American Graffiti.

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

The Real Elementals.

Source: Luciteria Science

One Christmas when I was a kid I got a chemistry set. This wasn’t a surprise. I was interested in chemistry and had specifically asked for a set, and although this was after the era when radioactive elements were included in chemistry sets it was still during the era when sodium ferrocyanide was included and my parents had to warn me that mixing it with either hydrochloric acid, which I’d gotten a bottle of from the hardware store, or sulfuric acid, which I’d gotten from an old car battery, could create cyanide gas and kill me and anyone else nearby too. And I did once almost set the garage on fire, but I learned my lesson from that experience and only ever almost set the garage on fire two more times, in entirely different ways, so that was good.

Source: Hamlet’s Danish

I had a lot of fun with the chemistry set. It came with a book of experiments, including a whole section of “chemistry magic” and I went straight for that because I thought I had an interest in chemistry but really I had an interest in making colored liquids and blowing stuff up. My real interest, though, was the elements. I was fascinated by elements in their pure, or almost pure, states and wanted to get as many as I could—as many as could be safely stored, anyway, without setting the garage on fire or killing anyone. So anything radioactive, even if I could find it, was out, and so were gases, but I had samples of pure sulfur from a bottle I bought at the drugstore, and lead from the weight on a car tire, and that was so soft I could cut it into small shavings with a pocketknife. The chemistry set also came with a small alcohol lamp that burned hot enough to melt the lead shavings back into a solid lump which is pretty impressive considering that the melting point of lead is 621.5°F, or 327.5°C, but when it’s that hot it really doesn’t matter if you’re using Fahrenheit or Celsius because you’re not going to be around for long. I also had a bottle of mercury my grandfather had given me—I have no idea where he got it, but it was at least enough to fill a hundred old thermometers.

Source: Luciteria

I really wanted some of the more unusual, exotic elements, and that’s why I wish Luciteria Science had been around when I was a kid. Or maybe it was but there was no internet so I couldn’t find it. They sell elements in cubes, and a cool display case for holding them, and I’m more than a little fascinated not just with the range of elements—mostly metals—but the prices too. A gold mirror cube is just $65.00, but an iodine cube—and, yes, iodine is a solid, contrary to what my seventh grade science teacher said—is $500.00. An aluminum cube is just $6.00, or you can get a highly polished one for $25.00, which is impressive considering that aluminum used to be more expensive than gold. Beryllium—which tastes sweeter than sugar but is highly toxic—is just $5.00, and so is boron, but a cube of calcium will set you back $119.00. Niobium cubes, $13.00, are multi-colored, but the polished mirror cube of the same element is a plain silver, and speaking of that, a plain silver cube is $30.00 but a cube of palladium is $2100.00.

And, honestly, I’m more interested in the aesthetics than the economics, although most metals just don’t look that different from each other. They’re still pretty cool, though, and they all come in a plastic case so they won’t set your garage on fire or kill anyone.

Hey Vern! It’s Graffiti!

It’s been a long time since I spotted any local graffiti, much less any that was worth stopping and looking at, since circumstances have mostly kept me at home. That’s only part of what made this particular piece so special, though, but before I get to that let me describe a bit of where it is: it’s on a wall next to an interstate. The berm in front of the wall is fenced in which I suspect is designed specifically to keep out the sort of person responsible for the graffiti. There’s a gate in the fence with a loose chain and a padlock which are clearly there to say, “You can’t come in here unless you push a little bit.” I don’t know when it was done but it’s big and pretty impressive so I suspect it was done at night, which makes the way the sunlight highlights the silver, which in turn stands out so well against the red, even more impressive.
Then there’s the name. If you’re of a certain age and grew up with U.S. pop culture the name Vern probably makes you think of a very specific character: Ernest P. Worrell. You probably even know the actor behind Ernest, Jim Varney, from his Saturday morning TV show Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! which I loved, in spite of the fact that I was already getting too old for Saturday cartoons–or maybe because I was getting too old for Saturday cartoons. It could be described as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with a Southern accent, but it was so much more than that; Varney put on other characters, including my personal favorite the supervillain mad scientist Doctor Otto.
The cliche of the sad comedian is, of course, a cliche because it’s so often true. In a November 1999 issue of the Nashville Scene titled, appropriately, “The Importance Of Being Ernest”, Varney talked about having depression and his cancer diagnosis. At the time of the profile his prognosis seemed good and doctors thought the lung cancer which had spread to his heart and brain was in remission. Unfortunately it came back and he’d pass away just four months later.
In that same profile for The Scene Varney reflected on how good the character of Ernest had been for him, making him financially successful, and he enjoyed meeting kids as Ernest, including hundreds of terminally ill children, and he was glad he could brighten their lives. 
He was also, he hoped,on the verge of a creative breakthrough, having gotten good reviews for his portrayal of Jed Clampett and his role in the indie film Daddy And Them. He said, ” I would like to do some new techniques, stories that haven’t been done before. I want to be artsy-craftsy and get into my Orson Welles stage.”
He never got to that stage. He’ll forever be Ernest or, occasionally, Slinky-Dog from the first two Toy Story movies.
Was the artist responsible for the graffiti also thinking of that? To me it represents another cliche: the artist who can’t break through, held back by circumstances, bad luck, who needs to break in just to be seen, and who’ll get painted over, forgotten.
That’s a lot to read into something that was probably just done by some guy named Vern.

 

It’s Curtains For You.

A friend of mine used to have a Mondrian-themed shower curtain but in spite of that I never thought of shower curtains as an art form until Bored Panda posted forty different ones that elevate it and now I can’t stop thinking about how whole dissertations could be written just about the simple shower curtain. There’s the not-so-subtle eroticism in the way it conceals and the knowledge the person behind it is wearing, at most, a layer of soap suds, there’s the fact that it’s the size and shape, more or less, of a large painting, and it’s a utilitarian object but not really needed if you’re taking a bath or if you angle the shower head the right way. And that’s only scratching the surface of what a shower curtain says. I haven’t even gotten to the fact that what most of them say is “I was on sale at Target.”

Here are a few of my other favorites and I find it interesting that there seem to be some recurring themes:

 

I’d love any one of these but the bookcase one is really my favorite. I may never live in an old manor with false bookcases that hide secret passageways but at least with that one I could pretend I did.

Source: Imgur

 

 

 

 

 

What Does The Fox Say?

Yes, I know, the Ylvis song dates from 2013, and I remember at the time a lot of reference librarians I know were annoyed by dozens of patrons sending in the question “What does the fox say?” every day, but I couldn’t resist, and anyway I still like the song and I think the statute of limitations has passed.

And what reminded me of it is this video of a man serenading a wild fox, which the fox seemed to appreciate:

 

It’s an interesting thing at this time of because, well, in the United States in a few weeks a lot of people are getting ready to roast and eat a large bird that’s been purposely fattened up, beheaded, plucked, and, in most cases, frozen for shipment across long distances—that is if supply chain issues don’t keep causing trouble. And in Canada they did it a few weeks ago, while in Europe the Christmas goose, or other bird–including the turkey, or, at one time, an imported African fowl–isn’t far from meeting its own demise.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve eaten plenty of Thanksgiving turkey, and plan to eat more, but, to get back to the guy serenading the fox, it did make me think about how our relationship to animals is, to put it mildly, complicated. And that’s partly because we are animals ourselves. We may think that what we call civilization sets us apart but, at heart, our hearts aren’t that different from those of our fellow mammals, which is what makes our interactions with them so layered.

Some animals we love and invite into our homes, some we fear, some we just eat. Foxen are among those that defy easy categorization. They’re metaphors for beauty, cleverness, ruthlessness, they’ve been hunted for their fur, and they’ve been hunted as just vermin. They’re wild creatures and yet there’s a funny line going around of people describing foxen as “dogs running cat software”.

I think that’s one reason the traditional English fox hunt is declining. Well, that and fox populations are declining. And, well, a traditional English fox hunt ultimately only has one goal: to kill the fox. Say what you will about Thanksgiving but at least we eat the turkey.

Light Up The Sky.

Aurora borealis seen from space. Source: NASA

I have friends in the Pacific Northwest who’ve been making me jealous with their pictures of the recent aurora borealis, apparently generated by a large solar storm that may or may not have affected power grids and other communications. My wifi has gone out a couple of times but that’s pretty typical—in fact a couple of weeks go it went down right in the middle of a conversation with my boss and when it came back we talked about how wifi tends to go out when it’s too sunny. Or too cloudy. Or dark. Or if it’s too hot. Or too cold. Or if temperatures are too average.

There have been a few times when the aurora borealis has been intense enough that it’s been visible from Nashville. I’ve never seen it at those times–mainly it seems to have only been spotted from places like the Dyer Observatory, but one of these days I hope to see it in person. Or the aurora australis which would be equally cool–maybe even cooler since Antarctic temperatures dip even lower. Until then, though, I’ll have to make do with pictures.

And they always made me think about our little planet’s place in the solar system, and the greater galaxy and the universe beyond, something I also think about on cool nights when the stars shine with a crystalline brightness. Auroras are a phenomenon we know isn’t unique to Earth, although we have to go all the way out to the gas giants to find others. Yes, there may even be auroras at either end of Uranus, but that’s another story.

At this time of year I also usually reread Wallace Steven’s poem The Auroras Of Autumn, which makes me feel connected not just to the galaxy beyond but to this little world we stand on too.

Here There Were Dragons.

An adventure isn’t worth telling if there aren’t any dragons in it.

-Sarah Ban Breathnach

 

O to be a dragon,

a symbol of the power of Heaven — of silkworm

size or immense; at times invisible.

Felicitous phenomenon!

-Marianne Moore

 

Sorrow in all lands, and grievous omens.

Great anger in the dragon of the hills,

And silent now the earth’s green oracles

That will not speak again of innocence.

-David Sutton

 

Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

-C.S. Lewis

 

Dragons teach us that if we want to climb high we have to do it against the wind.

-Chinese proverb

 

“Beware of Dog,” the sign on the castle gate said.

The intruder, unworried, would later decide that Dog was an odd name for a dragon.

James Miller

 

I am a comic writer, which means I get to slay the dragons, and shoot the bull.

-Rita Mae Brown

 

It’s a metaphor of human bloody existence, a dragon. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a bloody great hot flying thing.

-Terry Pratchett

 

People who do not believe in the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons.

-Ursula K. LeGuin

 

Puff, the Magic Dragon, lived by the sea,

And frolicked in the Autumn Mist

In a land called Honah Lee…

-Peter Yarrow

 

Never laugh at live dragons.

-J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Dragon kind was no less cruel than mankind. The Dragon, at least, acted from bestial need rather than bestial greed.

-Anne McCaffrey

 

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,

For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,

And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,

At whose approach ghosts, wandering here and there,

Troop home to churchyards.

-Shakespeare  

These Really Took Brains.

Source: Creative Arts Group

There’s something innately creepy about scarecrows. I guess it’s the uncanny valley issue, and also the fact that they’re usually out in cornfields or other vast empty spaces that, thanks to horror films, now have an aura of menace about them because it’s now ingrained in our consciousness that there’s a chainsaw-wielding maniac or a bunch of creepy kids hanging out there. As a kid I even found something disturbing about Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz. He was and still is my favorite character—a lot of times I can really relate to the lack of a brain, but that’s another story—but the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion can defend themselves pretty well. Scarecrow can barely even stand up when Dorothy first helps him down, and it’s bad enough that the Wicked Witch threatens him with some fire. I’m pretty sure the part where he gets all his stuffing ripped out gave me nightmares.  

And he’s the only cinematic scarecrow I can think of who’s actually friendly. There are so many others who aren’t: the one in Jeepers Creepers, the Batman Villain, the scarecrows in the Doctor Who two-parter Human Nature and Family of Blood, the scarecrow in The League Of Gentlemen who’s actually a guy who was caught sleeping with the farmer’s wife and who’s left tied up in a field by a pair of creepy twin girls who call him their “special friend”. Now that I think about it the British seem to have a real thing about scarecrows.

Source: Tumblr

Source: Tumblr

Then there’s the town of Sierra Madre, California, which has an annual scarecrow festival. There are more than a hundred entries this year and they are brilliant. Some are more traditional:

Source: Creative Arts Group

But there are also a lot of hilarious pop-culture inspired ones:

Source: Creative Arts Group

Source: Creative Arts Group

And some puns:

Source: Creative Arts Group

It would be really cool if where I lived had a scarecrow festival like this one. Surely we’ve got enough brains around here for that.

And also here’s this “high tech scarecrow” that can scare off pretty much anything.

The Candlestick Makers.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. UNLESS THE CANDLE ITSELF IS CURSED! Or if you have a really cool decorative candle like the ones made by Norris Hunt Candles which you can find on Etsy, Instagram, and Facebook. And they are fantastic.

Source: Etsy.

Laura Norris used to work at the same library where I work, which is how we met, but then moved to Texas where she is now a librarian for the Texas Talking Book Program, which is important year-round, but deserves an extra plug since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. I asked how she got started making candles, and she said, “I was trying out different artsy hobbies, seeing what struck my fancy. I’m practical and we burn candles so I thought, this might be fun.” She went on to explain that her husband creates some of the designs himself and buys some from other artists. They then create a master using a 3-D printer, and, as Laura explained, “the master is like a plastic version of the finished candle. And then we pour silicone around it to make a negative space of the master. Pour wax in there and you wind up with a candle that looks like the master.

Source: Facebook

It does seem like candle-making would be fun, and the level of artistry in these is amazing. The often dark themes also make them perfect Halloween party decorations or, if you’re like me, perfect for any time, since I spend eleven months of the year preparing for Halloween, but that’s another story.

Several are also useful for summoning up eldritch gods, if that’s your thing.

Source: Facebook

Candles are by nature an ephemeral art form. They’re meant to be used, and while it’s a shame to destroy them many of these have an extra feature: they bleed.

Source: Etsy

Source: Etsy. Check out the title of the book on top.

And when they’re gone you buy another one, so it’s a feature, not a bug. Also this is a feature, not a bug:

Source: Etsy

Not all are horror-themed, in case you want to, you know, lighten up.

Source: Facebook

Some are aimed at role-playing gamers, although I’m pretty sure the Venn diagram of RPGers and people who’d want horny little devil candle accenting their tabletop is a circle.

Source: Etsy

They also come in a wide range of scents that are cleverly paired with the designs, including dragon’s blood. Seriously, there’s nothing better than having your house smell like dragon’s blood for Halloween or, if you’re like me, any time. And now it’s time to curse the darkness.

Source: Facebook

Another Brick In The Wall.

The interesting thing about The Cask Of Amontillado is that in the final lines Montressor reveals the story he’s just told happened fifty years earlier. His telling is so vivid, so immediate it’s like it just happened, but Fortunato’s been rotting in his basement for half a century.

Maybe it’s that vividness that makes it one of Poe’s most popular stories–it’s one I think is most used to introduce kids to Poe, along with The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat, although, in summary, it sounds more like a story for college students: two guys meet up in the middle of Mardi Gras, one says, “Hey, I’ve got a keg of some pretty sweet wine in my basement. You in, bruh?” The other says, “Hells yeah!” and, well, maybe the “college” part drops off there. I remember some pretty wild parties when I was a student but only a few ended with somebody chained up and sealed behind a brick wall.

Maybe it’s the desire for revenge that makes it so popular, but what makes it fascinating to me is that it’s also apparently a deathbed confession. Poe never tells us how old Montressor and Fortunato are, but Montressor seems to live alone while Fortunato has a wife. At the very least they’re in their late twenties which means by the time he’s telling the story Montressor is pushing eighty. Unlike the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart who can’t keep his yap shut for a few hours Montressor has held his secret for half a century.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s also not exactly a confession; Montressor seems really pleased with himself for having borne the “thousand injuries” from Fortunato and only seeking revenge for an “insult”.

What did Fortunato do wrong, anyway? That’s one of literature’s unsolved mysteries, and it’s also the weirdest thing about the story’s end. Fortunato knows something is up, he knows he’s being slowly put to death, and yet he never tries to talk his way out of it. He never even asks, “What did I do?” Of course we’re only getting Montressor’s version of events and, as unreliable narrators go, he’s one of the unreliablest.

Poe generally hated allegory and symbolism (The Masque Of The Red Death was an exception) but he was fascinated by chemistry and even alchemy (The Gold Bug is just one example) and I’m going to throw out an idea based on that. The nitre that covers the walls of the Montressor family catacomb is potassium nitrate, which is a fertilizer–the ancestors aren’t the only thing pushing up daisies. It’s also a lung irritant. Fortunato already seems to have a bad cold and even if Montressor hadn’t left him down there he probably shortened his friend’s life anyway.

It’s also an ingredient in gunpowder.

Is there some alchemy going on here? Fortunato, with his outgoing nature and multi-colored outfit, could be sulfur, Montressor, all in black, is carbon, and once you add the potassium nitrate they’re an explosive combination.

I know it’s a stretch but Poe also loved irony and misdirection, and it would be just like him to set up this story to end not with a bang but a whimper.

 

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