Super Dough

The beauty of the Super Bowl is its broad entertainment value.  There’s something for everybody in the five hours between The Star Spangled Banner and the Vince Lombardi trophy. For sports fans, there’s a highly-anticipated football clash. The Super Bowl is not football at its best or most dramatic, but this year’s coast vs. coast, old coach+QB vs. young coach+QB match-up creates more than the usual intrigue.

If you’re not into football, you’re at least enjoying the musical entertainment.  Maroon 5 will be there after all (rumor had it they were pulling out), and the band acknowledges “… it’s the biggest stage you could ever play…”  Even if you’re not a fan of the 5, you get Gladys Knight (but no Pips) singing the national anthem before kick-off.

If neither live sports nor live music is your bag (and that’s a small rock you live under), you’re watching the commercials instead.  I admit – especially as a sports fan – there’s as much press for the Super Bowl ads as there is for the Super Bowl itself.  It’s the only sports broadcast I know where viewers fast-forward through the game to get to the commercials.

Courtesy of Anheuser-Busch InBev

No wonder advertisers are so worked up for this Sunday.  The Super Bowl is routinely the single-most tuned-in-to entertainment of the year.  Viewership has quadrupled over the last fifty years.  The 2018 Super Bowl drew over 100 million viewers; 25% more than second-place.  And what came in second?  The Super Bowl post-game show, of course (74 million viewers).  Say what you will about the NFL; people watch.  The four most-watched television shows in 2018 were NFL games, followed by a “This Is Us” episode… airing immediately after the Super Bowl.

Courtesy of Frito-Lay

Sunday’s line-up of Super Bowl commercials includes the usual products: cars, drinks (alcoholic), more drinks (non-alcoholic), foods (snack), more foods (fast), even more foods (avocados), and technology.  Of course, they’re all designed to get you to remember, long after the game is over.  Whether it’s a celebrity, a laugh, or a cute animal, it’s all about permanent placement of the product in your brain.  But even if you don’t remember, consider this: the commercials will be watched millions more times on YouTube.  Add in the Internet and the considerable cost of Super Bowl advertising is a little easier to swallow.

Speaking of cost, this year’s commercials will set producers back $5 million a spot, for a mere thirty seconds of air time.  That’s just the bill to CBS.  Production costs run as much as another $5 million.  Try counting “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand” every time you watch a commercial this year.  You’re squandering $333,333 for every “-one-thousand” you utter.  That’s what I call super dough, and it’s only rising (ha).  The car companies account for 25% of the take (remember that the next time you negotiate the purchase of a vehicle), but Anheuser-Busch InBev is the “King of Advertising”, spending over $600 million on Super Bowl commercials since 1995.  Yes, Clydesdale horses are cute.  More importantly, they sell a lot of beer.

Courtesy of Anheuser-Busch InBev

To pique your ad anticipation, Town & Country Magazine’s website includes a list of the “50 Best Super Bowl Commercials” (including the videos).  The ads are listed chronologically, starting a-way, way back in 1967.  It’s entertaining to see what products and companies paid big for Super Bowl advertising fifty years ago.  Some are no longer around.  I’m guessing their advertising agencies aren’t either.

Courtesy of Apple

Mark my words.  Monday morning after the Super Bowl the water-cooler talk will not be about the game.  It will be about the commercials.  Which one was your favorite?  Which one left you scratching your head?  Which one was $5 million up in flames?  And most importantly, which one will still be talked about years from now?  Even this sports fan has to admit: the game will soon be forgotten, but not the ads.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “Why Advertisers Pay Up for  a Super Bowl Spot”; and from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Lack’n Keys

Walking out the front door, I can count on one hand the items I typically carry. I always wear a watch, choosing between a stylish timepiece and a fitness tracker. I pocket a slim leather wallet on my left, containing a minimum of cards and ID. I stash a handkerchief on my right, an acquired habit to handle life’s unexpected messes. My cell phone goes in my back pocket, but really, I’m just shifting it from one location to another (house to car, car to office, etc.)  Finally, I pocket a ring of jingling keys… or should I say “key”… or should I surrender to: “remote transmitter”?

Before
After

Key rings (or chains), still found by the eye-catching dozens at souvenir shops and car washes, used to be a symbol of status.  The more occupants on the ring, the more important the man.  Add on a colorful fob – perhaps boasting of a car brand or a sports team, and your key ring spoke volumes.

At the height of my own “importance”, I carried six keys: two for the cars (mine and my wife’s), and one each for the house door, office door, office file cabinet, and safety deposit box.  Each key had its own character, which made the collection even more interesting.  The house key contained a little light you could shine on the lock when it was dark.  The office cabinet key had a tubular shape.  The safety deposit key was flat and ancient (the senior member of the ring) and required a companion key from a bank teller to open the box.

First toy for our granddaughter

Alas, my key ring is now retired.  In its place is Mr. Remote Transmitter; technology’s answer to key-free cars.  The house door sports a lock with an electronic keypad.  Both office keys went away the day I began working from home.  My wife’s truck key shifted to a drawer in our foyer, in case hers gets lost.  And Mr. Flat-and-Ancient retreated to the home safe; a more prudent location than on a ring in public.

Keys carry a certain mystique in knowing they open something, which is why I miss them.  They also bleed a little nostalgia.  When I was a kid, I carried a tubular key for the lock securing the only vehicle I owned at the time – my bicycle.  When I practiced piano, eighty-eight black-and-white keys beckoned to make music.  When I played basketball, I never went far from the court “key”.  A childhood trip to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry taught me the origin of America’s national anthem…. and therefore about Francis Scott Key.

See why it’s called “the key”?

Keys also appeared in college.  Studying architecture introduced me to the keystone (the central block or other piece at the apex of an arch or vault).  Working architectural drawings always included a table-of-contents “key”, deciphering the symbols and acronyms on the greater page.

(Not-so-random thought: how did I never listen to the soul-filled R&B music of Alicia Keys?)

The “real” version requires Florida Key limes.

When I first met my wife, the keys kept coming.  Her family owned a home in the Florida Keys (small, low-elevation, sandy islands formed on the surface of coral reefs).  When she and I moved to Colorado, we flirted with the idea of a ski condo – in Keystone of course.  Our 25th wedding anniversary in Ireland included dinner at Dublin’s “Quays” Restaurant (pronounced, yes… “Keys”).  Also credit my wife for gifting me the most important key of all:

A lifetime of keys makes me a sad I’m “lack’n” them today.  But that’s not quite true, is it?  I spend most days clicking away on my computer keyboard, after all.  Even better, my remote transmitter contains – behind all that technology – a modest little back-up key.  Nice to know I’m still carrying.

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

Mechanical Wonders

A Wall Street Journal headline stopped me in my tracks today.  In Guangzhou, China, you can now buy a car from a vending machine.  Starting with a smartphone app, you book a test drive before you arrive.  Once at the “dealership”, facial recognition software kicks the machine into gear, delivering your car-of-choice from an eight-story automated garage.  If you’re happy with the test drive, you negotiate the purchase through the app – no haggling salesperson to be seen – and off you drive with a new car.  I’d fly to China and take a test drive just to see the automated garage vend a car.  That’s some cool technology.

Photo by Aleksandar Plavecski

Vending is more sophisticated these days than the plain-Jane cigarette and candy machines of old, of course.  Airports dispense cell phones and other pricey electronics to travelers from vending machines.  Food-truck-like boxes dispense made-to-order pizzas.  A mall in Beverly Hills vends Beluga caviar from self-serve refrigerators ($500 a pop).  Las Vegas’s “The Lobster Zone” is like one of those machines where you joystick the claw to your toy of choice, only here you’re plucking live lobsters from a tank.  Finally, the cupcake company Sprinkles makes serious bank with its street-side “cupcake ATM’s”.

           

Speaking of bank, I used to collect mechanical banks when I was a kid. That sounds like a strange (nerdy?) admission – collecting toy banks – but that’s what kids did in the 1970’s. They collected things. Mechanical banks wouldn’t appeal to today’s youth for a couple of reasons. One, they’re battery-operated or “wind-up”, so you can’t control them with a phone or an app. Two, they work on the assumption you’re saving up nickels, dimes, and quarters for future purchases. Today’s kids seem less likely to save that way (if at all), and their purchases are with bills or electronic cash.  Mechanical banks prefer coins.

My collection of banks – which disappeared years ago – is a good example of the limitations of what and how a kid could purchase back then.  Almost all my banks came from the Johnson Smith Company, a manufacturer out of Chicago (“Since 1914!”)  Johnson Smith sold endless novelty and gag gift items: x-ray goggles, whoopee cushions, joy buzzers, and those really annoying “chattering teeth”.  They also sold mechanical banks; not the beautiful collector’s editions of old, but plastic, battery-operated cheapies, probably manufactured in China.  Johnson Smith was the closest thing a kid in my day had to Amazon.

Because I lived in Los Angeles and Johnson Smith sold their mechanical banks in Chicago, the U.S. Postal Service was a lifeline; the critical link between my quiet suburban neighborhood and the Midwest’s biggest city.  When I saved enough money, I’d stuff my bills and coins into an envelope, hand-address it, add several postage stamps (Mom helped with the calculation), and walk it out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway.  Four to six weeks later, a small brown box would arrive from Chicago, addressed to me and containing my latest mechanical wonder.

Think about that for a second.  Not only was I putting cash into a flimsy white envelope to be processed through the endless shipping and handling of USPS, but I was also leaving my hard-earned money out by the street, alerting the world to its presence with the little red mailbox flag.  That same transaction today – with “1-click ordering” – takes a single keystroke or voice command and shows up on my doorstep in two days or less.

The irony of collecting mechanical banks is that you’re spending your hard-earned pennies on the very thing designed to keep you from spending them.  Truth be told, my banks weren’t about saving money at all.  Instead, they were entertainment in the form of plastic-and-battery-operated mechanics, watching coins go here-and-there before finally disappearing from sight.

I never lost my fascination for mechanics.  I remember grade-school field trips to commercial bakeries, going behind-the-scenes to see how big vats of dough methodically evolved into sliced, packaged loaves of bread.  My kids and I used to watch the Food Network’s “Unwrapped”, a half-hour tour through the sophisticated mechanics behind a product’s evolution, from individual ingredients, through various stages of assembly (and several conveyor belts), finally to the finish line: a brightly-wrapped ready-to-eat consumable.

Mechanical banks may be long gone, but even in today’s age of electronics I say we’re still fascinated by mechanics itself.  It’s the reason we buy cars from vending machines or cupcakes from ATM’s.  And it’s the reason I still haul my pocket change down to the bank, just to see the teller dump the lot into the coin-counting machine; the noisy, mechanical wonder that sorts, counts, and spits out a receipt just before gobbling up every last penny.

Wait For It

Let’s wager a guess over something that happened to you in the past few days. It probably happened several times in the past few days. It wasn’t by choice, nor were you alone.  It might even be happening right now. What is this recurring, oft-maddening event in your daily world (and mine)? Somewhere, for some good reason, in person or in the car, deliberately or unintentionally, you found yourself waiting in line.

Call it a common courtesy or call it the primary by-product of consumer demand. Waiting in line is a timeless (or time-wasting) necessary evil with no satisfactory alternative.  While the world behaves efficiently with smartphones, computers and even data-consuming “IoT” appliances, those snaking, switch-backing, several-option, several-category lines of humans seem to grow ever longer.  Including traffic on the highways – another version of waiting – you’ll spend one to two years of your life in line.

Consider some of the common reasons why we wait in line:
– store cashiers
– airport security
– phone calls (on hold)
– amusement parks
– voting
– public restrooms

If I wrote this post fifty years ago, I would’ve listed the very same reasons why we wait in line.  We have options now, but let’s face it; those options are waiting-in-line in disguise.  Store cashiers now work side-by-side with an area of self-check-out machines (which draws its own line).  Airports promote pay-for lines like TSA Pre and CLEAR.  Telephone on-hold mechanisms offer callbacks instead of waiting (“for an additional $0.75”).  Disneyland installed “FastPass” lines; again, for a fee.  Voting can be done by mail (forcing your ballot to wait in line instead of you).  And public restrooms?  Okay, there’s no option to waiting for the potty.  Maybe reconsider that second beer.

The Brits refer to a line of people as a queue.  I like that (and not just because we need more words beginning with the letter “q”).  Leave it to those on the far side of the pond to class up the most mundane activity imaginable.  At least we have our phones as distractions when we “queue”.  But the old-fashioned distractions still work.  It’s why they put candy bars by the cashiers, magazines in the waiting room, mirrors by the elevators, and televisions in the airport.  Anything to help you forget you’re waiting in line.

Julio C. Negron

You’d think waiting in line is mindless – no-brainer science really – but I have experienced flaws in the system.  Recently in Lowe’s, waiting patiently in a single, central line at the self-check-out area, I was confronted by the person behind me, who demanded I “choose one side or the other” (as if logic demanded a separate line for each row of self-check-out machines).  My response to him was not one of my finer moments.  Another example – at the airport – my wife and I waited at the curb with a dozen others for the parking lot shuttle, only to discover the “front of the line” was a variable determined by the point on the curb where the driver chooses to stop his vehicle.  If you want to see what not waiting in line looks like, try to catch a parking lot shuttle at the airport.

In today’s world, we have new reasons why we wait in line:
– to purchase the latest iPhone
– at restaurants, with pagers (clever disguise for waiting in line)
on-line (i.e. for concert tickets or sports tickets at a specified time)
– Black Friday sales

Finally, we will always stand in line for our kids, whether to see Santa Claus at the mall or to buy something they simply must have.  Years ago, I remember taking my kids to the local bookstore for the latest “Harry Potter” (which they started and finished before the next sunrise).  It was the only time I’ve stood in line for the right to stand in line again.  The bookstore insisted on selling a limited number of tickets at noon, to be exchanged for the book later that same day, when the publisher allowed its release.

I believe the longest I’ve ever waited in line is five hours – to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977.  With no electronic devices to keep my friends and I company back then, five hours was even longer than it sounds, especially knowing two consecutive showings of the movie would run before I even entered the theater.  Then again, the truly morbid among us believe we are all simply waiting to die.  If that’s the case, let’s hope we’re in a really, really long line.

Land of Flying Cars

My wife and I live in a rural area of Colorado known as the Black Forest.  The high density of Ponderosa Pines in our small geography gives us our name.  Remarkably, there’s only one other notable place on the planet named “Black Forest”: the region near Bavaria in southwest Germany.  As it turns out, I have personal ties to both places, though I’ve never been to the south of Germany.  Follow along as I connect the Forests.

Fill in the blank, “Best Childhood Movie: ________”.  Most of you would respond with an offering from Disney.  Including “Snow White…”, “Mary Poppins”, and “The Little Mermaid”, you’ve already covered sixty years of film-making, with countless other Disney classics in between.  I don’t think I missed a single Disney growing up in the sixties and seventies, yet – go figure – my favorite childhood movie doesn’t come from the Mouse.  It doesn’t even come from my home country.  My childhood choice?  The UK’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, based on the 1964 novel by Ian Fleming.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” – the captivating musical about the inventor and his kids who lived in a windmill cottage; about those wonderful-though-not-always-perfect inventions (my favorite: the eggs-toast-sausage breakfast machine); about the candy-maker and the toy-maker and the captivating castle world of Vulgaria; and most importantly about the magical flying motorcar itself – created figments of my imagination like no other movie.  The lyrics to the title song (“…Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, our fine four-fendered friend…”) were burned into my brain.  Someday I vowed to visit the lands of Caractacus Potts and Baron Bomburst.

     

As it turns out, the Potts’ windmill cottage really does exist (and not on a movie set) – as the “Cobstone Windmill” in Buckinghamshire, England. The mansion where “Truly Scrumptious” lived is in the same area of the country.  And the Scrumptious Sweets Company was a working factory in Middlesex (today a steam-engine museum).  But it was the castle and village in Vulgaria I really wanted to see.  Not long after seeing the movie of course, I learned “Vulgaria” was a fictitious country.  Baron Bomburst didn’t actually lord over the land, nor did he ever keep all those children as slaves beneath his castle. But the castle and the village are based on actual places.  The village is Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria.  The castle is Castle Neuschwanstein, also in Bavaria.  And how ironic; both locations were inspirations for Disney as well: Rothenburg for the village in “Pinocchio”, and Neuschwanstein for the Cinderella castles in the theme parks.

To bring my journey full-circle, Rothenburg, Castle Neuschwanstein, and Bavaria sit in southwest Germany, adjacent to… the Black Forest.  Germany’s version of the Forest is a mountainous land of picturesque villages, castles, vineyards and spas.  This is the region that brought the world Black Forest Ham and “truly scrumptious” Black Forest Cake.  This is the land of glass-making and cuckoo clocks.  From the photos above, it looks every bit as charming as “Vulgaria”.

  

Colorado’s Black Forest barely amounts to a dot on Google Maps.  Within our pines, the “town” is a hodge-podge of nondescript businesses clustered around a couple of traffic signals, with nothing more alluring than a Subway, a post office, and a couple of coffee shops.  The terrain is fairly flat, with no windmill cottages or mountaintop castles or cuckoo clocks.  But it’s a great place to live, with its own unique charm.  And every now and then, when I’m deep in the pines, I’ll start humming that forever-familiar Chitty-Chitty tune, as I gaze up to the skies in search of a flying motorcar.

Sweet Charity

Several times during the recent year-end holidays, I passed through the drive-thru at Starbucks, and as I paid, I asked the cashier to include the purchases of the car behind me. I’ve been participating in this Starbucks-wide trend for several Christmases now, and it brings me an inexplicable feeling of goodwill and satisfaction.  The goal of the effort is anonymity. Or to put it more comprehensively, blind faith.

Blind faith is defined as “belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination”.  That’s powerful.  “Faith” is a spectrum that starts with basic trust and ends with the highest forms of religion.  But add on “blind” and it elevates the meaning.

Buying a free cup of coffee at Starbucks is the easiest form of blind faith, like handing over a dollar to a beggar.  No judgment as to “what happens next” allowed.  But the intention behind an act of blind faith is worth a bit of exploring here.  Dissecting my Starbucks gesture, I note the key components.  First, I don’t waffle over the amount of the purchase I’m covering.  That’s the blind faith in choosing to pay in the first place – it shouldn’t matter how much.  One time I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a car with four passengers.  Their bill was well over $20.  But my decision had been made before the car even pulled up behind me, so the point was to stick with it.  Another time my recipient was a well-dressed woman wearing sunglasses and driving a recent-model BMW.  Again, no judgment.  Pay for her coffee and move on.

The second component concerns my “getaway”.  As I’m waiting for my own purchases I’m considering my escape route – the path that gets me away from Starbucks as quickly as possible, with enough turns and traffic lights to deter my beneficiary.  My goal is to remain anonymous, and unless the person behind me memorizes my license plates (or something else unique about my vehicle), I’ve achieved a moment of goodwill and will never see them again.  Frankly, it would spoil the whole effort if the car pulled up next to me at a nearby red light.  They might offer their gratitude, or they might offer to pay me back.  They might even be annoyed, as if I had no business intruding on their “personal life”.  I’d rather not know.  I prefer to lean on blind faith that I brought an unexpected smile, or delivered a tiny give-me-a-break in an otherwise trying day.  Maybe they’ll even “pay it forward”, as a string of 374 consecutive cars did at a Starbucks in Florida back in 2014.

Come to think of it, there’s a third component in the Great Coffee Giveaway.  Never expect the gesture in return.  In the countless times I’ve driven through Starbucks during the holidays, I’ve never thought to myself, “I hope the car in front of me picks up the tab”.  If I knew this was happening, I might just order a half-dozen breakfast sandwiches and several cake-pops to go with my Flat White.  Just kidding, of course.  I hope the thought never crosses my mind.

This week and last – no surprise here – I’ve read dozens of blogs about resolutions for the New Year.  Allow me to contribute my one-and-only.  I’m going to lean on blind faith in the coming year, whenever I have the chance to give someone a break.  Remember the rules: 1) No conditions on the amount (read: cost) of the help.  2) Keep it anonymous, as a) recognition defeats the spirit, and b) giving simply for the sake of giving might inspire “pay it forward”.  3) Don’t expect a similar gesture in return.  That’s not to say you won’t be pleasantly surprised when someone buys your Starbucks coffee one of these days.  You’ll just know there were no hidden agendas.

 

Carefree Highways

Here’s a connect-the-dots challenge, tapping what’s left of your road-trip driving fever from Labor Day weekend. Pull up Google Maps, pick two towns on opposite edges of the continental United States, and see if you can discover the longest driving trip. The only rules: you must start and end with U.S. cities, and your answer must be the blue line (not the grey line alternatives).

My first guess on Google Maps (above) is effectively the longest drive between the borders of Mexico and Canada.  San Ysidro in California wouldn’t exist if not for the busy border crossing just to the south.  Van Buren in Maine wouldn’t exist if not for a small group of Nova Scotia citizens exiled from Canada in 1785.  As you can see, my southwest to northeast traverse gets me 3,291 miles of driving and takes more than two days (including a wealth of bathroom stops).  In the process, I pass through ten U.S. states and three Canadian provinces.  Label this trip a long-distance segue from “Ole!” to “Eh?”

My second guess chooses a sun-starved soul north of Seattle, seeking some beach time in the Florida Keys (though someone named Irma would object right about now).  Our friend finishes his oyster stew in tiny Blaine, WA; points his car to the southeast, and arrives in Key West, FL two-and-a-half days later, just in time for a twilight margarita with Jimmy Buffett.  His drive also passes through ten states (like my first guess) but lasts 3,559 miles.  If our friend finished in Miami he’d drive the same distance as my first guess, but Highway 1 – further south through the Florida Keys – buys him a 160-mile tiebreaker.

A recent Wall Street Journal article asserts we Americans are endlessly romanced by the allure of the open road (a “four-wheeled traipse” if you will), and the Labor Day holiday conveniently marks the end of the summer travel season.  Thus, you get a lot of drivers on the first weekend in September – 600,000 in Colorado alone, or 11% of the state’s population.  That translates to over 3.5 million road-trippers across the entire United States.  Traffic jam, anyone?

                  

In the prehistoric times of street-corner pay phones and folding road maps (read: 1970’s), the American Automobile Association (AAA) offered a service called “Triptik”.  Go to an AAA office, tell ’em where you want to go, and they’d hand you a step-by-step book of maps “prepared expressly for you”.  My parents gave me a Triptik – and all the station wagon gas I needed – as a high-school graduation present.  My buddy and I created a Western States round-trip starting in Los Angeles, driving as far north as Montana, as far east as South Dakota, and returning through the Southwestern states.  Our aim was to hit as many national parks as possible.  We spent a few nights in motels (on our own dime), but most nights in sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon.  No agenda, no worries – just a couple of teenagers making a ton of memories on the open road.

On the topic of road trips, I owe a nod to America’s beloved “Main Street” – U.S. Route 66.  Though nowhere close to the longest road trip in the U.S., Route 66 is certainly the most renowned.  Built in 1926, the “Mother Road” ran from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles – fully 2,448 miles.  Early 1900’s migration to the Western U.S. owes some of its success to 66, and all those road-trippers “got their kicks” at the hundreds of restaurants and motels born along the highway.  It wasn’t until 1985 – sixty years later – the last remnants of Route 66 were replaced by newer segments of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

Now then; time to solve the Google Maps challenge (with a twist).  The winner of the point-to-point American road trip is some nearby version of my second guess above: Washington to Florida.  However, for my money I’d much prefer the drive from Oregon to Massachusetts (above).  The twist?  You can do it all on one ridiculously long highway!  U.S. Route 20 – “The Big Daddy” – starts in little Newport, Oregon (pop. 10,000) and ends in Boston (pop. 673,000).  You’ll cover 12 states and 3,154 miles before you hit the checkered flag.  It’ll take you almost two days without stopping, but please stop.  Along the way you’ll find the Idaho Potato Museum, Yellowstone National Park, “Carhenge” (a Stonehenge homage made entirely of autos!), Iowa’s Field of Dreams, Hall of Fame’s for RV’s/motor-homes, rock & roll, and baseball; and most importantly, the Jell-O Gallery Museum, your one-stop-shop + tribute to the jiggly dessert.  C’mon, how you gonna top that road trip (with a dollop of whipped cream?)

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