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Ten Bucks

We’ve had this thing kicking around my basement/workshop/lair for several years. It’s a cottage furniture dresser.

We bought it at a tent by the side of the road, out in the boonies. We used to raid it quite often for junque we could salvage and perch on to save money and collect splinters. It was cheap. How cheap? This cheap:

It was really dirty, but unlike the photos, the item itself is not out of focus. Two of the drawers were wonky. They all stuck and shrieked like a miser at tax time when you tried to operate them.

The term “cottage furniture” has been debased over the years. I oughta know, I helped debase it. Originally, cottage furniture referred to relatively inexpensive suites of mostly bedroom furniture, made from common grades of wood and painted in folk art style to mimic expensive veneers. Floral adornments were often added, or sometimes still life stuff or even the occasional seafaring illustration. They’re often pinstriped like ours is.

The term “cottage furniture” has morphed into painted casual furniture, usually a riff on shabby chic decorating. I used to make cottage furniture and sell it online. The original cottage furniture stuff is about 150 years old now. It was pretty common, so no one thought to save much of it, and now good examples of it are getting rare-ish and valuable-adjacent.

So why was it ten bucks? Because someone had butchered it. There was once an ornate mirror between the twin towers of the drawers, and someone wanted it, so they pried it off with force aplenty, and left the rest of the dresser as furniture carrion. The dresser, intact, was worth something. Separately, the two pieces it was wrenched into were basically worthless.

Our ten-dollar remnant used to look something like this:

Original vintage cottage furniture doesn’t get restored much, because few people know how to do faux bois (grain painting) anymore. You’d have to know how to fix handmade furniture, too. All the drawers in our dresser are hand dovetailed, including the backs. The frames are nailed into the chamfered corner posts with cut nails driven in from inside out. And when you were all done with all of that, you’d be required to be some form of at-least rudimentary artist, and a dab hand at pinstriping, too.

I made a drawer runner and some drawer stops out of scraps from the burn pile, and glued them in. The knobs (pulls, really) had all been scavenged off the thing, so we bought reproductions that were appropriate to the style. Those cost something like eight bucks apiece, so our sugar bowl didn’t escape totally unscathed. The new pulls had a walnut teardrop pull, which we disassembled, sprayed with clear lacquer, and put back together.

You have to be careful with finishes like these. I’ve done lots of faux painting, and researched it quite a bit. You can never tell what the fellows that did the original work might have been using to grain the exterior. It could be shellac, or various primitive water-based stuff. Casein was popular (milk paint). Hell, the really good guys used to be able to do it with stale beer as a medium.

I knew the usual panoply of nasties like acetone and paint thinner and toluene and lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol were just as likely to immediately dissolve the finish as clean it. So after banging all the nails it required, gluing in any missing pieces, and waxing the drawers so they’d slide in and out nicely, I simply took some disinfectant towelettes and wiped the thing down. When it was as clean as I could make it, I gave it a thin coat of water-borne clear finish, applied with a foam brush. The backplate on the pulls fit the craters on the drawer fronts perfectly, so I knew they were probably pretty much an exact substitute for the original.

And we ended up with this:

We have a pantry porch adjacent to the kitchen, and storage is storage. And I’ll bet an afternoon’s effort and some knobs catapulted the value of this ten dollar thing into the fifteen-dollar range, at least.

Before CGI

Before CGI, filmmakers found people who could actually do stuff, and pointed cameras at them. In the flawed masterpiece, The Big Country, Chuck Connors and a few stuntmen showed Gregory Peck and Carroll Baker how to ride horses:

There’s a great mix of humor in this drama. The cowboy who can’t get his boot on at the beginning of the chase, and then can’t get on his horse, is a nice touch.

The director of the first 3/4 of this movie was William Wyler. Wyler was something of a legend in Hollywood by the time he made The Big Country in 1958. He ended up with three best director Oscars, and had thirteen nominations total (tied for the most). He drove actors up the wall, making them do forty takes, but they all wanted to work with him anyway. Henry Fonda wondered why Wyler wanted another take. “It stinks.” Charlton Heston asked for direction. “Be better.” Gotta love that kind of management.

Wyler made all kinds of movies well. Hell, he made 32 silent movies just to warm up. He did westerns and dramas and comedies and sword and sandal epics and musicals and they’re all still pretty entertaining to watch. The Big Country was a big hit, although the critics mostly thought it was pretty meh. Eisenhower was still president then, and loved it, and had the movie screened four straight nights in the White House.

If you’re in the know about cinematography, you probably know about this movie. Wyler and Gregg Toland developed and perfected what’s called deep-focus cinematography. The lenses they used could keep everything in the frame in focus, no matter what the depth of field was. Nothing on the screen was blurry, no matter where it was.

Lots of directors hated widescreen. There was too much area to cover, and it was easy for the actors to look lost. But movies like The Big Country embraced all that screen square footage. The scenes of the actors pounding across the measureless prairie are amazing. I don’t think you would have Lawrence of Arabia four years later if David Lean hadn’t seen how Wyler used the landscape in The Big Country.

Wyler used the landscape as a metaphor. The fight scene in the same movie is unexcelled, because of the moonlight mood and the tiny men struggling to settle a meaningless score in a gigantic void of featureless grass:

They gave Burl Ives an Oscar for this movie, but I don’t know why. He’s sorta eating the scenery through most of it. But the real problem with the movie is Wyler was incredibly in demand for his work, and he had to ditch The Big Country to go to Italy to make Ben Hur. The movie was finished by a different director, and squanders the vibe that built up throughout the first part of the film. It just sort of fizzles out at the end.

It matters who directs a film. People used to know how to do things, but not everyone knew how to do it like William Wyler.

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She Comes In Colors In South Hiram, Maine

Dat’s Molly Tuttle from Palo Alto, of all places, playing at the Ossipee Valley Music Festival in South Hiram, Maine in 2022. Her whole family are bluegrass aficionados, and I believe at least one person on the stage with her is her brother. She went to school at Berklee in Boston, so I guess South Hiram’s not that far out a place to find yourself for a California bluegrass player.

People who’ve never been to Maine, and many that have, don’t understand Maine very well. They think it’s all guys with whales on their pants married to second wives with Pomeranians in their purses who live in Bar Harbor. It ain’t like that. Except for a thin strip along the coast, most of Maine is Alabama with snow. Bluegrass is close enough to country to get by out here. Because this ain’t no joke:

Philistines Gotta Philistine

According to Wiktionary, “philistine” is an adjective meaning “lacking in appreciation for art or culture.” I think that falls far short of the definition. I forget where I heard it, but the most able assessment of a philistine I’ve ever heard is someone who knows the difference between beautiful and ugly, and deliberately chooses ugly.

It’s a philistine culture, now, top to bottom. People don’t lack appreciation. They spurn it. Girls know coloring their hair with Pepto-Bismol and putting a ring in their nose is ugly. That’s why they do it. When abstract standards of right and wrong go out the window, standards of etiquette and taste go out with the same bathwater.

I know I’ve mentioned it here several times, but Frank Gehry has done more harm to the human race than psoriasis. He knows his structures are ugly, no matter what he says publicly. That’s the point. Believe me, I know it’s hard to make a beautiful, sturdy, useful building of almost any size. Guys like Gehry understand it’s much easier to make an ugly one, and say, I meant to do that, where’s my check? It’s hideous. Ain’t it grand?

I’ve likewise pilloried the architectural style that makes Gehry the Larry Fine of the drafting table: Brutalism. I could paste in a long description of Brutalist Architecture, but I’ll save us all some time and sum it up thusly: Commies love concrete. Brutalist architecture doesn’t just spurn the wants and desires of people who enter or pass by their abominations. Brutalist architecture denies the essential humanity of humanity itself. It is the design motif of the prison, the abattoir, the death camp, the Stasi office, the nuclear fuel dump, and various colleges that produce students who like to bomb road races, like UMass Dartmouth.

So Boston City Hall is the ugliest building in the world, maybe. I can live with that. The government got big, and the people got small, so the kind of statement it makes is inevitable. But I can’t stand by and see anyone praise Brutalist churches and get away with it. Here dezeen magazine, which has to be dezeen to be believed:

Sacred Modernity showcases “unique beauty and architectural innovation” of brutalist churches

It showcases, something, alright, the same way overweight plumbers showcase things when they’re crouching in front of your sink.

Here are two examples. I chose them at random, basically. They’re all equally bad ideas, like speed dating at a carnival sideshow:

I’d mention the first one is plagiarized from the torture scene from Brazil, but what’s the point? They’d probably give the architect a raise if they hear that. The second, a concrete Tetris game gone bad, looks like the plans for a maximum security prison that got wrinkled in a paper jam in the fax machine, and they built it that way anyway.

I’m not disappointed in the architects. They’re jerks. Jerks gotta jerk. It’s the churches that paid for these monstrosities that should be ashamed of themselves. But then again, those churches have all lost their nerve and don’t even mention society’s obligations to each other, or to posterity anymore. Let’s look at a snippet from the article praising these sacred seawalls gone rogue, and see if we can grok where they’re coming from, man:

“In essence, the experience of encountering brutalist churches often involves a transformation from scepticism to appreciation, as individuals are confronted with the unique beauty and architectural innovation that these structures represent.”

Yup. Even he knows it’s crap, but bangs on his brain to convince himself to pretend it isn’t. Philistines gotta philistine.

AI Hijinks

I’m not sure we’ve settled on a name for Artificial Intelligence stuff, probably because it really isn’t very intelligent. It’s mostly a massive version of autofill, which is useful enough, I suppose. If you don’t want to (I don’t), you never have to look at Gargle again.

Some call it LLM, for large language models, but that doesn’t encompass what the script kiddies are doing with images and video. Gargle has settled on “generative ai” for non-textual stuff, but their stuff is so locked down they’re not going to be where the action is. If you head on over to Hugging Face, or whatever Stable Diffusion is calling itself nowadays, you’ll see tinkerers tinkering with all sorts of speech to image, image enhancement and melding, music generation,and general messing around with probabilities. The Wikiup likes the term “deep learning,” Deep learning being a subset of machine learning being a subset of artificial intelligence.

Whatever you want to call it, the usual suspects are taking the ball and running with it. First and foremost, they want to use everything they can lay their hands on to have fun. This sure is fun: How about a movie trailer for Alien, as if it were a 1950s movie?

Another outfit did the same with Aliens:

The limitations of the amount of video you can produce in a single snippet isn’t a problem when you’re making a film trailer. They’re almost uniformly stitched together from two or three second images. Every once in a while, you see what has been called a “hallucination.” That’s the term for when the generative AI wigs out a bit, and just inserts any old thing for reasons obscure. They have an especially hard time with hands, but then again so did Van Gogh.

There are a hearty handful of people churning out these homages. They’re all sort of fun. But the funny thing about them is that while the kids are getting the CGI (for want of a better term) right, they don’t really know anything about the 1950s, and they get the text, voiceovers, and fonts all wrong for the era. Even the vibe is off. Here’s a real 1950s movie trailer to compare:

Movies from the 1950s didn’t have CGI, or machine learning. Hell, they didn’t always have color. But they made the chariot race in Ben Hur, and Marilyn Monroe’s dress blow up on a subway grate, among many other terrific bits of entertainment, and without much doctoring to the film. With better tools, you’re supposed to be able to do a better job. I’ll raise my hand when you get there, kids. Keep going.

Born Too Late: The Supper Club

There is a continual assault on the English language. The intertunnel, and especially typing with your thumbs into a Portable Pandora’s Portmanteau, has led to the destruction of many words, including “led,” which is now misspelled lead uniformly. It’s right up there with vise/vice, loose/lose, and spelling et cetera “ect.” If you point out any of these errors, you are immediately enlisted in the shutzstaffel. Language evolves, you’re lectured. It never occurs to the lecturer that it can also devolve.

So lately the hipsters have glommed onto the term “supper club,” and want to use it to describe ghost kitchens, or informal meals shared by a group of people who use “deck” as an adjective. I won’t have it.

You see, instead of resurrecting a perfectly good term like supper club and debasing it, they should resurrect supper clubs, period. Our parents and grandparents got to go out to eat once in a while and hear live music and turn their ankles dancing. I wish we could.

But as the losing coach said, and I paraphrase, “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door, and neither is Michel Legrand, or Sacha Distel.” Michel went to his reward after 86 busy years, and is no doubt waving down from a cloud on high to the lava pit his agent is doing the backstroke in. Sacha exhausted himself by trading in Brigitte Bardot for an Olympic skier, and checked out at 71. If he didn’t die happy, he wasn’t paying attention.

I don’t know about you, but man, I could go for a big dose of Gibson L-5s, ruffled shirts, shop-class glasses, and scat singing right about now. And a veal parm with a salad in one of those pressed plywood bowls. Oil and vinegar from the cruets, baby.

Slice of Maine Life

Joe and Nic’s Road Trip YewToob channel is a rara avis. They do the most useful thing you can find on the intertunnel. They go places, point the camera at what they’re looking at, tell you what they’re looking at, and report as much information as they can find about where they are. If the news media ever did this, they don’t do it now. Joe and Nic do.

They kind of specialize in going places others don’t, and for good reason. They favor abandoned places, and rundown places. They have the stones to go places like Gary Indiana and Detroit, and do not appear to be carrying sidearms, so they’re braver souls than me. They’re also brave enough to visit Belfast, Bangor, and Augusta, Maine, and tell the truth about them: i.e.: they’re pretty pleasant places to be.

It’s fun to hear them scratching their heads over crime stats in Belfast. They’re accustomed to crimes per thousand citizens, and Belfast has 47 crimes last year. Total. Welcome to Maine, kids.

We’re fairly familiar with Belfast, although it’s quite a ways away from our hovel in western Maine. Our children performed at the Belfast Harbor Fest one year. It was held in a giant circus tent in the park by the harbor.

Joe and Nic travel down the road to Bangor. Bangor’s a bigger town, and has a history of being a bit rough and tumble, all the way back to when it was lumber central for Maine exports. But it’s still a plenty safe place. The downtowns in these towns are mostly made up of handsome brick structures. They’re fascinated with the second best writer in Maine, who dwells there, but they’re from way out of town, so they’re forgiven. They mispronounce Orono, where the largest campus of UMaine is located (OR oh no). Our son attends UMaine, although it’s the campus in Augusta where he lays waste to the President’s List.

They mosey on down to Augusta to finish up, or Ogguster as we call it. It’s the state capital. We go there from time to time. We mostly press on down the road to Hallowell, which is an offbeat little strip of shops and restaurants. Ogguster has a handsome downtown, but truth be told, most of the burg is the usual gutbucket stripmall wonderland.

They visit the capitol building, which from the exterior looks like it belongs to a state with more people in it. When they get inside, they notice that it’s got a spare, no-nonsense Mainer vibe.

Joe and Nic sound like pleasant people. They should stay in Maine. But buy better books.

The Nine Principles of Policing

The police as an institution are so thoroughly ingrained in the public’s mind that it’s easy to overlook the fact that a professional police force is a fairly recent development. Before professional policing, there were many ad-hoc assemblies of people with varying amounts of authority, organized and paid for by this or that individual or organization, and ultimately relying on nothing more than overwhelming force to perform their duties.

Sir Robert Peel came up with the idea of an official police force in England in the early 19th century. The nickname “Bobbies” is a riff on Peel’s first name. So an official, organized police force is only about two-hundred years old. America more or less followed along with the organization of police in the same way as Merry Olde.

There were ancient laws in England that instructed every freeman to have certain weapons on hand and use them when called upon to serve king and country. That goes back to Henry II. Constables were appointed to call out the citizenry when required to restore order, and watchmen have been looking out for crooks, fires, stolen property, lost dogs, and various other breaches of public security for a millennium. Eventually sheriffs were sworn in to keep jails, collect taxes, and generally keep order over larger areas of the country. This office caught on in the American west, as well, giving birth to lots of good movies, and to Jamaica, where Reggae confessions eventually became popular.

The old ways led to mobs of criminals or disgruntled citizens clashing with loosely and quickly organized mobs of authorities. Civil disorder, whether due to outright criminality or not, was crushed with extreme prejudice, as they say, and only rarely with a detour to any judge when a tree was handier. Peel thought things could be improved if the general public thought that a policeman was just like them, only professionally interested in keeping order continuously. In other words, a policeman is just supposed to do what any good citizen would do in his place, but pay attention to nothing else while the general public got on with their lives.

Robert Peel came up with what he called “General Instructions” given to all policeman in London starting in 1829. Here they are:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

That sounds pretty good to me. However, it doesn’t sound even 1% like the approach to policing of any current police force I know of in the United States.

Paradise Lost

Farewell happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells: hail, horrors!

-John Milton, writing on a Monday, I’ll wager

So we’re leaving Mérida .

We were over two hours early for our flight. We got evicted from our rental house early in the day, and security screening at the aeropuerto took less time than we had any right to expect. We took an Uber ride to the airport. We’d never Ubered before we went to Mexico, but it’s very much a way of life in Mérida. Today’s driver was a cute young woman, a first for us. We had been carted to and fro by a cadre of amiable men of various sizes and shapes and ages for the rest of the week. She listened to peppy Mexican pop the whole ride and was generally jovial and made us even less enthusiastic about leaving, if that’s even possible.

We visited parts of the airport we missed the first time, because we’re walking Spanish out of the country this go-round, instead of invading it. We walked through long, spacious and airy corridors, all floored in that nifty tawny stone they have all over the place. If it were tile, it would be a dreary wasteland of patterned patternless ground to cover, but each tile is lightly veined in endless variation, with the occasional substantial splotch of renegade stone mixed in by an unseen artist a million years ago or so.

There are multiple checkpoints, each manned by formidable musclebound military police with automatic weapons, looking like they haven’t heard a good joke since high school. Just kidding. Why does everybody think Mexico is Mad Max with tacos? Only the little strip of dirt on either side of the US border is a disaster zone filled with enough violence to compete with east Saint Louis. In Mérida, each waypoint is staffed with diminutive beauty pageant runners-up in smart sportscoats and too much makeup for their young years. They smile and apologize for their poor English skills using a vocabulary unknown to valedictorians in American schools. They just ask you if you have any food or foolishness in your luggage, and then send you off along the line with cheerful smiles.

Eventually you reach the final boss, who smiles broadly if you attempt any Spanish, no matter how feeble the assault on his language. If you’re expecting an interrogation, you’ll be disappointed, unless being asked if you had a nice visit counts as one. He dutifully stamps your passport and sends you on your way into the concourse.

The concourse had many strange things appurtenant to it. You could actually buy one of those ridiculous pool-cover-sized sombreros covered with sequins and other assorted tacky flair. It’s exactly the kind of hat no one in the country will be caught dead in. They all wear what my wife and I started calling “hippy-hoppy” trilbys, if they wear any headgear at all. Panama hats are definitely a thing here. They’re actually called jipijapa hats, but it comes out sounding like hippy-hoppy to our gringo ears. Selling Panama hats to tourists is the second most common job in Yucatan, I think, after making them, I guess. I suffered through so many sales pitches for them I could recite one from memory. I’ll spare you a full recitation. You can only hear that a hat was made by hand by children in a subterranean cavern so many times before you interrupt the sales pitch and offer to drive to the cave and get those kids out of there. This stops the sales pitch dead, generally. They are nice hats, though, but too rico for my blood.

There are cake shops in the mall. My wife puzzled over them. Who wants to buy a giant cake in an airport? It was mysterious enough as a concept, but when we saw a woman buy a whole stack of them, and watched the clerk sorta duct tape them together into a tower of confectionary Pisa, we went from curiosity to downright disbelief. You’re bringing a pillar of cake onto a plane as a carryon? Some people are built different than us, is all we could figure.

Then we encountered, finally, real fear. Terror, almost. We’d been warned by everyone about Mexico, and they were finally right. We ran smack dab into a fire-breathing, wirehaired goblin, his huge mouth agape, his raiment in tatters, beckoning us to our doom. Yup, Guy Fieri has a restaurant in a Mexican airport.

We had two hours to kill, so we ate in there. You have to sort of unhinge your jaw like a snake to get your mouth around the hamburgers. They come wrapped in a paper winding sheet, which was somehow appropriate, because you’ll need a stent for dessert if you finish the thing. They served us lemonade in a crystal skull, for obscure reasons. I’ve never sipped non-alcoholic drinks from the craniums of my enemies, or even my friends. I have to admit that sticking your thumb in an eye socket makes it easier to grip a beverage.

By arriving so early, the correct gate was still in use for another flight on another airline. “Viva” is another airline around there. We were on AeroMexico coming and going. It was very buttoned-down and efficient. I gather Viva is a cut rate carrier for shorter hops and vacations to places sensible people avoid, and similar destinations. I don’t really trust an airline with any form of enthusiasm in their name, like Viva! I don’t care for any excitement added to my air travel. I generally eschew any wild and wacky hijinks at 20,000 feet. I prefer airlines named like serial killers. I think they should even have middle names, like Wayne, to further banish any attempts at conviviality.

All the remaining steps in our travel home were steps down. The further we got, the more annoying and unpleasant things became. Atlanta was a zoo. The AeroMexico flight arrived early, which is a blessing when you have another plane to catch. Of course Atlanta didnt have a gate for it. We taxied to and fro all over the gigantic tarmac carpet, while Atlanta tried to make up its mind about about where to park our plane. By the time we got off, we had to scurry to make it to the next flight. The airport security personnel were literally crazy. At one point, we were made to go through one of those interminable switchback mazes designed to handle overflow crowds, even though there were none, just to approach the machine that x-rays your luggage. The whole time, a female linebacker shouted over and over, “We hain’t got no trays! Put everything in your pockets in yo luggage. We hain’t got no trays!” At the next checkpoint, two security personnel were breakdancing and rapping, while a third waved us past wordlessly.

The flight was a misery, but we expected that. The weather had turned cold. We got off the plane in the middle of the night in Portland, a dreary, desolate place. It was raining in sheets, and we couldn’t find our way out of the parking area. We came up against one barricaded exit after another, and finally discovered a self-serve stanchion that would process our parking ticket. It cost more to park for a week at that airport than a meal for two at the most expensive restaurant in Mérida .

The machine intoned: PLEASE inSERT your PARking ticket, over and over, in a crazy Teletubbies singsong. Of course the machine didn’t work. We tried several times, without any luck, until either a homeless man or a parking attendant without portfolio (they’re stamped at the same mill in Portland I gather) walked up to our window and told us our ticket must be dirty. He wiped it on his greasy camouflaged poncho, and failed to get it to work, with extra steps this time. He suggested we back up, and head to the only open attendant booth in the airport.

The woman in the booth was about two feet from us, but somehow didn’t see us as the minutes passed by on the clock. She was very busy, because no machine anywhere on the premises was working, and she was yelling instructions to travelers unseen into a microphone, and pressing various buttons with vigor. I was starting to get peevish about being ignored for so long. I’m sure her spider sense started tingling, and she opened the window between us, and my anger immediately morphed into pity. Her booth was wired to lord knows how many self-checkouts, and she could hear every one say, PLEASE inSERT your PARking ticket, over and over, all at the same time. I wanted to rescue her more than a hippy hoppy child laborer in a cave, I tell you what.

We drove home in silence, exhausted, hours in the car added to our traveling penance. When we got to the stop sign about a thousand yards from our house, the timing belt in our old Volvo let go, the valves stayed open, and the pistons slammed up into them and destroyed the engine.

Our car is perhaps more sensitive than us, but we understood how it felt. It would rather commit suicide than go back home.

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Discovery Beats All

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done —
But then, with a grin, he replied
He’s never been one to say it couldn’t be done —
Leastways, not until he has tried.
So he buckled right in, with a bit of a grin;
By golly, he got right down to it.
He tackled The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done!
And goddammit but he couldn’t do it.

— Anonymous

The human race loves to travel far afield from familiar things. It yearns for discovery. Sometimes the voyage is as simple as doing a crossword puzzle, just to see what words might appear on a grid. Other times you’re suffering from scurvy and sunstroke while Vasco da Gama tries to figure out which way is east, and asks you for the hundredth time if you smell curry, too. The urge for discovery is the same, only the circumstances and the stakes change. It’s the same reason you watch Nicholas Cage movies on Tubi. It’s very, very doubtful, but there’s an off-chance that something interesting might be there, so you go exploring.

And so it went with our little thought experiment: What’s My Line. I offered two photos I took on the Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Mexico, and challenged my readers to guess what function the building served, just by looking at it. The urge for discovery ran deep in the comments, and many tried to divine the building’s use. But a riddle that goes unsolved after many attempts just gets annoying, so I’ll spill the beans.

Here are the pictures again:

Of course the stakes were very high. A Don Rickles cookie was in play if anyone could guess what was going on inside this building. Many intrepid souls stabbed it with their steely knives, but they just couldn’t kill the beast. The guesses ranged from amusing to understandable, but not very close to the mark. There’s a reason for that, and I’ll explain it, along with the answer.

You see, I knew no one would guess the answer, because I didn’t have any idea what was going on when I passed by the building for reals, more than once. I marveled at it, but I didn’t understand it. In true explorer fashion, when I couldn’t puzzle it out, I went in and asked. And got an education, so to speak.

The reason that I couldn’t figure it out is the same reason nobody else could figure it out. Our American minds have been marinating in our own cultural formaldehyde that we can’t see things properly any more, or even imagine things anymore. We’re boiled frogs.

That building is a school. An elementary school, I think, my Spanish skills are poor, and the different levels of schooling in Mexico is obscure to me. That’s it, a children’s school, nothing more. When I asked, I figured I’d misheard, and asked again. Is it a museum of an old elementary school? Nope. A fancy private school? Nope. Just an elementary school. I stood inside that open vestibule you see there, and inside was a beautiful greensward, lined with a colonnade with classrooms doors in a row. That flowering bush tumbling over the wall on the exterior rambled all around inside, too.

I didn’t recognize it for what it was for the same reason my readers didn’t. It didn’t look like a medium security prison, like it would in the United States.

Month: April 2024

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