Clash of the Titanium

The Mohs Scale (which you have no reason to be familiar with) is a 10-point scale used to measure the hardness of natural substances. For example, silver and gold can be shaped into jewelry with the easy tapping of a hammer, so they only rate a 2.5 on the Mohs. On the other hand, diamonds are so hard they’re used to make drill bits and saw blades. The Mohs Scale rates a diamond a 10 out of 10. And then there’s titanium, which rates a 6. Not diamond-hard but still pretty hard, right? So what in God’s name is titanium doing in a bag of Skittles candies?

You know it’s a slow week of headlines when an article on Skittles earns a spot in my newsfeed.  As if we don’t have enough high-profile lawsuits floating around (ex. Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder, Monsanto’s “Roundup”, Cleveland Brown QB Deshaun Watson’s, uh, “indiscretions”), we’re now dragging the “taste the rainbow” candies into court.  Why?  Because Skittles contain titanium (dioxide) and that means the colorful little guys could be toxic if ingested. Oh.

So this suit may not be so frivolous after all…

The “substance” of the Skittles lawsuit

And yet, if scientists are to be believed, we could be talking much ado about nothing.  Titanium dioxide (TiO2) can be toxic above a certain amount (operative words: can be).  The amount you’ll find in Skittles is below this amount.  But the consumer who filed the lawsuit uses the European Union (EU) as his “Exhibit A”, saying they’ve banned titanium dioxide as a food additive altogether.  He is correct, except the EU banned TiO2 as a measure of caution, not as a statement of “toxic or not toxic”.  Safe to say the ingredients in your Skittles won’t be changing anytime soon, and you can give in to the occasional sugar rush without worry.

I haven’t had a bag of Skittles in a long time.  My last taste was probably from the leftovers of the bowl of candy we handed out many, many Halloweens ago.  It never occurred to me to wonder how they make Skittles so brightly colored.  Yep, titanium oxide.  Without it they’d be slightly duller, like M&M’s.  Subconsciously you might not find them as appealing.

“Red” had a ten-year absence

Speaking of M&M’s, TiO2 has a parallel with a substance called “Red Dye No. 2” (RD2).  In the 1970s the Soviets (as the Russians were called back then) created a mass conniption fit when they claimed the RD2 caused cancer, which was a common food additive back then.  M&M’s was forced to remove their red-colored candy, even though it contained no RD2.  The claim was never proven but it took another decade before the public conscience allowed red M&M’s to be added back to the bag.  If this lawsuit gets enough press we may see the same impact to Skittles.  Duller colors, at least until people make peace with TiO2 again.

To be clear, I can take or leave Skittles these days.  Unnatural-looking, chewy candies are an obsession from my childhood, far removed from my relatively healthy diet today.  But there was a time, no doubt when I seemed intent on spending more time in the dentist’s chair.  Skittles didn’t hit America’s supermarket shelves until 1979 but by then I was already into several of their colorful counterparts, like Starburst, Jujyfruits, Now and Later, Mike and Ike, and Jujubes (the ultimate stick-to-your-teeth candy).  Oh, and anything with the word “licorice” in it.

“Skittles”

Skittles may revive my childhood memories, but not just because of the candy.  “Skittles” was also a clever wooden game (way before anything electronic), where you’d pull the string on a top and send it spinning down a board, knocking down pins for points.  Imagine, young people, a game where not only are no electronics involved, but no hands either.  You’d just pull the rip cord on the top, then sit back and watch.  Yep, kids actually had an attention span back then.

The other day in the supermarket checkout line, I made an uncharacteristic impulse purchase of a box of Good & Plenty.  The little pink and white candies are essentially black licorice with a candy coating and they’ve been on the shelves almost a hundred years longer than Skittles.  I’m surprised Good & Plenty hasn’t faced a lawsuit of its own.  The candies are the same size and shape as your standard prescription drug – bright little pills.  Then again, they’re not as bright as Skittles.  Yes, they may be junk food but at least they don’t contain any of the “nasty” TiO2.

Some content sourced from the Scientific American article, “Are Skittles Toxic from Titanium Dioxide?”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Child’s Play

When I dove into piano lessons at the tender age of six, I learned the piano is “foundational”; a good place to start if your future destination is another musical instrument. The piano teaches concepts like keys, chords, and “Do Re Mi” in a straightforward way. My son learned about foundational instruments when he started the sax – it’s best to spend time on the clarinet first (the fingering is easier). But today I want to talk about real foundational instruments; the ones I dabbled in even before the piano. I can think of at least six (and one honorable mention).

My granddaughters – ages 2 and 4 – already attend weekly music classes (which brings me no small amount of joy).  They’re learning to sing and play simple rhythm instruments like drums and tambourines.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised this past weekend when the older one pulled out a kazoo and began “playing” for me.  Not a formal song or even a melody; just a handful of notes from what is technically a wind instrument.

Let’s call the kazoo Child’s Play (CP) #1.  The kazoo starts my list of six because it’s undoubtedly the easiest to play.  You simply hum into the mouthpiece and the kazoo takes care of the rest.  The kazoo’s buzzing sound is utterly annoying and after a few seconds you wish it would just stop (unless your granddaughter’s playing, of course).  The kazoo rides a fine line of the definition of a musical instrument.  To be honest, I’d rather just hear a person hum.

CP #2 – Triangle.  The triangle has often been described as “having no musical function and requiring no skill to play”.  A brutal (and fair) description to be sure, but consider this: the triangle is the only instrument on this list to earn a spot in a formal orchestra.  You’ll find the little guy in the orchestra’s percussion section (alongside the drums and other rhythm instruments).  The triangle also outclasses the kazoo since it’s cast from fancy metals (ex. beryllium copper, brass, bronze).

CP #3 – Xylophone.  The xylophone tops the triangle because it’s a percussion instrument that can also carry a tune.  There’s nothing more inviting to a small child than a set of colorful bars you can whack with mallets, and they make music!  Sure, you can hum “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” on the kazoo but it’s much more fun banging it out on the xylophone.  The xylophone gave birth to the vibraphone (an electronic version) and the marimba (a wooden version), both of which generate rich, warm, beautiful-sounding notes.

CP #4 – Recorder.  The recorder ranks a close second to the kazoo on the annoyance meter.  A child can pick up this woodwind instrument (the cheap plastic kind, not the fancy wooden one), blow into it, and instantly produce a note.  The same child then realizes he can change the note by covering/uncovering the recorder’s holes.  Now he can produce many notes.  And what’s wrong with many notes?  It just sounds like so much wailing.  Watch the video (if you can stand it) and tell me if you don’t agree.

CP #5 – Harmonica. The harmonica, another wind instrument, is also known as the “French Harp” or “mouth organ” (I prefer the former) and it comes in all shapes and sizes.  A child will find his first harmonica in the same section of the toy store as the kazoos and recorders – where you find anything made of cheap, colored plastic for less than a dollar.  Here’s what a child learns about the harmonica very quickly: he can fake it.  If you hum into the harmonica instead of just blowing, you’ll create a pretty good imitation of what it’s supposed to sound like.  You won’t fool anyone who really knows the harmonica but as a kid (that would be me), you thought it was pretty cool to whip out your harmonica and pretend you could play it.

CP #6 – Autoharp.  The autoharp made its first appearance at my elementary school choir classes.  It was the coolest instrument I’d ever seen.  It’s like playing the guitar (pick and all), only you press down bars to create the chords instead of using your fingers.  One kid would be chosen from the choir to strum the autoharp while the rest sang.  Playing the autoharp wasn’t cool, but being chosen to play it?  That was pretty special.

CP Honorable Mention – Hand Flute.  The hand flute is a fancy name for whistling through two fingers or through the hands.  I can’t remember when I learned to whistle (with just the lips) but I was certainly inspired by my dad, who gave the family a distinctive two-note greeting every time he walked through the door after work.  But I never learned to whistle through my hands.  The hand flute not only sounds cool (a lower note than a mouth whistle, like the cry of a nightingale) but it looks like you have a built-in musical instrument when you “play”.

Wrapping up this topic suggests I pick a favorite instrument from the list above, but the choice is impossible.  Each one is bonded to special memories from a long time ago.  If I had more space here I’d add others to the list (like the tricky piano horn).  Instead, let’s just agree the foundation of my piano play is a team of smaller, less-appreciated musical instruments.  Child’s play?  Hardly.

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

Too Much on My Plate

In the latest spin on subscription services, BMW will – for a small fee – heat the seats in your car. Maybe you saw this headline already and thought, “Fake News”.  Afraid not. Rather than simply pushing the heat-the-seat button on your 3 Series sedan you must contact BMW first, who will remotely unlock the feature and charge you by the month. A separate soon-to-be-offered subscription gets you a heated steering wheel. I shouldn’t be surprised by this latest cash grab at the expense of driving comfort. After all, we’re also about to enter the era of electronic license plates.

I find U.S. license plates to be mini-artworks, don’t you?  They’re colorful, often including an image or slogan to proudly advertise the state itself.  The letters and numbers raise from the rest of the aluminum rectangle, giving the fingers a pleasing sensation when you brush over them.  Drivers who choose “vanity plates” offer the rest of us on the road a puzzle, to figure out what phrase the chosen letters/numbers represent (and never getting the chance to ask).  The U.S. Mint should take a cue from colorful license plates and print American dollars with the same pizzazz.  After all, “greenbacks” are anything but mini-artworks.

But I digress. Today we’re talking about license plates, displaying numbers and letters in pixels instead of raised metal.  My first thought when I read about electronic license plates?  Fraud.  I mean, seriously, how easy will it be to hack into the software and alter the numbers and letters, effectively rendering the vehicle impossible to track?  Or worse, what if the software hiccups and the plate displays nothing at all?  It’s kind of like when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana several years ago.  Our state didn’t think that one through either and now we’re dealing with all sorts of hitches in the giddyup.  Electronic license plates are bound to be an imperfect technology.

And yet, just like heated seat subscriptions “digital display plates” have their advantages.  They’ll emit a signal for tracking and monitoring (which some will surely drive to the Supreme Court as an invasion of privacy).  They can flash an easy-to-see message if the vehicle is not properly registered or insured.  They can interface with parking meters and toll systems for automated payments.  Finally, inevitably, they’ll offer advertisements to the captive audience in the car directly behind them, switching from letters/numbers to digital commercials when the car is stopped.

Colorado has joined four other U.S. states who already offer electronic license plates.  Like BMW’s services, the plates will be offered on a monthly subscription.  At $20-$25/mo. they’re a whole lot pricier than standard or even vanity plates.  But you just know there are plenty of drivers who want the latest/greatest technology, even with the inevitable drawbacks of a first-generation product.

[Trivia Break!  Recent demand in several U.S. states moved the license plate character count from six to seven.  Guess how many unique plates you can make from a combination of three numbers and four letters alone?  Sixteen million. It’s fair to say we won’t be needing an eighth license plate character anytime soon.]

I admit I’m slow to adopt new inventions, even though I spent the last twenty years of my career in tech.  The laptop I’m typing on is five years old and doing just fine.  The SUV I drive will last fifteen years since the one I had before it did as well.  And the fitness band I wear gives me a dozen angles on my health yet I’m more interested in the time of day.

Electronic license plates may be overcomplicating the issue.  The metal variety sits there quietly, displaying letters and numbers like it’s supposed to.  The electronic variety aims to be anything but a license plate.  Amber Alerts.  Insurance/registration violations.  Product advertisements.  Or – God forbid – electronic bumper stickers, where the owner can publicly express the kinds of opinions to drive the rest of us to road rage.

Say what you will about BMW, but the automaker is simply climbing onboard the subscription bandwagon.  Who can blame them for finding new ways to make (our) money?  On the other hand, drivers may wake up one day and wonder why we ever caved to electronic license plates.  We just have to glance at our roadside billboards to know we had it coming.

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

Food-and-Drink – Eternally Linked

In the proverbial question of the chicken or the egg, the operative word is or. One came first or the other came first – not both. Same with the game of chess; you choose to be the black or the white, not every piece on the board.  And the song you selected this morning to begin your morning commute? It was one of your favorites, not two (unless you found a mashup). So it boggles my find to discover, at Costco of all places, you can have a hot dog and a soda… just not or. It’s food and drink – or it’s nothing at all.

It’s been a while since I’ve shopped at Costco, so last Sunday’s visit felt like more than just a battle for space in the aisles.  Featured items seemed new and interesting and the free samples beckoned more than usual.  My wife and I go to Costco for paper goods, produce, wine, and not much else, so we made it to check-out sooner than most, but there was still a pretty good line of people.  While we waited, I realized Costco is savvy with its store layout.  Approaching the cashier, you face… the food court.  On this day, the court was b-u-s-y, with just about every seat taken.

I never ever patronize the food court at Costco (I like to think I lean healthier) but something triggered my brain this time around.  Just after July 4th a local radio host commented how “Costco hot dogs are the best, and believe me, I know hot dogs.”  Suddenly a Costco hot dog sounded pretty good!  So I asked my wife to stay in line while I pursued our spur-of-the-moment lunch.  A lot of people were standing by the counters (looking nothing like a line) and I realized they were already waiting for orders.  You see, at Costco you self-order on a computer screen – just touch the picture of the food or drink you want and insert a credit card.

Pepperoni pizza.  Hot turkey and provolone sandwich. “Chicken bake”.  Caesar salad.  Hot dog and a soda.  Ice cream.  Those are pretty much your choices at Costco.  The menu isn’t big and it’s certainly not your dietician’s recommendation, but it’s what the average Costco patron wants.  Just not this patron.  Not quite.

“Inseparable”

You Costco regulars already know this.  A hot dog and a 20 oz. soda at the food court is only $1.50.  Always has been and purportedly always will be.  But here’s the rub.  The computer screen doesn’t offer a picture of a hot dog.  You’ll only find a hot dog with a soda.  But there’s also a soda without a hot dog.  In what world of logic does this make sense?  I want a hot dog, Costco sells hot dogs, but I can only have one if I buy a 20 oz. soda as well.  But I don’t want a soda…

This quickly became a matter of principle (as you might expect).  I mean, $1.50 is reasonable for a hot dog so why not just go for the combo and throw away the empty soda cup, right?  Yeah, I wish it were that easy for me.  I challenged a couple of Costco employees about it back in the checkout line, and both said, “That’s the way it’s always been. It’s a nod to tradition. They’ll never change the price and they’ll never unlink the hot dog and the soda”.  When I pointed out that, hey, you could buy a soda on its own (but not a hot dog on its own), that made them pause.  A little.

Scold me now, please.  There’s a war going on in Eastern Europe.  Food and gas prices are through the roof.  The U.S. is experiencing one of its hottest summers in decades with states forced into rolling blackouts.  Meanwhile, I’m pitching fits because I can’t buy a hot dog all by itself at Costco.

Fittingly, you get the last laugh.  My wife and I pulled out of the Costco parking lot and still had a taste for a hot dog, and the only place we could think of was a little sports bar in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood.  So we go there and I order a hot dog with fries while my wife opts for the bratwurst with Tater Tots. (and yes, for those of you keeping score I could’ve ordered this hot dog all by itself).  Then the cashier rings up the order and says, “That’ll be $30.00” (not $1,50, not $3.00 – thirty bucks).  And how was my hot dog?  Delicious, actually. I’d have the same thing again nex time.  I just need to stop thinking about how I could’ve had twenty Costco hot dogs (and a bunch of empty soda cups) for the same price.

Floral Fire

Billboard ranks “Firework” as Katy Perry’s best-selling single, with millions of downloads since its 2010 release. The self-empowerment tune “skyrocketed” to #1 on Billboard’s Top 100 at the time and ranked in the top five on twenty other charts worldwide. “Firework” also “sparked” an award-winning music video, and Katy has since performed the anthem live at two presidential inaugurations and during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.  Searching Wikipedia for “firework”, therefore, it comes as no surprise to be asked, “Do you mean the song or the low-explosive pyrotechnic device?” Today, I choose the latter.

For the first time in countless July 4th celebrations I can’t speak to having seen a single overhead firework display this year. No giant “willows” with their graceful descending trails of sparks; no “peonies” where those same trails radiate in straight lines from the center; and no “horsetails” (my favorite) where each trail bursts a second time, followed by a crackling, glittering shower of fire.  Also, no “grand finale” where it looks like the entire sky is splitting open to some fiery furnace beyond.

“Chrysanthemums”

From the vantage point of our house, we used to count on the fireworks show from the nearby U.S. Air Force Academy. That show has been canceled for the last ten years because of budget cutbacks.  We also used to bring blankets to the shore of a nearby lake, where we were treated to a “small-town” fireworks display funded by donations from the public.  Today, that display has been swallowed up by a bigger all-day “Festival on the Fourth”, where you pay for parking and walk a mile or two just to secure a spot on the lake several hours ahead of the fireworks.  Even so, we thought we’d see bits and bursts from one of the other nine shows scattered around nearby Colorado Springs.  Nope, not so much as a snap, crackle, or pop.

Palmer Lake, CO 2022 fireworks display (photo courtesy of local resident Bartley Willson)

Fireworks are nostalgic for me, with two distinct memories from childhood.  The first, in the 1970s, brings me back to the beach of the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles.  Back then the only commercial displays seemed to be over the ocean.  My parents would grab a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and several blankets, and the whole family would find a place on the beach where for several hours, we’d eat and play as twilight became dark, in anticipation of the late, late fireworks show from the end of the nearby pier.

The second memory, a decade later, also brings me to the Pacific Ocean but to a beach further south near San Diego, where we’d shoot off our own fireworks (from the “Safe and Sane” boxed collections my dad brought home every year), followed by an overhead display from the nearby county fair.  Every childhood July 4th was the same: food, fun, and fireworks; lots and lots of fireworks.

“Waterfall”

In 1976 – America’s bicentennial year – the firework display in New York City included an unforgettable “waterfall” effect off one of the bridges.  This year, that same July 4th display (sponsored by Macy’s) ballooned to a two-hour televised extravaganza with over 2,000 blasts and effects per minute.  I’d say Macy’s department stores and their profit margins are doing just fine, wouldn’t you?

I shouldn’t be surprised to learn fireworks were invented by the Chinese (well over a thousand years ago) but here’s a less-obvious bit of floral fire trivia: Disney is the largest consumer of fireworks in the world.  It used to be – back when their single amusement park was California’s “Disneyland” – you’d only catch a Disney firework show on summer evenings (directly above Cinderella’s castle), and only if you stayed until just before the park closed.  Today you’ll find displays at any one of the twelve Disney parks, in any month of the year.  For the record, only the U.S. Department of Defense purchases more explosive devices than Disney.

There’s more firework trivia, of course.  The very first iterations were empty bamboo shoots, creating a mild popping sound when ignited because of natural air pockets.  Seeking more pyrotechnics, the Chinese added explosive chemicals to the shoots to create firecrackers”.  Eventually they figured out how to launch and propel their creations, and the overhead fireworks display was born, in an impressive rainbow of chemical colors. But take note; you won’t see a blue firework very often.  Blue requires an infusion of copper at just the right temperature, and the “cool” color tends to get lost next to the “hotter” reds and yellows.

“Catherine wheels”

I’m still puzzled why I didn’t hear so much as a “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM” aftershock (to quote Katy Perry) of a firework display this year.  Maybe most of my fellow Coloradoans kept the bursts and blasts to the ground instead, from what they purchased at the local firework stand. Those of you living in New Jersey, Massachusetts, or Delaware can’t relate because consumer fireworks are illegal in your states.  Not so much as a sparkler in your hand. (Which may be a good thing since sparklers can heat up to 2000 ºF)  So you probably did what I did this year – simply watch a recap of the Washington D.C. grand finale on your smartphone.  It was the only floral fire I could find.

Some content sourced from the BuzzFeed article, “17 Things You Probably Never Knew About Fireworks”, the Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Many Happy Returns

Unlike 2021, the due date for U.S. tax returns was back to mid-April this year.  Most of us sweated under the ticking clock as we combed through statements and receipts in search of last-minute tax breaks. I have this recurring pipe dream where the IRS tells me to just keep what I owe (followed by the dream of how I would spend the money). Sadly, I’m a taxpayer who rarely sees a refund, and keeping what I owe certainly won’t happen. On the other hand, retailers could soon be asking me to keep what I want to return.  Now there’s something to ponder.

Picture this.  You place an Amazon order for a brand new Playstation 5.  You plunk down the $500 it costs and a few days later your purchase shows up on your doorstep.  But while you were waiting for your gaming console the IRS sent you a reminder about the balance due on your 2021 taxes. Whoops. You owe that $500 to the federal government, young taxpayer.  Hello, buyer’s remorse.  Full of regret, you contact Amazon to arrange the return, and their carefully worded response goes like this:

Dear Amazon Prime Member.  Thank you for your inquiry into the return of your Playstation 5 gaming console.  After reviewing our current stock we have determined it is not necessary for you to return this product.  Accordingly, nothing further is required at this time.  You can expect a full refund applied to the credit card used to make this purchase.  Thank you for shopping with Amazon.

Wait… keep the product AND get a refund, you say? Crazy, I know. Or maybe not, at least if you shop at Target or Wal*Mart.  Both retailers are considering this no-return approach with clothes, garden furniture, and “bulky” kids’ toys among other products they currently overstock.  It’s the result of consecutive worldwide events.  First, the pandemic, which allowed consumers to build up their savings accounts while mostly staying at home.  Second, record-setting inflation, which dragged a knife through what was supposed to be a post-pandemic spending frenzy.  Retailers stocked up early in anticipation of the purchase party, but then the lights and music were abruptly cut off.  The result: overstocked with a capital “O”.

This version of keep-the-product-keep-the-cash kinda-sorta happened to me years ago.  My sister-in-law ordered a ping-pong table for her family and when it came, they discovered a bit of damage in one corner.  So she contacted the company, who told her, “Keep it.  We’ll just send you another one.”  Thus, in a moment labeled “Christmas not on Christmas”, my family got a free ping-pong table (Thanks, Sis!) Sure, the bounce of the ball was a little off on that one corner, but my kids didn’t care.  Besides, before I knew it they were old enough (or not) to drink and pretty much destroyed the table when they shifted to beer pong.

But I digress. With a ping-pong table I’m almost sure the cost of shipping back to the manufacturer was more than the profit after fixing and reselling it.  So my sister-in-law got two tables for the price of one.  Hey, what if she’d bought ten ping-pong tables and all of them were defective?  She’d go up and down her street handing out free tables.  She’d gain a bunch of new best friends and her neighborhood would hold massive ping-pong tournaments.  All for the cost of one table.

The problem at Target and Wal*Mart is more than just the cost of returns and overstocked items.  It’s also, they can’t charge the same price they charged you.  For one, the item may be offered at a discounted price by the time you return it.  For two, certain items have to be classified as “used” and can’t be offered at full price after the first purchase, or even offered at all.

“Un-resellable”

Which brings me to orange juice.  Orange juice, you ask?  Yep.  Try to return a jug of juice to the market some time.  We bought five jugs a couple of months ago for our daughter’s bridal shower, assuming the mimosas would flow like Niagara Falls. Wrong. Only a few of the guests opted for the bubbly since the shower was mid-day.  So I called my local market to confirm the return of four unopened jugs of juice, and was horrified to hear, “Sure, you can return them for a full refund.  But we’ll just throw out the juice.” Throw out the juice?  Yes, it’s the world we live in these days.  Many food items cannot be resold for fear of tainting.  So I’m drinking a lot of orange juice right now.

Let’s wrap this public service announcement with a caveat.  One of these days you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you end up with a purchased product AND a full refund.  Lucky you – it’s “Christmas not on Christmas”!  If it’s through Amazon, however, be wary of the following purchases: hazardous materials, gift cards, jewelry, groceries, and live insects (uh, live insects?) None of those can ever be returned, nor will you get your money back.  In other words, the sea monkeys you adopted in a moment of nostalgia (remember those, Boomers?) should be considered bought and paid for.  No refunds.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Just keep your returns…”, and the Clark.com article, “12 Items That Can’t Be Returned to Amazon”.

Adding Fire to the Fuel

When I step up to the counter at Starbucks for my favorites (hot: Grande Flat White, cold: Grande Cold Brew w/ a splash of cream), I find it interesting how accepting I am of the high price of my purchase. By nature I’m a penny-pincher, monitoring the family budget with a fully-focused microscope. But the scan-and-go Starbucks app makes it easy to overlook the five dollars for a single cup of coffee. On the other hand, a gallon of gasoline for the same price is literally headline news.

I don’t wonder if you’re just like me at the gas station these days because you are. When you pull up to the pump you try to ignore the unbelievable digits on the station sign and on the pump itself.  The tank in your vehicle is probably closer to “E” than usual (though my wife still refuses to go below the quarter mark).  You may even shop around now before choosing your station.  Finally, the price of your favorite octane has you considering a cheaper option, even though none of them are really “cheap”.  Just like the Starbucks menu, purchasing gas is no longer the mindless decision it used to be.

$5.00/gallon. Ten days ago the U.S. hit that preposterous average for the first time in its history.  Just two months ago the average was $4.00; two years before that, less than $2.00.  Forecasters say we’ll see a nationwide average of $6.00 before the end of the summer.  No wonder our fiery conversations are all about fuel these days.

When my car’s “low fuel” light pops on (with an annoying “DING!”) I know it’s going to take eighteen gallons to get the needle pointing back to “F”.  That’s $90 in June 2022 math.  When a stop at the gas station sets you back almost $100, you start to think about what else you could buy with the money.  Four or five dinners out.  Ten months of Netflix.  Twenty Starbucks Flat Whites.

If it’s any consolation, at least we’re talking about self-service gasoline here.  Some of you are too young to remember when a “gas station” was a “service station”.  Prior to 1980, it was all about full service.  I can still hear the ding-ding as the wheels of my parents’ car passed over black hoses, triggering the bell to let the attendant know they needed a fill-‘er-up.  Then he (yes “he” because I never remember a “she” working at service stations back then) would run over to the pump, ask what octane and how many gallons, and start the filling.  He’d also ask you to “pop the hood” so he could have a quick look at the oil, washer fluid, and engine.  Finally, he’d give your front windshield a wash, take payment (in cash, of course), and off you’d go.  For all that service, you simply rolled down the driver’s-side window and paid the man.

Full-service is still a thing of course but it’s a lot harder to find these days.  Unless you live in Oregon or New Jersey.  In those states, self-service is rarely an option.  Attendants are still the norm.  It sounds like an alternate reality for 2022 (or the scene from Back to the Future below) but two out of the fifty states stubbornly refuse to allow self-service.  They stand by the well-worn concerns: fire hazards, difficulties for the elderly or disabled, and loss of station attendant jobs.  They also charge a few pennies more per gallon because they can’t make a profit the way they used to – by offering services beyond the gas itself.  For the most part, those under-the-hood services moved to car dealerships a long time ago.

Just this week our politicians proposed a three-month “holiday” on gas taxes (and taxes on gasoline should be the subject of its own blog post).  The holiday won’t happen, though.  Our politicians won’t allow the sacrifices made by not collecting those taxes.  Or activists will wonder if gas companies will maintain the high prices and generate additional profit.  And if gas is on its way to $6/gallon anyway, it’s kind of like adding a new lane to the highway, where by the time it’s finished the traffic has increased too much to notice any difference.

Not speaking for other countries but Americans won’t be driving less in the next several months.  The travel forecast calls for more vehicle miles than even in the summers before COVID.  Our lack of efficient mass transit and our woes at the airport (can you say, “canceled flight”?) will, uh, drive us to drive.  In other words, we’ll pay $5, $6, maybe even $7 before we’ll pull back on our stubborn habits.  Just like I will, admittedly, at Starbucks.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Why New Jersey and Oregon still don’t let you pump your own gas”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Raising a Red (White, and Blue) Flag

I knew this was coming. When you blog several hundred times over, you start to wonder, “Have I already covered this topic?” Today’s subject seemed like new territory so I answered with a resounding, “No, I haven’t”… and I was wrong. Way wrong. Turns out, I’ve already discussed a certain mid-June U.S. holiday twice in previous posts. Whoops. Is this what happens when you turn sixty or am I subconsciously determined to elevate a somewhat meaningless festivity?  Okay, don’t answer that.  Just bear with me while I unfurl my opinion for a third time here. Happy Flag Day, America.

You missed it again, darn you. You’re reading about Flag Day here, at least two days after the fact, and now you’re wondering how you could’ve possibly forgotten to raise your Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.  I mean, c’mon, you did raise your flag on Memorial Day, right?  And you’re planning to do the same on July 4th?  So how could you forget the “holiday” smack dab in between?  Think about it.  Technically we celebrate the birthday of our flag on June 14th (and this year we put 245 candles on her red, white, and blue cake).  Isn’t the birth of our flag more important than honoring our fallen military or celebrating our independence?  Of course it is… NOT.

I’m struggling (third time over) to appreciate Flag Day.  We celebrate a big birthday at Christmas (er, some of us) and another one on July 4th (again, some of us).  Those are major parties.  With the former, we have an entire season leading up to the holiday itself – music, food, presents, and decorations galore.  With the latter, we have parades, festivals, 5K races, family barbeques, fireworks, and more decorations galore. But June 14th? Just another day at the office, I say.  Unless your town throws a parade like Quincy, MA (“Longest-running of its kind!”), Troy, NY (“50,000+ spectators!”), or Three Oaks, MI (“Three-day celebration!”), you didn’t even think about raising your flag. And for the record, the Troy, NY parade called it quits five years ago.  Can you say “holi-dying”?

Pre-1777 version (no stars!)

No disrespect to the U.S. flag, mind you. The red, white, and blue has quite the history.  The version you see these days is the twenty-seventh since its birth in 1777.  She flies permanently (all day, every day) in over twenty locations, including the U.S. Capitol, Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, and the moon (yep, that one).  And I’ll bet you didn’t know, the American flag “should be displayed at full staff” on eighteen calendar holidays.  Even on Christmas.  But especially on Flag Day (sarcasm with a capital “S”).

“Superflag”

Trivia break (because we need a break).  I’m here to tell you the largest American flag – as deemed by the good people at Guinness – is not in Texas (after all, everything’s bigger in Texas).  It’s Superflag and it’s deserving of its nickname.  Superflag (“It’s not just a flag, it’s a feeling!”) is 1.5 times the size of a football field.  It weighs 3,000 pounds and needs 600 people to hold it up.  A single star in Superflag’s field of blue is seventeen feet high.  That’s a big banner, citizens; so big, in fact (and unwieldy), its creator birthed “Superflag Jr.” as a more convenient size.  You’ll see Junior unfurled before the Super Bowl, covering almost the entire field.

Giant flags may fire me up but here’s a subject that does not: Betsy Ross. Sure, “Elizabeth” was a real person, living in a real house (which you can still tour today in Philadelphia); an upholsterer by trade and a talented seamstress besides.  She was even an acquaintance of George Washington.  But credit her with creating the very first American flag?  Sorry, compatriots, it’s just not true (or at least there’s no evidence to prove it).  Makes for a quaint story from our colonial roots, but when any association of Betsy and the first flag includes “purported” or “legend”, you have to wonder who makes this stuff up.

Talking about Superflag and Betsy Ross makes you think I don’t have enough to say about my original topic. You would be correct. But if you simply must know more about Flag Day (and for the record, I don’t think you must), check out my previous posts American Hollow-Day (full of mirth) and Banner Birthday (less tongue-in-cheek).  Neither “old-glorifies” June 14th any better than this one… nor did the zero-count of American flags I saw on Tuesday around town.  This holiday is on the ropes, people.  I’m not here raising a red, white, and blue flag but more like, a red flag. Third blog strike. I’m out.

Some content sourced from the We Are The Mighty article, “This is the world’s largest American flag”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Finishing on a Low Note

I usually associate “finishing” with sporting events. Think about the finish line of a car race, the eighteenth hole of a golf tournament, or the ticking seconds of the clock as a football game runs out of time. In these scenarios, the finish can be a tense, hold-your-breath moment, triggering a burst of euphoria if your favorite takes the win. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to reflect on the completion of my Lego Grand Piano. Tense? Hardly. Held my breath? Not at all. Euphoria? Anything but. No, this finish feels a little forlorn.

Three thousand, six hundred, and sixty-two tiny pieces ago, I began the assembly of Lego’s Grand Piano, just about the closest gift to “perfect” my wife has ever given me.  Piano is inextricably connected with my childhood – hours upon hours of practice and playing and determined progress at a tender age, eventually succumbing to other temptations of time.  Piano introduced me to commitment, skill, and patience, even frustration and disappointment.  My parent’s big, black grand sat patiently in our living room, beckoning me to play every time I passed by.  The instrument was always perfectly tuned and sparklingly clean, thanks to my mother’s weekly persistence with a dust cloth.  I can still hear her sweeping the eighty-eight keys from one end to the other – a delightfully musical moment.

Korg’s “Sampling Grand” keyboard

Believe it or not, the Lego Grand Piano is the second gift of a piano from my wife.  On our wedding day in 1987, she presented me with Korg’s “Sampling Grand”, an electronic keyboard with weighted keys and surprisingly realistic sound, much less expensive than the real thing.  Thirty-five years later, the Korg still plays like a champ and still earns a spot in our living room. (Unlike the Lego version, the Korg was already assembled when I got it.)

The start-to-finish journey of my Lego Grand Piano has been a more enjoyable ride than I expected.  When I opened the box last Christmas, I remember my jaw dropping a little, not only because I never saw the gift coming but because of the sheer complexity of the project staring up at me from the box  That’s a complicated-looking instrument, I thought.  That’s a ton of pieces, I also thought.

The unopened Lego box sat on my home office desk for a couple of weeks, looking elegant without even being touched.  My curiosity eventually got the better of me and I finally had a look inside.  Talk about intimidating.  A 500-page instruction manual awaited, along with forty-odd individual bags of pieces.  Even though this was a twenty-one-step journey, some steps involved “sub-bags” of tiny, tiny pieces, grouped separately so as not to escape!  Was I really brave enough to dive into this mess?

Contents of the box

The first chapter – shared with you readers on January 6th of this year (a date we Americans wish to forget) – spoke to my hesitation when I wrote an entire post about building the piano without actually building anything.  I just poked around the box and marveled at the contents and felt pretty good about even opening up the box.  But I did get started seven days later, and the subsequent journey was wholly satisfying and something of a weekly escape.

Leftovers

At first, I made several mistakes as the piano began to take shape.  Since the pieces are small it’s easy to place them backward, or even mistake one for another.  I also fretted when extra pieces remained after a given section of the build. (For the record, there were 38 extra pieces when all was said and done.  I can fit all of them into the palm of my hand.)  There were at least two instances where I had to disassemble several pieces to get back to the point where I’d done something wrong.  Those moments were utterly unnerving and confidence-shattering (take your pick).

[Author’s Note: After weeks and weeks of building the Lego Grand Piano, it only now occurs to me I’m describing one type of keyboard while typing on another. Don’t you just love the coincidence?]

So let’s finish this post by revisiting “finishing”.  What should be a moment of triumph feels a tad sad instead.  After the first few weeks, the build of the Lego Grand Piano became a weekly treat, accompanied by some of my favorite classical music.  Many stages were mini-surprises, not knowing what section I was building until the last piece was in place.  And of course, sharing the progress with all of you was also fun.  One reader admitted she would first scroll to the bottom of a post before reading my weekly topic.  She couldn’t wait to find out how the piano was coming along.

So, here we are now, finally done.  Next week’s post will feel a little empty without a reference to the Lego Grand Piano.  By total coincidence, my daughter got married this past weekend, also the end of a journey (months of planning and all).  My son just turned 30 yesterday, the finish line of his 20’s.  And soon, my wife and I will point our cars east for our move to South Carolina, the finish of our days in Colorado.  To be finished is to be sad?  You bet it is.

I’ll dive into another Lego build one of these days, I promise.  Maybe I’ll even take you along for the ride again.  In the meantime, I’ll flip the hidden switch and play the piano every now and then.  I’ll also find an acrylic box in which I can display this magnificent project.  After all, with my mother’s good habits in mind, I don’t want it gathering dust.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #21

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

The finále of the Lego Grand Piano assembly, as expected, was the build of the pianist’s bench and the placement of the sheet music onto the stand.  Bag #21 – of 21 bags of pieces – was bigger than I expected.  I mean, a bench is a seat with four legs, right?  Not according to Lego.  This bench raises and lowers with the little dials you see on the sides, to accommodate the height of our fictitious pianist.

       

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  The Lego Grand Piano was designed by the guy you see below, Donny Chen, a 33-year-old piano teacher and tuner from Guangzhou, China.  No surprise, Donny’s passions are the piano and Lego.  He’s a lot smarter than I am, evidenced by this quote: “I’ve always seen toys as something to be imagined, not just played with”.  Me, I just played with toys.

[Pianist’s Note: The Lego Grand Piano DOES play, I know it does.  I just have to figure out two things.  One, how did I manage to disconnect the cable to the sound box buried deep within the piano frame?  Two, how the heck am I going to get it reconnected?  That’ll take more time than I have today and is part of why I “finished on a low note”.  But I’ll share a concert with you when you least expect it – I promise. “Stay tuned”.]

Donny Chen

Running Build Time: 14.0 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Jarratt and Reedman’s Hooked on Classics. Leftover pieces: 1

Conductor’s Note: Apologies to the purists but I just couldn’t resist this somewhat tongue-in-cheek accompaniment to the final chapter of the Lego Grand Piano.  Hooked on Classics is a top-ten Billboard Hot 100 hit from 1981, a mashed-up perversion of bits of the world’s most recognized classical pieces… overlaid on a drum track.  It was recorded by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and bred several spin-offs (ex. Hooked on RomanceHooked on Classics came along just as I was wrapping up my childhood piano “career”.  I much prefer the originals of the several classical pieces in Hooked but maybe this peppy number is your cup of tea.  Have a listen:

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

I Made This Up

Words get stuck in my head – often.  If I hear “cattywampus” or “chartreuse” or “onomatopoeia” (and for the record, spellcheck didn’t flag any of them) my brain hangs on for a while because I’m entertained by the sound or the meaning. Sometimes a word repeats so often in my mind it doesn’t sound right anymore, like putting the accent on the wrong syll-AH-ble. But this is the reason I never struggle to include a unique word in every Life In A Word post. It’s the reason my topics often become unexpected adventures in writing – several hundred words spun from the single word ricocheting around in my brain. So what word am I stuck on this week, you ask? Make.

I know, I know.  You expected a more sophisticated word; something you could really sink your teeth into.  Certainly a word with more than four letters.  But here’s the thing.  Some words have one meaning while others have a list of definitions a mile long.  “Make” is wonderfully (sometimes confusingly) versatile.  It seems to have limitless uses. So, while “make” shows up in, like, every other conversation we have, consider just how many different ways we’re using it.

Here’s an example, probably my favorite for today’s topic.  We contracted with a bakery in Denver to create the perfect cake for my daughter’s upcoming wedding.  You call them first to make a sit-down appointment (yes, I’m aware I just used our word-of-the-day).  Then you work with a consultant on sketch paper to design exactly what you’re looking for. Then you taste-test six cakes and six frostings (using a tray of cupcakes) to come up with your dream combination.  The name of this establishment?  The Makery.  At first I thought it was a strange name, but then I realized, no; it’s a cool, tidy spin on words.  The Makery is not just a bakery.  A bakery would fill their glass display case with creations for you to choose from.  The Makery is all about custom creations, based on your input and your preferences.  In other words, The Makery declares “baking” a subset of “making”.

Without peeking at your Webster, guess how many definitions you’ll find for “make” in the dictionary.  Five? Ten? Two dozen? How about fifty-six? “Make” has forty-seven definitions as a verb and another nine as a noun.  I told you “make” was versatile, didn’t I?

I’m not about to go through fifty-six definitions of “make” because you can make better use of your time.  But here are my favorites:

  • To bring into existence by shaping or changing material, combining parts, etc. (as in, “Dave is making his Lego Grand Piano”).  The formality of this definition – the first in the line-up of the fifty-six – cracks me up.  It takes a lot of words to explain the most basic use of “make”.
  • To put in the proper condition or state, as for use; fix, prepare.  “This morning, Dave made his bed.  Then he made his coffee.  Tonight, Dave will make his dinner.”
  • To become by development; prove to be.  “Someday, Dave, you’ll make a heckuva writer.”
  • To be sufficient to constitute.  “One blog post does not make a writer, Dave.”
  • To arrive at or reach, attain.  Dave just turned sixty years old. Will he make it to sixty-one?
  • To plant and cultivate or produce (a crop). “Dave makes some of the best corn in the entire county.” (Note: this one is specific to the U.S. South.  Since I’m moving there soon I’d better get used to it.  And no, I don’t have any plans to “make” corn when I get there.)
  • To cause oneself, or something understood, to be as specified.Make sure this is a good blog topic, Dave.”
  • To show oneself to be or seem in action or behavior.  “Dave plans to make merry the day his daughter gets married.”

Make Love, Not War” was a slogan born out of protests over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War but it’s probably getting renewed use in the last couple of months.  Not that I can explain what “make love” really means.  Something physical?  Metaphysical?  Peace treaties?  Making out? I can’t make up my mind (and don’t make me).  Besides, it’s time I make for the exits with this post.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #20

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

Today’s section of the Lego symphony was a ten-minute sprint.  Bag #20 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled nothing more than the underlying support structure of the piano lid, with hinges to anchor it in place on the left side of the instrument. The dark, raised bar you see running across the top of the lid is part of that structure.  The support “stick” to the right was already there, lying quietly across the piano strings from a previous build, just waiting to be raised.

Bag #21 will be a rapid final chapter, perhaps as fast as this one.  We only have the free-standing bench for the pianist to go, and (with a final flourish), the sheet music we’ll center on the stand above the keys.  We’ll bring the entire assembly to the finish line inside of fourteen hours. Then you and I will step back, admire all that we’ve accomplished these last twenty-one weeks, and take a well-deserved bow.

Next week: the final movement!

Running Build Time: 13.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat Major (two times through). Leftover pieces: None again!

Conductor’s Note: Liebestraum means “love dream” in German. This short piano piece could certainly be interpreted that way. It starts out soft and melodious, a soothing lullaby. But it picks up steam in a hurry, building to a crescendo and using the entire keyboard.  It’s a beautiful piece, which is more than I can say for Franz Liszt’s last name.  Every time I say “Liszt” I sound like I have a lisp.  Maybe he did too?

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