American Graffiti.

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

Broken Fast.

Source: Tropicanacrunch.com

Once when I was a kid I dumped some orange juice into a bowl of Sugar Smacks, which I ate for breakfast before they became Honey Smacks. If you’re wondering what I was thinking I can only say I wasn’t. I was, I think, four at the time and while I could say that even at that age I liked experimenting with food, trying different flavors, or that I was trying a novel way to save time by combining breakfast foods the simple fact is I don’t know why I did it. At least I was conscientious enough to eat it, and while most of the other details are fuzzy I distinctly remember that it was, well, not as bad as you might think—it was just a little orange juice so it formed sort of a tingly background note—but it wasn’t good either. It wasn’t an experiment I ever repeated, partly because I knew I’d never get the proportions exactly right ever again but mainly it just wasn’t that good. I’m also pretty sure I knew when I did it that it wouldn’t be good. Still I can retroactively apply the lesson that food is an art form and experimenting is part of every art and with experiments there are hits and there are misses.

And then there’s Tropicana Crunch. The breakfast cereal “made” to have orange juice poured over it.

Source: Wikipedia

Admittedly it’s not the weirdest thing in the history of breakfast cereal. The weirdest thing is still that Harvey Kellogg invented corn flakes because he believed a bland, vegetarian diet would prevent masturbation. Tropicana Crunch just comes in a very close second. I can only imagine that the advertising team was sitting around trying to think of something new and someone said, “You know what goes well with orange juice?” Someone else said, “Vodka,” and after several rounds of screwdrivers a third person found a bag of expired granola in the break room, put it in a bowl and poured orange juice over it, and sent the idea to the research and development team as a joke. If you’re old enough to remember when Honey Smacks were still Sugar Smacks you also remember Mikey, the Life cereal kid. And even if you’re younger you’ve probably still heard of him and, no, Pop Rocks didn’t kill him; he’s still alive and works in advertising. Mikey became famous for being the kid who hated everything. Less famous but just as noteworthy is his twin Charlie, the kid who would eat anything. Charlie was probably responsible for those Pop Rocks rumors just because of the number of times he had to have his stomach pumped after the neighborhood kids convinced him to eat actual rocks, a Coke with a rusty nail dissolved in it, acorns, fiberglass, a grasshopper, part of an old tire, a weird mushroom they found in the woods, dried latex paint, and, worst of all, Kevin’s mom’s spinach quiche. Charlie is the only human being known to have a natural immunity to salmonella because he once ate a dozen deviled eggs that had been sitting out all day. In August. In Miami. Charlie’s still alive and works in research and development. And he will still eat anything. So when he got the call to make cereal with orange juice he just shrugged and went with it.

Every party has to end sometime and when the advertising team sobered up and realized, to their horror, what Charlie had made, they did what every good advertiser does and covered up the mistake by selling it.

It’s not surprising but the website for Tropicana Crunch now says it’s no longer available. It was an experiment and like so many experiments it was not a hit and it will not be missed.

The Secret.

I’ve always been intrigued by closed doors and unseen places. Once when I was, I think six or seven, I was at the dentist’s office. It wasn’t time for my appointment yet so I was sitting in the waiting room and, bored out of my skull, I decided to go exploring. There was an unmarked door at the end of a hallway so I opened it. Inside was a dental assistant developing a batch of X-rays. In those days X-rays, like other photographs, had to be developed in a darkroom. Do you know what happens when you open the door of a darkroom while the X-rays are in the process of being developed? Your mom has to pay for them and you don’t get ice cream on the way home.

I’ve learned to be a bit more cautious since then so I wouldn’t have opened the door of the Secret Room even if I could figure out how to open it, no matter how much I’d really, really, really like to know what secrets it holds.

Actually that door is at the back of the Darkhorse Theater. I’ve been in the theater but the Secret Room is in the very back where I haven’t been. It’s probably just the loading area where they bring in large pieces of scenery and other props—nothing exciting, but, to me, the backstage areas of theaters are the most intriguing places of all.

It occurs to me, too, that I have a friend who’s performed in several plays there. Maybe he could let me in on the secret.

De-composing.

After I wrote about video rental stores last week I ended up feeling like I addressed the subject too quickly, or maybe too late, because something came up that reminded me of another brick-and-mortar establishment that’s also headed the way of the dodo: the office supply store.

It started when my wife needed a stapler for a project she was working on and let’s go ahead and get all the Office Space references and jokes out of the way. We have a stapler somewhere but couldn’t find it so I went to the office supply store and, while I bought a cheaper black stapler they did have a red Swingline stapler and I was seriously tempted by it even though my wife doesn’t look, sound, or act anything like Milton or even Stephen Root. And neither one of us is ever likely to set our office building on fire, although this has been me on many occasions:

Source: Tenor

And maybe that’s why, in spite of the fact that this is on a blog, I’m very much still an analog guy in a digital world. Most of my writing starts as handwritten notes in paper composition books that I also decorate with stickers and pictures I cut out of catalogs, magazines, and junk mail. I always have this idea that, if I’m ever stuck for something to write about, I can use the pictures as a prompt, and yet what I write never ends up having anything to do with the pictures. I fill the right-hand page and use the left for shorter notes like, “I know what a kit is but what’s a caboodle?” and jokes I’m sure I’ve heard somewhere, like:

“I’m thinking of writing about the pursuit of a great white whale,” said Melville.
“That’s a novel idea,” his publisher replied.

And the office supply store is my main source for these composition books. Or was. It’s going out of business now, which I guess means I won’t be able to stock up in the fall when they have their back-to-school sales.

Sure, I can order them online like so much other stuff but I’ll miss the immediacy of being able to pick them up. And, because the office supply store was having a going-out-of-business sale, I picked up a bunch. The woman checking me out asked, “Is this all you’re getting?” and I remembered that I had to go back and get a stapler.

I should have gotten the red Swingline model.

Source: Tenor

The Deadline Is My Watermark.

Source: www.fromoldbooks.org

One of the advantages professional writers have is the deadline. I think that’s true, anyway. I’ve never been a professional writer, at least in the sense that I’ve never gotten a steady paycheck for writing. I have written a few pieces for magazines that needed me to turn in my work by a specific time, but they didn’t pay me, but most of my writing has been done without a specific publication or even necessarily a specific market in mind, which explains why, among my collection of rejection letters, is a really nice one that said, “Thank you for your astronomy-themed poems. We enjoyed them a lot and wish you the best of luck but we don’t feel they’d be right for our publication. Sincerely, the editors of Trout Fishing Monthly.”

I realize deadlines can cause a lot of anxiety, especially for anyone experiencing writer’s block, even if it’s self-imposed. But the advantage of a deadline is that facing the empty page can be really scary, even for those of us who want to write. The impulse to write stems from an inner voice that says, “I have something to say!” Which is fine as long as it’s drowning out that other inner voice that’s saying, “Who cares?” and “Why do you think you’re special?” and, occasionally, “What is reality?” In fact I believe it’s the desire to turn up the volume on the former and try and drown out the latter that motivates all writers, or at least all who want to write for an audience other than themselves—even those who pursue careers as ghostwriters or doing low level journalism like obituaries, although in their case the voice they’re trying to amplify seems to be saying, “I have something to say! I just have no idea what it is and I don’t care if I get credit for it!” but that’s another story.

And the other advantage of a deadline, one that’s externally imposed by an editor or publisher, is you have someone outside of you saying, “Okay, you have something to say, so let’s hear it!” And occasionally adding, “By Monday at the latest or we’re going to ask you to pay back that advance we sent you and that you’ve already blown on coffee, rent, and a really expensive nose hair trimmer which you bought even though it didn’t seem like a good idea even at two a.m. when you were hopped up on allergy medication.”

So anyway the Manuscript Writing Café just opened in Tokyo, Japan, and I want to go there even though I already had plenty of reasons for wanting to visit Tokyo, because I’m fan of cafes, coffee shops, or other places that offer a space to write or work on other creative projects with the added benefit of having food and beverages that I don’t have to worry about preparing myself. If you recognized the reference to Henry Miller’s essay “The Angel Is My Watermark”, in which, overcome by a vague but insistent inspiration, he went out to a café determined to just sit and drink quietly and ended up writing all over the tablecloth, give yourself five bonus points. If you didn’t give yourself ten bonus points because, well, who would recognize that?

The Manuscript Writing Café offers writers and other artists an extra bonus: you have to book time there, you have to come in with a specific goal, and you can request “verbal pressure” from the staff—they even have different levels, and you can’t leave until you’ve finished your writing goal. Or until the place closes which does take some of the pressure off no matter how much you’ve asked the staff to come out and yell at you.

It’s a funny idea but I also like that it was very likely started by, I’d even say inspired by, someone who felt the pressure but was still struggling to write and who said, “There’s a need for a place like this!” and they were heard.

Browser History.

Source: The New York Times

I remember my first visit to a video store. The VCR craze was just taking off and little independent stores were popping up all over the place. Independent, yes, but each one was the same: cheap carpeting and cheaper wood panel walls lined with empty cassette boxes. This was early enough that there were separate sections for VHS and Betamax, although the latter was still much smaller. I checked out Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. The store’s policy was rentals were due back in two days which was almost enough time to watch all of Star Trek but that’s another story.

Other, bigger video stores opened, in some cases swallowing the smaller ones, and some of the people behind the counters became curators who’d comment on selections and recommend other titles, especially if they got to know you. Or not. When I was in college there was a tiny video rental place two blocks from my dorm. It was in the middle of a neighborhood and I think the couple who owned it lived upstairs—a bona fide Mom and Pop operation. They never took any notice of what I rented, and any way their collection was oddly eclectic and disorganized with Eraserhead shelved next to a Three Stooges anthology shelved next to the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. 

But then came DVDs and with it those services who’d mail selections straight to your home so you wouldn’t have to make a special trip to the video store or worry about a title you really wanted being out of stock. And no more late fees. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, but I missed handing tapes over to a person who might say, “Hey, if you like Barton Fink you might want to check out Blood Simple if you haven’t already.” Recommending one Coen Brothers film for another may not have been much of a stretch but still it was made by a person, not an algorithm. And there was the simple pleasure of browsing, reading the description of a movie on the back of the box, and thinking I’d give it a try only to wonder why no one had recommended Cinema Paradiso to me before.

So I really envy the New Yorkers who’ll get to go back to Kim’s Video & Music, a place whose collection sounds even odder than the one I used to visit in Evansville, and which, after its closing, made the journey from New York to Salemi, Sicily, and back again. Now it’s reopened, inviting customers to come in and browse again. Video rentals are free and if you got rid of your VCR a long time ago you can rent one of those too. 

There’s so much nostalgia in the idea of a place where you can go and browse, especially without your browsing being recorded. Sometimes when I’m scrolling through the seemingly limitless options available just through the few streaming services we have I wonder what I’d find if a computer program weren’t feeding me options based on my viewing history, what I might check out if one thing I came in looking for was out, even what I might find if there were still Mom and Pop places. 

Well, at least there still is the public library where I can browse and, and it has a seven-day lending period which is almost enough time to watch the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Here’s my tribute to the decline and fall of a local Tower Records store, and while music is a whole other genre that place did have a video rental section with a lot of movies and staff who knew them all and were handy with recommendations. It’s the personal touch I miss.

 

Out Of The Office.

Back in January 2020 my work department got an award in the form of a special bonus that we could spend on a group activity. The best thing would have been if the group activity had been splitting the money, but instead, after a delay of more than two years, we opted for a trip to Cheekwood. It was a good choice—something everyone could enjoy, and it was outside. The only difficulty I had was before I left the house when my wife said, “You do know how to get there, don’t you?”

Well I did before she said that. It’s funny how I can be absolutely certain of something until someone asks me about it and suddenly everything I know is thrown into doubt.

Anyway I made it and we all had a good time ambling around the expansive grounds of Cheekwood. I’d forgotten that I actually like the people I work with. I hadn’t realized how different it feels to be around actual people and, even better, to be around actual people with no set tasks. We didn’t have to do anything specific or go anywhere specific. We didn’t even have to stick together as a group, although we did anyway. At one point we all made our way to the hill where the mansion stands and in the distance could see downtown Nashville. I tried to spot our building but couldn’t find it. Still it didn’t seem that far away, and I commented that I knew that eventually we’d all be going back to the office.

“Why should we?” said one of my coworkers. “So much of what we do is online now there’s really no need for us to actually be there.”

She had a point, but I kind of miss actually being there.

For What It’s Worth…

So I’m a bit of a numismatist, or, as my wife sometimes puts it, I’ll spend money to buy money. Technically that’s what anyone who invests in the stock market also does, although they’re hoping the money they spend will get them even more money but for a lot of coin collectors we don’t do it to build interest—we do it because we think coins are interesting. Mostly I collect foreign coins because I like the variety and I like the way the coins make me feel connected to other places. Also sometimes countries produce interesting commemorative coins, like Croatia which just produced a Dalmatian coin:

Source: Croatia Week

Back when I spent cash a lot more regularly I’d find an occasional Canadian or even British coin in my change, and once I even got a coin from Bermuda out of a vending machine. What path did these coins take that they found their way to me? Foreign coins also tend to be cheap, at least here in the United States. One of my main places to buy coins used to be flea markets. I’d find booths where dealers had various U.S. coins selling for anywhere from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars, and they’d have a cardboard box in the corner of foreign coins, going at a rate of four or five for a dollar. Sometimes I’d find a genuinely valuable coin—a Canadian toonie, a British pound, or a Euro, and I’d say to the seller, “You do know how much this is worth, right?” And they’d hold out the cardboard box and say, “Take a few more.” I guess that was because most of the time I was the only person buying their foreign coins.

And then I just heard about this extremely valuable $20 bill:

Source: Kottke

I’ve often heard about printing and minting errors in currency and how they can make a coin or bill worth so much more than face value. The $20 bill was found by a college student who got it out of an ATM and went on to sell it on eBay for $10,100.00 in 2003, although really the most amazing thing is a college student held onto a $20 bill. It was last put up for sale again in January 2021 and sold for $396,000.

The funny thing to me is there was probably a trail that could trace it back to its point of origin. Not the single bill but, from its serial number, it would be possible to determine the exact day, maybe even the time, it was printed, the other bills it was bundled with, when it was shipped to the bank that owned the ATM, and even when it was loaded into the machine. It made that long journey but it wasn’t until one person looked at it as a single bill that anyone ever stopped to think about what it was really worth.

Standing Guard.

Still Life With Large Shell by Max Beckmann. Selected by museum guard Kellen Johnson. Source: Baltimore Museum of Art

I was in the British Museum and saw a guard with a big mop of sandy colored hair and a large mustache. He looked a lot like the trick shot pool player Charles Darling. Mostly the guard just stood against the wall watching the room but if he noticed anyone looking at him he’d smile and wiggle his mustache. He was such a cool guy and I wanted to talk to him but you’re not supposed to distract the guards in a museum, unless you’re pulling a heist like the one that made the Mona Lisa famous, but that’s another story. Actually any time I see a museum guard I want to talk to them because I think they must have some interesting stories, or at least some interesting opinions on the art they’re watching over. They spend more time looking at it than anyone else, and I’ve always assumed some of them take the job because they’re interested in art.
It turns out I’m right, too. The Baltimore Museum Of Art has a show called Guarding The Art of works selected by museum guards. Seventeen members of the security staff picked works, wrote wall labels, and helped design the installation, which is a pretty amazing idea. One of the guards is Kellen Johnson, a classical voice performance major at Towson University, who said, “We’re filmmakers, musicians, professors, writers, artists. We know a lot more about the artwork than people would be led to believe.” He selected Max Beckmann’s Still Life With Large Shell, and also Hale Woodruff’s Normandy Landscape, asking, “If this painting could sing, what would it sound like?” Then he sang part of Mozart’s “Dans un Bois Solitaire” which is a really cool response to a work of art.

Another guard who took part is Traci Archable-Frederick who picked Mickalene Thomas’s Resist #2 (2021), saying, “When I saw it, I was like, ‘This is everything that I want to say.’”

Source: Baltimore Museum of Art

And that speaks to a concern brought up and shot down by former guard and now artist and also trustee of the Whitney Museum of Art Fred Wilson who said, “I worry that this ‘experiment’, if repeated, will be erroneously understood as a possible dumbing down of museum exhibitions.”
The whole point, of course, is that professional curators aren’t the only ones who should have a say in what goes on the museum walls, and there’s no “right” interpretation of a work of art. The opinions of the guards are just as valid as the opinions of the critics, the docents, and the people who just come to look. Like I said guards probably spend more time with the works they watch over than anyone else, and that allows them a lot of time to understand the art, even if that understanding is just what it means to them personally. As long as art museums are open to everyone they’re also open to every interpretation.

Next I’d like to see exhibits curated by janitorial staff. The people who keep the museums clean also have an interest in the art, and, like the guards, get to spend a lot of time with it, including after hours. Janitors have even accidentally “cleaned up” installations they thought were just garbage–and it’s happened multiple times–which sounds like a joke about modern art but I think, hey, that’s a perfectly valid opinion. I’m really not kidding about it either.

 
 
 

Emergence.

Earlier this week I had a doctor’s appointment. No big deal—just a regular checkup so I could get some prescriptions refilled. I have to see the doctor in person because at least one is a “controlled substance” and I asked him if there really was a black market for it and, if so, what was the street value? He laughed and said he didn’t know, then added, “Anyway, before I refill your testosterone, why don’t you go hang out in the beanbag corner and listen to my demo tape of Pink Floyd covers?” But that’s another story.

He also said he wanted to draw some blood and I said, “So that’s why you’ve got a red pen,” and he told me to watch it or he’d make me listen to his receptionist’s Bauhaus cover band. Then I went to the lab and while the nurse, a really cool guy with tattoos covering both arms, was getting everything ready he and I started talking about butterflies.

“They’re amazing creatures,” he said, “and people really just don’t appreciate caterpillars, you know?”

Yes, I knew exactly what he meant, and I agreed with him. Caterpillars can do damage to plants, but they’re also fascinating, and fun to watch, and everybody loves butterflies—which are also important pollinators.

“I’m just amazed by what goes on inside the chrysalis,” I said.

“Yeah!” He got really excited, but then calmed down enough that I barely felt it when he stuck a needle in my arm—a true professional.

I hated to leave but we both had work to get to. Then on my way home I passed what looked like an abandoned trailer. One side was rusting, but this was the other side:

It’s in a neighborhood that’s been steadily gentrifying for over a decade. What was once a rundown apartment building is now a climbing gym, and an abandoned factory has become a cluster of hip restaurants. It’s good and bad—sort of like the caterpillars and the butterflies, although, so far, most of the older businesses and older residents have been able to stay. The new businesses are taking up spaces that were empty.

It just surprised me, after the discussion of butterflies, to see something that was so metaphorically on the mark.

It might have been the drugs kicking in.

 

Your Mushrooms May Vary.

Mushroom kit, Day 2.

My wife surprised me with a really thoughtful and creative gift: a couple of Back To The Roots mushroom kits: a regular oyster mushroom kit and a pink oyster mushroom kit. The regular oyster mushrooms started growing and erupted from the box while it was still in transit making that kit useless, and, in spite of their “promise to grow” guarantee the response from Back To The Roots when that happens is “They were eager to grow so sorry!” The pink oyster mushroom kit was at least still good to grow. Still, much as I hate to say it, it gets a mixed review.

Let’s start with the not so good: according to the enclosed instructions the mushrooms would start growing within six days. Day seven would be “decision day”, when I could decide where best to place them for optimal growth: warmer temperatures, more light, and plenty of air flow would make them grow faster with richer color and bigger caps. In fact they were so eager to grow I’d say they were really ready to harvest in less than half that time. I plucked them on day six, and even then I think I let them go too long. The first ones to sprout were getting pale and woody, and the ones closest to the base were starting to rot.

Mushroom kit, Day 4.

Mushrooms are funny things—in the wild they need just the right conditions to appear. On the How I Built This podcast the founders of Back To The Roots, who tell a great story that’s well worth listening to, say they had trouble with their early mushroom growing. So their instructions really need to explicitly say “Your results may vary”.

That also applies to the amount. They promise “3-4 servings” per crop. I ended up with less than two ounces, barely enough for one serving, and even though it was an early harvest there were no signs of new growth. Kits are also supposed to be able to produce a second crop but in this case it appears to be one and done. They also need to drop the words “guarantee” and “promise” from their website given how their customer service shrugs off complaints, which is why I won’t go back to Back To The Roots.

Mushroom kit, Day 6. Harvest time.

Now to the good: it was fun watching the mushrooms grow, especially since they grew so quickly. Overnight or even after a few hours I could see dramatic changes in size and shape. And the mushrooms, sauteed in butter, were really tasty. The biggest ones turned crispy and had an almost bacon-like quality, while the small ones were chewy and really absorbed the butter well.

I get that home growing anything is hit-or-miss, which is why any food lovers who want to try cooking with oyster mushrooms would be better off buying them at a store, if you can find them, or foraging in the wild. I know that’s risky, but so is spending at least twenty bucks on a mushroom kit that may or may not produce anything. And, as I said, the mushroom kits were a thoughtful and creative gift. I’m fascinated by mushrooms and I really enjoyed what worked. I’d even like to try growing more and there are a lot of different brands out there. Next time I’ll try one of them.

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