American Graffiti.

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

From The Sky.

The James Webb Space Telescope is big in the news right now but, in a funny coincidence, we had something fall from the sky in our backyard recently. At first I didn’t know what it was and I saw it coming from a long way away, drifting up over the house like a mutant cloud, dark but with hints of light, trailing a narrow black tail.

Then it came down in the driveway and I could see it had once been a balloon–a giant 2, I think, that had popped open somewhere up in the air before it came down to rest, still exhaling some of its precious helium–but not enough for me to suck in and make my voice sound funny. Why a 2? That’s a mystery in itself. A black number birthday would most likely be one that ended with a zero–forty being the big one, but it’s all downhill from there. Maybe it was for a goth kid’s 12th birthday.

Balloon escapes seem to happen all the time. There’s a party supply store I drive by occasionally and I’ve seen people struggling to get clusters of balloons into their cars and I’d like to help but even if it weren’t weird to have a stranger come up and offer to hold your balloons what could I do? There’s no easy way to manage a bundle of plastic or mylar sacks filled with lighter than air gas and, now that I think about it, I guess “balloons” is a better name because it would sound even worse to have a stranger come up and offer to hold your lighter than air sacks, but that’s another story.

I know some kids love to get balloons and then let go of them–go to any theme park on any day and you’re bound to see at least one balloon flying over the crowd–but I was a kid who held onto balloons and would take them home. I loved the film The Red Balloon which teachers at school or adults at church would have us watch on rainy days when we couldn’t go outside. I didn’t care that my balloons didn’t follow me. I was happy to fall asleep watching my balloon bob around on the ceiling, only to wake up to it wrinkled and sad on the floor.

The only time I let a balloon go was when I tied a note to the string with my name and a little bit about me–I don’t remember what, exactly, and my address. “Please write back to me,” I wrote, with the urgency of an eight-year old. Then I let it go and watched it soar up and up and up until I couldn’t see it, and I imagined it sailing across states, maybe across the ocean, landing in the hands of another kid like me but different enough that we could share the strangeness of our lives.

No one ever wrote. But I did have a large black 2 come down in the driveway, and I shared it with a friend who texted back, “Are you wearing Crocs?”

I’ve learned to take the strangeness where I can find it.

Something Sweet.

I’d dropped the car off at a chain repair place for some maintenance and told them I’d wait the few hours. Then I went to the McDonald’s next door because of course there was a McDonald’s next door—it was one of those bland shopping clusters you’ll find just about everywhere. 
I ordered one of their frozen coffee beverages. 
“The machine’s broken,” the woman at the register told me, because of course it was. Ice cream machines at every McDonald’s everywhere are broken. Then she said, “but I’ll make up something sweet for you.”
A few minutes later she’d made up a tall concoction of coffee, cream, and caramel syrup and only charged me for a small regular coffee drink.
 
I went for a walk, amused by the contrast of the bland shopping area and the standardization of everything and my custom coffee drink. 
Then I saw the base of a street lamp decorated with what looked like a lotus design. Or maybe it was just a flower. Either way someone had added a little individual flair to something that was dull and standard. 
They didn’t do it for me—I’m not sure they had anyone In mind since it’s not a place where people walk normally—but I appreciated that someone had done something sweet.

The Secret’s Out.

Source: Wikipedia

For some reason of all the films that made the summer of 1982 feel like on where I practically lived in movie theaters the one that’s stuck with me the most is The Secret Of NIMH, which came out in July of that year. I saw it twice that summer, which wasn’t unusual—this was before we had VCRs, and, in fact, just before the arrival of cable TV, and even after cable and VCRs became part of our lives I’d still frequently see a movie first with my parents or alone then go back with my friends. The second time I saw The Secret of NIMH was also a special free screening arranged by the local schools. Maybe this was because it was based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel by Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby & The Rats Of NIMH.

I hadn’t read the book but my friend John, who went with me the second time, had, so I asked him what he thought of it.

“I hated it,” he said flatly.

I felt bad about this, as though I were somehow responsible. Yes, I thought it was a great movie and I told him how much I enjoyed it, but since it was free and every kid in my school packed the theater he probably would have gone anyway. I was so taken aback by his response I didn’t think to ask him why he hated it, but then I read the book, which I’d been meaning to do anyway, and I understood.

For the most part the book and movie tell the same story, although the name of Mrs. Frisby had to be changed to Brisby to avoid confusion with flying plastic discs: she’s a field mouse whose husband has been killed by the farmer’s cat. It’s early spring and she’s about to move her family to their summer home. The farmer plows over their winter home every spring, but her youngest son Timmy is sick from a spider bite and can’t be moved. With the help of a friendly crow named Jeremy she visits The Great Owl who tells her to go to the rats that live in the farm’s rosebush. When she does she learns her husband and the rats were the subject of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, that enhanced them physically and mentally. Her husband helped the rats escape and they’ve built an elaborate underground city, stealing electricity from the farm. Their husband continued helping the rats by drugging the farmer’s cat. She offers to do the same so the rats can come and move her home to a spot safe from the plow. She’s caught in the act by one of the farmer’s children and overhears that people from NIMH are coming to gas the farm’s rats. She escapes, the rats move her home, the rats, who were uncomfortable with stealing, set off to build an independent civilization, and Timmy gets better.

The movie was produced and directed by animator Don Bluth, who, along with fifty other animators, left Disney in 1979 in protest over declining animation quality. And The Secret Of NIMH really does have some excellent animation. Character movements are smooth, there are realistic-looking people and animals, there are water effects, lighting effects, and reflections. The color palette is broad and vivid. And they didn’t hold back making Mrs. Brisby’s meeting with The Great Owl, voiced by John Carradine, serious nightmare-fuel, or change the fact that in the story death is ever-present. This wasn’t a condescending kids’ show made to sell us fluffy toys.

Just a taste of the quality animation. Source: imgur

The problem is the movie tries to compress far too much into its 82-minute runtime. It doesn’t take much to understand why Mrs. Brisby wants to save her son, but in the book Timmy is more developed as a character. He’s clever and quiet, although also a storyteller who protects the younger mice, so he provides a contrast to his brother who’s strong and aggressive. The idea that intellect and imagination are just as valuable as strength, even in the hardscrabble world of a field mouse, gets lost in the movie where Timmy spends so much time sick in bed and has so few lines he might as well already be dead.

Then there’s the matter of the rats’ transformation in NIMH. In the book the rat leader Nicodemus tells Mrs. Frisby a lengthy story that could be a movie in itself of how they were captured, caged, and given injections, then taught to read. He tells her how they excelled but kept it a secret from their captors and how they eventually got to the farm’s rosebush. It’s almost Flowers For Algernon but from the mouse’s perspective. In the movie they’re given an injection and, in a trippy sequence, they’re magically transformed into sentient, literate super-rats.

In the book the rats’ lair has hallways and meeting rooms, but the film makes it strange, filled with multi-colored lights and twisting passageways. The unique look actually makes sense. Rats aren’t human so their civilization would look different. However Nicodemus, their leader, is changed from a rat like the others to a frail, raspy-voiced wizard who writes with glowing ink, makes objects levitate, and can summon up visions in a large ball by waving his staff.

The presence of magic in the film is the biggest divergence from the book, and it’s really what ruins the story. In the book the rats move Mrs. Frisby’s home with elaborate engineering. In the movie their apparatus is sabotaged by a conspiratorial rat named Jenner who also murders Nicodemus, Mrs. Brisby’s home sinks into the mud, there’s no explanation for how Timmy and the other children who are inside survive, and then Mrs. Brisby magically levitates her home with the help of a magical amulet Nicodemus gave her.

Bluth said he wanted to share his beliefs about the power of faith but this rewrite seemed more like an excuse to show off more elaborate effects and increase the drama of the ending.

I’m not opposed to remakes or even reboots, and plans for a new version of The Secret Of NIMH have floated around for years. It would possibly be redone as a miniseries, which makes sense—there’s too much story for even a long movie. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in actually doing it, though, and maybe that’s just as well. The book stands very well on its own, and while the movie has its weaknesses it also has equal strengths, including some necessary comic relief from Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the crow. For me there’s a certain amount of nostalgia attached to it but, watching it critically, as an adult, I can see the bad and good in it. I no longer love it. But I don’t hate it.

Good Humor Man.

Source: Twitter

Let’s get the obvious part out of the way first: that isn’t good advertising or bad advertising. It’s absolutely brilliant advertising from Punch & Judy’s Ice Cream Parlor, a chain that was found around the western United States in the 1940s and ’50s.. A friend sent me that because he knew I’d find it funny, but the surprise for both of us—the metaphorical cherry on top—was that it brought back my early love of Daniel Pinkwater’s books and gave me some insight into his inspiration for a funny detail in his book The Magic Moscow.

I first learned about Pinkwater from the show Cover To Cover in which host John Robbins would talk about a book and also draw scenes from it. I loved that show and tried to find and read every book that was featured. And Robbins raved about Daniel Pinkwater when he talked about Lizard Music. So of course I got it from the library and tried to read it, but didn’t make it past the first couple of chapters. I still wanted to like Pinkwater so I tried The Hoboken Chicken Emergency next and didn’t make it past a few pages. I was baffled by how weird they were even though I was pretty weird myself. Up until then almost every book I’d been given to read had some message, or, if it was meant to be funny, it spelled out that it was a funny book. Pinkwater’s humor is best described as deadpan surrealism.

Then I got The Magic Moscow for Christmas and, after stopping and starting over half a dozen times, I finally got through it and had a breakthrough. I reread it then went back and tore through Lizard Music and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Fat Men From Space and every other Pinkwater book I could find.

The Magic Moscow is about a guy named Steve who takes over an ice cream parlor and adds health food to the menu, which he then brings together in one dish:

The Moron’s Delight is one of Steve’s specialties. It has six flavors of ice cream – two scoops of each – a banana, a carrot, three kinds of syrup, whole roasted peanuts, a slice of Swiss cheese, a radish, yogurt, wheat germ, and a kosher pickle. It is served in a shoebox lined with plastic wrap. Steve considers it a health-food dessert.

I stumbled over that at first. Why was it a “moron’s delight”? And Steve, who’s a bit weird, really considers it a special treat, even serving one to his hero, a retired TV detective, and making another for the detective’s dog, an Alaskan Malamute. But then, as with all things Pinkwater, I finally realized it was just funny and to go with it, never knowing, never needing to know, really, that there was a real world inspiration.

And there was a valuable lesson in all those Pinkwater books I read: be yourself even if–no, especially if–you’re weird.

Anyway it’s a Fourth of July weekend and I think I’ll celebrate with some ice cream. Maybe I’ll make a Moron’s Delight.

Just A Poet.

Cowboy poet Baxter Black, on the right, with Baxter the Dalmatian, at a Nashville bookstore.

Way back in 1999 my wife and I brought home a new puppy and were trying to decide what to name him. She wanted something with a poetry theme and, well, there was only one poet we could think of with a name that would fit a Dalmatian. We named him Baxter, after Baxter Black, the cowboy poet, whose occasional commentaries on NPR always brightened up our morning drives. He’d be introduced as a “former large animal veterinarian” and my wife would always ask, “What’s a former large animal?”

E-mail was still a fairly new thing back then and we didn’t have a digital camera yet but we did take pictures of Baxter. My wife scanned one, found Baxter Black’s e-mail address, and sent him the picture. He replied with, “Makes me wanna ride a fire truck!”

Not long after that he came to Nashville on a book tour for A Cowful of Cowboy Poetry, and, with a bookstore manager’s permission, we brought Baxter in to meet Baxter. They both seemed to enjoy it.

We lost our Baxter a few years later to cancer—much too soon, although there’s never enough time with any dog.

As for Baxter Black, while it’s been a while since I’ve heard him on the radio, I pull up some of his recordings occasionally if I want to chuckle—his poem “The Oyster” always makes me laugh.

And when I heard that he passed away I needed a laugh.

Hail and farewell, Baxter Black. I hope you enjoy meeting Baxter again.

 

Miniature Memories.

The last Howard Johnson’s has now closed and I’m shocked that there were any still around. There was one near where I live that hung on for several years, then sat empty and abandoned for several more years, but its bright orange roof could be seen from the interstate and stayed in pretty good condition in spite of being left. I guess they were built to last even if the franchise itself wasn’t.

Of course I’ll always associate Howard Johnson’s with miniature golf. None of them, as far as I know, ever had golf courses, but when my family would take summer trips to Florida there was a miniature golf course called Gulf Golf on Treasure Island, and after putting through eighteen holes of windmills, concrete alligators, and around palm trees, we’d go and have ice cream. I’d get a root beer float with coffee ice cream which was the perfect combination.

I don’t miss Howard Johnson’s—I can get a root beer float any time, even if I have to make it myself—but I do miss miniature golf, which is more fun and has less pressure than regular golf. There’s still one in my old Nashville neighborhood that I would pass by regularly going from my house to the now defunct Hickory Hollow Mall. It was an expensive course, though, and had an elaborate castle, a lighthouse, and other buildings. At least it still has the lighthouse, and it may be worth playing a round. I played there a few times with friends many years ago. The main thing I remember is that the castle wasn’t part of any hole. It just stood off to one side, which seemed like a terrible waste. One of my friends said the course was really hard, but he was the only one who noticed. I don’t think the rest of us even bothered to keep score. If you’re playing miniature golf competitively you’re playing it wrong.

Even closer to my home was a, well, a weird miniature golf place, tucked away in a wooded area. The intersection of Nolensville Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard was, and still is, a major shopping center, but many years ago, just to the south, it all suddenly gave way to farmland, woods, and, for a long time, an old rundown bar with a gravel parking lot. Some time in the mid-80’s the bar finally closed and the property owners got the bright idea to build a miniature golf course there.

There were two nine-hole courses that could be played separately. One was a seemingly random assortment—a life-sized plaster gorilla, a lighthouse, because of course every miniature golf course has to have a lighthouse, and finally a tic-tac-toe board where the center square was the hole that took your ball. The other side was supposed to be a country music theme but was really just painted portraits of Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, and Minnie Pearl on wooden panels that probably came from the old bar, providing backgrounds for simple putting greens. Once we actually saw the legendary country music disc jockey Ralph Emery there with his family, and I wondered what he thought of the pictures since he knew most of the performers personally. 

It was only two bucks per game which was ridiculously cheap, and at first my friends and I laughed at the shabbiness of it, but it was fun to spend a summer afternoon just knocking balls around the greens under the trees and strings of multi-colored lights. We never bothered to keep score, or worried about what we’d do afterward. The playing was all that mattered.

The Legend Of Zelda.

Source: vocal.media

Forty years ago, on June 4th, 1982, the film Poltergeist hit theaters. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper it was a huge hit, a haunted house movie for the whole family. At the same time there was a growing health crisis: the AIDS epidemic was just starting to draw national attention. Poltergeist and AIDS are connected by the actress and activist Zelda Rubinstein.

There’s nothing about AIDS in the movie Poltergeist—after all HIV wouldn’t even be identified as the cause of the disease until 1983. In fact there’s really no deeper meaning to the movie at all beyond there being something rotten in the state of suburbia, but there are some interesting coincidences. The Freeling family’s house is on a secret graveyard—the foundation is a lie—because the developers who built their neighborhood decided moving the dead, treating them with dignity, would be too much trouble. The dead were seen as a problem and the problem was simply paved over. When the Freelings talk to their neighbor about the disturbances, standing on his porch, outside in the dark, they’re cagey about it, not admitting to anything while they’re tormented by mosquitoes. Because HIV is a blood-borne illness there was a persistent myth that it could be transmitted by mosquitoes. The Freelings hide the fact that their daughter Carol Ann has disappeared, and retreat into their own private enclave, only trusting their secret to a small group of discreet professionals. At one point a monster bursts forth from the closet where their daughter is trapped—and that same later closet that threatens to pull their youngest children back in. Finally, unable to hide anymore, the Freelings leave everything behind as their home literally implodes, driven out by forces they can’t control.

And then there’s Tangina, the powerful and charismatic psychic played so brilliantly by Zelda Rubinstein. She comes in well over an hour into the movie’s runtime and, if the part had been given to a lesser actor, it would have been a minor part, but Rubinstein owns every scene she’s in. It’s hard to believe it was her first film. When I first saw her she give a satisfied smile and say, “This house is clean” I expected the credits to roll.

Source: The Advocate

She—Rubinstein, that is—was also an early AIDS activist, risking her career. It might be difficult for people who didn’t live through it to understand how scary the AIDS years were. There was no internet so there was a lot of misinformation—although the internet’s at least as good at spreading fiction as it is for sharing facts. My friends and I were all just starting to hit puberty when stories of AIDS were front page news, when Rock Hudson’s revelation that he had HIV rocked the world, since so many of the victims had been, at least as the general public was concerned, nameless, and sadly dismissed as unimportant. Too many people ignored AIDS for too long, thinking it was someone else’s problem, something that only happened to those people, and that it could just be paved over.

It was terrible for me and my friends, bursting with hormones that made us want to have sex, to get the message that sex could be deadly. The tagline for Poltergeist was, “It knows what scares you.” Even before AIDS sex was both appealing and scary. AIDS just made it scarier even as our bodies pumped up the desire.

AIDS primarily affected gay men but we knew it wasn’t limited to them. We whispered stories of women who woke up after one night stands to find the man they’d slept with gone and “Welcome to the world of AIDS” scrawled on their bathroom mirror. We knew it was possible to get it through blood transfusions. My sophomore English teacher, Coach Peters, read a news article to us about Ryan White, a thirteen-year old hemophiliac who’d been given HIV-infected blood. Coach Peters almost broke down when he read how White’s neighbors drove by his house chanting, “Kill him! Kill him!” And Coach Peters told us all that he didn’t want to hear any jokes, any snide remarks. He didn’t care who had AIDS or how they got it. He wanted us to know it was a terrible, indiscriminate disease that no one deserved.

Other teachers—other people—were not so understanding. A friend of mine, Kay, had a gay friend who, when he learned he had HIV, drove his motorcycle into an oncoming car. When Kay wrote an essay about what a good friend he’d been to her and how his loss affected her a teacher wrote, “He got what he deserved” on it in red ink. That belief was all too common.

This was the world in which Zelda Rubinstein, in 1984, when people who got it were shunned, hated, and feared, even by Hollywood celebrities who, seven years later, would start wearing red ribbons, became an advocate for people with AIDS. She didn’t get an acting job for a full year, and would say in later interviews that she paid a price professionally because of her AIDS activism, but she had the courage to work with the LA CARES Project, to talk to gay men about the importance of safe sex at a time when talking about sex for too many people, gay and straight, was taboo. Rubinstein understood, even before it was a slogan plastered on walls and billboards, that silence equals death.

She was more than just an activist, though. Zelda Rubinstein was a mother figure to people who’d been thrown out of their families, who’d made new families only to watch their partners and friends die, ravaged by a terrible disease and harmed even more by hatred and fear.

Zelda Rubinstein, born May 28th, 1933, died January 27th, 2010, lived long enough to see HIV become a manageable condition, one that can be treated with medication although there’s still no cure. But there’s still hatred and fear, especially toward the LGBT community, the very people she worked so hard for. There are too many people who think things were just fine forty years ago, and that we need to go back to that time. The progress we’ve made is in danger of slipping away. The governors of Texas and Florida have pushed unnecessary and harmful legislation that attacks LGBT people and their families because the governors are afraid to deal with real problems. They’re at the front of a push that threatens the the rights and, I’m not exaggerating, the lives of LGBT people across the country, because the politicians who want to take us back to 1982 aren’t content with silence. We still need advocates like Zelda Rubinstein. As long as we do this house is not clean.

It’s Getting Dark In Here.

Source: FromOldBooks.org

So I got published recently in the new DarkWinter Literary Magazine, edited by Mydangblog, which is a really cool thing but also got me thinking about the pursuit of publication. And it’s something I’ve pursued quite a bit. In writing groups I’ve been in when people bring up their publication history I usually say I’ve got a nice collection of rejection letters which is true but I’ve also been published before, including in the anthology Static Dreams, volume 2, and now, with DarkWinter, I’m getting that same feeling that I’m among the cool kids again.

The rule in academia is “publish or perish”, but I work in an academic library, where the rule is more like “put away what’s been published or perish”. It’s not nearly as stressful, although I used to work with a guy who’d come by my office sometimes with a mathematics book or something equally esoteric. “Who reads this stuff?” he’d ask, and he always seemed strangely angry about it. I’d always say, Well, somebody, hopefully. The act of publishing is wanting to be heard, or at least read.

The act of writing is also solitary. Publishing is one way to break out of that loneliness, to be heard, and to—in the case of a place like DarkWinter—to hang with the cool kids.

Source: YouTube

And, working in a library, I’m conscious of the preservation of written words, and how it must give authors a sense, or at least a hope, that something of them will survive even after they’re gone.

I also recently had a minor disagreement with a friend who told me I’d been published “thousands of times” because I have this blog. I think that’s stretching the definition of “published”. Yes, I’ve put work out there for public consumption, which is, technically, being published, but I think real publication has to at least go through an editor first. That way if someone asks, “Who reads this stuff?” I can say, Well, at least one other person.  

Source: FromOldBooks.org

Miniature World.

Source: Orb.farm

Aquaria have a long history dating back to a woman named Anna Thynne (1806-1866) who started a Victorian craze when she and her children went to the beach and brought home some living corals. She kept the corals alive by regularly aerating the water by hand—or having her maid do it. Then she went back to the beach and figured out that if she put together just the right combination of plants and animals she could create a miniature ecosystem that was self-sustaining, at least for a while. It became really popular and lots of people started getting home aquaria, and her discovery even led to the first fish house at the London Zoo.

I think about her whenever I see an ad for one of those “self-sustaining” enclosed biospheres. I remember when those first started popping up in catalogs with the promise that they’d live forever. I think a year later the catalogs changed that to “lives up to three to six months!” and $79.95 plus shipping was a pretty hefty price for a dead paperweight. Some still get sold with the promise that they’re “perfectly balanced” and will live forever but realistically it just ain’t happening.

But I did find this cool website, Orb.farm, that allows you to create a miniature virtual ecosystem. You can fill it with sand and stone and wood and water and add plants, water fleas, and fish. It cycles from day to night ever few minutes and it’s kind of cool keeping an eye on the health of it. You can leave it running in the background and check on it every once in a while.

Still no matter what I do no system is perfect. The CO2 creeps up, the fish die, the plants eventually start to rot. At least it’s not real, but I keep thinking I should get a little bowl to put on my desk and put some water and a few aquatic plants, maybe even a cheap goldfish or two in it. I’ll just have to remember to change the water regularly since I don’t have a maid to do it.

%d bloggers like this: