American Graffiti.

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

We All Have To Go.

Coincidences are funny things. The other day I discovered a trove of old pictures, mostly ones I’d taken back when I first got a smartphone, and of course there were several pictures in there of men’s rooms. I had this idea at the time that it would be funny to take pictures of public restrooms and post them online, and maybe even put together a book of them—a bathroom book, not that I’d want to compete with The Great American Bathroom Book. I had an idea that it could be an art project. I could even consider restroom design—what makes one good or bad, and maybe highlight the best ones.

And I would call the project Dear John.

Tumblr was still pretty popular at the time, especially for pictures, but Tumblr’s design made uploading, well, such a pain in the ass I created one post and quit. And, to be fair, that was only part of the problem. The other part is bathrooms aren’t the easiest places to photograph. Most don’t have a lot of space so composing a good shot could be difficult. A lot are also designed for multiple people and out of a general respect for other people’s privacy and a specific desire to not get punched or worse I would only take the pictures when I was alone. Sometimes I’d get interrupted and you can imagine the awkwardness of trying to explain why I was crouched in the corner of a public bathroom with my phone out.

The coincidence is that the day after I found those pictures a friend sent me the article I Stopped Taking My Phone into the Bathroom for a Month by a guy who says leaving his phone out of the bathroom changed his life for the better.

It was a coincidence, right? My friend’s not looking over my shoulder or following me everywhere I go, is he? There are some places we should all just be alone.

There’s A Story Here.

Lately I’ve really been struggling to write. It’s difficult because even when the flesh is willing—and, let’s face it, I’m always up for sitting down—the spirit is weak. I know some writers claim to have found ways to overcome writer’s block and, well, good for them. I’m not sure I really believe it’s true. After all it’s in the nature of writers, especially fiction writers, to invent.

Speaking of overcoming writer’s block I once heard Neil Gaiman tell a story of how he was at a convention, hanging around with some other writers early one morning trying to shake off their hangovers, and his old friend Terry Prachett came bounding into the room.

“What are you looking so happy about?” Gaiman muttered.

“I’ve just written two thousand words for the day,” said Pratchett and, according to Gaiman, all the other writers glared at him.

It’s a funny story and it reminds me that even for those lucky enough to write for a living it’s not easy. In fact it can be really hard work, and even for Pratchett it wasn’t always easy. His essay “Thought Progress” starts:

Get up, have breakfast, switch on word processor, stare at screen.
Stare at screen some more.

Anyway now I feel guilty because I’m not really writing, just stealing stuff from other writers. Once in a writing class I was given an assignment to write about a place and I ended up describing the room where I tried to write the essay while writing about how hard it was to come up with something to write. The professor wrote, “There’s nothing more boring than writing about writing. Don’t do it.”

And now I feel even worse because not only am I writing about writing but also padding this out with someone else’s quote.

What I really want to get to, though, is this bit of stuff I saw in a grocery store parking lot. There’s a pair of folded jeans, a case of what looks like phone stuff, a red glass bowl with chains, and a…thing. That looks like the bowl might go with it.

How did they end up there? Who left them? Why? And why, while I was in the store, did someone take the thing and the bowl and leave the phone stuff case and the jeans?

There’s a story there. I just can’t quite get it down. Can you? Bonus points if you can identify the thing.

It’s A Sign.

Source: Google Maps, because I wasn’t fast enough with my own camera.

My wife and I were driving through my old neighborhood recently and as we went by a strip mall she said, “Oh, the upside down sign is still there.”

I’m not sure when exactly the upside down sign was first installed. I remember seeing it a lot, though, because I lived nearby and we passed it regularly.  I’m pretty sure I was in my early teens. Maybe I was even younger. It was there when there was a miniature golf course behind that strip mall—a miniature golf course where my friends and I spent a lot of summer Saturdays before it finally shut down. It was there when there was an arcade in that strip mall where my friends and I played a lot of video games, and when there was still a Radio Shack there. It was there when there was a small market that, for reasons no one ever understood, carried a lot of different imported beers from around the world—and this was in the ‘80’s, long before the craft beer craze. Also long before I started drinking beer. I only know about the market that carried a lot of imported beers because I’d go in there sometimes to buy a candy bar and I’d see this unusual stuff called “Guinness” in the refrigerator case, and I’d always think, well, if it’s beer it must not be that different from the Michelob my father drinks, and it would be several years before I’d discover Guinness resembles Michelob about as much as, well, a miniature golf course resembles a Radio Shack, but that’s another story.

The first few years it was there, every time my friends and I passed it, I’d say, “What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they fix that sign?” And my friend John would say, “Well, maybe it’s working for them. It’s getting attention.”

He was right too. The sign must be working. It’s still there, and the business it advertises is still there. In fact it’s the only thing that hasn’t changed. Well, there’s probably at least one place nearby where you can still get Guinness.  

On Repeat.

Repetition in art is a funny thing. Maybe I’ve said that before. Anyway there are some forms where repetition is the whole point, like wallpaper or Andy Warhol prints, or the loose coalition that was the Pattern And Decoration movement that came together in the mid 1970’s as a response to conceptual art and Minimalism. Repeating a pattern in a painting or sculpture can add emphasis, or it can change the meaning of a motif.

Generally, though, artists don’t want to repeat themselves, but that’s where things get tricky. If an artist becomes known and successful for doing a certain thing there’s a temptation to keep doing that thing but that’s a risky strategy. People get bored with seeing the same thing, and critics can slam an artist who does the same thing over and over “stale” and “a hack” . And even if they don’t, or haven’t yet, artists can get bored and want to challenge themselves, to try something new. Trying something new carries risks too, of course—among other things people sometimes say, “Yeah, the old thing was so much better.”

Art’s constant pursuit of the new has its problems too, though, which Milan Kundera explores in his novel Immortality. There are a limited number of gestures, of colors, of musical notes. It’s inevitable that even if one artist doesn’t directly repeat another there’s going to be some overlap, some repetition, maybe even some unintentional copying. Two composers might stumble on the same catchy tune, maybe even at roughly the same time. Museums work really hard to preserve art but there’s an argument for letting at least some old things disappear, or simply fade from memory, to give future generations a chance to rediscover something and see it with new eyes without feeling like it’s the same old thing.

Well, that’s about all I can say without running the risk of repeating myself.

Source: XKCD

Illumination.

It was on one of my family’s trips to Florida, or rather on the way back, that I asked my father how neon signs worked. There was an old restaurant somewhere along the way where we always stopped and had dinner before the final stretch. The place had a large neon sign and I remembered seeing a short film on Sesame Street of a man making a neon sign, although it was mostly silent and showed the process without actually explaining anything. My father told me the glass tubing was filled with one of the noble gases, usually neon, and electricity made the gas glow. Now that was really cool—simple but cool, and was pretty much my understanding for a long time until I read Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and got a slightly more detailed, but still simple, explanation of why an electric current makes the gas glow. Basically it’s this: because of the current the electrons surrounding each atom pick up extra energy and move farther away from the nucleus, but they can only hold onto it for so long. When they fall back they release the extra energy as light.

The same principle is used in fluorescent bulbs but while neon lights are cool and provide great design for places like the old Las Vegas strip or the old Picadilly Circus in London or the old Times Square in New York fluorescent bulbs just make your office even more miserable, but that’s another story.

Wikipedia goes into even more detail and the Photographic Periodic Table has cool visualizations of some of the noble gases lit up, but what I really think about is how much of an art neon signs are—a disappearing art. They’ve been mostly replaced by plastic and LED and, more recently, digital signs that are—no pun intended—flashier, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that more modern signage is used by big chain businesses while it’s small, local places that keep their own neon signs. And maybe at one time that was economic. The big places need signs that are easy to mass-produce and neon signs mostly need to be hand-crafted. The smaller places couldn’t afford to upgrade and neon signs are durable. And what became the retro appeal didn’t hurt either. Neon is still popular for some home design and there have been efforts to preserve neon signs, but they’re gradually going from neon to neoff, and, yes, that pun was intended. Their disappearance means the loss of a personal touch, as well as some of the local color. Neon does a lot more than just illuminate the night.

Here, Souvenir.

It’s been almost six years since I took that picture, a few months after I first started writing about graffiti and other art for this blog. And I was really excited to write about it because it seemed so profound in its simplicity. What is art, or, for that matter, anything we make, if not a way of saying, “I was here?”

Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about it. I remember taking that picture and feeling overwhelmed by how much I could say, how my head was absolutely buzzing with possibilities. It’s such a pure expression, aesthetically simple yet philosophically deep. I thought about how J.R., whoever they might be, took a blank wall and turned it into a canvas, and then I thought, well, technically the wall isn’t blank, and, if you want to get really technical about it, there’s no such thing. Even an empty canvas has color and texture, and the brick wall where J.R. left their mark is far from an empty canvas.

And it made me think about walls in general, how they divide but can also connect, offering protection and a space where people can be together. Walls are usually all that remains of ancient cities, the first clue to archaeologists that a site was once inhabited, that people were there. Most versions of the epic of Gilgamesh end with the hero returning to his city Uruk and seeing the protective walls he built around it.

I’ve walked by that same spot several times over the years. J.R.’s mark has long since been removed, or maybe the weather just wore the paint away. Each time I went by there I remembered that J.R. was there, and I always assumed I’d already written about them. It’s funny that there were times I wondered what I was going to write about, trying to keep to this self-imposed schedule of posting something on the subject every Saturday, my own way of saying, I am here.

Maybe that’s why I kept thinking I’d already written about J.R., because it was so obvious. It’s what we’re all saying.

Play On.

Who invented playgrounds and why? It’s an interesting question because they’re a fairly modern development, basically created in response to growing urban populations and the need to keep kids off the streets. Although before the rise of automobiles streets were usually crowded they were still used by horse-drawn carts and, most kids being short, they weren’t always easy to spot and could get run over. While the first playgrounds attached to schools were created in Germany in the 1840s, the idea of child psychologist Friedrich Fröbel, the first play area for kids that wasn’t part of a school was opened in Manchester, England, in 1859.

While that much is known I can’t find anything about who had the idea for that first playground. It was probably a collective idea, though, and, kids being kids, they probably staked out their own territory even in areas that didn’t have a designated play area. I grew up reading John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books, set in small-town Utah in the late 19th century, and one recurring spot for adventures was a vacant lot the kids were allowed to use as long as they kept it clear of trash and weeds.

Looking at contemporary playgrounds I’m a little amazed and a little jealous of how they’ve changed just in my lifetime. The playground at my first school had a collection of all-metal jungle gyms in various configurations and they were fun to play on but they also got hot in the sun. I also remember the day I was sitting at the very top of the tallest one, a squarish rectangular contraption painted bright orange, when I slipped and fell. Most playgrounds now are covered with soft material but in those days it was gravel and often crinoid fossils. I think I blacked out for a moment and I remember moaning, trying to get my breath, but, aside from a few scrapes, I was okay after a few minutes and climbed right back up.

That brings me to how I’ve heard people say, some sarcastically and some, I think, seriously, that modern playground equipment is too safe, and that all the hot metal and sharp edges and rocks toughened us up. I’m pretty sure those who are so cavalier about safety aren’t thinking about their own kids, or may not have kids at all. Anyway here’s an interesting fact: an early advocate of playgrounds in the United States was Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, the archetypal tough guy and Rough Rider believed kids needed a safe place to play. I’m sure he had his critics who felt that giving kids playgrounds was coddling them and that back in their day they were toughened up by having to play in the street.

Pushing Boundaries.

Manuscript of Les 120 Journées de Sodome by the Marquis de Sade. Source: The Guardian

When a friend sent me a news item that a handwritten manuscript by the Marquis de Sade has been returned to France and said, “When I saw this I thought of you” I wanted to say, “Gee, thanks,” but I knew what he meant. Maybe I knew a little too well what he meant. In college I went through a phase of reading everything I could find by and about Sade. I even read a paper on his work to a local chapter of the Samuel Johnson Society. After I was done the members took me out to dinner and the vice president laughed as she paid my bill, saying, “It’s so funny that I’m sponsoring scholarship of the Marquis de Sade.”

I’m not sure I really got across just what a terrible person he was, or how terrible his writings are, but that was my fault. I wasn’t into his kinks—he’s the source of the term “sadism” after all—but I was enthralled by just how extreme his works were. He covered subjects I didn’t think people in the 18th century even thought about, much less wrote about. He took the idea of “natural man”, unfettered by the laws and standards of civilization, that Rousseau wrote about and Voltaire parodied, to its extremes, asking, what does absolute freedom look like? How much he did personally isn’t clear–he was smart enough not to put too much of his personal life to paper, at least in prison, or maybe but he did but a lot of his work was burned after his death. I’m pretty tolerant of what consenting adults do among themselves but he didn’t seem to care about consent, or limit himself to adults. He beat several prostitutes, was accused of poisoning some with what he probably thought was an aphrodisiac, abducted his sister-in-law, and tried to molest some peasant children. Being a nobleman he might have gotten away with all that too in pre-revolutionary France, but he had a wealthy mother-in-law. His own family was aristocratic but bankrupt and his mother-in-law used money to keep him locked up for various reasons including blasphemy. It didn’t help that some of his exploits got enough public attention that authorities felt compelled to act, and, after the revolution, he still represented the excesses of the aristocracy to many and that Napoleon ordered him arrested for some of his published books.

Anyway there’s no book of his that tries to answer the question of absolute freedom as much as the one that’s just been returned to France: Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage. He wrote it, and several other works, while imprisoned in the Bastille. Some of those works he published but Sodom, written in tiny letters on a scroll more than twenty feet long, he kept hidden in his cell. It was unpublishable, maybe even unprintable—at least at the time, and part of me wonders if it should have stayed that way.

On July 2nd, 1789, Sade started screaming from his window that the prisoners were being murdered and the people should rise up and free them. He was taken out and moved to the Charenton asylum where he’d spend the rest of his life. Twelve days later French revolutionaries would storm the Bastille. I don’t think there’s any evidence Sade had anything to do with that, and I doubt he did ; the prison had become a symbol of the monarchy and a raving nobleman probably didn’t get much sympathy. Sade thought his manuscript was destroyed in the attack ; in fact it was found and passed through various collectors.

As fascinated—even charmed—as I was by Sade Sodom was a hard book o get through. Like all his works the plot, if you can even call it that, is pretty simple : four noblemen, a duke, a bishop, a judge, and a banker spend five months in a remote castle where they rape and abuse each other’s wives and children while being entertained with tales of increasing sexual depravity by four prostitutes. The whole thing ends with a murderous orgy, the noblemen marry the prostitutes, having killed their own wives and children, and return to their respectable lives. It sounds almost like satire, and Sade definitely intended it as an attack on the nobility, but even his notes—he didn’t finish the book and most of it is a rough outline—are so detailed it seems like he took real pleasure from what he was supposedly condemning.

It’s a book that pushes boundaries, and it’s so full of rape, torture, and murder I had to skip parts of it, and it really broke any romantic notions I had of him. He could be charming both in life and in his writing but in both he also had a very, very dark side. And his philosophy has some major weaknesses. Sade was interested in defining freedom but his idea of freedom was limited to men of a certain social class; almost everyone else was disposable. When the French Revolution happened he claimed to support it but really, I think, just hoped to be freed from the asylum. He also wanted to return to his luxurious castle and the life he’d enjoyed before prison—he never directed his hatred of the nobility toward himself; when he could get away with a crime he was proud, when he couldn’t it was someone else’s fault, which is ironic for a guy who wrote so scathingly about hypocrisy.

The Marquis de Sade is less famous for who he really was than what he represents—freedom, especially sexual freedom—but who he really was, and what he wrote, raises complicated questions about what freedom means and what its limits should be. So I’m glad Les 120 Journées de Sodome now belongs to the French government. They can keep it.

It’s A Bird.

Source: Netflix, Atypical

The following post is completely 100% spoiler free regarding the Netflix show Atypical. Seriously, you’ll get more spoilers from the Season 4 trailer than you will from a few brief remarks I’ll make about the show’s premise.

Atypical is focused on Sam, a young man on the autism spectrum, his younger sister Casey, his parents, his best friend and coworker Zahid, and his girlfriend (although there’s some trouble getting there) Paige.

Even though it’s a comedy Sam’s autism isn’t treated as a joke—although his occasional bluntness does give the show some of its funnier moments and, okay, here’s a small spoiler: one of the show’s most popular lines is when Sam excitedly tells his parents, “I got a hand job in an igloo!” But really the show gives every character their own quirks and difficulties dealing with the world around them. Sam may be the main character but the real point is that  everyone’s atypical.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is a scene in Season 4, Episode 1, in which Casey is out for a run. She’s gone through some major changes of her own, particularly in season 3, and is struggling with how to talk to her father. She stops in front of a street painting of a bird.

Birds are a subtle but recurring theme throughout Atypical. Sam is fascinated with Antarctica and especially penguins. He draws penguins and when stressed repeats the four penguin species: “Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo,” a habit some of the others pick up on.

The bird Casey sees obviously isn’t a penguin. In fact it may not be a real bird at all. The point is that, as the scene pivots back and forth between Casey’s face it’s clear she’s making a decision. What significance does the bird have for her? Why does seeing it help? None of that is clear. It’s a really short scene—less than a minute, just long enough to let us see it and to see that Casey is making a decision, and the payoff doesn’t come until later, almost at the very end of the episode. It’s unusual in any TV show, but especially a lighthearted comedy, to have a scene that’s so ambiguous, even vague, and—but I love that the producers trust the audience enough to do something so atypical.

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