Comfort Food For Thought

If you read my post last week, you know I was a little distressed over the recent shootings in my country.  Blogging was intended to bring me a comfort in troubled times.  In hindsight, maybe I was overthinking the situation.  Maybe all I needed was comfort food.  Enter Chick-fil-A.  The popular fast-food chicken restaurant may never be forgiven for removing their awesome coleslaw from the “Sides” menu a few years back, but just this week they brought a new guest to the party.  Hello, macaroni and cheese.

Amanda Norris is Chick-fil-A’s executive director of menu and packaging.  She’s now my new best friend.  A chicken sandwich and waffle fries, with a second side of mac & cheese?  Heaven in a to-go bag, my friends.  As Amanda puts it, “Mac & cheese is the quintessential comfort food… the perfect pairing… but it’s also great on its own as a snack”.  In other words, I’ve just been given permission to drive-thru Chick-fil-A and order only mac & cheese.  I’m a kid again!

Chick-fil-A’s mac & cheese

Chick-fil-A’s mac & cheese is made with a special blend of cheddar, Parmesan, and Romano, and baked fresh every day. Uh, push the pause button here.  Three cheeses sounds a little fancy for the mac & cheese I had in mind.  If the restaurant really wanted to arrow the bullseye, they should’ve done a deal with Kraft Foods and offered the mac & cheese.  You know the one – the proud little blue-and-gold box of the “cheesiest”, with the pile of pasta curls and pouch of powdered who-knows-what?  There’s simply no equal.

Kraft introduced its “Macaroni & Cheese Dinner” in 1937 with the slogan, “Make a meal for four in nine minutes”.  Back then – the Depression years – you could buy two boxes of Kraft for a single food-rationing stamp (Make a meal for eight…!)  Fast-forward to the 1980’s, when my wife and I were managing our shoestring food budget.  At least we knew we could buy Kraft mac & cheese.  Three boxes for a dollar!

Three-cheese blend aside, I agree with Chick-fil-A.  Mac & cheese is the quintessential comfort food.  Comfort food is defined as “… providing a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone”, and “…tends to be high in calories, high in carbs, and easy to prepare”.  Well hey, you might as well just say, “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner”!  Sure, you could turn to other comfort foods on Wikipedia’s short-list, like chicken soup, chocolate-chip cookies or grilled cheese (Tater Tots and sugary breakfast cereals didn’t make the list – for shame!), but take my money – and give me comfort – Kraft mac & cheese earns the top spot.  Just ask any Canadian; it’s the most-purchased grocery item in the country.

Recently, mac & cheese sits side-by-side with Brussels sprouts as a trendy restaurant offering, even in the fancy places.  The problem is in the spin – all those added ingredients for a supposedly better taste.  Lobster mac & cheese.  Mac & cheese pizza (topped with shredded Colby-Jack).  Mac & cheese pie (with a bready crust).  Even Kraft messed with the Original (“Star Wars-shaped” pasta?  Come on!).  Admittedly, their “Shells & Cheese Dinner” with the Velveeta cheese sauce is a pretty good option.  But it’s not the Original.

Comfort foods are further defined as “… food associated with the security of childhood. They are believed to be a great coping mechanism for rapidly soothing negative feelings.”  There it is, and that’s what I need right now.  The couple of Kraft boxes in my pantry are calling me home.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the foxnews.com article, “Chick-fil-A’s Mac and Cheese Hits Menus Nationwide”.

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Mass Distraction

Hundreds (if not thousands) of bloggers commented on last weekend’s tragic events in El Paso and Dayton. A search of either city on the WordPress website produces an endless list of posts. As it should be. Some of us process by writing; others by reading. Within these countless perspectives are paragraphs to help us cope, reflect, heal, and begin to move on. Not that we should move on; not at all. Like 9/11, the loss of life is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to a modicum of positive change.

Politicians will debate this issue relentlessly; their credibility questionable in concert with partisan agendas and unrealistic campaign promises. The media will focus on band-aid suggestions which appear to address the issue but don’t land anywhere close to its foundations. Regardless, if all this attention – misguided as it may be – leads to constructive conversation and heightened awareness, we’re taking a step in the right direction. The capacity for mass murder is far more complicated than we want to admit.

I tried several times this week to blog as normal. I found the usual du jour topics worth delving into. Yet every time I started typing I was distracted, for at least a couple of reasons. One, any topic besides this one would be utterly trivial by comparison. Two, any topic besides this one suggests my head – and my heart – are not where they should be.

Do I know anyone in El Paso? No, I don’t, nor in Dayton. Doesn’t matter. I still grieve for the victims and their families. After all, these are fellow countrymen and women. These are people I believe share similar values and a love of country, regardless of race, political persuasion, and all the other so-called differentiators. These are people I’d be delighted to run into if I were halfway around the world. They are far from strangers.

American flags fly at half-staff this week, as if our country needs a reminder of a horrific behavior already ingrained in our culture for decades. My own reminder is my inability to adequately express my myriad feelings today. Perhaps the writings of my fellow bloggers will bring me solace.

Speaking of other writers, my thanks to Feeding On Folly, who re-posted Mitch Teemley’s “The 32 Second Killing Spree” (read it here). Mitch’s post narrows the issue to the specifics we need to consider and the questions we must answer. Here’s one answer. Good and evil will always coexist, but we have to find a way to tip the scales a little more towards the good. If only for them.

I’ll be back next week, less troubled and a little more hopeful. At least, that’s the plan.

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Ahoy, Matey!

At the Jolly Roger Restaurant in the small Southern California town of Oceanside, you can order an Avocado Blast as a starter (tempura-battered avo stuffed with shrimp and tuna), Orange Coconut Salmon as an entree (panko-crusted with a sweet ginger glaze), and fruit-topped New York Cheesecake as a dessert, all while watching live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. The “JR” may be a little fancy for your tastes but let me tell you; it’s a LOT fancy for mine. That’s because the only version of the Jolly Roger I ever knew was my favorite boyhood burger joint.  As pirates like to say, “Aarrr…

Why blog about a long-ago restaurant?  Because I’ve just returned from several days of vacation in Del Mar (just a few miles south of Oceanside), where my family and I spent my childhood summers.  Del Mar is renowned for its county fair and thoroughbred racetrack (“Where the Turf Meets the Surf”), but for me it was – and still is – a nirvana of sun, sand, and surf; chock-full of happy, carefree memories.  Including the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar beach

The beauty of Del Mar back in the day, besides its seaside location, was the sheer simplicity of the place.  The town was the perfect setup for a kid.  You could walk or bike from the residential areas to the shops in minutes.  You could spend pocket money on Slurpees and pinball at the 7-11.  You could meet/greet frequent passenger trains at Del Mar’s tiny station (while those same trains flattened pennies on the rails).  You could also sneak into the racetrack, collecting discarded betting tickets in hopes of finding an overlooked winner.  And if you were lucky, you had dinner at the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar train crossing

The Jolly Roger got its start as an ice cream parlor in 1945, adjacent to the lake in Big Bear, CA.  But the lake promptly went dry, which led to a lack of landlubbers walking through the doors.  The parlor then relocated to Newport Beach (where the ocean never goes dry).  Patrons soon asked for more than ice cream, so the JR evolved into a coffee shop; then into a chain of restaurants.  At its peak, the JR had forty locations, each adorned with the trademark black flag with skull and crossbones.  But as one article cruelly described its demise in 1985, “…the Jolly Roger pirate has ‘walked the plank’, and the restaurant chain has been consigned to Davey Jones’ locker.”  As far as I know, Oceanside is now the only remaining restaurant.

There’s more to my JR memories than those couple of seaside locations.  The JR also had a restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles, in a shopping center my dad developed back in the 1960’s.  The center is still there but alas, not the JR (now a Mexican restaurant).  No matter; the memories remain.  I never complained when my dad wanted to stop by his center on weekends.  That usually meant a family dinner at the JR, and a lot of yo-ho-ho-ing around the table.

Jolly Roger menu – original cover page

Sadly, the Jolly Roger location where my family and I shared many a dinner – next door to Del Mar in Solana Beach – is also gone (converted into a Starbucks – shiver me timbers!)  And the Oceanside restaurant has evolved into something a whole lot fancier.  No matter again.  My JR will always exist.  I picture the restaurant where the waiters dressed like pirates, the kid’s menus looked like a pirate, and the best options for dinner were burgers & fries, grilled cheese, and milkshakes.  The JR also had quite the dessert menu, including full-boat chocolate sundaes and coconut-cream pie.

Dead men tell no tales, but I sure do.  Thanks for the memories, JR!

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Trilling on the Trail

An old friend stopped by to visit the other day. He appeared at my front door without warning, taking me back almost fifty years to the moment we first met. He is still quite the singer. His stride is supremely confident. Most annoyingly, he finds unqualified joy in every blasted thing he sees and hears. My friend is, after all, The Happy Wanderer.

If you’ve encountered The Happy Wanderer at some time in your life, you know exactly who I’m talking about.  He is Mr. “Val-deri, Val-dera”.  Those words alone should revive the sing-song tune fried into most brains since childhood.  “The Happy Wanderer” could’ve been quarantined within Germany were it not for its award-winning performance by the Oberkirchen Children’s Choir (and subsequent radio broadcast by the BBC), in 1953.  Then, Mr. Wanderer went worldwide-viral and there was no turning back ever.

Oberkirchen coat of arms

According to his lyrics, The Happy Wanderer (we’ll just call him “Hap”) takes hikes into the mountains and alongside streams, his hat on his head; his knapsack on his back.  Hap points out blackbirds and skylarks along the way, and his journey brings him unbridled giddy happiness and laughter (as in, “Val-deri, Val-der-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…”).  Our boy smiles the entire time and boldly invites YOU to join in the singing.  In his final verse, Hap wants to wander (and sing) until the day he dies.  That’s a little extreme for a children’s song, don’t you think?

Speaking of childhood, Hap and I first met way back then.  He entered the “UK Singles Chart” on January 22, 1954, eight-years-to-the-day before I was born.  Eight years after I was born, I henpecked Hap’s tune as I learned to play the piano.  “Chopsticks”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and “The Happy Wanderer” were almost assuredly the first three pieces I ever memorized.

Hap wandered into my life again in the Boy Scouts.  I recall a lot of singing on weekend hikes (not sure why – who’d be happy backpacking forty pounds towards some distant campsite?)  Besides “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and “The Ants Go Marching…”, we Scouts unabashedly sang “The Happy Wanderer” through mountains and alongside streams.  Hap’s tune even made the official list of “Scout songs” (see here.)

I thought I was done with Hap years ago (it took me decades to forget his slaphappy song), but recently he resurfaced.  First, on a cruise down Germany’s Rhine River, at an outdoor dinner in the little town of Rüdesheim.  I was volunteered by my fellow travelers to play with the band.  I manned a big oom-pah-pah drum while another poor soul clanged the cymbals.  A band member played the clarinet.  And our one and only performance – naturally – was “The Happy Wanderer”.  To add shame to the silliness, we marched between the tables as we played.  I did my best to look “happy”.

Hap’s other revelation may be a little more prolonged.  On the same Rhine River cruise, in Bavaria, my wife and I bought a handmade cuckoo clock.  The clock was shipped and arrived in the States two weeks ago.  Imagine my delight when I wound the clock and the cuckoo bird busted through his little door, the dancers twirled, and the tiny music box played “Edelweiss”.  The “sound of music” every hour on the hour!  Er, every other hour on the hour.  Turns out our cuckoo clock has two songs.  Hello, Happy Wanderer.  If I choose to, I hear his gleeful melody twelve times a day.  Or, If I choose to, I can flip a switch and I don’t hear anything at all.  I expect I’ll be flipping the switch any day now.

If you’d like to add to my hap-aberration, go to 1-800-FLOWERS and have a hardenbergia violacea delivered to my door.  HV is a species of flowering plant from the pea family.  Some call it a lilac vine.  Others give it nicknames like “false sarsasparilla” or “purple coral”.  It’s also lovingly referred to as “The Happy Wanderer”.

Heaven help me.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Slush Fun

In the last few years, it seems every other corner in Colorado Springs sprouts a newly built “Kum & Go” gas station. Kum & Go’s bright red-and-white oval signs beckon consumers to plentiful pumps and come-hither convenience stores. Kum & Gos are clean and spacious, with competitive fuel prices. Started in Iowa by Krause Gentle Co. (hence the “K” and “G” in the name), Kum & Go operates 400 stores across 11 Midwestern states; rapidly adding more. They’re even gobbling up unwanted locations of my favorite childhood hangout: 7-Eleven.

7-Eleven, of course, is the remarkably resilient convenience store of the baby-boomer generation and before. 400 stores is a drop-in-the-bucket to 7-Eleven. Worldwide you’ll find almost 70,000. It’s safe to say 9 of 10 Americans – at some time in their lives – pass under the bright green, red, and orange of a 7-Eleven sign.

7-Eleven roots to 1927, when “Tote’m” Stores launched in central Texas (yes; a totem pole in front of every one). In the post-WWII era, Tote’m rebranded as “7-Eleven” to acknowledge an unprecedented window of operation – earlier in the morning and later at night than most others. Today of course, coupled with gas stations, 7-Elevens keep those doors open round the clock.

Last Thursday – and every year on “7/11” – 7-Eleven offered a free small Slurpee to all who passed through its doors. (I like number-calendar play, don’t you? “Pi Day” = 3.14, “Fry Day” – National French Fry Day = 7/13, and “Star Wars Day” = May the Fourth.) Best Slurpee trivia: its genesis was at Dairy Queen, where a franchisee put Cokes in the freezer and stumbled upon a soda slush he labeled the “ICEE”. 7-Eleven bought the license, changed the name, and the rest is history. Still one of the bestselling drinks anywhere.

This week, I find myself vacationing in the small coastal town where I spent many a childhood afternoon heading to 7-Eleven. I missed out on last week’s free Slurpee, but I went to one of their stores the day after just to have a look. I can’t tell you the last time I’d been in a 7-Eleven but know this: they haven’t changed much in fifty years. You’ll still find an entire aisle of candy. Hot dogs still rotate on heated rollers behind glass, ready for purchase. Doughnuts age in a plastic bakery case. The Slurpee machines grind away towards the back, beckoning with their cups and colors.

I’ll give you five reasons why 7-Eleven was the ideal destination for a tweenager of my day. First, 7-Elevens were located close enough to residential neighborhoods to get there on foot or by bike. Second, 7-Elevens were small; therefore, not intimidating. (A kid-sized grocery store, if you will.) Third, 7-Elevens parked a couple of pinball machines in the corner of the store (I can still hear the “knock” sound when you’d win a free game). Fourth, 7-Elevens had an entire aisle of “coin candy” (dozens of options for your hard-earned penny, nickel, dime, or quarter). Finally, 7-Elevens had Slurpees – the coolest kid drink around.

When I visited 7-Eleven last week, I bought a Slurpee for old time’s sake. Guess what? They’re exactly the same – that slushy mix of syrup, CO2, and water. You still choose from several sizes of paper/plastic cups (although now you can “Big Gulp” if you must have 32 oz.). The drink still rotates and mixes behind that round glass window; a tempting peek at the flavors before you commit. The straws still have that open spoon on the ends. And a Coke Slurpee is still the fan-favorite (I’d choose Cherry were it not for the stained lips). Frankly, the only difference between today’s Slurpee and the one in the 1970’s: you can buy a refillable cup for discounts on future purchases.

Kum & Go also offers a refillable cup – the $50 “gold” for unlimited coffee and soda for a year. But that’s hardly kid stuff nor kid prices. I only go to K & G for the gas anyway. But take my advice and stop into a 7-Eleven again. Buy a small Coke Slurpee (and a hot dog – they’re actually pretty good). The pinball machines are history, and the candy costs a lot more than a penny. Otherwise it’s like a step back in time.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the CNN.com article, “It’s 7-Eleven Day…”

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Of Rings and Romans

Eggs are a favorite food of mine.  A breakfast plate is hardly complete without a couple of the fried, scrambled, or omelette-d variety. They’re delicious for lunch in an egg salad sandwich, or for dinner in a chef’s salad or a quiche. Don’t forget deviled eggs for a tempting appetizer. Nothing’s unusual about these egg-zamples, but here’s where it gets borderline obsessive. Earlier this week I imagined two sunny-side-up eggs placed flat-side to flat-side (don’t ask me why; I just did). What do you get when you do that? SATURN!

  

Perhaps you missed it on Tuesday, but the planet Saturn made a pageant-worthy appearance in our night sky.  Saturn “came to opposition” (sounds political), meaning Earth made its annual passage directly between the ringed world and the sun; at precisely 11am Colorado Time.  Saturn was closest to Earth at that very moment.  Ten hours hence, when Colorado’s sky was dark enough for stars and such, Saturn was already well above the horizon to the southeast.  At least I think it was Saturn.  Without a telescope, I channeled my most amateur inner-astronomer using handheld binoculars.  All I got was a shaky image of a bright, white pinprick in an otherwise fabric of black.  But I must say, it was a pretty big pinprick.

Saturn is certainly the most distinctive of the eight planets in our solar system (take that Pluto, you dwarf-pretender you).  Stage a planet beauty pageant and Saturn would simply flaunt her colorful rings to win ten out of ten times.  The distant runner-up, Mercury, would get a few sympathy votes for her steadfast “cool under fire”.  Mars would get no votes for her perpetual look of embarrassment.  Earth would be disqualified for serving as pageant host.  It’s Saturn with the sash every time.

There’s more to this heavenly body than meets the naked eye (WHOA; that may be the most risqué sentence I’ve ever written).  Saturn is a big ball of gas – hydrogen, helium – and less dense than water, which means if you threw her in the pool, she’d bob around like a big ol’ beach ball.  She completes a full rotation in ten hours; so fast in fact, her equator bulges enough to make her look like a flattened ball (not very becoming of you, Saturn).  Her glorious rings are circular masses of ice crystals, over sixty feet thick.  Her surface temperature is -300 degrees Fahrenheit, a reward for sitting sixth place from the sun.

All of which paints a not-so-rosy picture (but at least there are rings around the not-so-rosy – ha!).  If you could travel to Saturn (no spacecraft headed that way anytime soon), could stand on her surface (you can’t), and could withstand her “balmy” temps (one helluva spacesuit there), you’d still fly off into space on account of that zippy rotational speed and global shortage of gravity.  You’d probably splat into her pristine rings like a useless little bug. Ick.

Saturn

Saturn gets her name from the Roman god – not goddess – of agriculture and time.  Which begs the question, why am I calling him a her?  (Crud, I have to start this blog all over again.)  Even better, Saturn was also the god of wealth (now we’re talking).  In ancient Rome, the Temple of Saturn housed the town treasury.  And this same Roman god is why we call the first day of the weekend Satur(n)day (you’re welcome for that).  So, let’s review.  One of eight planets is named after you.  One of seven days is also named after you.  You must be one important dude.

And yet, Saturn (the planet or the god – you pick) doesn’t get much love in Earthly culture.  I scoured the web for references (okay; no I didn’t – I just looked up “Saturn” on Wikipedia), and all I came up with was a) a Sega video-game console, b) a discontinued brand of automobiles, c) a rocket booster (just the booster, not the rocket itself), and the annual trophies presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films.  Oh yeah, and a small, unincorporated community in Whitley County, Indiana.  Oh yeah again, and one of the primary characters in the “The Three Investigators” children’s books.  Er, wait, that was Jupiter Jones. Dang it!

Even if Earthly culture dresses down her sexy rings (again with the risqué), I still say Saturn wins the pageant (only now it’s a male pageant and that doesn’t work for me).  If you’re not convinced “he’d” win, consider this last fact.  Saturn has sixty-two moons.  Sixty-two!  Maybe Earth’s moon should head on out and join the party.  Can you imagine the night sky if you lived on Saturn?  The fabric would be loaded with pinpricks (including Titan, the second-largest moon in the entire solar system).  Moons, rings, Roman Gods, weekend days; what’s not to like?  As I said, it’s Saturn with the sash every time.  Now stop playing with your breakfast and get back to work.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Universe Today article, “Ten Interesting Facts about Saturn”.

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The Fourth on the Fence

America’s Independence Day celebrations go full-on patriotic today, including a plethora of centuries-old traditions. Barbecues and fireworks. Downtown parades with marching bands. Baseball, apple pie, and ice cream. Flags, and countless costumes of red, white, and blue. Another round of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. These are the images consistent with America’s 243rd birthday party. But tennis shoes and tanks? Nope; not what I had in mind.

Photo by Nike

I’m referring to recent headlines, of course.  Nike – in an obvious nod to Independence Day – produced a limited-edition running shoe with the “Betsy Ross” on the heels (the version of the American Flag with a circle of thirteen stars on the field of blue).  The shoe would’ve made it to hundreds of feet were it not for concerns voiced by activist (and Nike spokesperson) Colin Kaepernick.  In response, Nike immediately recalled the shoe.  In response to that, the state of Arizona withdrew financial incentives for the construction of Nike’s latest manufacturing plant.  In response to that, the state of New Mexico created a political fence at the NM/AZ border, inviting Nike to “come on over”.  “Betsy Ross” instantly became a hot topic on Twitter.

Photo by Andrew Harnik – AP

As for the tanks, President Trump requested “reinforcements” for the “Salute to America” parade and flyover in Washington D.C.  In a nod to the U.S. Armed Forces, parade-goers will enjoy a convoy of loud-and-proud servicemen and women and their vehicles.  I can’t think of anything more patriotic: a fortified Independence Day parade in our nation’s capital hosted by the leader of the free world.  But like the Betsy Ross shoes, we have controversy.  D.C. locals are worried about tank-track damage to city streets and bridges.  More predictably, the progressive left sees President Trump’s actions (and Salute speech) as an inappropriate opportunity for political gain.  In response to that, there will be protestors and flag-burners galore.

My Independence Day childhood memories have nothing to do with flag-burning, let alone tennis shoes and tanks.  Our family would trek to the beach in Southern California full of pride and patriotism.  We’d spread blankets on the sand at dusk alongside thousands of others, with a couple of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.  My brothers and I would run around in circles with sparklers.  When it got dark enough we’d enjoy the fireworks erupting from a nearby pier.

As a teenage boy – and budding pyrotechnic – Independence Day was all about the fireworks.  My dad would purchase a large “Red Devil” assortment and we’d set them off on the beach.  My favorites included “black snakes”, “ground-spinners”, and “fountains”. (Alas, I never experienced the machine-gunner thrill of hoisting a Roman Candle.)

When my own children were young, I delighted in our local (and thoroughly hokey) Independence Day parade.  Our supermarket participated with a group of dancing, shopping-cart-wielding cashiers.  Our dentist shamelessly advertised on a float with a giant toothbrush. But our son carried the flag as a Boy Scout and our daughter rode her pony as part of an equestrian team.  Later in the evening we’d gather at the shore of the nearby lake to watch the fireworks display, fully funded by donations to the local fire department.  Small-town America at its best.

Like any other living, breathing American, I have my opinions on the tennis shoes and tanks.  I don’t think Nike intended to dredge up Revolutionary War-era civil liberties simply by displaying the Betsy Ross on its products.  I don’t think President Trump did anything more than exercise the privilege of the office by serving as host of our nation’s capital’s celebration.  In both cases, I think digging for dirt below the surface only makes things dirtier.  I’d wear the shoes or attend the Washington D.C. bash without an iota of self-consciousness.  I’d simply be an American celebrating our Independence Day.

Nike defended its shoe recall by claiming it’s “proud of its American heritage”, but worried the Betsy Ross would “unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday”.  President Trump’s advocates said he’s “… not afraid to buck convention and put his own twist on these types of events”.  How about we get off the fence, take a step back, and remember what we’re celebrating?  America’s birthday deserves more than focus on yesterday’s regrettable events or today’s relentless politics.  Perhaps – just for a day – we could be the “United States” of America once again.

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