Late Night Racquet Sports

My newsfeed nets a lot of headlines, but I almost missed the one about the Saharan sandstorm last week, blowing its way across the southern United States. Our son lives in Austin and said you can’t miss it: eerie dusty brownish fog center-stage in an otherwise hot and humid Texas day. (The silver lining: the sunsets are spectacular.)  I can’t spin a sandstorm positive.  Instead, I picture every granule as a moth and every moth descending on my house like Japanese Zeroes, somehow finding entry and making my life a living hell.

They’re at it again, Mr. & Mrs. Miller and their countless compadres. The million (billion?) miller moth march made its way across the Midwest (today’s letter is “M”), destined for an oasis called Colorado and a house called mine. The little winged beasties arrived unannounced and in droves (awful word: drove). One night I noticed one or two of the millers performing their spastic dance around the outside lights and I thought, “Oh no… scouts“.  The next night one of them sounded a tiny bugle at dusk and the swarming commenced.  I’m convinced miller moths have air traffic controllers, letting them know “Roger that Moth 259 – you’re cleared for landing on any ceiling or wall in Dave’s house”.

Light is a moth’s drug of choice

From the minimal research I’ve conducted (like, I don’t want to know moths have 8,000 eyes or whatever), the high country of the Rocky Mountains is a miller moth’s summer resort.  Picture Colorado as their Motel 6 for the night (just don’t “leave the light on”), feeding on backyard flowers and storing up oxygen for the next day’s flight to altitude.  They seem to be headed towards Utah in particular.  Maybe the flowers are better over there.  Maybe moths are Mormon and the Utah state line feels like the pearly gates of heaven.  Here’s what I say: if Utah really is “The Beehive State”, train those yellow-jacketed armies to take down the miller moths as soon as they arrive.  The massacre would be an event worth pay-per-view prices.

I thought I’d developed a sound battle plan for Mr. & Mrs. Miller this year.  Turn out ALL the lights and live in hermit darkness for several nights (like Halloween, when you don’t want any trick-or-treaters at your door).  Then maybe they’d fly over to my neighbor’s place instead.  Wrong.  They see your glowing phones.  They see the little LED’s you can’t cover up on your electronic devices.  They just park in the dark in discreet places around the house, waiting for you to wake up the next morning so they can announce, “WE’RE HERE!!!”

There was no avoiding battle with this year’s crop of “Army cutworms” (an image even worse than “miller moth”).  At first I was a mercenary, developing a cupping technique with my hands where I could catch-and-release (moths are the devil’s mess if you squash ’em).  But I rapidly tired of saving their little one-inch lives one at a time.  Try getting ready for bed at night brushing your teeth while a half-dozen bombers circle your head.  Or reaching for the water glass only to find a miller has staged a glorious dramatic death at the bottom.

Armed with a fly swatter, I thought to myself time for a little badminton (actually, I just thought “kill”). But here’s the reality: moths have half a brain, wings, ears (or at least a sense of hearing), and endless energy.  They know you’re coming almost before you do.  They hover close to the ceiling, frustratingly out of reach just beckoning you to climb to unsafe heights.

Our bathtub’s too small to accommodate a ladder so I was forced to balance precariously on the porcelain edge while swinging the swatter skyward.  The best analogy I can give you is this: picture King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building, gripping with his feet and flailing with his arms, only in men’s pajamas.  Little buzzing machines dart about him.  He knocks down one or two (with an instant and satisfying plummet back to earth), but most of the time he just swings at the air while trying not to die in a bathtub.  It’s part-cardio, part-yoga (only you’re more stressed when you’re done).

Let’s visit the Army cutworm’s half-brain again. I believe moths are designed by Mom Nature to taunt their predators.  One of mine made it into the refrigerator and probably enjoyed a helping of leftovers.  Another survived a tumble of laundry dryer clothes and still came out intact (though it was hard to tell if he was dizzy or just flitting as normal).  Yet another spent the night in the soaking water of our dirty dishes, popped up the next morning when I approached the sink, and said, “Have a nice day!” as he darted away. Trust me; these mini-monsters don’t die easy.  Even a spirited swipe of the racquet (er, swatter) – picture enough force to explode a shuttlecock – doesn’t always kill a moth.  Bless their pitter-patter hearts – they sometimes need three or four good whacks before raising the white flag.

Enough about Mr. & Mrs. Miller, right?  To swat this topic once and for all, most of you know the movie monster Godzilla but what about his nemesis Mothra?  Back in the 1960’s, (sick) Japanese filmmakers created a “good-girl” winged creature; an awkward-looking mega-insect who defies the laws of physics by flying.  Mothra’s just what you picture in my worst nightmares: a moth the size of a jumbo jet.  She was labeled “the protector of island culture, the Earth, and Japan” and revered among the Japanese film-going public (especially women).  Mothra sold a lot of movie tickets.

Mothra

So, the Japanese think a moth is damn near a heroine, eh?  Well then, they should come to Colorado next summer for a visit.  I’ll leave the light on for ’em.

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

Hex Marks the Spot

In the opening scenes of the 1981 classic, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, intrepid explorer Indiana Jones navigates a deep jungle, a river, the betrayal of his fellow adventurers, and the lethal booby-traps inside a mountainside cave to capture a priceless statue of gold.  Indy’s return to civilization includes more death-defying maneuvers, yet he still completes the entire escapade in the first ten minutes of the film.  That’s far less time than it took another thrill-seeker to find the real-life hidden treasure of Forrest Fenn.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with Forrest Fenn.  Hardly anybody would be, were it not for Fenn’s decision back in 1988 to set aside $2 million of his amassed fortune as a reward for an ambitious treasure hunt through the vast Rocky Mountains.  Gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry, and gemstones; all piled up together inside a twelfth-century bronze box and cached in a region of over 500,000 square miles.  Treasure hunt indeed… but no treasure map!  Instead, Fenn documented clues in the stories and poems contained in his self-published book, The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir.

Remarkably, Fenn’s treasure appears to have been claimed.  The whole story found its way back into national headlines just ten days ago, when Fenn himself declared, “I do not know the person who found it but… the search is over.  Look for more information and photos in the coming days.”  Conveniently, the one snap of the treasure chest in its hidden location does not indicate when it was taken.  Just as convenient, the finder has yet to be identified; only labeled “anonymous searcher from the East Coast”.

Forrest Fenn

Forgive my skepticism, but I’d say Forrest just raised the first red flag on this whole adventure.  It sounds good on paper but the more I read the more I sense fairy tale instead of actual tale.  To repeat, Mr. or Mrs. East Coast has yet to come forward.  The single photo of the treasure could’ve been taken by Fenn himself.  Do the homework and you’ll soon start to wonder, does the treasure really exist?  For that matter, does Forrest Fenn himself exist?  Even his name sounds make-believe.

Body-double aside, Fenn appears to be very much alive, but the case can be made for calling the man eccentric.  Consider, Fenn’s initial intent for the treasure was kind of an “X marks the spot” for his final resting place.  In 1988, diagnosed with cancer (likely terminal) Fenn was motivated to set up the treasure hunt before his demise.  But somewhere in the next 22 years, Fenn recovered from his illness and then penned the memoir, complete with treasure-hunt clues.  This sequence of events alone is suspect.  What was Fenn’s original intent: secret burial in the Rockies and whoever stumbled upon his grave (and thought to dig it up) wins the prize?

courtesy of oldsantafetradingcompany.com

Undeterred, thousands pursued Fenn’s treasure after the memoir was published.  Five died in the search.  Of those five, only one cause of death was confirmed – a fall down a steep slope in Yellowstone National Park.  The bodies of the other four, at first identified as “missing persons”, were found later (at different times and places) along the supposed route to Fenn’s treasure. No cause of death determined with any of them.  Add to that a dozen or more arrests, detainments, citations, and lawsuits with other hunters and you start to get a real mess on your hands.  Sounds more like a “hex marks the spot” doesn’t it? Fenn considered the request of authorities to suspend the hunt, but public opinion swayed him to keep things going.

Ten days ago, Fenn acknowledged the (apparent) hunt winner and he/she possesses the (supposed) treasure.  No doubt this isn’t the last of the eccentric tale of Forrest Fenn.  I hope we tune into the news one of these nights and see our latest Indiana Jones, posing in front of the heaping bronze chest like a lottery winner with a giant check (please also, with fedora and bullwhip).  I hope Forrest Fenn is posing right there alongside him/her, and prepared to detail this crazy adventure from start to finish.  Then we’ll know whether the inevitable production from Hollywood will be fact or fiction.

Some content sourced from the Fenn’s Treasure website, Westword, and  Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Iced Coffee

Place Dauphine

In the airy but over-aired romantic comedy Me Before You (2016), the dashing but damaged Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) laments bygone times when he refers to, “Paris. Place Dauphine, right by the Pont Neuf. Sitting outside the cafe with a strong coffee, a warm croissant with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.” Place Dauphine is not just a scene in Me Before You; it’s a real square in the heart of Paris.  And it probably has Will’s cafe, thanks to the nearby river and central views of the city.  Yet French cafes are growing scarcer every year.  In fact, these quaint little gathering places are disappearing in droves.

Painting by Vickie Wade

If someone asked me to paint a scene from a French country village, I’d surely highlight a charming cafe on a cobbled central space, bursting with patrons.  In the cafe, the proprietor would serve incomparable pastries alongside fine, pressed coffee.  The room would swell with music and chatter; the locals swapping their work-day adventures before heading home to supper.  The evening stopover in the cafe seems to me a staple of French culture.

So it pains me to read about closed doors on France’s rural cafes, according to a recent report of the Wall Street Journal.  Sixty years ago, you would find over 200,000 of them liberally dotting the country.  Today, there are less than 40,000.  “Progress” – in its various forms – has forced the rural worker out of traditional French industries and into the big cities.  Time once spent in the cafe is now given over to the workday commute.  Adds a village mayor, “Without a cafe, a village is pretty much dead”.

A “French cafe” in Ireland

Even though I’ve been to Paris, I can’t claim to have spent time in any of its cafes, not even the famed Les Deux Magots, where writers like Hemingway and Joyce were said to have gathered.  And yet, I’ve still experienced authentic “cafe culture” (and I don’t mean Starbucks).  On a trip to Ireland several years ago, my wife and I concluded our first day of sightseeing by ducking into what we thought was a small pub in downtown Dublin.  Turns out the place was more “French cafe”, complete with black-and-white prints on the walls, candle-lights on the tables, and coffee, tea, and pastries to beat the band.  We were so taken by the place we stopped in every afternoon for the better part of a week.  Perhaps the most showstopping memory of all: we never saw a phone, tablet, or laptop.  Patrons were there to gather and chat, or at least – in the case of a few loners – to lose themselves in a good book.

van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

The French cafe is made all the more romantic thanks to the artist Vincent van Gogh.  In 1888 in the southern town of Arles, van Gogh observed the play of a cafe’s lights against the nighttime sky, which inspired his painting Cafe Terrace at Night, the precursor to his unequaled The Starry Night

“Yellow vest” protestors

Perhaps you recall France’s “yellow vest movement” a year or so ago, when protestors took to the streets to battle aggressive economic policies.  Turns out the French cafes played a part in the melee.  The government sought to impose an increased fuel tax to reduce the number of cars on the road.  The protesters interpreted the tax as an impolite shove, to get more people to move to the big cities.  In other words, less people in French country villages.  And no people in French country cafes.  Remarkably, one of the government’s concessions following the yellow-vest protests was subsidies towards small businesses.  Perhaps the French country cafe is not dead after all.

Had I written this post two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have come up with much positive spin on this topic.  But let’s face it, those of us “sheltered in place” right now yearn for social interaction (not social distancing).  We want face-to-face again, not Facetime.  We want the congregation, not just the church service.  So perhaps there’s a silver lining to the current pandemic after all.  When we return to “new normal”, my hope is we’ll have a newfound appreciation for gathering, instead of hiding behind our electronic devices.  As well, my hope is my next visit to France will find the doors of French country cafes wide open again, just beckoning me inside for “strong coffee and warm croissant”.

Not So Fast, Mr. March!

In 2010, New York City premiered a wee little romantic comedy called Leap Year. The movie starred Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, and spun a creative love story around a Leap Day tradition of marriage proposals. In Ireland (and Britain), the tradition held if a woman proposed to a man on February 29th, the man must accept her offer or face significant penalty. Leap Year begins in Boston with the intent of ending in a Dublin marriage proposal, but the coastal Irish town of Dingle (and Matthew Goode) gets in the way. That’s where the real story begins.

If you haven’t seen Leap Year, you’ll have to search elsewhere for the complete plot summary. Just avoid the movie reviews. Leap Year earned a not-even-modest 23% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a not-even-one-third 33 out of 100 on Metacritic. My favorite assessment comes from reviewer Nathan Rabin, who concluded, “The film functions as the cinematic equivalent of a (McDonald’s) Shamrock Shake: sickeningly, artificially sweet, formulaic, and about as authentically Gaelic as an Irish Spring commercial”.

Yeah, I get it. Mr. Rabin refers to the several “overly-Irish” details in Leap Year, which seek to pay homage to the country’s culture but instead come off as cliched (with a capital C). But do viewers really care? Leap Year‘s underlying story is fun, and even if rom-com isn’t your bowl of Irish Stew, at least you have Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. I repeat, Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, two of the most appealing actors in the movie industry today.

I’ve been hooked on the lovely Ms. Adams ever since she took her Oscar-nominated spin as Giselle in Enchanted (2007). It doesn’t hurt she grew up just a few minutes north of where I live here in Colorado. My wife’s been hooked on Matthew Goode ever since he stole scenes from Mandy Moore in Chasing Liberty (2004). It doesn’t hurt he added a passable Irish accent in Leap Year. Both actors have been nominated for awards in far better films, but put them on the big screen together and a little chemistry goes a long way.

Speaking of leap year, my preference for order and logic takes a serious hit whenever the short month of February rolls around. A month of twenty-eight days when the other eleven have thirty or thirty-one? Why not just reduce two or three other months from thirty-one to thirty days and make February “full”? The only credible historical explanation I can find is this: Caesar Augustus stole a few days from February to make his month (August) as long as Caesar Julius’ (July).  We future generations are left to deal with the anomaly. Gee, thanks Gus.

In a rather odd example of redemption, February gets extra attention by boasting an extra day every four years. We need the quadrennial Leap Day to put the calendar, the seasons, and the universe back into sync. Not so fast, Mr. March. And yet, pity the poor souls born on Leap Day. Must’ve been pretty traumatic as a kid, trying to understand why your special day doesn’t show up on the calendar like the other kids. Or consider a “leaper’s” 21st year (or whatever year one earns drinking privileges). How do you convince the barkeep you’ve reached your drinking birthday in a year without a February 29th?

Perhaps you’ll “celebrate” Leap Year 2020 by seeing the movie of the same name. We’ll watch Leap Year for the zillionth time. My wife will remind me Matthew Goode’s character and her own Irish Draught horse share the same name (Declan). I’ll remind her several Leap Year scenes take place in Connemara and County Wicklow, two of our favorite places in Ireland.

Matthew Goode recently admitted, “I just know there are a lot of people who say (Leap Year) was the worst film of 2020″. But Goode also admitted to signing on so he could work closer to home and to see his girlfriend and newborn daughter more often. Doesn’t that make the (English)man even more likable?  Maybe.  At least Amy’s doing a sequel to Enchanted.

(Author’s Note: Just noticed this is my 229th post on Life In A Word. 229 as in 2-29 as in February 29th as in Leap Day. WHOA.)

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the 2/28/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Leap-Year Babies Fight a Lonely, Quadrennial Fight for Recognition”.

Ever Eat a Pine Tree?

If I ask you to recall a catchphrase – a word or statement you heard repeatedly and probably won’t forget – you could come up with several examples. Movie quotes, for instance. (“I’m the king of the world!”)  Song lyrics. (“I get by with a little help from my friends.”)  And television commercials; where the product or “jingle” yields a branded catchphrase. Just this week I learned a new one: bindle stiff, which describes a homeless person through the bag of personal items (bindle) on the end of his/her stick. I’m no hobo, but Euell Gibbons once was. And Gibbons once uttered one of the most famous catchphrases ever.

Who the heck is Euell Gibbons?  Any American kid growing up in the 1970’s would know.  Gibbons was the spokesperson for Post Grape-Nuts cereal, made instantly famous by a single television commercial where he uttered, “Ever eat a pine tree?  Many parts are edible.”  That statement was so bizarre – and laugh-out-loud to us kids – it spread like wildfire (and sold a ton of Grape-Nuts cereal). But it was only recently I learned Gibbons wasn’t just a hired bindle stiff, but a man ahead of his time.  He had a lifelong interest in foods foraged from “nutritious-but-oft-neglected plants” (surely learned from an impoverished and transient childhood).  He wrote several successful whole-foods cookbooks, including “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” (1964) and “A Wild Way to Eat” (1967).  In his later years, Gibbons and his wife joined a community of Quakers in Philadelphia, where he cooked the daily shared breakfast (of course he did).

“Many parts are edible.”

I love Grape-Nuts cereal, back to when I was a kid.  I’m not sure if Gibbons gets the credit, or because Grape-Nuts just tastes good (“…reminds me of wild hickory nuts…”, as Gibbons also said).  Admittedly, Grape-Nuts was a little off the beaten path of children’s cereals.  Very low in fat and sugar, Grape-Nuts looked and crunched like a bowl of light brown gravel.  Add in milk as a softener and sugar as a sweetener however, and something about the cereal just clicked with me.  After college I forced myself to give up Grape-Nuts, because I developed jaw pain from too many hard foods.  Maybe that’s why Post developed Grape-Nuts “Flakes” cereal, or Grape-Nuts “Trail Mix Crunch Cranberry Vanilla”.

GORP

Speaking of trail mix (convenient segue), Euell Gibbons comes back to the conversation.  Trail mix was introduced about the time Gibbons was born (1910), as a combination of dried fruit and nuts.  Trail mix was lightweight and therefore easy to carry on long hikes.  The carbs and fat created a quick energy source and an ideal snack food, and the mix became immensely popular to outdoors-people, especially sugared up with a few M&M’s or yogurt coverings (which Gibbons never would’ve approved of).  Yet it wasn’t always called “trail mix”.  In another word familiar to 1970’s kids, Gibbons coined the acronym GORP, which either meant “good ol’-fashioned raisins and peanuts”, or “granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts”.  Yep, I ate a lot of GORP in my childhood.  Might’ve even had my first taste at Hadley Fruit Orchards, a place in the California desert my parents like to frequent.  Hadley – alongside others – claims to be the “inventor” of trail mix.

Euell T. Gibbons

As if “Euell Gibbons” is not unique enough for an American, his middle name was “Theophilus”.  The only Theophilus I’m aware of lived in biblical times, when Luke wrote his Gospel (and the book of Acts) as letters to an individual by the same name.  Perhaps Gibbons should’ve lived in biblical times.  As God’s people sought the Holy Land he could’ve helped them with his foraging skills.  Or at least introduced them to Grape-Nuts.

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

Ribbons and Bows

My wife and I went to the movies the day after Christmas. The theater lobby looked a little forlorn after the holiday rush. There weren’t many patrons besides the two of us. The employees wandered here and there without seemingly much to do. The concessions were woefully under-stocked. In fact, as we stood at the counter, we realized there were no nachos, no hot dogs, and not a single bottle of water to be found. Did all those “Star Wars” groupies buy up everything before us?  Did a link go missing in the supply chain? Can we blame the aliens?  Ah, but popcorn.  At least they had popcorn.

I can’t see a movie without cradling a big ol’ tub of theater popcorn.  Don’t ask me what chains the two together, but popcorn and movies are a heaven-on-earth marriage.  It’s like that Kacey Musgraves Christmas song about a ribbon without a bow.  The movie might be Oscar-worthy but there’s a big something missing without popcorn.  The next time you watch “Field of Dreams”, consider the ball field is surrounded by acres and acres of corn.  As if you need a metaphor.

Popcorn wasn’t always an option at the movies.  In the early 1900’s, the theater-going experience was different.  The auditoriums were much smaller.  The carpets and seats were lush and expensive.  The patrons tended towards upper-crust.  And the movies themselves… had no sound.  Any one of those reasons made popcorn a poor concession choice.  Theaters didn’t want kernels ground into their pricey floor coverings.  Patrons didn’t want a snack associated with the lower-class circuses and sporting events of the time.  Most importantly, no one wanted to hear crunching and munching while trying to read the subtitles of a silent movie.

The Great Depression – and “talkies” – ushered in the union of popcorn and movies.  A broader cross-section of patrons sought the theater for an inexpensive distraction to the hard times.  Popcorn was easy to mass-produce, and the smell and pop created an effective lure for the concession stand.  Crunching and munching was no longer a concern up against soundtracks.  And popcorn was affordable, even to those who could barely scrape together enough for the movie itself.

Do you prefer “mushroom” or “butterfly”?

There’s a little science behind popcorn to get it from husk to Hollywood.  Growers developed the appealing “butterfly bud”, with several “ears” to trap the butter and salt.  Growers also worked to shape popcorn to take up as much room in the bag as possible (less air), giving a more satisfying feel to the overall weight.  They coined terms like “expansion rate” and “mouth feel” and “finger control” – anything to make you buy more of the fluffy stuff.

All this talk of popcorn reminds me of a children’s book about a farmer who grew acres and acres of corn.  He’d store his corn in giant metal silos next to his field.  One summer day, the silos got so hot the corn inside started to pop.  The farmer heard the sound and climbed on the roof of one of the silos to see what was going on.  Suddenly the silo burst open, and the roof started rising above all that popcorn.  Up, up, up went the farmer.  When the popping finally stopped, the farmer was high up in the sky with no way to get down.  His neighbors came from miles around to try to help him.  The fire department’s ladders weren’t long enough.  The town had no helicopter.  Finally, the people talked it over and realized all they had to do was start eating the popcorn straight from the silo.  Down, down, down came the farmer until he was safe.

As much as I love popcorn, I only seem to eat it at the movies.  When my son was in college, he admitted to going to the theater, buying popcorn at the concession stand, and… leaving the building.  Who does that?  Then again, there’s nothing wrong with the idea (high price aside).  It’s like having turkey when it’s not Thanksgiving.  Or dessert before dinner.  Seems a little off, but really, why not?

As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy my popcorn with my movie.  I’ll pay the ridiculous price for the shrinking bag, and still eat too much.  The only problem with this scenario?  Finding decent movies anymore.  They seem to be fewer and further, at least on the big screen.  Thank goodness for Netflix and my air popper.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “How AMC Gets Its Popcorn From Stalk to ‘Star Wars'”, and from the Smithsonian Magazine article, “Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?”

Media Meltdown

Nope, not that media.

A few weeks ago, I gave Legacybox a try.  Heard of ’em?  Legacy converts old home movies – the ones you may have on VHS or 8mm tapes (or even reel-to-reel) – into clean, digitized formats. I sent Legacy a heaping box of my tapes (reel-to-reel was slightly before my time), and a month later received a single, tiny thumb drive in return. Remarkable really: dozens of hours of precious video memories packed into a bits-n-bytes “box” the size of a fingernail clipper. If I’d chosen a digital download instead of the thumb drive, I wouldn’t have received anything (physical) in return.

We’ve flash-landed into a digital, live-stream, can’t-hold-it-in-your-hands world of multimedia these days.  Phonograph records, celluloid film, audio and video cassettes, and optical media like CD’s and DVD’s spin firmly in the rear-view mirror; collectables reserved for only the most nostalgic.

[It’s not a stretch to say print media – books, newspapers, magazines, and photographs – aren’t far behind, but that’s another post for another day.]

For those of you born in the last century – literally, not figuratively – let’s eulogize some of these once-upon-a-time physical media formats.

The “8-track”

I’m old enough to remember 8-track tapes, are you?  Before I owned my first “LP” or “45” record, I was regularly subjected to my dad’s music choices on his car stereo 8-track player.  In hindsight, there’s something endearing about the bulky, inefficient format of the 8-track tape (except when your only memory is your dad’s music).

The smallish 45 “single”

Before the 8-track tape gave way to the compact cassette, I built up a pretty good collection of 1970’s 45 rpm records (“singles”) – 100 or more.  My older brother – who built a sizeable collection of 1970’s 33 rpm records (“LP’s”), understandably disdained my choices in music.  His flavor was “classic” rock (ex. Rick Wakeman, Emerson, Lake & Palmer) while mine was “bubblegum” (ex. Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow).  Appropriately, I have Olivia’s “Let’s Get Physical” re-running in my head as I cover today’s topic.

The cool thing about compact cassettes was – of course – you could record things (birthing the concept of the “playlist”).  Just as noteworthy, you could play cassettes in your car’s “deck”.  Your records had to stay home.  It wasn’t long before my 45’s were stashed in the closet and I was all-in on “tape”.  I spent countless hours recording and listening as I hugged my very first tape recorder.  I spent countless weekly allowance dollars on the Columbia House Record and Tape Club.  When the ultra-compact Sony Walkman debuted in 1979, cassette-tape music went everywhere you did.

Right about the same time as the Walkman, JVC (VHS) and Sony (Betamax) figured out how to put video on tape.  My early memories of movie rentals at the video store include renting the video player too.  After all, the price tag on first-generation “VCR’s” ran into the thousands of dollars.  I can still picture myself lugging a bulky VCR down the street to my apartment, with a pile of cables, an instruction booklet, and a stack of videotapes to watch.  Then, twenty-four hours later, I’d pack it all up and lug it back to the store.

The colorful “laserdisc”

Compact discs (CD’s) and digital versatile discs (DVD’s) felt like space-age technology in the ’80’s and ’90’s.  But press the Pause button for a moment.  Did you forget laserdiscs (LD)?  LD’s were the first optical disc storage medium, and man did I buy into the hype of those rainbow Frisbees.  By the time I invested in a (bulky) LD player and loaded up on (pricy) LD’s themselves, DVD’s were beginning to take over the home video market.  Sadly, I still have my LD collection today (along with my no-longer-functioning LD player).  I figure the whole setup isn’t even worth the time to advertise on Craigslist.  In hindsight, laserdiscs were the very definition of unwieldy.

Finally (for physical media), I never graduated from DVD’s to Blu-ray discs, but “cinephiles” claim Blu-ray looks and sounds even better than its digital successors.  Regardless, Blu-ray should be considered the final frontier in a history of physical media dating back to the 1800’s.  Check out Wikipedia’s timeline of audio formats (player-piano rolls!) here.

Thanks to companies like Legacybox, Netflix, and Spotify, digital media is here to stay.  But I must concede, there’s little pride in perusing a collection of utterly un-physical files and folders on my laptop.  Maybe Olivia Newton-John knew what she was singing about after all.

Or maybe that’s why I’m still hanging onto my laserdiscs.

Some content sourced from the 10/11/2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Streaming Is Killing Physical Media.  Here’s Why You Won’t Miss It”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Trilling on the Trail

An old friend stopped by to visit the other day. He appeared at my front door without warning, taking me back almost fifty years to the moment we first met. He is still quite the singer. His stride is supremely confident. Most annoyingly, he finds unqualified joy in every blasted thing he sees and hears. My friend is, after all, The Happy Wanderer.

If you’ve encountered The Happy Wanderer at some time in your life, you know exactly who I’m talking about.  He is Mr. “Val-deri, Val-dera”.  Those words alone should revive the sing-song tune fried into most brains since childhood.  “The Happy Wanderer” could’ve been quarantined within Germany were it not for its award-winning performance by the Oberkirchen Children’s Choir (and subsequent radio broadcast by the BBC), in 1953.  Then, Mr. Wanderer went worldwide-viral and there was no turning back ever.

Oberkirchen coat of arms

According to his lyrics, The Happy Wanderer (we’ll just call him “Hap”) takes hikes into the mountains and alongside streams, his hat on his head; his knapsack on his back.  Hap points out blackbirds and skylarks along the way, and his journey brings him unbridled giddy happiness and laughter (as in, “Val-deri, Val-der-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…”).  Our boy smiles the entire time and boldly invites YOU to join in the singing.  In his final verse, Hap wants to wander (and sing) until the day he dies.  That’s a little extreme for a children’s song, don’t you think?

Speaking of childhood, Hap and I first met way back then.  He entered the “UK Singles Chart” on January 22, 1954, eight-years-to-the-day before I was born.  Eight years after I was born, I henpecked Hap’s tune as I learned to play the piano.  “Chopsticks”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and “The Happy Wanderer” were almost assuredly the first three pieces I ever memorized.

Hap wandered into my life again in the Boy Scouts.  I recall a lot of singing on weekend hikes (not sure why – who’d be happy backpacking forty pounds towards some distant campsite?)  Besides “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and “The Ants Go Marching…”, we Scouts unabashedly sang “The Happy Wanderer” through mountains and alongside streams.  Hap’s tune even made the official list of “Scout songs” (see here.)

I thought I was done with Hap years ago (it took me decades to forget his slaphappy song), but recently he resurfaced.  First, on a cruise down Germany’s Rhine River, at an outdoor dinner in the little town of Rüdesheim.  I was volunteered by my fellow travelers to play with the band.  I manned a big oom-pah-pah drum while another poor soul clanged the cymbals.  A band member played the clarinet.  And our one and only performance – naturally – was “The Happy Wanderer”.  To add shame to the silliness, we marched between the tables as we played.  I did my best to look “happy”.

Hap’s other revelation may be a little more prolonged.  On the same Rhine River cruise, in Bavaria, my wife and I bought a handmade cuckoo clock.  The clock was shipped and arrived in the States two weeks ago.  Imagine my delight when I wound the clock and the cuckoo bird busted through his little door, the dancers twirled, and the tiny music box played “Edelweiss”.  The “sound of music” every hour on the hour!  Er, every other hour on the hour.  Turns out our cuckoo clock has two songs.  Hello, Happy Wanderer.  If I choose to, I hear his gleeful melody twelve times a day.  Or, If I choose to, I can flip a switch and I don’t hear anything at all.  I expect I’ll be flipping the switch any day now.

If you’d like to add to my hap-aberration, go to 1-800-FLOWERS and have a hardenbergia violacea delivered to my door.  HV is a species of flowering plant from the pea family.  Some call it a lilac vine.  Others give it nicknames like “false sarsasparilla” or “purple coral”.  It’s also lovingly referred to as “The Happy Wanderer”.

Heaven help me.

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

Revolving Roar

Whenever I talk about Colorado’s extreme winter weather, I tend to speak in glass-half-full generalities. “We need the moisture”, I say, or, “we’re making up for the dry winter we had last year”. Earlier this season I got nods of agreement when I said things like that. Then the nods stopped, because the avalanches began. Colorado has so much snow in the high country this year we’re triggering “intentional” avalanches, so the skiers don’t get buried.  But when yesterday arrived – and with it the first “bomb cyclone” storm in decades – I’ll admit; my glass edged precariously close to half-empty.

Haven’t heard of a “bomb cyclone”?  Don’t fret; neither had I until yesterday.  Bomb cyclones are roguish tropical hurricanes.  They choose the wrong season and they land in the wrong location.  Their formal name is even more ominous: explosive cyclogenesis or bombogenesis.  Bomb cyclones are the perfect storm of rapidly-dropping air pressure, causing rapidly-increasing wind speeds, combined with a significant moisture source.  BOOM!  That was Colorado’s weather in a nutshell yesterday.

From the front line (or front window), I can tell you bomb cyclones are best left to their own devices.  Stay inside, batten down the hatches, and brace yourself until all is calm again.  Several Coloradans chose not to heed that advice, and the result was headlines news last night.  1,100 cars stuck on the roads in our county alone.  Roofs ripped off buildings.  Trees uprooted.  One really stupid human rescued from a popular hiking trail.  You’d think we were Kansas with the word “cyclone” to our vocabulary.  Wait – come to think of it – we were Kansas yesterday.  Our bomb cyclone settled squarely over the Sunflower State, rotating its very bad side effects back around to the Centennial State.

Local media called yesterday’s weather “a storm of historic proportions”.  By some statistics they were correct.  The air pressure was the lowest on record for Colorado.  Two cities to the south of us received record rainfall for the 24-hour period.  More miles of state highway were closed than ever before.  200,000 residents in the Denver area lost power.  It was like being dropped into the New York City of the movie, “The Day After Tomorrow”.

Here on the ranch, the bomb cyclone delivered a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, our power never went out, even though many of the neighborhoods around us lost theirs.  Our gas went out, but not really because (courtesy of a Google search) I discovered our furnace intake/exhaust pipes were blocked with snow and ice.  On the other hand, we now have a couple of snow drifts seemingly as high as the Rockies.  We also have as much snow inside our barn as immediately outside its doors.  The horses are not happy.

Glass-half-full again: it could be worse.  For perspective, we’ve had several more impactful storms in our twenty-five years of Colorado living.  One dumped enough snow to block our street for a week.  Another knocked out the power for three days.  Yet another put a mountain of snow on our back deck, eventually melting into enough water to flood our basement.  If you choose Colorado, you accept the unpredictability of the weather, as well as its consequences.  Wildfires in the summer.  Snowstorms in the winter.  Enough wind to make both even worse.  Coloradans love the outdoors, but we know the adventures that come with the territory.  Glass-half-full or glass-half-empty.

By the way, our bomb cyclone is spinning off to the east now, just as intense.  The states in the Midwest should keep an eye out, oh, around “the day after tomorrow”.   So long, sweetheart – we won’t miss ya.

Danger, Will Robinson!

A strategic goal of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) goes as follows: Protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices in the marketplace. Unfair and deceptive practices seem to be the strategic goals of several other organizations out there, so I’m glad the FTC seeks to “protect” me. For example, they held a competition called the “Robocall Challenge”, looking for solutions to reduce those pesky and sometimes illegal phone calls we all receive. The competition winners – two software programs designed to intercept and divert – split the $50,000 first prize. The problem? The Challenge was conducted over five years ago, yet robocalls are more rampant than ever today.

courtesy of nbcconnecticut.com

The telemarketing calls of old seem quaint compared to the lifeless computer-generated voices of the last several years. Used to be, you’d answer the phone to a real voice; a sunny greeting in oft-broken English or heavy accent. The caller would say, “Yes, is this David Wilson, please?” or, “Hello Mr. Wilson, how are you doing today?” Who do you know who starts a phone conversation with wording like that? (Even better, when they’re looking for my wife Brigid – pronounced with a soft “g” – they mangle her name in ways I’ve never heard before.)

At least the old telemarketers sold you products or services too good to be true (“Congratulations – you’ve won a seven-day Hawaiian cruise!”), and at least they were human. Today’s robocalls are scams disguised as threats. Pay this tax bill immediately or the IRS will break down your door and haul you off to prison. Upgrade your Microsoft operating system now because your warranty’s about to expire. Buy this health insurance plan because yours doesn’t cover anything. I might listen to these pitches if they came from a real person, but the synthesized voice of a robocall triggers the involuntary reflex “hang up”.

courtesy of cio.com

For me, the most effective solution to robocalls is simply not answering in the first place. If the Caller ID doesn’t convince me it’s a real call, I let it go to voice mail. Sure, my provider offers a call-blocking service, but they charge a fee. Why would I pay good money to manage a situation I didn’t ask for in the first place? The same goes for the better call-blocking applications out there. They’ll make them go away, but it’s gonna cost you.

By the way, not answering in the first place also stops robocall breeding. Just by picking up the receiver or hitting “Answer”, you’ve identified yourself as a number that works, which means the robocall provider sells your number to other providers, and that means more robocalls. Picking up the phone is why Americans received 16.3 billion robocalls in 2018… and that was just January-May.

courtesy of komando.com

Robocalls are a nuisance – sure, but at least they’re not threats to the human race itself. That prospect turns my dreams into nightmares every so often. Whether vast supercomputers, unfeeling combat robots, or microscopic drones, you have to admit – we’re on the precipice of technologies just itching to get beyond our control. Fiction does a great job exploring the possibilities. Read Michael Crichton’s “Prey” (self-replicating nanotechnology), Daniel H. Wilson’s “Robot Uprisings” (just what the title suggests), or simply watch the brilliant 2014 film, “Ex Machina”. The final scene – when Ava walks confidently into the public domain and the credits roll – is perhaps the most chilling moment of the entire movie.

courtesy of IMDB.com

As if to mock this post, my brother-in-law – visiting here at the house as I speak – just received a call on his mobile phone. Another robocall, and probably another scam disguised as a threat. Maybe the call wasn’t by accident, but rather a triggered response from a nanobot keeping an eye on my keystrokes. A subtle message, as if to say: we’re here and we’re watching. Sure, I can plead “no-mo-robo” (which is also the name of a call-blocking company), but I know the robots are only growing in numbers. Better make room then – another highly-intelligent species is quietly joining the party here on Earth.