American Graffiti.

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

Say It With Flowers.

There’s a long history of flower language, most of which is forgotten now, although we still have the holiday tradition of kissing under mistletoe, and roses, especially red roses, symbolize love, which is why there used to be a flower shop down the street from me that advertised a dozen red roses for just $12.95 for approximately fifty weeks a year, then they’d go up to $35.95 the first two weeks of February.

The Victorians had an extremely complex flower language, so complicated that you had to watch out what flowers you gave someone. Anemones meant fleeting love and abandonment, red geraniums meant stupidity but wild germaniums meant steadfast piety. Freesias meant love in absence—although the comedian David Mitchell says he once gave a woman freesias to apologize for being sick on her floor, so in that case they meant, “I can’t afford to have your carpet shampooed.” Basil—the herb—meant hate, which, continuing the theme of British comedians, makes Basil Fawlty’s name really fitting.

You know I had to do this. Source: gfycat

What I’ve never exactly understood, though, is how the Victorians, or, for that matter, any culture that used complicated flower symbolism, and the Victorians weren’t the only ones, understood what the flowers were supposed to mean. Violets, mainly wild violets, are still mostly understood to represent shyness, although I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard someone use the term “shrinking violet” in a conversation. To the Victorians poppies meant “My heart belongs to another,” but now they’re worn in November in remembrance of World War I.

Even Victorian flower language wasn’t consistent. Depending on which source you check hollyhocks represent ambition but they can also be platonic friendship or love.

Anyway I don’t know what the plastic flowers stuck in a light pole meant to the person who left them there but they made me happy, so that’s what they represent.

And recently I was texting a friend who’s an organist at his church, and I said, “You know, the only thing better than roses on your piano is tulips on your organ.” He texted back, “I’m in church right now you filthy dog!” So it’s really fitting that, to the Victorians, tulips meant, “I’m sorry.”

Hare It Is.

The weather has been all over the place. Most mornings are chilly, a reminder that it’s still winter, but some are warm, and as the sun rises the days come close to summer temperatures. Or they hover in fall and spring ranges. Seedlings are popping up in the pots that haven’t had anything new planted in them since last year. They may be safflower plants, sprouting where the seeds from my feeder have been dropped by birds.

I can’t explain why but this takes me to the giant bunny at Cheekwood. If there’s a place—a park or a building or even a city—you like to go to there’s probably one part of it that you’re always drawn to, that you can’t leave without seeing. At Cheekwood, for me, it’s the giant bunny. It’s a nice place and I love to walk every part of the grounds there, from the main building down to the model trains, and also the bamboo garden, and the ponds where horsetail plants grow. I was sorry when they tore down the greenhouses that had rows and rows of orchids, but there’s still a lot to see.

The giant anthropomorphic rabbit—actually the piece’s title is Crawling Lady Hare–is the one thing that defines the place for me. It’s the one thing I want to go to as soon as I get there and I always try to make it so I walk back by it at least once more before I leave. 

It’s obviously a sculpture made of twisted wire but, since its installation in 1997, moss has covered it so it looks like it grew up out of the ground. And every time I look at it I think I should find some meaning in it. Now, though, I think it just is. It changes with the seasons, or from day to day, or even minute by minute, like the weather.

The Game Master.

I have a painting that was made by three artists. All three signed it but I wish I had a fourth signature: that of the person responsible for making it happen. His name was Rembert Parker.

I’d been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by my friend John and, early in our freshman year of high school, he invited me to go to a weekend D&D convention with him in Evansville. His father drove us and when we got to the hotel John introduced me to Rembert—an older guy who was just a little taller than me, with lanky hair, round glasses, and a friendly smile. John had met Rembert at a previous convention and they’d become friends but then, as I quickly realized, Rembert was friends with everybody. In the few minutes we chatted at least two dozen people said “Hey Rembert!” as they passed by. Rembert was also one of the organizers of the convention, so it wasn’t just because of his outgoing nature that everyone knew him.

Then John and I got invited to join a D&D game and we went off to a hotel room with a group of strangers. The game was part one of a module, called something like Road To Verangia, that would be played over the weekend. At the end of it everyone would vote for the top three players who’d then advance to part two. Those who didn’t advance could find another game.

The next morning all the attendees gathered in one of the hotel conference rooms. Those who’d advanced—including my friend John—went off to play Road To Verangia part two. Alone and unsure what to do with myself I sat down at a table and was soon joined by a friendly group of strangers. We chatted a bit and then a guy came over and said, “All right, looks like everybody’s here. I’ll be your Dungeon Master today. Let’s start the game.”

“What’s this one called?” someone asked.

“It’s called Certain Death To Your Characters” the Dungeon Master laughed.

Oh, thank goodness, I thought. For a moment I’d been afraid it was going to be a repeat of the previous night’s game.

Character sheets were passed around. I looked down at mine and realized I’d been given the same cleric I’d played the night before. I panicked and looked around, but the room was empty. Not knowing what else to do I just played dumb, and stayed dumb, not using my knowledge of what was to come to my or anyone else’s advantage.

Later that day I’d go to lunch with John and his father and they’d talk about a guy who’d been in the previous night’s game and who’d tried to sneak in to a repeat of part one and how terrible it was that some people just couldn’t obey the rules.

“I won’t be surprised if Rembert kicks him out,” said John’s father.

“And he’ll never come back to a convention where Rembert’s in charge,” added John.

I chewed my chicken sandwich glumly, certain that my own crime would be uncovered, wondering if I should throw myself on Rembert’s mercy immediately. But I decided to keep playing dumb instead. And, somehow, over the whole weekend, it went undiscovered—or no one said anything if they noticed.

I went to a lot of conventions after that, most of them organized by Rembert. He and John were still friends but I kind of avoided him. He was a good guy and fun to talk to but, silly as it seemed even at the time, I still carried a slight air of guilt. Over time I just assumed he forgot who I was. Everybody knew Rembert but he couldn’t be expected to keep track of everyone.

Every convention had an art room and on Saturday night there’d be an art auction. I liked a lot of the paintings and would usually bid on one or two. After losing a bid on one someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. It was Rembert.

“Hey Chris, I noticed you liked that painting. I’ll talk to the artist and see if he’ll do one for you.”

This was surprisingly generous and, because Rembert was involved, a couple of other artists got interested and all three of them collaborated on the painting. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the names of all three artists, although they signed the back as well as putting their names on the front so I can always open the frame if I ever get it appraised.

I’ve never forgotten Rembert, though, so I was sad when John told me he’d passed away earlier this month.

I didn’t realize Rembert had a blog where he wrote mostly about old and mostly forgotten songs “that the radio seldom plays”. Here’s his last entry:

Sadly, I’ve been in the Hospital with Cancer for a few weeks.
I hope to return to daily posts within a few weeks!

Funny and optimistic to the end. When John and I talked I brought up the painting, and John, who still goes to gaming conventions regularly, said that the ones Rembert organized were small—at most there’d be about two hundred people, which made it easy for Rembert to know the artists, and everyone else, unlike modern gaming conventions that have thousands of attendees. There used to be a stereotype of D&D players as socially awkward loners, but the small conventions really showed how untrue that was. We all got to know each other, even if it was just in passing, although they were just big enough that some noob who’d never been to one before could accidentally play the same game twice and have their mistake be forgotten while they were remembered.

Hail and farewell, Rembert. You were, as Nat King Cole sang, unforgettable in every way.

Sticking To It.

Most of what I write starts out as handwritten drafts in composition books. It’s a habit I’ve stuck to for decades. I like the physical nature of writing by hand, and the security of pen and ink. When I got my first computer, a Hewlett-Packard with an amber monitor and two floppy disk drives, I was amazed by how fast it allowed me to write and edit, but then, after about eighteen months, it started making a thunk-thunk sound when I tried to save what I’d written, so if I really wanted to save it I’d have to recopy it all by hand. I still like word processors and they’ve come a long way and I’ve never had to deal with thunk-thunk again but I still like old fashioned writing by hand.

About ten years ago I was flipping through an old issue of National Geographic that someone had thrown away and I saw a picture I liked. I decided to cut it out and paste it in the composition book I was using at the time. Then I saw more pictures and pasted those in too. I started collecting pictures from magazines, newspapers, even catalogs and junk mail. I’d stick them in composition books, often so far in advance that I’d forget they were there. Turning a page as I was writing would often bring surprises. The cutting and pasting was also a lot of work. Then, in a gift shop, I found a booklet of sea life stickers. They were a lot easier than cutting and pasting magazine pictures.

In spite of that I didn’t look seriously at stickers as a way to decorate my composition books until last year because I didn’t think there would be any out there that really fit what I wanted. I liked, and still like, the randomness of finding an unusual picture that can serve as a writing prompt or just liven up a page, but I thought of stickers as something for kids. I had, and still have, a pretty specific list of what I didn’t want: cartoon characters or overly cartoonish pictures, pictures of people, scenes from movies. Here’s what I did want, what I often looked for in magazines and other sources: realistic pictures of plants and animals, buildings, landscapes, tools and other objects, and abstract color palettes.

It wasn’t until I decided to look that I discovered what should have been obvious all along: there’s a whole community of crafters and journal writers out there who’ve created an industry of stickers: books of reprinted ephemera, steampunk designs, typewriters, clock faces, and all sorts of plants and animals. I got some for my birthday and Christmas and have been adding them to the composition book I’m currently using, and a future one, setting myself up to be surprised.

Pasting stickers still seems kind of childish but, as I get older, writing seems more and more important, and the stickers are one way of encouraging myself to write. It means a lot to me when other people enjoy what I write, but, in the end, no one else really cares whether I write or not. It’s something I do for myself–a form of exercise. It’s mental exercise but, like physical exercise, I do it because I hope it’ll keep me healthy and alert, and maybe even extend my life. And like physical exercise it doesn’t matter that I like doing it and feel better afterward. Sometimes I still need some encouragement to sit down and just do it. The stickers I’ve pasted into pages yet to come, that I forget almost as soon as they’re done, offer that.

Light Shared.

I hope the people in that house don’t mind that I took a picture of it. They’ve put up really nice decorations and it was the first mostly clear night we’d had in days, although I do like that I got some clouds in the shot and at the top center of the picture there’s a bright dot that’s Jupiter. I thought about going up and knocking on their door and asking, “Hey, do you mind if I share this picture of your house on my blog?” But they might have been eating, or in the middle of something, and there would probably be awkward questions like, “Who are you?” and “Are blogs even still a thing?” The house also has an expansive front yard and no matter the answer I could imagine the walk back to my car being somewhat uncomfortable.

I’ve always been fascinated by how people decorate their homes for the holidays. Mostly the decorations are Christmas-themed but I see the occasional menorah and quite a few inflatable Hanukkah Bears with dreidels, and those always make me smile.

A few times when I was a kid my father and I would go drive around Nashville looking for houses with lights. One year in the late ‘70’s I remember we had trouble finding any, even in the upscale neighborhoods. My father said that with the energy crisis people were probably cutting back.

Still I wished my family would get Christmas lights to put up outside our house, and I asked year after year. Finally my father got a few strings of candy-colored outdoor bulbs and put them around the holly bushes in the front yard. And I realized something: when you’re in a house with outdoor lights you don’t see them. Well, I could get up and open the curtains and if I pressed my face against the window I could sort of see some of the lights on one of the bushes. But really the lights were there for other people. They were for anyone driving by which, since we lived on a cul-de-sac, would mostly be our neighbors.

I was still glad we put them up and would have been happy if anyone passing by happened to take a picture, even before blogs were a thing.

It’s A Date.

A friend of my wife’s sent us a platter of dried fruit which I like for being so artfully designed with the different colored fruit and the cluster of nuts in the middle. “Clusternuts” is the polite term for how many people think of all the shopping and prepping they have to do for the Christmas season, but that’s another story. And it does seem very Christmas-y. I remember as a kid wondering what sugar plums were. Then I saw a guy on one of those daytime talk shows making some out of dried fruit, nuts, and sugar. He also took some dried fruit slices and dipped them in syrup which just seemed like a waste of good dried fruit and a recipe for diabetes. I also remember reading The Velveteen Rabbit as a kid, which mentions that, in addition to the title rabbit, “nuts and oranges” were in the Christmas stocking. I’d never thought about it before but I realized that in the 1920s, when the book was published, oranges were a special treat for some people–not just a fruit you could pick up at the store any time you wanted.

The one thing I balked at in this collection of fruit is the dates. I loved dates. Note the past tense. It seemed like fresh dates would show up in the stores around me once in a while, which is odd because they’re widely cultivated and have a long shelf life, especially for fruit. So when I’d see dates I’d fill a bag and munch on them for at least a month.

The last time I did that was early June 2014. Then I was diagnosed with cancer and stress killed my appetite. I’ve avoided even thinking about this but here’s some friendly advice for anyone going through chemotherapy or any medical condition that reduces your appetite: avoid foods you love. Your doctor and other people will try to get you to eat, and you should–it’s important to keep your weight up as part of staying healthy. But if you have nausea or even a reduced appetite you may suddenly find you hate the foods you love.

Or it may just be me. Maybe it’s that I associated a big bag of dates on the kitchen counter with a very uncertain future. Note the past tense.

I pulled a date from the fruit tray. It was warm and gooey and sweet–like chewy honey. It was as good as I remember dates being before looking at them made me sick.

Eight and a half years is a lot of dates and it took all of them for me to realize I love dates again.

The Moving Finger Writes…

It’s been too long since I got out my fountain pens. I was already thinking that even before I read an essay by the novelist Henriette Lazaridis about the fountain pen she inherited from an uncle by way of her aunt, which is probably the best way to get a fountain pen. I have some, all given to me by my wife–getting a new fountain pen as a gift is the second best way to get one. My favorite is a design called Pericles. That’s the one with the cap off in the picture. Pericles was a pretty cool person, at least according to Thucydides, but I also like the pen because it’s heavy. Writing with a heavy pen makes me feel like the words themselves have extra weight. The downside of heavy pens is they tend to be more expensive, and, believe me, fountain pens can get really expensive. I wouldn’t want a $14,500 pen even as a gift–I’d be terrified to write with the damn thing.

Writing with a fountain pen also forces me to slow down because fountain pen ink ain’t like what’s in your standard ballpoint. It’s more viscous and, behind a southpaw, I have to be careful not to drag my hand through it while it’s still wet.

Fountain pens also have to be refilled by hand, a process I think is akin to a drug user’s routine, although generally safer, and really like using a syringe in reverse. I don’t mind getting ink on my fingers, either. I think of it as the mark of a writer. I just have to make sure not to use red ink.

My wife has her own collection of fountain pens. Some she’s gotten as gifts, but some she’s purchased for herself–the third best way of getting fountain pens. She’s bought some new ones but also picked up some antique ones at second-hand stores. Some of those are so old they’re not even usable anymore, their ink bladders, made of, I don’t know, rat intestines treated with antimony or something, long since desiccated.  

She even uses them for work, which I can’t do with my own fountain pens. Well, I could, but I like keeping them for my own personal writing.

I know writing by hand is a disappearing art, and it’s ironic that I’ve typed all of this into a computer, but then all this typing just makes me appreciate my fountain pens that much more.

A Little Acceptance.

Just in the month of October I had four pieces rejected by various publications. It’s not hard to do the math and realize that’s an average of one per week. Back in the last days of 2019 I set myself a resolution for 2020, even before I realized what a year that would be, that I’d submit at least one piece per month. I’ve pretty much kept to that goal although October was exceptional and significantly raised the average. The problem, of course, is that more submissions also means more rejections, and although I was thrilled to have a piece accepted by DarkWinter Literary Magazine there were also a lot of doors slammed in my face. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Getting more rejections doesn’t make them any easier either, making October a particularly tough month.

Then a funny thing happened. For a lot of my submissions I use a website called Submittable. It’s useful for finding publishers who may or may not be looking for the sort of things I write—although mostly not—and for keeping track of what I’ve submitted and where. I’ve been using it for several years now and, while I have had some things published, I’ve never gotten an acceptance on something I submitted through Submittable.

A friend contacted me to share that a place called Unstamatic was having an open submission call. Everything submitted within a twenty-minute period would be accepted. I quickly polished a piece that had been rejected a few times and that, really, didn’t seem to fit anywhere, and, because I was so nervous I forgot that Missoula, Montana is an hour behind Nashville, not an hour ahead. Not that it matters since I was up three hours early anyway, but that’s another story.

The window opened, I slipped my piece in, breathed a sigh of relief, then panicked all over again, worried that I’d done something incorrectly. Then I got an email confirming that my submission was received and, for the first time in the four years I’ve been using Submittable, I got an “Accepted”. Then I got this:

Thanks, editors. I needed that. You can read my piece here.

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