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The Deadline Is My Watermark.


One of the advantages professional writers have is the deadline. I think that’s true, anyway. I’ve never been a professional writer, at least in the sense that I’ve never gotten a steady paycheck for writing. I have written a few pieces for magazines that needed me to turn in my work by a specific time, but they didn’t pay me, but most of my writing has been done without a specific publication or even necessarily a specific market in mind, which explains why, among my collection of rejection letters, is a really nice one that said, “Thank you for your astronomy-themed poems. We enjoyed them a lot and wish you the best of luck but we don’t feel they’d be right for our publication. Sincerely, the editors of Trout Fishing Monthly.”

I realize deadlines can cause a lot of anxiety, especially for anyone experiencing writer’s block, even if it’s self-imposed. But the advantage of a deadline is that facing the empty page can be really scary, even for those of us who want to write. The impulse to write stems from an inner voice that says, “I have something to say!” Which is fine as long as it’s drowning out that other inner voice that’s saying, “Who cares?” and “Why do you think you’re special?” and, occasionally, “What is reality?” In fact I believe it’s the desire to turn up the volume on the former and try and drown out the latter that motivates all writers, or at least all who want to write for an audience other than themselves—even those who pursue careers as ghostwriters or doing low level journalism like obituaries, although in their case the voice they’re trying to amplify seems to be saying, “I have something to say! I just have no idea what it is and I don’t care if I get credit for it!” but that’s another story.

And the other advantage of a deadline, one that’s externally imposed by an editor or publisher, is you have someone outside of you saying, “Okay, you have something to say, so let’s hear it!” And occasionally adding, “By Monday at the latest or we’re going to ask you to pay back that advance we sent you and that you’ve already blown on coffee, rent, and a really expensive nose hair trimmer which you bought even though it didn’t seem like a good idea even at two a.m. when you were hopped up on allergy medication.”

So anyway the Manuscript Writing Café just opened in Tokyo, Japan, and I want to go there even though I already had plenty of reasons for wanting to visit Tokyo, because I’m fan of cafes, coffee shops, or other places that offer a space to write or work on other creative projects with the added benefit of having food and beverages that I don’t have to worry about preparing myself. If you recognized the reference to Henry Miller’s essay “The Angel Is My Watermark”, in which, overcome by a vague but insistent inspiration, he went out to a café determined to just sit and drink quietly and ended up writing all over the tablecloth, give yourself five bonus points. If you didn’t give yourself ten bonus points because, well, who would recognize that?

The Manuscript Writing Café offers writers and other artists an extra bonus: you have to book time there, you have to come in with a specific goal, and you can request “verbal pressure” from the staff—they even have different levels, and you can’t leave until you’ve finished your writing goal. Or until the place closes which does take some of the pressure off no matter how much you’ve asked the staff to come out and yell at you.

It’s a funny idea but I also like that it was very likely started by, I’d even say inspired by, someone who felt the pressure but was still struggling to write and who said, “There’s a need for a place like this!” and they were heard.

Student Driver.

Source: Cafe Press

I was running an errand and saw a car go by with a student driver sticker. That reminded me that on several occasions in the parking garage at work—back when I was going in to the office—I’d often see, and sometimes park next to, a car with a sticker in the back window that said, “New Driver. Please be patient—we’re all just trying to survive!” I may have been taking a chance parking next to a car with such a warning but, hey, we were all learners once, and I was willing to take a chance that a new driver wouldn’t do much damage to a parked car.

I also got my own driver’s license pretty late in life in spite of taking driver’s ed and even doing some lessons with a professional instructor. Finding a driving instructor who was willing to take on an adult student was, surprisingly, not easy—most of them said, “Wait, you’re how old?” And even if they didn’t think I was kidding they told me I should have learned to drive when I was a kid. Finally I found a driving instructor who specializes in teaching non-U.S. residents. Nashville’s a pretty cosmopolitan city and the number of universities here attract scholars and other professionals from around the world, and even if they’re somewhat familiar with the basics of driving some still need help learning the rules of the road so they can get a license. People who come to Nashville from most parts of Europe and even parts of Asia are used to really good public transportation—something Nashville lacks. When the place where I work started offering free bus service to all employees I asked a coworker if she’d start riding the bus.

“Well, I would,” she said, “if I didn’t have to walk three miles and cross two interstates just to get to the nearest bus stop.”

Anyway seeing a student driver on the road also reminded me of one time when I was in a student driver car and someone came up behind me and started blowing their horn.

“Yeah, I remember my first beer,” I muttered.

“What did you say?” asked the instructor.

“I said I thought we might turn here.”

Then the honking car pulled up next to us and I looked over and saw it was a friend of mine. He looked shocked then he waved at me before he went on.

Later that day he dropped by my house and we laughed about our chance meeting on the road.

“I had no idea it was you in that car,” he told me.

“Lucky thing it was me,” I said. “Just imagine if you’d been honking and carrying on at some complete stranger who was just trying to get a grip on driving.” He looked a bit crestfallen but I couldn’t resist adding, “Then you would have looked like a real asshole.”

Browser History.

Source: The New York Times

I remember my first visit to a video store. The VCR craze was just taking off and little independent stores were popping up all over the place. Independent, yes, but each one was the same: cheap carpeting and cheaper wood panel walls lined with empty cassette boxes. This was early enough that there were separate sections for VHS and Betamax, although the latter was still much smaller. I checked out Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. The store’s policy was rentals were due back in two days which was almost enough time to watch all of Star Trek but that’s another story.

Other, bigger video stores opened, in some cases swallowing the smaller ones, and some of the people behind the counters became curators who’d comment on selections and recommend other titles, especially if they got to know you. Or not. When I was in college there was a tiny video rental place two blocks from my dorm. It was in the middle of a neighborhood and I think the couple who owned it lived upstairs—a bona fide Mom and Pop operation. They never took any notice of what I rented, and any way their collection was oddly eclectic and disorganized with Eraserhead shelved next to a Three Stooges anthology shelved next to the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. 

But then came DVDs and with it those services who’d mail selections straight to your home so you wouldn’t have to make a special trip to the video store or worry about a title you really wanted being out of stock. And no more late fees. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, but I missed handing tapes over to a person who might say, “Hey, if you like Barton Fink you might want to check out Blood Simple if you haven’t already.” Recommending one Coen Brothers film for another may not have been much of a stretch but still it was made by a person, not an algorithm. And there was the simple pleasure of browsing, reading the description of a movie on the back of the box, and thinking I’d give it a try only to wonder why no one had recommended Cinema Paradiso to me before.

So I really envy the New Yorkers who’ll get to go back to Kim’s Video & Music, a place whose collection sounds even odder than the one I used to visit in Evansville, and which, after its closing, made the journey from New York to Salemi, Sicily, and back again. Now it’s reopened, inviting customers to come in and browse again. Video rentals are free and if you got rid of your VCR a long time ago you can rent one of those too. 

There’s so much nostalgia in the idea of a place where you can go and browse, especially without your browsing being recorded. Sometimes when I’m scrolling through the seemingly limitless options available just through the few streaming services we have I wonder what I’d find if a computer program weren’t feeding me options based on my viewing history, what I might check out if one thing I came in looking for was out, even what I might find if there were still Mom and Pop places. 

Well, at least there still is the public library where I can browse and, and it has a seven-day lending period which is almost enough time to watch the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Here’s my tribute to the decline and fall of a local Tower Records store, and while music is a whole other genre that place did have a video rental section with a lot of movies and staff who knew them all and were handy with recommendations. It’s the personal touch I miss.


Signs Of Spring.

Spring is a time of awakening.

The first and most obvious sign is the days getting longer. Sunset is later each day, sunrise is earlier each morning. The sun seems brighter too, moving in a higher arc across the sky. The birds that have been quiet for months start greeting the day, and singing throughout.

The days are warmer, temperatures rising steadily.

With the warmer weather the grass has started to grow rapidly, forming high clumps in some spots and a lush, level green carpet in others, dotted with the purples of violets, larkspur, and henbit, and the bright yellow of dandelions.

Looks like the poison ivy is back too.

The dandelions form cottony heads then send their seeds sailing out into the world.

Leaves start to bud out from trees, oaks forming tassels that dangle and blow in the breeze.

Cars, driveways, and streets are covered with a yellow-green powder as the budding trees spread their pollen.

You could get allergies just from looking at it.

Spring storms are especially intense. Powerful thunderheads sweep across the country propelled forward by high winds.

A light sprinkle turns into a heavy downpour. The sky darkens and then, suddenly, a crack of lighting illuminates everything brilliant white.

It’s hail all right.

Creeks and other waterways overflow, yards are sodden.

The next day the sun comes out as though none of it happened, but there are puddles where robins, bluejays, and cardinals splash and play.

Why is there a bumblebee in the basement? It probably won’t sting if I duck around it and it seems fixated on the bulb in the ceiling, but, still, why?

I should do something about that spare tire. The one in the backyard that collects rainwater, but also the one that hangs over my belt.

Then a new morning dawns and with it a new sensation. Just below the ribs. Itching.

Oh, great, of course, this early in the season and I’ve already got mosquito bites.

All this awakening makes me want to go back to bed.

Late Night Friend.

Source: BoingBoing

Back in my early teens I was alone a lot on Saturday nights, which isn’t as pathetic as it sounds. My friends and I would spend the day together but then there was a point when we all had to go home but, being teenagers, that didn’t necessarily mean going to sleep. Sometimes I’d sit up most of the night and, with cable TV still a pretty new thing, going through various channels looking for something. The USA Network at the time was an oddball channel that filled late night time with The Ray Bradbury Theater, the sort of counter-culture variety/anthology series Night Flight, and various low budget and cult films like Eating Raoul.

And then they started packaging the low budget and cult films as USA’s Up All Night and added weird, quirky host who immediately caught my attention. He squinted and had a raspy voice and the classic “this movie is terrible, folks, but let’s make the best of it” attitude that most late night TV hosts have.

That host, of course, was Gilbert Gottfried, and he really did make the best of some terrible movies. Yes, Sorority Babes At The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama is a real movie, and, no, I wouldn’t recommend watching it. In fact there were nights when I was either out or went to bed at a somewhat reasonable hour and would tape Up All Night, then fast-forward through whatever the movies were and only watch Gottfried’s bits, which usually had nothing to do with whatever the films were.

One night his segments were filmed in, I think, New York’s Dino Roar Valley. Was it a dinosaur movie? I have no idea. I’m not sure it mattered. I only remember a segment in which, after being billed as a “Dr. Gilbert Gottfried, Dinosaur Proctologist”, he held up a giant pill and said, “Boy, do I hate these dinosaur suppositories!”

Another time he hosted the show from a tattoo parlor and imagined himself getting inked and turning into a motorcycle-riding rebel. Then he got one of the tattoo artists to paint a design on his arm while he sat going, “Ow! Ow!”

He was in his thirties when he started hosting Up All Night—and already had a good career at that time, including a short stint as an SNL cast member, which I somehow missed, and he’d go on to, well, better things. But it’s Up All Night that I’ll always remember best. On those Saturday nights I was never really alone. Gilbert Gottfried was goofy and weird and funny, and though I was never lucky enough to know him or even meet him he was my friend.

Hail and farewell, Gilbert Gottfried.

Out Of The Office.

Back in January 2020 my work department got an award in the form of a special bonus that we could spend on a group activity. The best thing would have been if the group activity had been splitting the money, but instead, after a delay of more than two years, we opted for a trip to Cheekwood. It was a good choice—something everyone could enjoy, and it was outside. The only difficulty I had was before I left the house when my wife said, “You do know how to get there, don’t you?”

Well I did before she said that. It’s funny how I can be absolutely certain of something until someone asks me about it and suddenly everything I know is thrown into doubt.

Anyway I made it and we all had a good time ambling around the expansive grounds of Cheekwood. I’d forgotten that I actually like the people I work with. I hadn’t realized how different it feels to be around actual people and, even better, to be around actual people with no set tasks. We didn’t have to do anything specific or go anywhere specific. We didn’t even have to stick together as a group, although we did anyway. At one point we all made our way to the hill where the mansion stands and in the distance could see downtown Nashville. I tried to spot our building but couldn’t find it. Still it didn’t seem that far away, and I commented that I knew that eventually we’d all be going back to the office.

“Why should we?” said one of my coworkers. “So much of what we do is online now there’s really no need for us to actually be there.”

She had a point, but I kind of miss actually being there.

For What It’s Worth…

So I’m a bit of a numismatist, or, as my wife sometimes puts it, I’ll spend money to buy money. Technically that’s what anyone who invests in the stock market also does, although they’re hoping the money they spend will get them even more money but for a lot of coin collectors we don’t do it to build interest—we do it because we think coins are interesting. Mostly I collect foreign coins because I like the variety and I like the way the coins make me feel connected to other places. Also sometimes countries produce interesting commemorative coins, like Croatia which just produced a Dalmatian coin:

Source: Croatia Week

Back when I spent cash a lot more regularly I’d find an occasional Canadian or even British coin in my change, and once I even got a coin from Bermuda out of a vending machine. What path did these coins take that they found their way to me? Foreign coins also tend to be cheap, at least here in the United States. One of my main places to buy coins used to be flea markets. I’d find booths where dealers had various U.S. coins selling for anywhere from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars, and they’d have a cardboard box in the corner of foreign coins, going at a rate of four or five for a dollar. Sometimes I’d find a genuinely valuable coin—a Canadian toonie, a British pound, or a Euro, and I’d say to the seller, “You do know how much this is worth, right?” And they’d hold out the cardboard box and say, “Take a few more.” I guess that was because most of the time I was the only person buying their foreign coins.

And then I just heard about this extremely valuable $20 bill:

Source: Kottke

I’ve often heard about printing and minting errors in currency and how they can make a coin or bill worth so much more than face value. The $20 bill was found by a college student who got it out of an ATM and went on to sell it on eBay for $10,100.00 in 2003, although really the most amazing thing is a college student held onto a $20 bill. It was last put up for sale again in January 2021 and sold for $396,000.

The funny thing to me is there was probably a trail that could trace it back to its point of origin. Not the single bill but, from its serial number, it would be possible to determine the exact day, maybe even the time, it was printed, the other bills it was bundled with, when it was shipped to the bank that owned the ATM, and even when it was loaded into the machine. It made that long journey but it wasn’t until one person looked at it as a single bill that anyone ever stopped to think about what it was really worth.

Roadside Laundry.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found on the side of the road?

A story about a “mysterious stuffed animal spill” in Oregon put that question in my head although it’s a story with a happy ending: after the toys were rescued someone volunteered to clean them and they’ll be given out to children, and I guess it was the cleaning that reminded me of the time many years ago when my friend Steve and I were driving and saw a box on the side of the interstate, so of course we stopped to see what it was.

I don’t know what we were thinking and it only occurs to me now that stopping to check out a mysterious box on the side of the interstate seems like a pretty boneheaded thing to do. It could have been part of a drug deal—it could have been a box full of drugs waiting for a dealer to pick them up. Or it could have been a box full of money left there as part of a drug deal. Or it could have been the dismembered body of a drug dealer stuffed into a box. For all we knew it could have been the head of Alfredo Garcia. And if it had been any of those things we would have gone to the nearest pay phone—this was back when cell phones were the size of bricks—and left a message with the authorities and gotten out of there as fast as we could.

Yes, there was a considerable reward for the head of Alfredo Garcia, but if you’ve seen the movie you know delivering it wasn’t easy, but that’s another story.

Anyway it was a washing machine. For clothes. Not a full-sized one but a miniature, portable washing machine. It would really be more accurate to say it was a sturdy plastic box with an agitator in the middle and a button that could be turned to light or heavy, and a plug. It had a drain on one side so I think once your clothes were washed you poured out the soapy water and added clean water for a rinse. The whole thing couldn’t hold more than a couple of sweaters or a single pair of jeans and a shirt or about ten pairs of underwear—any more than that and the agitator would either break or shred the clothes. Still it was useful and I saved a lot of quarters by only using the dryers in my dorm, and could have saved even more if I’d figured out a way to put out a laundry line.

When I graduated I bequeathed it to some sophomores. I no longer had need of it and I hoped they could use it for washing their clothes. And if nothing else—not that I’m condoning this—it would be a really good place to hide drugs.

Standing Guard.

Still Life With Large Shell by Max Beckmann. Selected by museum guard Kellen Johnson. Source: Baltimore Museum of Art

I was in the British Museum and saw a guard with a big mop of sandy colored hair and a large mustache. He looked a lot like the trick shot pool player Charles Darling. Mostly the guard just stood against the wall watching the room but if he noticed anyone looking at him he’d smile and wiggle his mustache. He was such a cool guy and I wanted to talk to him but you’re not supposed to distract the guards in a museum, unless you’re pulling a heist like the one that made the Mona Lisa famous, but that’s another story. Actually any time I see a museum guard I want to talk to them because I think they must have some interesting stories, or at least some interesting opinions on the art they’re watching over. They spend more time looking at it than anyone else, and I’ve always assumed some of them take the job because they’re interested in art.
It turns out I’m right, too. The Baltimore Museum Of Art has a show called Guarding The Art of works selected by museum guards. Seventeen members of the security staff picked works, wrote wall labels, and helped design the installation, which is a pretty amazing idea. One of the guards is Kellen Johnson, a classical voice performance major at Towson University, who said, “We’re filmmakers, musicians, professors, writers, artists. We know a lot more about the artwork than people would be led to believe.” He selected Max Beckmann’s Still Life With Large Shell, and also Hale Woodruff’s Normandy Landscape, asking, “If this painting could sing, what would it sound like?” Then he sang part of Mozart’s “Dans un Bois Solitaire” which is a really cool response to a work of art.

Another guard who took part is Traci Archable-Frederick who picked Mickalene Thomas’s Resist #2 (2021), saying, “When I saw it, I was like, ‘This is everything that I want to say.’”

Source: Baltimore Museum of Art

And that speaks to a concern brought up and shot down by former guard and now artist and also trustee of the Whitney Museum of Art Fred Wilson who said, “I worry that this ‘experiment’, if repeated, will be erroneously understood as a possible dumbing down of museum exhibitions.”
The whole point, of course, is that professional curators aren’t the only ones who should have a say in what goes on the museum walls, and there’s no “right” interpretation of a work of art. The opinions of the guards are just as valid as the opinions of the critics, the docents, and the people who just come to look. Like I said guards probably spend more time with the works they watch over than anyone else, and that allows them a lot of time to understand the art, even if that understanding is just what it means to them personally. As long as art museums are open to everyone they’re also open to every interpretation.

Next I’d like to see exhibits curated by janitorial staff. The people who keep the museums clean also have an interest in the art, and, like the guards, get to spend a lot of time with it, including after hours. Janitors have even accidentally “cleaned up” installations they thought were just garbage–and it’s happened multiple times–which sounds like a joke about modern art but I think, hey, that’s a perfectly valid opinion. I’m really not kidding about it either.

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