It’s Been a Silent Night

When singer Amy Grant released “Tennessee Christmas” in 2016 it’d been years since she recorded a holiday collection. In fact, her platinum-level “A Christmas Album” arrived way back in 1983; her triple-platinum “Home for Christmas” in 1992. “Tennessee Christmas” didn’t achieve platinum, gold, or anything else for that matter.  As my brother said at the time, “She never should’ve done it.” He’s right. Amy should’ve released just “I Need a Silent Night” and called it good.

Amy Grant can still pen lyrics (even if her voice isn’t as strong as it used to be).  “I Need a Silent Night” asks us to find the true meaning of Christmas in the midst of the inevitable commercial distractions.  Instead of “December traffic” and “Christmas rush” and “Shopping and buying and standing forever in line”, Amy asks:

I need a silent night, a holy night
To hear an angel voice through the chaos and the noise
I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here
To end this crazy day with a silent night

As if we’ve been granted Amy’s wish (ha), this season has been remarkably placid.  The message of Advent is always “prepare” and that’s what we’re doing.  It’s just – unlike most years – we’re not using words like “rush” and “chaos”.  We’re experiencing more of a “silent night” instead.

Our Christmas prep never begins until after Thanksgiving (I stand on holiday principles here) but by the following Saturday I was eagerly unpacking the decorations and streaming holiday tunes.  More importantly, I also found myself saying “yes” to just about every reason for the season:

  • Since we can’t have in-person services our church offered Advent wreaths to build and display in whatever room you “go to church” in at home.  We asked for a wreath as soon as they were available.
  • A family involved in our local 4-H advertised festive bags of scented pine cones as a fundraiser for their activities.  We bought two bags and they delivered them straight to our door.  There’s nothing that says “Christmas” like the tiny voice of a five-year-old saying, “Thank you, Mr. Wilson!”
  • Our church set up a virtual giving tree where you can pick presents from a list, buy them, and return them to the church for distribution to needy families.  I bought six.
  • We’ve been baking up a kitchen storm so we decided to put together plates of cookies for our neighbors and deliver them.  Front doors were opened cautiously, to which we said, “Well, this may be the only chance we get to see you face-to-face this year.  Merry Christmas!”
  • We’ll be having drive-in Christmas Eve services this year so our church put out a big bin of ornaments, asking us to decorate them and put them on trees surrounding the parking lot.  I grabbed several.
  • Starbucks moves to Christmas drinks and goodies shortly after Halloween.  There’s this unspoken opportunity to “pay it backwards” by taking care of the car behind you in the drive-thru, and then speeding off to remain anonymous.  I’ve been doing this for weeks.
  • Colorado Springs advertises a Christmas For Kids effort where you’re assigned a needy child’s Christmas list.  You buy the gifts, wrap them up, and pass them on to case workers who make sure the kids get them in time for Christmas.  I sponsored two.

Most of these Christmastime gestures (and why should they only happen at Christmas, right?) would not find room in our “normal years”.  We’d be rushing about trying to find one last gift, throwing up Christmas lights and decorations, and hastily preparing our cards to put in the mail.  We’d be wrapping presents ’til well past midnight on Christmas Eve.  Yet this year we’re completely organized and ready, including all those meaningful extras I mentioned above.

Let me “wrap” (ha) with one more holiday task we completed earlier than usual: decorating our tree.  Christmas trees must’ve been in high demand (or short supply) this year because our local lot only had one left in the 10′-12′ range we prefer.  It’s tall and thin (kind of like you see in Whoville in the original “Grinch” movie).  It’s so tall our angel at the top seems poised in the heavens, which is wonderfully appropriate this year.  She was the only decor on the tree all of last Sunday before we added everything else the following night.  So now our tree boasts the usual organized chaos of lights and ornaments.  But it’s only the angel I see.  She’s watching over us and giving us exactly what we need this year: a silent night, a holy night.

This post is in memory of Marion.

Golden Thrones

Every now and then the local news sneaks in a headline to showcase our local taxes and fees at work. A swanky new visitor center is about to open on the top of nearby Pikes Peak (14,115′) at a cost of $66M. A 250-ft. pedestrian bridge ($18.7M) spans gracefully over downtown railroad tracks, connecting a public park to our new U.S. Olympic museum complex. Increased traffic between Colorado Springs and Denver demands eighteen miles of a new interstate toll lane ($350M).

Colorado Springs must be “flush” with tax dollars

These efforts make sense and I’m happy to write the check, especially with the potential for revenue in return. But another project almost escaped my news feed and Mr. Mayor, I respectfully request a refund. We now have a fully-accessible fully-automated self-cleaning public toilet in a small park on the west side of town. Cost: $415,000.  That’s a lot of loot for a little lavatory, no?

On the surface our golden throne sounds good enough to try out.  It’s a touchless experience once you “ring the doorbell”.  The restroom door opens/closes automatically with a sanitary-sounding hiss.  Circulating air and classical music provide the white noise you need to mask unpleasant sounds.  A bathroom “host” politely pipes in over the loudspeaker to let you know you have ten minutes to do your thing.  After that – reason in itself to just go and watch from a distance – all doors open whether or not you’re buttoned up.  Talk about getting caught with your pants down.

Our city’s posh powder room comes from Exeloo (great name), an Australian company expanding its footprint into North America.  Besides the fancy features mentioned above Exeloo toilets are self-cleaning, which means they spray down and disinfect their surfaces from wall-mounted nozzles every thirty uses or so.  Makes me think the kitchens of Chinese restaurants could use the same treatment.

The (cheaper) Exeloo “Saturn”

Learning more about Exeloo didn’t make me feel better about my tax dollars.  That’s because our city purchased the fanciest model on the website.  Exeloo offers six different “loos”, with names like Jupiter, Saturn, and Orbit.  (Why – because going to the bathroom should be an out-of-this-world experience?)  Our city chose the model simply named “Fully Accessible”.  It looks at least twice as big as any of the others.

Let me contrast our wet-n-wild washroom with a more modest facility.  Just off the coast at Torrey Pines in North San Diego County you’ll find a nondescript public restroom sandwiched between the beach and the parking lot.  It has no doors.  It has no music.  It’s made entirely of cinderblocks and concrete.  A flush requires an “old-fashioned” pull of the handle, emitting just enough water to clear the bowl.  The sinks offer just a trickle of water to rinse your hands.  The mirrors aren’t mirrors at all, but big polished metal panels with just enough of a reflection.  This restroom is bombproof.

Which brings me to my point.  Why does my town need a bathroom good enough for a visit from Queen Elizabeth when cinderblock and concrete will do just as well?  The Torrey Pines toilet probably cost $4,000, not $400,000.  The next headline I’ll be reading is how a homeless person took up residence in our well-to-do water closet and now our tax dollars have to fund a full-time attendant as well.

The first time I experienced a first-class public flush was in Boston Common.  Smack dab in the middle of the grass expanse and softball diamonds we found a restroom similar to an Exeloo, only more like a double-wide RV.  It was a welcome sight after hours exploring the city on foot.  An attendant sat quietly on a nearby park bench, keeping an eye on things.  And the cherry on top of this sanitation sundae: the facility was sponsored by a non-profit called Friends of the Public Garden.  Not a tax dollar to be spent.

Could’ve had this whole house for less than our Exeloo, Mr. Mayor

Since we can’t go out to dinner or see a concert or even go to church this Christmas, I think I’ll take the family to see our sparkling Exeloo public restroom instead.  Maybe they’ve scented the circulating air to smell like Christmas cookies or pine trees.  Maybe they’ve switched out the classical music for holiday favorites.  Hopefully they’ve dressed up the attendant to look like Santa.  It’s the least they can do for my tax dollars.

Some content sourced from the 11/6/2020 Springs Magazine article, “At Least We Have a $300K Bathroom”.

Cookie-Cutter Cinema

We’ve collected a pretty good stack of Christmas movie DVD’s over the years but most are one-time-watch forgettable. Yet no Christmas celebration is complete without sitting down to “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947’s original). Add in a televised version of “A Christmas Carol” (hopefully 1938’s original) and you’d swear all of the best Christmas movies were made before 1950. Of course, the Hallmark Channel would respectfully disagree. Love ’em or hate ’em, Hallmark’s been baking their cookie-cut Christmas movies for over twenty years.

Unlike most companies, even a global pandemic doesn’t slow down Hallmark.  I just checked my Hallmark app (yes, they have an app) and another forty Christmas originals are coming out of Hallmark’s holiday oven this year.  The first of these (“Jingle Bell Bride”) premiered on October 24th, so if you didn’t find the Christmas spirit before Halloween you’re already way behind.  Drop everything and grab the TV remote – you’ve got movies to watch!  Fresh cookies await: twelve of Hallmark’s 2020 offerings haven’t made their debut yet.

In life before electronic media Hallmark was the, well… hallmark of the greeting-card industry.  You bought a Hallmark card “when you cared enough to send the very best”.  You went to their “Gold Crown” stores to purchase wrapping paper, stationery, Christmas ornaments, and picture frames.  In brick-and-mortar days Hallmark seemed like anything but a media empire.  So they kind of snuck up on us with their bonanza of Christmas movies, didn’t they?

We should’ve seen this coming.  Hallmark quietly sponsored a couple of radio-based storytelling programs in the 1940’s.  Then they jumped into in-house productions with their “Hallmark Hall of Fame” (HHF) series.  You never knew when an HHF movie would pop up on TV but it must’ve been fairly often.  HHF is considered the longest-running prime-time series in the history of television.  For the record HHF movies were better than Hallmark Christmas movies.  Way better.  Maybe that’s because Hallmark Christmas movies run a budget of about a million dollars.  That’s not very much, even for a made-for-TV movie.

Admit it, you’ve watched a Hallmark Christmas movie.  You might’ve even enjoyed it.  But once you stood back and gained perspective you realized Hallmark Christmas movies are really bad.  They’re the very definition of schmaltz.  The acting is God-awful.  The outfits are dusted off from last year’s Hallmark movies.  The piled-up snow looks a little too perfectly placed around porches and lampposts.  The sets are nameless little towns in western Canada with same-looking Main Streets.

Then there’s the storylines. Dear Lord.  Every Hallmark Christmas movie is the same sugary-sweet cutout cookie baked at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.  The lead finds herself in a Christmas-related predicament.  She conveniently crosses paths with “him”.  He unwittingly steps in to help with her predicament.  They find themselves on screen together the rest of the movie (read: flirt).  Then – but not until the last two minutes of the movie – they figure out they’ve fallen in love.  Quick kiss.  Holiday smiles.  Roll credits.

Even the actresses look alike.  That’s because they’re all the same actress.  Well, almost.  A dozen women grace Hallmark’s pantheon of “Queens of Christmas”.  If you recognize Rachel Boston, Candace Cameron Bure, Lacey Chabert, Danica McKellar, Alicia Witt, or a few others, you know the Queens.  Perhaps you’ve seen them on Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” (an hour of Christmas commercials movie previews).  Perhaps you’ve heard them pushing their movies on Sirius XM’s “Hallmark Channel Radio”.

Why stop at Christmas?  Hallmark Channels want to be considered your “year-round destination for celebrations”.  Accordingly you’ll also find their themed movies around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Day, and – lest they feel like left-out seasons – the beginning of spring, summer, and fall.  You can even bask in “Christmas in July” if you missed some of the previous year’s premieres (but why would you?)

Hallmark is a much brighter bulb than any of the actors you see here.  There must be a ton of profit in schmaltz; otherwise why would Lifetime, Netflix, Disney, and Apple also jump into Christmas movies?  Gonna be hard to catch Hallmark: their productions can be found on four television channels, three apps, and that Sirius XM radio station.

Counting 2020, Hallmark has produced and aired over 250 Christmas movies.  Talk about a marathon: it would take you twenty days to watch them all (after which you’d be surgically removed from your couch).  Not me.  I’ll stick with George Bailey in Bedford Falls, Kris Kringle at Macy’s, and Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghosts.  Real actors, real stories, and genuine Christmas spirit.  No cookie cutters.

Some content sourced from the 11/17/2019 Wall Street Journal article, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Netflix and Disney Battle Hallmark for Christmas Viewers”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Mixed Messages

My dad called the other day for a chat, but not before letting me know my answering machine was full. Since he couldn’t leave a message he just called over and over ’til I finally picked up. But here’s the thing: I don’t have any messages on my answering machine.  It’s not full at all.  So after the call I said to my wife, “Dad’s almost 92. I’ll forgive him a little confusion now and then. Probably mixed me up with one of my brothers.”

I still have one of these

Do you still have a landline in your house, the one with a bulky handset and built-in answering machine?  If you do, it’s tethered to the wall with wires, which then connect to a march of telephone poles outside (more wires), which eventually route your call to wherever it needs to go.  Imagine – in a world of wireless – a phone call with a physical connection from one end all the way to the other.  It’s positively antique.

[Random thought: once the world is fully wireless what’ll we do with all those telephone poles.  Caber toss, anyone?]

Go ahead and mock my out-land-ish outdated phone – at least I don’t have a party line.  Back in the day, if you lived in the sticks you shared a single physical line with your neighbors.  You were a “party” of subscribers who often found themselves talking over each other (“crosstalk”) or connected to the wrong party at the other end.  Party lines it is said, were the birthplace of gossip.

The reason I stubbornly cling to my landline is probably not the same as yours.  I keep my landline exclusively for those calls with my dad (er, and to divert telemarketers from my smartphone).  My dad can’t hear very well so anything wireless is a challenge, especially when you get the occasional syncing issue in the conversation.  On a landline Dad hears LOUD and CLEAR… even if he doesn’t always acknowledge what I say.  Are his calls worth the monthly subscription fee?  He’s 92!  You bet they are.

Now let me ask you this.  How often do you call your own phone number?  Why would you?  Pick up the phone and you get dial tone – all good.  Set the answering machine to “on” so people can leave messages – even better.  Except when they can’t.  Let’s suppose – “hypothetically” – your phone company redirects your phone number to a random voicemail box.  And that mailbox is already full.  How would you know?  Only if you called your own phone number, right?  Or, only if the one person who calls you (“hypothetically” your dad) insists he can’t leave a message.

Damn.  Dad was right after all.

Here’s the best part.  I can’t even call my phone company to fix the problem.  Why?  Because I “bundled”.  You know, where you combine TV, Internet, wireless, landline, and whatever else you have so they’re all billed and serviced through a single provider? Mis-take. Try calling your satellite TV provider to ask about landline phone service.  After you explain what a landline IS, the young person at the far end transfers you to a “specialist” (someone much older who actually understands landlines).  That person acts as intermediary between you and the phone company.  There’s a lot of, “Can I put you on hold for a sec?” and, “You still there? and, “Hold tight, we’re still working on it” and even the occasional, “You did say this was a landline, right?  Y’know, you really should get rid of your landline…”.

Long story short, it took me the better part of a week but now my dad can leave messages on my answering machine again.  He also says I should listen to my father more often.  (For younger readers, this is an excellent example of “eating crow”.  Look it up.)

Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) – the English band of the ’70’s who somehow fused pop, rock, and classical – had their biggest U.S. hit with Telephone Line.  Its final verse begins, “Okay… so no one’s answering.  Well can’t you just let it ring a little longer, longer, longer?”  No ELO, I can’t let it ring a little longer – the phone company rerouted my number to a full voicemail box.

But hey, thanks for calling.

The Original “Black Friday”

The first two weeks of November were jammed with “un-often” events this year.  For starters the bright light of Halloween’s blue moon spilled into the wee hours of November 1st.  During those same wee hours most of us lost Daylight Savings Time.  The very next day (Monday) marked the official arrival of Hurricane Eta to our shores. The day after that we voted in a presidential election. A week later we staged the Masters golf tournament (it’s supposed to be in April, people).  Then we had another hurricane (Iota), the first time we’ve had two in November.  Finally, we spiked positive COVID-19 tests in record numbers after months of declines.

That’s a pile of rarities in a short amount of time.  So why not add one more to the heap?  Friday the 13th.  I missed it completely.  Maybe you missed it too (and you’d be forgiven with all those other distractions).  Last Friday – the 13th – came and went without an ounce of bad luck to blog about.  Ironically, the only story I can share brought good luck.  I placed a carry-out dinner order last Thursday night and the restaurant gave me someone else’s food.  When I went back for the right order they told me to keep both.  As a result my Friday the 13th dinner was unexpectedly “on the house”.

Are you superstitious?  I’m not – not in the least.  I have no problems with sidewalk cracks, leaning ladders, or black cats. I don’t lose sleep anticipating the third occurrence of a bad thing.  I gladly pick up a penny (it’s free money after all) but with no expectations of luck.  I’ve broken mirrors (deliberately, in remodel projects) and wishbones (on a whim, in turkeys).  I’ve even knocked on lots of wood (mostly doors) but hey, my life goes on as usual.

Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece

As for Friday the 13th’s “un-luck”, its long-ago origins are suspiciously weak.  The most common comes from the story of Jesus in the Bible: thirteen individuals at the Last Supper (Thursday) followed by Jesus’ foretold crucifixion the following day.  Other theories point to fighting gods in mythology and fighting knights in the Middle Ages.  None of these carry water in my book.  Seriously, how did misfortune come to be associated with the collision of a particular day and date?

I read up on calendar averages, thinking the 13th falling on a Friday was as uncommon as a blue moon.  Maybe the 13th favors the other days of the week instead?  Nope, try the reverse.  Over a significant number of years the 13th falls on Friday more than Saturday, Sunday, or any other day of the week.

To add a helping of confusion, look no further than Spain or Greece.  These countries have an irrational fear of Tuesday the 13th.  Italy?  Friday the 17th.  Imagine watching America’s famous horror movie franchise in any of these places and wondering, “so… why do they call it ‘Friday the 13th'”?

No matter my efforts to undermine this superstition, the effects are real.  Over 17 million Americans admit to a dread of Friday the 13th.  Some avoid airplane travel and others won’t even get out of bed.  Buildings remove the thirteenth floor from the stack (which is a lot of demolition for a superstition, isn’t it?)  Elevators conspicuously delete the “13” button.  Numbered seats in stadiums go 10, 11, 12… 14, 15, 16.

For some of you, Black Friday means bargains.  For others, Black Friday means “13”. If nothing else, I’ll give you a couple of words to describe the circumstance of the latter’s irrational fear.  If you’re afraid of the number 13 you have triskaidekaphobia.  If you’re afraid of just Friday the 13th you have paraskevidekatriaphobia.  (Me, I only have acrophobia.  At least your phobias sound more sophisticated.)

Fact check.  This post was published close to the midpoint between Black Friday (the 13th) and Black Friday (the retail binge).  Okay-y-y-y.  This post also contains exactly 666 words.  WHOO boy.

Let me repeat… I am NOT superstitious.

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

Joe Whoops-a-Lazy

Cycle class at the gym (also called “spin”) goes very well as long as you’re careful with your setup before starting the wheels a-turnin’. Adjust the seat and handlebars until you’re “one with the cycle”. Remove the “cages” from the pedals if you wear cycle shoes. Secure your water bottle in the holder with the top open. Place your towel within easy swabbing distance. And bring an extra mask to replace the one you destroy when you rip it away from your face gasping for air.

I’ve been committed to weekly cycle for a long time now so my setup routine is darned near perfect. As it was this morning.  Everything in its place – time to get after it, Dave.  But then the classroom door flew open and in strode Joe Whoops-a-Lazy. And curse you Murphy’s law, Joe chose the cycle right next to mine.

You know Joe. He’s the boisterous bruiser who announces his presence just by lumbering across the room. He’s big and he’s bald, with too many tattoos and not enough clothing. He breathes in and out like a bull pre-stampede, even when all he’s doing is setting up his bike. He gives the rest of us a beady-eyed sneer to size up his competition (as if you can somehow be “competitive” on a stationary bike.)

Poor Joe. He’s not just Joe, he’s Joe Whoops-a-Lazy. Every time the cycle instructor gives a shout-out to see if we’re all still alive and kicking, Joe yells, “WHOOOOP!!!” or “AW YEAH!!!” or “LET’S DO THIS!!!”. To Joe, it’s an hour-long party on wheels!  Joe wants the rest of us to know he’s really into cycle. Personally I think he’s just really into our cycle instructor.

Here’s where it all goes wrong, Joe. If you gave it a millisecond of thought you’d realize none of the rest of us are going “WHOOOOP!!!” or “AW YEAH!!!” We don’t utter a word when the instructor shouts out her lusty, “How ya’ doin’ out there?”. Why? Because we… can’t… talk. We can’t even form a coherent thought.  For God’s sake, we can barely breathe.  We’re all about the non-verbals in those oxygen-deprived moments.  Head nodding.  Thumbs-up.  Not whooping it up like a cheerleader at a football game.

If Joe were giving cycle class his all, his last name might be Whoops-Amazing instead of Whoops-a-Lazy. Instead, he’s all about looking good and flirting with the instructor (as if a “WHOOOOP” melts her in her cycle shoes). Sorry Joe, if you have enough breath to cheerlead, you’re leaving something on the table.  In other words, you’re kinda lazy.

Here’s another betrayal of Joe’s he-man persona. While the rest of us push up an imaginary hill, our cycles cranked to all kinds of resistance, JW is standing on his pedals a head higher than the entire class. Joe thinks cycling as he stands makes him look uber-strong.  Er, he got that one backward. Anyone who cycles even a little knows you work harder in the seat than standing on the pedals.

Maybe you’ll be seated next to Joe Whoops-a-Lazy the next time you ride a rollercoaster. Joe’s the one with his hands held high in the sky as the coaster ascends the first incline, whooping and hollering before the death drops even begin. He’s more like Joe Whoops-a-Crazy, cackling down the hills and around the curves as his straining seat belt threatens ejection.

I’m fine with Rollercoaster Joe. I’m also fine with Sports Bar Joe, yelling at the game on the big-screen TV.  But I’m not fine with Golf Fan Joe going, “IN THE HOLE!!!” after a Tiger Woods putt.  And I’m not fine with Cycle Class Joe and his big ol’ “WHOOOOP!!!”.  Take that swagger back to the weight room, big guy.

Losing Sleep (and other things)

So…. yesterday morning I misplaced my wife. Woke up and for Pete’s sake I couldn’t find her anywhere.  I swear she was right next to me the night before – dinner, tv, that sort of thing – but yesterday morning… nope, no wife.  Somehow losing her didn’t cause me too much pause so I went about my morning routine.  Stood in front of the mirror bleary-eyed brushing my teeth (and sometimes my face) before it finally dawned on me.  My wife had a late-morning appointment a couple hours’ drive away.  She had to leave at sun-up. I knew this Tuesday night. I did not know this Wednesday morning.  At least I remembered I have a wife, right?

Were you as sleep-deprived as I was after Tuesday night?  I had a few slip-ups yesterday to assure me it would be one of those days. After losing my wife I dropped my electric toothbrush mid-brush and just stared while it vibrated in little circles on the floor.  Then I cracked an egg on the edge of my coffee cup and almost dropped the egg into the coffee instead of the frying pan. When I moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer, I felt the need to check the lint screen twice before starting the load (I never check the lint screen).  You get the idea.  It was gonna be a fun-zone kinda day in my world.

[I’m fading in and out as I type thisssssssssssssssss…  <WAKE UP!!!> …. whoops… (wipes hand across face).  Yawn.  Okay… I’m back now.]

Actually, zoning out works well for let-it-flow writing; keeps it casual right? I was sleep-deprived because I watched too much election coverage Tuesday night. Turned on the TV just before dinner and turned it off six hours later, probably same as you. Once you realized the consensus wasn’t coming anytime soon you chose sleep instead of states.  And speaking of states, little red and blue ones danced in circles in my brain.  Like sheep over fences.  You’d think that’d help me fall asleep.

Only I couldn’t sleep (could you?) I tossed, turned, punched the pillow, stared up at the ceiling, but couldn’t knock out no matter what I tried.  I read a chapter on my Kindle, good for getting drowsy.  I let the dog out and for once, waited awhile at the door until he came back in.  Took a few laps around the house just to add to my step count.  Nothing worked.

The celebration might have to wait a few more days…

Maybe I had “election anxiety”. You know, where you’re not feeling quite right leading up to the count?  You figure it has something to do with the election but what, exactly? I voted for one candidate over the other like everybody else, but weeks ago I made peace with either outcome (a very Aquarius thing to do). Now here we are Thursday with the outcome a few states away from definitive. Do I still have election anxiety?  No (thank goodness).  “Annie” was right.  “The sun’ll come up… tomorrow…”.  It’s technically the day after tomorrow and the sun came up both days.

I usually fall asleep within minutes of hitting the pillow so now (for a few conscious minutes anyway) I have a couple theories on what went haywire Tuesday night.  One, my deep conscience convinced me the election outcome would be decided in the middle of the night (hence the iPhone by my bedside, hence the every-hour check of the results). Two, I went from six hours of staring at a big-screen television to… bed. I never do that. I wind down with a little light reading instead. So it’s true what they say: “Power down devices an hour before hitting the hay, or wide-eyed and restless you will lay”.  (Okay, they don’t really say that.)

Yesterday I made it all the way to noon without passing out – small miracle after my short night.  Took me two cups of coffee and a full breakfast to get that far.  Mid-afternoon I thought I’d be breaking out the peanut M&M’s to power through (junk food always beckons when I’m tired).  In fact, I was so tired I felt like I’d drop face down in my cereal bowl.  Cereal bowl… wait… I had eggs yesterday morning, didn’t I?  What day is this?  What time is it?  I’m so confused.  I should go take a nap and… and… and… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Halloween’s Element of Surprise

Same ol’, same ol’… sigh…

Our grocer dedicates an entire aisle to Halloween this time of year.  It’s a pile-on of kid costumes, yard decor, plastic jack-o’-lanterns, and party supplies.  You’ll also find massive bags of assorted small candies, enough to load up your front door bowl with a single pour.  These treats are individually wrapped and brand-familiar to carefully conform to the holiday’s “safe standards”.  In other words, there’s no element of surprise in all that sugar.

When was the last time you were treated to a little something you didn’t expect?  Here’s a good example.  My wife and I traveled to Texas last weekend to visit our son.  As we settled into the hotel room we noticed a tray on the table with two bottles of water and a couple of wrapped candies.  Not so unusual.  But then we read the little card next to the tray.  Not only was the water free of charge (hotels typically stick it to you with bottled water) but the candies were handmade salted caramels from a local culinary kitchen.  Suddenly I’m thinking, “What a nice hotel!”

Perhaps you know a few other hotels with the same gesture, as Doubletree does with its chocolate-chip cookies (see Calories of Contentment for more on that).  But unlike our Texas hotel, Doubletree always goes with the chocolate-chip cookies.  Stay there enough and you come to expect them.  No surprise.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Halloween today.  You still get the occasional trick (TP in the trees?  Shaving cream in the pumpkins?) but the “or-treat” routine has been reduced to just that – routine.  Think about a child’s anticipation for the big night.  Hours spent making sure their costume stands out in a crowd.  Miles spent covering sidewalks and front walks.  Fingers spent on doorbells and knockers, all so they can get, what… another fun-size Hershey bar?  Where-oh-where is the element of surprise?

Mom’s Halloween treats

Back in the “ol’ days” (because I’m feeling old today) a lot of front-door Halloween treats were homemade.  People handed out family-recipe popcorn balls and caramel apples.  My mother made the frosted ginger pumpkin cookies you see here.  A guy down the street dressed as Dracula and manned a little round grill in his driveway, handing out barbecued hot dog bites on toothpicks.  You never knew what you’d walk away with until you made it to the next house.

A mini pumpkin has zero HTV

Creative treats only boosted the night’s excitement back then.  I remember catching up with friends in the darkened streets to compare the collective efforts in our bags.  More importantly, the wide variety of treats upped the ante on what one candy-ranking opinion piece referred to as “HTV” or Halloween Trade Value.  After all, the most important event of the night was the post trick-or-treat trade, right?  You’d spill the contents of your pillowcase into a big pile on the floor and the back-n-forth would begin.  “I’ll give you three rolls of Smarties and a Baby Ruth for your Charleston Chew”.  Yes, friends, those were the days.

Everything changed when Halloween lost its young-and-innocent status.  Parents inspected treat bags to filter out anything remotely suspicious.  Homemade items only made it as far as the next-door neighbor’s kids or backyard Halloween parties.  Suddenly a treat didn’t pass muster if it wasn’t recognizable and wrapped.  The creative license of trick-or-treating has expired.

But hold on now.  What about the other 364 days of the year?  Can’t the element of surprise show up on one or more of those?  Can’t we still be caught off guard… in a good way?

Here’s an attempt.  At least two companies offer monthly treats by subscription and you have no idea what’s coming.  SnackCrate describes its product as “a world of snack surprises – monthly”.  TryTreats advertises “each month’s box will feature snacks from a different country in the world.  The country you’ll receive is a secret until you receive the box!”  Kind of a spin on my ol’-days Halloween nights, don’t you think?

Speaking of treats I think the dog got wind of this topic.  The other night I prepped his dinner with the usual two cups of kibble topped with a few bits of lunch meat.  He ate the bits but left the kibble.  He’s never done that before.  Maybe he’s bored with it?  I need to shake things up.  Throw in a few doggie treats.  Add the ol’ Halloween element of surprise and get his tail wagging again.

Flying Furballs

As I glance out the windows of my home office I’m struck by the calm of a late fall afternoon; the cloudless blue sky with just a whisper of wind through the trees.  I don’t see any aircraft heading to or from the local military bases, nor the white vapor trails they often leave behind.  No flocks of birds heading in perfect formation south for the winter.  No falling leaves spinning to the ground.  Heck, I don’t even see a flying squirrel!

Maybe you caught the story earlier this week.  Seven people locked up in a Florida prison are charged with spearheading a “flying squirrel ring”.  They trapped thousands of the little guys in the wild, laundered them through a dealer (what sort of person deals in flying squirrels?), who distributed them to several buyers.  The buyers then drove to airports around the U.S., where the winged creatures were loaded onto airplanes headed to far eastern countries.  Who knew: there’s a market for flying squirrels as exotic pets?  Asians pay top dollar for them.

Is it just me or is there something a little redundant about shipping a flying squirrel on an airplane?

Also, what kind of a weirdo goes to the trouble to capture, launder, distribute, sell, drive, and transport thousands of flying squirrels halfway around the world?  If you’re going to do something illegal why not deal drugs?  Does a flying squirrel sell for that much?

Here’s another thing I can’t figure.  What do you call a litter of flying squirrels… a “squadron”?

You must admit, flying squirrels probably make the top-ten list of God’s coolest creatures.  The Northern species is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  They have big doe eyes to help them see in the dark (picture a Disney character).  They forage for fruit, seeds, tree sap, and the occasional bird egg.  They’ve been buzzing the planet for millions of years now – almost prehistoric.

But let’s talk about those “wings”.  Flying squirrels have what’s called a patagium: a furry, parachute-like membrane stretching from tiny wrist to tiny ankle.  When the membrane’s stretched taut they can glide from tree to tree, using their tail for stability.  They can even steer their body like an airplane, using limbs and tail.  How far can a flying squirrel fly, you ask?  How about 300 feet?  Yep, put one of these babies on top of an American football goalpost and he can soar all the way through the other end zone.  “Touchdown”!

“Boo!”

Okay BUT… flying squirrels lost some of their coolness when I discovered this picture.  OMG, that’s just wicked scary.  Can you imagine camping under the stars relaxed in your sleeping bag and you wake up to the rapid descent of that?  I’d NEVER be the same.  And here’s another Halloween-ish detail: flying squirrels glow.  Their underbody fluoresces pink under UV light.  Why?  No idea, but that just makes them creepier.

Maybe I don’t want a flying furball for a pet after all.

I suppose I’d take flying squirrels over some of the other flying organisms out there.  You know about flying fish.  You may even know about flying frogs.  But did you know about the flying squid in our oceans?  Seriously, they can jettison out of the water by expelling water from their “funnel” and travel up to 160 feet.  They can even keep that water blast going in the air for extra distance.  And there you have it: the world’s only jet-propelled aerial locomotion animal.

This is wrong on so many levels…

Now let’s get to the stuff of real nightmares.  How about flying snakes?  Five species in Southeast Asia and India can glide like the squirrels.  They contort their long bodies to be concave (like an upside-down taco shell), which allows them to buoy on a cushion of air.  Not to be outdone by the squirrels, flying snakes can also cover the length of a football field.  They even make mid-air 90-degree turns.  I didn’t have plans to visit Southeast Asia or India anytime soon but now I’m never going.  No way.

Finally, we have the undisputed king of flying nightmares: balloon spiders.  These ungodly insects spin a silky globe along with a sturdy dragline and go for a ride wherever the wind may take them.  If I was talking about one flying spider I might deal with it but these guys travel in packs.  Large packs.  Can you imagine?  An endless assault of mini paratroopers on a mini Normandy, only you are Normandy.  “Incoming!”

“I’ll get you, my pretty…”

You can fill your skies with whatever you want but I’ll pass on flying squids, snakes, and spiders.  I’ll even pass on the Northern squirrel (they only live 5-6 years and have no interest in bonding with humans)  Oh, and for those of you with flying monkeys on the brain, those would’ve been on the cool list if I hadn’t watched Dorothy and her friends at such a young and impressionable age.  Still gets me.

Nope, I choose late fall cloudless blue skies with just a whisper of wind.  No squirrels anywhere in sight.

Some content sourced from the 10/20/2020 CNN article, “Florida officials say several people charged in flying squirrel trafficking operation”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Standing on Tacos

Red’s Giant Hamburg – Springfield, MO – may be America’s first drive-thru restaurant. Red’s opened in 1947 from a converted gas station, closed in 1984, then opened again last year. In the United States it’s not really “fast food” without the drive-thru, is it?  McDonald’s certainly agrees, as does Burger King.  But Taco Bell, they think outside the tortilla.  Just last year the Bell opened a taco-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs, CA.

A taco-themed hotel and resort – really, you ask?  Yes but more on that in a minute.  It helps to cover some of Taco Bell’s earlier adventures first.  Founder Glen Bell started his restaurant in the 1960s as the copycat of a local Los Angeles walk-up taco stand.  The concept of “American-Mexican fast food” quickly franchised to 100 locations in less than five years.  Today you’ll count 7,000+ Taco Bell locations in two dozen countries.  Two billion customers frequented the Bell in 2019.

I’ve always admired Taco Bell… er, from afar.  I can’t tell you the last time I navigated TB’s drive-thru (probably my kids’ high school days).  Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexican food.  But eating at Taco Bell is like supplanting an Italian artisan pizza with a Little Caesars.  In other words, I prefer my Mexican at authentic Mexican restaurants.

But there’s no denying Taco Bell’s success.  They chose six or seven essential ingredients and spun an entire low-cost menu out of them.  Take the $1.49 soft taco.  Four components: seasoned beef, lettuce, and cheese, inside a soft tortilla.  Add sour cream, tomatoes, or other options, but you’ll pay $0.40 or more for each.  The only freebies are the hot sauce packets at the pick-up window.

From the Taco Bell soft taco evolved an entire zoo of animales.  You have the Taco Supreme, Chalupa Supreme, Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and (for the really adventurous) the Nachos Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.  From the Taco Bell burrito you get the Burrito Supreme, Grilled Cheese Burrito, Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, Quesarito, and Crunchwrap Supreme.  Again, all of these wild animales come from pretty much the same small set of ingredients.

Taco Bell’s successful run endures at a time when foodies lean more towards farm-to-table organic.  So why does it still work?  Marketing.  Taco Bell’s all about creative thinking.  Some examples:

  1. Taco Bell branded their hot sauce, taco shells, chips, and shredded cheese, and you can find them on your supermarket shelves.  No drive-thru necessary.
  2. TB teamed up with several pro sports franchises to offer free food based on individual performances (i.e. steal a base, score so many points, score so many runs = free tacos).
  3. In 2001, when the Mir Space Station re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, Taco Bell floated a giant target in the Pacific Ocean and promised a free taco to every American if a bit of the space station (designed to break up) hit the target.  (No such luck.)
  4. In 2013, Taco Bell designed a waffle taco, filled it with scrambled eggs and sausage, added a side of syrup, and called it breakfast.  The waffle taco is no longer on the menu but breakfast still is (if you consider a Hash Brown Toasted Burrito “breakfast”).
  5. In 2016, Taco Bell test-marketed a Cheetos Burrito.  That’s all you really need to know, right?
  6. In 2017, Taco Bell partnered with Lyft to offer “Taco Mode”.  Rides from 9pm-2am included a stop at Taco Bell.

Which brings us to the Taco Bell hotel.  In the summer of 2019, TB converted an existing Palm Springs resort into a live-in advertisement, “the biggest expression of the Taco Bell lifestyle to date”, according to its Chief Global Brand Officer. 

Not only did they slap the TB brand all over the resort, but they also offered the full Taco Bell menu, poolside cocktails “infused with a Taco Bell twist”, a “not-to-miss gift shop” (including a Forever 21 fashion line of Taco Bell apparel), and a salon where nail art and hairstyles were decidedly “Bell”.  The resort was a pop-up, only intended to operate for a few days, but reservations sold out within two minutes of being offered.

“Gidget the Chihuahua”

Taco Bell has one more menu item I didn’t mention above: the Spicy Potato Soft Taco.  Er, had.  The Bell discontinued it but not before Bryant Hoban (of O’Fallon, MO – not far from Red’s Giant Hamburg) purchased and froze three of them.  A few weeks later Hoban sold the “mint condition soft tacos” through Facebook.  For $70.  Each.  With that kind of endorsement, it’s safe to say the Bell will be ringing for many years to come.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Fox News article, “Taco Bell is opening a taco-themed hotel and resort”.