Gloppitta-gloppitta Brett

If you are a fan of 1960s era dark comedies (aka the golden age of macabre laughs) you couldn’t watch Brett Kavanaugh’s histrionic display of self-serving rage on Thursday without thinking about the “gloppitta-gloppitta” machine and the Button Defense.

“How To Murder Your Wife,” was one of the darker comedies released in 1965. Its own marketing campaign lauded the film as “One Of The Most Brutal, Fiendish, Sadistic, Bloodcurdling Comedies Of Our Time!”

Naturally I loved it, but I was 17 and, well, you know teenage boys, right Brett?

Anyway, Jack Lemmon played Stanley Ford, confirmed bachelor and cartoon artist with the hottest syndicated strips in America, the adventures of secret agent “Bash Brannagon.” 

Long story short, after a night of drunken revelry and subsequent blackout (funny how that happens) Ford wakes up in the morning to discover himself married. The new mystery woman in his life (Italian actress Virna Lisa) speaks no English but she’s beautiful and solicitous to a fault.

Domestic life soon turns Ford fat and complacent, and in a Walter Mitty moment of spite, he produces a strip in which alter ago Brannigan murders his wife, deposits her body in a cement mixer (the gloppitta-gloppitta machine) and proclaims himself a free man again.

Seeing the strip the new wife disappears in the night (and who can blame her?) which leads the police to think Ford really did the dirty deed and then bragged about it via Bash.

Which brings us to the Button Defense. 

During his trial Ford fires his incompetent lawyer and pleads his own case before an all-male (naturally) all-married jury. In a stream-of-consciousness oratory about the joys of bachelorhood and the indignities of marriage, Ford tells the jury he did it (he didn’t) draws a chalk circle the size of a button and invites the boys to “imagine if just by pressing that button you could make your wife disappear.”

Whereupon the guys in the jury box spontaneously acquit, give Ford a round of applause and carry their hero out of the courtroom on their shoulders – leaving the women in the spectator seats to shudder in horror.

Isn’t it funny how life imitates art?

It isn’t difficult to imagine the Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee shouldering their guy Brett out of the hearing room and into the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court in a triumph of partisan politics against all logic, common sense and decency. The only difference between Ford’s Button Defense and Kavanaugh’s rant was that Lemmon carried off his role with an actor’s sly wit and hail-fellow-well-met smoothness that our boy Brett couldn’t hope to match.

On the other hand, Kavanaugh didn’t have to. He could afford the indulgent luxury of raving  about Democrats destroying his life and traumatizing his wife and children knowing that the confirmation in the bag no matter what. 

Lemmon at least had to con the suckers into ignoring the evidence. Kavanaugh hardly had to bother. 

“How To Murder Your Wife” was a satirical ode to male privilege writ large. The Kananaugh confirmation farce is the same – only more irony than satire, more tragedy than comedy. The movie at least had the virtue of being Hollywood unbelievable. And it even had a happy ending, with Ford’s wife returning and the two of them presumably living happily ever after in a household where the man rules the roost. 

The Senate sanctification of the next Justice of the Supreme Court offers no such happy ending, unless your idea of sheer bliss is sticking it to the liberal snowflakes and putting uppity women in their place. 

In the Age Of Trump reality has become more bizarre than make believe. Women are chattel. Men get away with murder, figuratively if not literally. And the boys who will be boys get to live happily ever after. 

Driving the Walking Dead

Hamlet’s okay, but to be brutally honest, I prefer “The Walking Dead.” Love it. Have from the start. Every gory, gruesome, gut-wrenching moment.

Sure, the melancholy Dane talks to a skull. But at least it isn’t trying to rip out his throat in mid-soliloquy.

Still, nine seasons in, the series has begun to stretch the bounds of credulity with me.

Oh, not that the dead reanimate. I totally buy that. Just watch C-SPAN, if you can stomach it.

Not even that the few remaining humans keep slaughtering each other. That’s just the logical outcome of American political polarization and our infatuation with gun play.

No, what’s finally got me crying “fake news!” is that the survivors are all still driving around the apocalyptic landscape as though the refineries down in Houston were still pumping at full capacity.

Haven’t they Googled gasoline? The stuff starts to break down after six months, and by year two a gallon wouldn’t have enough zoom left to motivate the Energizer Bunny, let alone Daryl’s chopper and Rick’s pickup and that monster armored SUV in the “Fear” spinoff.

As Deadpool would say “that’s just lazy writing.”

Still, the more I think about it, the more sense these post-Dead perpetual motion machines are starting to make.

I finally figured it out folks. When you come right down to it, “The Walking Dead” is the perfect allegory for the end of auto-American Civilization As We Know It.

Turns out it won’t end with a whimper, or even a bang, but rather with a wheeze.

This occurred to me after reading that London scientists have established a link between high air pollution levels and soaring rates of dementia. They already discovered that air pollution can lead to lower IQ . And it’s been documented that auto-emissions are a major contributor to air pollution.

Coincidence? I think not.

So just think of the zombies as poor lost souls who have finally surrendered their last remnants of reason and intelligence to the choking tailpipe emissions they’ve been sucking up their entire lives.

I mean, seriously, look at their faces. Don’t they look oxygen deprived to you?

Not all of them, of course. Some of the walking dead are actually the walking wounded….the multitude of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and drivers who have had their bodies shattered and minds addled as a result of collisions with two-ton predators. Now they just shamble from place to place, lost amid the roads and stroads and interchanges and multi-laned wastelands of a civilization that willingly sacrifices a human life every 25 seconds on the alter of the Freedom Of The Open Road.

And those survivors who keep killing each other instead of the zombies? That’s just typical auto-American road rage taken to its logical extremes. Covet thy neighbor’s wife, fine. Covet his ‘Vette and you better buckle up pal.

And finally all of those cars and vans and pickups and motorcycles and assault vehicles that keep on trucking long after the gasoline has gone bad? It seems the folks who made “The Terminator” series had it right. The machines we created to make our lives easier will still be killing us long after the dystopian curtain has dropped.

Speaking of which, I understand that when “The Walking Dead” resumes they are going to get rid of Rick, arguably the series’ central character, and perhaps the toughest post-dead survivor of all.

Here’s how I think it’ll happen (spoiler alert!)

Rick wakes up one morning and discovers that his drivers license has expired.

Consigned to pedestrian hell he steps out his front door.

Only to be run over by an autonomous vehicle.

Alas poor Rick, I knew him well…a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy.

A tale of two cities

Whenever I drive through Ocala I am reminded of urbanist Andres Duany’s declaration that “the Department of Transportation, in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

The first thing you see upon approaching the city proper headed south on U.S. 441/301 is a sign stating that you are entering Ocala’s business district and that, henceforth, the speed limit will be 35 mph.

Which is very sensible because most of the length of 441/301 between Gainesville and Ocala is 65 mph, and nobody needs to drive that fast through an urban business district.

The second thing you notice upon entering Ocala’s business district (aka Pine Avenue) is that almost nobody actually drives 35 mph. Most traffic moves in the 45-50 mph range right through the heart of the city.

And, really you can’t blame drivers. Never mind what the tiny speed limit signs say, all of the visual signals motorists get tell them that this is a corridor designed for speedy transit. 

We’re talking six broad traffic lanes, seven counting the middle turn lanes. We’re talking few roadside obstructions – trees for instance – that might caution motorists to ease up a bit. Yes, there are sidewalks but the pedestrian environment through the middle of Ocala is so sterile, so hostile that walking anywhere is clearly a last resort. 

Ocala loses an average of 10 pedestrians a year to traffic. It would probably be more but, really, who would want to walk on these mean streets?

Getting back to the DOT’s culpability, driving through the heart of Ocala is an unpleasant experience precisely because the character, width and configuration of U.S. 441/301 changes not at all as it makes its transition from rural to suburban to urban. 

It is simply a broad, multi-laned expedient specifically designed to funnel as much traffic as possible as quickly as possible. 

I bring this up not to especially pick on Ocala – which is a perfectly lovely city in some respects – but rather because the traffic funnel that slices through the middle of the city is the very definition of a “stroad.”

A sort of transportation mutation that works well as neither a road nor a street.

“Roads and streets are two separate things,” Charles Morhan writes in his recent Strong Town blog  which argues that road-obsessed traffic engineers should not be allowed to design urban streets.

“The function of a road is to connect productive places.” Say, to connect a university city like Gainesville to a retirement community like Ocala. He compares functional roads to railroads “where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two

“In contrast, the function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth…In these environments, people are the indicator species of success…with a street we’re trying to create environments where humans, and human interaction, flourish.”

In Ocala most of the human interaction occurs in traffic, and with predictable results: Ocala’s traffic-facilitating business district is the usual auto-American-bland collection of fast-food outlets, strip shopping centers, car dealerships, drive-through banks and what not. 

And Ocala’s certainly not alone in this regard. Many auto-American cities have seen their once vital economic centers reduced to drive-by convenience strips as a result of some traffic engineer’s vision of mobility paradise. It is the same vision that enables thousands of drivers a day to pass through, say, nearby Palatka’s commercial strip hell on their way two and from the beach without ever seeing the charming neighborhoods and quirky riverside downtown hidden on either side of traffic-facilitating U.S. 17.

In Gainesville we are trying to work our way out of our stroad dilemma. Main Street, which runs north and south the length of the city, continues to be redesigned with human interaction and local economic vitality in mind. Traffic lanes are being reduced and narrowed, bike lanes added, sidewalks improved attractive streetscaping added. And the result is a more people-friendly downtown and an amazing urban renaissance on a strip of South Main Street that was once given over to warehouses and empty storefronts. Now we’re seeing parks, artist studios, breweries, entertainment venues and small business incubators popping up all along that still-being redesigned stretch of South Main.

Which is not to say that Gainesville doesn’t still have work to do. University Avenue continues to be more a mass traffic facilitator than the university city signature street it ought to be. And 13th Street, which connects to Ocala via U.S. 441, is still a malfunctioning stroad that surrenders urban quality of life to the fast and efficient movement of cars. 

I think that will change, eventually, because 13th Street and University are, for all practical purposes the University of Florida’s front doors. And with 50,000-plus students concentrated in one small area and in need of more personal mobility choices, traffic calming changes are inevitable. 

It is people, not cars, that make or break a city. Gainesville’s is moving ahead, while Ocala stalls in traffic.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun and former executive director of Bike Florida.)

When art escapes anything happens

Lately I’ve been entertaining some of the Big Questions about Life, The Universe And Everything.

Is it art, or just a rotting whale?

Is war still hell if Felix The Cat, Wiley E. Coyote and Homer Simpson are committing the atrocities?

And if “The Starry Night” jumps off canvas and onto a house is that a mortal sin against conformity and the property tax valuation we all hold sacred?

That first question is a tough one. These days Gainesville is busting out all over in Urban Art, i.e. formerly known as graffiti. 

Spurred by the city’s 352Walls project, artists from around the world have been coming to town to paint their visions on formerly blank walls, mostly in the downtown area, but as far afield as Santa Fe College. 

Now we’ve got a mystical woman holding a ball of galaxy, surrealistic city scapes, a Bengal tiger, Tom Petty tributes and other images that nearly defy description popping up all over town. 

It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s edgy. It’s so Gville.

And then there’s the rotting whale on NW 4th Street, around the corner from Cypress & Grove Brewery.

Ribs poking out, flesh hanging in shreds, vultures perched and daisies sprouting through the gaps. 

Personally I love it as a sort of circle-of-life message that they didn’t quite capture in “The Lion King.” But when I show it to visitors I get mixed reviews. Some can’t stand to look at it.

Which I suppose is the very definition of art. Something I read in a gallery in Asheville’s River Arts District recently comes to mind: “It’s not what you see, it’s what you make others see.”

Speaking of arts districts I was wandering the Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD) in Melbourne, and stopped to ponder Matt Gondek’s contribution to the district’s 2017 Anti-Gravity mural wall painting project. 

It’s kind of a traffic stopper. An “exploding” cartoon in which icons like Homer, Felix and Wiley cheerily wage bloody mayhem on each other in gaudy primary colors.

To say that the Gondek’s take on “Guernica,” Picasso’s epic interpretation of Nazi atrocities in the Spanish Civil War, has raised a few eyebrows would be an understatement.

“The city commission rewrote the mural ordinance over it,” Lisa Packard, director of EGAD, told me. “The town went nuts.”

True, seeing Sponge Bob with one eye gouged out is a bit jarring. But Pepe LePew’s got a rose clenched in his teeth, so it’s not all gore and guts. 

And here’s the other thing. This deconstructed vision of critters’ inhumanity to critters graces the wall of a small strip shopping plaza that would otherwise be all but invisible in its bland sameness. 

They’re all over Florida, but you never really see them at all.

You’ve gotta be blind to miss this one though.

Which brings us to Mt. Dora’s “Starry Night” house.

You’ve probably read about it. A Mt. Dora couple noticed their autistic son’s fascination with Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece. So they had it reproduced all over the outside of their house.

Prompting the City to threaten $100 a day fines until they returned their home to its former, municipally-approved blandness.

But the couple went to court instead, and a federal judge ruled Mt. Dora out of order.

So now can we expect to see house-sized replicas of great masterpieces popping up in neighborhoods all over Florida? Will art anarchy swamp homeowners associations in a sea of surrealism?

I dunno. When art escapes the studio to spread out across the landscape, anything can happen. A lot of cities like Gainesville are busting out in murals precisely because it makes the urban landscape so visually arresting that people want to come from all over to see it – and argue about it. 

But the lines of artistic expression can get blurred. In Asheville’s art district a colorful orange and blue house flouts a large mural of Bob Dylan smoking a cigarette. Very cool, but I can’t imagine they would welcome that abode in a tonier section of town. 

On the other hand perhaps we are entering into an age where conformity and uniformity is becoming overrated. 

I’m ok with the rotting whale and one-eyed Sponge Bob and smokin’ Dylan and the Starry Night house (which is now a Mt. Dora tourist draw). 

What a Brave New World has such images in it.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun on Sept. 11, 2018.stars2.001.jpeg

Swans, people and automobiles

Save the swans Lakeland.

And the people too.

The lovely waterfowl that glide gracefully across Lake Morgan are living symbols of the city. But apparently that matters little to at least some of the thousands of motorists who drive by the lake every day. 

In the space of just three weeks, six of the stately birds have been run over by cars. Five did not survive the encounter. 

On the heels of this avian slaughter, public officials and local residents have begun to talk about what can be done to improve traffic safety in the area. The swans are Lakeland’s mascots, and  if saving them means cracking down on speeding or distracted driving, then so be it.

But let’s be honest, Lakeland’s traffic safety dilemma ranges far beyond Lake Morgan. 

In 2013, when I was executive director of Bike Florida, we brought several hundred cyclists from all over the country to Lakeland for our Orange Blossom Express spring tour. Bike Florida is a nonprofit organization that promotes cycle tourism while raising public awareness about safe cycling. As route coordinator for our spring tours I can tell you that we spend a great deal of time – literally months before the actual event – working to ensure that our cyclists can ride safely from point A to point B while at the same time showing them the best that scenic Florida has to offer. 

Naturally Lake Morton was on our tour route that spring. We wanted our riders to see and appreciate the royal swans. And finding a way to get them safely into downtown from our host site by the airport – in and out of Lakeland’s intensive traffic patterns – caused staffers more than a few sleepless nights. 

Fortunately we pulled it off, thanks largely to the high visibility signs we posted along the route – to both guide cyclists and alert motorists – the off-duty police officers we stationed at troublesome intersections and other proactive safety measures we implemented.

Unfortunately, people who try to get around Lakeland day to day on foot or by bike do not enjoy the kind of route support we provided our riders. Just two years ago Smart Growth America’s annual “Dangerous By Design” survey listed Lakeland-Winter Haven as America’s sixth most dangerous metro for pedestrians – more dangerous than Miami, Tampa or Phoenix.

The Ledger has reported that in the last two years alone cyclists and pedestrians have been involved in nearly 500 crashes locally. And 33 of them died.

“They’re much too small to compete with a 2,000-pound vehicle,” veterinarian Patricia Mattson told the Ledger in reference to the city’s traffic-endangered swans. 

Same goes for the human beings who routinely brave city streets on foot or by bike…they are much too small and vulnerable. And their lives are just as precious, even if their injuries and deaths do not attract as much publicity.

I don’t really mean to pick on Lakeland. In truth it’s not much different from many auto-American cities that, over the past half century, have squandered tax dollars, downtown economic vitality and, yes, human lives in the single-minded pursuit of enabling motorists to drive in and out of town as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

It is a measure of just how successful our national experiment in moving traffic at all costs has been that congestion is as bad, or worse, as it’s ever been, traffic fatalities remain at epidemic levels and pedestrian and cycling deaths are on the rise. 

It’s time to try something different. In Lakeland. In Gainesville. In every city that wants to improve its quality of life and protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents.

We know how to calm urban traffic. It’s become something of a science. Mainly it involves slowing down cars by street design, enforcement and education, and there are any number of techniques to do it. The Project for Public Spaces is one of the organizations that offer traffic calming “toolboxes” for communities that want to reclaim their streets and public spaces. 

As a society we have spent decades designing streets that put pedestrians, cyclists and, yes, in Lakeland’s case, even swans at mortal risk in order to keep traffic moving at peak efficiency. 

City leaders who want to change that dangerous status quo can choose to put cars in their place and save lives. All it takes is the will to do so and the realization that the public streets belong to all of us. 

Save the swans, Lakeland, and the people too.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of the Gainesville Sun and served as Executive Director of Bike Florida for five years. He continues to design tour routes for Bike Florida.