Adventures In Busing.

Looking Back To The Holidays.

This is going to sound goofy but I don’t like to drive on interstates. Or maybe it doesn’t—your sense of what’s goofy, like your mileage, may vary, and I have a few friends who feel the same way. In fact some websites that offer directions even have an “avoid interstates” option, and I’m always grateful for that. I can drive on interstates and have but, if I can avoid it, I will. No matter where I’m driving I do my best to avoid accidents but I’d rather have an accident at thirty miles an hour than seventy.

Several years ago when my wife and I made a cross-country trek to California she did most of the driving. I’m not ashamed to admit she’s a better driver and more comfortable on interstates, and, besides, if I were driving, I’d not only want to take the back roads but I’d stop at every single roadside attraction, and you can just guess how many of those there are between Nashville and Los Angeles. If I were behind the wheel we’d barely make it out of Tennessee–certainly not without a stop in Bucksnort, and once we got going I’d want to get some kicks along Route 66, including a detour through Uranus, but that’s another story.

Oh, wait, it’s not another story. In fact it’s tangentially related to what set me off on this particular path. Almost a year ago, on the day of Christmas Eve to be specific, my wife asked me to take something to my sister-in-law who lives about half an hour away by interstate, although the drive is closer to an hour taking the back roads. But at least it was scenic, which is one of the advantages of taking the, well, scenic route. There were little stores that sold antiques, restaurants that specialized in catfish and pizza—a combination you’re not likely to find anywhere else. Most of the places were closed for Christmas and because of the holiday there were decorations along one stretch. I stopped and took a picture of an angel, which is not something you can do on the interstate and anyway there’s usually nothing to see along the interstate.

All the way home I thought about the Christmas decorations and the pictures I’d taken and knew I’d write something about them, although it’s taken me almost a year to get around to it. Sometimes I’m kind of slow.

Wasn’t I Just Here?

Going back to work after a holiday is weird. I’m not complaining; it’s been a long time since I had some time off and I really needed it, but I get used to a routine and forget to plan ahead so suddenly when there’s a longer break than just the usual weekend it takes me by surprise. It’s tempting to say this is because I’m working from home and haven’t really gone anywhere. There’s no distinction between my work space and my life space, but brief breaks from the routine have always felt weird to me. It’s one thing to take a vacation and actually go to an unfamiliar place, and, perhaps for the first time in my life, I really understand that. When I was a kid and we’d have a short break from school—Thanksgiving, Easter, the air conditioner broke and the building was too hot for us to go in which I swear is something that happened when I was in seventh grade—the familiarity of home made the days fly by so fast it seemed like hardly any time passed at all before I was back to the usual grind.

Making things even stranger I woke up this morning just a few minutes before the alarm went off, even before the dogs went off, and had one of those dreams which somehow compress time, lasting longer than the actual sleep. It’s an editing trick, or maybe it’s done with mirrors. I was walking to work—to my real office that I haven’t seen in so long now. And I was passing through different buildings, which I used to do on my way to work if it was cold or raining or cold and raining. Only in the dream I was simply passing through buildings, going down hallways, walking past conference rooms filled with people, until I emerged from one that, in real life, would be my last shelter, the final building before a long stretch of open air I couldn’t avoid. In the dream, though, it wasn’t just open. There was darkness ahead, and, in the distance, where my work building would have been, only sepia and mauve clouds, and lightning.

I woke up with only one thought: I really need a break.  

I Mostly Feel Fine.

After a couple of sneezes and some soreness in my throat I finally had to admit I have a cold. And I’m pretty sure it’s just a cold and not something much worse, although if it is that other disease going around then the vaccine’s definitely doing its job. And maybe it’s not even a cold. The temperature’s dropped recently and the leaves are falling and I know from past experience that the sneezes I get from being out in the leaves are indistinguishable from the sneezes I get when I have a cold. I also know from experience that I get a cold whenever the weather changes and some say it seems like everyone has a cold right now anyway.

The point is I’m not taking any chances. There’s a big holiday luncheon at work and just to be on the safe side—that is, to keep everyone else on the safe side—I’m skipping it. I’d rather not spread around any germs I’m carrying and it’s an added benefit that they won’t mingle with anything anyone else is carrying, although everyone I work with is supposed to be vaccinated and recently boosterized. Also there’s the added benefit that I don’t have to worry about getting there, finding a place to park, and finding a place to sit, and I’m still wary of being inside with a bunch of people. Then there’s getting out once it’s all over.

The fact that I’m fine with missing a free lunch, funny enough, brought up memories of when I was a kid and it always seemed like whenever some big special event was coming up at school like a holiday party or a play I had a part in I’d wake up that morning with a sore throat or feeling sick. And I’d spend a few minutes walking around my room saying “I feel fine” to make sure I could stay vertical and sounded normal, at least long enough to get through the day, or long enough to get through the party. It always felt like nature, or my immune system, was playing a cruel trick on me for all those times the rest of the year when I’d pretend to be sick so I could get out of going to school. The day of a party or other big event was always the one day I’d say, Let me be sick tomorrow, even if tomorrow happened to be a Saturday. And then I’d spend the day at school spreading my germs around and mingling them with whatever all the other kids were carrying.

I know the drive and the parking would be a hassle and I’d have to make up for lost time which I really don’t want to have to do when we’ll all be out for Thanksgiving later this week, but I also hate to miss the big luncheon. It’s not just the food, which is always really good, and, hey, you’re supposed to feed a cold, but it’s also always a chance to see people I spend the rest of the year talking to via email or the occasional instant message and actually talk to them about something other than work.

Maybe next year I’ll be able to go, when I can honestly tell people, “I feel fine,” and not worry about sneezing on them.

Back To Lunch.

Source: Wikipedia because after all these years I still haven’t take a picture of the Parthenon for some reason.

It’s been over a year and a half since I last saw most of the people I work with in person, which is kind of a strange thing because there’s a lot of longevity where I work—I’ve been in the same building, pretty much the same department, for twenty-eight years, and there are people who are still around who were there when I started and up until March of 2020 I was used to seeing most of them pretty regularly in person. And there have also been some new people who were hired just a few months ago, and I’ve gotten used to seeing them pretty regularly in Zoom meetings.

Then my boss had this great idea to have a departmental picnic outdoors at Centennial Park so we could actually all get together and see each other in person again or for the first time, and it was sort of like being back at work. Centennial Park isn’t too far from the building where, in normal times, we’d all go to work, and I’ve spent a lot of work lunches strolling around Lake Watauga in the park. Not to mention  all the times from my childhood when I went to Centennial Park. I remember when the statue of Athena that’s now in the Parthenon was installed, and I remember before that when the Parthenon was empty and open for free. Heck, I remember when the lake, next to the Parthenon, had paddle boats you could rent if you wanted to chase the ducks around, which is about all you could do. They call it a lake but it’s really a glorified pond, and it’s also where I took fellow blogger Ann Koplow on her visit to Nashville.

As I drove to the park to meet my coworkers for lunch I also thought about how much not like work it was. For one thing I was driving there, not taking the bus, and while I did do that occasionally the walk to the spot in the park would be much, much shorter since I could park right next to the Parthenon, and while I could park right next to the building where my office is my car would probably get several tickets, or I’d have to keep running downstairs every twenty minutes to feed the parking meter.

It was a nice picnic lunch and we all had a nice time, but then I had to leave because I had an afternoon meeting, and I actually got lost trying to find my way out of Centennial Park because, well, I’m not used to driving there. I’m used to walking to and around Centennial Park so I’d never noticed before how many of the park’s roads dead-end into parking lots, although getting lost on my way to a meeting is exactly like a regular day at work for me.

It’s About An Hour.

I feel like I should defend Daylight Savings Time. There are a lot of arguments for doing away with it or making it permanent, which amounts to the same thing. The original proposal was intended to cut down on candle usage, which is no longer applicable, and I’m not sure it provides much if any savings anymore. The closer you get to the equator the more days remain the same length throughout the year anyway which is why most equatorial nations don’t even bother with it, and, as a side note, I really like the fact that Nashville, Tennessee and Easter Island are in the same time zone. So are Nashville and Lawrence, Kansas, and, having been there a few times, I’ve noticed a distinct difference in the amount of daylight.

And that’s where my defense of Daylight Savings Time springs, or falls, from. Even though our standard method of dividing the day goes back at least as far as ancient Sumer it’s still entirely arbitrary. We’ve collectively agreed to use the same times—if you agree to meet someone at seven p.m. that’s not just a time that the two of you agree on but that’s standard for billions of other people, which is an amazing feat for a large and complex society. It’s even more amazing when I consider the fact that I can’t get my microwave and my oven to agree on the same time—the microwave always lags about two minutes behind—even though they’re both in the same room. And where would we be without the stupid jokes we can make about time? Ask my friend John what time it is and he’ll probably tell you, “The same time it was twenty-four hours ago.” There are also smart jokes about time, like this one by Steven Wright: “I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time’. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.”

The shortening days also mean that, because I stick to pretty much the same work schedule year-round, there are mornings when I’m at work before the sun is even up, and when I’ll knock off after it’s set. At higher latitudes this must be even more extreme. The changing of the clocks sets this back a bit. I get a few extra days when I go to work after dawn, even though the shortening days eventually mean I’m back to starting in the dark.

We also live with three dogs and they have no idea what the clock says. There are days when I wish I didn’t either, but that’s another story. They only know when the sun comes up, or when their stomachs tell them it’s time to eat, and the time change means there’s a brief period when my wife and I get to sleep in a little later, especially on the weekends. Even though we get up at the same time, according to the clock, the dogs don’t know that the clocks have all changed, and neither do their stomachs.

So why not keep Daylight Savings Time? What have we got to lose, other than an hour?

The Cart-ographer.

So for a short time when I was a teenager my friends and I would do this terrible thing we called “Shopping Cart Massacre”. We did it because we were teenagers and bored and jerks. Okay, that’s not entirely fair. I shouldn’t speak for my friends. Maybe they don’t regret it and, hey, that’s their choice, but I do. And I wasn’t that bored and maybe if I’d had the courage to say something we would have stopped but I didn’t.

I hate to even describe it but I think the statute of limitations has now passed so here’s how it worked: we regularly went to a shopping center that had a comic book store and a yogurt place, and you’d think those two things by themselves would be enough to keep us entertained but it didn’t. No, we’d take a shopping cart behind the stores where there was a high stone wall, and my friend who had a car would drive straight at the stone while one of us in the passenger seat would lean our hand out the window and hold onto the shopping cart. Then the driver would come to a sudden stop and the person holding the shopping cart would let go of it so it would slam into the stone wall. Distance limitations prevented the driver from getting much over ten miles per hour but after five or six times we could still do some serious damage to a shopping cart.

It was a terrible thing to do and even though we never got caught I still felt bad about it from the beginning, and maybe my friends did too, which is why we gave it up. Then a few years later I read Graham Greene’s story The Destructors and thought, well, we  could have done something worse, but that’s another story.

I think about it almost every time I’m in a parking lot and, as a responsible adult, I always put my shopping cart either back in the designated part of the parking lot or I take it back into the store. And that’s what I was doing when I saw a Cart Narcs sticker on a car near mine. The Cart Narcs started out as one guy encouraging—sometimes politely shaming—people into putting their shopping carts in designated spaces but it’s spread across the country. And I kind of wanted to leave my cart out just to see if I could get the attention of a local Cart Narc but I had other places to go and stuff to do, and I try to do the right thing anyway because it’s just good cart-ma.

Identified Object.

I saw a UFO once when I was a kid, and then my friend Tony, the same one I saw get hit by a car, ruined it for me.

We were playing in my backyard after dark and for some reason I looked to the south and could see a bright star twinkling and changing color, going from red to white to blue, even though the fourth of July was long since over. And also this was clearly not any kind of firecracker or plane because it was motionless over the horizon. This was it. This was what I’d been waiting for, hoping for, this had to be a UFO.

I’d been obsessed with UFOs for a while. I’d read every book I could find about UFOs—which, admittedly, wasn’t a lot, but some librarians helped as much as they could—and a few years earlier I’d faithfully tuned in to a TV show called Project U.F.O. which I realize now was actually kind of a precursor to The X-Files in that it followed a couple of government agents investigating reports of strange sightings and events all over the country. Except that, instead of Mulder and Scully, the government agents are highly decorated Air Force pilots which would be cool if they didn’t have all the personality of wet sponges. And instead of a shadowy government conspiracy all the cases they investigate either have a perfectly logical explanation or they shrug and say, “Well, who knows what happened?” and move on. The special effects are good, though, since the producers obviously didn’t waste any money on scripts, and include a modified Robby The Robot, and, since it was the ‘70’s, there was the obligatory cameo by Dr. Joyce Brothers.

And there was also Close Encounters Of The Third Kind which I also loved because it had spaceships and aliens and, hey, a shadowy government conspiracy that completely went over my head when I was a kid, but that’s another story.

Anyway I was certain that the twinkling color-changing star I was seeing was a UFO. It had to be. What else could explain it?

“Weird,” said Tony. “It must be something in the air. Other stars are doing it too.”

And he was right. The particular star I’d noticed, which I’m now pretty sure was Sirius, is extremely bright, and atmospheric conditions often cause it to appear to rapidly change color. So it’s identified, and it wasn’t really flying, but, hey, it was an object. One out of three ain’t bad, right?   

Jack The Tipper.

Source: Wikipedia

Big Dave was a taxi driver who worked for a discount cab company that shuttled us students back and forth between Harlaxton Manor, where we were going to school, and the nearby town of Grantham. We called him Big Dave because, well, he was a big guy, even bigger in the bulky gray-green sweater he always wore, and he introduced himself as “Big Dave”. It also helped distinguish him from the other taxi driver named Dave who worked at the same company.

One night Big Dave was driving us back to Harlaxton. The Silence Of The Lambs had just come out and we were all talking about serial killers, and got on to the subject of Jack The Ripper.

“We may never know who he was,” I said, “but we know he was just insane.”

“You think that, do you?” said Big Dave sharply. We all got quiet. Big Dave was usually friendly, and he was full of funny stories, like the time he went for a swim in the fountain in Trafalgar Square. In December. This seemed different, though.

“I used to drive for a mental hospital outside of London,” he went on.

“You mean like an ambulance?” someone asked.

Big Dave chuckled. “Nah. I haven’t got the nerve for that.” This was a guy who drove himself to two hospitals after being bitten by the only poisonous snake in Britain, but I wasn’t going to interrupt. He went on.

“I drove patients into town for the day and picked ‘em up in the evening, sort of like you kids. Good people, they were. Troubled, some couldn’t get by on their own, but decent like. Whatever Jack The Ripper was he was a whole breed apart.”

We were all silent thinking about this. Then Big Dave spoke again.

“Of course there was that one guy. Gave me a right fright.”

None of us breathed.

“It was in the winter so it got dark early and only one patient, Charlie, I think, wanted to go into town. On the way back we drove through a long stretch of farmland. There was a low mist over everything and just a sliver of moon. And Charlie, he’d gotten real quiet. I didn’t mind until out of the blue he just says, ‘Nice night for a murder, this.’”

Big Dave let out a breath.

“You can imagine I was pretty scared but it weren’t long before we saw the hospital just up the road. I felt relief but then I heard Charlie lean forward. ‘I’ve got something for you,’ he says, and I thought, oh, this is it, I’m gonna get stabbed right here. We pulled up to the hospital door and I felt something in my side, Charlie pressing something into me.”

He paused. Outside the windows the countryside was just like he’d described: misty fields in darkness. Finally someone asked, “What was it?”

“A tenner!” Big Dave laughed. “I thought it was the tip of a knife and it was just a tip!”

As we were getting out of the taxi we paid Big Dave then took up a collection to give him something extra. It didn’t add up to ten pounds, though.

Such A Lovely Place.

Seeing John Prine on a bus stop bench reminded me once again of his passing last year and also, through a rather convoluted train of thought—actually I’m not sure why they call it a “train of thought” since, at least in my case, it’s more like a “spaghetti of thought” where one noodle twists and turns through the sauce of my brain and can easily lead to another that just happens to be adjacent, but that’s another story—took me back to a night when I was in Cork, Ireland.

John Prine and Ireland will always be linked in my mind mainly because I worked with an Irish woman whose husband is a professional drummer, and he and Prine were good friends, which means I was two degrees of separation from meeting John Prine, and also his songs tended to find the funny things in life’s darker moments, which is also something I associated with the Irish. If you’re still following this spaghetti of thought there’s some parmesan coming because this story does get a bit cheesy.

Back in the late fall of 1990 I was in Cork as part of a trip around eastern Ireland. It was late at night and I’d had my fill of fish and chips and Guinness, because, well, what else would you do in Cork? I was walking down a cobblestone street to my hotel and passed by a group of street performers. There were two guys with guitars, another with a fiddle, of course, because this was Ireland, and a woman who was singing. There was a good crowd gathered around them but for some reason they thought they needed one more because they yelled at me.

“Oi! You! Get over here!”

The Guinness I’d had wouldn’t allow me to turn down a request like that, laced as it was with a thick brogue so I walked over.

“Give us a request, then,” one of the guitarists said.

Unable to say no but unable to think of anything appropriately Irish I blurted out, “Hey, do you know Hotel California?”

They laughed and said something about how nice it was to have an American in their midst, and one started singing, “Such a lovely place, such a lovely place,” but one of the guitarists told me they’d need me to help them remember the rest of the words. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket but for reasons that are a whole other pot of spaghetti I knew Hotel California by heart and together all of us, the performers and the crowd, made it through.

Source: Wikipedia

I was trying to save my Irish coins for my collection but I threw my last punt, now replaced by the euro, into their hat. The guitarist threw his arm around me and said, “Cheers, mate, I’m moving to America soon. Maybe we’ll see each other again.”

I didn’t get his name and in the dark didn’t even get a good look at his face and I thought it unlikely we’d even end up in the same state, let alone anywhere we might cross paths, but, now that I write this, it occurs to me that, as a musician, he likely would have come to Nashville. Maybe at some point he even worked with John Prine.

Nightmare At 51.6 Inches.

It’s going to be a while before I fly anywhere, for various reasons, but, when I do, my preference is always the window seat. This is mostly because I like to look out the window on flights. I don’t have a real fear of flying but I do get the sort of deep dread you feel when watching a horror film and everything is calm and quiet and you know that means the monster, zombies, chainsaw-wielding maniac, or poisoned-cookie-pushing demon grandmother is going to pop out at any second. In spite of this or because of it I like to look out the window, especially when the plane is taking off, and also when it’s landing, the two times I assume it’s most likely that the plane will crash or a deadly grandmother will pop out, because once we’re up in the air she’d probably be blocked by the beverage cart, but that’s another story.

I also just like to look out the window at the clouds and sky and, if it’s still visible, any scenery. It’s comforting to me even at night when there may not be that much to see, although there are exceptions.

And there’s another advantage to the window seat that never occurred to me until I read Jalopnik’s article on The Definitive Rules For Airplane Armrest Allocation, which was prompted by an airplane being rerouted back to the gate because two passengers got into a fistfight over elbow placement, which is the sort of thing that fills me with the kind of deep dread that real life is more terrifying than anything any horror film could cook up, and that’s why the title of this post refers to the general width of row of three seats on an airplane.

Here’s the graphic guide to the rules:

This is perfectly reasonable and should be respected by all fliers. Airplanes, by their very nature, push a lot of people into a very small space, and to stay safe and make what’s always going to be an uncomfortable experience bearable we have to work together and do the best we can to defeat that demon grandmother before she makes it past the beverage cart.

In the end there’s only one question to be asked: what seat do you prefer?

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