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The Hot Seat.

Winter is the best time of year to sit at the back of the bus, or at least it used to be. At any time of year I like to sit at the back of the bus and just zone out on the way home, which had its upsides and its downsides. The upsides included being out of everyone else’s way, having room to stretch out a bit, and, if the bus hit something, I’d be as far away from the damage as I could get. The downsides, well, there’s only one really—I like to exit at the front of the bus and thank the driver. And in the winter there’s another upside: the back of the bus is where the engine is, so it’s hot. Oh, there’s another downside: if the engine explodes I’ll be as close to the damage as I can get, but sitting directly on a large hunk of piston-pushing metal burning flammable metal is that it generates a lot of heat so it’s a great way to stay warm, and I like to be warm. I’ve found I run a little colder than most people. Sometimes on a sunny summer day my wife will ask me why I’m wearing a long-sleeve shirt, and I’ll say, honestly, that I’m a little chilly, and she’ll say, “Fine, but what’s with the balaclava?” but that’s another story.

It’s also why when the weather gets cool I like to start the car about twenty minutes before I leave. This gives the car a chance to warm up, a lesson I learned when I was a kid when one Sunday after church an adult gave me twenty-five cents to go out and turn on the heater in his car. And I did. I turned the temperature control all the way up and the air on full blast, and the only thing I left out was that I didn’t start the engine so when he got in he got a nice cold breeze right in his face.

We also had a neighbor who would go out to her driveway and start her car and then rev the engine really hard to get it heated up, and once she drove me to school and she put the pedal to the metal the whole way and a couple of parachutes popped out of the trunk when we got to the parking lot.

At least the back of the bus used to be the warmest place to sit. Now that Nashville has upgraded its fleet of buses I’ve noticed that the back seats are about the same temperature as the seats everywhere else. The engine is still in the back, but it’s quieter and more efficient, and I’ve noticed that when following a city bus in traffic they don’t belch black smoke like they used to, all of which are upsides, but, when I’ve been standing out in the cold for twenty minutes waiting for a bus, the lack of warmth is a real downside for my backside.

Butter Me Up.

In college I did an art project. I wasn’t taking any art classes; it was just something I did for fun, and because I was buzzing with creative energy that found multiple outlets, most of which were writing, but occasionally I’d feel the need to do something visual. Anyway I took a canvas and painted blue lines radiating out from the center on it, and then I took pieces of a broken mirror—I’d found the mirror and not actually broken it myself, since I didn’t want seven years of bad luck—and glued the pieces to the canvas. I more or less reconstructed the mirror’s original shape but left just enough space between the pieces that you could still see the lines.

I called it “Self Portrait”.

Someone who looked at it asked me, “Do you really see yourself as such a fragmented person?” And that was an interesting question, not because I saw myself as a fragmented person—I didn’t—but because the idea I had in mind was that it wasn’t my self-portrait. When you look in a mirror who looks back at you? Sometimes it was Carl, the theater major, who always seemed to be right behind me whenever I washed my hands at the bathroom sink, but that’s another story.

There’s also the fact that when you look at a work of art, any art, you’re looking at it with your own individual perspective, your own history. You may have heard that the Louvre moved the Mona Lisa, and there’s a not so modest proposal to move it permanently, and one of the funny details of that is the number of people who go see it and describe it as “disappointing”. I’m not surprised. Seeing the real thing ain’t that big a deal when you’ve seen it a million times before. It was a very different experience for Napoleon who kept the Mona Lisa in his bedroom. When I went to the Louvre I went and looked at the Mona Lisa, along with a zillion other tourists, more out of a sense of obligation than actual interest. I stood there and said, “Yep, that’s it,” then I wandered off in search, mostly, of things I hadn’t seen before.

Anyway it’s a good thing I wasn’t taking an art class because if I’d turned that in I probably would have gotten an “F” for “pretentious” because art teachers can’t spell.

The tag BUTTER and UH are ones I’ve written about before and they do some pretty elaborate work. This was more of a quick tag, hitting a mirror that looks like it was being thrown away. I’m not sure the use of the mirror was intentional but it’s still interesting, and can make you ask, when you look into it, what do you see?

Hint: it’s not Carl.

Freedom Bus.

There’s a special freedom that comes with riding the bus. It’s not perfect, but then no freedom is absolute; everything requires certain trade-offs and sacrifices, as well as benefits. Driving has its advantages, like allowing me to set my own schedule, and while the distance to the parking garage is about the same as the distance to the bus stop the distance from the driveway to the door isn’t as far as I have to walk when I disembark from the bus. Still when I ride the bus I can read a book, or even listen to an interesting podcast, things I really can’t do while driving. I realize a podcast only occupies my ears and not my hands or my eyes, but sometimes I can get so engrossed in a story it’s hard to focus on anything else, or, especially if it’s a comedy podcast and I’m listening while walking to the bus, someone will say something that makes me laugh so hard I have to stop for a minute, even if it means potentially missing the next bus. Another one will be along eventually. And I can never predict when someone’s going to say something really funny. If I could I’d steal their line and use it here, and then later when I heard it on the podcast I’d say, “Hey, they stole my line,” and then I’d start wondering why they were on a podcast and I wasn’t, and that’s the sort of distraction that would be really bad if I were driving.
Anyway the other day I stepped out of the building where I work and it was raining. I hadn’t noticed it was raining earlier, probably because my cubicle doesn’t have any windows, and I was distracted by the thought of getting home. And I had two options to consider. One option would be to catch the bus at a stop right across the street from my office, where there’s a covered bus shelter. That would mean taking the bus all the way downtown so I could catch my regular bus, which would add about half an hour to my commute, and although I wasn’t in a hurry and could use the time to read or catch up on podcasts I also had to wonder if the extra time was worth it. My other option was to go back up to my office and get an umbrella. It was only a light rain, but I’ve noticed that a light rain will get you just as soaked as a hard rain if you stay out in it long enough, and even if I did take the bus downtown it might still be raining when I got to my findal stop and I’d still have the walk home. So I went back to my office and got an umbrella and set out for my regular bus stop several blocks away. And then I got distracted because I was listening to a podcast while I walked and someone said something funny about octopuses, and while it wasn’t a line I’ve used in anything I’ve written it was a line I think I could have come up with if they’d invited me on, and if they had it would have been better for me not to have used that line before because it wouldn’t be as funny if people knew I was going to say it, but that’s another story.
Anyway I managed to get to the street where I catch the bus just in time to see the bus on the other side of the street roll up to the stop and then roll away before I could cross over to it, but at least I had my umbrella so I could enjoy the freedom of not getting soaked while waiting for the next bus.

So Complain Already.

You know how some people get an entry-level job somewhere, doing some simple menial task that doesn’t require much training or education, and through ambition and hard work gradually move up to something better, perhaps even rising to the very top of the organization?
Jason was not one of those people.
He started in the mailroom and stayed there for about ten years. Job openings and other opportunities and other opportunities for advancement came and went and Jason missed them, mostly because he wasn’t interested, and also he was rarely around. A lot of those simple, menial tasks had to be done by other people when they could find the time because Jason wouldn’t do them, or he’d start them and leave them unfinished. No one could tell when he came and went because he brought a radio in with him and would play it while working, but frequently I’d go into the mailroom and find the radio on but no Jason. If he was in there and I had a few minutes I might talk to him a bit, share a joke, say something about the song on the radio. I think Jason’s disappearances and generally not doing his job were allowed to slide because people liked him, and before he was hired we’d been without a regular person in the mailroom for so long that some people had simply absorbed some of the mailroom work into their regular routines so there wasn’t always that much for him to do.
Jason was always upbeat, too. I’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say, “Aw, I can’t complain.”
One day I laughed and said, “You know, I think I’d worry if you could complain.” He glared at me, and that was my first glimpse of a darker side of Jason.
Things started to change. People got annoyed with having to do Jason’s work when things got busy, and when someone needed him to do something they couldn’t necessarily find him. There was an office coffee club–anyone who wanted coffee had to pay to join. It wasn’t much, a couple of bucks a week per person. Jason didn’t join but he was regularly caught getting coffee and only stopped after several warnings. He still didn’t join but always had a cup of coffee when he was around. That mystery was only solved when we all got a message from a department on a different floor that if “we” didn’t stop stealing their coffee they’d call security.
Jason didn’t have coffee anymore, and people stopped doing his work. Then in a meeting to review departmental responsibilities he asked when someone was going to be hired to help him out because he was so overwhelmed.
“You do less than anybody who’s ever worked in the mailroom,” I snapped, and I knew what I was talking about. I’d started in the mailroom.
A decision was made at the upper levels that Jason’s time could be shared with another department, in a job where he’d not only have responsibility but he’d be working as part of a team. When he showed up in the mailroom he was grouchy and was frequently overheard telling delivery people he was being watched over all the time.
Then one Wednesday morning we all got an email that simply said, “Jason has quit.” There was no notice, no warning. No one heard anything from him after that. I feel bad for saying this but I think we were all relieved.

Most people look at graffiti and see a crime. And I understand that. Sometimes, though, when I see something good, something that clearly took thought and effort, I see hard work and ambition. I see–and I realize this is a leap because I don’t know the artists behind most graffiti–someone who’s trying to work their way up to something better. I keep going back to the example of New York in the 1980‘s when city officials saw graffiti as a blight but art collectors and gallery owners saw talented artists who were taking risks because they didn’t have any other outlet. Sometimes when I look at graffiti I read it as a statement by someone who’s got something to complain about.

Wish Upon A Star.

Source: Sky & Telescope Interactive Sky Chart. Check it out. It’s really cool.

Have you ever made a wish on a star? Traditionally wishes are made on the first star to appear in the evening. Maybe that’s because the first visible star is the brightest and therefore able to shine through the sun’s lingering radiance, and was there long before you could see it, although the brightest stars aren’t necessarily the closest stars, and the more distant stars may not even be around anymore. Maybe stars are such lousy wish-granters because we’re wasting our wishes on the ghostly light of stars that burned out long ago. And can wishes move faster than the speed of light? If not and if you get lucky enough to make a wish on Proxima Centauri it’s going to be more than four years before your wish gets there and just as long before it gets back. I don’t know about anyone else but my priorities when I was seventeen were very different from when I was nine.

Maybe I’m overthinking this.

Sunday morning, after Daylight Savings Time ended and all the clocks fell back an hour, I got up early because my wife was going somewhere and I helped her load stuff into the car, take the dogs out, and whatever else needed to be done. I don’t remember exactly because my brain was still hanging out an hour back, but after she left and before I went back inside I looked to the south and there was a single star, bright enough to still be visible in the approaching dawn. And it was definitely a star, not a planet.

It was the star Alphard, the brightest star in Hydra, the constellation of the snake. The constellation is Greek, but the star’s name is Arabic for “the solitary one”, and it’s one of the stars on the Brazilian flag, representing the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and it’s on that state’s flag.

I can’t say I knew all of that while I was standing out in the backyard. Some of it I had to look up, including the fact that Alphard is larger and brighter than Earth’s sun, although cooler, and about one hundred and seventy-seven light years away, which makes it a relatively close cosmic neighbor, although still farther than you’d want to go for help if you locked yourself out of your house.

What I did know, standing out there in my bathrobe, is that the weather has gotten colder as we’ve moved into November, as the Earth’s orbit has taken it to closer to the sun, making the northern hemisphere’s nights longer, and that got me thinking about time. The ways we measure time–hours, minutes, even days–are arbitrary. Some cultures begin days at sunup, others begin at sundown, and in either case the sky never goes from completely light to complete dark in one swell foop. Time itself, though, is more of a mystery. Ever since Einstein we’ve known time and space are one thing, part of a continuum, and that matter affects space a time–an affect we can see in a picture of an eclipse, the sun’s gravity bending the light of other stars around it. The greater an object’s mass the slower time moves around it, and the faster an object moves the greater its mass, which is a thought I’ve been turning over in my head since I was seventeen. Is movement simply a way of marking time or are time and movement fundamentally linked? And does this have anything to do with temperature? Movement generates heat, whether it’s the energy released by stars knocking hydrogen atoms into each other or heat produced by the movement of molecules, movement that only stops at absolute zero. If you could stop all time around you but keep moving, like in a science fiction story, would you freeze because all the matter around you was no longer generating heat?

I shivered in my bathrobe. I’d lost track of how long I’d been standing there in the backyard staring at a solitary star as it dimmed in the growing light of a much closer star, so I walked to the door and wished I hadn’t locked myself out of the house.

Cash Cab.

Source: The Daily Hive

The recent story of a Vancouver man who got taken on an unnecessarily lengthy taxi ride around his hometown got my attention because I have some experience riding in cabs, and, in fact, in this era of “ride sharing” services like Uber and Lyft, I can think of a few reasons I’d rather take a taxi, including being able to pay in cash and not having to download yet another stupid app to my phone, and there are a lot of decent hardworking cab drivers out there just trying to make a living. Anyway the Vancouver story is that a local guy told a cab driver he was a tourist from Wisconsin and what should have been a ten minute ride turned into forty-five minutes. The interesting thing is the cab company is suggesting it might not have happened. Being a company, and also Canadian, they’re very polite about it, with a Yellow Cab spokesperson noting that “that drivers want to take the correct and shortest routes, especially on busy nights.” And yet I know it happens, and it baffles me. Clearly there are arcane aspects to driving a taxi that I’m unfamiliar with because I can’t imagine how taking the time to fleece would-be tourists would benefit any cab driver, especially now with the prevalence of GPS tracking and route maps available to anyone with a smartphone, even without having to download yet another stupid app.
It also got me thinking about my time as a college student in Evansville, Indiana. Very few of my friends had cars, and the ones who did rarely wanted to lose their campus parking spots which were small in number, not to mention small in size and difficult to get into and out of, so most of the time when we wanted to go somewhere that was more than walking distance we took the bus. Or occasionally we splurged on a cab. And every cab ride was the same amount: five bucks. There were two malls in Evansville at the time. If we wanted to go to the Eastland Mall it was five bucks. If we wanted to go to Washington Square Mall it was five bucks. If we wanted to go downtown it was five bucks. Getting back from downtown was five bucks. All the cabs had meters than ran as we went along, but the price always came out to be the same.
At the time I thought this was just a funny coincidence, but, looking back, I realize how much sense it makes. Evansville is a small town. The two malls, and downtown for that matter, were all pretty much the same distance from the university campus.
Once when some friends and I got into a cab the driver asked where we were from. We were from all over, but when I said Nashville he perked up.
“I’ve been to Nashville,” he said, “lots of times.” At first I thought he meant Nashville, Indiana, which is a mistake only Hoosiers make–everywhere else in the world when I tell people I’m from Nashville they immediately say “You must be a country music fan!” and I don’t have the heart to tell ‘em I’m not, but that’s another story.
The cab driver did mean Nashville, Tennessee, though, and he told us that a wealthy Evansville widow used to pay him fifteen hundred dollars to drive her down to Nashville. He’d then idle along while she walked down the sidewalk going into one bar after another, getting steadily drunker. Then when she could barely stand up she’d get back in the cab and by the time he drove her home she’d be sober again, or at least sober enough to get into her house.
He hadn’t finished his story by the time we got to the mall where we were going but we all sat and listened to him until he was done, and it only cost us five bucks.

Missed Connections.

Sometimes I go looking for graffiti, or public art—and the distinction between those two can get pretty fuzzy—and sometimes I just find it. Sometimes I find it because my definition of art is so broad it includes things most people don’t consider art, but if all my years of looking at and reading about art have taught me anything it’s that “art” isn’t easily defined, and I doubt that even if I did become a professional art critic or art historian I’d feel differently. In fact I did once ask an academic what it took to be a professional art historian and he said, “At the very least a Master of Fine Arts degree,” and it was kind of funny to me that anyone ever thought art was something you could master, but that’s another story.

To get back to my original point, and I should because now that I think about it most of the time I don’t find graffiti by looking for it—I just find it, like the example above. I wasn’t looking for graffiti when I found it. I was on my way to a movie and parked in the very lowest level in the far corner of a parking garage even though it meant climbing three flights of stairs, but I was fine with that. I needed the exercise, although I’d really need the exercise even more after a large popcorn. I just like to park a long distance from wherever it is I’m going because I like the exercise and I never know what I’ll see on the way, and it comes in handy during the holiday season when I don’t have much choice.

I was really struck by how someone had not only tagged this storage shed but done so with a lot of flourish, clearly giving it some real thought. They took what was a strictly utilitarian, mass-produced object, something that someone had probably designed without much thought about anything beyond making it as cheap as possible, and they gave it aesthetic appeal.

Something I didn’t even think about until, well, now, is that it might have been in the southeast corner of the parking garage. Maybe there was even another one on the other side that the same person embellished with “North East”. I would know if I’d just bothered to look.


Where Wolf?

When I was in college I spent a semester in England. Not all of it–there were a few places I didn’t get to, like the home of Dylan Thomas. While I was there I lived and went to school in Harlaxton Manor, a Victorian house that’s been featured in films like The Haunting and recently portrayed a French domicile in an episode of Victoria, although all that was long after I’d left.
Sometimes I went into the nearby town of Grantham. Well, it wasn’t that nearby. Closest to the manor was the picturesque village of Harlaxton with narrow lanes and houses with small gardens and apple trees, all of it surrounded by farmland. Grantham was a pretty good distance, 2.7 miles according to the maps. One guy did try to walk there and a herd of cows followed him half the way, but that’s another story. A lot of us went back and forth by cab. A local cab company offered a special deal to students, and if we were lucky our cab driver was Big Dave. Regular visitors here might remember Big Dave’s encounter with the will o’the wisp, or his vanishing hitchhiker story, or the time he was bitten by the only poisonous snake in the British Isles, or his tale of the hairy hand. Big Dave was also, as I’ve said before, called that partly to distinguish him from another Dave with the same company whom we called Little Dave, but also because Big Dave took up most of the front seat by himself.
So one night I was lucky enough to get a ride home with Big Dave. We were passing through the farmland when we heard a low, mournful howl.
“Sounds like someone’s dog,” I said.
“Or a wolf,” said Big Dave.
“I thought there weren’t any wolves left in Britain.”
Big Dave chuckled. “Oh, you’d be surprised what you’d find out in the meadows between villages and towns. Lots of strange things you find on moonlit nights.”
I leaned forward and Big Dave went on.
“I was driving around the other side of the village, near Belvoir Castle, and I heard an animal snarling and barking. Something angry, whatever it was, and I slowed down. I didn’t want to hit it. And then I saw something out of the side, something moving. Whatever it was jumped out in front of the cab and I pressed hard on the brakes. Skidded to a stop. It was a man. He sort of snarled at me and I saw he was starkers.”
“He was…”
“Naked. I thought maybe out for a jog, even if it was a bit cold for that. Takes all kinds, y’know.”
I remembered Big Dave’s story about the time he was drunk on New Year’s Eve and decided to go for a swim in the Trafalgar Fountain. Fully clothed.
“We just stared at each other,” Big Dave went on, “and then he ran around and jumped in the back of the cab. ‘Drive me into town, please!’ he said, and I started driving. I think all I had was a tea towel but I offered that to him. As I pulled forward I heard something come barking and snarling up at the back tire so I sped out of there.”
“It wasn’t a werewolf,” I said.
“Even worse.” Big Dave started to laugh. “The poor man had been taking a bath, went to get the evening newspaper off his front porch, and had gotten locked out. He wanted me to drive him to a locksmith. And he was being chased by his neighbor’s dog.”
Big Dave and I laughed together and it echoed across the moonlit fields.


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