Wings and Prayers

One of the must-sees on a visit to Colorado Springs is the campus of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). Besides a training ground for our future servicemen and women, the Academy hosts a high school, an airfield, two golf courses, and a cohesive campus of modernist buildings spread across 18,500 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front Range. But one structure stands prouder and taller than anything else on the property. Welcome to the USAFA Cadet Chapel.

USAFA Cadet Chapel

If you’re following my blog posts on architecture (as I complete my LEGO Fallingwater model), you’ll recall Thorncrown Chapel from a few weeks back.  The USAFA Cadet Chapel is a much bolder animal, dominating the academy campus skyline and easy to see from miles around.  Instead of Thorncrown’s wood and glass, the Cadet Chapel boasts an impressive open structural steel frame, married with tall triangular stained glass windows.  The main sanctuary is big enough to seat 1,200 (or about 25% of the USAFA student body); more like a church than a chapel.  Frankly, the only thing the Cadet Chapel has in common with Thorncrown is its design inspiration: France’s Sainte-Chapelle.

Fighter jets all in a row?

The distinctive feature of the USAFA Cadet Chapel is its seventeen spires, marching from one end of the building to the other.  The bold design, by architect Walter Netsche, took a little getting used to when the doors opened in 1962.  Visitors described the structure as a giant accordion made of triangles.  I describe it, more fittingly, as a series of fighter jets standing on their tails.

If you haven’t visited the Cadet Chapel you probably don’t know its biggest secret.  It’s a chapel for all faiths.  The main sanctuary is just the top floor of a multi-level structure.  Hidden below, you’ll find individual chapels for Catholics (500 seats), Jews (100 seats), Muslims, and Buddhists.  You’ll even find two “all-faiths rooms” and an outdoor area for “Earth-Centered Spirituality” (reserved for you Pagans and Druids).  It’s safe to say your acceptance into the Academy has nothing to do with who or how you choose to worship.

USAFA Catholic chapel (lower level)

The Cadet Chapel is a structural marvel, assembled from precisely one hundred prefabricated tetrahedral panels.  Over the years its popularity has grown to where it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.  That’s the good news.  Now for the bad.  The original design called for a series of gutters to transfer water away from the building, instead of streaming directly down its panels.  But the gutters were scrapped due to budget constraints…

Mistake.

Sixty years of caulking and recaulking leaks finally forced the Academy to close the chapel for remodeling in 2019.  Now for the really bad news… they’re still not finished with the repairs.  In fact, you won’t be able to walk through the doors for another four years.  What’s taking so long?  Adding all those gutters, the ones that were supposed to be there in the first place.

The Cadet Chapel is “boxed” until 2027

One more bit of bad news (the fighter jets are really nosediving).  Getting construction workers to the tops of the chapel spires meant building an entire hangar-like structure around the chapel.  No joke – they put the whole building in a box.  In other words, not only can you not walk through the doors, you can’t even see the Cadet Chapel today.  Trust me, absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Mark your calendar for 2027, because you really need to see the USAFA Cadet Chapel.  It’s the only place I know where a (jet) wing and a prayer can be found in the same place.

Now for the latest on LEGO Fallingwater…

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LEGO Fallingwater – Update #4  (Read how this project got started in Perfect Harmony)

I’m starting to wish I’d built Fallingwater before the LEGO Grand Piano, so you’d see me taking on a greater challenge versus the other way around.  30 pages (or 33%, or 118 minutes) into the build, this is what we have:

Pretty much the same as last week.  We added some landscape to the left side (the green/brown pieces), more landscape along the back, and we raised the foundation a little higher up off the water.  We have yet to see any of the distinctive house itself.  Not so adventurous.

What IS adventurous is sifting through 800 tiny pieces.  There’s no logic in how they were bagged (thanks, LEGO!) so I end up just spilling everything out onto the desk, searching for a lot of minutes followed by building for a few minutes.  Tedious?  Heck no, this is a blast.  If “tedious” entered my brain I’d have no business building LEGO models.

LEGO Gamble House by Grant W. Scholbrock

Props to my college buddy Bruce for sharing this photo, an example of a custom LEGO build… and one you can’t buy.  It belongs in a museum if you ask me.  There are pedestrian model builders (yours truly) and then there are professionals.  Way to go, Grant!

Tune in next Thursday as construction continues!  Now for another nod to Frank Lloyd Wright…

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

I’m not a big fan of museums.  Maybe that’s because, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, a lot of them look like “Protestant barns”.  No wonder New York City’s Guggenheim Museum is radically different.  When Wright set out to design it in 1943 he vowed to “make the building and the paintings a symphony such as never existed before in the World of Art”.

I can’t describe “The Goog” any better than the website of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.  Their words: “… a white ribbon curled into a cylindrical stack that grows continuously wider as it spirals upwards towards a glass ceiling.” In other words, you the visitor climb in circles ever-ascending, enjoying the art as you go.  The Guggenheim was the first museum design where the “physical home” played an important role in the experience of the art itself.  If you’ve ever been to a museum that deserves a similar description, you have the Guggenheim to thank.

LEGO Guggenheim

In closing I ask, is the Goog significant enough to earn a spot in the LEGO Architecture series of models?  Why yes, it is!

Some content sourced from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website, and  Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Get Your Feet Wet!

I love urban plazas where water jets through an array of holes at ground level, creating fountains and arcs at random. Watching kids run and play in the midst of these unpredictable showers brings a smile. It’s also a creative way to cool off. Down in Texas, where it always seems to be hot, they’ve created an entire garden of water, where you can get your feet wet in all sorts of ways. Welcome to Fort Worth’s Water Gardens.

Fort Worth Water Gardens

Maybe you don’t think of an outdoor venue as “architecture” but the fact is you don’t need walls and a ceiling to define space.  The Water Gardens are a perfect example.  This city block oasis pops up (er, down), unexpectedly as you pass through the urban grid of Fort Worth.  Most of the park is hidden below street level but you can’t miss the rising mist and symphony of moving water.  It’s a celebration of sorts, urging you to join in on the fun.  The few photos I share here don’t begin to do it justice.

The Water Gardens challenge my logical brain because there’s no rhyme or reason to their haphazard design.  Maybe that’s the point.  Wander, gaze, and “soak in” their five acres.  The Gardens are a multi-faceted experience of water.  Phillip Johnson (one of America’s foremost architects), and John Burgee (a graduate of my own university) designed the Water Gardens to include “… pathways, wayside stops, events, and hideaways to draw out the experience, to convey more of the sense of a Central Park… than its limited acreage would’ve suggested possible.”  That may be saying a lot about a little, but consider the Gardens’ offerings:

Quiet Pool

The “Quiet Pool” sits at the base of twenty-foot walls.  Water descends almost silently down the stone from a trough above.  Deep in the Gardens by the pool itself, you’re so far below ground level it’s as if the city has somehow been relocated far, far away.

Aerated Pool

The “Aerated Pool” is a nod to the water jets I mentioned above.  Forty nozzles create an “orchard” of water in this smaller pool, the tops of the “trees” reaching back to the ground level of the city above.

The “Mountain” is a series of stepped concrete terraces, descending to a corner of the park removed from the water elements.  Sitting on the Mountain is almost like being blindfolded.  You can hear the rush of the Water Gardens nearby; you just can’t see them.

Active Pool. Watch your step!

The “Active Pool” is the largest and most distinctive feature of the Water Gardens, literally a canyon through which the water streams and falls, terminating in a pool thirty-eight feet below the ground.  A series of open steps dares you to descend through the water from top to bottom (check out this video for a sense of the experience).  The Active Pool gained notoriety in the final scene of the movie Logan’s Run, as the inhabitants of the dystopian city climb into the outdoors for the very first time.

The major elements of the Water Gardens are tied together by a central plaza, where you can experience everything from one location.  But to do so would betray the Gardens’ intent.  They’re meant to be a moving experience, much as the water itself rushes, mists, and pools throughout.

Architecture is structured, while landscape is unstructured.  Blend the two and the result can be unlike anything you’ve seen before.  The Water Gardens beckon you to escape, to wander, to contemplate, and most importantly, to get your feet wet.  Will you accept their invitation?

Now for the latest on LEGO Fallingwater…

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LEGO Fallingwater – Update #2  (Read how this project started in Perfect Harmony)

The instruction manual for LEGO Fallingwater includes about ninety pages for the assembly, so I figured I’d divide the build into nine equal parts.  In the spirit of today’s topic, I proceeded to “dive in”.

Heaven help me.

You see, the 3,000+ pieces of the LEGO Grand Piano were separated into twenty-one numbered bags.  Build one bag at a time – easy-peasy.  On the other hand, the 800+ pieces of the LEGO Fallingwater model are separated arbitrarily into nine bags, with no indication of what piece is where.  It’s like opening a jigsaw puzzle and realizing every piece looks almost exactly the same.

This scene is even scarier when you click to zoom in…

I took a photo of my desk so you could see how much chaos I created on my first day.  Did I open all nine bags in search of pieces?  Yes, I did.  Did I consider just dumping all of the pieces into a big pile so I could search in one place? Yes (but I was afraid there was good reason they’re separated into nine bags).  Did I build part of the model wrong and have to backtrack?  Absolutely (and thank goodness for that little orange wrench you see next to the scissors.  It came with the LEGO Grand Piano and unsnaps pieces that are snapped together incorrectly).

Ten pages (or 11%, or 49 minutes) into the build, this is what we have.  We’re looking at Fallingwater from the same angle as the photo above, only all we’ve got is the lowest perimeter foundation wall and a spill of waterfall and creek emerging from the front corner.  Not very exciting.  Tune in next Thursday as the construction continues.  Now for another nod to Frank Lloyd Wright…

Romeo and Juliet Windmill

For all of his famous residential and commercial projects, Frank Lloyd Wright had plenty of lesser-known designs, such as the Romeo and Juliet Windmill in Wyoming, WI.  The tower was commissioned by Wright’s aunts, to pump water to a nearby school where they taught.  You might describe its shingle-clad look as quaint but in fact, the design is intentional.  The taller piece in the rear (“Romeo”) serves as structural support to counter the prevailing winds of the area.  Romeo also contains the mechanics of the windmill and water pump.  The cupola-topped octagonal piece in front (“Juliet”) is largely ornamental and softens the look of the tower when observed from further down the hillside.  Neither part of the tower can really stand on its own, hence the name “Romeo and Juliet”.

Some content sourced from the website for Fort Worth Parks and Trails, and from Johnson/Burgee: Architecture, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Crowned Jewel

A little south and a little west of our downtown proper, you’ll find a wide street with stately old homes. The homes sit to the back of their properties, playing second fiddle to lines of majestic oak trees closer to the street. Overhead, the tree branches are densely intertwined, barely allowing the sun to peek through, creating a cozy, comforting canopy as you drive through. It’s a look that could’ve inspired the design of Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Thorncrown Chapel

When I gushed about Fallingwater in last week’s Perfect Harmony, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit some of my favorite American architecture as I share the adventure of my LEGO model build.  Were it not for my architecture degree in college I probably wouldn’t be aware of these beautiful structures.  Instead, all these years later I can recall my favorites from memory.  They’re a diverse bunch but I think they exemplify almost-perfect spaces, thanks to the work of the architect behind the scenes.

Thorncrown Chapel is an appropriate choice to lead off my list.  Just like Fallingwater, the chapel’s intent is to bring the outside in so that worship (or weddings, or any other celebration) feels as if you’re one with nature, yet with the conveniences and comfort of an enclosed space.  Thorncrown was built in 1980 (by coincidence, my freshman year of college).  Its architect, E. Fay Jones, turned a childhood interest in treehouses into a decorated career, including an apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright.  Fay Jones’ designs “focused primarily on the intimate rather than the grandiose“.  Hence, chapels.

As a disciple of Wright (and the only one to win the American Institute of Architect’s [AIA] prestigious Gold Medal), it’s no surprise Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel design is reminiscent of Wright’s Prairie School houses, with its broad overhanging eaves, horizontal lines,  and deliberate integration with the landscape.  Thorncrown contains 425 individual windows.  Those with stained glass bring in so much colored light the chapel’s interior is often described as “jewel-like”.

As with Fallingwater, Thorncrown is constructed of organic materials, including Southern pine and flagstone from the surrounding area.  The chapel seats 100 and is non-denominational, intended more for meditation for those who make the pilgrimage to Eureka Springs (in other words, go see it!)  For all of the beautiful structures you’ll find in America over the last forty years, the AIA has given Thorncrown the distinction of “best American building constructed since 1980”. 

Sainte-Chapelle

Despite my longtime familiarity with Thorncrown, I never thought to wonder how it got its name.  Turns out, Thorncrown’s design was not only inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright but also by Sainte-Chapelle, the Gothic church in Paris, France.  And at some point in its history, Sainte-Chapelle supposedly housed the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ.

If your wanderings ever bring you to the northwest corner of Arkansas, take time to visit this crowned jewel of a chapel.  Whether it strikes you as a treehouse or a miniature cathedral, being in church will never feel so comforting and cozy.

Now then, let’s turn our attention to (LEGO) Fallingwater, shall we?

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Fallingwater – Update #1

As with the LEGO Grand Piano, the first step in the build is to simply open the box and assess the contents.  Here’s what is immediately apparent about the LEGO Fallingwater model:

  1. The finished product will look much more like LEGO than the Grand Piano looks like a miniature piano.  I can’t pinpoint the date LEGO first produced its Fallingwater model but it must’ve been years before the Grand Piano, with pieces more in line with basic LEGO blocks.  I mean, check out the photo below.  Would you believe this inventory of boring little pieces comes together as a house over a waterfall?
  2. The Fallingwater model will be completed much faster than the Grand Piano.  The design is intricate, yes, and we’re still talking about thousands of pieces, but the instruction manual hints at a much easier assembly.  I won’t have those heartstopping moments like I did with the Piano, where I realized I’d built a section backwards.  (Then again, my LEGO-building confidence may be getting the best of me.)
  3. The Piano was interesting to look at even as it was coming together.  Fallingwater… not so much.  Under construction it’ll look like haphazard piles of LEGO bricks.  Not exactly riveting to you the reader.  Instead, as I did with the Piano and classical music, I’ll cover a few of Frank Lloyd Wright’s other designs, so you gain a better appreciation for the diversity of his life’s work.

Next week, “groundbreaking”!

Some content sourced from the official Thorncrown website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Perfect Harmony

In the toe of my wife’s Christmas stocking this year, I nestled a small gift to help her sleep. It’s a travel version of one of those sound machines, where you can dial up anything from rain to ocean waves to lull you off to Never Never Land. You can even mimic a waterfall, which would be my personal choice. After all, it’s the same sound the Kaufmann family enjoyed for years at their stunning retreat in the Pennsylvania forest, southeast of Pittsburgh. Seeing this famous house is an entry on my bucket list. Yes, one of these days I will make the trek to Fallingwater.

If you’re old enough to remember, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, you know the song’s about more than just apple trees and honey bees.  It’s about “perfect harmony”, which is how anyone would describe Fallingwater.  This beautiful structure is exactly as named: a house on top of a waterfall.  It is considered one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest achievements.  The design is a melding of interior and exterior spaces, a principle borrowed from the Japanese.  Fallingwater is a building, yes, but it’s more often described as “… harmony between man and nature”.

If you know anything about Wright, you know he was an eccentric architect.  When the Kaufmann’s called to stop by his studio for a progress report, Wright hadn’t even begun the drawings.  Yet by the time they arrived two hours later, Wright had completed the entire design.  This production under pressure reminds me of author Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a novel written in just nine days and considered one of Bradbury’s greatest works.

The genius of Fallingwater’s design is in the details, or perhaps the lack of them.  The house is constructed of reinforced concrete, stone, and glass.  Its interior spaces are small and dark, encouraging more time spent outdoors.  The sound of water can be heard everywhere, whether from the stream and waterfall below or from the natural spring allowed to drip along one of the hallways.  Fallingwater’s distinctive cantilevered terraces are meant to resemble nearby rock formations, extending in every direction to the forested surroundings.  Its dramatic perch on top of the waterfall is hidden from the approach to the house, lending to a sense of modesty.

Fallingwater brings the outdoors in wherever possible, and its best example may be a ledge-shaped rock in the living room, left undisturbed in its original location.  The surrounding stone floor is waxed while the ledge is left plain and dull, creating the look of a rock protruding from a stream.  A stair descends from the same room, several steps down to a platform whose function is to simply admire the stream.  From photos, you’d believe Fallingwater was constructed entirely offsite and dropped gently within the forest by pushing aside a few tree branches.

Today, Fallingwater is a National Historic Landmark.  You can tour the house and grounds with the purchase of a ticket at the visitor’s information website.  If I were to visit, it’d be a ten-hour drive from where I live.  That’s not going to happen anytime soon.  Instead, I will build Fallingwater; literally.  It is a model in the LEGO Architecture series and I am lucky to own a copy.  As I tell my family, there are only two LEGO models I’ve ever wanted to build: the Grand Piano (completed last year and blogged about here), and Fallingwater.  It’s a new year and it’s time to get started.

I’ll bring you along for the ride as my miniature Fallingwater takes shape in my home office.  You can look for updates at the end of the next several posts.  Eight hundred pieces from now, when all is said and done, I may borrow that little sleep aid I gave my wife for Christmas.  After all, no house built on top of a waterfall would be complete without the sounds to go with it.  Remember, we’re talking (er, singing) about perfect harmony here.

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

Big Shoes to Fill-y

Last Sunday, the day before Halloween, our neighborhood hosted a lively parade. Kids of all ages dressed in adorable to “a-horror-full” costumes, to trick-or-treat past each driveway… on horseback. In a bit of a role reversal, we residents walked treats out to the horses and riders (because trust me, a stallion trotting up your front walk is not recommended). Candy for the kids, cookies for the parents who walked beside them, and carrots for the hardworking horses. As you would expect, a steady “clip-clop” filled the air for hours. Yet it could’ve been a lot quieter.

Here’s an idea I never ever would’ve thought of.  Take a pair of sneakers, break them down into their component parts, and reassemble them to fit a horse’s hoof.  Making a statement of purely fashion (vs. function), Horse Kicks allow your equine to sport two pairs of your favorite New Balance, Adidas, or Nikes. These giant “tennis shoes” are built on top of a pre-made protective boot so they really do support an animal weighing a thousand pounds or more.  Order yours today for only $1,200.

Sorry, I’m not buying.  I don’t think sneakers are a good look on horses, any more than when paired with formalwear on a human.  If a filly could talk, she would say, “Get those ridiculous things off of me!”, even though ladies love shoes.  Sneakers are best left to walkers and athletes, while steel horseshoes, as they have for thousands of years, fill a horse’s bill as comfortably as a couple of pairs of flip-flops (er, “clip-clops?”)

I can’t imagine the effort it takes for Horse Kicks to create their shoes (besides the seventeen hours of assembly time) but they don’t work nearly as hard as a traditional horseshoer.  That person, a farrier, might as well be an ironworker.  Watch one in action sometime as he/she trims a horse’s hoof or hammers the steel shoes to achieve the perfect fit.  It’s the kind of backbreaking work that can lead to early retirement.

Occasionally a horse throws a shoe, which is probably the origin of horseshoes as a game.  The first time I “threw a shoe”- besides getting it nowhere near the stake – I remember thinking, “Man, these are kind of heavy”. (A horse wouldn’t agree.)  And weight matters in the game because the shoe needs to fly a long way, like forty feet, for the chance for a “ringer”.  Yes, horseshoes is basic (and predates similar games like ring toss, cornhole, and bocce) but it has its finer points.  You flip a shoe to determine who goes first.  After players throw two shoes each you’ve completed an “inning”.  And a “dead ringer” really is a horseshoes term (too complicated to explain here), not just someone who looks like someone else. 

[Snack break.  Speaking of horseshoes, if you’re looking for “the best darn donuts in Colorado” you should check out Horseshoe Donuts, where we used to live just north of Colorado Springs.  You’ll pay upwards of $25/dozen but trust me, these shoes… er, doughnuts are huge and worthy of expensive tastes.  Most are shaped like traditional rings but the raised, glazed variety are giant horseshoes.]

Even if I never buy a pair of Horse Kicks, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.  You’ll probably see several on display this weekend at the Breeder’s Cup races in Lexington, KY (close to where they’re created).  Part of the company’s initiative is to “bring awareness to the Bluegrass State”.  And 10% of the proceeds go to central Kentucky charities.  All of which makes Horse Kicks a worthy product.  Not that I expect to see any in next year’s neigh-h-h-h-borhood trick-or-treat parade.  It’ll be, as usual, clip-clops in steel flip-flops.

Some content sourced from the CNN Style article, “You can now buy $1,200 sneakers — for horses”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Drinkin’ Problem

Thanks to social media, product advertising is a complex challenge these days. Hiring an “agency” no longer suffices, at least not for major corporations. They depend on “brand builders” instead – Interbrand, for example. Interbrand boasts “…a global team of thinkers and makers [encouraging] bold moves to leap ahead of customers and competitors.” Interbrand also values the companies they help build. On their list, well inside the top ten: Coca-Cola.

My brothers and I gathered in Atlanta last week for a semi-annual reunion.  Our initial stop wasn’t Coca-Cola’s world headquarters but rather, its popular “World of Coca-Cola” tour.  If you haven’t walked through these doors, Coke has turned an impressive three-story building into a glittery three-ring circus to promote its products, with a side of historical context.  As if Coke needs more promotion.  The genius of this soft drink, as we learn on the tour, is the relentless, boundless effort to put Coke’s brand everywhere imaginable.  Cans, clothing, and cars, just to name a few.  But pixels?

Here’s a weird suggestion.  Go into your home laboratory, create a flavor, and label it something that doesn’t have a flavor.  This is Coke’s latest go-to gimmick to retain market share.  Coca-Cola Zero Sugar “Byte” has come and gone (limited-edition products are another way to retain market share) and you probably didn’t have a taste. And what does “data” taste like?  According to drinkers it’s pretty much the same as Coke Zero, adding in the sensation of the old “Pop Rocks” candy.

Coca-Cola also developed “Coke Starlight”, somehow determining the taste of “outer space”.  Drinkers said it tasted like Coke with an aftertaste of cereal milk (ewwwww).  Go to the store today and you can purchase the latest of these curiosities: “Coke Dreamworld”, which has been described as “Coke soaked in sour peach rings” (ewwwww again).  As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste… or should I say, with Coca-Cola there’s no caring for taste.  Instead, the bottles and cans promote music, videos, and other products through a QR code.  And there’s the branding concept in a nutshell.  You’re attracted to the purchase because it’s a Coca-Cola product, but the draw is anything but the drink itself.

I shouldn’t be surprised how far the taste of Coke has, uh, evolved in the one hundred and thirty years since its market debut.  The variations on the original formula are myriad, including Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke, and “Coke Zero” (no added sugar but plenty of artificial sweeteners).  Let’s not pretend any of these drinks are actually good for your consumption.  But at least vanilla and cherry are tastes we understand.  Dreams?  Not so much.

“Dreamworld” and the other recent flavors target “gamers and younger audiences”.  My brothers and I saw a lot of kids on the “World of Coca-Cola” tour so maybe the advertising is working.  Regardless, Coca-Cola has a bigger challenge to confront.  Sales of soft drinks are on a serious decline, in favor of bottled water and healthier options.  Coke recently cut its portfolio of soft drinks by fifty percent (bye-bye Tab) in an effort to improve its bottom line.  To me, that’s a sound business strategy.  But flavors that aren’t really flavors?  That’s desperate.

Coca-Cola had a big red flag in the 1980s (appropriate color, no?), one that should’ve discouraged future dabbling with their products.  Who among you doesn’t remember the debacle of “New Coke”? The flavor variation – the first in Coca-Cola’s long history – debuted to rave reviews, with claims it was better than Coke or Pepsi.  But here’s what Coca-Cola didn’t see coming: consumers immediately defended the original flavor.  Instead of buying New Coke, they cleared the shelves of the original flavor for fear it would go away forever.  Begrudgingly (and very quickly), Coca-Cola returned the original flavor to stores under the name “Coke Classic”.  But New Coke never found legs and eventually disappeared from the shelves altogether, while “Coke Classic” returned as simply “Coke”.

” Coke Dreamworld”, as you would expect, features prominently in the “World of Coca-Cola” tour.  The flavor that isn’t a flavor, along with a silly 3-D movie and a giant retail store, targets the youngest of consumers.  But let’s be honest, most people go on the tour for the tasting room, where they can sample Coca-Cola’s products to their heart’s content.  “New Coke” is not among those choices.  Pretty soon I don’t expect to see any flavors-that-aren’t flavors either.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Coke’s latest bizarre flavor is here”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

P.S. I Love You

When it comes to snack foods, I’m not a fan of variations on a theme. Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts debuted in the 1960s with just four flavors: strawberry, blueberry, apple, and brown sugar cinnamon. Today you choose from more than twenty Tarts, including “Hot Fudge Sundae”. The original Triscuit cracker was a baked whole wheat square with a little salt. Today you’ll find a dozen Triscuit flavors on the shelf, including “Fire Roasted Tomato & Olive Oil”. Then we have the Oreo cookie. The original, of course, was two chocolate wafers sandwiching just the right amount of vanilla cream filling. Now Oreo flavors are too numerous to count.  But there’s one you can be sure is a whopping success: pumpkin spice.

 Welcome to mid-September, Americans, and the beginning of our pumpkin spice delirium.  For the next two months you can expect an endless parade of “P.S.” product advertisements.  My wife & I, we’ve already caved to the obsession.  We have a package of “Pumpkin Spice Snaps” sitting on the counter.  We have two leftover pieces of this year’s first homemade pumpkin pie sitting in our frig.  And it’s only a matter of time before my car veers off the road and right through a Starbucks drive-thru for one of their classic P.S. lattes.  (I’ll take a grande, if you please).

My daughter just reminded me Starbucks also brings back their pumpkin cream cold brew this time of year.  That’s a good one too but let’s be real: none of Starbucks’ P.S. offerings should be considered “coffee”.  We buy them for the spice and the sweet, not for the taste of the beans underneath.

Lest you think Starbucks gets the credit for our pumpkin spice mania, the record must be set straight.  McCormick and Company, they of the little red-capped spice bottles, debuted their “Pumpkin Pie Spice” in 1934.  At least three of the following are in the bottle: cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg.  Do I have this spice blend?  Yes.  Do I use it?  Heck, no.  My wife’s family recipe for pumpkin pie contains a different proportion of the individual spices than McCormick’s, which may be the secret to its delectable flavor.  Plus, pumpkin pie is easy enough to make without having the spices combined for you. Dump the ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Pour into a pie shell.  Bake. My kind of dessert.

Starbucks can’t even take the credit for the first P.S. latte.  That accolade goes to Mexico’s Candle Company in 1995.  The Starbucks version debuted eight years later.  But you could argue Starbucks kicked off the forever-trend where we infuse P.S. into everything imaginable, including the good (Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Cheerios, candles) and the ridiculous  (lip balm, deodorant, beer).  As of 2016, “pumpkin spice consumables” accounted for an annual market of over $500M. Yep, we’re hooked.

The “Pumpkin Spice Flavored Creme Oreo” is not even an Oreo, at least not in my pantry.  Nabisco attached the word “Oreo” but c’mon, let’s just admit it’s a seasonal wolf in sandwich cookie clothing.  “Golden” Oreo cookies… with “festive pumpkin spice flavored cream” (and is it cream or creme?)  Nope, the only Oreos in my book are black and white, though I will allow shelf space for the “Double Stuf” variety.

I’m not sure why this topic caught my eye because I haven’t had an Oreo in years.  The last time I did I realized the taste was different from the Oreo of my youth.  The cookies are not as soft, and there’s less cream filling in between (which is like messing with the ratio of chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s, a sin for all mankind).  Like the misfortune of many other snack foods though, size and ingredients change for the sake of profit.  And new varieties pop up to keep consumers buying.  At least we’re not talking about the Lady Gaga Oreo.  You’ll need your sunglasses for that one.

Now you’ll excuse me as I head off to a doctor’s appointment.  My drive will take me past several Starbucks, which means I could be caving to my first P.S. latte of the season.  Not that I’m worried about missing out.  As soon as the P.S. season is over I can look forward to Starbucks’ Chestnut Praline latte all the way through New Year’s Day.  Now we’re talking!

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Oreo is bringing back this flavor after a 5-year hiatus:, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Local Fare for the Win

When you pick up and move to a new town 1,500 miles from where you used to live, “getting the house in order” is a little overwhelming. Thirty years in the same spot creates a lot of favorite “thises” and preferred “thats”. So whenever my wife & I step away from the endless unpacking, we’re trying out supermarkets, large-animal vets (for the horses), and restaurants, to figure out which ones best replace those we chose time and time again in Colorado. And here’s what we’ve quickly discovered about life in the South (of the U.S.): good Mexican food is a tough ask.

Pizza as it should be

Let’s take a bit of a detour. (Don’t worry; we’ll be back on the main highway before you know it.)  In a surprisingly candid post from fellow blogger Brilliant Viewpoint, her recent trip to Rome and Florence determined pizza – at least the classic Italian version of the pie – is not what it used to be.  The writer suggested the crusts are like cardboard, the mozzarella chunky and unappetizing, and the pizza itself a little soggy.  Having spent a college year in Italy (when I survived on pizza and not much else), I found her conclusions shocking.  Maybe this is why Domino’s – they of the generic-but-convenient home-delivered product in America – decided to give Italy a try?  It’s true.  In 2015, a Dominos franchise opened several stores across Italia to capture the then non-existent delivery market.  It almost worked.

No matter what the state of Italian pizza these days, Domino’s Pizza stores in this of all countries lands on my “you’ve got to be kidding me” list (alongside Starbucks coffee).  Put yourselves in their shoes to understand the absurdity of it all.  You’re an Italian.  Pizza was invented in your country, which has thousands more years of history than America.  You can choose from any pizzeria on any block of any street in your town and the homemade product will be excellent.  Yet you’re going to call Domino’s to order a mass-produced American knock-off instead?  At least Baskin-Robbins was sensible enough to stay away instead of going head-to-head with gelato.

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn – after a seven-year run – Domino’s Italian franchisee filed for bankruptcy in April.  “Of course“, you say. “Their product just couldn’t compete.”  Well, that’s not quite the story.  It was more about pizza delivery itself.  Remarkably, Italy had very little delivery before the pandemic.  You wanted a pie back then, you went out into the streets and got it.  But just like American restaurants, Italian pizzerias did whatever it took to survive the pandemic years, and that meant delivery to front doors.  Domino’s thought they had the market cornered before they ever entered it.  Next thing they knew, everyone else was doing the same thing.

No matter the reason, I’m happy to say arrivederci to Domino’s Pizza in Italy.  Franchise food doesn’t feel right in a country with so much history and wonderful local food.  Shortly after my college year in the 1980s, I learned a McDonald’s restaurant somehow landed a lease at the base of Rome’s famous Spanish Steps.  That’s like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.  America has much to offer the world, but fast food is not our proudest accomplishment.  I’m not even sure it’s an accomplishment.

Let’s get back to the main highway now.  Up top we were talking about Mexican food… er, the lack of it, in the American South.  It’s true, if our new little town is any indication.  Yes, we have several options to beat a sit-down at Taco Bell, but they’re only a whisper better.  Everything looks and tastes so generic.  What should be salsa roja inside of enchiladas tastes more like pizza sauce.  What should be a margarita with the sublime afterbite of tequila tastes like syrupy lemonade.  The chips might as well be Doritos.  Yet you look around and the restaurant is packed.  These people don’t know what they’re missing, but they seem happy enough.  As a result, just like Dominos, I don’t expect a Mexican restaurant from outside of the region to waltz into town and do well.

My theory on good Mexican food goes like this: the further west and south you go the better it gets.  Colorado and Tex-Mex trump anything east of the Mississippi.  Arizona and Southern California fare trump Colorado and Texas.  In other words, my favorite Mexican place in my new hometown is destined to be close to my front door. In fact, it’s inside my front door.  It’s my kitchen.  Time to start making my own margaritas and enchiladas. 

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Domino’s tried to sell pizza to Italians…”, and the Brilliant Viewpoint blog.

(No) Separation of Church and State

This weekend my wife & I packed up the last of our things and moved from Colorado to South Carolina. We’ve decided the lower elevation and milder temps of the “Palmetto State” make better sense for our retirement. But instead of a moving truck, we trailered the horse (and the dog and the barn cat) along with our suitcases. A half-ton of horse means driving in the slow lane, our top speed 65 mph without blowing a gasket. And driving through Kansas in the slow lane – or any lane for that matter – feels like forever.

The western edge of Kansas, at Interstate 70, is an encouraging starting point as you leave Colorado.  You pass an attractive “Welcome Center”, a convenient place to take a break and learn a little about the “Sunflower State” before you venture further.  More importantly, you notice an immediate improvement in the road conditions.  Kansas, unlike Colorado, not only earmarks tax dollars to keep its highways pristine, the state actually spends those dollars accordingly (instead of dipping into them for other purposes).  Our horse – standing on four legs the entire journey – appreciated the smoother ride, if not the triple-digit temps.

Twenty or thirty miles into Kansas, the sobering reality of America’s Heartland sets in.  For one, you could lay a ruler on the hundreds of miles of Interstate 70 and hardly need a turn of the steering wheel.  For two, you realize every town along the way – save Kansas City to the far east – looks exactly the same.  Water tower. Cell phone tower. Church. Gas station. Fast food. A surround of corn fields. Lather, rinse, repeat.  It’s like someone drew up a generic template of a town and laid it down a couple dozen times along the interstate.  Doesn’t help to keep a slow driver alert, especially when you’re on cruise control.

But suddenly, mercifully, and completely out of nowhere, you see little Victoria, Kansas on the horizon.  Not Victoria, British Columbia (though it might feel like you’re driving all the way to Canada).  Victoria, Kansas, with its mere 1,200 residents and one square mile of town.  And right in the middle of Victoria, rising out of the earth as abruptly as the Rocky Mountains, sits the Basilica of St. Fidelis, better known as the Cathedral of the Plains.

You can probably spy St. Fidelis from fifty miles away as you approach, but you certainly don’t believe what you’re seeing.  Kansas is as flat as a pancake yet Victoria boasts a cathedral worthy of a spot in Rome.  The first time I saw St. Fidelis several years ago (driving a whole lot fast than 65 mph), I thought it was the Kansas heat bringing me a heavenly mirage.  I half expected the clouds to part (even though there weren’t any) and a host of angels to surround those tall twin spires.

But St. Fidelis is a lot more real than a mirage.  It was built in the early 1900s by German and Russian immigrants, each of whom pledged to haul six wagonloads of limestone and another four of sand from nearby quarries.  St. Fidelis predates any kind of construction equipment so the entire structure was raised by hand.  These industrious Kansans knew the meaning of hard work.

St. Fidelis boasts forty-eight handcrafted stained-glass windows, valued at more than $1M.  Its beautiful procession of Romanesque-style arches hovers above marble floors.  The cathedral was “elevated” to the status of Minor Basilica by decree of the Pope in 2014, and earned a place on America’s National Register of Historic Places.  In other words, there’s no separating this church from this state.  Not bad for an old building in a tiny metropolis in the middle of cornfields.  I only wish I’d had the time to exit the interstate and head down to Victoria for a closer look.

The Sunflower State has adopted the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera as its motto.  It means “to the stars through difficulties”, representing the aspirations and hard-working spirit of the state.  I’d say the Cathedral of the Plains is Kansas’ perfect example, wouldn’t you?

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

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”.