mawkish memorial day metaphor

Did my bit yesterday. You know…the ritual of tending the graves for Memorial Day. It’s supposed to be a holiday created by a grateful nation to honor the men and women who died while in military service. Some folks are grateful enough to visit cemeteries, large and small in every corner of the nation, to plant a flag on the grave of every veteran. It’s a pretty idea, isn’t it.

But let’s face it, the nation really isn’t all that grateful, and it’s been years since the holiday was about dead veterans. Modern Memorial Day is more a celebration of consumerism than anything else — like most American holidays. But it’s also expanded beyond its original purpose. There’s still a lot of tending to graves, but it’s no longer limited to veterans.

I’m fine with that. It’s nice to have a day set aside for remembering the dead, whoever they are, however they died. That’s especially true now, when the butcher’s bill for Covid-19 will almost certainly top 100,000 in the next week. Maybe next year somebody will plant a flag on the grave of every Covid-19 victim. I think we, as a nation, will need to find some way to express both our horror and our collective grief at the loss of so many lives. Right now it seems we’re either in shock or denial of the enormity of what’s happening. The fact that it’s still happening — that the pandemic is ongoing — makes it difficult to process. Some events are too catastrophic to comprehend until after they’ve finished, until we know how they end.

Yesterday I visited half a dozen different cemeteries — some in the city, some in the burbs, some in the middle of farmland. Some were nicer than others, some better tended, some busy with other Memorial Day caretakers, some weren’t. I helped tend to graves of family and friends, even those of a few strangers, only about half of whom were veterans.

As usual, I shot a few photographs. I generally delete most of the photos I shoot, especially on Memorial Day.  How many photos do you need of gravestones and flags?

This morning I looked at the photos I shot yesterday. I deleted all but a few. Two of them struck me. One, shot in an urban cemetery, was of the rows and rows of flags — a reminder that there was a time when it was common for American men to do a few years of military service, that it was seen as an honorable thing to do. The other photo was of the farmland just outside a rural cemetery, rows and rows of seedlings growing.

Rows of flags, rows of crops. There are metaphors in those two photos. They’re mostly trite, mawkish metaphors, almost embarrassingly sincere, but they’re also honest. Which is more than I can say for a lot of what we see on Memorial Day. 

targeted murder hornets

Okay, so, I have a plan. It’s still in the very early stages of development, so maybe it’s not actually a ‘plan’. At least not in the sense of a thought-out arrangement or method for doing something. I can’t really say I’ve thought this out terribly well. In fact, it would be more accurate to call it a ‘plot’ rather than a plan, since it’s more of a sequence of intended events rather than an actual arrangeme…well, okay even ‘plot’ is probably inaccurate. Let’s call it a thought experiment. Or wishful thinking.

Okay, so I’ve been doing some wishful thinking about those tuna-brained plonkers parading outside the offices and homes of state government officials who have implemented stay-at-home orders in an effort to reduce the Covid-19 butcher’s bill. I should say that I support anybody’s right to protest. Anybody’s, even if I disagree with the protest, and even if I think the protest is stupid beyond belief.

Yeah, THIS is a guy I’d trust with a firearm. He looks nice.

But damn. Look I know I should feel compassion for folks who are so frightened or timid they feel they need to carry at least one firearm (and preferably more, plus some extra ammo and probably some sort of tactical knife) to go to the market or to exercise their civil liberties. It must be miserable to be that scared all the time. But the sad truth is I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be compassionate for people who have to carry a firearm everywhere they go in public in order to feel safe while insisting that others who are scared of a virus should just stay home.

Anyway, I have a plan some wishful thinking about these dolts. It involves murder hornets. Have you heard about the murder hornets? Vespa Mandarina, or something like that. Big fucking Asian wasps that have found their way to the US, probably from Wuhan China (I mean, why not?). Two inches long, with mandibles like scimitars and a stinger long enough to penetrate a bee-keeper’s suit. Also? They can sting you multiple times. Multiple. Flies at 20 miles per hour, so good luck outrunning one of those angry bastards. I mean, Usain Bolt, who is like the fastest man on the damned planet, was clocked at 28 mph, and that was only for a hundred meters. Of course, if he had a murder hornet behind him, he might do better. But the rest of us are fucked. I mean, just look at them.

Their sting has been described as like being impaled with red hot thumbtacks.

Here’s a thing about hornets (well, some hornets, not all of them, but maybe including murder hornets, I don’t know, but we’re still in the wishful thought experiment stage, so don’t discourage me): when angry or attacked, they release an alarm pheromone (your basic 2-methyl-3-butene-2-ol) that incites other nearby hornets to attack. This alarm pheromone is semi-key to my plan wishful thought experiment.

Okay, here it is: we (and by ‘we’ I mean somebody else other than me) capture and breed hundreds or thousands of murder hornets, genetically modifying the brutes so they’re attracted to the smell of Hoppe’s gun oil. How hard could that be?

Hey tunahead, say hello to my little friend.

Anyway, that’s the plan wishful thought experiment. Breed them, train them, turn them loose at these protests. Then stand back. The hornets are drawn to the firearms, the tunaheads panic and swat at them (or just panic and run, the plan work…dammit, the wishful thought experiment works either way), hilarity ensues.

There are still a few wrinkles to work out, I admit. I wonder if Kickstarter would accept something like this.

still standing

I do like an early morning thunderstorm. It’s nine o’clock in the morning and it’s so dark I have the kitchen light on while I drink my morning coffee and read the news. The rain is falling with a sort of steady insistence, like it’s telling us we can stay inside and act like nothing is happening, but it is not going to stop. The cat is looking resentfully out the window at the rain, unfazed by the sporadic thunder. It’s a pretty solid thunderstorm in terms of rain and thunder, but it’s skimping on the lightning. Maybe it’s storing it up and will give us a show later.

The news tells me that on Friday the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives issued guidelines to allow federally licensed firearm dealers to provide drive-up or walk-up gun sales during this period of isolation. Why? To reduce the health risks posed by the coronavirus. The BATF has a dead solid lock on graveyard humor.

On Facebook one of my Christian senator is wishing me a happy Easter and assuring me ‘He has risen’. I hope she’s not referring to that dark, malignant force haunting the White House, ghoulishly presiding over the drown-in-the-fluid-that-fills-your-own-lungs pandemic. Speaking of which, the butcher’s bill in the U.S. will exceed 21,000 deaths at some point today.

This morning the Twitterverse is, as usual, like Jabberwocky written by the illegitimate child of Oscar Wilde and Charlie Manson (just go with me on this; I don’t need a lesson in biology). It’s clever and hateful and funny and malicious and witty and snarky and so incredibly stupid and full of fascinating information and confusing as hell. Twitter is probably like a lot of family gatherings.

~ ~ ~

I’ve forgotten what point I’d intended to make when I started writing this morning. I got distracted by this photograph. I saw it on Twitter. If Twitter can be believed — and I want to believe this is true — this is a photograph of an ICU nurse who has worked 65 hours in the last week. I’ve been looking at and thinking about this photo for about an hour.

I don’t know this woman’s name, or where she works, or who shot the photo. I don’t really know anything at all about her. But I recognize her. I recognize that look. I know she’s on the ragged edge of exhaustion, discouraged, worn down by grief and duty. I don’t know who she is, and I know she can’t save us. But I also know she’ll try. And I know that after a few hours of sleep, she’ll be back at it. So will all of her colleagues.

Today I’ll stay inside, dry and warm. I’ll read my book, I’ll cook some food, I’ll do a little housework, I’ll do a bit of writing, I’ll feed and pet the cat, I’ll continue to check in on social media. At some point tonight I’ll watch an episode of Breaking Bad and maybe an episode of some other show. I’ll fill up every hour of the day, but I’ll never be busy and I’ll never be uncomfortable and I’ll never have to make a decision more difficult than what to cook for supper.

But I know I’ll return, over and over, to this photograph. It’s that powerful; it’s that compelling. Right there — everything that can be said about the power of photography is right there. Everything that’s good and noble about humankind, right there. Everything that can be said about sacrifice and dignity and dedication and love and compassion, right there. Everything that is heart-crushing, that is hopeful, that is beautiful, that is desperately sad and deeply caring and incredibly tough and still tender, it’s all right there.

I hope my Christian senator sees this photograph. I’m glad she finds some comfort and strength in her belief that ‘He has risen’. Me, I’m drawing my strength and comfort from knowing that this woman, whoever she is and wherever she is, is still standing.

knuckles, returned to the shelf

A hundred photographs. A nice round number, and a good stopping point for the Knuckles Google Street View project. I thought about maybe stretching it out until February 18th, which would end the gig a full year from the start date, but…naw. A project shouldn’t be ‘stretched out’ just to reach an anniversary. A project ends when it feels done.

This project feels done to me. Like every Knuckles project, it began primarily as a way to amuse myself. And I mean ‘amuse’ in the older sense of the term: to cause a person to muse about something. To think about stuff. A project, for me, is just a device to engage my interest and attention. A project allows me to become absorbed, to feed my curiosity, to make me think. Granted, the thinking might seem frivolous — at least on the surface — but it’s thinking. Thinking is fun.

The GSV project made me think about a lot of stuff. The practice of curation, for example. I mean, the entire project is, itself, an exercise in curation. We’re talking about ten million virtual miles of highways, streets, avenues, dirt roads, and donkey pathways in eighty-three countries, all dispassionately captured by robotic cameras, each of which has six to eight lenses. That’s a lot of images. I only saw the tiniest fraction of that universe of images, and culling a hundred images out of that number meant some heavy-duty thinking about what makes an image interesting.

It was exceedingly frustrating to have NO control over the elements of composition. I came across a LOT of scenes that would have made a compelling image, except for some distracting element — a trash can, a parked car, a fence, a sign that interfered with the image. Stuff that would be easily dealt with in person. I knew that frustration would be baked into the project, of course. But it was still maddening.

The project also made me think about culture — how culture spreads through the world, and where it spreads from. I saw business parks in Illinois that looked like business parks in Turkey that looked like business parks in Japan. I saw a town in Indonesia that was jammed with US military surplus Jeeps transitioned into local utility vehicles. I saw a statue of a baseball player on a pedestal in Japan, and basketball courts in Slovakia. I saw American-style graffiti everywhere.

In fact, ‘America’ was everywhere. If you followed the project, you may have noticed the majority of the images are located either in the countryside or in small villages. That’s because so many cities — or large areas of the cities — were indistinguishable from each other. Aside from the signs, a city block in Uruguay looked very similar to on in Romania or Indiana. And they were all dull. The oldest neighborhoods of the oldest cities, on the other hand, were often very distinct. Unfortunately, the streets in those neighborhoods were almost always so narrow, so cluttered, so visually busy that despite how interesting they were, they simply weren’t amenable to a good image.

The project made me think about architecture. Not just the obvious architecture of buildings and homes, but also the architecture of infrastructure. Bridges, power lines, bus stops, sheds, fences. Rural mailboxes in Scandinavia look different from those in rural mailboxes in Canada, which look different from those in rural Indonesia. Telephone poles in former Soviet republics and telephone poles in Mississippi are distinct from each other. It was sometimes easy to tell what part of the world you were in simply by looking at the local infrastructure.

Local infrastructure reflects local attitudes. I mean, consider tunnels. You need to build a road through a hilly or mountainous landscape, what do you do? Some nations will build tunnels; other nations will just level the landscape. That approach tells you something about cultural attitudes.

I was also surprised by how many animals I saw on Google Street View, though I don’t know why that surprised me. We live in a world of animals, don’t we. Pets, livestock, wildlife. Dogs, goats, birds, horses, cats, cattle, sheep, chickens. And, of course, people interacting with those animals. Walking dogs, herding cattle, feeding goats and chickens, playing with cats. These were often the most frustrating images, because there’s something strangely emotional about the way humans interact with animals. But this is another of the problems of relying on a robotic camera; robots have no interest in decisive moments. Nor do animals. Animals move. People will stop and stare at a Google Street View car, but to a dog or a donkey, it’s just another car. So the vast majority of images of animals interacting with people (or other animals) were blurry and useless. Except for those of sheep and cattle. Those guys just stand there.

This has been a fun project. It’s been frustrating, of course, but it’s been interesting. And now it feels finished. It didn’t work out quite the way I’d expected (or hoped), but it did work out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I hadn’t expected weather to be so important. I hadn’t expected cloud formations to be such a factor. I hadn’t expected telephone poles or trees to play such a prominent role. I expected people to be a more critical element.

I like the fact the project didn’t take the shape I thought it would. I like its final shape. I’m satisfied and pleased. And ready to be done with it.

With the final photo today, Knuckles Dobrovic is going back on the shelf. Not forever, obviously, but for a while. One of the things I’ve learned from the Knuckles projects is how much I like the structure that’s necessary for a project. I like the restrictions and the constraints that impose a certain discipline on me. I enjoy pushing against those restrictions and constraints. But this road ends here.

At some point, I’ll take Knuckles back off the shelf. At some point in the future I’ll cobble together some semi-lazy rationale for a project to distract me from all the other stuff I ought to be doing. Until then, if you’re interested in seeing all the photos — or any of the various Knuckles projects — you can find them here on Instagram.

EDITORIAL NOTE: It’s been pointed out to me that I neglected to include links to the origin of the project and the halfway point. I’m a putz. Fixed it, though.

a short list of things I’d like to see in 2020

Last year at this time I put together a short list of things I’d like to see in 2019. I didn’t see any of those things. I didn’t really expect to, but still. Seriously, would it kill the Universe to do something nice for a change?

Anyway, it’s been a year so I thought I’d do it again. My expectations remain low. I’ll probably include a couple of items from last year’s list; if so, I’ll put a double asterisk beside them (why a double asterisk? I don’t know; it seemed right). So here, in no particular order, are some things I’d like to see in 2020:

— More greenspaces in cities and suburbs. And not highly manicured spaces, or spaces where they just let shit grow without caring for it, but spaces that are maintained while still allowing nature to take its course.
— Brett Kavanaugh busted for DWI.**
— A remake of the Highlander television show. I generally hate remakes, whether they’re movies or tv show, because the remake is almost always worse and more stupid. But Highlander had so much potential, and it only lived up to that potential about 25% of the time. Which ain’t bad for television, but still.
— A woman president. It would be stupid to vote for a woman for president simply because she’s a woman, but lawdy there are SO MANY qualified women out there. It’s WAY more stupid that a woman candidate has to be massively more qualified than a man in order to be seen as equal.
— Which reminds me. I’d like to see the patriarchy smashed into tiny shards, those shard ground into dust, that dust buried deep in the earth, the earth above it salted so that nothing will grow there for a thousand years. Or so.
— Which also reminds me. Donald Trump and his family of grifters and traitors in handcuffs.**
— Ditto his corrupt supporters in Congress.
— More front porches on houses. And friendly people sitting on them. In rocking chairs. Or swings.
— More electric modes of transportation. More electric cars, buses, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles, skateboards.
— Streaming services that allow you to buy specific shows without having to subscribe to the actual service. I’ve no desire to subscribe to Disney, but I’d like to see The Mandalorian. I’ve no desire to give money to Jeff Bezos, but I’d like to see Fleabag.
— The end of single use plastic bottles.
— Quiet spaces. Both indoors and outdoors. Spaces specifically set aside in which sounds are muffled or stifled. Businesses that commit to quietness would be given tax breaks.
— A ban on firearm magazines holding more than ten rounds.
— World Bollard Day. A day in which bollards are recognized and decorated around the globe. (I sort of mentioned this last year, but only seeking more respect for bollards; now I want them celebrated.)
— Reality Winner released from prison.
— More dogs welcomed in public venues. Coffee shops, libraries, taverns, etc.
— And, of course, actual usable pockets in women’s clothes. It’s 2020, for fuck’s sake.**

As before, I’m sure there’s other stuff, but this is all I could come up with while waiting for the coffee makings to become coffee.

What about you? What would you like to see in the coming year?

Addendum: Just wanted to include this: More shows/movies/anything starring Merritt Wever. Hell, I’d even watch a remake of Highlander with Merritt Wever as the Highlander. She’s that good.

emptiness and excess

I had to spend a chunk of time on secondary state highways a few days ago. I was a passenger for once, which meant I had the chance to look around and think. In the winter months, the Midwestern landscape can seem awfully empty. Every few miles you can see a clump of trees, which usually means a farm house and the attendant sheds and barns. A water tower lets you know a town is nearby. Occasionally you see some sort of agricultural industrial site; I’ve no idea what gets processed in these places, but they emit strange clouds of smoke or steam. Basically, there’s not much to hold your attention except fields and sky. Fields and sky and your imagination.

And I had a thought. Not an original thought, to be sure. Others have had this same thought and have written about it. But passing through the bleak winter landscape, the thought made more sense to me. Here it is:

This is what Donald Trump’s interior life must be like. Empty. Devoid of warmth. Cheerless. Comfortless. Unwelcoming. Desolate. Barren.

Like I said, not an original thought. Lots of folks have written about Comrade Trump’s emotional emptiness, his discomfort with any emotion that’s not rage or resentment, his absolute inability to empathize with others, his desperate craving for unearned respect, his boundless appetite for praise, his craving for having the ‘best’ without any concept of what constitutes ‘best’.

But looking at that exposed leaden landscape led me to wonder if Trump’s emotionally sterile inner life also accounted for his inability to appreciate beauty. He’s always surrounded himself with a chintzy sort of glamour, a gaudy display of tasteless wealth. All that cheesy gold ornamentation, all those extravagant flourishes, all that lifeless furniture that nobody wants to sit on — maybe that phony excess stems from a genuine attempt to bring some sort of brightness into his dreary, grim, inhospitable inner being.

Trump’s home.

More likely (and infinitely more sad), maybe his inner being is so vacant that he can’t even comprehend the existence of feeling something below the surface. Maybe the concept of inner grace and beauty is completely alien to him. Maybe he’s as incapable of experiencing and appreciating beauty as a weevil is of enjoying music.

Because another thing I became aware of during my road trip, is that if you appreciate beauty and grace, you find it everywhere. Even on secondary highways in the middle of nowhere at the approach of evening. Even in empty fields, even in isolated farm houses, even in the effluvia of mysterious agricultural plants.

this is bullshit

I’ve been seeing this particular meme popping up in social media for a couple of weeks now. I generally find this stuff easy to ignore — especially the lightweight pseudo-Zen philosophical near-aphorisms that sound profound but aren’t. But for some mysterious reason I find this particular meme more annoying than most (although, now I think of it, the reason isn’t at all mysterious; the reason is because it’s almost officially winter and soon I’ll be dealing with the reality of snow).

This is bullshit. It stinks of Zen, which is to say it has the appearance of Zen philosophy without the substance. It co-opts the notion of mindfulness; mindful fitness may be a real thing, but it exists outside of a hashtag. It suggests I’m somehow at fault for NOT finding joy in snow. It suggests joy is something I can somehow force myself to experience rather than a spontaneous reaction to the moment. It suggests I’m unwilling to ‘find’ joy in snow, and that my unwillingness is a personal failing. It also suggests joy is quantifiable, that it’s something you can add to or subtract from and measure against some sort of baseline standard.

That’s all bullshit. That’s not how joy works. Joy isn’t an emotion you elect to feel; it’s a natural, unpremeditated experience. Being open to joy can be a conscious decision, but it’s not a response you can compel. You can choose not to be miserable about a given situation — or at least not to give in to misery — but you simply can’t strong-arm or manipulate yourself into experiencing joy.

The idea behind this meme is laudable. It’s saying snow will happen independent of your emotions, that it will fall regardless of how you feel about it, that snow is a natural event over which you have no control, so you may as well get some pleasure out of it. (Well, the real point of the meme is to get you to visit a website and buy snow-related sports products, which will bring joy to the business owners.) I actually like the idea behind the meme — the non-capitalist part, but the meme itself is misleading and it’s bullshit.

There are a LOT of natural events that will take place independent of your emotions and regardless of how you feel about them. Some of them are pleasant. A rainbow, for example, or the way leaves change in autumn. Other events aren’t pleasant. A flood, or a drought. An earthquake, or a mudslide, or a volcanic eruption. Or, if you live in California, a wildfire.

If you choose not to find joy in the wildfire, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of fire.

See how massively stupid that is? I’ve been through natural disasters — floods and tornadoes and hurricanes. None of them brought me joy. (That’s not entirely true; I felt a weird fierce joy at seeing a tornado, while still dreading what it could do.) I can honestly say that even while dealing with the ugly aftermath of those events, there hasn’t been a single day when I didn’t experience some sort of momentary joy. 

It’s going to snow here. It’s inevitable. When that happens, I absolutely WILL feel joy watching it fall. I’ll probably feel some degree of joy when I take a walk in the snow. But I can also guarantee you I’m NOT going to feel joy when I have to shovel it off the driveway and sidewalks. There IS a certain meditative contentment in the repetitive act of shoveling, and some emotional gratification in doing it well. But that ain’t joy.