American Graffiti.

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

Jive Turkey.

I’ve always had a fascination with advertising and the subtle, or not so subtle, ways things are sold to us. Sometimes I’ll see the way something is packaged and start analyzing all the decisions that must have gone into it and I’ll think, that’s very clever. And sometimes I think, wow, whose idea was that? Like when I saw these sugar cookies. That’s it. They’re just plain sugar cookies with a turkey design but what stands out, obviously, is the giant word TURKEY splashed across the package. If you see that you’re not going to think “Sugar cookies.” You’re going to think turkey. And I like turkey. I look forward to Thanksgiving, and also Christmas when we sometimes have turkey again. I think a lot of people have turkey at Christmas because they like turkey but also goose, which is considered more traditional, just isn’t that common in the United States.

My parents cooked a goose for Christmas one year. I’m not sure where they got it. I like to think there was one less Canada goose wandering around the park, but that’s another story. As for the taste, well, I don’t remember it very well but I think it was slightly gamey and closer to chicken than turkey. What I do remember is the globs of gelatinous fat that bubbled around it in the baking pan. Geese are a lot leaner than turkeys so they leave fewer leftovers and what is left is better suited for stews, which makes sense for large Victorian England families looking to stretch their winter food budget. Turkeys, for Victorian England families, would also be an import, unlike geese which could be sourced locally. Just not Canada geese.

The fact that this is all that I thought about after seeing the TURKEY sugar cookies just illustrates how terrible the packaging design is. I did at least think to go back and take a picture of the packaging but it wasn’t until the next day that I thought I should buy them for the sake of this post, and to see just how badly the design comes out once they’re finally baked, and to confirm that they do not, in fact, taste like TURKEY, but they were already gone. Maybe they were a Thanksgiving special—though they were put out after Black Friday. They’d been replaced by “ornament cookies”, which were also plain sugar cookies, but red with frosting.

That was a smart decision.

Light ‘Em Up.

A few weeks ago I saw signs around the neighborhood advertising professional holiday light hanging and installation. Before I could get a picture they were replaced by signs for professional gutter cleaning which seems like a bit of a letdown.

Part of me thinks that at least part of the point of having holiday lights on your house, and also part of the fun, is putting them up yourself. Then again that may not be everyone’s idea of fun. When I was a kid I begged my parents to decorate our house with lights because I loved riding around seeing other houses that were brightly lit. Finally my father got a few strings of candy-colored lights he draped around the holly bushes at either end of our house after Thanksgiving and I realized having holiday lights outside your house isn’t that exciting when you’re inside and can’t see them. Also we lived on a cul-de-sac so the only people who’d see our lights were our neighbors and people who’d taken a really wrong turn. Also they were one more thing that had to be put into storage at the end of the holiday season and, unlike the decorations inside the house, required going out in the cold. Strings of holiday lights also get bored during the almost eleven months they’re packed away so they spend the time wrapping themselves around each other which is why they always have to be untangled when it’s time to bring them out again.

That’s one reason I’m not going to criticize people who hire professional holiday light installers. The other reason is, according to their website, their introductory price starts at $699.00, and anyone who’s paying that much just to get holiday lights installed for, at most, two months, can afford not to care what I think.

Also really do I like the idea of giving people who want to put up lights but who, for whatever reason, can’t do it themselves a professional option, and it makes me appreciate those who do it themselves—there’s one house I drive by on my way to work that always has an inflatable Santa and an inflatable Hanukkah Bear. At least one night in December my wife and I will also make a couple of mugs of hot chocolate and drive around looking at different decorations. The professional ones may look a bit more polished—every string perfectly placed around the eaves with nothing dangling or irregularly draped around an untrimmed bush—but every one will still be slightly different.

Who Made This?

Source: Reddit

A friend sent me this chart of foods and we got into a pretty lengthy discussion about how some of them aren’t that surprising. I’ve heard the origin story of nachos several times: a guy nicknamed “Nacho” working as a cook at a club in Piedras Negras, Coahuila threw together some fried tortillas with shredded cheese and sliced jalapenos. General Tso’s chicken is another one that doesn’t surprise me. It’s so obviously an Americanized version of “Chinese” food I’m surprised it goes back as far as the 1970’s—although there’s a dispute over who actually invented it. The same is true of chicken tikka masala.

Others really do surprise me, though. Sticky toffee pudding only dates from the 1960’s? It seems like such a traditional English recipe I still believe it probably originated as a home-cooked dessert long before it made its way into the restaurant that claims to have “invented” it. That would be the Sharrow Bay Hotel on Ullswater, but, again, there’s a debate, with other parts of England and also Quebec claiming to be the point of origin.

And that gets me into what’s really confusing: how do you invent a food? Sure, you can invent a recipe, but this is the thing that I think must give most law students, and even a lot of lawyers, headaches when they start dealing with copyright issues. You can copyright the form that an idea takes but you can’t copyright an idea. With recipes that means you can copyright the exact wording of a recipe—and I know there have been some plagiarism fights over cookbooks—but you can’t copyright the idea. Nashville’s own hot chicken can trace its origins back to  Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, but the Prince family that still operates the place can’t copyright the idea of hot chicken which is why there are so many knockoff versions of it.

And that’s just talking about recipes whose origins are known. Nobody knows who invented most dishes. Whoever told me when I was a kid that Spaghetti was the name of a guy who traveled with Marco Polo and brought pasta from China to Italy was either seriously misinformed or outright lying.

All recipes are also just really combinations and recombinations of existing ingredients. With that in mind, and for your holiday entertaining if it sounds like something you’d like, here’s a recipe my mother invented she calls “garbage snacks”. It’s something she threw together for a party, combining stuff she just happened to have around, and, while the idea is hers, the wording here is mine:

Combine shredded cheese, finely chopped turkey or chicken lunch meat (thin-sliced works best), and diced black olives with mayonnaise. Exact amounts can vary as long as the end result is a fairly solid paste.
Spread on Triscuit crackers. Again the exact amount can vary but about a tablespoon is enough.
Bake at 350 degrees for fifteen minutes, or until the cheese melts and all the ingredients come together.

For such a simple recipe they have a very distinctive flavor that people seem to either love or hate. Personally I love ‘em but that’s true of all recipes. Tastes vary.

In Memoriam.

Sometimes in the park or even around my neighborhood I’ve seen lost pet signs. I always stop and take down the contact information just in case, although I’ve never seen a loose dog running around our area. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to lose a pet like that and never know what happened to them. There was one time, not long after my wife and I were first married, that we accidentally left the gate open. We had three dogs. Two wandered out into the neighborhood. The third, the oldest, a tall skinny dog named Jacob who was also my wife’s first Dalmatian, stayed in the yard and barked to let us know what had happened. After we got Jacob inside we drove around the neighborhood and found the other two just one block over. They both seemed relieved to see us.

Of course losing any well-loved pet is hard, even if you’re with them at the end and get that chance to say goodbye. Because every pet is unique every loss is too, which is why they never get any easier. There are only two things I’ve found that help a little: time and being around others who know how it feels. Even years later talking to someone about a loss can help. It brings up the pain, but it brings up the love and the joy too.

I’ve never met Elizabeth but I hope sharing Buster helped her. I hope she knows it helped others.

Mix It Up.

My wife has enjoyed chai, I think, for as long as we’ve both been eating Indian food, which is a pretty long time. The first time I had Indian food, which was in Columbus, Ohio—it hadn’t reached Nashville yet—the beverage was mango lhassi. It was delicious but I wish I could go back and order chai, if it had even been on the menu. I don’t remember what the main dish was, but I think it was chicken tikka masala, which isn’t technically Indian—some sources say it was invented in Glasgow of all places, but probably by a chef from Bangladesh or Pakistan, but I do remember it was tasty.

Anyway my wife has tried for years to find a chai recipe she liked that she could make at home, including mixing her own, but only recently found one that’s as good as what we’ve had in restaurants. And sometimes I make it which leads to conversations like this:

Me: This chai didn’t turn out right. I guess I could…
Wife: I’m stopping you before you say “chai again”.
Me: Chai harder.
Wife: You’re on thin ice.
Me: Chai another day.
Wife: You’re chai-ing my patience.
Me: Tomorrow never chai’s.
Wife: That’s enough.
Me: The chai who loved Me.
Wife: I said…
Me: Live and let chai.
Wife: Get out.

And then the company that makes her chai blend sent her the “get rich or chai tryin’” sticker. I can’t get away with it but they can. Fair enough—they’re professional chai makers and I’ll leave the puns to them because they’re better at those too. For me, I’ve got no time to chai.

Source: giphy

Things Fall Apart.

Janice was a pretty girl in my high school journalism class. We got along really well but I don’t think we could have ever gone beyond friendship because we were both shy and, while I wouldn’t say two shy people shouldn’t date—I’m sure there are those who’ve made it work—Paula Abdul was all over the radio and MTV at the time telling us opposites attract.

We did get to spend a lot of time talking, though, since the journalism class was a dud. There’d never been a school paper before and the teacher was a football coach who, after a week, quit trying to make one happen. So we spent a lot of time sitting around and Janice and I got to know each other because we were the only two kids in the class who weren’t football players. She was, as I said, pretty, but she also had a dry sense of humor which I really liked. Her family had moved from North Dakota which she described as “the place where people go to get away from other people.” I never did ask what brought her family to Nashville, but I like to think her parents were like her: shy but nice, and maybe they wanted to be around other people.

What we really bonded over, though, was Poe. I told her I’d read a lot of Poe stories but there was one big one that, for reasons I couldn’t explain, I’d avoided.

“Oh,” she said, “The Fall Of The House Of Usher is my favorite. I hope if you do read it you’ll enjoy it. I think you’ll be pretty shocked by the ending.”

I read it that night. I loved it, although, even for Poe, it’s pretty weird. As in most of his stories the tension builds slowly: nothing much happens, but the details and subtle suggestions are thick. Then there’s the shocking climax followed by a conclusion that’s set up in the first paragraph. It packs in more of Poe obsessions than any other story: a decaying house, a decaying family, a premature burial, strange paintings, supernatural nature, and a twin brother and sister who are maybe a little too close, which just makes it even weirder that Poe married his thirteen year-old cousin. There’s even a story-within-the-story of a knight fighting a dragon, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the house–the mansion, really–collapses at the end. The house of Usher literally falls. There is no message, no meaning, because Poe hated didacticism in stories.

The heavy atmosphere and luridness are probably why Roger Corman chose it for the first of his series of Poe adaptations, and it remains the second best (the kooky humor of The Raven with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre going at it will always make it my favorite, but that’s another story), and why it’s one of Poe’s best-known tales.

Janice and I never formally said good-bye when the school year ended. We just went our separate ways. It hadn’t occurred to me in the journalism class that she was a sophomore while I was a junior, and we didn’t see each other except in passing the next year. After my first year of college I came back to Nashville just in time to go to my old high school’s graduation ceremony. After it was over I was walking down the sidewalk in the darkness when I heard Janice say my name. She was still in her graduation robe. We chatted a bit and she introduced me to her parents who seemed like quiet but very nice people. Then we said polite goodbyes and went in opposite directions, never seeing each other ever again.  

It Was Gone In A Flash.

Because once isn’t enough with the Monster Cereals this year I got my first chance to try the Monster Mash variety. This has been out there for several years but, like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, chupacabras, Jersey devils, or the Fresno nightcrawler, you have to be in the right place at the right time to see it. I even thought it might be like the Mothman of West Virginia—around only once for a brief time before disappearing. Apparently the formulation changes slightly each year too. It’s not, as the box would lead you to believe, a mix of all six cereals, which some people think would be disgusting. I’m not sure why anyone would think that. There’s not that much difference between the cereals—blindfolded I couldn’t tell you the difference between Franken Berry and Boo Berry—and technically Frute Brute and Yummy Mummy are the same mix, although the Brute originally had lime-flavored marshmallows before being re-released as a cherry-flavored cereal.

The only flavor that would stand out in the group would be Count Chocula, and who doesn’t like fruit mixed with chocolate? Unless you’re allergic to chocolate. Or fruit.

This year’s Monster Mash “Remix” is a blend of about fifty-percent Carmella Creeper—as their new release and a DJ she takes center-stage—and pieces that are, for some reason, dark gray. They’re meant to represent…tombstones? The box doesn’t give any information but let’s say they’re tombstones because that makes the most sense. Not something you’d want to chew on, but that would be taking the Monster Cereals much too literally. The cereal mascots are the inspiration for the cereals, just as the classic Universal Monsters—well, some of them, anyway: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and (possibly) the Invisible Man inspired the mascots. Carmella Creeper is the only one who isn’t drawn from a cinematic monster. They skipped the Creature From The Black Lagoon because, I guess, not that many kids have seen The Shape Of Water.

Carmella’s green cereal mixed in with the tombstones does seem like a callback to her own origin as a collection of reassembled body parts, but it also makes me think she could have been given a plant-based backstory, a manipulator of all green things. Mobile trees and vines are a popular horror film trope from Poltergeist to The Evil Dead—films some of us saw when we were kids even if we shouldn’t have—but anything plant-based in your cereal might have come across as “Eat your vegetables”.

There’s also a wide array of marshmallow types in the Monster Mash. Well, four, anyway: yellow, orange, brown and white striped, and plain brown. I guess these are supposed to represent the different monsters. Four of them, anyway. Frute Brute, my personal favorite, was probably left out again.

Keep On Creepin’ On.

It’s that time of year again—specifically Monster Cereal time, when I binge on Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry, and, on those wonderful, rare, special occasions when they bring it back, my personal favorite, Frute Brute. Also Yummy Mummy, which knocked Frute Brute out of the lineup back in 1988, and which also only rarely makes a comeback. And this year, for the first time in thirty-five years, the first female mascot has joined the Monster Cereals team: Carmella Creeper, who seems to be a zombie. She’s also Franken Berry’s “long lost cousin”.

I would seriously love to know the Berry/Creeper family tree but General Mills hasn’t been forthcoming with more information, although one of those genealogical websites should be able to handle reanimated corpses.

Carmella is, as you might guess from her headphones, a DJ—presumably being in that booth prevents her from attacking and devouring unsuspecting dancers—and obviously shops at Hot Topic. I don’t think of Radiohead as being very bass-heavy but then I don’t know what kind of mixes Carmella spins. Still, come on, “Creep” has got to be her favorite song, right?

The story of her reunion with ol’ cousin Frankie is pretty fun. I did wonder why Frute Brute and Yummy Mummy weren’t invited to play video games with the other three—aside from Frutie being killer at Skyrim—but if you squint at the bottom panel you can see they were well ahead of the rest of the gang in bumpin’ to Carmella’s phat beats.

And, finally, there’s that cereal which is supposed to be “caramel apple” flavor. The fluorescent color had me worried that they were trying for “green apple”—a notoriously difficult flavor because you don’t want to go too sour, but instead they went for a mild sweet flavor with a caramel aftertaste. It’s not bad but I think the Monster Cereal squad’s first female deserves something better. Clever design and a funny backstory are great but with breakfast cereal it’s what’s inside that counts.

You Can Do It.

Source: Tenor

There are two things happening in the art world that are completely unconnected but, being me, I can’t help connecting them—at least in terms of what they mean. The first is that some art historians and critics are using the fact that 2023 is the fiftieth anniversary of Picasso’s death as a reason to examine his legacy. Again. As if Picasso’s legacy doesn’t get examined every single time someone walks into an art class. And you know you’ve reached a special level of fame when people celebrate the year you died.

The other thing that’s happening is Bob Ross’s first painting that he made on his PBS show is going on sale for nearly $10 million—about the same price many Picasso paintings go for, if you can find them for sale. There are probably Picasso drawings—sketches even—that’ll go for that much.

There’s a really strong contrast between Picasso and Ross. Picasso was, to be blunt, a monster. Art historians consider his work, primarily cubism, to be the major break between old figurative traditions and the many -isms of the 20th century that followed, but he was a horrible person who destroyed lives. His mural Guernica remains a powerful statement on the horrors of war and yet he was a rapist.

Bob Ross, on the other hand, developed his famously calm and quiet demeanor because his time as a master sergeant in the Air Force left him never wanting to yell at anyone ever again. He may not have broken any major ground in an artistic sense—although that’s very subjective—but he was patient and kind. He was an all-around good guy whose philosophy about “happy little accidents” applies just as much to life as it does to art. The only negative thing I know he ever said is that he hated his perm, which he originally got to save money on haircuts, but he kept it because it was his trademark look. I’ll be honest: I don’t really like Bob Ross paintings, but I feel like that’s a problem with me. If I didn’t know so much about art maybe I’d like them more, and I really wish I did. Picasso’s legacy has clouded his work. Ross’s legacy should brighten his. Anyway it’s all subjective and it’s okay to like whatever you like.

Picasso saw himself as competing with other artists, even, in his later years, using his influence to make sure galleries shut out artists he didn’t like. Bob Ross believed everyone could paint, and encouraged everyone to paint if they wanted to, sharing techniques. I loved watching Bob Ross’s show when I was a kid. I didn’t appreciate his personality at the time but I was fascinated by how just a few strokes with a specially shaped brush could add snow, and depth, to a painted pine tree, or how a few swipes with a palette blade could become a mountain.

I know people looked at, and still look at, Picasso’s paintings and say, “I could do that.” He never cared about inspiring others but he does. And Bob Ross made paintings and said, “You can do this.” One was selfish, one was generous, but the one thing they have in common is they both encouraged people to make art.  

Good Advice.

Usually when I see graffiti there’s some weird part of my brain that kicks up all the art history and criticism I’ve ever read and automatically tries to place it in some kind of meaningful context. I ask myself some of the standard questions a museum curator, gallery owner, critic, or art historian might ask, like, What does this mean? What was the artist trying to say? How does this fit into the culture in which it was created? I guess the one question I don’t have to ask that a museum curator probably thinks about is, How much does this cost? The gallery owner probably thinks, How much can I get for this? And if it’s a collector and not the artist selling it they’re thinking, Let’s claim this is worth a completely ridiculous amount, because, you know, those absurd art prices for junk we’ve all heard about are really a scam pulled by rich people to have a big tax write-off, but that’s another story.

Sometimes, though, none of that happens. Sometimes I just see some graffiti, laugh, and go on, and that’s all there is.