A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Town of Murals

I had planned to stay in Ohio for much longer than I did.  Longer than two days, that is.

Soon after arriving home, my family had another medical scare with my grandmother in Florida.  As soon as we heard about it, my dad and I ran raced down to see her for a week.  After that, I stayed in Lake Placid with her and he went home.

Lake Placid, Florida is not what you'd call the most "hopping" place around.  It is a small, retirement community.  There's one coffee shop (which was very hard to find), two bookstores (both of which are Christian bookstores), a few thrift shops, and a variety of very nice restaurants that all close around 3 P.M.  Essentially, there are only two types of people in Lake Placid, the retired and those who take care of the retired.  Oh, and clowns... there are clowns too.

Ignore the obvious places, Lake Placid has a few quirks.  Dr. Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal fame built a Summer resort in Lake Placid, New York for his rich friends.  Thirty-five years later, he discovered the remote town of Lake Stearns in Florida and decided it would be a great place for a Winter retreat.  He negotiated a name change and it became Lake Placid, Florida.

At some point, someone thought that it would be nifty to add a mural to one of the buildings in town. It didn't take long after that for another and another and another to join it.  Thus much of the downtown area is covered in murals and decorated trash cans.  At some other point, someone decided to start up a clown college in Lake Placid, which eventually added on a museum.  Somehow, the murals and the clown college became intertwined.  Now wooden, cut-outs of clowns decorate the fencing along the elementary school nearest the clown college.

Most of the murals celebrate local, fairly mundane achievements.  One such mural shows the noble Dr. Dewey standing before a billowing train, holding up a document, marking the moment when he put Lake Placid on the map.  This image seems to act as the town's Aeneidian foundation myth.

Another, portrays the town's early physicians carved into stone like the presidents of Mt. Rushmore.

One mural shows the town's first drug store, which closed in 2005.  Next to the mural, presumably where the drug store used to stand, now sits a gym and juice bar.

A mural called "The Lost Bear Cub" displays a mother bear looking through the forest for her young.  Meanwhile, the cub sniffs around a bee hive at an orange grove.  At one time, Lake Placid had been a great place for black bear hunting.  Of course, that passed with the black bears.

One mural shows the turpentine industry that had at some time provided a wide array of jobs for people in the area.

Another depicts the Floridian scrub jay's deeply passionate love for peanuts in a rather Greco-Roman motif.  They say, the scrub jay loves its peanuts so much that all you have to do is place one on the palm of your hand and the friendly, little jay will swoop down onto you, pick it up, and carry it away.

Some show boy scouts, basketball teams, the town's first bank robbery, a beloved mid-wife, sand cranes, Florida panthers, and a man who has dedicated his life to growing roses.

A lot of history can be preserved through those murals.  Not big history, mind you.  Instead, the town is painted with the tiny stories and curious folk that make up any community. It is filled with the most precious things that we are quick to forget, but in desperate need to keep in our minds.  It's a shame that so many towns don't find neat ways like this to preserve their culture, identity, and memory.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Strangers on a Train

Have you ever been to Mt. Sunflower?  Me neither.  It's supposed to be the highest point in Kansas.

For Kansas, this slightly, raised location is very elevated.  The mean height in that state is 2,000 feet (610 m) above sea level.  Mt. Sunflower is a whopping 4,041 feet (1232 m) up, and if the difference between those numbers sounds great, it's important to remember that the state of Kansas slowly rises from east to west, so much so that the high point is perfectly indistinguishable from the land around it.

I imagine, having never been there myself, that if you were to survey the whole of Kansas from its high point, America would appear to be little more than an endless expanse of flat nothingness...  But don't be fooled.  That seemingly endless expanse of flat nothingness is one of the many, many different views you'd see traveling the land.  Few countries are as beautifully varied as the United States.  Few countries have such diversity in their flora, fauna, people, or topography.  Traveling America, seeing that diversity, is a pleasure.


Taking a train across America will allow a person to encounter a uniquely human corner of our nation's diversity as well.  Train travel prices are comparable to that of plain, but the travel time is significantly longer.  You ride a plain for a few hours.  A train will have you going a few days.  Only a certain type of person is going to want to take the train: a person who has free time and doesn't mind being confined with strangers.

Traveling from Fresno to LA, I sat at a table across from "The Hipster."  Armed with thick-rimmed glasses, a thin mustache, and a worn sketchbook, he told me that he worked in design as he outlined a semi-human form on the paper, switching between different sizes and shapes of pencil.  Sometimes, he claimed, he wanted to draw people on the train, but that would probably make them uncomfortable, especially if he didn't ask.  It was easier to sketch people on the bus.  He asked where I was headed (LA but only for a couple hours) and he suggested a place to eat.  I wrote it down, thanked him, and never went.

Albuquerque, NM

Instead I waited at LA's Union Station, next to "Marlene" who huffed and hummed as she told me all about her daughter.  The girl had reacquainted herself with an old friend from high school on Facebook, and it didn't take long for her to move down to LA and in with him.  Her new partner was a bum, between the two of them were nine children, and he didn't pull his share of the weight at work or home.  Marlene had been frequently commuting to LA and while she hated the city, she was planning to move there permanently, so she could be closer to her daughter.

The next leg of the journey was the longest: two full days to get to Chicago.  Going across the American West normally takes a while, but every town along the tracks is likely to have a stop.  Most are brief, two minute hiccups, barely enough time for one or two passengers to get on or off.  Others will last five to ten minutes and offer a smoke break.  During those periods, all the smokers congregate together, bum squares, joke, and complain if it gets progressively colder the further east they go.  Then there are the long stops, maybe an hour in a city like Albuquerque.  Those are fewest and farthest in between.

New Mexico

As the train pulled away from our first smoke break, I went into a bathroom.  As I closed the door, I heard one of the conductors open the entrance beside me and yell out the side of the car, "Let go of the train!"  While we were smoking, someone had wandered into the station and the train had left him.  With a mad lack of self-preservation, the man chased after the train, security guard in toe, and clung onto the side, screaming "Let me in, let me in!"

The train came to a very quick stop and the man climbed aboard.  I stepped out of the bathroom in time to see the conductor berating this now extremely apologetic soul.  And in between the two stood "Baalim" lapping it all up, jovially giving commentary to a situation in which he had no place.  I quickly swept past them and back into the observation car.  Baalim found me there and told me that the man was getting kicked out on the next stop.  His suicidal feat had only gotten him one station farther down the tracks.


Baalim was an exuberantly friendly but incredibly obnoxious individual bound for Cincinnati.  Normally, people on the train offered their life's story at the drop of a dime.  Baalim, despite his friendly demeanor, was tight lipped about his past.  He had been living in LA for an ambiguous amount of time doing... something vague, and had recently had his phone stolen by a girl in a hotel room.  The only further explanation I got for that event was that she didn't look like the kind of girl who steals your phone.  The one thing he was really open about was his reason for returning to Cincinnati.  He wanted to see his daughter.

Never judge a book by its cover.  There were two men, "Fernando and Herzog," who could be easily described as "toothless hicks" and I had cruelly categorized them as such when I sat down next to them in the observation car.  Then I listened to their conversation.  Books.  They were discussing their favorite books and authors, and I was an asshole for being so quick to judge on appearances.


Fernando was heading to Baltimore.  He had been through an incredibly painful break-up and left behind most of his worldly possessions to move out west, looking for work.  But there had been no work, so he was returning home.  Herzog, on the other hand, had been in the construction business most of his life.  He worked destruction in Indiana, but he had no love for the place.  Because of this, he spent a majority of his time in California, where the weather was always sunny, and only commuted back and forth for contracted work.

Sometimes, it felt like people had practiced speeches that they would give whenever somebody asked them the traditional greeting, "So where ya heading?"  "Chuck" made sure to tell everyone in a loud, automatic voice that he was a veteran who had been living in California for twenty-three years and was moving back to Illinois.  It didn't matter if you had been in the same room as he told his story to someone else.  When you opened up a conversation with Chuck, you were going to hear that first.


It made sense for Chuck.  Once you started a real conversation with him, you realized something wasn't quite right.  He had been on partial disability for a long time and was now on full disability.  It had something to do with PTSD.  The reason he was going to Illinois was to be with family, and it seemed likely they were going to be taking care of him.  Luckily, he had fourteen nieces and nephews and was thrilled by the prospects of seeing them and spoiling them all.

"Annette" had no need for practiced speeches.  Each conversation with her was new and strange.  One time she explained why she, a blind woman, would need to take self-defense classes: Rapes.  That was her jovial answer.  "I've been raped lots of times."  She told a group of shocked onlookers that she had been attacked by a drunken Mexican not too long ago.  After she had successfully fended him off, he had stolen her cane.  Not once did her voice change from the same bouncy tones as she explained the dangers of traveling alone blind or spending the nights in foreign homeless shelters.

"That's a brave woman," a lady said after Annette had left the room.

Chicago, IL

Later, she trapped "Lee," a struggling artist and taxi-bike driver from Missouri, at a table with a story about the Illuminati that she delivered in the same upbeat tone she always spoke in.  They would capture and cage young children and subject them to mind control experiments.  Lee eventually escaped with an opinion of her far less flattering than "brave woman," but we all grew to understand Annette over the journey.  She was on her way to Kansas City, and though she claimed to have friends there, it was far more likely that she had just picked a place and gone.  She had four children and four estranged relationships with them.  She was blind, homeless, mentally unsound, an easy target for dangerous men, and relentlessly positive.

As we neared Cincinnati, Baalim became increasingly distressed.  He had originally confused the arrival time in Cincinnati with the departure time from Chicago.  So instead of getting to Cincinnati at 5pm, we would be arriving at 3am.  He borrowed my phone several times to find someone who could pick him up at the station, but everyone refused.  So I offered my help.  My dad and I would give him a ride to his home.  Kindness is often misguided.


The police were waiting for us at baggage claim.  A dog had sniffed out the weed in Baalim's bag and after they checked the name on the luggage, the cops found a warrant out on Baalim for a parking violation.  They specifically stopped us and no one else, asked to see I.D, and Baalim ran into the women's restroom...

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Firstly, if you don't particularly have any opinion on video games, you'd be just fine reading a couple articles I wrote about playing the fantasy, adventure game Skyrim.  The first one's HERE and the second is right HERE.

Next, if you are REALLY into video games, you should definitely get yourself a copy of Spec Ops: The Line, by far the best game I played last year, and when you're done with that you could do a little dense reading on it.  HERE is a wonderful, close examination of the game by Brendan Keogh.

Lastly, I've been traveling.  The final destination of my journey was not the one I expected it to be, but it rarely ever is.  When I was living in Gangneung, I had plans.  When I moved out, I was going to see the world.  I was going to travel to places and experience things that I had never before.  The first on that list was a dump in Cebu.  Literally, I wanted to go to the Philippines and visit a dump where a small population of people were living.  Sadly, there were some complications with this plan.  The most pressing was that the people I thought would meet me at the airport there, no longer lived in Cebu.  So that was a bust.

The second plan was to take the Trans Siberian across Russia from East to West.  Sadly, Russia has some complicated Visa restrictions and I wasn't completely sure I wanted to travel on my own there.  It would have been fine though, provided the friend who was going to meet me in Russia wasn't in Israel. Well...shucks, I thought.  That train idea sounded real nice!

Then it hit me.  There are trains in America!  And the trains in America are relatively affordable, so I could be a frugal traveler while seeing a broad swath of the world... sure, it was one I had seen before, but not since I was a child.  After rationalizing like that for a little bit and being far too lazy to work out other plans in the limited time I had left, I was set to venture across the wild west!

The first thing I had to do was find someone to stay with in California, if only for a night.  Now, my contacts in Russia and the Philippines proved less than fruitful, but my friends in California were a little different.  They were trapped there!  Ha ha ha!  It was all too easy.  

I knew a couple in Madera who would house me for a week.  She was a teacher and he managed a farm.  When my plane landed in San Francisco, he arrived soon after and we began a plodding trip across desert and farmland to his home on the outskirts of Fresno.

As jet lag started to take hold of me and my mind slipped quietly into a haze, my friend pointed out the side of the car and said jovially, "Dairyland!"

Dairy-what-now? One could imagine some magical, dairy theme park, filled with people in anthropomorphic cow costumes, novelty cheese mascots, and a log flume flowing with milk.  It sounded like some enchanting, gaudy place where all your dreams lactate.  Looking, well duh, it wasn't that creamy wonderland.  It was a school.  An elementary school.  It was an elementary school in the middle of nowhere of little to no importance to anyone.  Of course it was, I bitterly spat.

Then my friend told the Tale of Dairyland.  Since his story, I have forgotten many bits and pieces.  Sure, I looked online to sharpen that faulty memory of mine and confirm any factual details.  However, that was boring and his story was much more interesting before facts could be confirmed, so I'll try to present a retelling (in my voice) of his story.

In the 1970s, a group of men came up with a brilliant get-rich-quick scheme.  There was a small, elementary school in the middle of nowhere that serviced the local farmers.  That school was Dairyland Elementary.  Farmers aren't exactly the richest people in the world, but they are far from the poorest.  These men decided that they were going to kidnap a busload of farmer's children from this local school and hold them for ransom... Literally, a busload.

At first, the plan went off without a hitch.  The men hijacked a school bus and took it to a quarry, where they buried the children and their driver alive inside the bus.  Then they sent a message to the farmers demanding a million dollars with the promise that the children's location would be revealed once they had gotten the money.  But as the farmers passed around the collection plate, the bus driver and few of the children were able to dig their way out and contact the authorities.  Foiled, the kidnappers were caught and tossed in jail.

It's not hard to question the logic or sanity of men who bury a busload of children alive, and thankfully this kidnapping didn't end in tragedy.  It can ruminate as a fun story to tell and an adventure where the kids win the day and the greasy bad guys are caught.  Of course, that narrative ignores the reality.  It ignores the trauma experienced by the children and the stress they still suffer well into adulthood.  From what I've heard, the children who were kidnapped continue to protest the paroles of any and all their kidnappers to this day.

Passing by that little school in the middle of nowhere, you probably wouldn't even notice it.  If you did, it might be just for the funny name.  But in those places of little or no consequence are where we often find the most fascinating stories.