Discount Me Out

It happened again week before last, and I couldn’t help but wince.  My dentist handed over the bill for my six-month cleaning and it came with a 5% discount. The same thing happened the week prior, when the sprinkler guy came out for my annual winterizing.  5% discount.  Listen, I’m all about saving money (I have a little Scrooge DNA in me), but not when the rate reduction is followed by the words… senior citizen.  Senior citizen?  People, that’s for old people.

To soften the gut punch, I went looking for a gentler, kinder description on Wikipedia.  Blew up in my face.  Type “senior citizen” into the Wiki search box and you’re redirected to “old age”.  Ouch.  Not only that, “old age” defines as “ages nearing or surpassing the life-expectancy of human beings, and is thus the end of the human life cycle“.  Really?  Just hit me while I’m down, why don’t you?  Cue “Amazing Grace” and start shopping caskets.

As if to sympathize with my predicament, Wikipedia lists several alternatives for “senior citizen”.  Senior. Older Adult. Retiree. Pensioner. Elder.  Elder?  Why not just grow the long white beard and parade around the house in undies and dressing gown?  I can’t even cackle, let alone vigorously shake a cane at little kids.  I’m starting to think Wikipedia is for old people.

(Note to self: drop annual contribution to Wikipedia.)

As an infant or a kid or a teenager, it’s painfully obvious which of those classifies you.  Various stages of awkward.  You dream of advancing to the next level.  A kid longs to be a teenager.  A teenager longs to be an adult.  Your twenties, thirties, and forties are described as “your best decade”, for reasons subtly designed to make peace with growing older.  But age fifty is where the whole lexicon falls apart.  Fifty is as soft as “approaching middle age” or as harsh as “eligible to join AARP”.  You’re still a decade or more from the traditional age of retirement, yet you’re basically undefined.  Then again, “undefined” redirects to “limitless”.  Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad after all.

My son and his wife are expecting their first child, which means my wife and I need to come up with new names for ourselves.  Grandma & Grandpa?  Heck no – those are for old people.  Let’s go with Geema & Geepa instead.  Or Nana & Papa.  Oma & Opa?  Gigi & Gigo?  We’re getting cuter as the list goes on.  And “cuter” typically redirects to “younger”.  Now we’re talking!

Segue to a recent article in Sports Illustrated.  Laird Hamilton is my new hero.  He’s 53 and still one of the most recognized big-wave surfers on the planet.  He’s been at the top of his game for decades and shows no signs of stopping.  Hamilton pioneered the tow-in technique, allowing surfers to catch faster-moving waves than would be possible paddling by hand.  All in search of an adrenaline rush Hamilton can’t seem to shake “well into middle age”.  As he puts it, “I’m not going to fall victim to what I’m supposed to do at any certain age.  We subject ourselves to… social pressure – ‘Oh, this is how old you are now, this is the only thing you can do'”  Hamilton never wants to grow up.  I’ll bet he takes his senior citizen discounts and tears them up into little bits for the fishes.

Tell you what.  I’m planning on living for an entire century; the full one hundred.  If you’ll grant me that stretch, I can claim I’m now in the middle of the first decade following the midpoint of my life. In other words, fifty-something.  To put it most optimistically, I’m only halfway-and-change to the great hereafter. I have no intention of growing up; not yet.

“Senior citizen” – ha!  That’s for old people.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and Sports Illustrated’s “Wild Man of a Certain Age“.

Atlas Joins the Family

My wife and I embarked on an extensive remodel of our house a week ago. We’re rewarding ourselves for removing “college tuition” from the family budget (an expense we’ve battled for the last ten years). Our remodel aims to remove a bearing wall between the family room and kitchen, rewarding us with unobstructed views from the east-side entry to the west-side windows, and the glorious Colorado Rocky Mountains beyond. It’s a construction zone around here for the better part of two months.  The master bedroom and the horse barn are our only refuge.

Removing a bearing wall usually requires a little structural re-engineering, and this project is no exception. We have two bedrooms and a bath upstairs which would come a-tumblin’ down like Jericho’s walls if we took sledgehammers to the studs. Rather, the work begins down under, below the pulled-back carpet of our finished basement. From the naked foundation we excavated a 42″ x 42″ block of standard concrete, to be replaced with several bags of the 5,000 PSI compression-strength variety.  You need the heavy-duty stuff if you’re going to hold up a house.

This super-strength basement footing will support a solid steel post, rising to the main floor and framing the north end of the new opening.  The south end already has a post.  And spanning the top of both, eighteen feet long and weighing in at an impressive four hundred pounds, is our new friend Atlas.

            

Atlas is a big, bad, beautiful, hot-rolled I-beam, formed from pure American steel.  When this behemoth landed in our driveway last Friday my first thought was, “not very big”.  Atlas would’ve smiled if he could, because he didn’t budge a millimeter when I made him pose for a photo.  Or maybe he’s just a stubborn I-beam.

Atlas gets his name from the god in Greek Mythology, of course.  Atlas and his brother Menoetius lost a war to the Olympians (never should’ve sided with the Titans, boys).  Menoetius went to a dungeon of torment and suffering.  Atlas went to the western edge of the world, forced to hold up the sky for all eternity.  Several statues depict him holding up the earth, but in fact Atlas’s burden is the sky.  One time, “clever” Atlas handed off the sky to a guy named Heracles with the promise to fetch him some golden apples.  But Heracles realized it was a ploy to exchange the burden.  When Heracles convinced Atlas to briefly hold up the sky again so he could “rearrange his cloak on his shoulders”, Heracles grabbed the golden apples and ran away.  Not so clever for a Greek god.  I hope our own Atlas is a little more accountable to his burden than his namesake.

Perhaps your first thought of “atlas” is a book of maps instead of a Greek god.  Perhaps you’ve been to the Atlas Mountains in northwestern Africa.  Maybe you’ve read all 1,168 pages of Atlas Shrugged, the 1957 dystopian novel by Ayn Rand.  Did you know the Atlantic Ocean is named for Atlas?  Ditto the fictional island of Atlantis?  At the very least, you have an atlas on your person: the first vertebra supporting your head.  Now you can add a new definition to the list.  Atlas is an I-beam in a house in Southern Colorado.

Final thought.  After naming our I-beam, I was delighted to learn an atlas is also defined as “a support sculpted in the form of a man, which may take the form of a column, pier or pilaster”.  No, I’m not about to sculpt my big, bad, beautiful, hot-rolled I-beam, but it’s nice to know our remodel has a bit of classical European architecture influence.

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

Refuge and Reassurance

When the world goes off the rails like it did this week in Las Vegas, the very human reaction is fight or flight. Fight as in help to those who were impacted.  Flight as in shelter; consolation from an incomprehensible tragedy. My own flight, in extreme instances like this one, sometimes takes the form of fond memories of a journey my wife and I made five years ago, to a remote village on the west coast of Ireland called Clifden.

For those who travel to Ireland, Clifden is rarely on the itinerary.  It’s a four-hour cross-country drive from Dublin, and the final ninety minutes meander along a two-lane road through the forested expanse of Connemara National Park.  Clifden has a modest history for all of its two hundred years on the map.  The town evolved from farmers and fishermen who lived in the region, its commerce bolstered by the heir of a nearby castle.  Like most towns in Ireland, Clifden suffered the blight of the potato famine and the onslaughts of rebels from the north.  Its only claim to fame is the location of Marconi’s first wireless telegraphy station to the near south, broadcasting messages across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia in 1905.  Today Clifden has 2,000 inhabitants, still looking the part of “two churches, two hotels, three schools, and 23 pubs” it boasted in the early 1800’s.

As my wife and I discovered, Clifden is the very definition of “off the beaten path”.  We stumbled upon its welcoming neighborhood very much by chance.  Our intended stop was Galway that day, but once in the city-center (and having survived a five-lane roundabout), we yearned for something smaller and less urban.  Heading north along the coast and with dusk turning to dark, we experienced the thrill of the uncertainty of locating our as-yet-unknown destination.

After a middle-of-the-road stop for a funeral procession (popular guy, judging from the dozens of people descending upon the nearby church), and then passing by the dignified Kylemore Abbey, little Clifden emerged from the coastal fog.  We stopped into the first bed-and-breakfast we could find, but there were no rooms at such a late hour.  Instead, we were directed to the larger/older Foyle’s Hotel a couple of streets away.  What a blessing in disguise.  Foyle’s was the perfect introduction to the charms of Clifden.  A turn-of-the-century grand dame with wide hallways, creaking stairs, and no elevator, we felt like we’d stepped back in time a century or more.  Dinner was served in an elegant main-level salon just off the reception area, soft music playing in the background.  Our spacious room looked down on the center of town from one of the second-floor windows you see here.

The next morning, we took to Clifden on foot, wandering its quaint, narrow, up-and-down streets.  We stopped in at Walsh’s Bakery for breakfast, walking away with a few of the more tempting choices from the case. We then stopped in at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, one of the two spires accenting Clifden’s modest skyline. We climbed to the higher part of town for a look down to the lazy harbor activity along the quay.  More than any sight or sound, we simply embraced Clifden for what it was; a quiet seaside village; is inhabitants contentedly going about their business.  In contrast to bright and busy Dublin, Clifden summoned a much-needed deep breath and a moment of halcyon reflection.

Perhaps our travels will bring us back to Clifden someday.  But the more I consider the idea the less inclined I am to make it happen.  Our idyllic experience was predicated on the chance decisions making our visit happen in the first place, the wandering road leading us to its cobblestone streets, and the saving grace of vacancy at the Foyle’s Hotel.

In Gaelic, Clifden means “stepping stones”.  That’s a nice coincidence, since my fond memories seem to guide me back to a more content frame of mind.  I keep the following illustration in my home office.  With just a glance I can find reassuring refuge once again.

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

Perfunctory Perception

The Washington Post began a recent front-page article with the headline “Why President Trump is Probably Right…”, and I was immediately suspicious. The Times is an outwardly liberal rag. I can’t recall one article – let alone a headline – where they’ve waxed positive about the current administration. Curiosity piqued, I read Kristine Phillips’ well-written article and discovered it was not so much about President Trump himself as it was about the “first 100 days”.  You’re going to read a lot about that this weekend.  And history tells us one hundred days – no matter the successes and failures contained within – rarely define the legacy of a U.S. president.

We have Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd U.S. President – 1933-1945) to thank for setting the bar of “first 100 days”.  Four months into his first term Roosevelt delivered a noteworthy “fireside chat” to the people, including a plan to pull the country out of the Great Depression.  Roosevelt also had a congressional majority squarely aligned with his administration.  As a result fifteen major bills were passed in his first hundred days, including the most critical; to stabilize the nation’s banking system.  It was a virtual sink-or-swim chapter in American history.

No president since the days of the Great Depression has faced a more daunting economic crisis, which is why none of their “first 100 days” measure up to Roosevelt’s.  Our last two presidents make for interesting examples.  George W. Bush entered his term intent on cutting taxes and reforming education, and he did sign the No Child Left Behind Act within the first year of his administration.  But more likely Bush will be remembered for the unforeseen events on and after September 11th, 2001.  Barack Obama sought economic stimulus by signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the first few months of his administration.  But more likely Obama will be remembered for the Affordable Care Act, signed towards the end of his first year.

Since Roosevelt’s administration, seven of nine presidents have been elected to a second term (not including Kennedy and Nixon).  Accordingly one hundred days is usually the prelude of an eight-year tenure, representing less than 3% of the total time frame.  I’d venture to say a president’s legacy is more the product of what happens during the other 97%.

To draw personal parallels, I thought about what it would be like to be judged as a son or a husband or a father; a student in school or a manager in the workplace – based on “first 100 days”.  No thanks; I can say with confidence I needed “the other 97%” to establish my legacy in each of those roles.

So where was President Trump “right”, according to The Washington Post?  The full headline read, “Why President Trump is probably right about the ‘ridiculous standard” of the first 100 days”.  Assuming two terms, Trump’s administration has another 2,820 days.  I’ll go with “probably right” too.  After 100 days, you’re still circling the ring trying to land a punch.  You’ve still got your fifteen rounds.

Again, the media will be all over this topic in the next couple of days so enjoy their rush to judgment.  The conservatives will make a best effort to spin Trump’s first 100 days positive; the liberals not so much.  The New York Times is quick to point out not one of Trump’s campaign-promised pieces of legislation has been passed, while The Hill prefers to recognize his “five key moments”.  Even Trump himself – who I voted for – recognizes the significance of perception.  One hundred days may be a perfunctory time frame but there’s no escaping the report cards.  Hence we have a bold tax plan – which could amount to Trump’s most defining legislation – released just days before the end of “the first 100”.

The most thought-provoking quote I found on this topic came from author Doris Kearns Goodwin.  “Less important than a scorecard of accomplishments,” she said, “is the leadership style demonstrated during the early days.”  In other words, our commander-in-chief himself – not just his policies – is a work-in-progress well beyond this weekend.  Keep your eye on the remaining 97%.

 

Manipulation Games

In April of last year Starbucks modified its customer loyalty program, linking reward “stars” to dollars spent instead of store visits. Where previously you nabbed a free coffee for twelve trips to the cash register, you now need a total purchase value exceeding $63 .  According to CNN, “…customers were furious with the new program.”  Maybe so but those customers didn’t stay away either.  Starbucks’ 2016 gross sales were $21.3B, up 10% from its previous fiscal year.

Once upon a time I resisted customer rewards programs but over the years I’ve made peace with them.  I keep a couple dozen loyalty cards in the car or on my phone, ready to play whenever I visit this store or that restaurant.  I still control where, what, and how much I purchase.  Since I don’t keep a close eye on my rewards, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever I qualify for a freebie or a discount.

But here’s what I don’t like about rewards programs.  They’re designed to manipulate your spending habits.  That’s where Starbucks – like so many other merchants – gets a “fail” on my customer satisfaction test.  In addition to their stars program Starbucks sends emails every other day (which I unsubscribe from but always seem to return).  Those emails encourage me to purchase in certain ways or quantities or timeframes with the allure of “bonus” stars.  It’s a ruse; plain and simple and obvious.  No amount of “free” will ever tempt me to buy three breakfast sandwiches in five days.  Or three Frappuccino’s in three days.  (I don’ t even buy one breakfast sandwich or one Frappuccino.  Just coffee.)

Starbucks may annoy me with their sales tactics but I still buy their products.  The same cannot be said for credit card companies.  The newest Visa and MasterCard programs include sophisticated reward programs where spending is literally the only path out of debt.  Take Chase Bank’s Sapphire Reserve Visa card.  As trendy as this elegantly thin metal card appears to be, it’s utterly manipulative.  For starters, just holding the card in your hand sets you back $450 a year.  Then you’re encouraged to spend $4,000 in the first three months to qualify for 100,000 reward points (recently sliced to 50,000).  You’re also tempted by an instant $300 travel credit – which can only be used through Chase’s partners – as well as credits towards Global Entry, TSA Pre, and airline lounge fees.

No matter how you justify the rewards of Chase Sapphire Reserve you’re still spend-spend-a-spending to recoup the costs.  Consider Sapphire points are valued at 2.1 cents each.  The best-case scenario therefore – spending on travel or dining – still needs to add up to $15,000 before you’ve paid off the $450 annual fee.  Too rich for me.

Las Vegas is getting in on the rewards game too.  Sin City’s legendary “free drink” is about to enter the history books.  Slot machines now include small colored lights, easy to spot by the passing cocktail waitress.  If you’re “red” she’ll walk right past you without so much as a smile.  If you’re “green” you’ve fed your machine enough to earn a “free” drink.  The same goes for casino parking lots; spend enough inside the building and you’ll earn a voucher for outside.  Is it any wonder gambling is no longer the biggest source of revenue in Las Vegas (in favor of hotel, restaurant, and bar purchases)?

Despite these trends, I’ll keep playing the rewards game and very occasionally cashing in on anything “free”.  But I’ll also be wary of the subtle manipulations.  Just yesterday I received my umpteenth Southwest Airlines’ Visa card offer.  All I must do is spend $2,000 in three months for 50,000 points and no annual fee.  That application goes straight to the shredder every time.  My one and only Visa card with its no-frills-no-cost rewards program suits me just fine.

 

Survivor: Siberia

Very few shows capture my attention like CBS’s Survivor.  What started as a fairly contrived reality television competition has evolved over many years to a fascinating cat-and-mouse game of wits.  Survival of the environmental extremes pales in comparison to the mental madness brought on by deliberate deceit, misunderstood conversation, and naked errors in judgment.  The lack of sleep by itself (on some nights strategic, on others unavoidable) would have me stepping out of the game well before the final day.

Like most reality shows Survivor is edited to manipulate the viewing experience to be as entertaining as possible.  You only see what the producers want you to see.  Given hundreds of hidden cameras, I can only imagine how much film ends up on the “cutting room floor”.  Regardless, Survivor is undeniably popular in America (with similar competitions in fifty other countries).  The current season – the thirty-fourth – is watched by over ten million viewers.  There have been over five hundred episodes.  And the format of the game is relatively unchanged from the first competition seventeen years ago.

When “The Hunger Games” movies came out in 2012, I remember how I couldn’t help drawing several parallels to Survivor.  In both cases you have contestants battling until only one remains; the recipient of untold riches.  In both cases the contestants have but a few items of comfort and are forced to endure the harsh conditions of their surroundings.  Also in both cases, you have a game manipulated behind the scenes by the powers that be, to maximize the entertainment value for its viewers (even at the “expense” of contestants).

So now let’s talk about Game2: Winter, the latest spin on reality TV competition from Russia.  Brace yourself.

Game2: Winter (G2W) is a hybrid of Survivor and “The Hunger Games”.  Take fifteen men and fifteen women, drop them into a remote location in Siberia (which is anywhere in Siberia come to think of it), wait nine months and see who survives.  Each entrant must be declared “mentally sane” to qualify (kind of an oxymoron for a G2W player, don’t you think?) and chooses up to 100kg of equipment from a warehouse en route to Siberia.  Clothing.  Tools.  Weapons.  Whatever they feel they need to survive.  Each entrant also gets a satellite-linked panic button.  That comes in handy when they encounter the hungry wolves and bears in the region – assuming the production crew can get to them fast enough.

With a particular nod to “The Hunger Games”, G2W will be televised 24/7.  Oh, and the contestants can do anything they feel is necessary to win the game.  Anything.  The Russian government has gone on record to say players will be prosecuted for crimes (i.e. murder, rape, physical violence), and the producers say they won’t interrupt such activities.  2,000 cameras have been strategically located to capture the “entertainment”.

Games2: Winter premieres this July.  The extremes of Siberia (100 degrees in the summer, -40 in the winter), the lack of adequate food/shelter, and the resident wildlife make you wonder if anyone will survive, let alone commit a crime along the way.  But apparently the $1.6 million prize is worth the risk in Russia.  G2W has a lengthy waiting list for its thirty contestants.  To them I say: I hope one of you will outwit, outplay, and ultimately outlast the others.  I certainly hope it doesn’t take nine months, nor something worthy of prison time.  May the odds be ever in your favor, even if I know they won’t be in Siberia.

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

Something Wicked This Way Comes

This April, a movie called The Circle will arrive in theaters, and it just might generate enough buzz to displace political headlines.  The previews start innocently enough: a wide-eyed young woman “Mae”, who can’t believe her good fortune at being hired into the thoroughly glamorous Internet company “Circle” (a super-hybrid of Apple, Google, and Facebook).  Predictably, things take a turn for the not-so-good when Mae realizes her new employer seeks a singularly “true” Internet identity for its consumers, revealing all there is to know about a person.

The previews for The Circle intrigued me enough to give the book a try, even though the reviews were mediocre at best.  But no matter; the premise draws me in and keeps me reading.  What resolution can possibly exist in a not-so-distant future where an individual’s “privacy” goes completely out the window?  The Circle proposes an all-knowing (and therefore) all-exploiting Internet service; a corporate version of totalitarianism.  I can’t imagine a happy ending, can you?  As Ray Bradbury would say, something wicked this way comes.

83-prescient

Ray Bradbury authored countless short stories placing believable humans in not-quite-so believable circumstances, yet seeking a peek into a probable future.  “Fahrenheit 451” is perhaps his most famous example, but I have my own favorites, including “The Golden Apples of the Sun”, “A Sound of Thunder”, “Skeleton”, and “The Veldt”.  I own a collection of Bradbury’s “hundred best”, and find them just as compelling as when I first read them forty years ago.  Why?  Because they still aren’t quite believable.  The presumptions and technologies and societies of Bradbury’s stories are still somewhere around the corner of the world of today.  But I have no doubt they’re coming.

The same case can be made for the cult-classic neo-noir film Blade Runner, produced in 1982 but based on a book written decades earlier.  Blade Runner made several far-reaching assumptions about a dystopian Los Angeles of the future: a) climate change, creating an environment dominated by darkness and rain, b) culture change, where its inhabitants, language, and food are decidedly Asian, and c) technological change, where “replicants” (robots) perform the mundane tasks humans no longer care to do.  Blade Runner’s mystique is in the depiction of a familiar place transformed by radical changes; the kind that aren’t so unbelievable.  Not now perhaps, but they’re coming.  (Also coming: a sequel to Blade Runner later this year).

Here’s another example from Hollywood.  Logan’s Run (which was an on-screen disaster just begging to be remade thirty years later), depicted a completely controlled, pleasure-filled world inside a giant, sterile dome – but only until age thirty, when its inhabitants were ceremoniously put to death (to conserve the resources of a supposedly dying planet).  By default, Logan’s world is a society where everything is new and clean, everyone is “young”, and a day in the life is controlled by some behind-the-scenes, largely technological presence.  “Logan 5” and “Jenny 6” (a delightful nod to the loss of individualism) are too dependent on the comforts of their world to ever acknowledge its limitations. Considering how technology shapes our actions and decisions today, perhaps Logan’s world is not so far-fetched anymore.

The appeal of Ray Bradbury, Blade Runner, and Logan’s Run – even today – is stories about worlds that are (still) not believable.  We can enjoy them yet keep them at arm’s length, comforted by the thought “can’t really happen”.  And that’s what makes The Circle a serious conversation piece (even if it’s a box-office flop): a taste of an all-powerful, all-knowing Internet – if governments and corporations let it get that far.  Once we reach that point is there any turning back, or will “drones” more aptly describe humans than cool little flying machines?  Terrifying foresight for sure, but hopefully not prescient thinking.

Okay, you’re done reading now.  Back to your Facebook feed.