Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
A couple of days ago I watched the film “Network” again. It’s one of my favorites because I first saw it in a theatre back in 1976, just as my own career in television was beginning.
This, of course, is the film where Howard Beale, an anchorman who is having a mental breakdown, tells his audience to get up, go to the window, stick their heads out and yell “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Rather than fire him, the network’s greedy new management decides to exploit his mental illness and christens him the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”. It’s a big success.
Fast forward to today, where in Florida Casey Anthony has just been acquitted of murdering her toddler daughter. Do you think she is guilty? That her acquittal is an OJ-esque miscarriage of justice? A lot of people do, thanks to the non-stop coverage of Ms. Anthony’s trial on a cable network called HLN. “HLN” stands for “Headline News”, and it used to be a 24-hour news channel that delivered 48 30-minute news/sports/weather programs per day. I used to work there.
Nancy Grace, a crusading TV host famous for her in-your-face coverage of sensational trials, virtually took over HLN’s schedule covering this trial. Quickly abandoning the “innocent until proved guilty” standard that (hopefully) was being practiced in the courtroom, Ms. Grace made up her mind early on that Casey Anthony, whom she nicknamed “Tot Mom”, was guilty, guilty, guilty. From the early stages of the trial, she ranted this opinion on her show, and brought on lawyers who also ranted it. Like Howard Beale’s newscast, the ratings soared. So the executives at HLN went “wall-to-wall”, as they say. All the other programs on HLN suddenly became about Tot Mom. With other hosts, lawyers and “experts” ranting about Tot Mom’s guilt. The ratings soared again. Predictably, other media outlets jumped on the bandwagon. Thus the “guilty” mindset spread.
The acquittal of Tot Mom earlier this week only served to ratchet up HLN’s rantings. “Justice for Caylee”, the graphic reads, with a split screen of an “expert” decrying the verdict on one side and video of Caylee happily playing on the other.
Tot Mom. Not “The” Tot Mom. Simply Tot Mom. Two one-syllable words. Two hard consonants in one word followed by two soft consonants in the other. Easy to say. Easy to remember. And easy to fill up with whatever meaning can be put into them by a network who understands the power of repeating and repeating a given message.
Think about “Just Do It.” Three one-syllable words. Hard consonants on both ends. Soft consonant in the middle. Easy to say. Easy to remember. And just about everyone knows the company to which it refers.
Same idea. Same objective. Selling the product. HLN needed a marketing campaign to increase its abysmal ratings – and thus the amount it could charge its advertisers. Nancy Grace and her producers gave them Tot Mom. Like the executives in “Network” they were banking on our collective need for schadenfraude – to take comfort in the misery of others. Ms. Grace brilliantly added to this her absolute certainty that Tot Mom was guilty before the jury spoke. It was a no-lose situtation for her and HLN. Guilty and it was “See? You and I were right all along.” Innocent and it was “Can you believe this miscarriage of justice? We have to DO something!” Either way, the story would go on and HLN would continue to rake it in. Programming as commercial.
In “Network”, Howard Beale eventually starts talking about the death of individualism in America. We are being reduced to a set of wants and needs to be exploited by soulless international corporations, he says. Bummer! The ratings start to slide. In response to this, the network executives arrange to have him shot and killed on the air by a radical domestic terrorist group as the kickoff episode to their new reality show. Problem solved.
Before that, however, William Holden (an old-school newsman who’s fired for protesting the Beale thing) says this to Faye Dunaway (one of the ruthless execs with whom he’s been having an affair):
“You are television incarnate…indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer.”
Memo to Nancy Grace re Tot Mom: Just Do It.
Obscure Reference Du Jour: One of my favorite sci-fi novels is “The Merchants’ War” by Frederik Pohl. In it, ruthless ad executives from Earth try to gain control over a colony on Venus that has so far been “ad-free”. One of Earth’s best-selling products is Mokie-Coke, a highly addictive soft drink. One sip and you’re done (what the book calls a “Campbellian” reaction – an homage to the pioneering SF writer John W. Campbell). The product is sold with warning labels and there are flashing lights and bells required on all store displays, yet thanks to effective advertising, millions of people become hopelessly addicted – all to the benefit of, well, you know.
I was on the phone recently with Apple Tech Support (buy an iPad 2 and you’ll get to know them too!), and as I was talking to the young man trying unsuccessfully to solve my problem, I mentioned that the “startup sound” which Mac computers make is very similar to the big finishing note of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.
“Never heard of it,” was his reply. I realized, of course, that this person probably was born two decades after the Summer of Love (1967, if you’re keeping score at home), and thus he had never had the pleasure of listening to “Sgt. Pepper’s” from beginning to end.
Many years ago (no doubt around the time our plucky tech support guy’s parents had a gleam in their eyes), Cee Cee and I lived in Coronado, California, where she had grown up. At the time I was a dedicated runner, and I had laid out a four-mile course along the streets of that lovely town.
When I ran this course, I would place my Sony Walkman cassette player (!) in my fanny pack(!) and listen to music I had recorded from my vinyl LP collection (!).
At some point I discovered that “Sgt. Pepper’s” lasted almost exactly as long as my four mile run. It quickly became my music accompaniment of choice. I would start out hearing the introduction and “With a Little Help From My Friends”, feel myself warming up with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, hit my stride with “She’s Leaving Home”. The end of the run was a four block straight shot, and I got very good at sprinting to “A Day in the Life” and finishing just as that magnificent end note came crashing into my ears.
For me – born with a physical disability, and running with an orthotic in my shoe – every time I finished that run was a victory over the voice in my head that told me physical things like running were impossible. It was as if that loud orgasmic note blew out the voice, like they use explosions to blow out oil well fires. All that remained were me and my endorphins, and I remember many nights (I liked to run after work) walking around the block catching my breath, looking at the evening stars and relishing the rare moment in which I felt at home in my own body.
Maybe that’s why I associated the Apple startup sound with that end note. They are both at heart E chords and anyone can make a sound out of an E chord. But I like to think it’s a sneaky reference the folks at Apple use to connect us Boomers back to what was going on in that amazing summer – and what “Sgt. Pepper’s” meant. And, coincidentally, what it meant to me.
Forty years from now, that tech support guy will blog about the summer of 2011 and the cultural importance of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry to his generation. So be it. But I’ll bet people will still be listening to “Sgt. Pepper’s” – and discovering its wonders.
I listened yesterday. They are all still there.
Obligatory Obscure Summer of Love Reference: Richard Brautigan lived in and wrote about San Francisco and the Summer of Love. In his story “A Long Time Ago People Decided to Live in America”, he writes about meeting on the street a beautiful dirty barefoot “hippie girl” named Willow Woman who has just arrived in San Francisco with nothing and is on her way to the Haight-Ashbury. The ever-horny Brautigan (this is, after all, the Summer of Love) wants to make a pass at her. He warns her away from there: “It’s a terrible place,” he says (and by late summer ’67 heroin had taken over and it was).
Willow Woman says she will go anyway and just as Brautigan is about to make his pass, she asks him for money. In that moment, he feels such pity for what he is sure will happen to this poor clueless girl that he gives her a dollar, the sexual opportunity lost. He watches her fade into the distance, like the ideal of the Summer of Love itself.
If you have a compromised immune system, one of the things you must be concerned about is catching a virus, like the ones that cause the common cold. With the body at a disadvantage in fighting these viruses, infections can linger and go into strange places. I’ve been struggling the past few weeks with an inflammation in my shoulders, hips and knees – the ongoing result of a cold virus I caught in early May.
Conventional wisdom is clear on this point – to reduce your chances of catching something, wash your hands often. This, of course, is because bugs are easily attached to your hands, then get inside when you touch your face. It’s amazing when you become aware of just how often your hands touch your face – try it sometime.
So I have become a frequent hand-washer and hand sanitizer. I’m much more aware of simple things like shaking hands or opening a door – and I try as hard as I can not to touch my face. Small bottles of hand sanitizer have sprung up all over the places I frequent (joining the eye drops and reading glasses that already are there). Is it possible that your sense of touch can be changed by this kind of awareness? When I find myself in a situation where there’s someone with a cold, or just in a large group of people (at the weekly AA meetings I attend, for example), I get this kind of cold sensation in my hands, and I think: where is the nearest sink and soap dispenser?
Naturally (if your brain is wired like mine), you start to become a kind of soap connoisseur (a saponiphile?). I tend to like those wall-mounted things that dispense fully-formed suds (much less work), and look coldly upon the store-bought bottles of Soft Soap that teeter precariously on those little sink indentations designed to hold a bar of soap (talk about your outmoded technology).
I don’t think I’m on the way to a Howard-Hughesian germophobia (though I suppose one easily can be both a germophobe and a saponiphile at the same time). But it’s interesting to me how the realities of a chronic illness can change you in so many ways. Some are easy to accept (hand sanitizer), some are more difficult (gaining 50 lbs.).
All this talk of hand-washing reminds me of a saying that was common in my house as a kid: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” The vision of Heaven going around at that time was indeed very, very clean. God, with His white beard and white robes, standing on a huge expanse of pure white clouds. No dirt under those fingernails. And I guess if everything is perfect in Heaven your hands stay clean and a new white robe just appears whenever you need it – without the need for soap or a sink or a washing machine. Eating ribs must be a very different experience up there.
I read this morning that Apple has – in its own Apple-tastic way – killed its popular Final Cut and Final Cut Express programs in favor of a new app that (surprise!) doesn’t have the functionality of the old stuff, but costs more.
They must be reading from the Mircosoft playbook.
When I was doing PR, I got the idea of teaching myself to use FC Express as a way of getting into the video production business. Funny how the bar is now so low to do that kind of work. Back in the 80s when I was producing TV spots and industrial films, studios were huge and very expensive – $250 an hour, I recall.
Irrelevant aside: Once during my ad man days in Baton Rouge, I arranged to have a bunch of radio public service announcement dubs made at the then-new Jimmy Swaggart Ministries media production center – at the time the finest in the southeast. I was given a tour of this palatial facility, and I was amazed at the equipment and studio space. Much, much nicer than what I was used to. At the end, I was taken to the main studio, where a couple of guys were editing one of Jimmy Swaggart’s TV programs. Overcome by the all the bells-and-whistles I saw, I involuntarily exclaimed “Jesus Christ!”. They were not amused.
Where was I? Oh yes, learning FC Express. So anyway I bought the software and a book and before you know it I was producing rudimentary videos, which my clients loved because they were so, well, cheap. Since I could write, shoot, edit and voice the things myself, it was profitable for me at the same time.
If you’ve ever done this kind of video editing, you know that the interface involves a timeline on which you insert video clips one after another, applying effects, adjusting the audio, etc. You can shorten, lengthen, replace, remove and even play things backward if you like. What this gives you is a powerful sense of control, of being completely in charge of the world which you are editing. That’s one of the things I enjoyed about it. Of course it’s only a video, so that sense of control is only an illusion.
When I was a producer of TV news programs, this illusion of control was very reassuring to me. Even while my actual life was spinning into chaos, I took comfort in the fact that, twice a day, I packaged an entire world’s worth of news, sports and weather into a tidy 30-minute package, complete with commercials. And I put it on the air – live.
What I took less comfort in was that every time my show finished, it was gone, and I had to leave the studio and go back into the real world. In tropical Louisiana, the studio was heavily air-conditioned, so when I stepped outside the thick humid air really slapped me in the face. There has to be a metaphor in there somewhere.
Obscure Reference du Jour: The late Steve Goodman, a wonderful folk-singer from the 60s and 70s, wrote a song called If Your Life Was On Videotape:
If your life was on videotape
Wouldn’t everything be all right.
If your head hurt the morning after
You could always roll it back to late last night.
Check out his work.
Over the weekend we had dinner with some friends of ours who have political views that are, well, quite different than mine. I’ll say at the outset that I am a lifelong Democrat who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. My views have been formed by a lifetime of participation in our political system. I studied the system in college. I covered politics as a journalist. I made TV commercials for various political campaigns.
And I enjoyed it. Watching the ebb and flow of one party gaining power, then gradually losing favor and giving way to the other party. I found it fascinating, and it gave me a tremendous faith in how our democracy works – in effect, our country is so strong that no one can screw it up.
At dinner some political subject came up, and a lively discussion ensued among our dinner partners and Cee Cee. I was mostly silent, because I was becoming completely enraged by what was being discussed (the particulars really don’t matter, as you’ll see).
This isn’t the first time. In fact, I find myself getting angry just about anytime I read something, hear something or talk to someone about current political issues. I really used to like the give-and-take of talking politics with someone who had the opposite view. Now it seems I can’t do that anymore.
For me, anger is a mask for fear. So the question is: What am I afraid of? I think the answer is that I no longer understand how the system operates. That scares me. The other scary thing is the powerlessness – a sense that there is nothing I can do to influence or change the terrible mess we are in.
Here’s what I mean: My enjoyment at talking politics stemmed from the basic idea that all of us were a part of the system, that there was room for everyone and their ideas, and that, though our opinions may differ, we respected one another.
Now that’s gone, and the idea seems as outmoded as the vacuum tube.
Today, it’s all about power. Getting it, holding on to it, and trying to convince the electorate that you are by-God entitled to it and the other side should shut the hell up and submit. Say and do whatever it takes – lie, misinform and count on the fact that most people won’t see through the obfuscation (and a lot of people don’t). Take no prisoners. My point of view is correct because I can yell louder than you. Not only do I have to win, you have to lose.
And look at where we are as a result.
I don’t recognize that system. I fail at being a part of it because I don’t have the killer instinct it seems to require (this is also why I never did well working in corporate environments). It scares me to see what our political discourse has devolved into. It scares me to feel so powerless. So I get angry.
Like so many things a middle-aged person experiences, I can only conclude that I now fall outside the target demographic for politics. So the best place for me is outside the system. Don’t get me wrong – I still intend to vote in every election (as I have done since 1973). But as for watching and listening and arguing my point – and especially when it comes to the crap that spews out of TV, radio and the Internet – I’m out. Someone else will have to take the job of being right and making the other guy wrong.
I never, ever thought I would say something like this. From my days as a cub reporter, I was proud to play a part in how America worked. I still have faith that our system is so strong that no man or no party (read that: either party) can screw it up permanently. But man, how that faith is being challenged now.
Yesterday we were having lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, and I noticed that our server – an attractive blonde in her early 20s – had something tattooed on her arm. It was the phrase “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”, written in beautiful script from her wrist to her biceps. (Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1, in case you’re interested. And yes, I had to look it up.)
I talked in a previous post about tattoos and self-expression, but this isn’t about that. Seeing this tattoo made me think of how we can take in certain words or phrases (or even entire books) and make them permanently part of our being, our psyche. Like our server’s tattoo, they are always there to help us remember who we are and how we see the world.
Consider this sentence: “My life was the best omelette you could make with a chain saw.” That’s from Thomas McGuane’s novel Panama, and for me it perfectly represents the chaotic drug-and-alcohol infused time I spent in my 20s. I can’t think of one without thinking of the other.
Or this: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The Great Gatsby, of course. One of my genuine Achilles’ heels always has been dwelling on mistakes I made in the past – especially during that chainsaw-omelette phase. Every time I read Gatsby that line gets me.
I remember my very first attempt at creative writing. I was six years old, and I wrote a play about my Aunt Flavia coming to our house. (Coincidentally, Aunt Flavia was on her way to our house when I started writing.) Act I went something like this:
Me: Hello Aunt Flavia, how do you do?
Aunt Flavia: I am fine.
Me: Won’t you sit down?
AF: Yes, thank you.
Unfortunately, when Aunt Flavia arrived she wanted to talk to my mother and wasn’t very interested in participating in my play (actors can be so fickle!). But I can still see my words scrawled on the coarse page of an elementary-school writing tablet. Poor Aunt Flavia passed away 40 years later unaware of my literary tribute.
When I think of the writers who have influenced me the most, Raymond Chandler is at the top of the heap. His directness, his economy of words, and his astonishing ability to turn a phrase have always mesmerized me. Here he is at the beginning of the story Trouble is My Business:
Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe-buttons, her cheeks were soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as an umbrella. She said, “I need a man.”
Ray Bradbury (tempering the bitterness of life with a wonderful sweetness), Richard Ford (amazingly rich, almost real-time detail), Richard Brautigan (poetic imagery), Flannery O’Connor (plain words masking gothic sin and punishment), Michael Chabon (imagining a complete world within the novel). These are my literary tattoos.
Writing is all about creating something that will stick in the mind of the reader, communicate some meaning, become a part of that reader. Even if that reader is only yourself. A few years back I set out to write a story about a dangerous drifter who comes to La Jolla. Sitting there looking at a blank screen, this came to me:
If you ever decide to visit La Jolla, you should try to arrive right at dusk. Stand on the grass in Ellen Browning Scripps Park on Coast Boulevard below Prospect Place and watch the sunset overlooking the cove. If you’ve chosen the day wisely, the air will be of that precise temperature that makes your skin tingle just slightly and invites you to inhale its refreshing saltiness again and again. Let yourself be hypnotized by the continuous rushing crash of the waves. Then, when the sun has gone far below the horizon and the sky above your head is a deep and irrevocable blue-black, turn away from the ocean and watch the warm glow of the hotel windows and storefronts grow brighter as the day disappears. The moment of trading one light for another. That is La Jolla at its most beautiful.
When my confidence as a writer falters, this passage is like a talisman to me. If I can write something like that….
My friends Marty and Glenn both have very impressive t-shirt collections. Now, these t-shirts aren’t your run-of-the-mill Disneyland souvenirs or tattered reminders of Foreigner’s 1987 world tour. And they aren’t novelty t-shirts, like the one I saw Saturday on Cops that said “This is the shirt I wear when I don’t care”. It was being worn by a father who had just pulled a gun on his son, who was threatening him with a knife. Good times.
No, Marty and Glenn only wear shirts that reek of cool (and nothing else, since they are both well-groomed men). They mostly tend toward obscure indie-rock bands (actually you would think most indie-rock bands are obscure) and interesting images – Glenn last week was featuring the Heisman trophy. Go figure.
Seeing this continuing parade of great tees made me want to get in the game myself. I’m not much of a t-shirt wearer anymore, though I once owned a shirt that had the album cover of the Eagles’ Hotel California…uh…well, that was back when Reagan was president, so maybe it doesn’t count. I wanted to get hold of a t-shirt that would shock and awe, that would turn heads (and I mean like what’s-her-name in The Exorcist).
Naturally I thought of Barrier Kult.
To the uninitiated, Barrier Kult is this kind of underground skateboard group that has taken as its oeuvre those white concrete barriers you see in highway construction zones. As in skating up and down on them. They mix this with gothic horror images and heavy metal music. To say that I am outside the target demographic of this group is whatever the next thing beyond understatement is. And before I forget, props to Marty here for introducing me to BaKu (yes, they have their own abbreviation) via a YouTube video that was completely incomprehensible. (Watch at your own risk.)
This is what I need, I thought. A Barrier Kult t-shirt is my ticket to entry. No more solid-color button-downs for me. I’m relevant once again, baby!
So off I go to the BaKu web site where I find just what I’m looking for: the “Culting Knife Ritual” shirt, which has just about the best product description I have ever read (caps are theirs, not mine):
THE DARK VIOLENCE OF BARRIER KNIFE STABBING IS THE ROOT OF THE BA KU ACTIONS AND RITUAL. YOUR ROLLING ‘KNIFE’ STABS AND DRAGS INTO AND UP THE VIOLENT TRANSITIONS. THE CKR T-SHIRT REPRESENTS THIS THROUGH THE PREDATORY RIVER AND DRAINAGE TUNNEL HOODED SKELETON AND IT’S CORPSE RITUALS. PRINTED IN CANADA.
I think “Printed in Canada” is by far the most chilling part, don’t you?
I have my credit card at the ready, when suddenly I am thwarted! BaKu doesn’t offer this little number in a size that a middle-aged guy like me needs! Curse you, Barrier Kult! I will take my rolling knife and stab and drag you into and up the violent transitions. Or at least write a very huffy comment on Yelp.
Alas, the search continues – for both t-shirts and relevance that fit me. Suggestions are welcome.
Later today I’m teeing it up with two good friends – Jeff and Steve – at our local muni. We play together so often I refer to them as The Usual Suspects. Great guys.
What I love about golf with The Usual Suspects is that there is absolutely nothing at stake. We don’t bet or compete with anything except the course itself. We just enjoy each other’s company, on a beautiful day (after all, this is San Diego) in a beautiful place. We have a lot of fun.
I wrote in an earlier post about how, after The Darkness, I am playing golf as poorly as I was pre-Darkness – generally shooting in the mid- to low-90s. But something is different: I’m handling golf’s inherent frustrations much better. And that is great news.
Few things bring out the dark side of my personality more quickly than golf. I have always had a powerful need to prove myself to other people. A golf shot – in terms of distance, accuracy and consistency – was an easy benchmark to use. As anyone who plays golf will tell you, golf is a tremendously difficult game to play well. It takes a lot of practice, and even the best players will play poorly a certain percentage of the time.
So frustration – and how you handle it – is an important part of the game.
To give you an idea of how bad I was at that, consider that a group of guys I used to play with every week chipped in and bought me a cap with the Tasmanian Devil (wielding a golf club, and not in a good way) embroidered on it. I once threw a pitching wedge so high that it got stuck in the top of a tree (it is still there, as far as I know).
I’m happy to say that I don’t do things like that anymore (insert blanket apology to my former playing partners here). I was getting better pre-Darkness (helped immeasurably by taking lessons and practicing – duh!), and now I find that The Darkness has somehow stripped away my need to prove anything to anybody. I have been given the gift of being able to see myself as I really am, without the murky lens of my low self-esteem. Golf is not some battle I have to fight to prove myself to my playing partners. It’s just…well…golf. The Tasmanian Devil cap now resides in the closet.
I wish all this self-knowledge could somehow cure my slice. But with my ex-radio deejay voice, at least I can yell “Fore!” louder than anybody.
Obscure Reference Du Jour: Robin Williams’ famous rant about the invention of golf is not nearly obscure enough for this space. Instead of a literary or musical reference, I’ll offer this story from my childhood. When I was ten, our family moved to a new house whose backyard was adjacent to a municipal course. Naturally, I got interested in the game, and in the summers I used to walk right out of our yard and onto the 11th tee box – the course offered a junior all-you-can-play card for five dollars a month. This would be 1966-67.
My father was not a golfer. But one day he was walking the course with me and one of my cousins. The cousin hit a bad shot and slammed his club into the ground. My father then proceeded to offer him advice on his stance and his backswing.
“I don’t play golf,” he said. “But I know how to teach it.”
Yep. That’s my Dad.
I read today that signs warning about the presence of certain types of playground equipment must now be posted in parks and recreation areas in California. Like this one, alerting the public that a seesaw is near:
I’m sure a person (like say, a personal injury attorney person) could imagine a scenario where a parent, unaware of the seesaw threat level, would let loose their innocent child onto a seemingly bucolic and risk-free playground. Only to have that child be horribly injured (bonked on the head? held cruelly in the “up” position by a bully?) moments later.
“Oh, if only I’d known there was a seesaw!” the distraught parents would tell the judge. “If only there’d been a sign! I mean, who knew that there could be a seesaw on a playground?”
Judgment for the plaintiff.
I have two questions. First, how bad is this seesaw awareness problem? Is there really a large segment of the parental population that needs a sign to help them understand their responsibility for the safety of their children? (and, if so, how do I contact them about a large Nigerian inheritance to which they are surprisingly entitled?)
And second, what are those two kids in the sign thinking?
Kid 1 (up): “Do you think this is dangerous?”
Kid 2 (down): “I asked the crack dealer over at the picnic table, and he said no.”
It reminds me of a sign I see sometimes in airplane toilets. This example shows just a hand, but I’ve seen them where that international symbol man is dropping soap, cutlery and razor blades into a helpless toilet. What can he be thinking? Is he having a really bad day? Or has he simply been driven over the edge by the claustrophobic confines of the toilet itself?
Here in California, signs were put up a few years back along I-5 north of San Diego warning of illegal immigrants running across the freeway to avoid detection at a large checkpoint. The signs became kind of a joke, of course, but I can’t look at one without imagining the scene before the image in the sign takes place:
Mom: “Okay, mi hija, we must fix your hair in pretty pigtails before we dash across the freeway.”
Daughter: “Mama, what happens if I don’t run fast enough?”
Mom: “Then I will pull your arm until you become airborne.”
Obscure Reference Du Jour: My making up stories about street sign characters probably started six or seven years ago with a series of Pearls Before Swine comics. If you’re not familiar with this comic strip, find it. It’s fantastic.
Anyway, this series is about a bar whose patrons are all road signs. Signs with distinctly human characteristics:
I could go on. But I’m off to the park to sound the warning about seesaws.
A friend of mine, who by any estimate has an above-average number of tattoos, said this to me when I asked him about all his “ink”: “Sometimes the pain on the outside had to match the pain on the inside.”
A recent survey showed that 36% of Americans between 18 and 25 had at least one tattoo. More than a third. Wow. Any stigma about getting a tattoo (which, when I was in the 18-25 demographic was pretty much still limited to sailors) is gone. Great. Nothing wrong with that.
It got me thinking about the why of something like a tattoo. Leaving out the tattoos done in a fit of passion (see Angelina Jolie), or those done in a drunken stupor (see Helen Mirren, for crying out loud), most tattoos are the result of carefully considered decisions made by people who understand what getting a tattoo means (i.e., it pretty much ain’t coming off).
So whatever the tattoo actually is (words, symbols, pictures), it reflects some facet of its owner. In other words, it tells a story. No surprise there. I mean, tattoo parlors often call what they do “body art.” And the essence of art is one person reaching out to others through the use of some medium. This is who I am, what I’ve seen, what I’ve done. Me trying to make sense of the world. Writing, painting, singing, the same idea.
The obvious difference, of course, is the “forever” factor. Unlike a short story or a novel, which I can write and change hundreds of times or discard altogether and start over again, tattoos are removed or changed only at great cost (both physically and monetarily).
The permanence of the tattoo is part of its appeal. In effect, it solidifies some particular moment in the life of its owner – no matter how far they go in time and place from that moment, it’s still there with them. Like my friend who talked about the relationship of his many tattoos to his frightening inner demons. Somehow, he needed to reach out and make visible his struggles. Tattoos were the medium he found for that expression. Bright, colorful and complex, they remain with him long after the struggle has ended (he is now one of the finest men I know). He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Not every tattoo is so dramatic, but I think that in a time where things rush by so fast and we are overwhelmed by fleeting messages, bits of data, and advertising images, having something so personal and permanent on your body is a kind of comfort. Something that is stopped, unchanging, and which helps you tell the story of who you are to others. Regardless of the medium, we all need some of that.
Of course, I can’t end this post without an off-the-wall reference. Today, with all the talk of tattoos, it is the short story collection The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (one of my all-time writing heroes). A man meets a vagrant who is covered by beautiful tattoos. The vagrant tells the story of how he was tattooed by a mysterious woman from the future. And as he talks, each of his tattoos in turn begin to move and tell their own story.
I read this book when I was around 13 and already obsessed with Bradbury’s work. I could not believe that someone could use words to create something so beautiful, compelling and emotionally powerful. At the time, the first cheap cassette recorders were available, and I remember recording the introductory passage of The Illustrated Man and listening back to it over and over, feeling the impact of Bradbury’s words. I think this was when I first knew I wanted to be a writer.
I love the story of how Bradbury himself decided to be a writer. You’ll find it here.