American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ghosts Of Christmas.

Source: Bored Panda

Christmas is generally a pretty jolly holiday but it wasn’t that long ago that it was a time for spooky stories told around the fire, which makes sense. Historically when Christmas came around it was cold, dark, and everybody had to stay inside, so it’s nice to know some things haven’t changed. And a lot of seasonal traditions come from pagan celebrations of the solstice,and while most of the pagans I know aren’t scary people the gradually diminishing daylight as we approach the shortest day of the year. The ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol are part of a long tradition, one that also gets a nod in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales when he says, “Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver,” and for me no Christmas is complete without Scrooged. Doctor Who even got into the act with several Christmas specials culminating in Voyage Of The Damned in 2007 and the joke that everybody but the Queen was getting out of London until the holiday was over.

When I was a student in England Halloween was barely acknowledged, but at Christmas we had a costume ball, which was apparently more traditional, and I think we should embrace that on this side of the pond if it means two times a year when we can dress up and tell scary stories.

So I loved reading a story of a woman who got a series of notes from a “Karen” neighbor that her gargoyle statue was “not appropriate”. And of course it escalated quickly and hilariously with more decorations being added and “Karen” threatening to report the display to the local homeowners’ association and the mayor.

Source: Bored Panda

Source: Bored Panda

I’m pretty sure having a neighbor with no sense of humor is as scary as it gets.


Nobody Calls Him Names Anymore.

“All right, everybody get in formation!” Santa barked. The reindeer lined up dutifully.

“I’ve heard some grumblings in the herd,” Santa went on, “and I just want to say that anybody who doesn’t like it can go live with the Lapps.”

The reindeer pawed the ground and looked at each other nervously. Blitzen, who all of them knew as the smartass of the group, had mouthed off the last time Santa made the same suggestion. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll go live with the Lapps. Compared to this place it’ll be the Lapp of luxury!”

Mrs. Claus had taken him by the bridle and led him off behind the secondary workshop, the one with the heavy equipment. Later that night Donner peeked in the Claus’s window and thought he saw a crown roast being served.

“Now,” said Santa, “this is going to be a tough night. We’ve got fog right down to the deck every place east of the Rockies. Damn climate change. Vixen, you’ll take the lead ahead of Dasher and Dancer from the west coast. Prancer, you’ll take over after that until we get to Chicago.”

“It’s not gonna work, fat boy!” came a voice from the back of the herd.

“Who said that?” Santa yelled. “Nobody talks to me that way! Come on, step up or you’ll all be venison!”

The herd parted but one reindeer, smaller than the rest, with a distinct red nose, stood at the back.

“It was me, old man, and you’d better watch what you say because I’m your best hope.”

Santa narrowed his eyes. “Pretty full of yourself, aren’t you? Think you can get away with being so rude, Dolph? Maybe it’s time for you to—”

“What?” Dolph shot back. “Go live with the Lapps? Maybe you’d just send me back to Chernobyl where you found me.” The reindeer looked around. “Oh, I know you all know. I hear the jokes, the snickers, all the names you call me behind my back. That I’m the Radioactive Russian, the Solar Siberian, the Toxin of the Tundra. Well check this out.” He wrinkled his forehead and his nose began to glow a bright piercing red.

Santa glared for a moment then threw back his head and laughed. “Ho ho ho! That’s a pretty neat trick therem sonny. You know I run a tight ship but every captain knows you don’t put a navigator in the bilge. You can lead the second string.”

“Nothing doing.” Dolph pawed the ground. “I don’t want a piece of the action. You need me to lead the team the whole way.”

“Nobody’s made the whole round trip,” said Santa, “not in a long time. Not since, well, Flossie and Glossie led the team. You think you can handle it?”

“Handle it?” Dolph stepped forward. “You bet your wide load I can handle it. I’m going down in history.”

“All right,” Santa said, “let’s get harnessed up.” Then he turned to Mrs. Claus and muttered, “The kid probably’d taste terrible anyway.”


Inaction Figure.

Because Star Wars came out when I was a kid I collected all the toys. And I mean all the toys. My parents were pretty generous in indulging my obsession with everything Star Wars-related so Christmases were big and predictable. I had the Death Star playset. I had the Millennium Falcon. Amazingly I had Boba Fett’s Slave 1, something no other kid I knew had—most of them were amazed it even existed. And I had all the action figures. So of course when I saw this I laughed for an hour:

Source: Entertainment Weekly

And then because my brain can’t leave things alone I started thinking about it. I haven’t seen The Mandalorian—I’ve matured to obsessing about other things, but this stayed with me. For one thing I thought how, even when the original Star Wars came out if there had been flaws like this in it most of us wouldn’t have noticed them because, no matter how obsessive we were, we still had to see it in the theater. We couldn’t pause, rewind, or watch it again—unless we could stay in the theater, and most of us had to go home.

Jeans Guy has been digitally erased now and I’m kind of sorry he’s gone. A lot of work goes into making any show or movie—and I’m speaking from a very little bit of experience here. One summer when I was in college I helped on the production of a documentary about a local homeless shelter. Mostly I carried gear but I also operated sound equipment and got a chance to learn a little about editing. It was an extremely low budget documentary so the work that went into that was nothing compared to what must go into making an FX-heavy science fiction drama.

And no matter how good special effects get we still have to willingly suspend disbelief and it’s not a bad thing to have the occasional reminder—to borrow a line from another show’s theme song, repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax. Some directors have even put deliberate “mistakes” in their films to remind us that we’re watching something artificially constructed. For example there’s a scene in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool in which a mic dips down into view. It looks like a mistake but was probably intentional.

These mistakes can even be inspiring. Like the toys that allowed me to create my own Star Wars stories a mistake can make a film more “real”, more tangible–some special effects artists have said that seeing how the effects on screen were created, realizing that was a job, helped them find a career they love. It’s probably a stretch to say Jeans Guy is living the dream, but at least he’s probably working in a field he’s really passionate about.

I sold all my Star Wars toys and assorted paraphernalia a few years ago, but now I really do want a Jeans Guy action figure.

Lucky In Love.

It’s been several months since I’ve gone looking for graffiti, mostly because I’ve been staying close to home, but I was running an errand and happened to spot this sign nailed to a telephone pole. Telephone polls used to be covered with photocopied signs advertising local music shows. That had declined even before current events caused the cancellation of most live performances in the area; I think the internet became the preferred way for bands and their venues to get the word out. I remember seeing one of those signs once announcing a performance by a young musician and someone had written on it, “Go so you can say you saw him when,” which was ambitious and confident and I thought, wow, I hope he really does have success someday even though the odds are against it. It was quite a message, and even made me want to go to the show. I didn’t. In fact I’ve even forgotten who the musician was, and it’s been long enough that his star may have risen and, for all I know, fallen. I hope he’s doing well, though, even under the current circumstances which are making things hard for all musicians.

Anyway there was something really great about seeing a sign with a single, simple message. It was so great I had to stop and pull over and take a picture of it. So I could do more than just say I saw it.

Hey Turkey!

There’s a story that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle, to be the national bird of the United States. When I was a kid some people told it to me to say they thought Franklin was goofy which I never believed. He was obviously a very smart guy who flew kites in thunderstorms, wrote an essay called “Fart Proudly”, and not only invented the Franklin stove but had the foresight to name it after himself so he could make money off of it forever. Other people told me they thought it made sense because wild turkeys, unlike their domestic counterparts, are pretty smart birds. They haven’t invented stoves or written any essays about farting but in 1940 they figured out how to brew their own bourbon and more recently discovered a free buffet over at River’s World, but that’s another story.

This got me wondering about turkeys and whether it was just a coincidence that they share a name with the country Turkey. In fact it’s not just a coincidence. The term “turkey” was originally used for a West African bird, the guinea-fowl, which was imported to Europe through Turkey and which looks, well, kind of like a turkey even though the two birds are unrelated. So when Europeans settled North America they called the large birds they found turkeys and the name stuck.  

Anyway it turns out Benjamin Franklin never suggested the turkey for a national bird. He really wasn’t happy with the bald eagle either, though he never said so publicly. He did, in a letter to his daughter, say,

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly… Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.

Fair enough, Ben. It was, in fact, the figure on the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States with its eagle holding an olive branch in one claw and thirteen arrows in the other that set him off.

Source: Wikipedia

He said,

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

It’s just as well he never seriously suggested making the turkey the national bird because he does make a pretty good argument for it and the other Founders probably would have taken him up on it and then we’d never eat them which would be a terrible thing because bald eagles are pretty gamey while turkeys are delicious. That’s why we don’t just have turkey on Thanksgiving. Every deli offers turkey sandwiches and turkey salad. Most stores and many restaurants offer turkey sausage and turkey bacon which I think don’t just taste better but are kosher to boot, not to mention ground turkey, turkey cutlets, and turkey burgers. In a sense turkeys have become our national bird. We’re absolutely stuffed with ‘em.

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