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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.

A Snail’s Pace.

Source: Deutsche Welle (DW)

So a snail won a race in the city of Oldenburg, Germany, in an event to promote the city’s international film festival and why they thought that would be a good way to promote a film festival is beyond me. If they had an auto race or something like that then it would make sense because they could tie it in with the “Look at that S-car go” joke, but then here I am talking about it so I guess it’s working. The snail that won the race is named Speedy Gonzales and the prize was a head of lettuce, so there’s a snail who can really get a head. The entire track was 33 centimeters which Herr Gonzales covered in three minutes and twenty-eight seconds, and that comes out to about 9.5 centimeters per minute which is a pretty good clip for a snail.

I love snails. I’ve always loved snails. When I was a kid I put snails in jars, mostly because it’s really cool to watch them climb glass, but I’d also put some dirt and leaves and sticks in there, building them a little home, and sometimes I’d put two snails in there together and, being hermaphrodites, it wasn’t long before there was a cluster of pearly little eggs in tucked in one side of the jar which I’d carefully place outside, which fortunately our neighbor who was growing lettuce in his backyard never found out about.

In fifth grade I even made a pretty big terrarium with snails and some lichens and moss and a local sedum called star plants or widow’s cross for a class science project, which was a fun thing to carry on the bus, and if you think I got beaten up for that you’d be wrong. In fifth grade I had a really cool teacher who encouraged an interest in science and all the kids were into it and I didn’t get beaten up until the sixth grade when everybody started hitting puberty and I had teachers who mostly encouraged us to leave them alone so they could sneak off to the lounge for a drink, but that’s another story.

The snail race also reminded me of an event that always ended summer camp: the Critter Crawl. Any animal we caught during camp could be entered. The counselors would then draw a ten foot circle on the ground and all the critters would be put in the middle and let go. The trick was that to win your critter had to cross the finish line then you had to catch it and be the first to bring it to the judges, which made snakes and turtles popular choices because they could move at a pretty good rate and were also easy to catch. The kid who thought he was sure to win because he’d caught a damn squirrel was stunned when his contestant disappeared into the woods. That same year I had a turtle who came in third place.

I never did try entering a snail, but then I never had one like Speedy Gonzales.

 

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.

Don’t Bring Me Down.

So my wife and I didn’t drive one of our cars—specifically the Honda CRV—for several days. We got it in 2019 exactly twenty years to the day after our last Honda CRV died in the driveway. The old one’s fuel pump just gave out, and if the engine is the heart of a car the fuel pump is the aorta. I have no idea where I’m going with that metaphor except to show off how much I remember from seventh grade biology.

Anyway the new one, being two decades younger, has a few more bells and whistles. Actually it doesn’t have any bells or whistles but it does sync up to our phones, which is a nice feature and is why I don’t miss that it doesn’t have a CD player or, like the old one, a slot for cassette tapes. Offhand I can’t think what other new features it has but it must be more technologically advanced than the old one which leads to some occasional weirdness.

As I said it had been sitting in the driveway for several days because we’d been doing a lot of going back and forth that required carrying stuff, including the dogs, that our other car—a van—was better suited for. And when all that was done and my wife decided she needed to put her feet up she sent me out to pick up dinner. On the way I opened one of the windows to let out an errant fly which may or may not have triggered what happened later.

When I got home I parked the car, turned it off, patted it on its hood, and went in without looking back.

The next morning all the windows were open.

It occurred to me this had happened once before, and only once. After all we’ve only had the CRV for two years and only once gone more than a couple of days without taking it somewhere. We’d taken the van on vacation so the CRV was left on its own for a week, and when I drove it somewhere and brought it back the next morning all the windows were open.

The only difference between the last time and this time is this time it rained overnight.

My wife often tells me not to extrapolate. Usually she tells me this when we’re going on a trip and she’s got every part of the preparation planned out and if I try to think ahead and do steps she’s not ready for, even if they’re the right steps, it can throw her off. I’m going to extrapolate anyway and say that this small bit of weirdness makes me wary of self-driving cars. I can think of a lot of great things about self-driving cars. I’d love to be able to take a nap in the backseat while the car went on its way, but they’d have to be much more technologically advanced, and with all that extra hardware and software, well, there’s a lot more that could go wrong.

Addendum: Since Mona of Wayward Sparkles mentioned the terrible flooding that’s devastated areas of Tennessee, including Waverly, where I have some family, I wanted to mention that this post was written well before the rain even started falling and I didn’t mean to sound callous or like I was making light of that. But I did think about something important: if your car is caught in a sudden flood and the engine shuts down you may not be able to open the windows the way you could with the old manual rolling handles. So please keep a safety device in your car and stay safe out there.

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.  

Red In Beak And Throat.

For a brief window there was a plan for me to go back to work in my office, plans which have now been put on hold, and to be honest I had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand it would be nice to go back to my old work space, if only for a change of perspective, and at the office I could take brief breaks and walk around the neighborhood. That’s difficult at home because there aren’t any sidewalks here, and the distance from the house to the street is so much farther. I was also just nervous about going back to work in the office. Masking and social distancing policies are still in place, but there are some office corridors where I knew it would be hard to avoid people, and then there was the issue of parking. My wife let her parking permit expire and figuring out how to get a new one would be a bit of a challenge. My office building is in an area where parking tends to be an afterthought. In recent years several restaurants, hotels, and apartment buildings have gone up and now they can’t figure out where to put all the cars.

And on the other hand working at home I have canine office assistants at home and I enjoy eating lunch with my wife. And then there’s the view. My work cubicle doesn’t have windows but at home I sit right at a window that looks out onto the backyard. Back in the winter I also put a bird feeder on the window and it was fun to watch the variety of visitors that came to pick up some safflower seed

When summer came along I replaced the bird feeder with a couple of hummingbird feeders. Unfortunately it took a really long time for the local hummingbirds to figure out the feeders are there but now that they have I get to watch them regularly. The ruby-throated males are interesting and attractive, but I like the plain brown females as well. Actually “plain” is the wrong word. Their feathers are just as patterned as the males’; the color is just subtler.

Since ornithology was never my specialty I never realized that birds have complex, often aggressive social interactions, and it kind of surprised me to see hummingbirds, which seem like these sweet, charming little creatures, turn that up to eleven. They seem to have recognized me and will even hover and look in at me as if to say, “Hello!” That didn’t surprise me—I’ve heard they can be remarkably intelligent, which is something to keep in mind if you ever call someone a bird brain. But with each other they’re not so friendly. They’re vicious and territorial, driving each other away from the feeders, speeding through their air with their pointed beaks like rapiers ready to strike.

And they’ve gotten worse recently. They keep going after each other and have braved high winds and rain to come sip some nectar. It didn’t take me long to realize that, as hot as it may be right now, summer is still winding down, and the hummingbirds are stocking up because they’re preparing for their annual migration. The ruby-throated hummingbird will fly all the way to Florida, or even farther to Mexico or even Panama, flying, in some cases, as far as nine-hundred miles. So I get why they’re really active now. I get nervous myself before any long trip, especially if I’m flying.

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

A Good Day.

Who says Friday the 13th has to be bad? Most days I brought my lunch to school with me—peanut butter and jelly, sometimes baloney, sometimes tuna fish. First we went into the narrow kitchen, separated from the main dining area. There was a metal box by the door filled with cartons of milk and we each picked up one on as we went by. For lunch it was always regular milk; we’d get a carton of chocolate milk for our afternoon snack. Then I walked along with everyone else, carrying my lunchbox while the kids on either side of me picked up trays of, well, whatever was being served. It didn’t bother me that I was a little different, and no one else brought it up. After I paid ten cents for my carton of milk I filed out with everyone else to the main dining area where we all sat at long tables. At the far end of the dining hall was the stage where once in a blue moon there’d be a school play or some kind of presentation, but mostly it was blocked off by a heavy dark green curtain.

The exception was Fridays when the cafeteria served fish. Or rather the cafeteria served something that they called fish. It was a breaded square, with a slice of melted cheese on top, of something that was definitely white and flaky and probably at one time was once in contact with water. Whether it was really fish or not didn’t matter to me. I loved it anyway. I loved it so much I don’t even remember what else was served with it. Macaroni and cheese, probably, and maybe peas, and probably some kind of dessert. It was the one meal where I didn’t care about the dessert or anything else. I was all about the fish.

When I was in kindergarten we ate lunch early, before the rest of the school, and we were pretty quiet. In later years lunch could get loud with kids yelling at each other, throwing things, blowing up plastic bags and popping them. There was a woman whose job it was to supervise us which had to be the most thankless job ever. Sometimes she’d yell at us to be quiet and say, “I want to be able to hear a pin drop!” I never understood why. Sure, I got why she didn’t want us screaming at each other or popping bags, but shutting down all conversation seemed futile and unnecessary.

In kindergarten we went back to our classroom after lunch to lie down on foam mats for a while. Then we could go out to the playground or, if it was too cold, we could play a game inside. Sometimes the teacher would put on a record and some of us would pick up blocks and pretend we were playing instruments. I had a wool cap with a bobble on top and I’d get it and put it on when I pretended I was playing the guitar.

“I don’t know what it is with him and that hat,” I heard the teacher tell a visiting parent. She never asked me directly about it. If she had I would have told her I was Mike Nesmith. Only shorter.

In my memory that was a Friday, but not just any Friday. We took turns being first in line to go to the cafeteria for lunch. It was a special honor to be first in line and the first time I got to do it was a Friday, the 13th. It felt really good to have so much go right in one day. Maybe that’s why it sticks with me.

Field Trip!

There’s a Whataburger coming to Nashville. At least that’s what the news reports say. What they’re leaving out is there was at least one Whataburger here many years ago, a triangular orange building not far from where the Nashville Zoo is now. I know this because we went there for a field trip when I was in kindergarten. Why this was a field trip is a mystery to me, but it was close to the end of the year so our teacher may have been looking for any excuse to kill time.

Right now I think it’s not safe for kids to go back to school, a problem that could be fixed if more people would get vaccinated, but I hope that will change, and if it does I hope it means field trips can resume too because there are some lessons you just can’t learn in the classroom.

Many years after the Whataburger field trip when I was in high school, having somehow made it out of kindergarten, I was on another field trip. This one, I think, was supposed to be educational—a trip to a museum or historic site or something like that. I don’t really remember. What I do remember is we were allowed to go to lunch by ourselves and some friends and I went to a pizza place that I won’t name but had just introduced their new “personal pan pizza” with a special deal: the pizza was brought to your table in five minutes or it was free.

We each ordered one.

Five minutes went by.

Ten minutes went by.

When fifteen minutes passed we finally got the attention of the waitress who’d been ignoring us and asked where our pizzas were.

“I’ll go check,” she said, and went around the restaurant, ignoring us for another ten minutes. Finally she came back with our pizzas and the check. We said that the five minute guarantee meant we were supposed to get our pizzas free.

“That’s only for weekdays,” she said.

We pointed out that noon on a Thursday was very much a weekday.

“I have to check with the manager.”

After checking with the manager she came back and told us the guarantee only applied to adults, “not little kids”.

Several years after that I worked in a building that had one of the same pizza places next door. Every time anyone ordered a pizza they were charged a higher price than what was on the menu, and every time someone complained the manager would say, “That’s an old menu,” and if anyone pointed out that he should update the menu he’d tell them to get out, sometimes keeping their money without giving them their pizza.  It didn’t take long for the place to close.

So today’s lesson is this: a healthy society depends on cooperation. Don’t be like those pizza place managers. Get vaccinated.

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.

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