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”.

This Gamble Pays Off

In the movie Back to the Future, there’s a memorable scene shortly after Marty McFly time-travels back to 1950s California. Marty looks up Doc Brown in the phone book and heads over to his house. Doc doesn’t recognize Marty when he opens the door but he drags him inside anyway.  The scene is memorable because Doc’s house (the exterior, at least) is recognizable to any student of American architecture. Welcome to Pasadena’s Gamble House.

Greene and Greene’s Gamble House

Maybe you guessed this Gamble wasn’t won in a wager (although it would’ve been a handsome payoff!)  Rather, it was built for a member of the (Proctor &) Gamble family who liked the look of his next-door neighbor’s place.  That house, and many others on the same street, was designed by sibling architects (Charles) Greene and (Henry) Greene.  The Gamble House is perhaps their most famous design.

Front doors and foyer

The Greene brothers, who studied architecture at MIT, made a significant stop on their journey to the West Coast.  They spent time at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  While there, they picked up design influences from the temple look of the Japanese pavilion (wood construction, tiled roofs, open verandas).

Dining area

The Greene and Greene “ultimate bungalow” look, with its liberal use of dark wood slats and panels, became known as the Craftsman style of architecture.  This label was all the more fitting because the Greene brothers also studied furniture design, and incorporated many custom pieces into their houses.  Even more impressive, the finished look relies on elegant leather straps and wooden pegs as fasteners; not a nail or screw in sight.

Main staircase

The Gamble House is 6,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor living, in concert with California’s mild temperatures.  You can tour the house courtesy of the USC School of Architecture students who get to live there every school year (luckies!)  A separate tour walks you through the neighborhood to see other Greene and Greene designs.  But the Gamble remains their masterpiece.  And if you ever see this inviting residence, you may wish you owned a time-traveling DeLorean to take you back to its heyday in the early 1900s.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Now for the latest on LEGO Fallingwater…

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LEGO Fallingwater – Update #3  (Read how this project got started in Perfect Harmony)

I find it funny how this Fallingwater model is “rising” off of its foundation at the same time the water below is “falling”.  It’s like I’m going in opposite directions at the same time.  20 pages (or 22%, or 83 minutes) into the build, this is what we have.

As you can see, the stream is now “built” from the front of the house all the way to the back, with the modest waterfall front and center.  We also have our first piece of “landscape”, that dark green strip you see on the left.  Otherwise, we’re still at the foundation level.  I expect the house to rise dramatically in the next few chapters of the build.

LEGO “wrench”

Here’s something unnerving about this model.  You don’t really understand what you’re building as you go.  You’re putting together very small pieces which look like, well, LEGO blocks, until you stand back and take the whole model in.  For this reason, you have to build very, very carefully.  I still got the location of a few pieces wrong and had to utilize my handy-dandy wrench to yank them out.  It’s like pulling teeth.

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

Petttit Memorial Chapel

Over five hundred structures were built from the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, but only one of those five hundred is in a cemetery.  That would be the Pettit Chapel in Belvidere, Illinois.  Dr. Pettit was a beloved physician of his time, and his sudden passing prompted his wife to hire Wright to design a graveside chapel as a memorial to the man.

Pettit Chapel

The design of the “petite” Pettit is very much in line with Wright’s signature Prairie Style.  The low roof lines, broad eaves, and high horizontal bands of glass are typical.  Wright used the shape of a cruciform – common in medieval cathedrals – to house the smallest of sanctuaries, as well as two open-air porches and a central fireplace.  He then added storage, restrooms, and a furnace so the chapel could be used for public functions.

The Pettit Chapel has survived since its construction in 1906, thanks to restorations in 1977 and 2003.  The chapel is open to the public, and, like many structures designed by Wright, included on America’s National Register of Historic Places.

Some content sourced from The Museum of Lost Things website article, “The Real ‘Back to the Future’ House”, 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”.

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”.

Selfish Shopping

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is on full display this week.  We’ve reached the critical timeframe – ten days out – where packages must be sent if they’re getting to destinations by Christmas.  We’re making lists, not just for Santa but also for last-minute purchases.  Now here’s the good news, weary shopper: no matter where you’re spending your holiday dollars, self-checkout is often an option.

If you’re like me, you beeline to self-checkout when you’re done shopping.  You still have “the control”, as people like to say (who also prefer to drive instead of fly).  With self-checkout you believe you can scan and bag faster than those who are paid to do so.  Maybe, but consider the decisions you have to make in the process::

  1. When do you choose self-checkout?  Most of the time, (especially if the checker-bagger lines are long) but what if you have a lot of items?  Self-checkout is awkward with a full shopping basket (ignore the stares).  One time my wife and I snagged side-by-side registers, put the cart between them, and scanned away.  Against the rules, you say?  What rules? 🙂
  2. Where do you stand in line?  This is touchy territory, shopper.  If you face the typical arrangement where one set of registers sits opposite the other, with enough open space in between, you can get separate lines for each set… which gets ugly when a person assumes he/she is entitled to the next available register on either side.  Prepare for battle.
  3. Which register do you choose?  Murphy’s Law of Self-Checkout: One of the registers doesn’t work.  You just assumed it was available because you couldn’t see the “out of order” screen until you were right in front of it.  Now you have to turn around and reclaim your place in line.  Again, ignore the stares.
  4. When do you alert the self-checkout human assistant (oxymoron?)  How many times have you gotten ahead of the system only to hear, “unexpected item in bagging area” or “please wait for assistance”?  Here’s a tip: don’t wait for assistance.  Most of the time the register is trying to catch up and just needs a little more time.  Congrats, you’re faster than a computer.

Hard to believe, but retail self-checkout just celebrated forty years.  We shoppers been doing what one writer describes as “quasi-paid unforced labor under surveillance” since the 1980s.  I remember how I wasn’t thrilled about the concept when it debuted.  Back then I thought, “Why do I have to do the checking out when someone else is paid to do it for me?”

I was even more annoyed when the airlines put up their “selfish” kiosks and dared travelers to check themselves in and print their own boarding passes.  How quickly we adapt.  Today I’ll choose self-checkout any time I’m given the option (even though surveys say 67% have a bad experience).  In fact, we’ve been conditioned to self-checking out ever since the debut of the bank ATM in the late 60s.  DIY checkout will only get more prevalent as companies reduce labor costs.  One of these days I can picture a self-checkout Starbucks, with a fully mechanical barista standing by to whip up your skinny latte.  Don’t bet against it.

Reasons we choose self-checkout (web.mit.edu)

Self-checkout is about to enter a new arena: clothing stores.  But what about those security devices attached to the sleeves or pant legs?  And how will they know if we slip an extra pair of shoes into the box? The bigger concern, however, may be image.  How will Saks or Bloomingdales look with a bank of self-checkout registers next to their fancy cosmetic counters?  Not the pretty picture of luxury shopping we’ve come to expect.

Image doesn’t matter to me so much, but my time does.  If self-checkout returns a few minutes to my day, I say sign me up.  But somewhere we’ve got to draw the line, people.  At the rate we’re going, human interaction will soon be the exception, not the rule.  It’s also not the direction a world in need of more face time should be heading.

With that, I put down the keyboard for the remainder of 2022.  Remember, the holidays are anything but “selfish”, and everything about face time.  Merry Christmas!

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Self-checkout annoys some customers…”

Bread, Salt, and Wine

As the endless loop of Christmas-cookie-cut Hallmark movies beckons yet again this year, the tried-and-true season classics struggle for air time and our time.  If it weren’t for streaming you might not be able to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas anymore.  You’ll have an easier time finding Miracle on 34th Street (but maybe not the 1947 original).  On the other hand, you should find It’s A Wonderful Life right there in your online library or movie collection.  You do have a copy of the greatest Christmas movie of all time, don’t you?

CNN Entertainment recently posted a list of “Hollywood’s stars’ favorite Christmas movies”, which is wrong on so many levels.  I’m not saying an actor can’t be an authority on movies.  Some of those interviewed have been in Christmas movies themselves.  No, it’s more about the concept of ranking Christmas movies.  It’s a futile attempt to place one above another, when the truth is each of us already has a favorite.  I may be trying to sway you to my favorites today, but deep down I know you have yours and they’ll never change.  Until a better one comes along, that is.

CNN’s list – or anyone’s for that matter – includes movies I struggle to associate with Christmas.  Home AloneThe HolidayYou’ve Got Mail?  Sure, each of these takes place during the season but they’re not really Christmas movies.  Strike them from the list, please.

How about The Santa Clause, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the 1964 stop-motion original), or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff or Jim Carrey, you choose).  Okay, now we’re starting to get somewhere.  With each of these films you can at least claim a story about Christmas.  They even include pretty good messages about the spirit of Christmas.  Just not THE message.

A Charlie Brown Christmas still gets me at the end when the Peanuts gang sings, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.  The Polar Express asks us to just “Believe”, which I would if I could get past its creepy animation technique.  And Love Actually is a collection of feel-good rom-com stories where viewers tend to choose just one as their favorite (again with the rankings).  But none of these films dig much below the surface of the reason for the season. 

[For the record, I’ve never been a fan of “A Christmas Story”.  I think it’s a cult classic with a bizarre sense of humor.  One or more of you will disagree, which means you’ll be happy to know about HBO Max’s follow-up film featuring Peter Billingsley (again) as very grown-up Ralphie.]

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.  I could take on another dozen so-called classics and explain why they don’t belong on any “best list” of the season’s movies.  Instead, let’s cut to the chase and cover the three films whose stories illustrate the meaning of Christmas:

A Christmas Carol.  The Charles Dickens classic has been recreated on film more times than I can count (and most versions are pretty good) but it’s hard to top the 1938 original.  Maybe it’s because Dickens’ ghosts really scared me the first time I saw them (even in black-and-white).  More likely it’s because Reginald Owen so perfectly portrays the remarkable transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from mean and miserly to giddy and grateful.

Miracle on 34th Street.  Again we have several versions here, but none better than Edmund Gwenn’s turn as Kris Kringle in the 1937 original (for which he won an Academy Award).  Also, I’ll watch any movie with the lovely Maureen O’Hara, and Natalie Wood is adorable as sweet, innocent Susan Walker.  But above all, “Miracle…” is about believing.  C’mon, you remember the scene… all those bags of letters to Santa being dragged into the courtroom…

It’s A Wonderful Life… is, simply put, in a Christmas class all by itself.  When critics describe this film as, “The holiday classic to define all holiday classics…”, you know you’ve got something special.  If you’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life, kindly put down your electronic device and spend the next two hours with George Bailey in his little town of Bedford Falls.  Talk about the meaning of Christmas.  I won’t give it away, but the final scene where Mary drags George down the stairs to see “the miracle” is the message of the entire movie.

Maybe you don’t agree with my top Christmas movies (comments, please!), but you should at least admit to an underlying concern.  All three of my choices were produced over fifty years ago.  Fifty years!  Am I suggesting there hasn’t been a more meaningful Christmas movie made in the last half-century?  YES, I AM!  Seriously, Hollywood, you can do a whole lot better than Elf.

If you’ve spent any time watching the Hallmark Channel this season (and… sigh… a ranking of those Christmas movies can be found here), you owe it to yourself to also watch at least one of the three movies I highlight above.  Hopefully you’re watching them again, not for the first time.  After all, as we learn in It’s A Wonderful Life, there’s much more to bread, salt, and wine than just the title of a blog post.

Some content sourced from the CNN Entertainment article, “Tom Hanks and more stars share their favorite Christmas movies”, and IMDb, the Internet Movie Database.

Sitting in the Catbird Seat

Though she’s only four, our granddaughter relishes being the eldest in her family.  She already demonstrates the authority associated with the role, especially in the presence of her siblings.  She seems to understand how her position in the order comes with slightly increased expectations.  Her sisters will challenge her command as they grow older (and won’t that be fun?) but for now, for the most part, they take her lead.  Not that I would understand “first position”, mind you.  I’m neither the oldest nor the youngest in the family I grew up in.  I’m what you might call an “off-center middle”.

If there’s a significant advantage to being a middle child (I’m the fourth of five) I’ve yet to discover it after all these years.  The eldest child experiences the “firsts” (driving, voting, etc.) while the rest of us wonder when it’ll be our turn.  The youngest receives a gentler version of parenting (and who can blame a parent after five kids?)  Meanwhile, the middle(s) are looking in both directions wondering where to take sides. Inevitably, to appease all, the middle child finds a way to agree with everyone.  Our son is also a middle and he’s neutral so often we’ve nicknamed him “Switzerland”.

Maybe we middles have it better after all.  It’s not often I fall into the vast minority on a topic but today I do, because… I prefer the middle seat on airplanes.  A recent survey says only 6 out of every 1,000 frequent flyers feel the same way.  My five outliers and I have our reasons; mine make flying more comfortable for me.  On the aisle I can’t help leaning out a little, to where beverage carts or those passing by brush up against me.  On the window (which I happily bequeath to my wife) I have less elbow room up against the glass.  Even when the passengers on either side of me take the armrests (a subject to toss about another day) I still feel my greatest sense of freedom is in the middle seat.

I can now reap rewards for my middle-mindedness.  In a promotion sounding equal parts creative and desperate, Virgin Australia (VA) is giving away prizes to make the middle seats on its airplanes more appealing. Just by choosing the middle, I enter a lottery for a million VA frequent flyer miles, a helicopter pub crawl (a what?), or a bungee jump (but isn’t Australia flat?).  I can even win tickets to the final of the Australian Football League.  Of course, entering VA’s “Middle Seat Lottery” assumes I want to fly somewhere within Australia.  I also have to join VA’s frequent-flyer program.  And I’ll need to figure out Australian football, which may be the toughest ask of all.  But you get the idea.  “In the middle” is now a little cooler.

Maybe the airlines should revive an old saying.  They could call the middles catbird seats instead.  After all, “sitting in the catbird seat” refers to a position of advantage or superiority.  I can win the helicopter pub crawl and you can’t (advantage) and I’ve deluded myself into thinking I have more elbow room than you do (superiority).  All from the catbird seat.

Try as I might, definitions of “middle” never stray far from “average”, or at best “neither one extreme nor the other”. The dictionary also labels me as “ordinary”, “mediocre”, “commonplace”, and “pedestrian”.  Even if I spice up the word to “middling”, I’m still defined as just “medium” or “moderate”.  I could stretch things a bit and go with “fair to middling” but even then I’m merely slightly above average.  Nope, the only “outstanding” middle I can come up with is our stomachs when we’re, ahem, not in the best of shape. 

“Sitting in the catbird seat” works well for today’s topic, because I moved to the American South just a few months ago.  The phrase originated down here a long time ago.  Literally, it’s a bird’s habit of singing from way up high in a tree, a sort of nyah-nyah-nyah to its predators who can’t climb nearly as high.  And maybe that’s my aim for today: to elevate us “middle-peeps”, even if I haven’t come up with much substance to do so.  But consider this: the more of us there are, the less likely you’ll be sitting in the middle seat.  As a thank-you, the least you can do is meet me in the middle and pick up my beer tab when I win the helicopter pub crawl.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “Airline launches lottery to entice more passengers to sit in the middle seat”.

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”.

Conifer Confetti

When you move to a new city and state, you deal with the expected and the unexpected. The expected includes boxes that don’t unpack themselves (but what a great invention, right?), over-the-fence greetings with neighbors (categorized as “nice”, “cranky”, and “utterly weird”), and enough wrong turns on roads where you finally pull over and mutter, “Where the heck am I?” Unexpected includes the drip of a leaky pipe ($$$, sigh), chew-crazy squirrels in the backyard (anything plastic is fair game), and, oh yes… pine cones. Lots and lots of pine cones.

Five acres may seem like a lot to some of you readers but to us it’s downsizing from our ranch in Colorado.  You’d think a property a sixth the size of the former would suggest lower maintenance.  After last Sunday I’m not so sure.  My wife came in from the barn the day before and said, rather gently, “We should probably pick up the pine cones in the back pasture before they get out of control.”  Simple enough.  After we fed and watered the horses, we went out to the field with the muck rakes and began picking.  A muck rake can hold ten pine cones.  Around the first tree I figured I picked up fifteen rakes’ worth.  Again, simple enough… except we have at least twenty pine trees.  Do the math.  Our pickup amounted to a motherlode of pine cones, somewhere between two and three thousand.

Back in Colorado we had, like, one pine tree on our property (a magical one actually, which I wrote about in My Dandy-Lion Pine Tree).  After last weekend I’m thinking I should’ve amended our purchase agreement on the new place to say, “Remove nineteen of twenty pine trees”.

I need the “giant” version of this

What does Dave do with all of his pine cones?  Nothing, for now.  The most efficient system of gathering is to throw them against the base of the trees and then haul them away to the “yard waste” dump.  But in the three hours we collected cones, I had plenty of time to think about better ways to do it.  The neighbors suggested a “pasture vacuum”, which is like one of those big spinning brushes you see in the car wash, dragged behind the tractor.  Others suggested a big bonfire, pretty much the last thing a person from Colorado wants to see in their backyard.

My new pet

Here’s thinking outside of the box: I could get a pet Parasaurolophus, the dinosaur with a distinctive crested head.  The Para has thousands of teeth perfectly suited for their favorite meal: pine cones.  But I’d need a time machine so I can bring one back from sixty million years ago.  Looks like it’s still me and the muck rake for now.

Conifer cones”, which include pine cones, play a vital role in the evolution of the trees.  Between all those little wooden scales are the seeds, first pollinated and later released.  It’s a sophisticated process which you can read a lot more about here.  In its simplest terms you have the smaller, meeker “males”, who release pollen for the “females” to catch.  Then the females release the seeds, even after they lay in my pastures by the thousands, seemingly dead.

“He” (lower) doesn’t even look like a pine cone

There was a moment in all that raking where I followed a squirrel as he bounded across the grass and onto the trunk of one of the trees.  Up, up, up he went until he disappeared into the umbrella of the branches above.  And that’s where, to my horror, I noticed how many thousands of pine cones sat poised above me. Maybe millions… almost all of them female.  It’s like having the world’s biggest sorority row above my backyard, and every house is about to disgorge its girls for a giant party on the ground.  Maybe I should hire Sticky Vikki & The Pine Cones for the music.

“Widowmaker” cone

I know, I know, it could be worse.  I could live in Maine, where there are so many pine trees the state flower is the pine cone (and a pine cone is not even a flower).  Or I could have Coulter pine trees, with cones so big they’re nicknamed “widowmakers”.  Seriously, these ladies are massive – you don’t want one falling on your head. Speaking of falling, the mere sound of a plummeting cone is unnerving enough.  It’s like a warplane flying overhead and releasing a bomb, only the bomb whistles straight to the ground without detonating. “THUNK”.

I’d have a massive herd of these Scandinavian toys

We shared the story of our pine cone bounty with my brother-in-law, who promptly encouraged us to do something creative with them.  Make wreaths for the holidays.  Turn them into coffee and jam like they do in Eastern Europe.  Sell them as the fertility charm they’re supposed to be.  Nah, I don’t have time for all that.  We’re expecting extra wind in the next few days courtesy of Hurricane Ian.  I have another three thousand pine cones to pick up.

Some content sourced from the HuffPost blog, “Thirteen Things You Never Knew About Pine Cones…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Lost in a Dense Fog

When I first learned to play the piano, it was a challenge to master the weight of the keys. Weighted keys allow the piano’s sound to be louder or softer depending on how hard you press them down. Since fingers vary in size and shape it takes practice before the index and ring fingers (for example) generate the same volume on the keyboard. In hindsight, if I’d chosen the theremin over the piano I could’ve developed the technique much faster because this instrument makes its music without weighted keys. In fact, the theremin makes music without any touch at all.

I should’ve posted about the theremin closer to Halloween because it produces one of the eeriest sounds you’ll ever hear.  Click the red preview button on this list of Theramin Sound Effects and tell me if you disagree. Doesn’t your mind conjure up a ghostly apparition floating in the darkness of a haunted house?  The theremin provides the perfect soundtrack for all things scary. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg once described the theremin’s wail as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”  I like that (and it’s much classier than “pig squeal”).

How the theremin creates its unique sound involves too much science to keep your attention today (and more words than I want to type).  Suffice it to say, the instrument has two antennae; a looped one to control volume and an upright one to delineate pitch.  The player’s darting hand/finger movements – touching nothing but the air in between – create its spooky music. 

Now watch the following performance.  Seeing the theremin played is almost as jaw-dropping as listening to it.

I find the theremin to be a fish out of water next to traditional orchestra instruments, yet there are several other weirdos out there.  The bassoon features a tiny mouthpiece attached to a massive piece of black pipe and requires a deliberate overbite to create its nasal tones.  The glockenspiel (which gets points for a fancy name) is really nothing more than a metal xylophone.  The tam-tam is a giant gong, lucky to be struck more than once in a performance.  And the hand saw doubles as a musical instrument when you warp and release the blade (and sounds pretty darned close to the theremin).  But each of these outliers requires physical touch to make their sounds.  The theremin sings with mere jabs of the air.

[Author’s aside:  Every time I write theremin my brain wants to override with Theraflu, the over-the-counter cold and flu medicine (“Discover the Powerful Relief!”)  You don’t find many thera- words in the English language – therapy being the only other one I can come up with.  I’m happy to announce I need neither Theraflu nor therapy at the moment.]

The theremin was invented in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin (whose life story involved a lot more than science).  RCA picked up the commercial production rights but the musical instrument never really developed a following.  Instead, its soprano voice showed up randomly in music and movies.  If you recall the Beach Boys’ hit, “Good Vibrations” you should also recall the theramin solo at the end of the song.  You’ll also hear its moan in the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.  But the theramin seems a more logical fit in the soundtracks of horror and science fiction movies like The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and more recently, Monster House.

My favorite account of the theremin (and with this I close) is a collection of melodies recorded and blasted into outer space back in 2001.  The effort was an attempt to communicate with other worlds, including Gershwin’s Summertime and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  The name of this collection? First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials.  Seriously?  We chose the theremin?  Wouldn’t these classics have sounded a whole lot smarter on the instruments they were originally written for?  No wonder the (more intelligent) races out there haven’t stopped by our little planet to say hello.

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