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Everything Under The Sun.

Everything under the sun is in tune but the sun is eclipsed by the Moon. And was in 2017.

The eclipse sweeping over North America today is being described as “rare”, mostly, I think, by people who’ve forgotten that there was one just seven years ago. And I can think of two others that happened where I lived, although they were pretty long ago. One was when I was in second grade, though Tennessee wasn’t in the path of totality, and it was cloudy that morning so those of us who brought our shoebox viewers didn’t get to use them. The other was late in the spring when I was in seventh grade, and late in the afternoon, too, on a very clear day. Again we weren’t in the path of totality but it was a partial eclipse. My friends and I walked home through backyards and vacant lots that had become so familiar to us but suddenly seemed strange in the bluish light of the eclipse. We gathered around a puddle and, in just the right position, could see the disk of the sun with a great round piece cut out of one side. And then it passed.

It really depends on how you define “rare”, of course. In just the next six years there will be fifteen more solar eclipses, and just as many lunar eclipses, although whether they’ll be visible all depends on where you are in the world.

I do think eclipses are amazing things even if, in astronomical terms, they’re not that unusual, at least for us on Earth, which is unusual in being the only rocky planet in the inner solar system to have a large moon. For the one in 2017 my wife and I drove about an hour east to get a few extra minutes of totality, and for this one we’ll be driving about an hour west, though not far enough for full totality, and it looks like it’ll be cloudy anyway.

The important thing for me about an eclipse is that it’s a reminder that we’re in a universe that’s constantly in motion: the planet we’re on spins, the moon orbits around it, it orbits the sun along with a cluster of other planets, and we’re on a merry-go-round ride in an outer arm of a galaxy that’s also moving through space. An eclipse is one of those events that causes me to stop and consider our place in the vast universe—something I only do rarely.

Always Something There To Remind Me.

I took a lot of books to the used bookstore, most of which I’d read, but it’s still always difficult for me to let any book go. There are some I’ll always treasure, and I’ve passed on a few when I know they’ll be appreciated. A friend of mine is a big Walt Kelly fan and, as much as I enjoyed a Pogo collection I had, I gave it to him without any regret because I knew he’d enjoy it even more.

The used bookstore is a little more of a crapshoot, though. I never know what they’ll take and what they’ll reject. It’s great when they take a book. I get a little money and, hopefully, it’ll find its way into the hands of someone who will enjoy it, maybe even treasure it. If they reject a book, though, I don’t know what to do with it. There are two big bins in front of the used bookstore where people drop their rejects, and I often see people going through those, looking for the wheat in the chaff. And since one person’s reject is another’s treasure it’s possible some of those will find someone who needs them. I saw a guy pull out a Windows 95 manual and carry it away so you never know what someone will consider useful.

I still have so many books I could part with, including more than a shelf of anthologies from college, which I’ve mostly held onto for sentimental reasons. Anthologies are great introductions to a wide range of authors but every time I look at them I think they’re for readers, not writers. Anthologies are like greatest hits collections, which are fine, but for aspiring writers the real lessons are in the deep cuts. It’s the forgotten or neglected works that can reveal an author working out the ideas that would eventually crystallize into what they’re known for, or that show their mistakes. The best lesson of all is that no one’s perfect all the time. It may even be possible that, doing a deep dive, you find something better than the anthologized work—after all, anthologists make mistakes too, and many anthologized works are pulled from previous anthologies.

That was a bit of a tangent but I also think used bookstores are the ideal place to find those neglected, forgotten works. After all they have a lot of stuff, and a lot of very specific categories.

Spring Storms.

March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb but the one this year apparently didn’t get the memo and came in with summer temperatures and went out with ups and downs. Then the April showers started with a midday thunderstorm that was so bad I left work in the middle of the day. My office is safer than my house in a storm—it’s eleven stories of heavy concrete, not counting the basement that’s below street level, so while it would be a lousy place to be in a flood it’s pretty solid protection from tornadoes. Still if anything really bad happened I wanted to be at home to be able to deal with it. I walked from the office building in heavy rain—“downpour” really is the best word for it, and not just because a solid sheet of water was sliding off the awning over the door—to the parking garage where I’d been smart enough to park on one of the covered levels instead of the roof as I usually do. Then I drove home through rain that was so heavy at one point I had to pull over into a parking lot because the wiper blades just weren’t cutting it. When I got pulled into the driveway at home the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.

Spring storms are weird.

Of course it’s the kind of weirdness that, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. Winter’s cold slows everything down; it’s nature’s resting period. And then spring comes in, the temperatures go up, and it’s like the Earth stretches and, like a lot of us, struggles to get out of bed and needs a shower, a hot beverage, and a little time on the toilet to get going. It’s no wonder most thunderstorms hit in the spring, or at least it seems that way. I’ve never actually kept any kind of record but, again, it’s a kind of weirdness that makes sense. And after I’d gotten home, taken the dogs out, and had lunch the rain started again, followed by a rush of cold, because nature isn’t just waking up; it’s got a hangover.

The worst of it had passed by nightfall but I went out in the dark and looked up at the sky where dark pulpy clouds hung so low I thought I could reach up and touch them. A plane went over, lights turning the mist bright green and red and white, the people inside it cocooned from the dark, soggy ground below. Then I went in to get ready to bed, the spring wakeup having left me so tired.

Teach Me Your Songs.

I always wonder about the things I see left by the side of the road. Why are people throwing away that old couch? Or what looks like a perfectly good table? Or a chair? Most of the time stuff gets left there because they’ve called a removal service to come and take it away but I wonder, would they mind if I pulled over and grabbed it? Most of the time it’s not something I want or even have space for, and in the case of that old couch, if it’s rained recently it’s probably not even worth taking. It’s going to be consigned to a sad fate in a dump somewhere.

And then there was the piano. The house it was sitting in front of was being completely refurbished—I mean there was a construction crew tearing the house apart from the inside, leaving the outside mostly intact, I guess so they could completely update it with a modern design. Maybe the house was falling apart inside but had solid bones that they considered worth keeping. Most of the time in my neighborhood when a house gets sold, even if it seems to be a perfectly good house, it gets completely demolished so they can build a McMansion that’s too big for the lot and taller than any of the other houses, so it was nice to see the outside of a house being preserved.

What about the piano, though? Since I was taking pictures I also tapped a few of the keys—they were sticky. I don’t mean my fingers stuck to them, but they were hard to press down and didn’t make much sound. Some were okay but even my tin ear could tell they were seriously off-key. It reminded me of a piano my grandparents had in their front living room, which sat under a reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Nobody ever played it except me—I liked tapping on the keys sometimes, but most of the time it sat closed. I never thought to ask why they even had it since no one in my family had any interest in music. Maybe, like the Gainsborough painting, it was just something post-war middle class suburban people had in their living rooms, along with overstuffed chairs and sofas.

There’s something special about a piano, though, something that makes me hope this piano will be rescued, that makes me hope the one from my grandparents’ house found a better home.

Here’s a song about rescuing a piano.

All In Good Taste.

Source: The Food Disgust Test

According to the Food Disgust Test which I took recently my disgust is “low” at 31%, and I’m not sure whether to be proud of that or concerned. I’m going to go with proud, though. It looks like a very scientific test but I’m not sure it’s any more accurate than other online quizzes that ask things like “Which Credence Clearwater Revival song are you?” and which inevitably give the answer “Up Around The Bend” when everybody who knows me knows I’m “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, but that’s another story. The Food Disgust Test also has thirty-one questions which seems like it makes it more accurate but coincidentally that’s also the number of flavors a certain ice cream shop claims to have which just makes me even more suspicious.

At least most of the questions seem reasonable and have a sliding scale. When it asked how I felt about moldy cheese, for instance, I thought, that makes sense. Some people don’t like their cheese to have blue veins at all, some don’t like Gorgonzola but like Stilton, and, well, I’m pretty sure I draw the line at Casu martzu, but then I also haven’t found a cheese yet I wasn’t at least willing to try. And I could understand some of the other questions too, like whether I’d eat a banana with black spots on it. Of course I would—those spots are a sign the banana has reached that golden point, though I understand some people like their bananas when they’ve reached the blacken point, which is ideal for banana bread, and some want them closer to the greenen point. That’s fine. Taste is a very subjective thing, which is why I don’t believe “disgust” can be objectively measured no matter how scientific you make your test look. The test didn’t ask me if I like raw tomatoes. I don’t—I find them disgusting, but that’s just me. I’m glad other people like them—otherwise that big tray of sliced tomatoes at the deli is just going to go to waste. The test even seems to have a bit of an obsession with mold, also asking if I’d eat bread that had mold cut off of part of it. Yes, I would, as long as the bread I’m eating isn’t moldy, and a science teacher once told me a little mold in bread can act like penicillin, keeping away infections.

There are also questions about whether I’d eat something a friend or acquaintance handed to me. I would—unless it’s Kevin, who I know doesn’t wash his hands—but I know some people have qualms about their food being handled. There’s nothing wrong with that but still one person’s disgust is another, hey, are you gonna eat that?

After really thinking about it, though, what I think the test told me is that I’m open-minded when it comes to food. Or I thought I was until a friend got an even lower score. That’s when I said, Challenge accepted. Let’s take a ride on a flying spoon.

Two Cars Down.

Sometimes I see a car with bumper stickers that make me want to meet the owner. Actually it happens quite a bit, probably because I have a pretty wide range of interests and also someone else’s enthusiasm for something can really interest me. At least I’ve come to realize it’s the people who interest me, not necessarily the thing they’re interested in. I once spent two hours talking to a retired railroad worker and I was absolutely fascinated the whole time. I like trains and I think they’re interesting but I wasn’t inspired to quit my job and pursue a career in the railroad industry, or even take up trains as a hobby. It was really his stories and the way he told them that interested me.

Most of the really interesting bumper stickers I see are on moving vehicles so I don’t really have any chance to talk to the driver—they’re usually in another lane and even if they’re going the same direction I am they almost always turn at some point. I don’t think there’s ever been an occasion when someone in front of me with a really fun bumper sticker and I ever went to the same place and even if we did I can’t imagine any way that, once we’d parked, getting out and yelling something like, “Hey, I understood that reference!” would go well.

I also see a lot of cars with fun bumper stickers in parking lots and when I was at the store the other day I was really, really, really interested in meeting the driver of the car two spaces over from where I’d parked who was really into frogs. And a fan of Dolly Parton. I’m tempted to add, “but who isn’t?” even though I did have an aunt who hated Dolly Parton. I never did find out why because I wasn’t interested in asking. My parents lived two doors down from Dolly–which is interesting because of her song “Two Doors Down” and became good friends with her husband They moved before I was born, but I don’t think my aunt was aware of that.

I think I saw the driver of the frog car, which was a new experience for me. What are the odds we’d both be in the parking lot at the same time? The green shirt and the green-framed glasses made me think it must be the driver and I really wanted to ask them about their interest in Anura. Are they a biologist? Or just someone who really likes frogs? Either would be cool. But there was enough distance between us that I couldn’t think of any way walking over to them or yelling something like “I will always love frogs!” would go well even if they did understand the reference.  

Working At Least One Muscle Group.

We have a wooden fence in the backyard and sometimes when I sit by it I feel like it’s watching me. I know it’s just pareidolia, that tendency to see patterns, usually faces, in random assortments of things. I’ve experienced it all my life but I wasn’t really conscious of it until I learned the term and then I realized how often it happens. But that’s no big deal because we all do it, right? Not everyone paints or draws but our ability to look at a work of art and see it as representing something, not just dabs of paint on fabric, is pareidolia. There’s really no such thing as truly “abstract” art because our brains will always perceive some kind of pattern or meaning in anything. Even the visually impaired perceive patterns in what they perceive. Pareidolia isn’t just visual–it can also be auditory. It makes evolutionary sense: camouflage is part of the arms race between predators and prey and being able to distinguish something hiding in the bushes is good for survival. Even if it turns out the bushes just look like there’s a jaguar in them at least we’re on alert. So we all experience it, right?

Then I read this article about how experiencing pareidolia is a sign of creativity and it’s made me really anxious. It says this:

Scientists are now exploring the connection between pareidolia and creativity; several recent studies have found that creative people are more apt to see pareidolias in the world around them than are less creative people. Assessing individuals’ capacity to recognize such patterns has even been proposed as a way to measure relative levels of creativity.

Am I experiencing pareidolia enough to legitimately call myself “creative”? What if I stop? Creativity is really important to me and always has been. I remember being told I was creative a lot as a kid. One example from second grade really stands out in my memory. My teacher, Mrs. Knight, had some kind of toy model kit in her classroom. It was like a Tinker Toy set but it combined hard pieces with colored flexible tubes. I found it one day and made an alien creature I called Boka. Boka was sort of a cross between a jellyfish and a giraffe, and I was marching it around the table when Mrs. Knight saw it and got really excited. She was always encouraging us to be creative—she was a great teacher—but Boka, this thing I’d just put together without much thought, seemed really imaginative to her. And that kind of recognition felt really good. Being creative felt like a superpower. Of course as my favorite superhero is famous for saying, With great power comes great responsibility. I felt pressure, all of it internal, to continue to be creative, to keep chasing that feeling. I also had, I think for the first time, a feeling that’s probably experienced by every person for whom creativity is important. What if this is the last thing I do? I couldn’t just keep copying Boka but what if I never created anything else that reached the same creative level, never elicited the same response? And that feeling never goes away. I get something published, or win a contest, and it feels great but I can never escape that thought of, what do I do next? What if this is my last success? In college a friend and I once talked about Van Gogh’s suicide–always a cheerful topic–and she said, “I believe he shot himself because he’d completely run out of ideas.” I thought, oh, if that were true I’d shoot myself at least three times a week.

Something else I think about, though, is that knowing what pareidolia is, and seeing examples of it, has probably caused me to see it even more. Creativity can actually feed off itself, and even if I didn’t come up with something on my own I can be inspired by the ideas of others. The article even says, “spending time looking at ambiguous figures ‘primes’ a creative mindset, inducing people to think with more fluency, flexibility, and originality.” Creativity is like a muscle. It can be strengthened through use.

The wooden fence in our backyard is really old and the knots are starting to wear down and disappear so to get that picture I had to look really hard for some that still look like eyes. So anyway there’s my workout for the day.

Useless Information.

Spring is a transitional time which may be why I suddenly started thinking about middle school where, in addition to the standard subjects of English, math, science, and social studies we had four “creative” subjects that we cycled through, spending half a semester in each: art, home economics, music, and industrial arts. I guess it was the school’s way of giving us a sample platter of subjects we could take as electives in high school.

Art was the first one for my class—different classes started with different courses so the teachers in each one would be occupied all the time–and was a pretty fun class. We painted with watercolors—one assignment was to do a landscape using shades of just one color, and also bleach on construction paper, making negative pictures. We also made wax candles, copperplate prints, and, toward the end of our time in the class, got to use an airbrush to decorate t-shirts, I guess because we were too young to own vans we could have painted wizards or dragons or guitars on. Also one kid sliced his finger open with an X-acto knife and it was the only time I ever heard anyone swear that much in front of a teacher and not get in trouble for it. Although I didn’t pursue a career in art I can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

Home economics was the next one my class went to. Some adults were surprised when I told them that and would say, “The boys at your school take home ec?” Yeah, we didn’t have a choice, but it was also a fun class. We baked cookies and learned about nutrition, and also watched some really outdated film strips about dating etiquette. I still remember one of the things I learned about dating is that, at the restaurant, the guy should recommend something to his date that’s within his price range as a subtle way of telling her what he can afford. So “The chicken Caesar salad is good here” is the guy’s way of saying, “Please don’t order the surf ‘n’ turf or I’ll have to wash dishes and you’ll end up walking home.” Also, according to the filmstrip, the guy should look like Johnny Unitas. Like I said that part was really outdated but I can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

In the music course I learned the basics of how to read music, play a little bit on the synthesizers in the back of the class and also participate in a bell chorus, as well as watching Oklahoma!, The Music Man, and a documentary about the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller—the video and the album. I wasn’t really interested in playing music at the time and when it came to singing couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but I still liked the course and can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

Industrial arts was, of course, the only one that started with a safety lecture because of course nothing goes together better than a bunch of hormone-flooded teenagers and a room full of industrial woodcutting equipment. The teacher proudly told us he still had ten fingers, most of them original, and swigged linseed oil directly from a jug he kept on his desk. I made a Plexiglas pen holder and a wooden pinball machine. Both are long gone and I don’t do a lot of woodworking these days but I can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

My second year of middle school each of the courses was shortened by a week and they added a fifth one, computers. One of the science teachers got moved to a room full of shiny new Apple computers and we each got a floppy disk to store our assignments—part of them, anyway. Most of our classwork was written down in our notebooks because we couldn’t take the computers with us and most of us didn’t have computers of our own. We learned the basics of programming in BASIC, and how to create graphics on monochrome monitors. And the funny thing is I can honestly say there’s not a single thing from that class I’ve ever used.

Go Fly A Kite.

While I was walking through a local park I saw a couple of people trying to fly a kite. It was a pretty cool looking kite—octagonal, I think, and bright red. So basically a paper stop sign, but with long red streamers. I stopped for a couple of minutes to watch but they never could get it aloft, probably because there wasn’t enough room to run. The park’s walking trail goes around  a golf course and there’s only a narrow strip of open grass for non-golfers and that’s where the couple was trying to fly their kite. Maybe it’s just as well they didn’t get it up in the air. Chances are it would come down in the middle of the golf course, maybe on the head of some angry golfer.

When I was in fifth grade my class did a special project on kites in March. And by “special project” I mean if we brought kites to school we’d be given a special time to fly them on the playground. I’m not sure why this was different from any other year—March can always get pretty windy, but I think our teacher was very conscious of how much we’d been kept inside that winter and thought kites would be a good way to get us to go outside and really run around. That’s why any kid who didn’t have a kite was also allowed to go too and assist. My parents also thought it would be fun and took me out to buy a kite. Before we left I went through my saved allowance and found two dollars, which I figured would be enough for a kite, and I was right. My parents were looking at some elaborate and more expensive kites but I found one I liked that was just two dollars. My parents thought this was funny–they thought I was being cheap and were offering to buy one of the slightly more expensive kites, but it was a point of pride to me to buy my own kite. I also really liked the cheap one. It was black with red and yellow eyes—rather disturbing, really, but I’d just seen Godzilla vs. Hedorah and I liked that it looked a bit like the smog monster.

It also had fifty-foot long streamers which, at the time, seemed impossibly long, but on the playground with a friend helping me I got Hedorah high up into the air.

It was a lot of fun and has me thinking about how it would be fun to get a kite now. The hard part is finding a place to fly one where it won’t run the risk of descending on the head of an angry golfer, but on the bright side there are a lot of kites that aren’t much more expensive than they were when I was a kid, and anyway I have more than two dollars.