Too Much on My Plate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adding Fire to the Fuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas-Colored Glasses

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

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

                

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

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

                

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

               

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

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

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

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

Merry (go) Round Numbers

Smack-dab in the middle of last week the odometer on my car clicked over to 111,111 miles. I noticed the running total around 111,100, so for eleven slow-as-molasses miles I had one eye on the road and the other on the digits. The final mile was an unusually scenic tour of a Costco parking lot, but at long last there it was.  One hundred and eleven thousand, one hundred and eleven, on the nosey.  My phone was already balanced on the steering wheel for the photo. Click!

I know what you’re thinking.  Who keeps an eye on their car’s odometer at all, except when it’s time for an oil change?  Who even knows where their odometer is on the dashboard, what with trip computers and cruise control and all those other digits taking up space?  Well… I do, thank you very much.  I look at my odometer almost as much as my speedometer.  Because I’m searching.  Searching for merry numbers as they go round.  Like 111,111.

It’s a knack for knowing numbers to come, this game.  It’s the reason I didn’t miss the spectacular 98,765.  Or the elegant 48,484.  One glance at the odometer and my brain senses a “fun” number is just around the street corner.  When the final digit clicks into place there’s this little feeling of euphoria.  At least, until I drive another mile.

The numbers-game gene comes from my dad, I’m sure of it.  He has a laser-keen eye for the fun ones.  I still remember when I was a kid, him leaning over in the front seat to my mom and saying, “Marion, look at THAT!” And the mechanical (vs. digital) odometers of his day, they made the moment more dramatic.  Odometers used to count in tenths of a mile, and you’d watch a digit s-l-o-w-l-y slide up and out of view as it expired, to be replaced by a fresh one from below.

Right about now you’re thinking who is this guy and why do I read his posts?  Sorry, we all have our quirks and one of mine is fun numbers.  So here’s another angle.  I remember the zip codes of my childhood neighborhoods as if they’re tattooed on my brain.  90049.  92014.  Also the street addresses.  3349. 2600. 1944.  Even the ten-digit phone numbers.  Today, those zip codes come in handy when I need a short, numeric password, like a locker combination or a luggage lock.  At least zip codes are more unpredictable than 12345.  Disturbingly, 12345 is a popular passcode.  People can be so lazy.

As for the street addresses, four-digit numbers don’t allow for much creativity.  I don’t find myself glued to my bedside digital clock, waiting for 01:23am or even 1:22am (my birthday).  I don’t get a grin out of 11:11 or 4:44.  On the other hand, 9:11 catches my attention way too often.  Nothing fun about that one.

To be clear, I’m not describing obsessive-compulsive behavior (more like get-a-life behavior, right?)  This is just me getting satisfaction out of random numbers.  Numbers OCD is more like – using my wife as the example – turning the radio volume up, but only to the even numbers (as if the odds don’t exist).  Or nightmares about recipes calling for the oven to be set to 351°.  Or countdowns from ten that go “THREE… TWO…”, but “ONE” never comes.  OCD peeps don’t handle those numbers scenarios very well.

Here’s one more numbers game I take a lot of pride in.  My four brothers and I were born in (respectively) 1956, 1958, 1960, 1962 (hello, world), and 1964.  As a result, one of us celebrates a round-numbered birthday every two years.  When the middle brother turned 40 we started gathering together, face-to-face, at a location of the birthday guy’s choosing.  And we’ve done so ten times since, for the rest of the 40’s birthdays, all of the 50’s birthdays, and now into the 60’s birthdays.  Next month we’ll celebrate again (COVID delayed this gathering by a year).  Nice to know I’ll see my brothers every two years from here on “out”.

If you’re still reading to this point, maybe merry, round numbers aren’t the quirk I think they are.  I’m still reveling in the appearance of 111,111 on my odometer last week.  Yes, I might’ve had a little cry when it blinked over to 111,112 a few minutes later.  But that’s okay.  I captured the moment on my phone.  Not to mention, I’ll be targeting 123,456 before I know it.

Arid (and) Extra Dry

Most of us reacted to eighteen months in the unwelcome company of COVID-19 the same. We reflected on our time with Mr. Virus and wondered, “What would we have done more of?” More get-togethers? More travel? More dinners out?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But instead, we hunkered down and waited for things to get better. Our routines became more… routine.  Everything faded to black and white.  Clocks came to a standstill. It’s the same feeling I had, coincidentally, enduring a drive from Colorado to California earlier this month.

My advice: choose “East” while you still can

Maybe you’ve made the trek: Denver to San Diego via Interstate 70 and then Interstate 15.  Sounds so clean and easy, doesn’t it?  Two highways.  Plenty of lanes.  Rocky Mountains on one end and Pacific Ocean on the other.  Yeah, well, it’s all the mind-numbing in-between stuff that makes you want to burst through your sunroof and flag down a helicopter heading west.  There’s a whole lot of nothing in the desert.

The problem with this drive (which was not a flight because my wife & I wanted to bring our bikes) is the beautiful part comes first.  From Denver, it’s four hours of majestic snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, red rock canyons, and breathless (literally) summits as you cruise on over to Grand Junction.  There’s good reason America the Beautiful was penned in the Rockies.

Cruise control suggested here

But don’t get comfortable.  Once you reach Grand Junction (which isn’t so grand), beauty takes a big break.  Pretend you’re a marble inside a rolled-up blanket.  Then someone flips that blanket out and off you go, rolling across the flattest, most desolate desert floor you’ve ever seen.  The mountains reduce to buttes reduce to sand dunes reduce to nothing.  The highway morphs from all sorts of curvy to ruler-straight. Your cell phone signal goes MIA.  You suddenly feel parched.  And you wonder, why-oh-why does the dusty sign say “Welcome to Utah” when there’s nothing welcoming about it at all?

So it goes in middle-eastern Utah.  Every exit is anonymously labeled “Ranch Road” (and why would you want to exit anyway?)  The highway signs counting down the mileage to Interstate 15 march endlessly.  When you finally do arrive at I-15 (your single steering wheel turn the entire journey), you bring out the balloons and the confetti and do a happy dance.  YOU MADE IT ACROSS THE MOON!  Well, sort of.  Now you’re just in central Utah.

I-15 wanders south a couple hours to St. George.  It’s probably a perfectly nice place to live, but St. George reminds me of the Middle East.  Squarish stucco/stone buildings, mostly white.  Not many people on the streets.  The temperatures quietly ascended to triple digits when you weren’t looking.  You realize you’re starting to sunburn through the car windows.

Proceed with caution (and water)

But then you make it to Arizona (briefly).  The landscape changes, suddenly and dramatically, as if Arizona declares, “Take that, Utah!  We’re a much prettier state!”  You descend through curve after highway curve of a twisting, narrow canyon, rich with layers of red rock. It’s the entrance to the promised land!  Alas, Arizona then gives way to Nevada, and here my friends, are the proverbial gates of Hell.  Welcome to the arid, endless, scrub-oak-laden vastness of the Mojave Desert, where everything is decidedly dead except for a brief glittery oasis known as Las Vegas.  The Mojave looks like it wants to swallow you whole and spit you out (except spit requires water so you’d probably just be gone forever).

Hang on to those dashboard gauges for dear life, friends, because it’s a full four hours in the Mojave broiler before your car gasps past the “Welcome to California” sign.  In those hours you’ll call your kids (one last time?), declare your final wishes, and wonder why you didn’t visit your parents more often.  Anything you see in motion off the highway is probably a mirage.  If you do make it to California, you’ll pull over and kiss the ground sand before wondering, “Hey, how come California looks exactly like Nevada?  Then Google Maps smirks the bad news.  You’re nowhere near the end of the Mojave Desert.

Baker. Barstow. Victorville. Hesperia.  You’ll pass through each of these towns and wonder, a) Why does anybody live here? and b) Is this the land that time forgot?  But finally, mercifully, you’ll descend the mighty Cajon Pass (the outside temperature descending alongside you), burst forth onto the freeway spaghetti of the LA Basin, and declare, “Los Angeles.  Thank the Good Lord.  I must be close now”.

You’re never alone on the Cajon

Except you’re not.  The Basin is dozens of cities, hundreds of miles, and millions of cars collectively called “Los Angeles”.  Hunker down, good buddy.  The Pacific is still hours away.

Here’s the short of it.  My wife & I made it to San Diego.  The car didn’t die in the middle of the Mojave.  Neither did we (though I left a piece of my soul behind).  We even rode the bikes a few times.  But I can’t account for those nineteen hours behind the wheel.  It’s like Monday morning became Tuesday night in a single blink.  Just like 2019 became 2021 without much in between.

What goes down must come back up.  The time has come to do the death drive in reverse.  Ugh.  Maybe we’ll leave the bikes in San Diego and catch a flight instead.

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”.

Tale of the Little-Dog

When my son and his wife visited with their daughters last week, the consensus for dinner was hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill.  These choices were noteworthy in that I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate a hot dog.  Sweet Italian sausage?  A couple of times a month cut up into a stir-fry of vegetables.  Beer brats?  Also delicious, hot off the grill with a little mustard.  But a hot dog is child’s play by comparison.  Or should I say, a “dachshund sausage”?

It’s true.  The Germans, who by all accounts can take credit for the invention of the hot dog (five hundred years ago!) nicknamed their frankfurters “dachshunds” – or “little-dog” sausages because, well, they looked exactly like the dog breed.  The only history Americans claim is the re-nickname “hot dog”.  Even the hot dog bun – which really took hold at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 – points back to the Germans, who always ate their sausages with bread.

Are hot dogs a staple in your diet, or like me are they simply a distant memory?  If they weren’t hot off the grill in the backyard or at a summer picnic, perhaps you had one at a baseball game (but not so much football or basketball, go figure).  You’ve probably also seen hot dogs on the midway at carnivals and county fairs.  Wherever you get your franks today, they’re just not as likely to come from established restaurants.

In the 1970s, America seemed to have hot dog stands on every corner.  The most popular of these was the distinctive drive-thru Der Wienerschnitzel’s, but you also had – at least from my California-based memory – Pup ‘N’ Taco, Ben Franks, Tail o’ the Pup, and the walk-up Hot Dog on-a-Stick booths you’d find at amusement parks.  Today’s retail hot dog is at a Sonic Drive-In or the food court at Costco.  If you live anywhere near New York’s Coney Island, you can also include “Nathan’s Famous”, or at least the annual hot dog eating contest of the same name.

A hot dog may be “a cooked sausage eaten in a long, soft piece of bread”, but its secondary meanings are less definitive.  “Hot Dog!” is something you used to say when you were VERY happy about something else (“used to”, meaning sixty or seventy years ago).  A “hot dog” is also a person “who makes fast, skillful movements in skiing, snowboarding, or surfing to make people notice them”.  That last definition still stands.

Speaking of “used to say”, we also used to sing about hot dogs, didn’t we?  Oscar Mayer’s jingle convinced us we should BE hot dogs (so everyone would be in love with us).  But the better song came from Armour, which asked us what kind of kids eat Armour hot dogs?  Per the lyrics, “…fat kids, skinny kids, kids that climb on rocks… tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox…”  Today’s version of the Armour jingle would probably be censored just for using the word “kids”.

“I wish I had a million dollars. HOT DOG!” (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and “It’s A Wonderful Life”)

Hot dogs will always be a childhood memory more than a dietary preference in my book.  My mother, raising five hungry boys, developed several dinner recipes when time and ingredients were in short supply.  These included canned baked beans and weenies (two ingredients = dinner!), and a truly odd creation from the Betty Crocker cookbook made up of hot dogs, mashed potatoes, and cheese (three ingredients!).  Whether it tasted good or not – I honestly can’t remember – dogs, mash, and cheese conveniently covered the protein, carb, and fat categories, all in one broiler-blasted casserole.

The Oscar Mayer “Wienermobile”

My most vivid childhood hot dog memories are not the dinners mentioned above.  Instead, I can’t forget snacking on raw hot dogs from the refrigerator (which sounds awful now, but hey, I was a kid).  My mother was faithful to the Oscar Mayer brand so I ate a lot of their hot dogs raw.   Speaking of Oscar Mayer, here’s the better memory.  They built a motorized advertisement which to this day may be the coolest vehicle on wheels.  The “Wienermobile” cruised the streets of Los Angeles, stopping every now and then in a parking lot so you could view it up close.  The driver handed out tiny plastic replicas of the vehicle, appropriately labeled “Weenie Whistles”.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures and “The Santa Clause”)

Let me conclude with a solved hot dog mystery.  Your grocery store sells most brands in packages of ten.  They also sell hot dog buns but in packages of eight.  Why?  Because hot dogs weigh about 1.6 ounces, which makes a package of ten a convenient sale of exactly one pound of meat.  On the other hand, hot dog buns are baked in trays of four, which work best with conveyor belts and processing.  An odd number of buns – trays of five – is a model of inefficiency.  So until one or the other manufacturer changes their standard, you’ll always have leftovers for snacks.  Or better yet, for your dog.

The hot dogs I served my granddaughters last week were comically advertised as healthy: no fillers, no preservatives, and so on.  They weren’t very good.  Maybe the worst part of a hot dog is what makes it taste so good?  Or maybe hot dogs have simply lost their appeal to me?  No, wait, that can’t be true.  Anything my granddaughters ask me to eat has instant appeal.

Guess I haven’t eaten my last little-dog sausage just yet.

Some content sourced from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC) website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.