Covering My Tracks

A passenger train sweeps through this little vacation town every morning at a quarter past eight. The first sound you hear is an almost apologetic “ding-ding-ding” to alert cars approaching the seaside crossing. The next is the “click-clack-click-clack” as the wheels grind a percussive beat with the twin rails below. Finally, you’re consumed by the rush and roar of the train itself, barreling towards its next destination without so much as a split-second’s thought about stopping.

Dings, clicks, rushes, and roars – which typically wake me from my vacation slumber – are comforting music to my aging ears.  These trains cover the same tracks they did during the innocent summer days of yesteryear.  The beaches here are more crowded than they used to be.  The houses make grander statements.  The ocean is a few centimeters higher and the sand threatens to wash away with each passing season.  But the train, which once called this town a destination (but now simply passes through), faithfully maintains its daily schedule from points north to points south and back again.  Some things never change.

My family’s first summer house here – the upper floor of a duplex – was mere steps from the train tracks.  In those ten-and-under years, well past dark, my pajama-clad bleary-eyed brothers and I would bolt to the front screen door in the middle of the night, drawn to the roar of an oncoming freight train.  We just had to see the roving locomotive headlight flash by one more time.  During the day we’d dash to the rails just before the train passed by, laying down countless pennies to be flattened.  I still see them – pancaked, shiny and hot – as the giant wheels flipped the coins wildly off the rails.  Sometimes we’d never find them again.

The allure of the passing train was something intangible; a magnetism I can’t find words for, even today.  You had its awesome mechanical power, its symphony of distinct sounds, the romance of faraway destinations, and the untold stories of countless passengers.  You had the promise there would always be another train coming down the tracks, if you were just willing to wait long enough.  To a kid, the train was equal parts come hither and go away; the exciting and the scary combined into one imposing, larger-than-life spectacle.

There was a time I would’ve thought trains were meant for childhood and nothing more.  But they still click-clacked through my life after that.  As a teenager, I rode those same “Pacific Surfliner” coaches several times as a convenient connection between Los Angeles and San Diego.  In college, a freight train rumbled across campus in the wee hours, most often witnessed as I walked back to my dorm from late-night dates.  In my junior year in Rome, Italy; Eurail pass in pocket, the entire continent beckoned with its on-schedule trains and speedy routes to exotic locales.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area begged a resident to ride trains.  My first corporate commute was on a train of sorts: the Powell-Hyde cable car line from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square.  When we moved south of the city, Caltrain became the easiest way to commute to the heart of downtown.  When my job also moved to the south, Caltrain still served as the easiest option, the nearest station a twenty-minute walk from my front door.

“Royal Canadian Pacific”

No mention of trains – at least for me – would be complete without a nod to the Royal Candian Pacific.  RCP rail tours include private rooms in restored vintage carriages, daily meal service prepared on-board, and spectacular scenery as you click-clack through the Canadian Rockies wilderness.  The RCP is kind of like a…, no, it’s exactly like a five-star hotel on wheels. They even throw in tuxedoed waitstaff.  Unless the Orient Express is your idea of a typical vacation there’s nothing quite as grand as the RCP.

Years ago, my wife bought me an LGB model train set.  The LGB was probably the largest scale of any of the model railway sets out at the time; its cars a good foot in length and almost as high.  We’d set up the tracks every December so our “Christmas train” could cruise under the boughs of the tree above.  I often wonder why my wife bought me that train set.  Maybe I commented enough about how much I enjoyed the rail commute to work back then.  More likely, she still recognized the boy in the man, the one who would rush to the screen door in his pajamas when the locomotive went barreling past.

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

Behind the Wheels

Every summer when my wife and I head to the West Coast for a little sunshine and sand, the only intentional exercise we get is a walk on the beach or a dip in the ocean. So this year we decided our vacation equation needed to get behind the wheels. We skipped the flight, racked the bikes onto the back of the SUV, and drove 1,100 Utah/Arizona/Nevada desert miles to bridge the gap between Colorado and California. Now the Pacific Coast sun shines above, the Pacific Ocean waves crash below, and the bikes… well, the bikes just beckon to be ridden every day.

It’s already happened, as I suspected it would.  When we took our first pedal tour around this little seaside town, I saw him for a few fleeting moments.  He was a younger, thinner, blonder version of me.  He was seated confidently behind the drop handlebars of a white Nishiki Regal ten-speed, focused solely on the road in front of him.  He was dressed in Converse tennis shoes, ballcap in place of a bike helmet, white socks halfway to the knees.  When this kid wasn’t body surfing, playing basketball, or working the evening shift at McDonald’s, he was logging mile after mile on his bicycle, in search of driver’s license freedoms, even if he wasn’t old enough to have one.

My fleeting companion is the “me” of forty-five years ago.  In most respects it’s a long period of time.  In others we could be talking about last week.  Bicycling was serious thread in the fabric of my childhood.  It was a way to leave the familiar behind, to pursue esoteric wonders beyond the streets I grew up on.  Bicycling asked the questions, “Where would you like to go?” “Why?”  “And how far?”  At fifteen years old, the answers were limitless.

The Schwinn “Lemon Peeler”

My love of cycling began at a young age (and continues today in weekly spin classes at the gym).  I still remember the very first hand-me-down bike my brothers and I shared – a small blue two-wheeler with no gears, the kind you had to pedal backward to brake.  From there I graduated to a glam Schwinn Lemon Peeler Sting Ray, the all-yellow beauty with the fenders above fat tires, sporting the signature banana seat.

But my Nishiki Regal ten-speed brought bicycling to a whole new level.  I bought it myself: months of hard-earned allowance and odd-jobs cash plunked down for the biggest purchase of my young life.  The Nishiki granted me access to the more sophisticated language of bicycling; terms like “chain stay”, “saddle”, and “derailleur”, even if I couldn’t afford the Raleigh or Motobecane imports more deserving of those words.

Also, the Nishiki meant bike maintenance became a labor of love instead of a chore; a bonding afternoon with friends.  The shade of my dad’s carport colored our “workshop”, where we dismantled, fine-tuned, and reassembled over and over; my friends and I exchanging tools and advice for each other’s spare parts.  I still remember the final touch when the Nishiki was all back together: the pristine white finishing tape wrapped carefully around those drop handlebars, signifying it was finally time to ride.

I was never far behind…

One story of me and my Nishiki will always stand out.  It was all about beating the school bus home.  When the bell rang after my final class, I’d sprint to the rack, jump on my bike, and launch into the six-mile trek back to my house.  The bus meanwhile, needed several minutes to load its passengers, not to mention dozens of stops before it would’ve dropped me.  It was always a neck-and-neck battle as I’d pass the bus and then it’d pass me.  Most times I’d lose the race by mere seconds, easing up on the pedals in exhausted frustration.  But every now and then I’d get the victory.  Did some of my friends deliberately take their time exiting the bus, knowing I was in hot pursuit?  Maybe.

In 1979, a few months after I turned seventeen, a wonderful little film called Breaking Away won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  The movie centered around four friends, bicycling, and Bloomington, Indiana’s “Little 500” bike race, but it was mostly about coming of age.  Learning life’s lessons while putting the miles on the pedals.

Little wonder Breaking Away‘s lead character was named Dave.

[Note: If anything about this post resonates with you, be sure to read Steve Rushin’s Sting-Ray Afternoons.  The author’s childhood is set in Minnesota, but the growing-up memories are remarkably similar to my own.  Even the kid on the cover looks a little like me.  Steve and I could’ve been brothers.]

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

As the Wind Blows

Pagosa Springs, a small town in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, lies 7,100′ above sea level. It is locally known for its therapeutic hot springs. Pagosa also boasts a 35-year business called Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures, which takes you an additional 3,000′ above sea level for “360° views of the beautiful valley [of Pagosa] below”. Maybe you’ll climb aboard their basket and go for a float someday.  If you do, my apologies for not joining you.  I’d rather spend my time in the terra firma of Pagosa’s hot springs than the “terror for-sure-a” of a balloon ride above.

Getting high, above Pagosa Springs

Logic says my fear of heights denies me the thrill of soaring up, up, and away.  Not true.  It’s more about the “gone with the wind” part (sorry for that, Scarlett).  Once the balloon reaches cruising altitude, the pilot extinguishes the fire and Mother Nature silently takes over.  Then your high-rise ride gets a little dicey unpredictable.  It’s the whole not-knowing-where-you’re-gonna-end-up moment that gets me.

Possible outcomes as follows.  You descend gracefully into a farmer’s field with the “chase vehicle” just minutes away.  You zip hundreds of feet up and then hundreds more down, depending on which fickle air stream you encounter.  Or, you float all the way to nearby New Mexico on the strong winds we have here in Colorado.  All while literally hanging by threads.

Albuquerque’s big balloon bash

Speaking of New Mexico, it wouldn’t be the worst destination for one of Pagosa’s rogue hot air balloons.  After all, the International Balloon Fiesta – the largest gathering of balloonists in the country – takes place every October in Albuquerque.  At least you’d have professionals on the ground eager to reel you in.  Also in Pagosa’s favor: small town = few power lines.  Hot air ballooning and power lines do not mix.  See here for what happens when they do (coincidentally, just weeks ago in Albuquerque).

Despite the occasional crash landing, ballooning fatalities are rare.  In fact, hot air ballooning has been designated “safest air sport in aviation” according to years of statistics, and a Swiss aeronautics organization whose name I can’t pronounce.  So maybe it’s not so bad if you never have a neatly paved runway to greet your touchdown.  Heck, Pagosa locals love it when a hot air balloon ends up in their backyard.  They come running out of their houses to greet you with coffee and cinnamon rolls.  Breakfast?  Hmmm.  Maybe I can do this ballooning thing after all.

I may not be a balloon flyboy but that doesn’t mean I’d rain on a parade of those big colorful inflatables.  After all, hot air balloons first appeared to me in favorite childhood stories, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons, or Albert Lamorisse’s priceless (and wordless) The Red Balloon.  They show up as flying animals every Thanksgiving Day at the Macy’s parade in New York City.  As well, right here in my hometown we have an impressive showing of hot-air balloons every Labor Day weekend, including a “balloon glow” in the evenings.  Now that I think about it, there’s probably more ballooning going on in this part of the country than anywhere else.

Colorado Springs’ beautiful balloon glow

It’s not as if hot air ballooning is some new-fangled sport (hoverboarding, anyone?)  The first untethered hot-air balloon flight took place back in the eighteenth century.  Hundreds of commercial operators offer hot-air balloon rides in the United States, and hundreds more are private owners.  Add a little perspective and 3000′ above Pagosa Springs is nothing.  The world record for the flight height of a hot-air balloon is 64,980′ (like a Mt. Everest on top of a Mt. Everest).

Up, up, and seriously away

Strict definitions aside, the altitude record for hot air ballooning is about to topple, in a big way.  A company called Space Perspective is now taking reservations for its giant hot air balloon, launching in early 2024.  You, seven other passengers, and your pilot astronaut will take a six-hour ride in a pressurized capsule under a giant balloon… to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.  A seat on “Spaceship Neptune” costs $125,000.  Operators are standing by to take your payment…. for 2025, that is.  The 300 seats offered in 2024 are long gone.

Maybe 3000′ above Pagosa Springs doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “On sale: $125,000 balloon trips to the edge of space”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Delicious Clicks

When my wife and I completed a partial remodel of our house last year, we replaced the rather ordinary-looking front door with a solid-core faux mahogany beauty, highlighted with a stylish centered rain glass cutout.  This single architectural element transformed our entry into a much more inviting space.  But after many months of opening our new door, I’ve come to realize it’s not just the look I enjoy so much.  It’s the sound.  A door of this caliber comes with a well-machined, weighty set of hinges and lockset.  Close the door and you’ll hear the latch and catch nestle comfortably and perfectly together.  It’s one of the most pleasing sounds I’ve ever heard.  I call it a delicious click.

Our newish front door

Delicious clicks.  Maybe you already know what I’m talking about.  You hear a rich, deep sound and you immediately think “high quality” or “high dollar” or just “n-i-c-e…”.  You hear this kind of a click in someone’s house and you think, “whoa, these people have it made”.  If you haven’t experienced this brand of audible, here’s an idea.  Your local bank may have a walk-in safe, one of those with the big spinner handle front and center on the door.  Maybe you can hang around until the time they secure the safe.  They’ll push that massive steel door closed on silent hinges.  They’ll spin the handle until it catches, and then secure the deadbolt with a secondary lever.

That’s when you’ll hear it.  A delicious click.

I’d love to trademark my little sound phrase but I must give credit where credit is due, so I summon James Bond.  Rather, James Bond’s creator, the author Ian Fleming.  After From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and all of the other Bond adventures, Fleming wrote a wonderful, timeless children’s story called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964).  For those not familiar (and shame on you), Chitty is about a nutty inventor living in a windmill with his family, the nearby candy company whose owner’s daughter is “Truly Scrumptious“, a mysterious castle in a land called Vulgaria, and the magical flying car that brings it all together.

Note the license plate

Perfect for this post, “chitty chitty bang bang” is also the sound of the flying car’s engine when it’s in gear.  There’s a moment in the movie where you hear the four-part tempo and you think, “perfect words to describe it!”  But more to my point today, it’s the car’s doors that are even more pleasing.  Even without a copy of the book in my hands, I still remember the author’s description as Chitty’s doors came to a close.  Delicious clicks.

Mercedes just came out with its “largest and most luxurious” electric car, the EQS.  It’s the battery-powered equivalent of the popular S-class sedan.  It has an aerodynamically sloping hood to make speeds above 100 mph (!) smoother.  The EQS can travel 480 miles on a single charge.  And the purchase will set you back over $100K.

Ferrari’s 296 GTB

Ferrari just came out with a new “supercar” with 818 horsepower and a V6 engine.  The “296 GTB” is also a plug-in hybrid.  It’s not Ferrari’s fastest car but it sure looks like fun to drive.  If you have the means, the 296 GTB will set you back the equivalent of three Mercedes EQS’s.

I can’t afford either of these cars; not even close.  But I can guarantee one thing.  Whether you go with the Mercedes or the Ferrari, your money will get you meticulously crafted doors on your car.  With delicious clicks.

Only $900 on Amazon!

Recently one of my liquid soap bottles was down to its last few drops.  When I pressed down for more the nozzle made a horrible, empty, nasally kind of plea for more soap.  What an awful sound.  Not exactly “toot sweet”.

On that note, I think I’ll close my front door again.

Some content sourced from IMDb.com.

Two-Color Tangos

Last week I stopped at a traffic signal and it happened again: I had me a little Christmas moment.  Visions of Santa Claus, sugar plums, and all that. The traffic light is red, you see, but then it changed to green. Combine those colors and presto!  Dave goes all holly/jolly in the head. Can’t really explain it but at least, maybe, a brief bit of Christmas cheer keeps the road rage at bay.

When two colors tango, untold images fill my brain.  Pair up red & green and I’m ready to wrap presents.  Pair up light blue & cream and I’m lounging on a beach in Hawaii, frosty piña colada in hand.  But maybe you’re different.  Maybe you celebrate Hannukah (in which case you should lobby for blue & silver traffic lights).  Or maybe your world of red & green is simply something other than Christmas.  Strawberries.  Tennis courts.  Those colorful maracas you hear a-shake-shakin’ in a Latin band.  A dozen roses.

“Cha-cha-cha!”

If we were talking about single colors we’d be back in elementary school, wouldn’t we?  Green as the grass, red as the fire truck, orange as the pumpkin, and so on.  Not a lot of fun in that.  Not to mention, a single color dancing the tango by itself would be awkward.  But two colors?  Now… now we’re getting closer to a barrel of monkeys.

What do you see here?

Psychologists like their Rorschach inkblots well enough, but two-color tangos would be a more interesting reveal.  Tell the patient to close their eyes and concentrate.  Now hold up a card half-white & half-orange and say, “Okay, open your eyes.  What’s the first thing you think of?” Creamsicles.  Blue & yellow card?  Swedish Flag.  Purple & red? Sunset.  You get the idea.  But that’s just me.  My morally straight brain sprints to morally straight images.

A “black-and-white”

Let’s put a thug in the same psychologist’s chair.  He’s got “better things” to do but somehow we’ve convinced him to take the two-color tango test.  He doesn’t even have to concentrate.  Black & white?  The police car headed his direction.  Black & gray?  His favorite handheld weapon.  Black & red?  Brimstone and fire in the afterlife known as Hell.  Creepy, right?  At least you have him in a chair instead of out on the streets.  Might want to summon more psychologists for further evaluation.

My version of bliss

The irony of my thug friend (foe?) is black & red is my favorite tango; more vivid than my red & green Christmases.  I’m a nut for licorice, you see.  Always have been.  Love the whips, twists, shoestrings, Australian, salty, All-Sorts.  You name it as long as it’s black or red.  I prescribed myself thousands of Good & Plenty “pills” as a kid.  I’ve eaten enough black licorice in my life to risk the consequences of this poor fellow’s habit.

[Author’s note: Any licorice with a color other than black or red does not deserve to be called “licorice”. Green Apple?  Blue Raspberry?  Watermelon?  B-L-E-C-H.  Those colors are fully inferior to the candy.  They’re also trying to tango solo, which we’ve already established as awkward.]

“Go Bucs!”

Despite my overconsumption of black & red licorice, live and breathe I continue to do.  And my two-color tango images are unfailingly consistent.  Play me a game of checkers?  Pass the licorice.  Red bell pepper and black olive added to my salad?  Where’s the licorice?  Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football?  Fill the snack bowl with licorice.  Venomous eastern coral snake?  WHOA… hang on now.  No licorice image there, not at all.  More like get me the hell outta my brain.

Before I get the coral snake outta my brain, let me pass along a PSA.  The coral snake and the harmless scarlet king snake look remarkably similar with their bands of black, red, and yellow.  If you come across one of these bad boys, try to remember this little “nursery rhyme”:

  • Red Touch Yellow – Kills a Fellow
  • Red Touch Black – Venom Lack
  • Yellow Touch Red – Soon You’ll Be Dead
  • Red Touch Black – Friend of Jack

Fun, huh?  Better yet just look at the snake’s head.  If it’s black, run away.  FAST.

I planned to finish this post with three-color tangos and the images I came up with there.  After all, traffic lights just as often go from green to yellow to red.  Bell peppers.  Macaws.  Skittles candies (“Taste the Rainbow!”)  But let’s be honest; I don’t have those images at all.  Instead, I’m fully focused on speeding through the intersection before the signal wants me to stop.

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

Maker’s Marks

In the 1993 thriller Cliffhanger, the opening scene is truly disturbing. Having summited a mountaintop for a little adventure, young climbers suspend a cable across a deep chasm to a nearby peak, then cross the open space one by one in zip-line fashion. One climber, terrified to cross the void, gets caught in the middle of the fraying cable, holding on by her fingers for dear life. Despite Sylvester Stallone’s valiant efforts, she shockingly loses her grip, plunging untold feet into the abyss. I remember envisioning myself as her and thinking, “I’m going to die”.

Almost sixty years into life as I know it, I have three unforgettable, take-it-to-the-grave moments where I thought, “I’m going to die”.  One of them happened two nights ago.

Returning from a Rockies baseball game in downtown Denver, I drove myself and a friend through a long stretch of interstate road construction.  We chatted about nothing and everything as we eyed the late-night traffic around us.  I’ve driven this stretch countless times, so much so my brain moves to a certain degree of autopilot.  However, I was not prepared for one unexpected moment.  As we ascended a rise in the divided two-lane highway, the lane to our right began to disappear without warning.  Orange cones cut across its width too quickly, with no signage or blinking lights to grab our attention.

All would’ve been fine were it not for the well-lit semi-trailer truck already occupying the disappearing lane.  He was just enough ahead of me he wasn’t going to back off.  I don’t think he could even see my car was occupying the lane into which he was about to merge.  Instinctively, I pressed the brake pedal, but not before realizing how much of his trailer was still trailing my car.  How the back of his trailer didn’t merge directly with the hood of my car is beyond me.  As he swung over into my lane there couldn’t have been two inches between his bumper and mine.

This miracle of a no-accident is an example of a “shoulda died” moment.  The semi was at least four times the length of my car (and three times as high).  It’s safe to say he and his truck would’ve survived the collision (me, not so much).  It’s also safe to say providence of a higher being was present at that very moment.

The two other “shoulda” moments in my life are etched into my brain as clear as crystal.  When I was a kid, I once hit a tennis ball over my neighbor’s fence and into their backyard.  It was easy enough to sneak through their side gate and down the side of their house.  Then I ran into their tall grass to the approximate location of the ball.  Just short of it, I leaped instinctively over a fully coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike.  No question, the most terrifying moment of my young life.  I remember yelling and screaming until our neighbor came out and killed the snake.  “Shoulda died?”  Maybe not, but tell that to a ten-year-old who was sure he’d be bitten by a poisonous snake.  To this day I’m convinced there was an angel nearby telling me to “JUMP!” at just the right moment.

My one other “shoulda” happened in my twenties.  Driving back to my college after a road trip, I fell asleep at the wheel in the early-morning hours of an almost deserted divided highway.  My car drove itself into the road’s grass median at 60 mph, where I awoke to the horrifying realization I was completely out of control.  Struggling to get the car in hand, I swerved this way and that until finally crossing three lanes of oncoming traffic, plunging into a ditch, completely rolling the car, and finally skidding to a stop, adding the flourish of a 180° spin.  How was the hospital?  Never saw it.  I walked away from my totaled car with just cuts and bruises, in an understandable state of shock.  Why wasn’t I hit by oncoming traffic?  Why didn’t I perish in the remains of my car?  Another dose of providence, I think.

We all have one or two of these “shoulda” moments in our lives.  They leave an indelible stamp on our memory as if to say, “Nope, not done with this life just yet.”  Now let’s add “coulda” and “woulda” moments.

“Coulda died” moments are all over the map:

I coulda died if I didn’t catch my balance on the edge of that cliff.

I coulda died if I hadn’t been strong enough to swim out of that riptide.

I coulda died if I rode my bicycle on that busy highway.

And so on.

Woulda died” moments are even worse because you know the life-or-death consequences beforehand.  “Woulda’s” are typically fraught with ignorance.  Choosing to drag race down a busy city street.  Choosing to scale the steep roof of your house in shorts and sandals.  Choosing to act on your road rage.  Have I done any of these “woulda’s” myself?  No. I choose to live instead.

Maker’s Mark is a small-batch bourbon whiskey produced in Loretto, Kentucky by the company Beam Suntory. Maker’s marks, by my definition, are those “shoulda” moments where we emerge on the other side, a sweating bundle of nerves, thankful to be alive.

That semi and I had a “shoulda” moment the other night, but divine providence chose to play a part.

Thanks be to God.

Amending Fences

We’re keeping a close eye on our new neighbor these days.  You see, he’s building a fence on his property.  In most cases the only discussion neighbors have about fences is who pays for what, or how the fence will look on either side.  But this situation’s more complicated.  Our neighbor doesn’t realize the driveway separating he and me is not right on the property line.  If his new fence line marches down his side of the driveway, he’s actually claiming several square yards of our property.

Better left alone

Here’s a story you never hear, certainly not in the United States.  A Belgian farmer was working on his property and decided to move a giant rock in one of his fields.  Several days later, federal authorities knocked on his front door.  Turns out, moving that rock adjusted the border of Belgium.  Our farmer moved one rock (as it turns out, a 300-year-old stone marker) and singlehandedly increased the size of his country by 1,000 square meters.  The very sovereignty of his nation was called into question.  Neighboring France was not thrilled.

So it is with my neighbor.  Unless he has a plot plan on hand he’ll unknowingly increase the size of his property while decreasing mine.  But that’s why we put up fences, right?  A fence specifies property; a literal landmark to indicate, “this is mine”.  That’s just for starters because we use fences for a lot of other reasons.

If I’m guessing right, my neighbor needs a fence to keep horses (or other livestock) between his house and the edges of his property.  His animals will be shut in from adjacent roads and lands.  Good luck with that, friend.  Most people around here seem to have breaks in their fences (if they have fences at all).  Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t post a notice on our neighborhood’s electronic newsletter about animals on the loose.  This morning’s alert concerned a bunch of cows grazing peacefully… on the wrong property.  You can’t blame ’em if “the grass is greener on the other side”, right?

Last week on our vacation to Charleston, South Carolina, we drove down streets full of the town’s characteristic row houses, with tasteful pastel colors and two-story side “piazza” porches.  We also walked by stately antebellum mansions in the waterfront “south of Broad” neighborhood.  Each of these estates was surrounded by high gates and brick walls, an obvious nod to security.  Yes, these palaces were beautiful, but their surrounding “fences” seemed to declare, “keep out”.  So we did.

Here’s another need for fences.  At last Saturday’s Triple Crown Belmont Stakes in New York, the eight thoroughbreds were guided – and in one case pushed – into the starting gate before the race began.  In the split second where the horses were all in a row, each standing in a sort of starting cage, there was structure.  Once they burst out of the gate, all horses and riders shifted to the left, jockeying chaotically for prime position on the rail.  Imagine the start of that race without that starting “fence”.  Disorder with a capital “D”.

Some fences don’t even need a physical definition.  Picture your city streets without lane markings (as if you lived in India).  All cars would tend to compete for the best position, just like those Belmont Stakes horses.  Horns would honk and road rage would rise to new levels.  Roll down your window and throw out any sense of safety.

I leave you with one final fence.  The shuttered Cal Neva Lodge and Casino overlooking Lake Tahoe straddles the border between California and Nevada.  A solid line on the floor splits the dining room and then the swimming pool, to indicate which state you’re dining or soaking in.  Drink on one side of the line; drink and gamble on the other.  I just hope the hotel’s current remodel doesn’t include relocating the pool.  California might become even bigger!

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “Belgian farmer moves border with France by mistake”.

Ice Cream Dreams

Before our vacation in South Carolina last week, I took measures to ensure I was fully prepared for the low country’s late-May heat and humidity. I packed a reliable SPF 30 sunscreen. I purchased a couple of bottles of spray-on insect repellant. I added several hats to the wardrobe. I even brought a USB-chargeable mini-fan, which hangs around the neck, operates at three speeds, and adjusts to just the right angle. But guess what? I didn’t need any of these items in South Carolina last week (for the weather gods were merciful). Instead, I should’ve left it all at home and just brought my bed.

South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”

Is it me getting older or can we all agree on the exceptional value of a good night’s sleep?  For me, it’s a day of brain fog if I don’t get a quality 7.5 hours in la-la land the night before.  When I’m up past midnight (which is never my intention), I know I’m going to pay dearly at 7am the next morning.  Because, I wake up without fail (and without alarm clock) every morning at 7am.  Even if I don’t hit the hay until 3am.

 Stay in a hotel – any hotel – and after one night you’re reminded how the circumstances of quality sleep are frustratingly beyond your control.  My wife and I booked a charming historic inn our first night last week, and what-do-you-know, our bed was just as historic.  The seemingly elegant four-poster contained a lumpy mattress with a few squeaky springs, and a decided slope from my side of the bed to my wife’s.  Throw in the two-hour time change and we tossed and turned like a washing machine’s most violent agitation cycle.

The second day we drove over to Charleston (half asleep), where you’d think a Courtyard-by-Marriott room would deliver the Z’s just a little bit better.  No such luck.  Our fifth-floor corner space included two windows with not-so-blackout curtains.  Our first night’s sleep was interrupted by the hotel fire alarm, triggered because one of the elevators malfunctioned.  The rest of our night’s sleeps were interrupted by the several amped-up bachelorettes and wedding parties resident in the hotel.  Finally, we were adjacent to the fire exit stairs, with a bangy access door used constantly… because of the malfunctioning elevator.

Once upon a time, I was happy just to afford a bed to sleep in.  But over the years I’ve developed a respect for the crucial elements of quality sleep.  A comfortable mattress is worth the max you can afford to pay.  A mattress where you can raise/lower the head and foot is even better.  Make the room pitch black (which in our case includes a small piece of cardboard to block the fireplace pilot flame).  Adjust the temp to the high sixties °F.  Invest in a white noise machine.  And table the electronic devices and alcohol several hours before bedtime.

If there was a plus side to my Charleston sleep, it was this.  We discovered a very good ice cream place within walking distance of the hotel.  Don’t know about you but ice cream does wonders for my sleep.  Specifically, my dreams.  Maybe it’s the sugar or maybe it’s just the late-night munchies, but I’m guaranteed all kinds of REM-sleep adventures when I’ve had ice cream.  Some are haunted-house scary, others earn a movie-theater R-rating, and still others are a jumbled hodgepodge of individual memories making no sense when thrown together.  Whatever the subject, my ice cream dreams are a ton of fun.  They also disappear from memory as fast as the ice cream did the night before.  I’m not one of those who greet you at breakfast with, “You’re not gonna believe what I dreamed about last night!”  Because I’ve already forgotten.

Dreams are the topic of an entire post and alas, I’ve already used up my typical word count this time around.  But let me leave you with some dreamy trivia.  The average person enjoys three to five dreams a night.  Like me, most people quickly forget their dreams the moment they wake up.  Dreams last longer as the night progresses.  The older you get, the less you dream.  Finally, for all we know about the brain, we know next to nothing about dreaming.

I can’t fit a bed in my suitcase so I already know the next time I travel means quality sleep stays behind.  But maybe I’ll pack a little ice cream on dry ice.  If I can’t get my usual dose of Z’s, the least I can do is enjoy a forgettable sweet dream or two.

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

Gadgets… Be Gone!

The defining elements of the 1970s included disco music, bell-bottom pants, and really big sunglasses. You had block-long lines at gas stations thanks to the “Energy Crisis”, President Nixon’s resignation because of Watergate, and the long-overdue wrap of the Vietnam War. People preferred their clothes and cars in bright colors, their hair shaggy. I don’t remember much of this stuff, since I was only a budding teenager. But I’ll never forget my very first audio cassette tape deck.

90 minutes of songs in your pocket

You’re seeing obituaries in the news these days for noteworthy people of the 1970s.  Fifty years ago these people were generally in their thirties or forties; a reasonable age to invent something.  So it didn’t surprise me to read about Lou Ottens, who died in March at the age of 94.  Ottens was an engineer for the Philips Corporation.  Never knew him, never heard of him, but I’m forever grateful he invented the compact cassette audiotape.

[Millennials, roll back the clock on music media.  From your digital subscriptions, pass through Blu-Ray and DVD, then compact disc (CDs), until you finally land in the 1970s and the compact cassette audiotape.  If you made it to long-play (LP) vinyl records you went a little too far.]

Cassette tapes were a sensation in the 1970s because not only were they pants-pocket-portable, they were recordable.  Me and my cassette deck spent many an afternoon capturing Top-40 hits off the local FM radio station (Barry Manilow!  Helen Reddy!)  Then I’d store my precious cassettes in their little suitcase, which could hold twenty or thirty inside plastic cases.  Add in the invention of the Sony Walkman at the end of the decade (the first handheld cassette player) and you’ve got a broad overview of 1970s music media.

1970s chic

I did have a Walkman somewhere along the way, but the better memories come with my tabletop cassette deck (like the one shown here).  It lived on the desk in my bedroom, with its square speaker and giant pushbuttons, a precursor to today’s boom box.  It ate the occasional cassette tape with relish, and background noise always accompanied recordings off the radio, but my tape deck was still fairly state-of-the-art for the 1970s.  It only weighed a couple of pounds including the four C batteries.  The pop-out handle made for easy carry.

Lou Otten’s passing speaks to how many inventions, no matter how novel or cutting-edge, are sooner or later kaput.  Like the wax occupants of Madame Tussauds, you know your useful life has passed when you’d be better off in a museum.  So how about a few more inventions from my childhood years – once useful but now “almost gone”?

1960s

  • magnetic stripe card (smartphones are saying, “move over”)
  • plasma display panel (PDP)
  • handheld calculator (just ask Siri now)
  • 8-track cartridge (whoa, that’s ancient history)
  • Liquid Paper
Soon to be kaput

1970s

  • Pong (one of the earliest arcade video games)
  • floppy disk (removable computer file storage)
  • portable GPS device
  • cell phone (audio calls, nothing else)
  • videocassette recorder/player (VCRs)
“Floppy” file storage

I was just as curious to check out the decades of my parents’ childhood.  What inventions from their formative years are no longer?

1930s

  • Polaroid photography (in its original form)
  • IBM electric typewriter
  • coin-operated parking meter (now accepts credit cards)
  • drive-in movie theater (making a COVID-era comeback, perhaps?)
  • twist-tie (now built into your kitchen trash bag)

1940s

  • aerosol spray can (can we at least agree, these need to go?)
  • Slinky and Silly Putty (not today’s child’s toy of choice)
  • atomic bomb (let’s just pretend these are obsolete, shall we?)
  • lp phonograph record
  • jukebox
Early-model boombox

Last summer I went through a few neglected boxes in the garage and found a few of my old audiocassette tapes.  I keep a still-kicking boombox in the garage (for AM radio baseball games), with a dusty cassette tape player in the middle.  One afternoon I popped in one of those old tapes, pressed PLAY, and behold: John Denver was alive and singing again.  The music was as crisp and clear as 1970.

So give it up for Lou Ottens.  Not only did he design audiocassette tapes, he designed those little guys to last!

Some content sourced from the Hackaday.com article, “RIP Lou Ottens, Developer of the Compact Cassette and More”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Polishing the Pearls

Twice a day, my toothpaste tube and I do battle.  When I take the tube out of the medicine cabinet and realize there’s only a little bit left, I can see it smirking as if to say, “You’re not getting any more out of ME!”  Yeah, right.  I just flatten it from one end to the other (I recommend a hairbrush here), forcing every last bit of paste to gather at the top, ready to launch.  Then I take off the cap and squeeze like crazy.  It’s a good workout for the hands, and a mindless challenge to extend the life of your toothpaste.

Speaking of toothpaste – yep, that’s my topic today – here’s a really good trivia question.  In the Roald Dahl classic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, what did Charlie’s dad do for a living?  He screwed the caps onto toothpaste tubes… before machines were invented to do the job for him.  (He also died before the first paragraph and was never part of the story, so it’s a little weird I remember that bit.  But I digress.)

Quick, name the first ingredient you think of in toothpaste.  Flouride?  Not a bad guess, but did you know fluoride makes up only a tenth of a percent of toothpaste?  That’s like a pinprick on the tip of your finger.  Flouride is potent, my friends.  Good for healthy enamel but only in itty-bitty doses.  Keep those chemicals close, but not too close.

Was your first ingredient surfactants?  A surfactant is basically a “foaming agent”, which helps distribute the paste around the inside of your mouth, which translates to better cleaning.  Surfactants remind me of those animated scrubbing bubbles you’d see in TV commercials, whirling around the bathtub surface.  You also find them in shampoos and conditioners.  Without surfactants, most of the hairs on your head would get clean and conditioned, but others would be left high and dry.

“Minty fresh!”

How about flavorants – you know, peppermint, spearmint, wintergreen, or cinnamon?  If flavorants were the first ingredient you thought about with toothpaste, go directly to Jail (i.e. do not pass GO, do not collect $200).  Flavorants do zilch for your teeth.  They just make brushing a more pleasant experience and fool you into thinking you have a fresher mouth when you’re done.  You might as well chew gum.  The sugarless kind, that is.

Okay, let’s cut to the chase.  The primary ingredient in toothpaste is abrasives (and if this was your answer, you win a free dental drill).  Abrasives make up 50% of what’s inside the toothpaste tube.  They’re “designed to help remove plaque” (remember that phrase).  Think of abrasive-laden toothpaste as liquid sandpaper.  Abrasives are the reason you don’t want to swallow toothpaste.  And don’t brush too hard either.  With enough pressure, these bad boys would be happy to remove your enamel.

Toothpaste also has grit

I could list even more toothpaste ingredients (ex. antibacterial agents, whiteners, re-mineralizers), but let’s just agree: there’s a big, diverse party going on inside the tube.  Now for the bad news.  Toothpaste has no significant impact on the reduction of plaque – so says certain clinical studies. That’s why abrasives are described as “designed to help remove”.  That’s a sneaky way of saying they just keep things in check until your next appointment with the dentist.  Sorry (Charlie), no amount of brushing can replace those nasty power tools your hygienist has so much fun using.

For all my talk about toothpaste ingredients, the brand I use has very few.  Earthpaste (“Amazingly Effective!”) has no fluoride, no foaming agents, and almost no flavor.  In fact, Earthpaste has only four ingredients – water, clay, salt, and essential oils.  It’s like brushing with mud.  Wait, it IS brushing with mud!  Just as effective, without the chemicals (subtle plug).  You’ll find it on Amazon.

So all this talk about toothpaste may be important, but so is getting every last bit out of the tube.  And there may finally be a solution to that battle.  The very smart peeps at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed an edible product called LiquiGlide.  It’s invisible (which okay, is a little disturbing), and it’s designed to coat the inside of a container so the contents will completely empty with just gravitational pull.  Can you imagine?  No more flattening, squeezing, or hand workouts.  Just upend the tube and 100% of the product comes pouring out.  Get-your-money’s-worth people like me silently rejoice.

LiquiGlide’s proof is in the pudding, er – ketchup.  No more smacking or shaking the bottle.  No more “An-ti-ci-pay-yay-tion” (for those of you who remember the 1970s Heinz jingle).  Our future ketchup bottles and toothpaste tubes will be transparent – and empty – by the time they head to the recycling bin.

Unfortunately, I’d have to give up my Earthpaste and move to Europe if I want to experience the benefits of LiquiGlide.  (The company has no immediate plans to sell its products in North America).  That’s not gonna happen, so until further notice you’ll find me in the bathroom, doing battle with my toothpaste tube.  It’s not so much about getting my teeth clean.  It’s about getting my money’s worth.

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “How MIT could help you pour ketchup”, the CNN.com article, “Colgate’s new toothpaste tube…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.