American Graffiti.

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

Tag, You’re It!

I took this picture on November 6th, 2021:And then I took this picture on March 15th, 2022. Same spot, but someone had added, or, depending on how you look at it, tried to cover, what had been there.

 

And then there was this, which I took a picture of a couple of weeks ago.

The addition of “Your move!” is a nice touch. The funny thing about this is, in all my years of looking at graffiti, I’ve noticed that even most taggers–the ones who just put up a name without doing more elaborate pieces–have a certain amount of respect for each other and even public art. They mostly go for blank spaces like empty walls, light poles, occasionally even sidewalks.

Here, though, are a couple of artists going back and forth. It’s not just a static work. It’s a work in progress.

Playing Around.

I’ve been playing Artle almost as long as I’ve been playing Wordle and Worldle and there are probably at least a dozen other -dle games out there I could get hooked but I’ve decided to limit myself to those three. 
Artle is the hardest of the three. For one thing it’s usually pretty easy to figure out a word if you guess enough letters correctly, and while Worldle throws in the occasional obscure island most countries and territories have recognizable boundaries. But Artle requires a pretty good knowledge of art history—and so far artists have ranged from the Renaissance almost to the present—and you only get four tries.

I lose about half the time. It’s a game where you either know the answer or you don’t. And recently I knew it.

Miro is one of those idiosyncratic artists who’s instantly recognizable—he doesn’t fit into any specific movement. He was a member of the Surrealists but he really did his own thing.

Looking at the other three clues really showed something I think about a lot when playing Artle. Even the most recognizable, distinctive artists go through different phases, trying different styles. Here was the second picture:

That’s another one I would have recognized as a Miro right away, which is lucky because the third clue would have completely stumped me if it had been the first one:

Sure, it’s a Miro—the caption says so—but I wouldn’t have guessed it was one of his. In fact I can think of at least three other artists I would have guessed first.

And the last one, well, I might have said Miro but it also reminded me of a couple of other artists. It’s funny because Artle usually seems to start with more obscure, early works, and then finish with something famous. This time it seemed to go in no real order so if I hadn’t gotten it first I wouldn’t get it at all.

Castle Building.

 

Source: Reddit’s oddly satisfying thread

A friend sent me a short video of someone making drip sand castles from Reddit’s oddly satisfying thread and asked, “Did you ever do this at the beach?”

Yes, yes I did, and it’s funny it came up just now because it’s been a while since I’ve been to the beach but we have some gardening sand in the backyard, in a bag, that we bought, oh, a few years ago for some gardening project that’s forgotten now. And I’d been eyeing it and thinking it would be fun to reenact a small part of my youth and make some drip sand castles somewhere in the backyard. And then I could let the dogs run through them.

Even though sand castles are most popular at the beach because, well, that’s where you have a pretty much unlimited quantity of sand, technically you could build sand castles anywhere. It’s just that some places you have to bring your own sand. And drip sand castles are especially fun because they don’t require a lot of skill and there’s also a certain amount of randomness to them that you don’t get by filling buckets with sand and building straighter structures.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the artistry of really elaborate sand castles, or even sand sculptures, and building one that looks, well, like a castle is fun too, but I really love how a drip sand castle manages to straddle the line between something made and something grown. They’re reminiscent of the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.

And sand castles are, by nature, very ephemeral. At best they’ll last as long as a summer day at the beach, or at least until the tide comes in, or until some jerk comes along and kicks them over.

Not a drip sand castle but damn if it isn’t impressive. Source: kezj.com

Then there was the time I lay down on the beach and started building a drip sand castle and without even thinking about it I’d built a massive multi-turreted structure that was at least three feet tall and about four feet across…and I’d built it over my legs. There was no way to get up and move without destroying most of what I’d built. But I was okay with that. Being destroyed is what sand castles are made for.

It Takes Balls.

A friend of mine is in a bocce league. He’s in another state so I can’t join his league—you could even say he’s out of my league—but there is an Italian restaurant near me that has a bocce court and I keep meaning to ask if they have regular games because it seems like it would be fun, although the rules are completely bonkers. I’ve tried reading the Wikipedia article on bocce at least three times now and I still haven’t quite made sense of it. In terms of rules it seems akin to curling although I think it’s also related to the broader category of lawn games that include croquet and even golf. Billiards also seems to be descended from lawn games—let’s face it, golf is basically pool but with a single, smaller ball, and a single pocket that’s much farther away—and pays homage to its grassy roots with a table covered with green felt.

In the category of things I didn’t really think about until I started thinking about them is how many games employ a ball of some sort which suggests that almost all have a common origin. The skill of throwing a ball or hitting a ball with a stick must have been useful to early humans. It was a good way to practice hunting skills.

Just as important, though, or perhaps even more important, sports could also provide a form of bonding. Any group activity with a set of clearly defined rules can bring people together. Unfortunately games can also be divisive, but, while there are serious matters we have to deal with, games aren’t a matter of life and death.

Sometimes games can even be divisive when you don’t expect it, like the time I was watching a 9-ball match on TV and my wife sat down to watch it with me. She said, “So it’s called 9-ball because they have to sink nine balls.”

“Right,” I said, “and in numerical order. There’s also a game called 7-ball that uses seven balls.”

“So 8-ball uses eight balls then?”

“No, 8-ball has fifteen balls.”

“I give up.”

To be fair she does understand curling a lot better than I do.

From The Sky.

The James Webb Space Telescope is big in the news right now but, in a funny coincidence, we had something fall from the sky in our backyard recently. At first I didn’t know what it was and I saw it coming from a long way away, drifting up over the house like a mutant cloud, dark but with hints of light, trailing a narrow black tail.

Then it came down in the driveway and I could see it had once been a balloon–a giant 2, I think, that had popped open somewhere up in the air before it came down to rest, still exhaling some of its precious helium–but not enough for me to suck in and make my voice sound funny. Why a 2? That’s a mystery in itself. A black number birthday would most likely be one that ended with a zero–forty being the big one, but it’s all downhill from there. Maybe it was for a goth kid’s 12th birthday.

Balloon escapes seem to happen all the time. There’s a party supply store I drive by occasionally and I’ve seen people struggling to get clusters of balloons into their cars and I’d like to help but even if it weren’t weird to have a stranger come up and offer to hold your balloons what could I do? There’s no easy way to manage a bundle of plastic or mylar sacks filled with lighter than air gas and, now that I think about it, I guess “balloons” is a better name because it would sound even worse to have a stranger come up and offer to hold your lighter than air sacks, but that’s another story.

I know some kids love to get balloons and then let go of them–go to any theme park on any day and you’re bound to see at least one balloon flying over the crowd–but I was a kid who held onto balloons and would take them home. I loved the film The Red Balloon which teachers at school or adults at church would have us watch on rainy days when we couldn’t go outside. I didn’t care that my balloons didn’t follow me. I was happy to fall asleep watching my balloon bob around on the ceiling, only to wake up to it wrinkled and sad on the floor.

The only time I let a balloon go was when I tied a note to the string with my name and a little bit about me–I don’t remember what, exactly, and my address. “Please write back to me,” I wrote, with the urgency of an eight-year old. Then I let it go and watched it soar up and up and up until I couldn’t see it, and I imagined it sailing across states, maybe across the ocean, landing in the hands of another kid like me but different enough that we could share the strangeness of our lives.

No one ever wrote. But I did have a large black 2 come down in the driveway, and I shared it with a friend who texted back, “Are you wearing Crocs?”

I’ve learned to take the strangeness where I can find it.

Something Sweet.

I’d dropped the car off at a chain repair place for some maintenance and told them I’d wait the few hours. Then I went to the McDonald’s next door because of course there was a McDonald’s next door—it was one of those bland shopping clusters you’ll find just about everywhere. 
I ordered one of their frozen coffee beverages. 
“The machine’s broken,” the woman at the register told me, because of course it was. Ice cream machines at every McDonald’s everywhere are broken. Then she said, “but I’ll make up something sweet for you.”
A few minutes later she’d made up a tall concoction of coffee, cream, and caramel syrup and only charged me for a small regular coffee drink.
 
I went for a walk, amused by the contrast of the bland shopping area and the standardization of everything and my custom coffee drink. 
Then I saw the base of a street lamp decorated with what looked like a lotus design. Or maybe it was just a flower. Either way someone had added a little individual flair to something that was dull and standard. 
They didn’t do it for me—I’m not sure they had anyone In mind since it’s not a place where people walk normally—but I appreciated that someone had done something sweet.

The Secret’s Out.

Source: Wikipedia

For some reason of all the films that made the summer of 1982 feel like on where I practically lived in movie theaters the one that’s stuck with me the most is The Secret Of NIMH, which came out in July of that year. I saw it twice that summer, which wasn’t unusual—this was before we had VCRs, and, in fact, just before the arrival of cable TV, and even after cable and VCRs became part of our lives I’d still frequently see a movie first with my parents or alone then go back with my friends. The second time I saw The Secret of NIMH was also a special free screening arranged by the local schools. Maybe this was because it was based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel by Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby & The Rats Of NIMH.

I hadn’t read the book but my friend John, who went with me the second time, had, so I asked him what he thought of it.

“I hated it,” he said flatly.

I felt bad about this, as though I were somehow responsible. Yes, I thought it was a great movie and I told him how much I enjoyed it, but since it was free and every kid in my school packed the theater he probably would have gone anyway. I was so taken aback by his response I didn’t think to ask him why he hated it, but then I read the book, which I’d been meaning to do anyway, and I understood.

For the most part the book and movie tell the same story, although the name of Mrs. Frisby had to be changed to Brisby to avoid confusion with flying plastic discs: she’s a field mouse whose husband has been killed by the farmer’s cat. It’s early spring and she’s about to move her family to their summer home. The farmer plows over their winter home every spring, but her youngest son Timmy is sick from a spider bite and can’t be moved. With the help of a friendly crow named Jeremy she visits The Great Owl who tells her to go to the rats that live in the farm’s rosebush. When she does she learns her husband and the rats were the subject of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, that enhanced them physically and mentally. Her husband helped the rats escape and they’ve built an elaborate underground city, stealing electricity from the farm. Their husband continued helping the rats by drugging the farmer’s cat. She offers to do the same so the rats can come and move her home to a spot safe from the plow. She’s caught in the act by one of the farmer’s children and overhears that people from NIMH are coming to gas the farm’s rats. She escapes, the rats move her home, the rats, who were uncomfortable with stealing, set off to build an independent civilization, and Timmy gets better.

The movie was produced and directed by animator Don Bluth, who, along with fifty other animators, left Disney in 1979 in protest over declining animation quality. And The Secret Of NIMH really does have some excellent animation. Character movements are smooth, there are realistic-looking people and animals, there are water effects, lighting effects, and reflections. The color palette is broad and vivid. And they didn’t hold back making Mrs. Brisby’s meeting with The Great Owl, voiced by John Carradine, serious nightmare-fuel, or change the fact that in the story death is ever-present. This wasn’t a condescending kids’ show made to sell us fluffy toys.

Just a taste of the quality animation. Source: imgur

The problem is the movie tries to compress far too much into its 82-minute runtime. It doesn’t take much to understand why Mrs. Brisby wants to save her son, but in the book Timmy is more developed as a character. He’s clever and quiet, although also a storyteller who protects the younger mice, so he provides a contrast to his brother who’s strong and aggressive. The idea that intellect and imagination are just as valuable as strength, even in the hardscrabble world of a field mouse, gets lost in the movie where Timmy spends so much time sick in bed and has so few lines he might as well already be dead.

Then there’s the matter of the rats’ transformation in NIMH. In the book the rat leader Nicodemus tells Mrs. Frisby a lengthy story that could be a movie in itself of how they were captured, caged, and given injections, then taught to read. He tells her how they excelled but kept it a secret from their captors and how they eventually got to the farm’s rosebush. It’s almost Flowers For Algernon but from the mouse’s perspective. In the movie they’re given an injection and, in a trippy sequence, they’re magically transformed into sentient, literate super-rats.

In the book the rats’ lair has hallways and meeting rooms, but the film makes it strange, filled with multi-colored lights and twisting passageways. The unique look actually makes sense. Rats aren’t human so their civilization would look different. However Nicodemus, their leader, is changed from a rat like the others to a frail, raspy-voiced wizard who writes with glowing ink, makes objects levitate, and can summon up visions in a large ball by waving his staff.

The presence of magic in the film is the biggest divergence from the book, and it’s really what ruins the story. In the book the rats move Mrs. Frisby’s home with elaborate engineering. In the movie their apparatus is sabotaged by a conspiratorial rat named Jenner who also murders Nicodemus, Mrs. Brisby’s home sinks into the mud, there’s no explanation for how Timmy and the other children who are inside survive, and then Mrs. Brisby magically levitates her home with the help of a magical amulet Nicodemus gave her.

Bluth said he wanted to share his beliefs about the power of faith but this rewrite seemed more like an excuse to show off more elaborate effects and increase the drama of the ending.

I’m not opposed to remakes or even reboots, and plans for a new version of The Secret Of NIMH have floated around for years. It would possibly be redone as a miniseries, which makes sense—there’s too much story for even a long movie. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in actually doing it, though, and maybe that’s just as well. The book stands very well on its own, and while the movie has its weaknesses it also has equal strengths, including some necessary comic relief from Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the crow. For me there’s a certain amount of nostalgia attached to it but, watching it critically, as an adult, I can see the bad and good in it. I no longer love it. But I don’t hate it.

Good Humor Man.

Source: Twitter

Let’s get the obvious part out of the way first: that isn’t good advertising or bad advertising. It’s absolutely brilliant advertising from Punch & Judy’s Ice Cream Parlor, a chain that was found around the western United States in the 1940s and ’50s.. A friend sent me that because he knew I’d find it funny, but the surprise for both of us—the metaphorical cherry on top—was that it brought back my early love of Daniel Pinkwater’s books and gave me some insight into his inspiration for a funny detail in his book The Magic Moscow.

I first learned about Pinkwater from the show Cover To Cover in which host John Robbins would talk about a book and also draw scenes from it. I loved that show and tried to find and read every book that was featured. And Robbins raved about Daniel Pinkwater when he talked about Lizard Music. So of course I got it from the library and tried to read it, but didn’t make it past the first couple of chapters. I still wanted to like Pinkwater so I tried The Hoboken Chicken Emergency next and didn’t make it past a few pages. I was baffled by how weird they were even though I was pretty weird myself. Up until then almost every book I’d been given to read had some message, or, if it was meant to be funny, it spelled out that it was a funny book. Pinkwater’s humor is best described as deadpan surrealism.

Then I got The Magic Moscow for Christmas and, after stopping and starting over half a dozen times, I finally got through it and had a breakthrough. I reread it then went back and tore through Lizard Music and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Fat Men From Space and every other Pinkwater book I could find.

The Magic Moscow is about a guy named Steve who takes over an ice cream parlor and adds health food to the menu, which he then brings together in one dish:

The Moron’s Delight is one of Steve’s specialties. It has six flavors of ice cream – two scoops of each – a banana, a carrot, three kinds of syrup, whole roasted peanuts, a slice of Swiss cheese, a radish, yogurt, wheat germ, and a kosher pickle. It is served in a shoebox lined with plastic wrap. Steve considers it a health-food dessert.

I stumbled over that at first. Why was it a “moron’s delight”? And Steve, who’s a bit weird, really considers it a special treat, even serving one to his hero, a retired TV detective, and making another for the detective’s dog, an Alaskan Malamute. But then, as with all things Pinkwater, I finally realized it was just funny and to go with it, never knowing, never needing to know, really, that there was a real world inspiration.

And there was a valuable lesson in all those Pinkwater books I read: be yourself even if–no, especially if–you’re weird.

Anyway it’s a Fourth of July weekend and I think I’ll celebrate with some ice cream. Maybe I’ll make a Moron’s Delight.

Just A Poet.

Cowboy poet Baxter Black, on the right, with Baxter the Dalmatian, at a Nashville bookstore.

Way back in 1999 my wife and I brought home a new puppy and were trying to decide what to name him. She wanted something with a poetry theme and, well, there was only one poet we could think of with a name that would fit a Dalmatian. We named him Baxter, after Baxter Black, the cowboy poet, whose occasional commentaries on NPR always brightened up our morning drives. He’d be introduced as a “former large animal veterinarian” and my wife would always ask, “What’s a former large animal?”

E-mail was still a fairly new thing back then and we didn’t have a digital camera yet but we did take pictures of Baxter. My wife scanned one, found Baxter Black’s e-mail address, and sent him the picture. He replied with, “Makes me wanna ride a fire truck!”

Not long after that he came to Nashville on a book tour for A Cowful of Cowboy Poetry, and, with a bookstore manager’s permission, we brought Baxter in to meet Baxter. They both seemed to enjoy it.

We lost our Baxter a few years later to cancer—much too soon, although there’s never enough time with any dog.

As for Baxter Black, while it’s been a while since I’ve heard him on the radio, I pull up some of his recordings occasionally if I want to chuckle—his poem “The Oyster” always makes me laugh.

And when I heard that he passed away I needed a laugh.

Hail and farewell, Baxter Black. I hope you enjoy meeting Baxter again.

 

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