Adventures In Busing.

We Gotta Get Into This Place.

It’s been a while since I’ve been out on my own to do something fun. There were the holidays, of course, but those involved other people, and sometimes I just need to get away and be by myself, and for months I’ve either been at home or running errands, and those don’t count because even if I’m running errands by myself it’s, well, like work. So anyway I decided to go to Radnor Lake. Even in normal times Radnor is my go-to getaway—it’s nearby, it’s got beautiful scenery, and it’s nice to just get out and walk. And there’s always something slightly different about it each time. I’m sure I’ve been to Radnor in the winter before but I can’t remember ever being there when most of the leaves had fallen and the trees were so stark and bare. There are places where you can be less than a hundred feet from the lake and, most of the year, can’t see it, but as I walked around the lake I never lost sight of it it.  Somehow I’d also never realized before how much leaves muffle sound. I was on one side of the lake and could hear people laughing and dogs barking on the other side, and every footstep seemed exceptionally loud, probably because I was walking on so many leaves.

We’d also had some serious rain lately—in fact it was the rain that made me decide I need to get out. Last Thursday I sat at my desk working away when we had a sudden and highly localized hurricane that turned the entire backyard into, well, a small lake, and flooded our basement. When I went to Radnor I could see the aftereffects. Otter Creek, which feeds the lake, is normally a trickle. It was a rushing cataract and the sound was intensified.

I also saw new signs about the bald eagles which are now nesting around Radnor Lake. There have been bald eagles spotted there before, but this is the first time ever recorded that they’ve taken up residence.

So I made it there and made the walk around the lake, but the hard part was getting there in the first place, because everyone had the same idea I did. The parking lot for Radnor is long and narrow and it doesn’t take many people to fill it, and, well, I did feel bad for taking up an entire car by myself, but see the aforementioned need to get away. Luckily I only had to circle the parking lot for half an hour before I found a spot.

And it was crowded, but one of the nice things about a wooded park is even with a lot of people there we all tend to spread out.

Then, as I was walking back to my car, a woman who had apparently also been circling the parking lot for a while, pulled up next to me.

“Please tell me you’re leaving,” she said.

I smiled and told her I was, and I was happy to let her have my spot. I could tell she needed to get away too.

And of course the eagles brought to mind this old bit that I reminisced with a friend about when I got home.

Box It All Up.

For Valentine’s Day in fourth grade I made a replica of the Evil Queen’s Heart Box from Disney’s Snow White. Did I somehow relate to the Evil Queen? Did I have a grudge against someone in my fourth grade class who I felt was pushing me aside? Did I want to order someone else to cut out that person’s heart and serve it to me in a box so I could eat it? The answer to all of the above is no. I liked everybody in my fourth grade class, which was good because there were twenty or so of us packed into one of those oversized trailers we called “portables” even though the showed no signs of going anywhere. I wouldn’t say we were all friends, but we were all friendly enough with each other that when Valentine’s Day came around I had to make sure to get enough cards to give one to everybody in my class, with a few extras for friends who were in other classes, so we could exchange our cards on the morning bus ride.

I made the box because we had a great teacher, Ms. Rich, who was always coming up with fun, creative projects, and for Valentine’s Day she said we should each make a box we could put on our desk. That way instead of passing cards around individually—and potentially someone feeling left out if they didn’t get one from someone else—everyone could just put cards in everyone else’s boxes.

I should also have said sooner that calling my heart box a “replica” of the Evil Queen’s is more than a bit presumptuous. The truth is I took a shoebox and covered it with some red construction paper, then I took some yellow construction paper and cut out a heart, and, for the finishing touch, took a tiny plastic cocktail sword and pierced the heart with it. It wasn’t that great but I liked it and it was good enough to hold a bunch of cards I was going to throw away anyway.

Two years later I wished I still had it. Most of us in sixth grade were getting too old for the Valentine’s Day tradition of giving all our classmates cards. In fact I’d realized at that point that getting older was a process of attrition, with things gradually getting worse. Sixth grade was the year I had to think about where I sat on the bus. I had to figure out where Kevin was and make sure he got off first or I’d be tripped, kicked, or punched as I went by him. Kevin was in my class but he wasn’t getting a Valentine’s Day card from me. Neither were a lot of other kids. I’d gotten a pack of twenty Superman-themed cards—I preferred, and still prefer, Spider-Man but he wasn’t popular enough at the time to be part of Valentine’s Day—and threw away about fifteen of them.

I wouldn’t have taken my heart box to school but I wished I still had it because, on the cusp of puberty, when it seemed like everything was destined to get worse, I felt an intense nostalgia for the way things had been. In fact I did kind of relate to the Evil Queen from Snow White, who, more than anything else, fears getting older . And I kind of wish I still had it now, as a reminder that the past is a box that’s full of some good things and some bad, and that, eventually, things did get better.

Make A Wish.

So I was driving almost due west at sunset with a melting orange sky in front of me that faded into violet and deep blue overhead, and close to the horizon I could see a bright object. It looked like a star but I knew it wasn’t—it was the planet Jupiter, the fourth brightest object in the sky, after the sun, the moon, and Venus, and strangely enough the International Space Station doesn’t come close in spite of the combined brightness of the people on board, but that’s another story.

If I hadn’t known it was Jupiter I might have mistaken it for a star, and it would have seemed to be the first star of the evening, at least that I could see. Overhead, I’m sure, the sky had darkened enough that actual stars were visible, but I had my eyes on the road. I only saw Jupiter because it was in my line of sight. But it did remind me of the old tradition of wishing on a star, usually the first star you see in the evening, and the poem that goes with it:

Star light, star bright,

First star I see tonight.

Wish I may, wish I might

Have the wish I wish tonight.

It may not have the melody but I do think it’s a little snappier than Jiminy Cricket’s version, but that’s just me. That also brought back memories of third grade and a story I read about a kid named David who, after finishing up a backyard dinner of hot dogs and potato salad and ice cream with his family, makes a wish on the first star he sees. He doesn’t tell his family what the wish is—that would spoil it, you know—but he does tell them he made a wish. And the story follows David over the course of the next year as he keeps wishing. He loses an eyelash and his mother tells him he can make a wish on it—the tradition is you place the eyelash on your finger, close your eyes, and blow. His father points out a rainbow and says those are for wishing, so David makes a wish on that. At his birthday party he makes his wish on his birthday candles. At Thanksgiving he wishes on the wishbone with his sister, and succeeds. His parents take him to a place with a wishing well and he throws a penny into it. His teacher tells him about wishing the first robin of spring he sees, so he does that. Finally summer comes back around and his family has another backyard dinner and his sister brings him a dandelion to wish on. And he says, “Oh, it’s okay, my wish came true. I wished we’d come out to the backyard and have hot dogs and potato salad and ice cream this summer.”

I remember reading that and being fascinated by all the wishing traditions, and then I got to the end and thought, wow, and I was completely speechless for a long time thinking about that and how profoundly it sucked. David really came across as some kind of jerk, drawing everybody else into this elaborate web of wishing and when it’s finally fulfilled he didn’t say anything until his sister—the same one who lost out on whatever she wanted when they broke that wishbone—was about to sacrifice another shot at a wish of her own and he brushes her off with, “Thanks, I’m good!” Not to mention all the trouble he could have saved everyone else if, a year earlier, he’d just said, “Hey, this was fun. We should do it again sometime.”

I’d finished second grade reading at a fourth grade level, but in third grade I had a different teacher who stuck me in the regular third grade reading class. There was an advanced reading group—about five kids out of the forty or so who made up the third grade, and I spent a lot of time wishing I could join the advanced group. And the story about David sparked something in me. Mostly it was a desire to get away from such lousy stories. I went to the teacher and told her I wanted to join the advanced group, that I could do the reading. She was dismissive—third grade was not a great year for me—but gave me a chance to read out loud in front of the advanced group, where I choked. She gave me a second chance to read a story the advanced group was reading on my own, and while I aced the reading comprehension test she said I’d been too slow in getting through it so I had to stick with the regular reading class. But that became a learning experience in itself. I’d at least made the effort, and I got to keep the book the advanced group was using and read several of the stories on my own. As terrible as it was the story of David and his wishes stuck with me and there’s never been a point when I wished I hadn’t read it.

Source: Dinosaur Comics

You Can Get There From Here.

Source: thrillist

Even though this map of the allegedly weirdest town names in the United States is more than five years old now it still popped up in my news feed recently because, I guess, someone was looking for something to write about, and it was good timing because I was looking for something to write about. This is probably one of those things that’s going to pop up regularly until the end of the internet, even though the internet has long since confirmed the common wisdom that weird is relative, which anyone who has relatives already knew.

For instance, I’m surprised Big Bottom is the pick for Washington, the state that also has Walla Walla, Humptulips, Tokeland, and Seattle. And I know that for Indiana some people consider French Lick to be weirder than Santa Claus, and, having been to French Lick, and having visited a lot of Indiana, I can confirm this is true. French Lick may be the weirdest place in Indiana, and not just because it’s the home town of Larry Byrd. And I really don’t understand why Handsome Eddy gets the nod for New York when Poughkeepsie is passed over.

It’s Tennessee that really gets my attention, though. Whoever picked “Smartt” as the weirdest town name in Tennessee obviously missed Frog Jump. Or Bell Buckle. Or Soddy-Daisy. Or Finger. Or Bucksnort. I will never forget Bucksnort not only because of the name but because many years ago when I worked in a mailroom I overheard a guy I worked with telling someone about the Bucksnort Trout Ranch. Only he couldn’t remember the name of the town—just that there was a trout ranch there, and he said, “If you’re going to Memphis…it’s on the right.”

I laughed and said, “Uh, Chip, you do realize Memphis is about a three and a half hour drive from here, don’t you? How many things do you think are on the right between here and there?” And everyone laughed.

That evening I told my wife about it but she didn’t find it funny, or even weird.

“Oh,” she said, “he means Bucksnort.”

Like I said: weird is relative.  

Don’t Spill Your Guts.

Source: AV Club

So a couple of weeks ago an 18-wheeler in Australia spilled hundreds of pounds of animal guts on a freeway ramp. A friend of mine said, “That’s just offal,” which made me laugh and also annoyed me because I wished I’d come up with that pun, and I probably would have if my friend hadn’t gotten to it sooner. Because my wife and I feed our dogs the appropriately named BARF diet—that’s supposedly an acronym for Bones And Raw Food but I think whoever came up with this started with the name and made it a backronym—I’ve handled more raw chicken than any one person should. For a while we’d get forty-pound boxes of chicken necks and if that weren’t bad enough they’d come frozen in a block of ice. And if that weren’t bad enough sometimes I’d find the occasional chicken head which just makes it even more plausible that chicken heads have turned up in KFC buckets, but that’s another story.

To get the bulk chicken necks I’d have to go to kind of a sketchy warehouse in kind of a sketchy part of town, always early in the morning, and depending on the time of year I’d get there before dawn, but I was reassured that there was at least one other person who also came to pick up bulk chicken parts. She had two enormous Boxers and I know this because she had them in the back seat of her car one morning and they were very excited to meet the man who brought out the boxes of chicken and almost blew out the tires jumping up and down.

So anyway I have some experience with offal, and the real reason I’m annoyed my friend got to that pun first is several years ago handling all that raw chicken made me wonder if there was any connection between “awful” and “offal”. One’s abject, the other’s an object, and the similarity in sound seemed too much of a coincidence for them to be unrelated. And the answer is (drumroll please) they’re totally unrelated.

Awful comes from Old English, originally a word that was closer to “eye-full”, which also led to “awe” because it meant “awesome”, so the next time someone tells you you’re awful you can say “Thank you.”

Offal comes from Dutch and German words that meant “refuse, waste, parings, shavings”, literally stuff that fell off.

So that was a fun train of thought and they probably wish they’d shipped that offal by train and by the way on December 21st, also in Australia, a truckload of salmon was dumped on a bridge so please be careful the next time you ask a truck driver to spill their guts.

Just Warming Up.

Source: gifer

When I was a kid we had a next door neighbor, Mrs. S., who’d go out and start her car in the morning and rev the engine vigorously fifty or sixty times, before she’d go back in the house and leave it running. This disturbed my father who was almost always asleep when she did this but, because Mrs. S.’s driveway was right under my parents’ bedroom window, and since whatever car Mrs. S. drove had an engine that was apparently indistinguishable from a Harley going full blast, he’d be forced out of bed whether he was ready to get up or not.

I never asked why Mrs. S. insisted on revving her engine first thing in the morning, waking up people and wasting gas, but then I was on the second floor and insulated from the noise. And as an adult I finally figured it out, and understood why it kind of made sense and, recently, even did it myself. Maybe you already know why she revved her engine first thing in the morning, and if I said she moved to Nashville from Wisconsin and mostly did it during the winter the reason should become obvious. I did it after we had snow followed by a fairly warm day followed by more cold so the car had a nice thick coat of ice. I went out with the scraper but it helped to have the car running so it could warm up and revving the engine a bit helped, well, accelerate the process. 

Mainly, of course, it just helped to have the engine running. One chilly winter Sunday when I was eight, after church, a friend of my parents gave me his keys and a quarter and asked me to start his car so the heater would be warmed up when he got in. I was eight and had never started a car in my life so I turned the key once in the ignition and turned on the fan so he got a nice blast of cold air when he got in his car and I got to keep the quarter.

I didn’t rev the engine fifty or sixty times because it wasn’t really necessary, but it wouldn’t have been so bad if I did. Our driveway isn’t near anyone’s bedroom—our bedroom is at the other end of the house and our neighbors’ bedroom is at the other end of their house, and my parents moved to Florida so their bedroom is approximately seven hundred miles away, so that works out well. The important thing is letting the engine run for a few minutes made it easier to scrape off the ice and snow, and what I couldn’t reach on the very top of the roof slid off by itself. Then when I got in the car it was nice and warm and the radio was already on because I’d left it on, but the best part is I found a quarter in the dashboard.

One Seat.

Some Nashville buses installed this plaque in memory of Rosa Parks after her death in 2005.

It’s been a long time since I last rode the bus but I haven’t forgotten it, and I just heard about the city of Albuquerque joining a movement to make buses free, joining at least one hundred other cities, which they’re finding not only makes public transportation more accessible but encourages more people to use it and doesn’t come with some of the problems that were expected.

On this particular day, though, I’m sharing a memory of a time when I did ride the bus.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Things Are Going To Start Happening To Me Now.

There it was, at the end of the driveway—a shapeless pale green mass. I was hesitant at first but then I noticed there were similar masses at the end of every driveway up and down our street. I approached it carefully, and as I got closer I could see it was a plastic bag, and inside the bag was…a phone book. It was just the yellow pages, for local businesses—I don’t think they publish a residential phone book anymore, or, if they do, it goes exclusively to telemarketers who, when I ask how they got my number, tell me it was dialed at random and, when I ask, “Okay, how’d you get my name then?” hang up on me, but that’s another story.

I can’t remember the last time we got an actual phone book. Maybe we got one last year around this same time and I just can’t remember it because, well, that was a year ago, and I immediately put it in the recycling bin because that’s all it was good for, but I don’t think so. I don’t think we got one the year before that, or even the year before that, or, if we did, I can’t remember it because, well, that was three years ago and the recycling bin’s been emptied a few dozen times since then.

There’s something really annoying about getting a phone book these days. I’m old enough to remember when the yellow pages were advertised with “let your fingers do the walking” even though you were eventually going to have to use your feet eventually, and walking on your fingers is just asking for broken fingers. And also there seemed to be something deeply recursive about advertising a big book of advertising that was given away free anyway. Maybe that’s why even before the internet became the most widespread and popular way to find information, including phone numbers, phone books became a prop for tough guys who’d show their strength by tearing one in half. And I’m pretty sure someone’s already made a joke about how hard it is to tear the internet in half but you don’t have to be that strong to destroy a laptop or even a tablet, but you show me someone who can tear a warehouse full of servers in half and I’m not going to stick around because I’m sure that monster will destroy us all. I’m also old enough to remember phone booths and, for that matter, when a call was just ten cents, and I remember the time my friends and I looked up the number for a pizza place and found two that were close by, so we picked one, called in a pickup order, and then went to the wrong one because we didn’t have Google Street View to check and see where we were going before we went there.

I can’t even imagine why I’d use the phone book now—and I say this as someone who still reads, and even prefers, regular printed books, since there’s something baffling about trying to look up, say, gardening equipment, only to find “See: Plants”. I see a lot of plants which is why I want the gardening equipment.

On the other hand there is something to be said for the discrete, even private value of the phone book. It’s not keeping tabs on what tabs I have open or recording my browsing history. It’s not going to start throwing targeted ads at me based on the page where I happened to stop. If I want something embarrassingly personal like a shoe tree or a place that sells ceramic aardvarks and takes cash only I can probably find it in the phone book—if I can just figure out where to look.

Snowed In.

I liked this shot of the moon over our snowy roof.

Two things happened this past week. One is that Nashville got a sudden and very deep layer of snow that started early Friday morning. I was sitting at my desk looking out the window when snow began falling, quickly covering everything, and then the temperature dropped overnight so the places where I’d trudged back and forth taking the dogs out froze into solid ice so Saturday morning I skated out whenever I went out with the dogs.

The second thing is I read an article about how some automakers, especially the luxury ones, are building “brand experience centers” so customers, and even people who aren’t looking to buy a car, can just wander in and enjoy the outdoor deck, the café, the library—wait, what?—and the fancy restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef. That last is an interesting tie-in since the Michelin guide was started by a tire company even if it’s now more associated with pretentious, overpriced food, but that’s another story.

Putting all that stuff together in a single car dealership seems like a cool idea. It would make for a much nicer atmosphere than some of the experiences I’ve had at car dealerships, like the time my wife and I went looking—and we told the salesguy up front we were just looking—and he went off on a tangent about people coming in and wasting his time, then showed us a car we thought we might like but said he’d only negotiate pricing if we’d sign a form and when my wife crossed out the part that said “agrees to buy at this price” right after the space for our names the salesguy jumped up and started screaming in our faces. Then when we got up to leave he tried to block the door and started yelling at his manager that we’d been wasting his time and were terrible people, and I would have said, “Hey, we’re right here!” but he wasn’t paying any attention to us, which is how we were able to slip out.

So, yeah, a place with a more relaxed atmosphere would be a nice change.

A third thing that was supposed to happen this weekend that didn’t because of the snow is I was going to take the car in to get the oil changed and the tires rotated, which usually takes a couple of hours and because, well, they’ve got the car, I’ll sit in the waiting room and drink really terrible coffee and read a book because they’ve got a TV in there but it’s stuck on the 24-hour infomercial channel and they’ve lost the remote. Sometimes I think about a TV commercial for the old Saturn cars, another brand that promised to make buying a car a more pleasant experience before they went out of business. This commercial, though, was about a guy driving across the country, apparently stopping at every Saturn dealership, and the data they collected on him:

Yeah, remember when keeping that kind of personal information on a customer was cute and companies didn’t use it for targeted advertising? Also I wish the place where I go to get the car’s oil changed had jelly doughnuts. Or just doughnuts. Or at least some better coffee.

There also seems to be something slightly counterintuitive about a car dealership packing a bunch of other businesses into a small space. It sounds nice but it’s also going to make me think, hey, if all these places can be set in the same building, or even within easy walking distance of each other, I’m going to rely a lot less on a car. I won’t say that to the dealers, though. They might start screaming in my face.

Smoke Signals.

Weirdly one of the things I miss about my old office.

So my wife was trying a new recipe for pan-seared scallops which created enough smoke that it set off the smoke alarm, which started the dogs barking, so I ran to shut off the alarm and even when I finally got the right code punched in there was still lingering smoke that just restarted the entire process, and in the midst of all this the security company called to see if it was a real emergency, and while my wife was on the phone with them trying to explain that everything was all right over the sound of barking dogs and the alarm going off again and trying not to burn the scallops she got cut off and they had to call back while I was punching in the cancel code for the fifteenth time and even though she’d confirmed everything was all right the first time a fire truck showed up in front of our house five minutes later so I got to run outside in the dark and tell a couple of firemen that everything was fine and that they wouldn’t need the axes they were carrying unless they really wanted to cut down the shagbark hickory tree in the front yard that drops nuts all over the driveway every fall which gives new meaning to the expression “it drives me nuts”, but that’s another story.

On the bright side all this happened while it was still warm and the flashing lights of the fire truck were all the fireworks we needed for New Year’s Eve.

But it also reminded me of how one of the things I weirdly miss about working in the office is the occasional fire drill. And in spite of having worked in the same building for almost thirty years, not counting pandemic time, we’ve never had an actual fire in the building; they’ve always been drills—knock on Formica since there’s very little wood in our office. There was the time in 2008 when the building that housed the former Italian restaurant Mario’s, two blocks over, which had been closed for a few years, burned, and pretty much everyone in my building gathered in the parking lot to watch it.

Fire drills were always kind of fun in spite of the fact that everyone seemed to know they weren’t real emergencies and would form groups in the stairwells, standing around talking, which made it hard for those of us who wanted to, you know, get out of the building. Once we were out we’d go to our designated emergency check-in spot in the parking garage and then I’d go get coffee or just go for a walk since only the fire department could shut down the alarm and it would be a few minutes before they’d arrive.

The one annoying thing is we never had a fire drill late in the day. Just once I’d have liked to have one, say, fifteen minutes before quittin’ time, because that’s about how long it always takes to get out of the building—I hope it would be faster if we had a real emergency even though I suspect some people would still stop to talk in the stairwell—and I could check in and just go straight home. But they always had to be held around ten in the morning which, admittedly, is a pretty good time to go get a cup of coffee or just take a break. Although I’ve never come back from a fire drill at work to pan-seared scallops, which made having one at home all the more worth it.

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