American Graffiti.

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

The Bridge.

You can still see part of the large yellow triceratops head someone painted on the bridge support. I think, or at least hope, it was the same artist who came back and painted over it with a more detailed mural of a triceratops, probably a mother, followed by her baby, walking past bones under a lunar cycle. Or maybe it’s meant to represent three stages in the life of a triceratops: youth, maturity, death. It’s such a fascinating piece and it’s strange to think about the artist wading through water—the depth of the creek varies with the weather but it’s usually one to two feet—to paint it.

Dinosaurs are so popular it’s hard to know where to start with them, but one of the things that comes to my mind is where they ended. Triceratops were around for about three million years. Most bones don’t fossilize. Most bones naturally decay; it’s only under very special circumstances that they turn into rock, and it’s only by sheer chance that those fossils get buried, preserved, and then exposed again so we can find them. The fact that we’ve found so many triceratops skeletons speaks to just how successful they were—they must have been everywhere. And then they just disappeared in the sudden mass extinction that happened about sixty-five million years ago.

It’s not hard to see why dinosaurs, giant reptiles roaming the planet, are so fascinating to so many of us. Even a gentle herbivore grazing on plants like a giant cow—a cow with a massive bony shield covering its face and three horns—is fun to imagine. But I think their sudden end is also part of their appeal. The idea of a T. Rex chasing you, ready to clamp down on you with its giant mouth full of teeth, is terrifying, but it’s even more terrifying to think that a single asteroid hitting a small spot in the Gulf of Mexico could have affect every single part of the planet, wiping out animals that had thrived for millions of years.

It’s a reminder that it could happen to us.

Of course it will happen to us. One way or another extinction is inevitable—nothing lasts forever—but our first ancestors lived about two and a half million years ago. We’ve done so much in such a tiny fraction of that time—so much that’s shown our potential for survival, but also our penchant for destruction. For self-destruction. We’re still confronted regularly with the question, are we as a species in our youth, in a mature stage, or are we on the precipice?

We’re also very aware that our time is finite which is why we apply pigment to rocks. We do it in the hope that something of us will survive, in the hope that, whatever happens to us, whatever we do to ourselves, there will be a record that says, we were here.

Cold As Ice.

An ICEE, the blend of slushy ice and syrup or soda more commonly sold as a Slurpee at 7-11s, was a summertime reward. If my friend Dale and I were good while our mothers shopped at Kmart we’d stop at the ICEE stand, with its spinning bubbles of frozen blend and big happy polar bear slurping a cold drink instead of devouring a seal or going extinct because of climate change. ICEEs came in two flavors: cherry and Coke. For some reason blue raspberry wasn’t available around here. Once I tried the Coke flavor and, while refreshing, it was still just frozen Coke. The rest of the time I went with cherry.

Before it was handed to me I always planned to hold it long enough for the ice to melt so I could stir it all together, and I always plunged right in, poking perfectly round holes in the scarlet frosty mound with my straw, searching for the sweet spots which were unevenly distributed but so wonderfully sweet. Finally I’d end up with pinkish water and ice and I’d tip the cup up, not wanting any tangy drop to go to waste.

When I saw ICEE cereal, with that same big friendly polar bear, in a store with no ICEE machines, I had to try it. I’d been working without a break. If I couldn’t have an actual ICEE this, however different, would be my reward. The box even promised, “Cools your mouth as you eat!” Did this mean it also had mint flavor? I was eager to find out.

The cereal was, as advertised, blue, red, and blended spheres, although not as brightly colored as pictured. They were like an anemic version of Captain Crunch’s Oops! All Berries! with a limited palette. The red ones had a distinct cherry tang while the blue ones were just sweet, until that bitter aftertaste set in. Wait, bitter? It was as though there’d been a sugar shortage so they could only mostly cover up the flavor of the pasty wheat base. I hoped adding milk would even out the flavor.

It didn’t. But at least it didn’t heighten the bitter aftertaste which was mild enough that it could be overcome by taking the next bite. Then the cold set in.

It’s difficult to describe the cold. It wasn’t mint, which offers a pleasant tingling sensation as well as coolness and its own distinct flavor. This felt more like they’d somehow managed to slip in a sliver of dry ice and instead of dissipating it spread. It had the added effect of bringing the bitterness forward. By the time I scooped up the last bite—I’d paid three bucks for this cereal, dammit, I wasn’t going to let anything go to waste, gobbling it up as fast as I could to get it over with—that was all there was.

ICEE cereal was supposed to take me back to one of the best parts of the summers of my youth, getting rewarded for being good, but instead it was one of the worst things: a punishment when I hadn’t done anything wrong. Like their polar bear mascot, who looks so sweet and happy, the truth was cold and bitterness, although no one will be sorry when the cereal goes extinct.

But at least they didn’t include a Coke flavor.

A Tale Of Two Lights.

My wife said we should get a birdbath so I found one that has a solar-powered light in its stem. This doesn’t really help the birds, who are mostly asleep by the time it comes on. It’s activated by darkness. The light has a warm, steady, orange glow that doesn’t really illuminate anything beyond itself, but that’s fine. Light pollution is a problem and I’m glad when I go out at night and it’s there, a beacon. It glows all night, which I learned one morning when I had to take a dog out at about five a.m., just before dawn, and even with the sky beginning to lighten the stem was still glowing.

We have a second solar-powered light down by the driveway. It’s very different, though. For one thing it’s motion-activated and only comes on for thirty seconds. But it burns very brightly—so bright, in fact, that if it stayed on continuously I doubt it would last more than an hour or two. But it does its job of providing illumination when we need it.

There’s a metaphor, or maybe a synecdoche—for all I know there could even be a metonym—in that, but I prefer to leave it to others to decide if there’s any significance in it. I don’t want to set one light above the other. They both absorb solar energy and use it at night. And they’re both useful in their own way.

They also remind me of an expression I heard a lot as a kid. When someone called an idea stupid they’d say, “That makes as much sense as a solar-powered flashlight.”

Those people never heard of batteries, apparently.  

Taste Bud.

Source: Business Insider

As much as I try to avoid advertising I’ve spent entirely too much time thinking about McDonald’s lately and why Grimace’s birthday is being celebrated. Of all the corporate mascots out there Grimace seems like one of the weirdest and it led me down a rabbit hole of advertising history. Even as a kid the whole idea of McDonaldland didn’t make sense, mainly because McDonald’s is a restaurant, although what McDonald’s serves resembles the food you’d get at a real restaurant the same way the automated backing track on an ’80’s synthesizer resembles a Chopin nocturne played by Vladimir Horowitz.

The point is McDonald’s never was a theme park. Sure, they’ve got their PlayPlace playgrounds, but those are a convenience that give kids a chance to exercise a bit and forever associate McDonald’s with big plastic slides that smell like urine and vomit. They don’t make McDonald’s a destination for the same reason people don’t go to King’s Island just for the free drink refills.

I do remember some of my friends having birthdays at McDonald’s but it was kind of sad and confusing. We ate our cheeseburgers and then…what? It was back to his house because you can’t stick candles in a milkshake. I also remember Ronald McDonald making “live” appearances at various McDonald’s franchises. It seems like they’ve de-emphasized him, though, because of the whole clowns-are-creepy issue. Admittedly there have been Grimace horror parodies, as well as the “Special Tribute To Grimace”, for as long as there has been an internet, and Grimace was probably nightmare-fuel even before that–it just wasn’t as widely shared.

In fact it’s well-documented that the original four-armed Grimace terrified children.

Source: Etsy, currently selling for $10

As far as the other McDonaldland characters no one really remembers Mayor McCheese or Birdie, and the Hamburglar is controversial. There’s also Captain Crook whom I wouldn’t even know about if we hadn’t gotten a 1977 glass from McDonald’s with his picture on it, and I’m somewhat dismayed to know that if we still had that glass it would be worth about $8, but that’s another story. For a really deep cut there are the Fry Kids, which bear a passing resemblance to but lack the charisma of the Sesame Street Yip-Yip Martians.

So in spite of, or because of, his dark origins Grimace is really the only McDonaldland character with broad enough appeal to be worth celebrating, although it’s surprising they’ve even bothered given that the media landscape is so saturated with characters vying for our attention it’s hard to imagine a purple blob who originally had four arms and was a villain but who then morphed into a more benign figure whose sole purpose is still to sell hamburgers drawing that much interest.

And yet Grimace’s birthday, and the accompanying shake, has gotten a lot of attention, although I think a friend of mine put it best when he told me, “The biggest disappointment is they don’t taste like grape. They’re just purple vanilla. I won’t be sad when they’re gone and I don’t know what the big deal is even after having about a dozen so far.”

Gonna Roll The Bones.

I’ve been looking for a local Dungeons & Dragons group. Or any roleplaying game group, really. This is mainly because, for my mental health, I need something that gets me out of the house but also provides a way to engage with other people—actual, real people. Not to put down the friendships I’ve developed online, which are great, but various circumstances have me feeling the call of the real world. I also thought of D&D for nostalgic reasons. My teenage years were spent playing a lot of D&D, and other roleplaying games, although the games were really secondary to the friendships that went with them. I had my friends John and Jeff who got into D&D even before we were teenagers, and the three of us would have various adventures. Then, for some reason, early in our sophomore year of high school, John called me up and asked if I wanted to go to Michael’s house. I knew Michael vaguely, and when we showed up there were Jim, Trav, Allan, Torre, none of whom I’d ever met before, and, oh yeah, Michael, since it was his house, and suddenly there were eight of us sitting around a table battling it out against orcs, goblins, zombies—whatever, and it didn’t take long for all of us to become good friends. Eventually Michael’s younger brother Dave would join us.

I don’t expect something like that to happen again—for one thing I’m pretty sure Dave lives in another state now—but seeing a twenty-sided die, or D20, if the lingo hasn’t changed, sticker on a pole really fired me up.  Dice were, and, I’m pretty sure, still are, a big part of D&D—a way of adding some risk and randomness so it wasn’t just a group sitting around making up stories. The D20 was, as I recall, one of the most commonly used, maybe because it’s a nice, round number. The usual six-sided dice, in groups, were used for player attributes, and there was the D4 which was used for, well, injuring people, since it’s a pyramid—that’s why it comes in at #9 on the list of the Ten Most Shameful D&D Dice. The D100, and, yes, there was such a thing (#7 on the list) was too big—it was basically a golf ball with numbers. Only my friend John, the most hardcore gamer of all of us, who still plays, but lives in another state, had one of those. There’s even a D34, which I didn’t know existed until I found the shameful dice list (it’s #2). I’ve thought about asking my friend John if he has one, since we’re still in touch, but if he says yes it will shatter my belief that he’s one of the smartest, most logical people that I know. However he probably does have the D1000 (#5)

And so far I haven’t had much luck looking for the sort of in-person D&D game—a search I’m conducting, funny enough, online, but that’s the world we live in now. I did find one group that sounded promising: the moderator was putting out an open call for players, saying they were looking for people who were interested in playing characters without a strict adherence to the rules, which is exactly what I was looking for. My friends and I always treated the rules as flexible because we knew that if, say, someone’s character died that person would have to sit in a corner or maybe go home, and where would the fun be in that? And if you think that’s unrealistic I ask you, how good would The Hobbit have been if Bilbo had been killed by the trolls? Because realistically that’s what should have happened. The local group I found recently had me really excited right up until the end where the moderator said, “We’ll be playing via Zoom…” and, well, it sounds like a great group, but it’s not what I need.

Even if I do find the sort of group I’m looking for I know meeting with a bunch of strangers is risky, but I have faith that there aren’t that many trolls out there, so I’m willing to take a chance.

If you recognized that the title of this post comes from Fritz Lieber’s story about a guy playing craps with death you get a bonus roll.

From Here To There.

There’s a footbridge that connects a shopping center to a public park. It’s a nice bridge—very big, very wide. Maybe that’s why they decided to embed little lights in the pillars, or uprights, or whatever those little sections are called that are slightly higher than the rest of the bridge. They’re nice and add a little aesthetic interest and, seriously, following the recent horrific bridge collapse I just have even greater appreciation for all types of infrastructure, especially when it’s well-made and maintained.

I still wonder why the lights are there, though. People probably aren’t visiting the park after dark. Any crime happening is more likely under the bridge, and the shopping center is well-lit enough that even if someone wanted to cross the bridge at night there’d be more than enough ambient light to get them from one side to the other.

I also like the little touches some people have added to the lights. Civil engineering is both a science and an art which is why infrastructure often gets little aesthetic touches that aren’t functional but make the mundane a little nicer, but it’s even better when actual artists add something too.



You Wanna Go There With Me?

A couple of weeks ago I met some friends at a local café in a little cluster of shops and restaurants where the old Madison Mill used to be. The mill was shut down and abandoned for decades which made it a great spot for graffiti artists. And it looks like it still is from that Bearded Iris mural. I went through my pictures of the old mill and here’s what was on a wall that was pretty close to the same spot five years ago:

It’s not much although the piece on the left is pithy, and I wish I’d had better lighting for the picture, but the important thing is at least one place that’s now in the same space has tried to preserve the spirit of what was once there.

Here are a couple of other examples:

That’s pretty cool, ain’t it?

Over pancakes I said a little bit about the history of the place where we were sitting and how there used to be a lot of graffiti there. One of my friends said, “Ugh.”

Excuse me? Did you just “ugh” graffiti to me? Never mind my own efforts to convince people that graffiti is art. Look at how much the lettering and style of graffiti gets incorporated into advertising. Look at how much street art and murals, which are often created by artists who started out and honed their craft doing graffiti, brighten city centers these days. Do not “ugh” graffiti in front of me.

If the pancakes hadn’t been so good I would have opened up a big ol’ can of art history right there. And it probably would have looked like this:


I’m not a big symphony or classical music guy. Thanks to Sesame Street and Bugs Bunny I know some of classical music’s greatest hits, but I’m more of a fan of something I can dance to, even if I won’t dance in public. But I have friends who are fans of classical music and even opera, and it’s kind of cool to be able to share with them that I live in a town with a world-class symphony and, just as important, a world-class performance space, the Schermerhorn Center. Not long after it opened a rock star, who shall remain nameless because I can’t remember her name, performed there. During the sound check she sat in every section and listened to her band. Her verdict was, “There’s not a single bad seat in here.”

Now, though, its world-class conductor, Giancarlo Guerrerom is retiring, which makes me wonder if they’ll do a new version of this commercial he did for the symphony ten years ago:

And maybe like me you feel a little irked when he gets to “soporific” and his response is this:

Yeah, I get it, “soporific” isn’t a word you likely use every day, even if you work at a sleep clinic, but it seems like a missed opportunity. Let’s start with what soporific is, and the world-class source for definitions, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Seeing a tuxedoed symphony conductor stretched out on the stage sound asleep, maybe in an oversized bed, would be funny and educational, and I wish they’d gone with that.

Then there’s this:

It’s hard to see but he’s popping the top of a Yazoo Dos Perros. At the time Yazoo was the only local beer in Nashville, and it’s still very good, but if they filmed that today he’d have almost a dozen to choose from.

Because we’ve also got some world-class beer here.

There Has Got To Be A Twist.

A Ninja Turtles pinball machine isn’t that surprising. They’ve been around since 1984. A Godzilla pinball machine is even less surprising—Godzilla’s been smashing Tokyo since 1954. But a Mandalorian pinball machine? That’s got to be from 2019 at the earliest. Everything old is, well, still old, but it’s blending with the new, and that’s really cool.

I love pinball. As a teenager in the ‘80’s I remember going to the video arcade with my friends and while video games were cool enough—I was really good at Q*Bert—I was also drawn to the pinball machines that, even then, seemed a bit neglected. Even the new ones had a retro quality. After all The Who’s Tommy had been around since 1969. What really appealed to me, though, was their tangible quality. Even if I couldn’t touch the ball it was still real and really rolling around just under me, not on a screen. And unlike video games a pinball machine has thousands of moving parts that can act in unpredictable ways, raising the element of chance. Pinball is also all about focus: you have to ignore the flashing lights, the sounds, and just concentrate on that one silver ball. Or silver balls if you go into multiball mode.

The coffee shop where I found these pinball machines also has tournaments, game nights that bring people together, which just adds emphasis to the real-world nature of pinball. It’s been a long time since video games left the arcade and went into the home. For a while LAN parties were big events but it seems like they’ve dropped off significantly, and services like Twitch allow people to watch and even comment on a gamer’s progress. Some people even get a certain amount of fame and make a living that way. There’s still something, well, real about pinball, and people coming together to play it just emphasizes that.

It also reminds me of one of my favorite pinball experiences. Near where I work there used to be a place with a couple of pinball machines. I’d go there on my lunch breaks with a few quarters. There were always the same three guys gathered around the same machine. I knew they were college students but they always seemed to be there. We never talked but I felt like I got to know them. Then one day I went in and just one of them was there alone. We nodded at each other and took turns playing the two games. Finally I asked him, “So, where are the other Lone Gunmen?”

 Without batting an eye he shrugged and said, “In class.”

These guys, if you remember them–they’ve been around since 1994. Source: Wikipedia

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