I Just Turned 59.99589!

It may interest you to know there are real Memory Lanes in the bedroom communities of every American state. Look them up on Google Maps (I stopped searching after finding dozens.) Must be fun to be one of those residents and see the look on someone’s face when you give them your address.  No, I don’t know anyone who lives on Memory Lane, but me, I kind of do; one with no stripes or sidewalks. Mine is paved with sixty years of material, some of it worth a visit; other items best left alone.  All of this “Dave” stuff is somewhere between my ears and today it’s time for a big – okay, little – reveal.

59.99589.  If you’re reading this post the day it was published, I’ve just revealed my age to ridiculous exactness.  The 0.99589 amounts to 363 out of the past 365 days.  You could say I’m still in my late fifties (very late, Dave), but more accurately you’ll say I’m either sixty on the dot or a mere forty-eight hours removed from it.  Do I feel old now?  Of course not!  Er, until I calculate my age in months.  I’ve spent 720 of those bad boys.  For Pete’s sake, what have I been doing all my life?

Well, let me answer that question.  In fact, let’s make it a game because then you get to play too.  Think about the last sixty years (or in your case, however many decades you’ve been around).  Now let’s create a list – off the top of our graying heads – of up to ten significant world events in the timeframe of our years.  No, no, no; not the events you learned in the history books, but the ones with lasting, maybe even personal impact.  Here are mine, in no particular order:

  1. 9/11 (2001)
  2. COVID-19 (2020-???)
  3. San Francisco Bay Area earthquake (1989)
  4. Space Shuttle Challenger (1986)
  5. America’s war in Afghanistan (2001-2021)
  6. Apollo rockets (1961-1972)
  7. Colorado’s Black Forest wildfire (2013)

I don’t have enough time to explain my choices (after all, I only have forty-eight hours until I”m a “sexy-genarian”) but trust me; these seven came to mind in a heartbeat.  Now arrange them in chronological order to paint an interesting picture.  My childhood was inspired by Apollo rocket launches (courtesy of black-and-white TV’s); my young adult years by two disasters – the Challenger explosion and the devastating earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area; and my adult years by big-bad-ticket items like terrorism, war, wildfire, and a global pandemic.  Sadly, not one of these events makes anyone’s “good list” (am I a product of headline news or what?). But that’s not to say my sixty years have been altogether bad.  Quite the contrary.

Now, here’s where the game gets more interesting.  Make a similar list as above, but include up to ten significant events of a personal nature.  These are the formative moments, where you’re not the same person after they happened as you were before.  Leave off relationships (including marriage) and having kids, because most of us have or will have those in common.  Let’s see now.  My eyes are closed, I’m in a thoughtful trance, and I’m typing, all at the same time (a man of many talents, no?) Okay, pencils down.  Here’s my “formative” list, also in no particular order:

  1. Corrective eye surgery (1977)
  2. I-survived-but-the-car-didn’t rollover (1984)
  3. Immersive year of studies in Rome, Italy (1982-83)
  4. Traded California’s coast for Colorado’s Rockies (1993)
  5. First job <McDonald’s> (1975)
  6. All things Boy Scouts (1973-1978)
  7. Architecture career ends, tech career begins (1993)
  8. All things basketball (1974-1979)

Again, I’d love to wax on about my choices but I’d turn 61 before I’d be done typing.  Instead, sort my formatives from earliest to most recent.  Notice anything?  All happened between the ages of 10 and 30.  My “clay was molded’ in a mere one-third of my lifetime.  Not really true, of course.  Ages 1-10 – none of us remember much of those.  But now I hear you saying, “So Dave, what have you been doing for the last thirty years?”  Well, you know the answer already  The same thing as most every other red-blooded American male.  Raising a family.  Making a living.  Loving my wife.  Loving my life.

I predict my sixties will be my greatest decade; just you wait and see.  I’ll witness another significant world event or two (maybe even a “good one”!)  I’ll break my thirty-year run of nothing and come up with at least one more formative experience.  I’ll write another 520 blog posts (and you’ll block a chunk of your calendar to read them).  But let’s be real; this is just musings about my sixties.  I’m only in my fifties. My account still shows a credit of forty-eight hours.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #2

The concert is underway! (read about my hesitant warm-up in the post Let’s Make Music!).  Bag #2 – of 21 bags of pieces – started out innocently enough, with big pieces and easy assembly.  My maestro-confidence overfloweth.

Suddenly things got v-e-r-y complicated in Mr. Instruction Manual.  Tiny, tiny pieces!  Mechanical components!  Cables!  Batteries!  Here’s last week’s build, and then below, this week’s additions for comparison.  Enlarge the second photo for a better look at the colorful, scary-looking “spindle”, running top left to bottom right.  I have no idea what it’s for but it connects to the gray/white motor (at least I think it’s a motor) just behind it. I count forty-five little Legos on the spindle, each required to be positioned exactly as you see them.  Almost walked off the stage when I was done with that step.

Running build time: 2.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” (three times through!)  Leftover pieces: 5 (Conductor’s note: Last week I only had 1 leftover piece.  5 = concern.  I need to double-check this week’s work before moving forward.  Safe to say you can’t go back and “repair” after the fact).

A Tale of Unwell Words

The symptoms started ten days ago. I was lying in bed, beginning Chapter 42 of Ruta Sepetys’ captivating WWII novel Between Shades of Gray when suddenly, a lower-case “a” popped out through my e-reader’s glass and just sat there on the surface. I casually brushed it away. Not two pages later, an entire “the” surfaced and slid sickeningly down the screen. I flicked that away too. But then a whole sentence coughed up and I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer. A terrible thought entered my mind. Crud, my Kindle has COVID.

It’s not like my e-reader hasn’t been sick before.  One time it suffered a full reboot during the tense climax of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.  Another time it simply powered down amid the juicy bits of an Alessandra Torre novel (which turned out to be a warning to me to stop wasting time on trashy novels).  But this recent bout had the makings of something more serious.  My Kindle has always been perfectly healthy.  I don’t even put a cover on it.  As for spitting up words and sentences?  Never.

Just to be safe, I got out of bed and quarantined my reader to the bathroom, closing the door softly behind me.  I didn’t want any of the real books on my bedroom shelves to get infected.  Early the next morning, I went to open the door to check on my little e-guy.  Only I couldn’t because the door wouldn’t budge.  I leaned in with a shoulder and it finally gave in, just enough so I could slip through.  Imagine my disgust when I saw the mess before me.  My e-reader barfed up at least four dozen books, piled all over the floor.  The poor thing’s screen looked paler than a Brightness of 2 and was uncomfortably warm to the touch.  The only image it could display was an Amazon Smile (encouraging, until I realized I was looking at it upside down).

It was time for professional help.  I threw on my clothes, tucked my e-reader-patient into the leftover cover of a previous model, and headed to the car.  But where to go?  Of course!  A brick-and-mortar Amazon Bookstore!  As soon as I walked through the door, an eager young lady (right-side-up Amazon smile on her nametag) came forward to assist.  I choked back tears as I explained the misery of the night before.  She opened my Kindle’s cover gently, took a knowing peek at the dimming screen, and said, “Okay, let me just confirm your extended warranty.”  I told her she wouldn’t find one, to which her whole demeanor changed.  Suddenly she didn’t want to help me at all, and backed away slowly.  I felt so… so… uninsured.  Last resort, she pointed me to a nearby display of gleaming new Kindles and said, “You’d be better off junking yours and buying a new one.”

I got out of there as fast as I could.  I mean, what sort of cruel, heartless person works at Amazon?  Junk mine and buy a new one?  Sorry, but all I could picture was my little e-reader flung carelessly into their alley dumpster; bookworms crawling all over it.  It felt like a scene from a modern-day Fahrenheit 451.

Without insurance, my only other option was the free-clinic library down the street.  A librarian is more of a specialist than an Amazon Bookstore employee anyway.  But the regulations on the library’s front door made me pause.  Yes, I keep my Kindle socially distanced from real books.  Yes, my Kindle wears a mask outside of the house (even if it’s an older cover).  But was my e-reader vaccinated?  Heck if I knew. I couldn’t tell you the last time it went through a software update. So I could see how this was going to go down already.  The librarian would check Settings and inform me my Kindle was several versions behind on its operating system. There’d be nothing she could do for me.  Dejected, I drove back to my house.

It’s been a few days now and my Kindle is still listless (er, book-less) but at least it seems more chipper after a dose of power.  It’s keeping down a few partial reads I’ve uploaded through “try a free sample”, as well as a Clippings doc in its library.  But don’t assume we’re out of the woods just yet.  I’m not ready to purchase any new books after that nightmare in the bathroom. I also neglected to mention my Kindle threw up its dictionary the night after I went to Amazon.  Talk about a loss for words.  I mean, dictionaries are bigger than almost any book, and a rich indulgence besides.  There’s nothing left in your stomach after you’ve lost your dictionary.

I’m gonna go glass-half-full here and say my little e-guy’s gonna be okay.  He’s up to a Brightness of 4 today.  He’s holding a fairly focused, slightly bold version of the Palatino font.  He retained my Ruta Sepetys novel and I’ve read some chapters without further hurled words.  I even cleaned up the mess of “read” books he left behind in the bathroom.  So learn from my experience, will you? Use an e-reader cover. Get a fresh software update. Keep the power boosted.  And for gosh sakes; keep a reasonable distance from the hardcovers and paperbacks.  E-readers are more susceptible to the bad stuff than you think.

Note: This is a work of fiction, pure and simple. Find nothing between the lines.

Lego Grand Piano – Update #1

The concert has begun! (my hesitant warm-up was captured in the post Let’s Make Music!)  Bag #1 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembles to this rather odd shape.  Imagine the keyboard running down the left side of the light-colored section, top left to bottom right. 

There were a couple of tense moments when I couldn’t find the right pieces because I’d already assembled them in the wrong places. Unassemble. Redo. All good.

Running build time: 60 minutes.  Musical accompaniment: Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  Leftover pieces: 1

Let’s Make Music!

At the request of several readers, I’ve decided to bring you along on the adventure of building the Lego Grand Piano my wife gave me for Christmas. I’m hoping this music-making journey amounts to a pleasing “concert” instead of an arduous one.  More akin to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy than Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. No matter how difficult this “piece” ends up “playing”, I can assure you of one thing.  It’s gonna take me a while; likely beyond when the snow stops flying in Colorado. 3,662 Lego pieces won’t snap together by my next blog post, nor the next one.  I’ll give brief updates at the bottom of my other topics as I progress. Movements if you will, instead of the entire piano concerto all at once.

And with a tap-tap-tap of the conductor’s baton, the performance begins!

To start, we have an elegant 23″ x 15″ x 6″ cardboard box containing our unassembled piano.  The box advertises the piano in three languages: English (Grand Piano), French (Le Piano a Queue), and Spanish (Piano de Cola).  The box cautions I should be over the age of 18 and batteries aren’t included. Batteries? In a grand piano?  But I digress…

The photos on the sides of the box tease the finished product.  First and foremost, the piano really plays once I assemble the several thousand pieces.  I don’t mean “play” as in a hidden music box with a digital soundtrack but “play” as in pressing the piano keys.  And speaking of piano keys, Lego provides only 25.  A real piano has 88.  In other words, the beautiful music my grand piano plays will be more Chopsticks than Chopin.  Makes sense because my Lego Grand Piano is only 12″ wide and 14″ deep.  Suddenly my fingers feel fat.

When I remove that elegant box top, here’s what I see inside:

As expected, the Lego pieces are divided into small plastic bags. (On the left, that is. The right is a smaller box-within-the-box looking like a square piano. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

If I organize the bags so you can see them better, I come up with this:

   

The audience gasps, in awe of the complexity of the performance unfolding before them.

Okay, NOW I have concerns.  First, the bag numbers start with “10”.  Hey Lego, what happened to 1-9?  Second, Bag 5 showed up among the double-digits like an orphan looking for a family.  Pretty sure Bag 5 belongs securely in that black box to the right.  Maybe Bag 5 was trying to escape.

At this point in the show, the phrase “missing pieces” tickles the pianist’s brain (but not the ivories).

I also find the set of bags in the photo to the right.  I assume they pair with their partner-numbered bags when I get to that part of the concerto.  But maybe they don’t.  Maybe each of them is a little project unto itself.

Little beads of sweat populate the pianist’s forehead.

Yes, I’m nervous. I hastily put the bags back into the box (which suggests I’m already going backward with this project).  But I do want to see what’s inside that black piano-wannabe box to the right.  Have a look:

    

Well hello Bags 1-9! I also found a few more of those partner-numbered bags.  But check out the disarray in the photo on the right.  Here we have three more orphan bags and, shockingly, a few pieces that escaped their bags.  What’s going on here?

The audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats as the pianist hesitates.

Finally, way at the bottom of the box, we have the pièce de résistance (Spanish: plato fuerte; English: main dish). Well hello, Mr. Instruction Manual.  Weighing in at a hefty 2.2 pounds and boasting 532 pages of mind-numbing steps, Mr. Instruction Manual is easily the heaviest item in the box.  He’s the equivalent of the phone book of a mid-sized city.  Furthermore, the plastic bag he came in included a little slip of paper shouting, “WARNING: To avoid danger of suffocation keep this bag away from babies and children.” Listen Lego, I’m not worried about babies and children; I’m worried about me.  I might be tempted to use that plastic bag to suffocate myself if I can’t complete my Grand Piano.

The pianist makes it this far into the performance without any faux pas’s (English: significant mistakes), but then I choose to open Mr. Instruction Manual to a random page. Terrible decision! Have a look:

Is this not an intimidating drawing? (Why yes, Dave, it is.) Does it look anything like a grand piano? (Why no, Dave, it does not.) Furthermore, you’re looking at Page 221, so we’re not even halfway through the build here.  I’m edging towards terrified, Lego.  Those pieces look small.  Those pieces look many.  And who’s to say the numbered bags make the one piece I’m looking for (amongst 3,361 of its plastic pals) any easier to find?

The pianist still hesitates, his hands shaking noticeably held just above the keyboard.

I wanted to finish this post with a photo of the first couple of pieces snapped together… I really did.  I wanted you to believe my music-making was officially underway.  But let’s be honest, my peek into the box where all those bags, orphans, and escaping pieces live, and the sheer size of Mr. Instruction Manual have me backing away from the keyboard (figuratively, followed by literally).  Sorry folks, tonight’s performance isn’t quite ready for prime time.  This pianist needs to change out of his sweat-drenched tuxedo into more comfortable clothing for now.  Let’s take an intermission, shall we?

The audience heads to the lobby.

Fantastic Plastic

On Christmas Day, any parent of small children will stifle a yawn, having built bicycles, dollhouses, and train sets the night before. After all, Santa doesn’t deliver unassembled toys. But hang in there a few years, Mom & Dad, because the building shifts from the giver to the receiver. Older kids want to create. In my generation it was Hot Wheels, Erector Sets, and Lincoln Logs. And one other toy surpassed all others for its ease of use and versatility. Lego.

This piano even plays!

My Christmas gift from my wife this year was a grand piano. Can you top that? Okay, so it wasn’t the kind worth five figures or special movers to get it across the threshold.  My piano measures a mere 12″ x 14″ and comes from the Lego “Ideas” collection.  When it’s finished it will have been built from 3,662 individual pieces.  I can’t wait to get started.

A grand piano made of Legos means the simple interlocking blocks I had as a kid have come a long, long way.  Lego Ideas sets are “products inspired by and voted for by Lego fans”.  The collection includes a typewriter, a ship in a bottle, the house from the Home Alone movies, and the apartment from the Seinfeld sitcom.  Every Ideas product involves thousands of Lego pieces to assemble.  Every Ideas product was also completely sold out for Christmas on the Lego website.

Fifty years ago, Lego was blessedly innocent.  All you had were small bricks in primary colors and if you were lucky, a paper set of instructions to create a simple house or a vehicle.  Otherwise, you just built whatever your imagination could come up with.  When my own kids were kids, Lego moved to product-specific sets like a T. Rex from Jurassic World or an X-wing Starfighter from Star Wars.  Sure, they looked cool when they were built, but I was always skeptical because the sets removed creativity from the experience.  You’d just follow the step-by-steps in the little booklet and voila – a T. Rex.  But call me a hypocrite because this sixty-year-old can’t wait to build his step-by-thousand-steps Lego Grand Piano.

Lego has an interesting history – too many chapters to cover here.  The numbers tell the story in a nutshell.  The Denmark-based company is considered the largest toy company in the world.  Their bricks have inspired movies, video games, building competitions, and eight amusement parks.  Their factories have been churning out little plastic pieces for almost 75 years.  And at last count, that pile of pieces surpassed 600 billion (or 75 Legos for every man, woman, and child on earth).

I didn’t expect to be a Lego fan as an adult but then came the Architecture series in 2008, cool buildings like the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, and Empire State Building.  I just had to have one, so last Christmas my wife gifted me the 1,032-piece United States Capitol Building.  I didn’t clock how long it took to complete but I must’ve looked awfully confident in the assembly because now I’m staring down the more daunting Grand Piano.  Maybe my wife wants me locked down in my home office for the next several months?

To underscore the popularity of Lego these days, the Architecture series alone includes 50 buildings and cityscapes, with more coming out each year (the Taj Mahal was released just last summer).  These sets run anywhere from $50 to $250, with the discontinued ones setting you back three times as much.  Sure, I’d love a Lego version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” house, but I’m not going to pay $800 to a collector just to have one.

Lego “Church of Christ”

No discussion of Lego would be complete without a nod to custom creations.  Our local Scheels department store has a larger-than-life Denver Broncos football player made of Legos, posing front and center in the toy department.  The Church of Christ creation in the photo here didn’t forget seating for an 80-member choir (below the big yellow crosses).  And the biggest custom creation of them all?  A full-scale Lego replica of the previously-mentioned X-wing Starfighter, first displayed outdoors in New York’s Times Square.  Try to picture 5.3 million Lego pieces and 23 tons of “toy” in the shape of a fighter jet.  Or just check out the photos here.

Now that I’m done writing it’s time to break open the first bag of pieces to begin my Lego Grand Piano (and time for you to watch the ingenious stop-motion video below).  I’ll use the stopwatch on my iPhone to capture the hours I consume to complete it.  Er, days? Weeks?  I mean, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Neither is a grand piano.  You might want to check in with me next summer to make sure I haven’t gone bats.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia” and the Lego.com website.

Fa-La-La Land Down Under

I have two nieces who, along with their families, call islands their homes. One lives on Hawaii’s Oahu, her house perched on the cliffs above Honolulu with sweeping ocean views to the west. The other lives in Brisbane, on the east coast of Australia. Sure, Australia isn’t really an island, though it is surrounded by water. By definition its landmass makes it a continent instead. But Australia does lay claim to a few islands off its shores.  Including one named “Christmas”.

Christmas Island’s picture-perfect “Flying Fish Cove”

Imagine living in a world so small you can walk from one end to the other in less than two hours.  Your fellow islanders are so few, your entire social life is like living in a college dorm.  Your diet consists of fruits, nuts, and crab.  Lots and lots of crab.  And the single contribution you and your island-mates make to the outside world is phosphorous from your underground mines.  That, in a crab shell, is life on Christmas Island.

The first time someone told me there was a “Christmas Island”, I was young enough to be watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every December on TV.  My favorite part of Rudolph’s story was the “Island of Misfit Toys”.  You remember, don’t you?  Rudolph was the reindeer-a non grata, mocked by the others because of his shiny nose.  Along with a couple other outcasts (Hermie, Santa’s elf who’d rather be a dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, the prospector who can never find silver or gold), Rudolph discovers the Island of Misfit Toys.  The island is a repository for unwanted toys.  As sad as that sounds, Rudolph’s island brings Christmas to mind much more than the little landmass I’m talking about today.

Palm trees (not pines) on Christmas Island

If you wonder why you’d ever visit Christmas Island, consider almost 65% of the island is a national park of unspoiled rainforest, with walking paths past 25 species of trees and 135 species of plants.  The only animals you’ll spy in the forest include the “flying fox” fruit bat, the recently introduced Javan deer, and the golden bosun (the island’s “official” bird).  Outside of the forest however, it’s impossible to miss the crabs.  Coconut crabs.  Red crabs.  Thirteen different species of land crabs, let alone those who prefer the ocean.  And here’s the best part.  Every year, one hundred million of them migrate from solid ground to water (to spawn), a sight mind-blowing enough to be called “one of the wonders of the natural world”.

Watch the following short video on the chaotic Christmas Island crab migration.  Makes you wonder how you can walk anywhere without getting “crabs”.  If this is something you simply must see in person, find your way to Perth on Australia’s western mainland, and book one of two weekly flights to Christmas Island courtesy of Virgin Airlines.  Your 3+ hours in the air will take you over nothing but the vast Indian Ocean.

It’s high time we addressed the most burning question about our little fa-la-la land down under.  Why is it named Christmas Island?  Here are popular theories.  One, “The rainforest is made up of nothing but evergreen (Christmas) trees.”  Two (for the geographically challenged), “The island is the closest landmass to the North Pole.”  And three “Christmas Island was the origin of the species diospyros virginiana, more commonly known as the sugar plum tree.”  The correct answer?  None of the above.  In the 1600s, European explorer Richard Rowe first set foot on the island, doing so on December 25th.  With no more creativity than a glance at the calendar, his discovery was dubbed Christmas Island.

Norfolk Island pine

I’ve got a much better “Christmas Island” for you.  Flip over to just off the east coast of Australia and you’ll find an even tinier landmass called Norfolk Island.  It’s about a quarter the size of Christmas, with the same number of inhabitants.  But Norfolk Island’s primary export is much more “Christmas” than phosphorous.  It is the evergreen Norfolk Island pine, a popular ornamental tree in Australia.  My wife and I found one at Home Depot a few years ago and bought it for her mother.  For small spaces, Norfolk Island pines make great Christmas trees.

“Christmas” looks a little like an Aussie Shepherd!

In defense of Christmas Island, there’s more going on within its shores than phosphorous and crabs.  Most of the residents live in the northern area of the island surrounding a coastal region known as Flying Fish Cove.  They speak one or more of five different languages.  There’s a high school and a public library.  There’s even a cricket club, which just celebrated sixty years in the game.  And most fitting to this time of year, twenty percent of the population call themselves Christians.  In other words, despite the uninspiring reason for its name, Christmas really does come to Christmas Island.

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

Christmas-Colored Glasses

The twenty-minute drive from my house to the gym is fairly nondescript. The streets are two-lane straight with a few turns and traffic lights along the way. Not much to look at on a winter’s morning. But the month of December brings about a miraculous change. With the car stereo belting out songs of the season there’s suddenly a lot to see through the windshield.  It’s as if I’m viewing the world through Christmas-colored glasses.

Maybe you’re like me when you’re on the morning drive.  You’re half-asleep, a little bit late, and the slightest miscue by another driver puts you in a bad mood.  I try to blank out the world around me by toggling my radio presets between news and sports.  It’s a wonder my lack of focus gets me to the right destination.  But Christmas music changes all that.  The happy tunes bring everything back to the crystal and clear.  They’re like a gift for the spirit.

                

Two radio stations in this part of Colorado switch over to Christmas music in December.  An adult contemporary station runs an endless loop of about thirty “holiday favorites” from Thanksgiving to New Years Day.  I’ll bet they play the Boston Pops’ version of “Sleigh Ride” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” four or five times a day.  It gets old.  But they also play the best of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Williams so I forgive them. Then we have our Christian contemporary station.  Their round-the-clock Christmas playlist keeps it fresh, with more carols than pop songs.  They’re a little more in tune with the reason for the season.

Earlier this week I absentmindedly tuned back to one of my regular music stations.  Mistake. Their version of celebrating the season had people calling in to say why they deserved to be on “Santa’s naughty list”.  One caller said she babysat recently and told the misbehaving child Santa died of COVID.  Another said he slept with his ex’s sister and a week later slept with the sister’s best friend.  Seriously?  This is the spirit of the season?

                

Spotify plays its part on my drive, especially when radio stations bend to the inevitable commercials.  But not playlists.  Albums.  Spotify Christmas playlists just don’t cut it for me.  I have yet to find the perfect mix – you know, not too much of this, not too little of that.  I think Christmas albums by individual artists or groups do a better job of a “just right” playlist, which is why I’m peppering this post with three of my favorites.

               

Now then, let’s get back to those Christmas-colored glasses.  Exactly what did I see on my twenty-minute drive?  A lot more than I did before I tuned in to the season’s songs…

  • Children headed to school, laughing and singing as they walked.  I think we can agree; Christmas is all about children.  Or at least, one child.
  • Signs in front of churches advertising Christmas Eve services.  Most offer a 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm option, meaning lots of people are heading to church on Christmas Eve.  As we should be this year.
  • A lone tree at the end of a driveway decorated with just two ornaments.  What to make of it?  Maybe a senior citizen lives here, and two ornaments are all he or she can manage.  A reminder to gift to our local “Christmas for Seniors” program.
  • A third-story apartment and its tiny balcony decorated with garlands, wreaths, and lights.  Yes, all walks of life celebrate Christmas no matter the look of their “house”.
  • The sign at the gas station advertising today’s fuel prices.  Unleaded is advertised in red numbers, diesel in green.  How’s that for impromptu Christmas decor?
  • Our little town’s myriad Christmas decorations, covering trees, buildings, and lampposts, I may not always agree with the spending of our tax dollars but with this investment, they get it right year after year.

This is my personal mandate for the 2021 holiday season.  Take the rest of the month and listen to nothing but carols whenever you’re in the car.  You’ll don a pair of Christmas-colored glasses and be amazed at what you’ve been missing around you.  Believe it or not, the world looks pretty good right now.

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

O’ Come Let Us Adorn

There’s an older fellow in Egypt who wakes up every morning, throws on a flannel shirt and well-worn pants, and goes to his workshop behind the corrugated roll-up door of a small, industrial warehouse. Using ancient tools and techniques, he churns out hundreds of colorful, ornate, square cement tiles. He’s a true artisan, our tilemaker, carrying on his craft from many generations before him.  His product endures amid countless mass-produced ceramic and porcelain alternatives. Perhaps our tilemaker would feel more at home in Lauscha, Germany.  Lauscha is home to dozens of glassblowers, who still create colorful, ornate, Christmas ornaments by hand.

Lauscha “baubles”

Every December about this time, my wife & I bring home our Christmas tree (real, not artificial – see Is It Live or Is It Memorex? for that debate).  We take our tree through the same steps from start to adorned.  First, fresh-cut the trunk, set the tree into the stand, and fill with warm water (and one baby aspirin!).  Next, let gravity bring the branches down for a few days.  Then, bring out the ladder, top the tree with the angel, and string the lights generously down all sides.  Finally, adorn with ornaments.  Our collection is larger than the real estate of any Christmas tree we buy, so there’s always debate on which ornaments make the tree and which are re-relegated to the closet for another year of waiting.  In the end, we stand back and admire a pleasing mix of homemade, school-made, photo-framed, and collectibles.

You can never have enough ornaments, and the glassblowers in Lauscha would agree.  The process they use to create the simplest of glass balls is already beyond my artistic abilities.  For one, you must work fast because the molten glass cools in a hurry.  For two, you must have steady hands as you add color and detail.  Have a look at the following short video and you’ll learn a thing or two you never knew about making Christmas ornaments.  My favorite part of the process? “Silvering”.  Who knew the mirror-like aspect of a Christmas ball is painted on the inside of the glass?

Germans (and more people than I’d probably guess) refer to Christmas ornaments as baubles, which is ironic because Americans define a bauble as a “showy cheap trinket”.  Nothing produced in Lauscha, Germany is a showy cheap trinket.  Then again, Americans figured out how to mass-produce Christmas ornaments and the result is a generic, sometimes-plastic alternative to the real thing.  “Bauble” indeed.

The very first Christmas ornaments were anything but glass-blown baubles.  You had fruit, candy canes, pastries, strings of popcorn, and whatever else you could find around the house.  The Lauscha baubles then came along in the mid-1600s.  Short of the post-WWII years (when the German government used the glass factories for more important products) they’ve been making them ever since.

Credit Woolworth’s once-popular department stores for the proliferation of Christmas ornaments in America.  In the late 1800s, Woolworth’s started carrying the Lauscha baubles.  Soon after, they stocked mass-produced American-made versions, taking tree-decorating to a whole new level.  By the mid-20th-century, Woolworth’s was banking $25 million on Christmas decoration sales alone.

Hallmark “Keepsake Ornament”

Hallmark jumped on the bauble bandwagon in the 1970s.  Clever folks, those people at Hallmark.  Their original ornament collection was made available only for the current year, followed by a new collection the following year, and so on.  Today, Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments are so popular you have to join a club (just $49.95!) if you want to own their newest limited-edition ornaments.

As much as I’d like to add a Lauscha bauble or two to my tree, I prefer the more personal ornaments we hang instead.  A dozen or more of them were designed around primary-school photos of our kids (“art projects”, they called them).  Souvenir ornaments from favorite trips we’ve taken over the years.  Several more with imprinted dates, to remind us of special occasions like weddings, births, or passings.

Five years ago, I wrote my one and only work of fiction on this blog, a post about a Christmas ornament.  It seems fitting to include a link to The Best Branch on the Tree, assuming you haven’t followed me that long.  Because, you know, ornaments – er, baubles – have feelings too.

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

Going Home

Last Friday, my family and I hosted – at long last – an in-person service of thanksgiving for my mother, who passed away in late 2020 at the age of 92. Travel restrictions denied us the opportunity to gather sooner but this year’s Thanksgiving weekend seemed most appropriate. The service program included hymns, Bible readings, a biographical homily, and reflections from my four brothers and me. But it was another element – a solo of “Going Home” – which brought a flood of tears and took my breath away, all at once.

As if the singing of “How Great Thou Art” or the reading of Psalm 23 wasn’t moving enough, “Going Home” brought my emotions to an entirely new level.  Sure, the song’s lyrics speak beautifully – to the peaceful transition from a life well-lived to what lies beyond – but it was the music that made my heart skip a beat.  “Going Home”, you see, borrows its instrumentals from the Largo movement of Antonin Dvorák’s “New World Symphony”.  And Dvorák’s symphony is one of my very favorite pieces of classical music.

I alluded to classical music when I spoke at my mother’s service.  I took piano lessons for several years as a child, and it was my mother who pushed me to practice when I would’ve much rather been playing outdoors.  It was my mother who faithfully attended my many recitals and competitions.  And it was my mother, as a result, who I credit for my lifelong love of classical music.

The New World Symphony’s (NWS) Largo movement is instantly recognizable to anyone who knows classical music (listen to the first two minutes above if you don’t believe me).  It may be the most beautiful solo ever written for the English horn; a short, meandering melody backed by soft strings.  I can’t think of a more appropriate instrument for the Largo, even though the English horn is an orchestra oddball with its distinctive wail.  Now layer the “Going Home” lyrics on top, as with the crystalline voice of Sissel Kyrkjebo above, and you wonder if music can get any better.

Following the English horn solo, the NWS Largo shifts to a minor chord passage which “evokes a nostalgic and desolate mood”, sometimes perceived as a funeral march.  But let’s be clear; my mother’s service was no funeral.  Rather, it was a blessed celebration attended by those who loved and admired her.  I think Dvorák knew this because the NWS Largo leaves the funeral march behind and concludes with another round of the peaceful English horn solo.  For me, this music brings a cleansing sigh, and a feeling of calm and content.  Just as my mother would want it to be.

I’ve saved the best for last here.  After my brothers and I finished our remembrances, my father spoke.  He said – to my utter amazement – my mother had effectively written her own service, picking the hymns, readings, and solos.  In other words, “Going Home” was no random choice; it was my mother’s preference.  Just as the New World Symphony Largo movement is my own preference.  Maybe she was aware of the connection?  Maybe not but it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is I’ll always remember her, especially when I hear the English horn.

I miss you, Mom.

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

Third-Wheel Meal

In last week’s ’tis the Seasonings post, I wondered why “ginger” and “red hair” were synonymous. Paula from Monday Morning Rail replied with the answer which probably trumps all others (thanks, Paula!).  Ginger Grant, the glam character from the sixties sitcom Gilligan’s Island had a healthy head of red hair.  Sometime after the sixties a “ginger” became a person with red hair.  I’m satisfied, so let’s move to a question more appropriate for this week.  Why is (America’s) Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?

Yes, it’s time for my annual Thanksgiving rant.  Rather, my everything-steps-all-over-Thanksgiving rant.  It’s not really an annual rant but perhaps it should be.  Three years ago I had so much to vent about Thanksgiving’s due, it took me two blog posts to let off the steam (see A Distant Third).  This year I realized, zero progress has been made since then.  In fact, the situation is snowballing.  Thanksgiving is finding less and less air as it gasps between the behemoths known as Halloween and Christmas.

Poor choice of word, “snowballing”.  It’ll make readers think about Christmas and I need you to stay focused.  My campaign is to keep each of the year-end holidays corralled into its respective month.  In other words, November equals Thanksgiving. (Repeat ten times, please).  Turkeys and pumpkin pie, not Santas and plum pudding.

There, I said it.  Apologies to those of you who’ve already shopped and wrapped presents.  Apologies to the rest of you who’ve already decorated your houses.  I’m just trying to give Thanksgiving its rightful place among the “big three” instead of its laggard position as “third wheel”.

You can name a dozen things associated with Halloween, and two dozen more with Christmas.  But with Thanksgiving?  Three (at least here in America).  We have the meal itself, the parades, and football.  That’s pretty much it.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the American Thanksgiving trifecta.  The meal is hanging in there despite efforts to make it healthier.  Turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie are still Thanksgiving staples (while “tofurky” is not).  I sometimes wonder why I don’t enjoy these foods on other days of the year as well.  Also, more people make the Thanksgiving meal at home than order online or go to a restaurant. (Do I have the data to back this up?  No, I do not.)  But I must acknowledge Friendsgiving, which has become common enough to remove the quotation marks.  Not only is Friendsgiving celebrated on any day but Thursday, the table spread can be decidedly different. Watch out.  There may come a November when – GASP! – more people celebrate the “friends” version than the “family”.

Parades remain more about Thanksgiving than the other two holidays.  You’ll find the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television this week and at the same time, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Plymouth, MA host large-scale parades.  But here’s my Davey-downer factoid.  The Macy’s Parade may be the world’s largest (as well as the second-oldest in America) but it’s also an imposter.  It began as the “Macy’s Christmas Parade” in 1924, designed to launch a longer retail season at the end of the year.  So you see, the name may have changed but the parade is still decidedly “holly-jolly”.

Football brings out the smirk in sports fans again this Thanksgiving.  As they have every year since 1934 (save the WWII years) the NFL’s Detroit Lions will be playing on Thanksgiving Day.  As they have been every year (seemingly), the Detroit Lions are a truly awful football team.  In the last twenty years the Lions have amassed exactly four winning seasons.  This year?  The Lions are the only team in the NFL without a win.  The Lions are so bad in fact, the NFL has added two other games to your Thanksgiving Day lineup so you have options.

We’re almost done here, but don’t panic; I haven’t forgotten the original question.  Why is Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?  Here’s the easy answer.  President Lincoln made it so back in 1863, as the final Thursday in November.  President Roosevelt also made it so back in 1941, more specifically the fourth Thursday in November.  Yeah, but… why a Thursday?

Here’s the real answer (or at least my answer).  Thanksgiving is on a Thursday.  Thursday is named for the Norse God Thor.  Thor is the God of Thunder.  See the pattern?  Thanksgiving-Thursday-Thor-Thunder.  It’s the whole “Th” thing.  Thanksgiving doesn’t really fit on a Friday (but maybe Friendsgiving does).  Besides, by Friday we’ve forgotten all about turkey and stuffing as we turn to computers and shopping malls.

Now then, banish all that “Th” nonsense from memory.  The real intent here is to give Thanksgiving its proper time and space mid-holiday season.  Let’s move Turkey Day from “third wheel” to “equal wheel” by finding more Thanksgiving stakes to claim in the month of November.  Maybe we should all dress up as pilgrims.  Maybe we should also have our kids “trade” instead of “trick-or-treat”.

With that, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  And next week, I might even wish you a Merry Christmas.  You know, in December.

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

’tis the Seasonings

When I baked a batch of molasses cookies for Halloween last month, I pulled ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves off the spice shelf without so much as a glance at the labels. I recognized the spices by their colors and textures. Had I taken two seconds more to peruse the other spices nearby, I would’ve noticed the thin layer of dust on their bottle tops. Yep, my life needs a change of season-ings.

Here’s the count, at least in my kitchen.  On the spice shelf, I have fifty-two bottled or bagged inhabitants.  In the spice drawer (essentially an overflow of the shelf) I have another twenty-six.  No-calculator math brings my total to seventy-eight unique flavorings, yet how many do I use regularly?  Maybe a dozen.  I ask the same of you. How many spices live in your rack/drawer/shelf?  Of those, how many do you use week-in and week-out?

We’re missing out on adventure, you and me.  My recipes are bland enough to demand little more than garlic salt or oregano (on the savory side), and cinnamon or ginger (on the sweet).  I could spice things up if I’d just explore more exotic recipes… or simply brighten the ones I already make.  My mantra should be “Spice is the variety of life” (not the other way around).

For inspiration, I could take a trip to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands.  Once upon a time, nutmeg, cloves and mace could be found only on the Malukus, earning their nickname “The Spice Islands”.  I have this vision of a pungent-smelling tropical oasis of colorful trees, plants, and bushes, everything edible and delicious.  I’m running around sampling this and that like a kid in a candy store.  Kind of like (you remember the scene) the Chocolate Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Spices have tons of trivial facts and here are some of my favorites:

  • Allspice tastes like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves all rolled into one.  Keep that in mind the next time you bake.
  • Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world.  Some varieties ring in at $400 for a few ounces.  Maybe because it takes a hundred hand-harvested flowers to produce a single gram of the spice?
  • If you find a blend called Chinese Five Spice, you can season your food to be sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and pungent all in one shake of the bottle.
  • “Masala” means “spice”… and nothing more.  In other words, be wary of that next dish of chicken masala; the seasoning could be a blend of anything.
  • Spice blends are often associated with countries, as with Harissa (North Africa) and Jerk (Jamaica).  The United States?  Pumpkin pie spice, of course.  We Americans obsess over anything pumpkin spice.
“If You Wannabe My ‘Clove-r’?”

Because the musically inclined want to know, I took this opportunity to read up on The Spice Girls, the British girl group from the 1990s.  I was disappointed to learn the name has nothing at all to do with spices.  Each of the five women took on a nickname to include the word “spice” but only Geri Halliwell’s (“Ginger Spice”) made any reference to a real spice… and that reference was only to her red hair.

[On that note, can anyone explain ANY connection between “ginger” and “red hair”?  My bottle of ground ginger is decidedly yellow…]

Diaspora Co. Spices gift box

Here’s the real crime with my spice shelf.  Almost all occupants are standard brands, like McCormick or Spice Islands, uniformly bottled in identical quantities.  Neither brand is organic (let alone an advertised proponent of fair trade).  Furthermore, their spices are processed and packaged in a factory, while I have zero excuses not to be shopping at a local store like Penzeys.  You only buy as much as you need at spice stores, and you can be assured of fewer steps in the journey from source to you.  Of course, you can also shop spices online at places like Diaspora and Burlap & Barrel.

Speaking of “as much as you need”, I can say with certainty most of my spices are past desired shelf life.  No, they’re not expired; more like “faded”.  They won’t pack as much punch as they did in their prime.  Here’s the rule of thumb with spices: if whole (i.e., cloves) best used for 2-3 years; if ground (i.e., cinnamon) best for 1-2.

If I took a poll of “favorite spice” I’d get a different answer every time (including a few men who’d choose a Spice Girl).  My favorite spice?  Red pepper flakes.  I use them liberally in a lot of dishes, including pasta and soups.  I describe them as a convenient after-thought, a final flourish as I’m about to sit down at the table.  Fire on top of my food.

Maybe if I invested in one of these spinning countertop racks, the mere visibility of so many options would spice up my life.  I’d be more in line with Simon & Garfunkel’s “… parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme”.  But if I’m limited to a shelf (and a drawer) my spices are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Just a shake of red pepper flakes and call it good.

Some content sourced from the Relish blog article, “15 Spice Facts You Never Knew”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.