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Something Sweet.

I’d dropped the car off at a chain repair place for some maintenance and told them I’d wait the few hours. Then I went to the McDonald’s next door because of course there was a McDonald’s next door—it was one of those bland shopping clusters you’ll find just about everywhere. 
I ordered one of their frozen coffee beverages. 
“The machine’s broken,” the woman at the register told me, because of course it was. Ice cream machines at every McDonald’s everywhere are broken. Then she said, “but I’ll make up something sweet for you.”
A few minutes later she’d made up a tall concoction of coffee, cream, and caramel syrup and only charged me for a small regular coffee drink.
I went for a walk, amused by the contrast of the bland shopping area and the standardization of everything and my custom coffee drink. 
Then I saw the base of a street lamp decorated with what looked like a lotus design. Or maybe it was just a flower. Either way someone had added a little individual flair to something that was dull and standard. 
They didn’t do it for me—I’m not sure they had anyone In mind since it’s not a place where people walk normally—but I appreciated that someone had done something sweet.

The Secret’s Out.

Source: Wikipedia

For some reason of all the films that made the summer of 1982 feel like on where I practically lived in movie theaters the one that’s stuck with me the most is The Secret Of NIMH, which came out in July of that year. I saw it twice that summer, which wasn’t unusual—this was before we had VCRs, and, in fact, just before the arrival of cable TV, and even after cable and VCRs became part of our lives I’d still frequently see a movie first with my parents or alone then go back with my friends. The second time I saw The Secret of NIMH was also a special free screening arranged by the local schools. Maybe this was because it was based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel by Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby & The Rats Of NIMH.

I hadn’t read the book but my friend John, who went with me the second time, had, so I asked him what he thought of it.

“I hated it,” he said flatly.

I felt bad about this, as though I were somehow responsible. Yes, I thought it was a great movie and I told him how much I enjoyed it, but since it was free and every kid in my school packed the theater he probably would have gone anyway. I was so taken aback by his response I didn’t think to ask him why he hated it, but then I read the book, which I’d been meaning to do anyway, and I understood.

For the most part the book and movie tell the same story, although the name of Mrs. Frisby had to be changed to Brisby to avoid confusion with flying plastic discs: she’s a field mouse whose husband has been killed by the farmer’s cat. It’s early spring and she’s about to move her family to their summer home. The farmer plows over their winter home every spring, but her youngest son Timmy is sick from a spider bite and can’t be moved. With the help of a friendly crow named Jeremy she visits The Great Owl who tells her to go to the rats that live in the farm’s rosebush. When she does she learns her husband and the rats were the subject of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, that enhanced them physically and mentally. Her husband helped the rats escape and they’ve built an elaborate underground city, stealing electricity from the farm. Their husband continued helping the rats by drugging the farmer’s cat. She offers to do the same so the rats can come and move her home to a spot safe from the plow. She’s caught in the act by one of the farmer’s children and overhears that people from NIMH are coming to gas the farm’s rats. She escapes, the rats move her home, the rats, who were uncomfortable with stealing, set off to build an independent civilization, and Timmy gets better.

The movie was produced and directed by animator Don Bluth, who, along with fifty other animators, left Disney in 1979 in protest over declining animation quality. And The Secret Of NIMH really does have some excellent animation. Character movements are smooth, there are realistic-looking people and animals, there are water effects, lighting effects, and reflections. The color palette is broad and vivid. And they didn’t hold back making Mrs. Brisby’s meeting with The Great Owl, voiced by John Carradine, serious nightmare-fuel, or change the fact that in the story death is ever-present. This wasn’t a condescending kids’ show made to sell us fluffy toys.

Just a taste of the quality animation. Source: imgur

The problem is the movie tries to compress far too much into its 82-minute runtime. It doesn’t take much to understand why Mrs. Brisby wants to save her son, but in the book Timmy is more developed as a character. He’s clever and quiet, although also a storyteller who protects the younger mice, so he provides a contrast to his brother who’s strong and aggressive. The idea that intellect and imagination are just as valuable as strength, even in the hardscrabble world of a field mouse, gets lost in the movie where Timmy spends so much time sick in bed and has so few lines he might as well already be dead.

Then there’s the matter of the rats’ transformation in NIMH. In the book the rat leader Nicodemus tells Mrs. Frisby a lengthy story that could be a movie in itself of how they were captured, caged, and given injections, then taught to read. He tells her how they excelled but kept it a secret from their captors and how they eventually got to the farm’s rosebush. It’s almost Flowers For Algernon but from the mouse’s perspective. In the movie they’re given an injection and, in a trippy sequence, they’re magically transformed into sentient, literate super-rats.

In the book the rats’ lair has hallways and meeting rooms, but the film makes it strange, filled with multi-colored lights and twisting passageways. The unique look actually makes sense. Rats aren’t human so their civilization would look different. However Nicodemus, their leader, is changed from a rat like the others to a frail, raspy-voiced wizard who writes with glowing ink, makes objects levitate, and can summon up visions in a large ball by waving his staff.

The presence of magic in the film is the biggest divergence from the book, and it’s really what ruins the story. In the book the rats move Mrs. Frisby’s home with elaborate engineering. In the movie their apparatus is sabotaged by a conspiratorial rat named Jenner who also murders Nicodemus, Mrs. Brisby’s home sinks into the mud, there’s no explanation for how Timmy and the other children who are inside survive, and then Mrs. Brisby magically levitates her home with the help of a magical amulet Nicodemus gave her.

Bluth said he wanted to share his beliefs about the power of faith but this rewrite seemed more like an excuse to show off more elaborate effects and increase the drama of the ending.

I’m not opposed to remakes or even reboots, and plans for a new version of The Secret Of NIMH have floated around for years. It would possibly be redone as a miniseries, which makes sense—there’s too much story for even a long movie. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in actually doing it, though, and maybe that’s just as well. The book stands very well on its own, and while the movie has its weaknesses it also has equal strengths, including some necessary comic relief from Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the crow. For me there’s a certain amount of nostalgia attached to it but, watching it critically, as an adult, I can see the bad and good in it. I no longer love it. But I don’t hate it.

Merrily We Roll Along.

Source: Gifer

Seeing a roller rink in Stranger Things 4 really took me back. Of course Stranger Things has always been drenched in nostalgia–I first started watching it not long after its first release when a friend texted me and said, “You’ve got to watch this–it’s your childhood!” and he was right as far as kids sitting around in a basement playing D&D. We never did save the world, but then we also never wasted a milkshake on a cruel and thoughtless prank either.

There was a reriod in my early teens when it seemed like I was at the Brentwood Skate Center two or three times a week, probably because I was there two or three times a week. There were special school nights and it was a popular place for birthdays of pretty much every kid I knew. In spite of that I was never a very good skater. I spent most of my time in the cluster of video games next to the rink–I was a master of Q*Bert and if I ran out of quarters or just needed a break I’d slowly make my way around the rink, holding onto the wall. The only time I ever really made any speed around the rink was one night when I was about to go and I’d turned in my skates. Kevin, who was still on skates, grabbed my coat and rolled away with it and I found the fastest way around a roller skating rink is in sneakers.

What I also remember is getting to the Brentwood Skate Center in the first place. It wasn’t far from where I lived and most of the adults who took us knew where it was, but, for some reason, one night my friend Tim’s father was the only adult available who could take us. Tim’s father was a gruff, serious guy who prided himself on knowing everything, especially directions. He had a ball compass mounted on his car’s dashboard and would, on long trips, lecture us on navigating by the position of the sun even though most of the time he was driving us at night.

It must have irritated him to have to say, “All right, boys, I don’t know where this place is so you’ll have to tell me where to turn.”

This was not a problem for me. I may not have been great on skates but I could find my way around and, as we approached the final stretch, I said to him, “Take the second left, the one past the interstate.”

“What?” he snapped. I think he’d been adjusting his compass.

“The second left,” I said, but I couldn’t get out “past the interstate.” He’d already taken the first left and was headed onto the interstate.  

Because the Brentwood Skate Center is a large building with not much else around it’s easy to see from the interstate, and, as we went by, Tim’s father said, “Well, there it is, how the hell do I get to it?” Then he started muttering about damn kids and how we didn’t know how to navigate by the position of the sun. He figured out his mistake, turned around, and went back, taking the correct turn.

In the end we were only about twenty minutes late, which was fine because, when Tim’s father came to pick us up to take us home, he was twenty minutes late. I suspect it’s because by that time the sun had set.  

Good Humor Man.

Source: Twitter

Let’s get the obvious part out of the way first: that isn’t good advertising or bad advertising. It’s absolutely brilliant advertising from Punch & Judy’s Ice Cream Parlor, a chain that was found around the western United States in the 1940s and ’50s.. A friend sent me that because he knew I’d find it funny, but the surprise for both of us—the metaphorical cherry on top—was that it brought back my early love of Daniel Pinkwater’s books and gave me some insight into his inspiration for a funny detail in his book The Magic Moscow.

I first learned about Pinkwater from the show Cover To Cover in which host John Robbins would talk about a book and also draw scenes from it. I loved that show and tried to find and read every book that was featured. And Robbins raved about Daniel Pinkwater when he talked about Lizard Music. So of course I got it from the library and tried to read it, but didn’t make it past the first couple of chapters. I still wanted to like Pinkwater so I tried The Hoboken Chicken Emergency next and didn’t make it past a few pages. I was baffled by how weird they were even though I was pretty weird myself. Up until then almost every book I’d been given to read had some message, or, if it was meant to be funny, it spelled out that it was a funny book. Pinkwater’s humor is best described as deadpan surrealism.

Then I got The Magic Moscow for Christmas and, after stopping and starting over half a dozen times, I finally got through it and had a breakthrough. I reread it then went back and tore through Lizard Music and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Fat Men From Space and every other Pinkwater book I could find.

The Magic Moscow is about a guy named Steve who takes over an ice cream parlor and adds health food to the menu, which he then brings together in one dish:

The Moron’s Delight is one of Steve’s specialties. It has six flavors of ice cream – two scoops of each – a banana, a carrot, three kinds of syrup, whole roasted peanuts, a slice of Swiss cheese, a radish, yogurt, wheat germ, and a kosher pickle. It is served in a shoebox lined with plastic wrap. Steve considers it a health-food dessert.

I stumbled over that at first. Why was it a “moron’s delight”? And Steve, who’s a bit weird, really considers it a special treat, even serving one to his hero, a retired TV detective, and making another for the detective’s dog, an Alaskan Malamute. But then, as with all things Pinkwater, I finally realized it was just funny and to go with it, never knowing, never needing to know, really, that there was a real world inspiration.

And there was a valuable lesson in all those Pinkwater books I read: be yourself even if–no, especially if–you’re weird.

Anyway it’s a Fourth of July weekend and I think I’ll celebrate with some ice cream. Maybe I’ll make a Moron’s Delight.

Climate Change.

One day the rain just stops. A day goes by, a few days, then a week, then more weeks. You notice that the grass is getting brittle and dry and the ground is rock hard. Then the grass turns the color of sand and even the air seems brittle with the dryness of it. The weather reports become numbingly uniform: sunny every day. Reports of record-breaking temperatures become repetitive. Something in the back of your mind says that this is wrong, but the heat saps any energy you might have for thinking about it.

On your way home from work each night you start counting the number of neighbors who are watering their yards, the ones who stand out because their grass is a patch of emerald in a sea of buff and sepia. You get wicked ideas about sneaking into their yards and cutting their hoses with a pair of garden shears in the middle of the night. Maybe they’ll pay a fine for using so much water.

Maybe you should think about xeriscaping, but this isn’t the desert. The rain will come back eventually, won’t it?

Desiccated tree branches fall in the yard. No need to move them just yet. The lawnmower sits in the garage, its small reservoir of fuel sending out a slow stream of fumes.

One morning you notice a spider hanging in her web next to your house. She’s brown and white speckled with big yellow dots on her abdomen. You saw her early in the spring, just like you watched her mother, her grandmother, and a whole line of her great-grandmothers going back several years.

The lack of rain affects everything up and down the food chain, and you haven’t seen as many rabbits, snakes, or even squirrels as usual. This spider, like you, is not native to North America; her ancestors probably came with yours, around three centuries ago. She’s nocturnal so it’s strange that she’s still out on a sunny morning when the temperature is already higher than it would be at noon in a normal year.

You fill a birdbath in the backyard. You fill another in the front yard. You watch cardinals, bluejays, even a sleek-headed crow dip their beaks in it. You watch squirrels come to drink then flip the birdbath over. It’s only a few minutes before you go to put it back and refill it but the ground is already dry.

You have a side bed of morning glories and other small plants. After the sun goes down you turn the nozzle on the hose to “mist” and you realize you can’t remember the last time you heard a tree frog. They always sing in the dark after it rains.

Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even tsunamis are all horrible, often tragic events that come in suddenly, sometimes with no warning, or not enough warning, but then they disappear, often as quickly as they came. Flood and tsunamis recede, wildfires burn out all their fuel or, hopefully, are stopped, and tornadoes just spin themselves out.

A drought is a tragedy in slow motion.

One day it will rain again and when it does it will be terrible, the water overflowing the earth unprepared to hold it.

Line ‘Em Up.

Source: Secrets Of The Universe

Unfortunately I slept through the great planetary alignment of 2022, or maybe fortunately because missing sleep can really throw me off, and also we live in a neighborhood with a lot of trees so I miss some opportunities to witness celestial events unless they happen in the winter, unless they’re due east in which case my view is blocked by woods, or if they’re almost directly overhead, or if I get up and drive somewhere with a low horizon and low light pollution, which is getting harder with each passing year.

Of course I do have a couple of astronomy apps on my iPad that allow me to see what’s in the sky regardless of what’s in the way which is why sometimes I’ll stand in the den and point it straight up at the ceiling and when my wife asks what I’m doing I can say, “Looking at Uranus,” but that’s another story.

In other words circumstances would have to line up in just the right way for me to see the great planetary alignment, but I’m okay with that. I remember when I was in second grade and there was supposed to be a solar eclipse that, while not total, would still be partly visible over Nashville. Of course it was cloudy that day. I’ve witnessed other eclipses since then, including the total one of 2017.

I’ve seen multiple lunar eclipses, most because I specifically planned my schedule around being somewhere where I could see them, and I’ve even gotten up in the middle of the night just to watch some.

One year my wife and I got up in the middle of the night and drove out to a farm where we watched the Perseid meteor shower which was supposed to be spectacular that year, and, lucky for us, it was. I’ve also seen meteors I wasn’t looking for; my eyes just happened to be in the right direction at the right time.

And then, Sunday afternoon, I fell asleep in front of the TV, because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before in spite of not getting up to see the great planetary alignment, with the Science Channel on, and I woke up just in time to hear an astronomer say, “Astronomy is a very serendipitous science!”

We can predict the movements of the planets—the next big one will happen September 8, 2040, but sometimes the best events are the ones that can’t be predicted.

The Summer I Almost Remember.

Notes from my school guidance counselor on my essay “How I Spent My Summer”, from 1982 which I just found in an old box:

Dear Chris,
Well! It certainly sounds like you had an exciting summer. I’m not surprised you spent some time playing video games. In fact from the way you describe it you actually designed some video games of your own only to have them stolen by someone named Dillinger. I assume this is a boy who lives in your neighborhood. He must go to a different school since I can’t find any record of him here. I’m also a bit confused by this part where you make it sound as though you actually spent time inside a videogame and ultimately defeated the evil MCP. Well done. I’m glad to hear you also spent some time outside, which brings me to the next part of your essay.
You say you traveled across Thra, which, from the sound of it, is a wooded area in your neighborhood, and, with the help of a friend named Kira, restored a missing shard to the Crystal of Truth. I assume Kira also attends another school. I’d like to meet her sometime and perhaps her pet Fizzgig who is, from the way you describe it, some kind of small dog. I assume she lives near here.
I was also very surprised to learn that you’re an orphan. There’s nothing in any of your school records about that, nor is there anything about you being in the care of a Ms. Hannigan. But it was nice to hear that you had an enjoyable time with a Mr. Warbucks who took you on extensive tours of New York City, and that you had quite the adventure with a couple of people who tried to pass themselves off as your parents.
I see that you did even more travel. I’m not sure where Ceti Alpha Five or Mutara Nebula are. These places sound like they must be in Europe. I was very disturbed to read about what sounded like some very unpleasant experiences with a Mr. Khan and some sort of ear slug. I was also very sorry to hear that you lost a close personal friend in making your escape. It’s a relief to hear that you think there’s a possibility he might return.
From the next part of your essay it seems you again have parents and that they decided this summer would be the perfect time to install a backyard swimming pool. I’m sorry this plan was interrupted by the mysterious disappearance of your younger sister Carol Anne. Perhaps it’s because of this disappearance that I can’t find any record of her. It sounds as though she was returned to your family, though, in a rather terrifying ordeal involving parapsychological researchers and a psychic woman. I’m also glad you escaped that horrible tree.
Perhaps we should skip over your assistance in helping a Mrs. Brisby move her home, though that was very generous of you, your pursuit of a neighborhood bully you call Thulsa Doom, your rather surprising trip to Antarctica, or your boxing matches against Mr. T.
I would really like to focus on what sounds like a very special friendship with an unusual sounding boy whom you met in the woods behind your home. You say he had been left there accidentally by those he was traveling with. Well, he certainly sounds like a remarkable young man. You know, I like Reese’s Pieces very much too. Even better than M&M’s. I was rather startled that your friend, whom you only refer to by the initials “E.T.”, was almost forcibly taken away by the authorities and only returned to his family in a daring escape in which you pedaled your bike so fast it seemed to fly. I do think it’s inappropriate that you called your brother “penis breath” and I don’t know why you included this in your essay.
Speaking of inappropriate, I was both shocked and confused by some exploits you describe in what sounds like summer school. While I was amused by your ordering a pizza in class, there are several incidents which clearly should have been out of bounds for someone your age. I think you must have snuck in to “Ridgemont High” without permission.
I would like to meet with you and your parents to discuss this and whether 
you did anything this summer besides go to the movies.

The Kindness Of Strangers.

What did people do before the internet? I guess I should know—I was well into adulthood even before e-mail became widespread, and it was a few years after that my work department’s IT people came around and started installing Netscape on everyone’s computers, just in case someone found a use for it at some point and now, well, here we are.

Of course the problem with the internet then and now is that you can put up a request for help but there’s no way to know if it will reach the right people. In the old days the issue might have been that there weren’t enough people with access to see the message; now the issue might be that there are so many people with so much access looking at so much stuff it’s hard for a really specific request to reach the right person. Did someone happen to see a wreck involving a silver Honda on Charlotte Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee on June 11th at about 12:30PM?

I didn’t—I kind of wish I had because I’d like to be able to help the person who put up the roadside sign asking for assistance, but I was nowhere near where it seems to have happened even though it was a Saturday and I think I might have been running errands at the time. Or maybe I was home. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I would remember seeing a wreck. Since it happened on a really busy street at a time when a lot of people would have been around it seems pretty likely there were witnesses and I hope one of them comes forward.

That also reminds me of one morning when I was on my way to work. I parked in the parking garage and next to the elevator there was a sign that said, “To the person who hit my car: please come forward with your information so we can arrange a settlement. If you don’t the parking manager has agreed to provide the security footage.”

I’m pretty sure that sign had a much better chance of success since it was addressed to a much smaller group. But since I wasn’t involved I never did find out what happened in that situation. I was kind of tempted, though, to put up a sign next to the elevator that said, “To the person whose car got hit, how’d that turn out? I hope you got some justice.” And maybe I’d add my email address, although I think there’d be enough interest in that story that they should have put it on the internet where lots of people could read it.

Just A Poet.

Cowboy poet Baxter Black, on the right, with Baxter the Dalmatian, at a Nashville bookstore.

Way back in 1999 my wife and I brought home a new puppy and were trying to decide what to name him. She wanted something with a poetry theme and, well, there was only one poet we could think of with a name that would fit a Dalmatian. We named him Baxter, after Baxter Black, the cowboy poet, whose occasional commentaries on NPR always brightened up our morning drives. He’d be introduced as a “former large animal veterinarian” and my wife would always ask, “What’s a former large animal?”

E-mail was still a fairly new thing back then and we didn’t have a digital camera yet but we did take pictures of Baxter. My wife scanned one, found Baxter Black’s e-mail address, and sent him the picture. He replied with, “Makes me wanna ride a fire truck!”

Not long after that he came to Nashville on a book tour for A Cowful of Cowboy Poetry, and, with a bookstore manager’s permission, we brought Baxter in to meet Baxter. They both seemed to enjoy it.

We lost our Baxter a few years later to cancer—much too soon, although there’s never enough time with any dog.

As for Baxter Black, while it’s been a while since I’ve heard him on the radio, I pull up some of his recordings occasionally if I want to chuckle—his poem “The Oyster” always makes me laugh.

And when I heard that he passed away I needed a laugh.

Hail and farewell, Baxter Black. I hope you enjoy meeting Baxter again.


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