American Graffiti.

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

Out With A Bang.

Source: tumgir

My earliest memory of New Year’s Eve being a big event was when I was eight or nine. My parents were out for the evening and I was at home with a babysitter. I don’t remember which babysitter, but I do remember that at some point she either turned on coverage of the party in New York’s Times Square or it just came on because at that time the TV only had five channels—the main three networks, PBS, and the local UHF station that subsisted on Elvis and Jerry Lewis movies and whatever reruns they could get for cheap.

What stuck with me was a commentator who pointed to the giant ball and yelled, “At exactly midnight that ball will drop!” He seemed really excited about it, as though it had never happened before and not an annual event that had been a tradition since 1907. I may be old but I’m not that old. Maybe it was his first time covering the event. Maybe he was a local guy who’d just gotten hired to do the news and was excited about that, although we were in Nashville so, if the ball drop were broadcast live, we’d see it happen at eleven p.m. local time, an hour before the new year started. That was okay with me, though; I think my parents were going to be home before midnight and I wanted to see the ball drop. And I thought it was really going to drop straight to the ground and shatter into a million pieces. It seemed like kind of a waste, and potentially dangerous, but I still thought that would be a really cool thing to see. When it just dropped several feet and stopped I was disappointed, and didn’t care that I was seeing it an hour before midnight and would be asleep by the time the old year officially rolled over into the new.

Source: eventcrazy

The New York Times ball was inspired by time balls which were historically used to signal to ships at sea, and a lot of other places have adopted similar traditions. Nashville had a giant guitar that dropped in front of the Hard Rock Cafe but that was changed to a musical note. And last year we had a bona fide explosion, although that was on Christmas, and I don’t think anyone wants to make it a tradition. Eastover, North Carolina drops a giant wooden flea, Havre de Grace, Maryland, drops a big duck, and both Chagrin Falls and Marion in Ohio drop giant popcorn balls. Pensacola, Florida, drops a giant pelican, and in Bartlesville, Oklahoma it’s a big olive, although I think Tallapoosa, Georgia takes the prize with a taxidermied roadkill possum named Spencer.

There are other odd ones but most places that have notable New Year’s drops just drop balls, which makes sense. The Earth is round and keeps spinning and moving along its elliptical orbit no matter how we mark the time. By the time the confetti and glitter are swept up the new year has become just the year, and the older I get the shorter the years seem to get, although a year is still a pretty long time. I’m not that old. So I’m not wishing anyone a happy new year. I’m wishing everyone a happy year.

Lost In Space.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is weird, isn’t it? Apparently I’m not the only one–a friend remarked that “it’s that time of year when you lose track of what day of the week it is.” I do that almost any time I’m on vacation anyway, in spite of the looming specter of the eventual return to work.  I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can because it feels terrible to complain–I know a lot of people don’t get a break at all, or have worse problems, but I feel a bit lost between the holidays. It doesn’t seem like enough time to really be ready, although I don’t know what enough time would be. And there are things to be done: cleaning, packing away Christmas items, changing the oil in the car.

One of the things I got for my birthday was a pair of wireless headphones, and I was amazed, given my limited abilities with technology, that I was able to get them to work. And then, in a sort of echo of the general miasma, I felt deflated. The reason I wanted wireless headphones was so I could listen to podcasts and music on my way to and from work, but, unlike the holiday, my time working from home doesn’t have a fixed endpoint yet. It’s still vague. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel but no one’s sure how long the tunnel really is. 

At least I know when the holidays end so I have time to arrange my schedule, make some plans, and try to fill whatever gaps there are with something that will make me glad I had the time off.

 

Log In.

The first time I heard the term “Yule” was, I think, in third grade, and after all these years I still don’t know what exactly it is. I get that it refers to the time around Christmas, although I’m not sure why exactly that would need a more precise term other than “the time around Christmas”, or why Yule went on to star in The King And I and do commercials for Grape Nuts, but that’s another story.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word “Yule” back to about the 8th century and says it’s derived from Scottish and may have originally meant December or January, at a time when most people didn’t keep track of the months that closely. And the tradition of burning the Yule log may be Germanic in origin. No one really knows, which may explain my own confusion. The house I grew up in didn’t have a fireplace for most of the time I lived there–I thought Santa came in through the front door which was right next to where we put the Christmas tree, and no one I knew burned a Yule log. Even after my parents did put in a fireplace, which they did when they renovated the basement when I was about fifteen, we didn’t burn a Yule log–just regular fires if it was cold enough, and the thermostat was at the top of the steps leading to the basement, and since heat rises the thermostat would assume the whole house was warm and shut off the heat. This was fine for my parents who had their bedroom right above the basement but my room was at the top of the house and I’d freeze up there.

Anyway I still don’t know anyone who burns a Yule log, which is also sometimes called a “Yule-clog”, but I did find a description of it in Washington Irving’s story Christmas Eve, published in 1820 in the same collection as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but not as well known because no one loses their head in it. Irving’s been credited with bringing some Christmas traditions, including the modern Santa Claus, to the United States, but the Yule log is one that didn’t seem to catch on. Here’s part of Irving’s description:

The Yule-clog is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house with great ceremony on Christmas Eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with the brand of last year’s clog. While it lasted there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. Sometimes it was accompanied by Christmas candles; but in the cottages the only light was from the ruddy blaze of the great wood fire. The Yule-clog was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered a sign of ill luck.

That actually sounds like a pretty cool thing, aside from concerns that it might go out too soon, which could cause someone’s bedroom at the top of the house to freeze, and he also says there are other superstitions: “If a squinting person come to the house while it is burning, or a person barefooted, it is considered an ill omen.”

I generally don’t squint when entering anyone’s home and around Yule it’s too cold to go outside barefoot, but I really do like the tradition of saving part of last year’s Yule log and using it to light the next. It provides a nice continuity and a way to end one year with hope for the next.

I Love The Theater.

Source: Nashville Downtown

Live theater’s had a rough couple of years obviously, and it’s something I miss even though I didn’t really think about it until I read that the Nashville Children’s Theater is celebrating its 90th anniversary. So it’s almost as old as I am! And it’s really responsible for instilling a love of theater in me. Or maybe I always loved theater and the NCT just gave me what I wanted.

My memory is hazy but I think from kindergarten through sixth grade we had a school field trip to see at least two shows a year there. One of the earliest, maybe the earliest, was a production of Pinocchio that I saw in kindergarten and remember vividly because, much as I hate to say it, it was awful. Pinocchio was a whiny little jerk, and while the point of the story is that he starts out bad and ultimately redeems himself, thus becoming a real boy, the stage Pinocchio was still so annoying even at the end I wished he’d stayed a puppet. The Fox and the Cat, the story’s main villains, weren’t outsiders but life-size toys Gepetto had made and that somehow turned evil, and the giant whale that swallows Gepetto and Pinocchio wasn’t giant at all. It was another toy that Gepetto had built and was set against the stage wall. To go inside it Gepetto and Pinocchio had to get down on all fours and crawl in through the mouth, and it was about then that I started wondering why Gepetto had filled his workshop with psychotic toys that were all out to murder him, but that’s another story.

Fortunately the theater redeemed itself with a production of Really Rosie! that I loved even without knowing that it was a collaboration between Maurice “Wild Thing” Sendak and Carole King, whose album Tapestry is almost as old as I am.

Every other play I remember seeing at the Nashville Children’s Theater was great. They put on a wide range of plays, from standards, like an adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes, set in China and, if I remember correctly, with an all-Asian cast, to a contemporary drama about a girl dealing with her widowed father dating a new woman, to a series of extremely avant-garde mime sketches. And again and again the plays I saw taught me that, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, anything is possible on stage.

And even if they hadn’t been great they were still field trips so they got us out of school for a couple of hours. That made them something to look forward to even though we usually came back more wound up than when we left, so I’m sure the teachers dreaded that. I remember coming back from one and as I stepped off the bus I said, “I’m so happy to be back I could kiss the ground!” Then I got down and kissed the ground and got up with dirt on my face.

“Aren’t you too old for that?” my teacher asked.

Never.

Check out some scenes from their amazing production of A Wrinkle In Time which I didn’t see because I was too old.

Stick With Gingerbread.

Full size gingerbread house. Source: Wikipedia

I’ve never understood the tradition of gingerbread houses. I do get the idea that it’s kind of fun to take food and construct something out of it—gingerbread houses are an acceptable way to play with your food—but I’ve never found out if or when you get to eat the gingerbread house. When I was a kid I’d see them around at school and other places, and sometimes in people’s houses, but if there was a time when they were eaten I never got to be around for it. And after a while I’m sure the gingerbread and frosting and probably some of the candy got stale and who cares? It was gingerbread and frosting and candy and I would have been happy to eat it no matter how stale it was just to get that sweet sugar rush.

This year, though, the trend is to eschew the sugar in favor of little houses made of meats and cheeses and vegetables. And I get it: it’s putting the cute in charcuterie. I also don’t get it. At least a gingerbread house will hold up pretty well for a week or two, but if you build a domicile out of cheddar and shingle it with salami it’s not going to last, especially if you keep it in the warm house. Even if you use a cracker or bread base the oils from the meat and dairy façade are going to make the whole thing a soggy mess within a day at most. And if you have a pet then surely I don’t have to spell out the dangers of having a cat or even a dog and a carefully crafted plate of meat and cheese is going to be extremely inviting. And it may be just as well to lose it that way because a meat and cheese home is going to be edible, at best, for a day or two.

No, just no. Please stop this. Source: National Post

The history of gingerbread baking in Europe dates from the 11th century when crusaders brought ginger back with them, and in the 17th century its production was even strictly controlled by guilds, except at Easter and Christmas when anyone was allowed to bake gingerbread, making it a special holiday treat. The gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel find in the woods either inspired the tradition of making gingerbread houses or was inspired by it. Either way it’s a pretty old tradition, but do you know what’s not an old tradition? Building little homes out of cheese and meat and there’s a good reason for that.

The Real Elementals.

Source: Luciteria Science

One Christmas when I was a kid I got a chemistry set. This wasn’t a surprise. I was interested in chemistry and had specifically asked for a set, and although this was after the era when radioactive elements were included in chemistry sets it was still during the era when sodium ferrocyanide was included and my parents had to warn me that mixing it with either hydrochloric acid, which I’d gotten a bottle of from the hardware store, or sulfuric acid, which I’d gotten from an old car battery, could create cyanide gas and kill me and anyone else nearby too. And I did once almost set the garage on fire, but I learned my lesson from that experience and only ever almost set the garage on fire two more times, in entirely different ways, so that was good.

Source: Hamlet’s Danish

I had a lot of fun with the chemistry set. It came with a book of experiments, including a whole section of “chemistry magic” and I went straight for that because I thought I had an interest in chemistry but really I had an interest in making colored liquids and blowing stuff up. My real interest, though, was the elements. I was fascinated by elements in their pure, or almost pure, states and wanted to get as many as I could—as many as could be safely stored, anyway, without setting the garage on fire or killing anyone. So anything radioactive, even if I could find it, was out, and so were gases, but I had samples of pure sulfur from a bottle I bought at the drugstore, and lead from the weight on a car tire, and that was so soft I could cut it into small shavings with a pocketknife. The chemistry set also came with a small alcohol lamp that burned hot enough to melt the lead shavings back into a solid lump which is pretty impressive considering that the melting point of lead is 621.5°F, or 327.5°C, but when it’s that hot it really doesn’t matter if you’re using Fahrenheit or Celsius because you’re not going to be around for long. I also had a bottle of mercury my grandfather had given me—I have no idea where he got it, but it was at least enough to fill a hundred old thermometers.

Source: Luciteria

I really wanted some of the more unusual, exotic elements, and that’s why I wish Luciteria Science had been around when I was a kid. Or maybe it was but there was no internet so I couldn’t find it. They sell elements in cubes, and a cool display case for holding them, and I’m more than a little fascinated not just with the range of elements—mostly metals—but the prices too. A gold mirror cube is just $65.00, but an iodine cube—and, yes, iodine is a solid, contrary to what my seventh grade science teacher said—is $500.00. An aluminum cube is just $6.00, or you can get a highly polished one for $25.00, which is impressive considering that aluminum used to be more expensive than gold. Beryllium—which tastes sweeter than sugar but is highly toxic—is just $5.00, and so is boron, but a cube of calcium will set you back $119.00. Niobium cubes, $13.00, are multi-colored, but the polished mirror cube of the same element is a plain silver, and speaking of that, a plain silver cube is $30.00 but a cube of palladium is $2100.00.

And, honestly, I’m more interested in the aesthetics than the economics, although most metals just don’t look that different from each other. They’re still pretty cool, though, and they all come in a plastic case so they won’t set your garage on fire or kill anyone.

Hey Vern! It’s Graffiti!

It’s been a long time since I spotted any local graffiti, much less any that was worth stopping and looking at, since circumstances have mostly kept me at home. That’s only part of what made this particular piece so special, though, but before I get to that let me describe a bit of where it is: it’s on a wall next to an interstate. The berm in front of the wall is fenced in which I suspect is designed specifically to keep out the sort of person responsible for the graffiti. There’s a gate in the fence with a loose chain and a padlock which are clearly there to say, “You can’t come in here unless you push a little bit.” I don’t know when it was done but it’s big and pretty impressive so I suspect it was done at night, which makes the way the sunlight highlights the silver, which in turn stands out so well against the red, even more impressive.
Then there’s the name. If you’re of a certain age and grew up with U.S. pop culture the name Vern probably makes you think of a very specific character: Ernest P. Worrell. You probably even know the actor behind Ernest, Jim Varney, from his Saturday morning TV show Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! which I loved, in spite of the fact that I was already getting too old for Saturday cartoons–or maybe because I was getting too old for Saturday cartoons. It could be described as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with a Southern accent, but it was so much more than that; Varney put on other characters, including my personal favorite the supervillain mad scientist Doctor Otto.
The cliche of the sad comedian is, of course, a cliche because it’s so often true. In a November 1999 issue of the Nashville Scene titled, appropriately, “The Importance Of Being Ernest”, Varney talked about having depression and his cancer diagnosis. At the time of the profile his prognosis seemed good and doctors thought the lung cancer which had spread to his heart and brain was in remission. Unfortunately it came back and he’d pass away just four months later.
In that same profile for The Scene Varney reflected on how good the character of Ernest had been for him, making him financially successful, and he enjoyed meeting kids as Ernest, including hundreds of terminally ill children, and he was glad he could brighten their lives. 
He was also, he hoped,on the verge of a creative breakthrough, having gotten good reviews for his portrayal of Jed Clampett and his role in the indie film Daddy And Them. He said, ” I would like to do some new techniques, stories that haven’t been done before. I want to be artsy-craftsy and get into my Orson Welles stage.”
He never got to that stage. He’ll forever be Ernest or, occasionally, Slinky-Dog from the first two Toy Story movies.
Was the artist responsible for the graffiti also thinking of that? To me it represents another cliche: the artist who can’t break through, held back by circumstances, bad luck, who needs to break in just to be seen, and who’ll get painted over, forgotten.
That’s a lot to read into something that was probably just done by some guy named Vern.

 

It’s Curtains For You.

A friend of mine used to have a Mondrian-themed shower curtain but in spite of that I never thought of shower curtains as an art form until Bored Panda posted forty different ones that elevate it and now I can’t stop thinking about how whole dissertations could be written just about the simple shower curtain. There’s the not-so-subtle eroticism in the way it conceals and the knowledge the person behind it is wearing, at most, a layer of soap suds, there’s the fact that it’s the size and shape, more or less, of a large painting, and it’s a utilitarian object but not really needed if you’re taking a bath or if you angle the shower head the right way. And that’s only scratching the surface of what a shower curtain says. I haven’t even gotten to the fact that what most of them say is “I was on sale at Target.”

Here are a few of my other favorites and I find it interesting that there seem to be some recurring themes:

 

I’d love any one of these but the bookcase one is really my favorite. I may never live in an old manor with false bookcases that hide secret passageways but at least with that one I could pretend I did.

Source: Imgur

 

 

 

 

 

What Does The Fox Say?

Yes, I know, the Ylvis song dates from 2013, and I remember at the time a lot of reference librarians I know were annoyed by dozens of patrons sending in the question “What does the fox say?” every day, but I couldn’t resist, and anyway I still like the song and I think the statute of limitations has passed.

And what reminded me of it is this video of a man serenading a wild fox, which the fox seemed to appreciate:

 

It’s an interesting thing at this time of because, well, in the United States in a few weeks a lot of people are getting ready to roast and eat a large bird that’s been purposely fattened up, beheaded, plucked, and, in most cases, frozen for shipment across long distances—that is if supply chain issues don’t keep causing trouble. And in Canada they did it a few weeks ago, while in Europe the Christmas goose, or other bird–including the turkey, or, at one time, an imported African fowl–isn’t far from meeting its own demise.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve eaten plenty of Thanksgiving turkey, and plan to eat more, but, to get back to the guy serenading the fox, it did make me think about how our relationship to animals is, to put it mildly, complicated. And that’s partly because we are animals ourselves. We may think that what we call civilization sets us apart but, at heart, our hearts aren’t that different from those of our fellow mammals, which is what makes our interactions with them so layered.

Some animals we love and invite into our homes, some we fear, some we just eat. Foxen are among those that defy easy categorization. They’re metaphors for beauty, cleverness, ruthlessness, they’ve been hunted for their fur, and they’ve been hunted as just vermin. They’re wild creatures and yet there’s a funny line going around of people describing foxen as “dogs running cat software”.

I think that’s one reason the traditional English fox hunt is declining. Well, that and fox populations are declining. And, well, a traditional English fox hunt ultimately only has one goal: to kill the fox. Say what you will about Thanksgiving but at least we eat the turkey.

Light Up The Sky.

Aurora borealis seen from space. Source: NASA

I have friends in the Pacific Northwest who’ve been making me jealous with their pictures of the recent aurora borealis, apparently generated by a large solar storm that may or may not have affected power grids and other communications. My wifi has gone out a couple of times but that’s pretty typical—in fact a couple of weeks go it went down right in the middle of a conversation with my boss and when it came back we talked about how wifi tends to go out when it’s too sunny. Or too cloudy. Or dark. Or if it’s too hot. Or too cold. Or if temperatures are too average.

There have been a few times when the aurora borealis has been intense enough that it’s been visible from Nashville. I’ve never seen it at those times–mainly it seems to have only been spotted from places like the Dyer Observatory, but one of these days I hope to see it in person. Or the aurora australis which would be equally cool–maybe even cooler since Antarctic temperatures dip even lower. Until then, though, I’ll have to make do with pictures.

And they always made me think about our little planet’s place in the solar system, and the greater galaxy and the universe beyond, something I also think about on cool nights when the stars shine with a crystalline brightness. Auroras are a phenomenon we know isn’t unique to Earth, although we have to go all the way out to the gas giants to find others. Yes, there may even be auroras at either end of Uranus, but that’s another story.

At this time of year I also usually reread Wallace Steven’s poem The Auroras Of Autumn, which makes me feel connected not just to the galaxy beyond but to this little world we stand on too.

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