cold and for years the doors into the stairwell were locked from the inside so once you were in there the only way out was to go to the ground floor, and the ground floor stairwell door was locked from the outside. It seems like that would be a violation of the fire code but—this is absolutely true—one day when I was taking the elevator for a change I heard the building manager tell someone, “You can do whatever you want if you pay the inspector enough.” For a while I also had a coworker who was in a wheelchair and once when we all had to go to the basement because of a tornado she had to literally be carried down the stairs, which seemed pretty stupid to me, and probably to her too. I understand that the elevators shut down for most people in the event of an emergency but they should still be an option, at least for a short time, for people who can’t take the stairs and need to get out of the building in a hurry, especially if you have an office manager who’s violating the fire codes anyway.

Anyway when I got to the parking garage I parked on the top floor and took the stairs down and then going back up. I was a little out of breath on the way back up which reminded me I need to take the stairs more often, or at least just get more exercise, but the good part is I was completely alone on the stairs and didn’t have any spontaneous meetings.

We’re All Part Of It.

About halfway through December I went to drop off some glass bottles and jars at the recycling center. It still feels like it was a year ago because even though we’ve started a new year there’s always an adjustment period. Every year when I go back to work after the holidays and I have to initial and date things it takes a few days or even a few weeks before I remember that it’s a new year and by the time I get it down there are only about 350 days left in the year which sounds like a lot because it is.

Anyway I noticed that someone had tagged one of the big glass bins, which isn’t unusual—there always seems to be at least one tag on one of the bins at the recycling center. Most of them are sloppy and not very creative or interesting but this one caught my attention because it seemed so fitting.

I can’t say whether Ecology is a regular tag around town. I haven’t been out collecting graffiti as much as I usually do and the tag hasn’t shown up in my Nashville Graffiti Instagram feed. Maybe it was someone making a statement about why those of us who were there recycling were doing it in the first place. It reminded me of when I was in fourth grade and once a week we’d watch a news show aimed at kids. At the end of each show they’d read letters from kids about various current events and the teacher, who was really cool, encouraged us to write letters. One week the show had a segment on recycling. Most weeks I just waited for the news to be over so we could get to Book Bird, but at the end of the segment the anchor asked, “Do you think recycling is important?” That really fired me up and I wrote a letter about how the Earth’s resources are finite and that we’re ultimately dependent on recycling. It was heady stuff for a fourth grader and I don’t think I was especially eloquent, but the teacher really liked my letter and she mailed it for me.

It never got read on the air but, hey, at least I’m sharing it or at least the gist of it here.

On a similarly ecological theme here’s a picture of Crawling Lady Hare by the artist Sophie Ryder that I took one night at Cheekwood. It’s a large, haunting work during the day but even more striking at night when it seems even more alive and you don’t see it until you’re right next to it. I thought I’d shared it before and I probably will again because I’m all about recycling.

That Special Feeling.

What if you could drink a lot without having to worry about a hangover? Well, you can, if you stick to drinking water or milk or even coffee or basically anything non-alcoholic—heck, even if you drink windshield cleaning fluid you probably won’t have a hangover, although you’re also unlikely to still be around the next day to report on the effects. The thirty-eight months of 2020 have also left all of us pretty hung over even before we could start the New Year’s celebrations. I’ve also heard it said that a twenty dollar bottle of vodka and an eighty dollar bottle of vodka will taste the same; the difference is how you feel the next morning. One way or another you’re gonna pay for it. Anyway a British scientist has been working on a synthetic alternative to alcohol that not only promises no hangover but also that you can’t get drunk—it promises a relaxing effect, making people more sociable and chatty but it’s designed so the effect is supposed to be limited: drinking more isn’t going to make you any more intoxicated.

It sounds like science fiction, maybe because it has been: on Star Trek synthehol was—or is, I guess, since technically it happens in the future—supposed to be an alternative to real alcohol that provides a warm buzz without excessive drunkenness or hangovers and less time required to sober up. And it’s supposed to be so much like the real thing only certain very discerning starship engineers, who also happen to be Scottish, can tell the difference. Still I think there’s another question that’s not being answered: what about other species? That’s a question not even Star Trek bothers with but is one answered in Larry Niven’s Tales of The Draco Tavern, a collection of stories set in a fictional spaceport bar in Siberia, and it’s hard to imagine a place that needs a bar more than a spaceport. A hangover is nothing compared to the jet lag of a few trillion miles. Niven uses the casual encounters between aliens and humans as a way to delve into pithy philosophical issues but what I find intellectually intoxicating is the detail that various species from around the galaxy all have their own ways of getting hammered. Humans have alcohol, some aliens get a buzz from beef consommé, some imbibe radioactive rocks, however that works, and some enjoy a low voltage electrical charge. That last one, actually, doesn’t sound that unusual. There was a kid in one of my high school shop classes who got a charge out of hooking up with a small generator, and I guess that’s one way to keep the spark in your relationship.

To get back to the original subject, though, I’m not sure an alternative to alcohol is such a good idea. For one thing no matter how harmless it seems there’s someone out there who’ll find a way to abuse it—probably that kid from my high school shop class. And I’ve found that it’s possible to have a drink without the hangover. It’s called moderation. Yes, I’ve also said that everything taken to excess is bad for you, including moderation, but if you have a hangover that’s your body’s way of telling you not to have so much next time. And it’s a good reminder that excess should be reserved for special occasions. For instance one late December morning several years ago I was in a liquor store picking up something to ring out the old year and see in the new one with a hangover when I heard a young man ask, “Do you have any Moet & Chandon?” I was feeling pretty sociable and chatty because I’d had a few more cups of coffee than usual and I couldn’t resist blurting out, “Yes! She keeps it in a little pretty cabinet. Let them eat cake she says, just like Marie Antoinette.”

Everybody in the place looked at me like I’d been drinking windshield cleaning fluid. And since it was a special occasion I invited them to come to my house so I could yell at them to get off my lawn.

 

To The Moon.

So there have been thirteen full moons in 2020, with the last one appearing tonight, December 29th, and in most years that would be a minor note of interest, but the fact that it’s 2020 casts a pallor over everything. It’s been the year of no cheer, three-hundred and sixty-six days in a haze, eight thousand eighty four hours of glower, twelve months of stormy fronths. And of all the numbers thirteen is considered the unluckiest. It’s the only number with its own phobia, triskaidekaphobia, which has its first recorded use, according to the OED, in 1911, which is ironic because if you add up the numbers in that year they only add up to twelve. There are hotels that skip the thirteenth floor and manufacturers who try to avoid putting the number 13 on their products. In Tarot decks the Death card is number 13 of the Major Arcana, and let’s not forget the Friday The 13th Movies that got increasingly terrible as they went on and it’s ironic that there are only twelve. At the Last Supper there was Jesus and the twelve apostles, which may be the origin of a belief that it’s unlucky to have thirteen dinner guests. Twelve is considered luckier, at least at the end of the year—traditionally there are twelve days of Christmas which used to mean celebrations could spill over into the new year.

What’s so special, or so dismal, about thirteen anyway? It’s an odd number but so is seven, usually considered the luckiest number. It’s also a prime number but those are also supposed to be lucky, or at least have their own special appeal.

And thirteen’s not always unlucky. Unless you’re counting calories it’s lucky to get a baker’s dozen, especially if you’re ordering doughnuts, there are Thirteen Postures in Tai Chi, and many cultures consider thirteen to be the beginning of adulthood. It’s the beginning of the teenage years so, yeah, I can see why that would be considered unlucky.

The significance of thirteen may ultimately be lunar in origin, though. Most years have twelve full moons. A year with thirteen isn’t unusual but occurs about every three or for years, so whether you consider it lucky or unlucky pretty much depends on the kind of year you’ve had.

It’s All Connected.

Source: Wikipedia

So a bomb blew up in downtown Nashville early on Christmas morning, near the AT&T building that’s also known as “The Batman Building” because, well, if you see it you’ll understand. It’s a feature of the Nashville skyline and although I can’t see it from where the building where I work–or rather where I worked until last March when everything shut down, and where I’ll eventually go back to work sometime in the coming year–I could go to the roof of the parking garage next door to where I work and see The Batman Building from there. For all that Nashville has grown and is still growing it’s still got a fairly compact downtown area, easy to get to and, in normal times, easy to walk around in if you don’t mind the crowds. Needless to say these aren’t normal times and when the bomb went off a lot of people just sighed resignedly and said, “Thanks for one more thing, 2020.”
Although why the bomb in an RV was sent off downtown is still a mystery at least it went off early on Christmas morning when not many people were out and about–and it even made an announcement that it was a bomb and that people should get out of the area. For all the damage it did to the surrounding businesses, and as much as it would have been better if it hadn’t gone off at all, at least there’s a bright side.
It’s also interesting to me that Nashville made it to the front of The New York Times, which we still get in actual print, delivered to our driveway, on the weekends, the day after Christmas because of the bombing and also on Christmas Day because photographer Ruth Fremson made a trip across the United States to document the way various cities around the country were celebrating the season in these not so normal times.

The New York Times, December 25th, 2020. Nashville is the city with the Grinch.

The New York Times, December 26th, 2020. Below the fold but still on the front page.

That reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d been with my parents to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center downtown to see, of all things, CATS. As we were coming out we heard a woman say, “You know, this town reminds me of New York thirty years ago.” My mother groaned and said, “Oh please no,” and about twenty-five years later when my father retired my parents moved to Florida which is the most New York thing they could possibly do, but that’s another story.
One of the down sides of the bombing is because it affected the AT&T building it’s left a lot of people not just in Nashville but even in Tennessee and Kentucky without internet access. It’s left a lot of people, in other words, disconnected at a time when they want and need to be connected. It’s only temporary but here’s hoping it can all be restored before the end of the month–here’s hoping people will have a chance to say, thanks for bringing us back together, 2020.

Out Of The Box.

This is not Boxing Day. It probably is if you’re in Britain and since the British invented it I guess they can say when it is and when it isn’t, although the British don’t get everything right, but that’s another story.

Traditionally Boxing Day has been the day after Christmas and the name may come from the tradition of putting out an alms box, or it may come from the tradition of giving postal workers and other messengers a Christmas gift since even they get a break on the 25th, although postal workers come around so regularly it seems to me it shouldn’t be that hard to give them something before Christmas and not some post-holiday leftovers that were probably gonna be thrown out anyway. When I was a kid I’d run across references to Boxing Day in things I read and assumed it was the day everyone boxed up their decorations. For some of us on the distaff side of the pond there’s a superstition that Christmas trees and other decorations have to come down before New Year’s Day, although then they miss the revelries of Twelfth Night, but that really is another story.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which the British also invented, in a small town where they’d ford their oxen which now has me wondering if the plural of boxes should be “boxen”, Boxing Day is the first weekday after Christmas—which means technically we’ve still got the weekend.

Source: gfycat

Anyway here are some random graffiti pictures that I took last year that I’ve never been able to figure out how to use so this seemed  liked a good time to for unboxen.

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