American Graffiti.

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

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.

Under The Sea.

Orion is clearly visible in the southeast in the evenings now, the hunter rising each night through the bare branches of trees as the deer behind our house snort and stomp off to find a place to sleep. I was thinking about how we’re now in the hunting season when I read an article about a fisherman in the town of Talamone, Italy, who’s gotten sculptors to create an underwater art gallery to stop fishing. Specifically the underwater sculptures are there to block trawlers which scrape the bottom, dredging up everything to harvest a few more fish and to do it more cheaply than traditional net fishing. Trawlers are illegal close to the coast but the local authorities weren’t doing anything to stop them, especially when they’d go out and do their trawling in the middle of the night, so a local fisherman named Paolo Fanciulli, who sounds like a pretty cool guy, started going after them himself. First he scared them away with a big spotlight, but that was only a temporary solution. Then he got the brilliant idea of sinking large blocks of marble in the bay to block the trawlers. And sculptors stepped up to make the blocks of marble works of art, like this one:

Source: Casa dei Pesci

There are thirty-nine blocks in the bay now.

It’s not just preventing illegal fishing. It’s allowing sea grass, which traps large amounts of carbon and which had been destroyed by the trawlers, to come back and flourish, which, in turn, creates a healthy environment for fish which is what fishermen want.

Of course fishermen also pull fish out of the water and kill them because, hey, we’ve all gotta eat, and that’s just the nature of, well, nature: something has to die so something else can live, but there also has to be a balance, a harmony to it–a way to create space for new life. Trawling isn’t sustainable and it’s the only thing that should die permanently.

Comb Over.

Source: The Guardian

It never occurred to me until recently that No-Shave November isn’t just something fun that people can choose to do, like Talk Like A Pirate Day, but an actual organization that people can join and that raises money to treat and fight cancer. I always assumed it was a voluntary activity and I discovered how serious it really is when I went to check and see if it was still something people did. Now I feel guilty for never participating, although, for me, participating would have to mean donating some money to the cause. I have never been blessed with abundant, or even reasonable facial hair. Even if I did quit shaving for thirty days my face would be punctuated with dangly patches.

I don’t mind being baby-faced, though. I had a roommate in college who could walk twenty feet to the dorm bathroom, shave his cheeks and chin completely smooth, and have a five o’clock shadow by the time he got back to the room. I guess the only reason he even bothered to shave is in two days he would have turned into Alan Moore, but that’s another story.

What set me off on this line of thought was the discovery of the world’s oldest known sentence on a comb. The inscription says, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” and from the louse and egg remnants still clinging to it after almost four-thousand years apparently it worked. And we also now know that cooties weren’t just invented on the playground but have been around a really long time.

Various historians have speculated about what, exactly, allowed our first ancestors to start building civilizations. Some think it was fire, others think it was the transition from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life to an agricultural one. Some have even suggested underarm deodorant.

I think tools had something to do with it. Tools require instruction, not just for their making but for their use. Imagine looking at something as mundane as a comb and having no idea what it was for. And while grooming seems like it’s partly a matter of comfort it’s still important–it’s not something I’d call entirely voluntary.

Have Another Drink.

Recently I read a review of some local specialty non-alcoholic drinks. In other words cocktails without the alcohol. The cynic in me thinks mocktails are just a way for restaurants and bars to charge fancy drink prices while saving themselves money by cutting out the alcohol—the ultimate form of watering down drinks. But I also get that there’s much more to it than that. People who don’t drink deserve to have a fancy drink and even those of us who do drink sometimes want another option. Having something flavorful and different and still being able to drive home is a nice thing too.

And it occurs to me they’re not really all that new as an idea. Back when I was in college and would go out with friends there’d always be one or two people in the group who would order a virgin pina colada or daiquiri, and then there was that one joker at the end of the bar who’d ask for a virgin martini, just to see what the bartender would do.

And long before I started going out with friends and ordering virgin martinis I was introduced to the Shirley Temple—not the actress but the drink named after her which, funny enough, she hated. I was seven or eight and I guess my parents couldn’t get a babysitter because they took me to a fancy restaurant where the waitress, after taking their drink orders, turned to me and asked, “And, you, sir, would you like a Shirley Temple?”

I had no idea but I was a polite kid, even when panicking under adult scrutiny, so I blurted out, “Yes, please!” and felt very grown up drinking my fancy drink from a stemmed glass with a bendy straw.

Some time after that I had some friends over from school and my parents weren’t home and I got this crazy idea I’d play bartender, draping a towel over one arm and mixing up Shirley Temples in regular glasses using some Sprite that was about to go flat, since we didn’t have any ginger ale, and a jar of maraschino cherries I found in the back of the refrigerator that I’m pretty sure my parents bought when Nixon was still in office. Then I spilled one of the drinks while serving my friends and panicked and realized that bartending may look cool but it can also be exhausting.

The same is true of cooking. I like to cook and I’m pretty good at it, but, while some nights I have no problem making a quiche, other nights I barely have the energy to scramble a couple of eggs. The same goes for fancy drinks. Some nights I’m up to making a cocktail. Some nights all I want to do is open a bottle or a can and pour.

That One House.

There’s one on every block. In some places there are two or more. Halloween decorations have become at least as popular as Christmas decorations which is why they come out at the same time and can we please not have Christmas decorations on store shelves in August?

The variety and scope of Halloween decorations is just amazing too—in fact I’d say it’s one of the things that makes Halloween the better holiday because the decorations are so much more diverse.

It’s fun to see so many houses decorated for Halloween because I remember when I was a kid there was just one house in my entire neighborhood that was decorated. There were plenty of houses handing out candy, but most just had their porch light on—the common signal that a house is open.

I don’t want to say things were better back then but there was a special excitement generated by just one house, and it was always the same house. We only knew her as Ms. Linda and, for most of the year, she was just the woman who managed the lunchroom. She was not one of the lunch ladies who, for all their lousy portrayals in movies and TV shows, seemed nice enough in their white coats and hairnets. Sure, they were slinging reconstituted potatoes and highly processed meat and stewed prunes into the compartments of our plastic lunch trays, but they always did it with a smile.

Source: Goodreads

Ms. Linda was the overseer of the lunchroom itself. It was her job to keep it from devolving into more of a warzone than it already was, and she did it with a smile too. October was her favorite time of year. She’d read aloud, usually from The Thing At The Foot Of The Bed, a collection of scary stories that include murder, beheading, and a guy who literally shoots himself in the foot. It’s great family entertainment—if you’re the Addams Family. Silence reigned in the lunchroom while Ms. Linda read.

Somehow from one Halloween to the next I always forgot about her house, even that it was Ms. Linda’s house, but word would get around among trick-or-treaters that there was a house down the street that we absolutely had to go to. She had her porch lights on—and they were blue and green, and her front door was open so we could walk right into her living room, among cardboard skeletons and around a large pot of bubbling dry ice. A boom box sat in one corner playing The Monster Mash. It was impressive. It was even more impressive when you realized she made most of the decorations herself–Halloween wasn’t nearly as big a deal then.

Then there was Ms. Linda herself in a long black dress, her gray hair teased out in every direction, her face painted green. She’d drop a satchel of candy right in your bag, bucket, or container without breaking eye contact then swoop away to give some to another kid.

That parcel of candy was the only one our parents didn’t have to check. The Sweet Tarts, candy corn, and assorted chocolate bars it contained were all still in their original wrappers anyway, but we also knew Ms. Linda wouldn’t hurt us.

Now that I think back on it, though, I’m a little surprised. Halloween would have been the perfect time for her to exact her revenge for all the other months of screaming, food-throwing, and having to break up fights, but Ms. Linda really liked us and she was an adult who really liked Halloween. And I’ve only just realized, looking at all the decorated houses, how much of an inspiration she was.

Half-Baked Monsters.

Every October I eat at least three family-size boxes of Count Chocula, Franken Berry, and Boo Berry. More in those odd years when they re-release the less popular but still tasty Frute Brute and Yummy Mummy. I’m making up for a childhood when I couldn’t have sugary cereals but I did stay up and watch midnight movies on the UHF station, making the Monster cereals the most tantalizing forbidden fruit in the cereal aisle.

This year is an exception, though. I could only score boxes of Boo Berry and the often overlooked Frute Brute which has a distinctive cherry flavor that I can only describe by saying it’s like someone turned Twizzlers into a cereal. But I also got the Count Chocula and Franken Berry ready-to-bake cookies–a hopefully short-lived experiment that seems as ill-conceived as Franken Berry and Boo Berry fruit roll-ups.

The Monster Cereals occupy a unique space in sugary cereal marketing. Some cereals take an existing property—SpongeBob, Baby Yoda, Mr. T—and slap it on a box, maybe with some marshmallows or a distinctive shape that ties back to the source somehow. Then there are the ones that started with a cereal, who’ve even become icons but remain bound to breakfast: Tony The Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, Lucky The Leprechaun. 

The Monster cereals reimagined their source material, becoming a blend the way cereal adds flavor to milk. Released in 1971, forty years after the Universal Studios double-feature of Dracula and Frankenstein, although the timing was purely coincidental, Count Chocula sounded like Bela Lugosi, but had a lean, toothy look that harkened back to Nosferatu. Franken Berry was rounder than the cinematic monster and pink, with a bulbous cranium that a friend said made him “the original butt-head”, and a Boris Karloff voice. Boo Berry followed in 1973 with a heavy-lidded visage and raspy voice like Peter Lorre, because how many cinematic ghosts can you think of? Frute Brute followed in 1974 with lime marshmallows and striped overalls. Some think that doomed him from the start, but it’s more likely the market was just over-saturated. In 1987 Count Chocula and Franken Berry “discovered” Yummy Mummy in a jungle pyramid that, for some reason, was more Aztec than Egyptian. His purple, orange, and yellow bandages, gravely voice, and catchy theme briefly eclipsed Boo Berry before he faded away too. The original three Monster cereals went the same way in 2010, becoming seasonal, a special fall treat. In their heyday they’d had disco albums, toys, and even prompted a health scare as documented in Toy Galaxy’s excellent franchise history.

All that makes the Count Chocula and Franken Berry cookies a giant disappointment. Only featuring the original duo smacks of phoning it in, and they’ve even ruined the pleasure of eating raw cookie dough. Out of the package the cookies have a weird kerosene aftertaste. Baked they’re better but they’re still just sugar cookies with only very mild flavor. The Count Chocula cookies have a taste I can only describe as the whisper of a Tootsie Roll and the Franken Berry cookies have a slight sweetness that’s reminiscent of strawberry Kool-Aid. The Count Chocula designs come out looking like a brown blob with eyes and the Franken Berry cookies look more like magenta Shreks. Even the box is a disappointment. On the back there’s a “game”, counting a pile of cookies between Count Chocula and Franken Berry,  because if there’s one thing kids love with their snacks it’s math.

The concept came from such a long and distinctive canon and had so much potential—cookies with marshmallows, crunchy monster pieces, gooey centers even—but ended up being something that just sucks.

 

Going Through.

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.

–Rod Serling

 

“There’s a door.”

“Where does it go?”

“It stays where it is, I think.”

–Terry Pratchett

 

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

–J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Not knowing when the dawn will come

I open every door.

–Emily Dickinson

 

Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.

–Peter S. Beagle

 

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

–William Blake

 

“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —

Only this, and nothing more.”

–Edgar Allan Poe

 

Doors are very powerful things. Things are different on either side of them.

–Diana Wynne Jones

Let’s Pretend.

When I saw that a new documentary about Barney, the Purple Dinosaur that was described as exploring “the dark side” of the phenomenon my first thought was that there were previously unreported horrors behind the scenes—things I really didn’t want to contemplate since I assumed they’d make episodes of Law & Order: SVU, or the extremely dark, ludicrously funny Death To Smoochy look tame. It’s a relief it’s not that bad. The real dark side wasn’t Barney or the cast and crew. It mostly came from outside. Barney attracted a lot of anger. These were the early days of the internet, or at least early days of the internet becoming widespread, and some people remember Usenet groups devoted to horrific ways Barney should die. Some who participated say it was “just good fun,” but some of it spilled over into the real world. One Barney performer got death threats he says were “violent and explicit, death and dismemberment of my family.” That reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut line, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

There’s a lot to delve into here. I was well into adulthood, even married, by the time Barney came along, and we’ve never had kids so I’ve never really thought much about Barney. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people who thought and wrote about doing horrible things to Barney were also adults with no children. One of the problems with almost any fandom is it’s going to have toxic elements and, yes, I would call people who devoted a lot of time to imagining doing horrible things to Barney fans, in the original sense of “fanatic”. Let me put it another way: almost everything that has its own following has positive fans who enjoy it, who get something good out of it and out of feeling they’re part of a likeminded community, but also its negative fans who are deeply knowledgeable about it but bring a lot of anger too. They range from the ones who want the fandom to be restricted to the few who know all the minutiae, or who are just like them, who respond angrily, even violently, to those they consider intruders, to the ones who just want to destroy the whole thing. And I admit I find a lot of this hard to understand, because I’ve never been a negative fan, even with things I loved dearly. Yet I also think Death To Smoochy, which is obviously a Barney-inspired parody that also skewers and roasts children’s entertainment, is hilarious, and I laughed when Charles Barkley beat up Barney in a basketball game on SNL.

Source: One SNL A Day

When I think about the aspects of the Barney phenomenon that were purely about raking in the money I can understand why some people would really hate Barney. In spite of never having been a parent I can sympathize with parents whose kids drove them crazy by playing Barney songs over and over and over. And yet I was one of those kids—my obsession just happened to be Star Wars, but that’s another story.

On the other side I know Barney taught kids about tolerance and understanding and being nice to each other. That was a genuine positive side to the Barney phenomenon. As adults it’s hard for many of us to not be cynical, to not see the marketing machinery behind the shiny curtain. I’m doing it myself, right now–I start to say something positive and immediately go, “Yes, but…” So let me come right out and say it: all that stuff about inclusion and kindness was just pretend. And we are what we pretend to be.   

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