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Smell This.

Benjamin Franklin famously said “Fish and visitors stink after three days”, and it seems like solid advice when staying with someone, at least depending on the size of their house. There used to be some reasonably sized houses in our neighborhood that were torn down and replaced with sprawling edifices with seven-car garages and indoor golf courses–houses so big you could drop in and stay for three years and the owners would never know you were there, much less smell you.

Anyway I get the visitors part but why fish? More importantly who keeps fish for three days? You don’t put a fish in a cool part of the basement to mellow like you would a ham or a bottle of wine or Uncle Charlie, not even for just three days. I’m pretty sure a fish would start to stink in the first twenty-four hours, if not sooner. Most fish smell as soon as they get pulled out of the water, although there’s some difference between fresh and salt water. And even then there are not so subtle distinctions. What I’m saying is if you pull a catfish out of a backyard pond you might not want to put your nose too close to it, although not just because of the smell but because they can bite.

What was Franklin thinking, anyway? The late Eighteenth Century was a notoriously bad time for food preservation, even though most people might not have realized it at the time. Yes, he could get electricity by putting a key on a kite string, but this method could rarely power a refrigerator for more than ten or fifteen minutes, hardly long enough to keep any fish fresh for three days.

I think we can also say with some certainty that, although Franklin was a successful printer and inventor, he never really did work in an office, at least not with other people because if he had his famous aphorism would have been, “After three days visitors are like fish after three minutes in the microwave–they stink up the whole place, seriously, Kevin, do you think you could bring something else for lunch?” While it lacks the pithiness of the original I think we can all agree it’s an improvement, especially those of us who’ve worked with Kevin, but that’s another story.

Granted the time of year can make a difference. In the summer, even in New England, keeping any kind of fish around for three days would be lunacy, but in the winter most kinds of fish, if you could get them, could be preserved on ice or even packed in snow, and this would be a good way of keeping them as long as the weather stayed cold, but it probably wouldn’t work so well with visitors.

Except Uncle Charlie because, you know, he smelled like that when he arrived.

Born To It.

Source: Wikipedia

The 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica was full of surprising plot twists even from the beginning, but, for me, the most surprising moment was when Dean Stockwell showed up at the end of season 2. It’s a pretty dark series, but Stockwell was one of those actors who, whenever he appeared on screen, could change the atmosphere entirely. Would change the atmosphere entirely. He didn’t have to be serious to do it either. On Quantum Leap he was second banana to Scott Bakula but, with the exception of that show’s finale, the producers wisely made Stockwell the one who knew everything. He was there to be a father figure, or, really, more like a funny uncle, with his cigar in one hand and, well, an early smartphone in the other, and off-the-cuff references to his ex-wives.

I didn’t realize how long his career had been until I watched the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement a few years ago and saw Stockwell’s name in the credits. I kept looking for him, expecting him to, well, appear as a funny uncle probably, waving a cigar around, or maybe a dark, shady character. It didn’t occur to me until later that he would have been ten or eleven at the time of filming, and that he’d played Gregory Peck’s son who sits at the breakfast table quizzing his father about why anyone wouldn’t like Jews. Even as a child actor there was something compelling about him—not just the way he delivered his lines but the seriousness with which he carefully sliced a banana into his cereal and sprinkling it with sugar. His actions were natural yet deliberate.

His onscreen presence got me thinking about the craft of acting and something I’ve thought a lot about when watching really great actors at work. Is it something that can be learned or is it innate? Stockwell had plenty of time to learn—he was acting on stage before he was eight years old and worked pretty much non-stop until just a few years ago, but was he in high demand because he worked so hard or did he get so much work because he was such a talented actor? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. And no matter how effortless he seemed in his roles he worked very hard at the craft of acting, giving special attention to detail. He has a hilarious story about the inspiration for his character Ben from Blue Velvet:

You know that thing that I do with my eyes? Carol Burnett had a character of this super snooty woman and she was always like this. I stole it and I told her one time and she laughed her head off when I told her.

Maybe great acting is a little of both: it begins with natural talent but that talent has to be honed and crafted until it just seems effortless, and that’s what he did.

And, on an unrelated note, when I heard he died I texted a friend and said, “Sorry to hear it. I know you’re a fan.”

He texted back, “Yeah.” Then a few minutes later he added, “But isn’t everybody?”

Hail and farewell Dean Stockwell.

Back To Lunch.

Source: Wikipedia because after all these years I still haven’t take a picture of the Parthenon for some reason.

It’s been over a year and a half since I last saw most of the people I work with in person, which is kind of a strange thing because there’s a lot of longevity where I work—I’ve been in the same building, pretty much the same department, for twenty-eight years, and there are people who are still around who were there when I started and up until March of 2020 I was used to seeing most of them pretty regularly in person. And there have also been some new people who were hired just a few months ago, and I’ve gotten used to seeing them pretty regularly in Zoom meetings.

Then my boss had this great idea to have a departmental picnic outdoors at Centennial Park so we could actually all get together and see each other in person again or for the first time, and it was sort of like being back at work. Centennial Park isn’t too far from the building where, in normal times, we’d all go to work, and I’ve spent a lot of work lunches strolling around Lake Watauga in the park. Not to mention  all the times from my childhood when I went to Centennial Park. I remember when the statue of Athena that’s now in the Parthenon was installed, and I remember before that when the Parthenon was empty and open for free. Heck, I remember when the lake, next to the Parthenon, had paddle boats you could rent if you wanted to chase the ducks around, which is about all you could do. They call it a lake but it’s really a glorified pond, and it’s also where I took fellow blogger Ann Koplow on her visit to Nashville.

As I drove to the park to meet my coworkers for lunch I also thought about how much not like work it was. For one thing I was driving there, not taking the bus, and while I did do that occasionally the walk to the spot in the park would be much, much shorter since I could park right next to the Parthenon, and while I could park right next to the building where my office is my car would probably get several tickets, or I’d have to keep running downstairs every twenty minutes to feed the parking meter.

It was a nice picnic lunch and we all had a nice time, but then I had to leave because I had an afternoon meeting, and I actually got lost trying to find my way out of Centennial Park because, well, I’m not used to driving there. I’m used to walking to and around Centennial Park so I’d never noticed before how many of the park’s roads dead-end into parking lots, although getting lost on my way to a meeting is exactly like a regular day at work for me.

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.

It’s About An Hour.

I feel like I should defend Daylight Savings Time. There are a lot of arguments for doing away with it or making it permanent, which amounts to the same thing. The original proposal was intended to cut down on candle usage, which is no longer applicable, and I’m not sure it provides much if any savings anymore. The closer you get to the equator the more days remain the same length throughout the year anyway which is why most equatorial nations don’t even bother with it, and, as a side note, I really like the fact that Nashville, Tennessee and Easter Island are in the same time zone. So are Nashville and Lawrence, Kansas, and, having been there a few times, I’ve noticed a distinct difference in the amount of daylight.

And that’s where my defense of Daylight Savings Time springs, or falls, from. Even though our standard method of dividing the day goes back at least as far as ancient Sumer it’s still entirely arbitrary. We’ve collectively agreed to use the same times—if you agree to meet someone at seven p.m. that’s not just a time that the two of you agree on but that’s standard for billions of other people, which is an amazing feat for a large and complex society. It’s even more amazing when I consider the fact that I can’t get my microwave and my oven to agree on the same time—the microwave always lags about two minutes behind—even though they’re both in the same room. And where would we be without the stupid jokes we can make about time? Ask my friend John what time it is and he’ll probably tell you, “The same time it was twenty-four hours ago.” There are also smart jokes about time, like this one by Steven Wright: “I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time’. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.”

The shortening days also mean that, because I stick to pretty much the same work schedule year-round, there are mornings when I’m at work before the sun is even up, and when I’ll knock off after it’s set. At higher latitudes this must be even more extreme. The changing of the clocks sets this back a bit. I get a few extra days when I go to work after dawn, even though the shortening days eventually mean I’m back to starting in the dark.

We also live with three dogs and they have no idea what the clock says. There are days when I wish I didn’t either, but that’s another story. They only know when the sun comes up, or when their stomachs tell them it’s time to eat, and the time change means there’s a brief period when my wife and I get to sleep in a little later, especially on the weekends. Even though we get up at the same time, according to the clock, the dogs don’t know that the clocks have all changed, and neither do their stomachs.

So why not keep Daylight Savings Time? What have we got to lose, other than an hour?

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.

Pen & The Art Of Writing.

Source: From Old Books

Someone in my writing group brought up the subject of writing software–that is, programs that are meant to assist writers, not writing programs which is more specifically called “coding”–because they were working with a new one called Vellum. And several other people talked about using an older program called Scrivener, and someone yelled out “Notepad!” and if we’d been in the same room I would have high-fived them because I’ve used Notepad and also actual notepads. And I thought about writing something that would make fun of writing programs since my own personal preference, most of the time anyway, is to write on actual paper, or to use the most bare-bones word processing program I have available (see Notepad) but I’m pretty sure that joke’s already been done and more importantly I realized it violated something I sent to a friend several years ago when he told me he was writing a book and asked for advice. And I sat down and thought about it and wrote out the Nine Commandments Of Writing:

1. Write every day. As much as possible write at the same time every day.
2. Set a specific quota for your daily writing. For a lot of writers this is two-thousand words or roughly four pages.
2. Use a specific place to do most of your writing.
3. Save all drafts. Writing by hand or using a typewriter is the best way to do this but most word processing programs can now save old versions of whatever you’re working on.
4. Before you start writing take several minutes to mentally prepare yourself. Don’t just dive in.
5. Isolate yourself when writing. Writing is a lonely art by necessity.
6. Avoid distractions. Stay focused on the writing in front of you.
7. Get down a rough draft or an outline before you start revising. Have a specific ending in mind.
8. Everything will need to be revised.
9. Throw out all these rules. How you write is how you write. It may take a while to figure out what your particular method is and you may even try different things, but do whatever works and if it works don’t let someone else tell you it’s wrong.

I do try to follow some of those rules myself but I purposely put some things in that list that I don’t do just to be able to point and laugh at myself. And just to underscore the importance of Rule #9 here are some examples and counter-examples: Virginia Woolf wrote standing up, Mark Twain wrote lying down, Nabokov wrote on note cards, and I once met a TV writer who fed a roll of butcher paper through his typewriter so he’d never have to worry about reaching the end of a page. Philip Levine has said he hates having a view and was once staying with friends whose house looked over the Golden Gate Bridge, so he went and wrote in a closet. Joyce Carol Oates, who’s famous for her output, likes to look out the window while she writes. A minor quibble I have with Stephen King’s book On Writing is he puts down writer’s retreats, and, well, maybe they don’t work for him, but I once had a very productive weekend at an arts retreat. It got me out of my usual space and headspace. I also like to write in coffee shops where people come and go. Once I was working on a story and I was interrupted by a person from Porlock and the story took a turn that made it better.
Some people work just fine on a computer with a word processor. Some writers I know buy old typewriters and use those even if it means doing all their typing twice, although advances in scanning technology are reducing that need. I like to write by hand, best when I use fountain pens–I have some heavy ones that make me feel like my ideas have more importance until I go back and read that I’ve written, “Dogma is more engaging than catma.” I also end up having to retype everything because there will never be a scanning technology that can read my handwriting.

Source: Imgur

And while I don’t use them myself I can see the value in high-powered writing programs that store all your drafts and track changes, have easily accessible sub-folders for notes, and can even auto-generate a table of contents for your book, which does seem a little weird to me. I’m going to go off on a tangent about tables of contents because I like how some writers, like Henry Fielding in his novel Tom Jones would write descriptive headings for his chapters. Carlo Collodi also did that for Pinocchio. My favorite one is Chapter 35, after Pinocchio’s been swallowed by a giant Dog-Fish, and the heading is, “In the body of the Dog-Fish Pinocchio finds…whom does he find? Read this chapter and you will know,” and I said, “Thanks for the giant spoiler there, Disney!” More recently there’s Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler where it’s best if you don’t read the chapter headings at first because there’s a giant spoiler there, but I’m getting off the subject.
Maybe the one inviolate rule of writing is that reading is important–I’ve never known a writer who didn’t have a love of reading, who didn’t start writing because they fell in love with a book or books and said, “I want to do that.” Samuel Johnson wisely said, “one must turn over half a library to write one book,” and I’m not allowed to go back until I pay for the damages, but that’s another story.
I could turn the importance of reading into its own rule and make it an even ten but I’d rather leave it as it is. If you want ten commandments write your own list.


The Cart-ographer.

So for a short time when I was a teenager my friends and I would do this terrible thing we called “Shopping Cart Massacre”. We did it because we were teenagers and bored and jerks. Okay, that’s not entirely fair. I shouldn’t speak for my friends. Maybe they don’t regret it and, hey, that’s their choice, but I do. And I wasn’t that bored and maybe if I’d had the courage to say something we would have stopped but I didn’t.

I hate to even describe it but I think the statute of limitations has now passed so here’s how it worked: we regularly went to a shopping center that had a comic book store and a yogurt place, and you’d think those two things by themselves would be enough to keep us entertained but it didn’t. No, we’d take a shopping cart behind the stores where there was a high stone wall, and my friend who had a car would drive straight at the stone while one of us in the passenger seat would lean our hand out the window and hold onto the shopping cart. Then the driver would come to a sudden stop and the person holding the shopping cart would let go of it so it would slam into the stone wall. Distance limitations prevented the driver from getting much over ten miles per hour but after five or six times we could still do some serious damage to a shopping cart.

It was a terrible thing to do and even though we never got caught I still felt bad about it from the beginning, and maybe my friends did too, which is why we gave it up. Then a few years later I read Graham Greene’s story The Destructors and thought, well, we  could have done something worse, but that’s another story.

I think about it almost every time I’m in a parking lot and, as a responsible adult, I always put my shopping cart either back in the designated part of the parking lot or I take it back into the store. And that’s what I was doing when I saw a Cart Narcs sticker on a car near mine. The Cart Narcs started out as one guy encouraging—sometimes politely shaming—people into putting their shopping carts in designated spaces but it’s spread across the country. And I kind of wanted to leave my cart out just to see if I could get the attention of a local Cart Narc but I had other places to go and stuff to do, and I try to do the right thing anyway because it’s just good cart-ma.

Here There Were Dragons.

An adventure isn’t worth telling if there aren’t any dragons in it.

-Sarah Ban Breathnach


O to be a dragon,

a symbol of the power of Heaven — of silkworm

size or immense; at times invisible.

Felicitous phenomenon!

-Marianne Moore


Sorrow in all lands, and grievous omens.

Great anger in the dragon of the hills,

And silent now the earth’s green oracles

That will not speak again of innocence.

-David Sutton


Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

-C.S. Lewis


Dragons teach us that if we want to climb high we have to do it against the wind.

-Chinese proverb


“Beware of Dog,” the sign on the castle gate said.

The intruder, unworried, would later decide that Dog was an odd name for a dragon.

James Miller


I am a comic writer, which means I get to slay the dragons, and shoot the bull.

-Rita Mae Brown


It’s a metaphor of human bloody existence, a dragon. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a bloody great hot flying thing.

-Terry Pratchett


People who do not believe in the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons.

-Ursula K. LeGuin


Puff, the Magic Dragon, lived by the sea,

And frolicked in the Autumn Mist

In a land called Honah Lee…

-Peter Yarrow


Never laugh at live dragons.

-J.R.R. Tolkien


Dragon kind was no less cruel than mankind. The Dragon, at least, acted from bestial need rather than bestial greed.

-Anne McCaffrey


My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,

For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,

And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,

At whose approach ghosts, wandering here and there,

Troop home to churchyards.


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