American Graffiti.

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

He Slimed Me.

Once a year I get to indulge my love of the Monster Cereals—Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Boo Berry, and once a year I’m disappointed that they never bring back Yummy Mummy or my personal favorite Fruit Brute.

And this year they’re even more disappointing because General Mills has scrapped the dark and usually well-drawn boxes—back in 2014 they even got DC artists, including Jim Lee and Rachel Dodson, to draw some really great designs—and gone retro. Really retro.

Not that going retro is necessarily bad, but just repeating the past is lazy even if it is the 50th anniversary. There’s a reason the 1988 remake of The Blob is still worth watching Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho isn’t.

Then I turned a corner and there was this:

NO NO NO. WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE? THIS IS AN ABOMINATION AND SHOULD NOT EXIST. NOT IN ANY SIZE.

So when I got home the first thing I did was check out the “ghosts”, which seem to have replaced the standard crunch berries.

If you look carefully the ghosts have green spots because, hey, if there’s one thing kids love it’s green stuff in their food.

These become more pronounced when you add milk. I also let it sit for a few minutes because Cap’n Crunch is also known as “the mouth shredder”.

And I’ve gotta give ‘em credit—truth in advertising. The cereal turns the milk a sea foam shade of green that’s almost but not quite entirely unappetizing. It also makes the milk a little slimy in a wow-do-I-need-to-brush-my-teeth kind of way.

It does the same if you add it to water.

That’s where the real fun comes in. You can make the milk, or water, an even darker shade of green by filtering out the cereal and adding more. I didn’t go too far because I was already getting a sugar buzz by my seventh bowl, but this is a fun cereal for the mad scientist, or pretty much anyone who likes to play with their food. And check out the artwork on the box: the shading, the coloring. They’ve turned the staid old cap’n into a demented Victor Frankenstein unleashing a slimy green milk horror on the world. Every part of it is a damn work of art.

Don’t Put It Pasta.

Source: Saveur

Carbs may be persona non grata for some personae but if I have to do a little extra exercise, or accept that my spare tire will be a little more inflated, I’m okay with that because there are many things I won’t do without and pasta is one of them. Or rather the many varieties of pasta, and thanks to 3-D printing there are even more varieties of pasta. I’m pretty sure the question of why there are already hundreds of varieties of pasta, mostly regional could be the subject of a whole book. Heck, last year a journalist did a deep dive into why there was a shortage of bucatini, which, in spite of my love for pasta, I never even noticed, maybe because there are so many varieties, and finally got an answer this year

And then there’s Barilla’s annual 3-D pasta printing contest that invites people to enter designs that couldn’t be made by hand or even conventional pasta machines, like this pasta galaxy:

Source: Saveur

It represents the possible future of food that doesn’t just look good but could be better for us, which seemed like a good excuse for me to bring out this palate-cleansing pop quiz:

Musical term or pasta?

  1. Fusilli
  2. Abbellimenti
  3. Pappardelle
  4. Pizzoccheri
  5. Villotta
  6. Lamento
  7. Mafaldine
  8. Rigatoni
  9. Bamboula
  10. Tutti
  11. Obbligato
  12. Zimbalon
  13. Farfalloni
  14. Jongleur
  15. Passacaglia
  16. Lumaconi
  17. Mandala
  18. Orecchiette
  19. Quadrefiore
  20. Funiculì
  21. Ricciutelle
  22. Quadrettini
  23. Sacchettini
  24. Tortelloni
  25. Epithalamium
  26. Gnocchi
  27. Spatzle
  28. Malagueña
  29. Bucatini
  30. Logorrhea

Each answer is worth 1 point.

1-10 points: Great job guessing!

11-20 points: Your music appreciation/cooking instructor is somewhere saying, “Thank goodness something got through.”

21-30 points: We’re coming to your place for dinner and/or a concert.

Answer key below the video.

 

https://freethinkersanonymous.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/answerkey.jpg

 

Unreal.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s been a long time since I wore a watch regularly but back when I did I’d have to take it in and get the battery replaced every six months or so. And while there are some chain places that are closer to me that offer watch battery replacement I’d always go the extra distance to go to a small independent jeweler. I’d do this for two reasons: one, the people who work at those chain places aren’t always that well trained at replacing watch batteries and I’ve seen them damage watches, and, two, the independent jeweler was actually cheaper.

Well, there was also a third reason. I really dig gemstones. I mean I like them. I’ve dabbled in rock collecting, including earning my geology merit badge as a Boy Scout, but there’s something really fascinating about cut stones. The skill of lapidary is just amazing to me, and while there are more valuable stones there aren’t any that I find more extraordinary than star sapphires. I’m kind of running out of superlatives here because I just can’t put into words how amazing it is that the “star” at the heart of a star sapphire, known as an asterism, moves as you move back and forth while looking at it. It’s not an illusion but it does seem unreal.

I thought about that when I read about some workmen in Sri Lanka who turned up a massive cluster of star sapphires, estimated to be worth up to one-hundred million dollars, in the backyard of a guy who was able to identify it on the spot because he just happened to be a gem trader.

Source: BBC

What are the odds of something like that happening? Well, pretty good, it turns out. Sri Lanka is known for being a major exporter of sapphires and other gems, and Ratnapura, where the sapphire cluster was found, is one of the island’s most gem-rich areas. The world’s largest star sapphire, known as “The Star Of Adam”, which weighs a whopping 1404.49 carats–that’s almost ten ounces– was found there in 2016.

Source: BBC

It’s still an amazing find, and I bet the guy whose yard it was found in really digs it.

We All Have To Go.

Coincidences are funny things. The other day I discovered a trove of old pictures, mostly ones I’d taken back when I first got a smartphone, and of course there were several pictures in there of men’s rooms. I had this idea at the time that it would be funny to take pictures of public restrooms and post them online, and maybe even put together a book of them—a bathroom book, not that I’d want to compete with The Great American Bathroom Book. I had an idea that it could be an art project. I could even consider restroom design—what makes one good or bad, and maybe highlight the best ones.

And I would call the project Dear John.

Tumblr was still pretty popular at the time, especially for pictures, but Tumblr’s design made uploading, well, such a pain in the ass I created one post and quit. And, to be fair, that was only part of the problem. The other part is bathrooms aren’t the easiest places to photograph. Most don’t have a lot of space so composing a good shot could be difficult. A lot are also designed for multiple people and out of a general respect for other people’s privacy and a specific desire to not get punched or worse I would only take the pictures when I was alone. Sometimes I’d get interrupted and you can imagine the awkwardness of trying to explain why I was crouched in the corner of a public bathroom with my phone out.

The coincidence is that the day after I found those pictures a friend sent me the article I Stopped Taking My Phone into the Bathroom for a Month by a guy who says leaving his phone out of the bathroom changed his life for the better.

It was a coincidence, right? My friend’s not looking over my shoulder or following me everywhere I go, is he? There are some places we should all just be alone.

There’s A Story Here.

Lately I’ve really been struggling to write. It’s difficult because even when the flesh is willing—and, let’s face it, I’m always up for sitting down—the spirit is weak. I know some writers claim to have found ways to overcome writer’s block and, well, good for them. I’m not sure I really believe it’s true. After all it’s in the nature of writers, especially fiction writers, to invent.

Speaking of overcoming writer’s block I once heard Neil Gaiman tell a story of how he was at a convention, hanging around with some other writers early one morning trying to shake off their hangovers, and his old friend Terry Prachett came bounding into the room.

“What are you looking so happy about?” Gaiman muttered.

“I’ve just written two thousand words for the day,” said Pratchett and, according to Gaiman, all the other writers glared at him.

It’s a funny story and it reminds me that even for those lucky enough to write for a living it’s not easy. In fact it can be really hard work, and even for Pratchett it wasn’t always easy. His essay “Thought Progress” starts:

Get up, have breakfast, switch on word processor, stare at screen.
Stare at screen some more.

Anyway now I feel guilty because I’m not really writing, just stealing stuff from other writers. Once in a writing class I was given an assignment to write about a place and I ended up describing the room where I tried to write the essay while writing about how hard it was to come up with something to write. The professor wrote, “There’s nothing more boring than writing about writing. Don’t do it.”

And now I feel even worse because not only am I writing about writing but also padding this out with someone else’s quote.

What I really want to get to, though, is this bit of stuff I saw in a grocery store parking lot. There’s a pair of folded jeans, a case of what looks like phone stuff, a red glass bowl with chains, and a…thing. That looks like the bowl might go with it.

How did they end up there? Who left them? Why? And why, while I was in the store, did someone take the thing and the bowl and leave the phone stuff case and the jeans?

There’s a story there. I just can’t quite get it down. Can you? Bonus points if you can identify the thing.

It’s A Sign.

Source: Google Maps, because I wasn’t fast enough with my own camera.

My wife and I were driving through my old neighborhood recently and as we went by a strip mall she said, “Oh, the upside down sign is still there.”

I’m not sure when exactly the upside down sign was first installed. I remember seeing it a lot, though, because I lived nearby and we passed it regularly.  I’m pretty sure I was in my early teens. Maybe I was even younger. It was there when there was a miniature golf course behind that strip mall—a miniature golf course where my friends and I spent a lot of summer Saturdays before it finally shut down. It was there when there was an arcade in that strip mall where my friends and I played a lot of video games, and when there was still a Radio Shack there. It was there when there was a small market that, for reasons no one ever understood, carried a lot of different imported beers from around the world—and this was in the ‘80’s, long before the craft beer craze. Also long before I started drinking beer. I only know about the market that carried a lot of imported beers because I’d go in there sometimes to buy a candy bar and I’d see this unusual stuff called “Guinness” in the refrigerator case, and I’d always think, well, if it’s beer it must not be that different from the Michelob my father drinks, and it would be several years before I’d discover Guinness resembles Michelob about as much as, well, a miniature golf course resembles a Radio Shack, but that’s another story.

The first few years it was there, every time my friends and I passed it, I’d say, “What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they fix that sign?” And my friend John would say, “Well, maybe it’s working for them. It’s getting attention.”

He was right too. The sign must be working. It’s still there, and the business it advertises is still there. In fact it’s the only thing that hasn’t changed. Well, there’s probably at least one place nearby where you can still get Guinness.  

On Repeat.

Repetition in art is a funny thing. Maybe I’ve said that before. Anyway there are some forms where repetition is the whole point, like wallpaper or Andy Warhol prints, or the loose coalition that was the Pattern And Decoration movement that came together in the mid 1970’s as a response to conceptual art and Minimalism. Repeating a pattern in a painting or sculpture can add emphasis, or it can change the meaning of a motif.

Generally, though, artists don’t want to repeat themselves, but that’s where things get tricky. If an artist becomes known and successful for doing a certain thing there’s a temptation to keep doing that thing but that’s a risky strategy. People get bored with seeing the same thing, and critics can slam an artist who does the same thing over and over “stale” and “a hack” . And even if they don’t, or haven’t yet, artists can get bored and want to challenge themselves, to try something new. Trying something new carries risks too, of course—among other things people sometimes say, “Yeah, the old thing was so much better.”

Art’s constant pursuit of the new has its problems too, though, which Milan Kundera explores in his novel Immortality. There are a limited number of gestures, of colors, of musical notes. It’s inevitable that even if one artist doesn’t directly repeat another there’s going to be some overlap, some repetition, maybe even some unintentional copying. Two composers might stumble on the same catchy tune, maybe even at roughly the same time. Museums work really hard to preserve art but there’s an argument for letting at least some old things disappear, or simply fade from memory, to give future generations a chance to rediscover something and see it with new eyes without feeling like it’s the same old thing.

Well, that’s about all I can say without running the risk of repeating myself.

Source: XKCD

Illumination.

It was on one of my family’s trips to Florida, or rather on the way back, that I asked my father how neon signs worked. There was an old restaurant somewhere along the way where we always stopped and had dinner before the final stretch. The place had a large neon sign and I remembered seeing a short film on Sesame Street of a man making a neon sign, although it was mostly silent and showed the process without actually explaining anything. My father told me the glass tubing was filled with one of the noble gases, usually neon, and electricity made the gas glow. Now that was really cool—simple but cool, and was pretty much my understanding for a long time until I read Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and got a slightly more detailed, but still simple, explanation of why an electric current makes the gas glow. Basically it’s this: because of the current the electrons surrounding each atom pick up extra energy and move farther away from the nucleus, but they can only hold onto it for so long. When they fall back they release the extra energy as light.

The same principle is used in fluorescent bulbs but while neon lights are cool and provide great design for places like the old Las Vegas strip or the old Picadilly Circus in London or the old Times Square in New York fluorescent bulbs just make your office even more miserable, but that’s another story.

Wikipedia goes into even more detail and the Photographic Periodic Table has cool visualizations of some of the noble gases lit up, but what I really think about is how much of an art neon signs are—a disappearing art. They’ve been mostly replaced by plastic and LED and, more recently, digital signs that are—no pun intended—flashier, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that more modern signage is used by big chain businesses while it’s small, local places that keep their own neon signs. And maybe at one time that was economic. The big places need signs that are easy to mass-produce and neon signs mostly need to be hand-crafted. The smaller places couldn’t afford to upgrade and neon signs are durable. And what became the retro appeal didn’t hurt either. Neon is still popular for some home design and there have been efforts to preserve neon signs, but they’re gradually going from neon to neoff, and, yes, that pun was intended. Their disappearance means the loss of a personal touch, as well as some of the local color. Neon does a lot more than just illuminate the night.

Here, Souvenir.

It’s been almost six years since I took that picture, a few months after I first started writing about graffiti and other art for this blog. And I was really excited to write about it because it seemed so profound in its simplicity. What is art, or, for that matter, anything we make, if not a way of saying, “I was here?”

Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about it. I remember taking that picture and feeling overwhelmed by how much I could say, how my head was absolutely buzzing with possibilities. It’s such a pure expression, aesthetically simple yet philosophically deep. I thought about how J.R., whoever they might be, took a blank wall and turned it into a canvas, and then I thought, well, technically the wall isn’t blank, and, if you want to get really technical about it, there’s no such thing. Even an empty canvas has color and texture, and the brick wall where J.R. left their mark is far from an empty canvas.

And it made me think about walls in general, how they divide but can also connect, offering protection and a space where people can be together. Walls are usually all that remains of ancient cities, the first clue to archaeologists that a site was once inhabited, that people were there. Most versions of the epic of Gilgamesh end with the hero returning to his city Uruk and seeing the protective walls he built around it.

I’ve walked by that same spot several times over the years. J.R.’s mark has long since been removed, or maybe the weather just wore the paint away. Each time I went by there I remembered that J.R. was there, and I always assumed I’d already written about them. It’s funny that there were times I wondered what I was going to write about, trying to keep to this self-imposed schedule of posting something on the subject every Saturday, my own way of saying, I am here.

Maybe that’s why I kept thinking I’d already written about J.R., because it was so obvious. It’s what we’re all saying.

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