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”.

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.

P.S. I Love You

When it comes to snack foods, I’m not a fan of variations on a theme. Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts debuted in the 1960s with just four flavors: strawberry, blueberry, apple, and brown sugar cinnamon. Today you choose from more than twenty Tarts, including “Hot Fudge Sundae”. The original Triscuit cracker was a baked whole wheat square with a little salt. Today you’ll find a dozen Triscuit flavors on the shelf, including “Fire Roasted Tomato & Olive Oil”. Then we have the Oreo cookie. The original, of course, was two chocolate wafers sandwiching just the right amount of vanilla cream filling. Now Oreo flavors are too numerous to count.  But there’s one you can be sure is a whopping success: pumpkin spice.

 Welcome to mid-September, Americans, and the beginning of our pumpkin spice delirium.  For the next two months you can expect an endless parade of “P.S.” product advertisements.  My wife & I, we’ve already caved to the obsession.  We have a package of “Pumpkin Spice Snaps” sitting on the counter.  We have two leftover pieces of this year’s first homemade pumpkin pie sitting in our frig.  And it’s only a matter of time before my car veers off the road and right through a Starbucks drive-thru for one of their classic P.S. lattes.  (I’ll take a grande, if you please).

My daughter just reminded me Starbucks also brings back their pumpkin cream cold brew this time of year.  That’s a good one too but let’s be real: none of Starbucks’ P.S. offerings should be considered “coffee”.  We buy them for the spice and the sweet, not for the taste of the beans underneath.

Lest you think Starbucks gets the credit for our pumpkin spice mania, the record must be set straight.  McCormick and Company, they of the little red-capped spice bottles, debuted their “Pumpkin Pie Spice” in 1934.  At least three of the following are in the bottle: cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg.  Do I have this spice blend?  Yes.  Do I use it?  Heck, no.  My wife’s family recipe for pumpkin pie contains a different proportion of the individual spices than McCormick’s, which may be the secret to its delectable flavor.  Plus, pumpkin pie is easy enough to make without having the spices combined for you. Dump the ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Pour into a pie shell.  Bake. My kind of dessert.

Starbucks can’t even take the credit for the first P.S. latte.  That accolade goes to Mexico’s Candle Company in 1995.  The Starbucks version debuted eight years later.  But you could argue Starbucks kicked off the forever-trend where we infuse P.S. into everything imaginable, including the good (Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Cheerios, candles) and the ridiculous  (lip balm, deodorant, beer).  As of 2016, “pumpkin spice consumables” accounted for an annual market of over $500M. Yep, we’re hooked.

The “Pumpkin Spice Flavored Creme Oreo” is not even an Oreo, at least not in my pantry.  Nabisco attached the word “Oreo” but c’mon, let’s just admit it’s a seasonal wolf in sandwich cookie clothing.  “Golden” Oreo cookies… with “festive pumpkin spice flavored cream” (and is it cream or creme?)  Nope, the only Oreos in my book are black and white, though I will allow shelf space for the “Double Stuf” variety.

I’m not sure why this topic caught my eye because I haven’t had an Oreo in years.  The last time I did I realized the taste was different from the Oreo of my youth.  The cookies are not as soft, and there’s less cream filling in between (which is like messing with the ratio of chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s, a sin for all mankind).  Like the misfortune of many other snack foods though, size and ingredients change for the sake of profit.  And new varieties pop up to keep consumers buying.  At least we’re not talking about the Lady Gaga Oreo.  You’ll need your sunglasses for that one.

Now you’ll excuse me as I head off to a doctor’s appointment.  My drive will take me past several Starbucks, which means I could be caving to my first P.S. latte of the season.  Not that I’m worried about missing out.  As soon as the P.S. season is over I can look forward to Starbucks’ Chestnut Praline latte all the way through New Year’s Day.  Now we’re talking!

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Oreo is bringing back this flavor after a 5-year hiatus:, 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”.

Adding Fire to the Fuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blues Choose

When our daughter gets married this June, she’ll include the tradition of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”; all items meant to bring good luck.  “Old” is a ring from her grandmother; “New” a necklace.  “Borrowed” is still to be determined while “Blue” is the garter her husband-to-be tosses at the reception.  Now, if the “blue choose” were mine to make, I’d go with a handful of juicy berries instead.

This week I learned a few things about blueberries, my favorite fruit in any orchard, grove, or patch on earth.  Just outside the tiny town of Whiting, Maine (pop. 482) you’ll find Josh Pond, a farm known for its “organic hand-raked wild” blueberries.  Josh Pond is harvesting into its fourth generation and its 150 acres include a herd of Oberhasli goats and a giant field of strawberries.  In other words, shop on the JP website and you’ll find a variety of cheeses, jams, and jellies alongside the blues.

You already know a thing or two about organic produce but perhaps you’ve never heard the term “hand-raked”.  Check out the following video (which beats any description in words).  It’s a soothing process to watch and a bountiful harvesting technique.  Josh Pond can hand-rake up to 2,000 pounds of blueberries a day.  They’re then quick-frozen, packed into 5-pound boxes, and shipped directly to you…at $100 USD a pop.  Do the math.  Josh Pond grosses $40,000/day on its blueberries alone.

$20 for a pound of blueberries is way steep for my purchasing power.  I’m reluctant to pay half as much, and even then I drop them sparingly into my yogurt/granola breakfast.  But I may be stingier than I think.  JP customer Chelsea Balboni gushes in her online review, “My wild organic blueberry subscription has changed my life.  Every month a 5-pound case is overnighted to me…”  Every month?  Who spends $1,200/year on blueberries (besides Ms. Balboni)?  For the record, I’m not knocking Josh Pond.  If you want the best blues North America has to offer, JP is your go-to.  Just be ready to pay.

Maybe I still spend more on blueberries than you do, but I find it interesting my blues choose – when it comes to food in general – is very limited.  Quick – name a blue food (besides Josh Pond blueberries).  All I could come up with was Blue Curacao, which isn’t food so much as a liqueur served as a cordial or in tropical drinks.  Blue Curacao, ironically, comes from the dried peel of bitter orange and is then dyed blue. (Why blue? No idea, but we’re getting off-topic here).

A consult of a blue food list comes up with just a few worthy entries.  Blue crab.  Blue corn (tortillas).  Blue (or bleu) cheese.  And Brilliant blue FCF, a synthetic “safe and non-toxic” dye for ice cream, cotton candy, medications, and cosmetics.  I half-expected to find Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts on the list but then I remembered: the wholly chemical toaster pastries contain no blueberries whatsoever. (Okay, maybe a dried trace of them, way-y-y-y down on the ingredients list.)

Hello, Violet!

No post on blueberries would be complete without a mention of Violet Beauregarde.  Violet who?  C’mon now, channel your inner Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Violet was the obnoxious, gum-loving rich kid who sampled a chew of Willy Wonka’s four-course dinner gum, including the blueberry pie dessert that “wasn’t quite perfected yet”.  In a wonderful scene (from the classic 1971 version), Violet turns deep blue as she chews, and inflates into a giant blueberry.  The last we see of Violet, the Oompa-Loompas are rolling her away to the juice press to be squeezed back to normal size again.

Hello, Sal!

All of this blues talk reminds me I need to read my granddaughters Blueberries For Sal, one of my favorite childhood stories.  Also, I’ll probably cave to one of the giant blueberry muffins my wife brought home from Costco the other day.  As for the tempting bounty from Josh Pond?  Ah, if only I could purchase just a handful for my daughter on her wedding day.  Instead, I’ll leave those hand-raked beauties to blues-choosers with a little more discretionary income. 

Some content sourced from the Josh Pond website, the Prepared Cooks article, “18 Foods that are Blue”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #14

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

You’ve seen this before, as we cruise past the 2/3 DOWN, 1/3 TO GO road sign.  Bag #14 – of 21 bags of pieces – added another seven keys to the board for a total of twenty-four.  There’s a lone key remaining to the far right; then the whole assembly goes into the body of the piano (and heaven help me on that maneuver).

Piano keys are getting repetitive so let’s talk about Sergei Rachmaninoff.  His name is intimidating but his music has an interesting connection with pop.  If you remember Eric Carmen, you already know a little Rachmaninoff.  All By Myself is based on Sergei’s Piano Concerto No. 2Never Gonna Fall in Love Again is based on Sergei’s Symphony No. 2.  Both Carmen songs were huge hits but they’re also depressing.  Did Eric seek comfort in classical music when his personal relationships weren’t going his way?  Maybe, but it wasn’t without expense.  The Rachmaninoff estate brought “copyright” to Carmen’s attention, and promptly helped themselves to 12% of the royalties on both songs. 

Running Build Time: 11.0 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Symphony No. 2 in E minor, and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Leftover pieces: 6.

Conductor’s Note: Forget Eric Carmen.  Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody… is one of the most moving classical compositions you’ll ever hear.  The piece starts ever so simply on the piano, then brings in the orchestra to dramatic, sweeping interpretations.  My wife isn’t a classical music fan yet she loves Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody… especially since it’s the theme of the romantic time-travel movie Somewhere in Time.  Have a listen here.

Strange Bedfellows

Welcome to Masters Week, sports fans! Even if you don’t know the first thing about professional golf, you’ve probably heard of The Masters.  The tournament begins again this Thursday (for the eighty-sixth time) at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. If you have nothing better to do this weekend, you can watch a dozen mind-numbing hours of the television coverage. While you’re at it you’ll discover the Masters traditions, like the champion’s green jacket, the clubhouse top-story “Crow’s Nest” (where the amateur golfers reside), the famous pimento cheese sandwiches, and of course, Waffle House. Wait, Waffle House?

Question: When do waffles and golf belong in the same sentence?  Answer: When it’s April at The Masters. Why?  Because alongside the golf hats, shirts, and commemorative this-and-that for purchase at the souvenir shop, you can buy a limited-edition pair of Adidas golf shoes for your long walk along the course.  The shoes will set you back $200 – a little pricier than most – but hey, they’re limited-edition.  You’ll be among the select few advertising Waffle House on their heels.

Before you think waffles and golf shoes are the most random “pairing” (ha) in the history of merchandising, remember; The Masters is in Georgia.  So is Waffle House.  Their headquarters is right down the road in Atlanta and they have over 400 restaurants across the Peach State (way more than any other state).  In other words, a pair of Waffle House Adidas at The Masters may earn as many thumbs-up as strange looks.

Speaking of strange, Adidas took the breakfast look of its limited-edition shoe to an extreme.  Besides the rear-facing logo, a square-after-square print runs along the side, in a muted tone meant to represent waffles and syrup.  Adidas calls it “batter-like colorway” (a phrase you’ll never hear again, ever).  Including syrup in the design and labeling it “batter-like” might be how Adidas keeps distance (and lawsuits) from competitor Nike, which famously created its first shoe using a waffle iron. Whatever. Shoes and waffles still make strange bedfellows.  I mean, look at the marketing photos spaced throughout this post.  Clever yes, but isn’t your first thought, “Get your dirty sneakers off my dining table!

[Props to Adidas, if you have buyer’s remorse with your breakfast kicks, at least you also get a shoebox looking exactly like a teeny, tiny Waffle House.]

I’m not on my soapbox to knock Waffle House; quite the opposite.  Any restaurant keeping the doors open sixty years after the very first plate deserves my respect.  So does a restaurant where waffles are the main event because I love waffles.  If they’re on the menu, I’ll order waffles whether at Waffle House, Belgian-style, or made-to-order at the finest champagne brunch.  I’ve even been known to eat an Eggo or two.  Ideally, top your grids with strawberries and Chantilly cream, with syrup on the side for dipping.  Heaven on earth.

I’ve only been to Waffle House twice in my life.  Was it a memorable experience?  NO.  Both times I perched on a backless stool at the counter.  Both times I sat next to characters I’d never, ever choose to dine with.  Finally, the Waffle House kitchen is right there in the wide-open so you can watch your breakfast being prepared.  Wouldn’t say it was the most sanitary process I ever saw.

Waffle House does have its charms, however.  The original menu had just sixteen items; today, well over a hundred.  Each location is open all-day-all-night, which has some customers believing Waffle House doors don’t lock.  Each location also has a jukebox, including favorites from the “Waffle Records” label (Ex. They’re Cooking Up My Order by Alfreda Gerald, released in 2006).  Finally, two percent of all restaurant eggs in America are cracked at Waffle House.  Two percent is rarely a big number but in this case, it’s got a lot of zeroes.

Waffle House did make a famous mistake once.  In the 1960s, the chain was approached by one S. Truett Cathy, looking for an outlet for his proprietary chicken sandwich.  The sandwich was added to the menu for a short time, but sales were so strong Waffle House worried its waffles would lose the spotlight.  So Cathy moved on, and of course, Chick-fil-A soon became an even more popular place to eat.

Note the Waffle House shoebox

To be fair, the Adidas shoe isn’t the first time waffles and golf crossed paths. In 1996, Kevin Costner starred as a down-on-his-luck golfer in Tin Cup, which included a memorable scene at a Waffle House just before the U.S. Open.  Somehow this worked better than waffle-golf shoes.

According to its website, Waffle House has 10 locations in my home state of Colorado versus 439 locations in Georgia.  Do the math.  If a hundred Georgians order two waffles a day in each of those restaurants, Waffle House is cooking up over 600,000 Peach State waffles every week. WHOA. Now there’s my excuse to go to The Masters!

Some content sourced from the ESPN.com article, “Waffle House and Adidas team up for waffle-themed golf shoes”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #12

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

We’ll be “playing” the keyboard for the next few weeks. Bag #12 – of 21 bags of pieces – added another seven keys to the five I constructed last week, which puts us not quite halfway across the board.  I’m showing the complicated mechanical action in the photo because once the keys are installed it’ll be hard to see.  Notice how pressing the piano key down makes the rounded counterweight to the left go up.  The weight strikes the piano string above it (once inside the piano), and Voila! Music.

When you work on one of these Lego projects for almost ten hours you notice things. Little things. Today I realized, for the first time ever, Lego imprints its logo on every one of the thousands of raised “bumps” on its pieces (like the beige bumps just to the left of the black piano keys here).  A perfectionist would have all of those logos facing the same direction. Nope, not gonna happen; we’re on a one-way street here.

Running Build Time: 9.6 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Handel’s Water Music. Leftover pieces: 3

Conductor’s Note: Water Music is a collection of short pieces for a large orchestra.  Because Handel wrote the set of suites for King George I for a concert on the River Thames, Water Music is often performed outdoors.  Next to his choral work Messiah (“HA…lle-LU-jah!”), Water Music is Handel’s best-known composition.

This is Dough-NUTS!

Earlier this week, Krispy Kreme held the grand opening of its newest store just a few miles from my house. You’d have thought the first customers through the doors won the state lottery. I’ve never seen such an amped-up bunch of doughnut-lovers, at least the ones who stepped up to the television cameras. Even the news anchors caught the fever, practically giddy with their coverage, which in turn had me thinking, “Hello? Isn’t there anything more important going on in Colorado Springs?” Welcome to America, where the opening of a fast-food restaurant makes headline news.

Full disclosure: I’ve had a Krispy Kreme doughnut and they’re positively scrumptious.  Put a box of the original glazed in front of me and I’ll polish off at least half of ’em.  But that was years ago, back when Krispy Kreme was new and novel.  Today?  I take ’em or leave ’em, and apparently I leave ’em because I can’t tell you the last time I ate any brand of doughnut.  Regardless, doughnuts aren’t really my topic today; doughnut customers are.  Specifically, the ones who would get up at oh-dark-hundred just to say they’re among the first through Krispy Kreme’s doors on opening day.

Why?

Maybe these nuts for doughnuts are the same people who purchase tickets to the opening of a feature film; the ones who wait hours in line, watch the sold-out midnight show, then fall into bed bleary-eyed at 3am.  I want to get down on my knees and plead with them, “Hey you, the movie will be shown a hundred more times and will be just as good as the first showing”.  Why give up a good night’s sleep to say you saw it first?  Krispy Kreme will sell their doughnuts for years and they’ll taste just as good next year (and the year after that) as they do on “Grand Opening Day”.  Why the rush?

Here’s something else I don’t understand.  This same fast-food frenzy applied to Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out Burger, and two weeks ago, Whataburger when they opened their first stores in town.  The local news gave us updates for months until their “big days”, then cars backed up by the dozens through the drive-thru, then all you’d hear from neighbors was, “Did you hear what just opened?” like it was the juiciest bit of gossip ever. I can think of a dozen local, family-owned restaurants opening in the past several years, and not one of them earned the same hype as these national-chain fast-food commoners.  It’s like we Americans are addicted to fast food.  Which of course, we are.

Why again?

If I’d kept the local news on all day Tuesday, I would’ve seen the same on-the-spot reporter at Krispy Kreme, giving updates every two or three hours on the progress of the grand opening.  Instead, I just pulled up the news channel website and watched her short videos, one after the other after the other.  This reporter was at Krispy Kreme the entire day (that’s 5:30am-10:00pm for those who are counting).  She managed to look as fresh and bubbly with the first interview as with the last.  Probably hyped up on doughnut sugar.

At least she was getting paid.  Those first customers chose to be there voluntarily, which leads me to this question: what does the rest of your day feel like when you’ve been up since 3:00am?  One customer thought to pack pillows and blankets into her car for her three (pajama-clad) kids, so they could sleep while her husband waited in a line so long, the camera couldn’t find the end of it.  Another customer looked and talked like he’d just received his U.S. citizenship from a very faraway land, espousing the merits of the Krispy Kreme over the lesser doughnuts of his homeland.  A third customer, several dozen-doughnut boxes stacked carefully in her hands, boasted how popular she was going to be when she showed up at work (and between you and me, she looked like she’d had plenty of Krispy Kremes already).

Here’s my favorite part of this “news story”.  This isn’t the first Krispy Kreme to open in Colorado Springs.  Years ago, when KK doughnuts were a new rage, Colorado Springs got its first store.  A few years later it closed.  After that, you could only get pre-boxed Krispy Kremes at a few convenience stores around town.  After that you couldn’t get them at all.  Then several years pass.  Now we’re doing it all over again, with the same amount of hype.  To which I conclude: What does it say about your city when headline news that doesn’t deserve to be headline news becomes headline news all over again?

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Some content sourced from the Krispy Kreme website.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #11

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

Today’s build stepped away from the body of the piano (again). Bag #11 – of 21 bags of pieces – started out as a bit of a mystery.  If I’d looked closer at Mr. Instruction Manual, I’d have known what was coming.  At some point in the thirty-five-minute assembly it became obvious.  Keys, Francis Scott.  Piano keys.

I put the Bag #11 keys side-by-side with the piano in the second photo so you can get a sense of scale.  They’re kind of a “module”, which should insert comfortably into the front of the piano later.  My next several builds may be more of the same.  Remarkably, the keys are weighted just like a real piano.  Press one down and the red-tipped weight way at the other end brings it back up.  Think see-saw.  Lest this photo has you thinking “easy build”, Bag #11 contained well over 200 pieces.

Running Build Time: 8.7 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Ravel’s Boléro (twice through). Leftover pieces: 2

Conductor’s Note: Boléro is one of my favorite classical pieces and Ravel’s most famous work.  Listeners either love it or hate it.  It’s a fifteen-minute variation on two themes, with the orchestra building slowly to its crash-bang finale.  The repeating themes are so simple I could probably play them with just the few piano keys I built today.  Ravel composed Boléro as a ballet (it does sound like a dance or a march) and predicted most orchestras would refuse to play it.  He was wrong.  Boléro also gained considerable notoriety as the theme music for the 1970s movie 10, starring Bo Derek and Dudley Moore.

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

In-Spired Music

Last Friday, I walked out of the downtown salon where I get my monthly haircut to the makings of a beautiful late winter afternoon. A few cars motored by on the street, yet nobody blared the horn or blasted the radio. Pedestrians kept their conversations to a low tone.  Songbirds made melody, willing the next season to an early debut.  Above all (literally), the nearby Methodist church bells rang out the hour of the day from the steeple, followed by a cheerful rendition of… “The First Noel”?

Found the culprit on Google Street View!

Last time I checked Christmas was well over two months ago.  Decorations are boxed and returned to the closet, lights are taken down, and Starbucks no longer offers my seasonal favorite Chestnut Praline Latte.  Yet here I was, a block from a downtown church in March, with happy steeple bells daring me to burst into Christmas song. 

Talk about a case of bats in the belfry.  You think I’d pause for such a strange moment.  Instead, I simply took in this carol of the bells with a smile, got behind the wheel, and went on my “merry” way.

So it is with church bells, especially the ones in steeples big enough to broadcast their melodies for miles around.  I find church bells comforting, so much so they can play anything they choose and I’ll be happy to listen.  Even a tune that sounds so three-months-ago.

The church I grew up in, on the far west side of Los Angeles, had a tall steeple with bells.  If you pulled up to the parking lot within ten minutes of the start of the service, the bells were making music.  More importantly, they were telling you (as they’ve done for centuries in older churches) it’s time to get yourself inside for worship, buddy.  I didn’t watch every episode of Little House on the Prarie but I watched enough to remember the steeple bells summoning the people of the small town to church.  Believe me, you didn’t want to be the last parishioner in Walnut Grove to pass through the sanctuary doors, earning a steely-eyed stare-down from Rev. Alden.

Here’s another memory from childhood church.  In “Sunday School” they taught us how to lace our fingers together, tips pointing down, palms face-to-face below, and thumbs side-by-side in front.

Church! Steeple! Doors! PEOPLE!

[Go ahead, I’ll wait while you make your little “church”.]

Then you’d look at your hands and say, “Here’s the church…” (now raise your two index fingers into a point), “Here’s the steeple…”, (now separate your thumbs a bit), “Open the doors…”, (now flip your hands over and wiggle your fingertips), “… and see all the people!”  That little ditty was clever enough to recollect all these years later, the moment I heard “The First Noel” from the downtown steeple.

At least in America, the appeal – ha – of steeple bells is probably because you don’t hear them all that often (unless your neighbor is a church).  Most modern churches can only afford the structure of the steeple, not the complicated mechanism of the bells within.  Just like train crossings, today’s “bells” are often an electronic equivalent, and so realistic you can’t tell the difference.  But you can with steeples.  If the church was built in the last fifty years, the steeple bells probably don’t ring true (ha again).

Charleston, South Carolina is known as the Holy City because you’ll find over four hundred churches in its rather compact downtown streets.  You can’t look in any direction in Charleston without seeing a steeple, and many of them are hundreds of years old.  That means bells; hundreds and hundreds of bells.  Take a walk in Charleston on a Sunday morning and you’ll be “treated” to the overlapping competition of steeple bells.  They’re summoning you to church, of course (but which one, exactly?)

The Sound of Music has a brief but charming steeple scene in the movie, just before or after Maria weds Captain von Trapp at Mondsee Abbey.  The camera points to the very top of a steeple, where the abbey bells are visible just below the cupola.  In the era of the story, steeple bells were rung by hand.  In this scene, the “ringer-boy” is shown holding on for dear life as he clings to a rope, the weight of the bell dragging him up and down like a pogo stick.  The moment always makes me laugh.

One of these days you’ll be walking down the streets of your own town and church bells will ring.  Stop for a second and give them a listen.  You’ll probably hear a melodic hymn.  You might even be gifted with an “unseasonal” Christmas carol.  Doesn’t really matter.  Those big, happy bells make beautiful music no matter the tune.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #9

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

We are closing in the piano’s insides now, as you can see by the almost complete black frame in both photos. Bag #9 – of 21 bags of pieces – contained a good chunk of the frame curves, including the graceful “S” you can see just beyond the right side of the (future) keyboard.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was just about the perfect length for today’s build, with a couple of hold-your-breath moments where pieces from previous builds snapped off and skittered away. They’re back where they belong now,

Running Build Time: 7.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G-Minor. Leftover pieces: 2 (tiny unnecessary extras for the frame).

Conductor’s Note: We have a hinged trap door built into the frame now, for access to the battery pack and on/off switch.  When it’s closed, the frame is seamless and you’d never know the door was there.  They have clever people at Lego.