Food-and-Drink – Eternally Linked

In the proverbial question of the chicken or the egg, the operative word is or. One came first or the other came first – not both. Same with the game of chess; you choose to be the black or the white, not every piece on the board.  And the song you selected this morning to begin your morning commute? It was one of your favorites, not two (unless you found a mashup). So it boggles my find to discover, at Costco of all places, you can have a hot dog and a soda… just not or. It’s food and drink – or it’s nothing at all.

It’s been a while since I’ve shopped at Costco, so last Sunday’s visit felt like more than just a battle for space in the aisles.  Featured items seemed new and interesting and the free samples beckoned more than usual.  My wife and I go to Costco for paper goods, produce, wine, and not much else, so we made it to check-out sooner than most, but there was still a pretty good line of people.  While we waited, I realized Costco is savvy with its store layout.  Approaching the cashier, you face… the food court.  On this day, the court was b-u-s-y, with just about every seat taken.

I never ever patronize the food court at Costco (I like to think I lean healthier) but something triggered my brain this time around.  Just after July 4th a local radio host commented how “Costco hot dogs are the best, and believe me, I know hot dogs.”  Suddenly a Costco hot dog sounded pretty good!  So I asked my wife to stay in line while I pursued our spur-of-the-moment lunch.  A lot of people were standing by the counters (looking nothing like a line) and I realized they were already waiting for orders.  You see, at Costco you self-order on a computer screen – just touch the picture of the food or drink you want and insert a credit card.

Pepperoni pizza.  Hot turkey and provolone sandwich. “Chicken bake”.  Caesar salad.  Hot dog and a soda.  Ice cream.  Those are pretty much your choices at Costco.  The menu isn’t big and it’s certainly not your dietician’s recommendation, but it’s what the average Costco patron wants.  Just not this patron.  Not quite.

“Inseparable”

You Costco regulars already know this.  A hot dog and a 20 oz. soda at the food court is only $1.50.  Always has been and purportedly always will be.  But here’s the rub.  The computer screen doesn’t offer a picture of a hot dog.  You’ll only find a hot dog with a soda.  But there’s also a soda without a hot dog.  In what world of logic does this make sense?  I want a hot dog, Costco sells hot dogs, but I can only have one if I buy a 20 oz. soda as well.  But I don’t want a soda…

This quickly became a matter of principle (as you might expect).  I mean, $1.50 is reasonable for a hot dog so why not just go for the combo and throw away the empty soda cup, right?  Yeah, I wish it were that easy for me.  I challenged a couple of Costco employees about it back in the checkout line, and both said, “That’s the way it’s always been. It’s a nod to tradition. They’ll never change the price and they’ll never unlink the hot dog and the soda”.  When I pointed out that, hey, you could buy a soda on its own (but not a hot dog on its own), that made them pause.  A little.

Scold me now, please.  There’s a war going on in Eastern Europe.  Food and gas prices are through the roof.  The U.S. is experiencing one of its hottest summers in decades with states forced into rolling blackouts.  Meanwhile, I’m pitching fits because I can’t buy a hot dog all by itself at Costco.

Fittingly, you get the last laugh.  My wife and I pulled out of the Costco parking lot and still had a taste for a hot dog, and the only place we could think of was a little sports bar in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood.  So we go there and I order a hot dog with fries while my wife opts for the bratwurst with Tater Tots. (and yes, for those of you keeping score I could’ve ordered this hot dog all by itself).  Then the cashier rings up the order and says, “That’ll be $30.00” (not $1,50, not $3.00 – thirty bucks).  And how was my hot dog?  Delicious, actually. I’d have the same thing again nex time.  I just need to stop thinking about how I could’ve had twenty Costco hot dogs (and a bunch of empty soda cups) for the same price.

Floral Fire

Billboard ranks “Firework” as Katy Perry’s best-selling single, with millions of downloads since its 2010 release. The self-empowerment tune “skyrocketed” to #1 on Billboard’s Top 100 at the time and ranked in the top five on twenty other charts worldwide. “Firework” also “sparked” an award-winning music video, and Katy has since performed the anthem live at two presidential inaugurations and during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.  Searching Wikipedia for “firework”, therefore, it comes as no surprise to be asked, “Do you mean the song or the low-explosive pyrotechnic device?” Today, I choose the latter.

For the first time in countless July 4th celebrations I can’t speak to having seen a single overhead firework display this year. No giant “willows” with their graceful descending trails of sparks; no “peonies” where those same trails radiate in straight lines from the center; and no “horsetails” (my favorite) where each trail bursts a second time, followed by a crackling, glittering shower of fire.  Also, no “grand finale” where it looks like the entire sky is splitting open to some fiery furnace beyond.

“Chrysanthemums”

From the vantage point of our house, we used to count on the fireworks show from the nearby U.S. Air Force Academy. That show has been canceled for the last ten years because of budget cutbacks.  We also used to bring blankets to the shore of a nearby lake, where we were treated to a “small-town” fireworks display funded by donations from the public.  Today, that display has been swallowed up by a bigger all-day “Festival on the Fourth”, where you pay for parking and walk a mile or two just to secure a spot on the lake several hours ahead of the fireworks.  Even so, we thought we’d see bits and bursts from one of the other nine shows scattered around nearby Colorado Springs.  Nope, not so much as a snap, crackle, or pop.

Palmer Lake, CO 2022 fireworks display (photo courtesy of local resident Bartley Willson)

Fireworks are nostalgic for me, with two distinct memories from childhood.  The first, in the 1970s, brings me back to the beach of the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles.  Back then the only commercial displays seemed to be over the ocean.  My parents would grab a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and several blankets, and the whole family would find a place on the beach where for several hours, we’d eat and play as twilight became dark, in anticipation of the late, late fireworks show from the end of the nearby pier.

The second memory, a decade later, also brings me to the Pacific Ocean but to a beach further south near San Diego, where we’d shoot off our own fireworks (from the “Safe and Sane” boxed collections my dad brought home every year), followed by an overhead display from the nearby county fair.  Every childhood July 4th was the same: food, fun, and fireworks; lots and lots of fireworks.

“Waterfall”

In 1976 – America’s bicentennial year – the firework display in New York City included an unforgettable “waterfall” effect off one of the bridges.  This year, that same July 4th display (sponsored by Macy’s) ballooned to a two-hour televised extravaganza with over 2,000 blasts and effects per minute.  I’d say Macy’s department stores and their profit margins are doing just fine, wouldn’t you?

I shouldn’t be surprised to learn fireworks were invented by the Chinese (well over a thousand years ago) but here’s a less-obvious bit of floral fire trivia: Disney is the largest consumer of fireworks in the world.  It used to be – back when their single amusement park was California’s “Disneyland” – you’d only catch a Disney firework show on summer evenings (directly above Cinderella’s castle), and only if you stayed until just before the park closed.  Today you’ll find displays at any one of the twelve Disney parks, in any month of the year.  For the record, only the U.S. Department of Defense purchases more explosive devices than Disney.

There’s more firework trivia, of course.  The very first iterations were empty bamboo shoots, creating a mild popping sound when ignited because of natural air pockets.  Seeking more pyrotechnics, the Chinese added explosive chemicals to the shoots to create firecrackers”.  Eventually they figured out how to launch and propel their creations, and the overhead fireworks display was born, in an impressive rainbow of chemical colors. But take note; you won’t see a blue firework very often.  Blue requires an infusion of copper at just the right temperature, and the “cool” color tends to get lost next to the “hotter” reds and yellows.

“Catherine wheels”

I’m still puzzled why I didn’t hear so much as a “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM” aftershock (to quote Katy Perry) of a firework display this year.  Maybe most of my fellow Coloradoans kept the bursts and blasts to the ground instead, from what they purchased at the local firework stand. Those of you living in New Jersey, Massachusetts, or Delaware can’t relate because consumer fireworks are illegal in your states.  Not so much as a sparkler in your hand. (Which may be a good thing since sparklers can heat up to 2000 ºF)  So you probably did what I did this year – simply watch a recap of the Washington D.C. grand finale on your smartphone.  It was the only floral fire I could find.

Some content sourced from the BuzzFeed article, “17 Things You Probably Never Knew About Fireworks”, the Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Many Happy Returns

Unlike 2021, the due date for U.S. tax returns was back to mid-April this year.  Most of us sweated under the ticking clock as we combed through statements and receipts in search of last-minute tax breaks. I have this recurring pipe dream where the IRS tells me to just keep what I owe (followed by the dream of how I would spend the money). Sadly, I’m a taxpayer who rarely sees a refund, and keeping what I owe certainly won’t happen. On the other hand, retailers could soon be asking me to keep what I want to return.  Now there’s something to ponder.

Picture this.  You place an Amazon order for a brand new Playstation 5.  You plunk down the $500 it costs and a few days later your purchase shows up on your doorstep.  But while you were waiting for your gaming console the IRS sent you a reminder about the balance due on your 2021 taxes. Whoops. You owe that $500 to the federal government, young taxpayer.  Hello, buyer’s remorse.  Full of regret, you contact Amazon to arrange the return, and their carefully worded response goes like this:

Dear Amazon Prime Member.  Thank you for your inquiry into the return of your Playstation 5 gaming console.  After reviewing our current stock we have determined it is not necessary for you to return this product.  Accordingly, nothing further is required at this time.  You can expect a full refund applied to the credit card used to make this purchase.  Thank you for shopping with Amazon.

Wait… keep the product AND get a refund, you say? Crazy, I know. Or maybe not, at least if you shop at Target or Wal*Mart.  Both retailers are considering this no-return approach with clothes, garden furniture, and “bulky” kids’ toys among other products they currently overstock.  It’s the result of consecutive worldwide events.  First, the pandemic, which allowed consumers to build up their savings accounts while mostly staying at home.  Second, record-setting inflation, which dragged a knife through what was supposed to be a post-pandemic spending frenzy.  Retailers stocked up early in anticipation of the purchase party, but then the lights and music were abruptly cut off.  The result: overstocked with a capital “O”.

This version of keep-the-product-keep-the-cash kinda-sorta happened to me years ago.  My sister-in-law ordered a ping-pong table for her family and when it came, they discovered a bit of damage in one corner.  So she contacted the company, who told her, “Keep it.  We’ll just send you another one.”  Thus, in a moment labeled “Christmas not on Christmas”, my family got a free ping-pong table (Thanks, Sis!) Sure, the bounce of the ball was a little off on that one corner, but my kids didn’t care.  Besides, before I knew it they were old enough (or not) to drink and pretty much destroyed the table when they shifted to beer pong.

But I digress. With a ping-pong table I’m almost sure the cost of shipping back to the manufacturer was more than the profit after fixing and reselling it.  So my sister-in-law got two tables for the price of one.  Hey, what if she’d bought ten ping-pong tables and all of them were defective?  She’d go up and down her street handing out free tables.  She’d gain a bunch of new best friends and her neighborhood would hold massive ping-pong tournaments.  All for the cost of one table.

The problem at Target and Wal*Mart is more than just the cost of returns and overstocked items.  It’s also, they can’t charge the same price they charged you.  For one, the item may be offered at a discounted price by the time you return it.  For two, certain items have to be classified as “used” and can’t be offered at full price after the first purchase, or even offered at all.

“Un-resellable”

Which brings me to orange juice.  Orange juice, you ask?  Yep.  Try to return a jug of juice to the market some time.  We bought five jugs a couple of months ago for our daughter’s bridal shower, assuming the mimosas would flow like Niagara Falls. Wrong. Only a few of the guests opted for the bubbly since the shower was mid-day.  So I called my local market to confirm the return of four unopened jugs of juice, and was horrified to hear, “Sure, you can return them for a full refund.  But we’ll just throw out the juice.” Throw out the juice?  Yes, it’s the world we live in these days.  Many food items cannot be resold for fear of tainting.  So I’m drinking a lot of orange juice right now.

Let’s wrap this public service announcement with a caveat.  One of these days you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you end up with a purchased product AND a full refund.  Lucky you – it’s “Christmas not on Christmas”!  If it’s through Amazon, however, be wary of the following purchases: hazardous materials, gift cards, jewelry, groceries, and live insects (uh, live insects?) None of those can ever be returned, nor will you get your money back.  In other words, the sea monkeys you adopted in a moment of nostalgia (remember those, Boomers?) should be considered bought and paid for.  No refunds.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Just keep your returns…”, and the Clark.com article, “12 Items That Can’t Be Returned to Amazon”.

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”.

Raising a Red (White, and Blue) Flag

I knew this was coming. When you blog several hundred times over, you start to wonder, “Have I already covered this topic?” Today’s subject seemed like new territory so I answered with a resounding, “No, I haven’t”… and I was wrong. Way wrong. Turns out, I’ve already discussed a certain mid-June U.S. holiday twice in previous posts. Whoops. Is this what happens when you turn sixty or am I subconsciously determined to elevate a somewhat meaningless festivity?  Okay, don’t answer that.  Just bear with me while I unfurl my opinion for a third time here. Happy Flag Day, America.

You missed it again, darn you. You’re reading about Flag Day here, at least two days after the fact, and now you’re wondering how you could’ve possibly forgotten to raise your Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.  I mean, c’mon, you did raise your flag on Memorial Day, right?  And you’re planning to do the same on July 4th?  So how could you forget the “holiday” smack dab in between?  Think about it.  Technically we celebrate the birthday of our flag on June 14th (and this year we put 245 candles on her red, white, and blue cake).  Isn’t the birth of our flag more important than honoring our fallen military or celebrating our independence?  Of course it is… NOT.

I’m struggling (third time over) to appreciate Flag Day.  We celebrate a big birthday at Christmas (er, some of us) and another one on July 4th (again, some of us).  Those are major parties.  With the former, we have an entire season leading up to the holiday itself – music, food, presents, and decorations galore.  With the latter, we have parades, festivals, 5K races, family barbeques, fireworks, and more decorations galore. But June 14th? Just another day at the office, I say.  Unless your town throws a parade like Quincy, MA (“Longest-running of its kind!”), Troy, NY (“50,000+ spectators!”), or Three Oaks, MI (“Three-day celebration!”), you didn’t even think about raising your flag. And for the record, the Troy, NY parade called it quits five years ago.  Can you say “holi-dying”?

Pre-1777 version (no stars!)

No disrespect to the U.S. flag, mind you. The red, white, and blue has quite the history.  The version you see these days is the twenty-seventh since its birth in 1777.  She flies permanently (all day, every day) in over twenty locations, including the U.S. Capitol, Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, and the moon (yep, that one).  And I’ll bet you didn’t know, the American flag “should be displayed at full staff” on eighteen calendar holidays.  Even on Christmas.  But especially on Flag Day (sarcasm with a capital “S”).

“Superflag”

Trivia break (because we need a break).  I’m here to tell you the largest American flag – as deemed by the good people at Guinness – is not in Texas (after all, everything’s bigger in Texas).  It’s Superflag and it’s deserving of its nickname.  Superflag (“It’s not just a flag, it’s a feeling!”) is 1.5 times the size of a football field.  It weighs 3,000 pounds and needs 600 people to hold it up.  A single star in Superflag’s field of blue is seventeen feet high.  That’s a big banner, citizens; so big, in fact (and unwieldy), its creator birthed “Superflag Jr.” as a more convenient size.  You’ll see Junior unfurled before the Super Bowl, covering almost the entire field.

Giant flags may fire me up but here’s a subject that does not: Betsy Ross. Sure, “Elizabeth” was a real person, living in a real house (which you can still tour today in Philadelphia); an upholsterer by trade and a talented seamstress besides.  She was even an acquaintance of George Washington.  But credit her with creating the very first American flag?  Sorry, compatriots, it’s just not true (or at least there’s no evidence to prove it).  Makes for a quaint story from our colonial roots, but when any association of Betsy and the first flag includes “purported” or “legend”, you have to wonder who makes this stuff up.

Talking about Superflag and Betsy Ross makes you think I don’t have enough to say about my original topic. You would be correct. But if you simply must know more about Flag Day (and for the record, I don’t think you must), check out my previous posts American Hollow-Day (full of mirth) and Banner Birthday (less tongue-in-cheek).  Neither “old-glorifies” June 14th any better than this one… nor did the zero-count of American flags I saw on Tuesday around town.  This holiday is on the ropes, people.  I’m not here raising a red, white, and blue flag but more like, a red flag. Third blog strike. I’m out.

Some content sourced from the We Are The Mighty article, “This is the world’s largest American flag”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Finishing on a Low Note

I usually associate “finishing” with sporting events. Think about the finish line of a car race, the eighteenth hole of a golf tournament, or the ticking seconds of the clock as a football game runs out of time. In these scenarios, the finish can be a tense, hold-your-breath moment, triggering a burst of euphoria if your favorite takes the win. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to reflect on the completion of my Lego Grand Piano. Tense? Hardly. Held my breath? Not at all. Euphoria? Anything but. No, this finish feels a little forlorn.

Three thousand, six hundred, and sixty-two tiny pieces ago, I began the assembly of Lego’s Grand Piano, just about the closest gift to “perfect” my wife has ever given me.  Piano is inextricably connected with my childhood – hours upon hours of practice and playing and determined progress at a tender age, eventually succumbing to other temptations of time.  Piano introduced me to commitment, skill, and patience, even frustration and disappointment.  My parent’s big, black grand sat patiently in our living room, beckoning me to play every time I passed by.  The instrument was always perfectly tuned and sparklingly clean, thanks to my mother’s weekly persistence with a dust cloth.  I can still hear her sweeping the eighty-eight keys from one end to the other – a delightfully musical moment.

Korg’s “Sampling Grand” keyboard

Believe it or not, the Lego Grand Piano is the second gift of a piano from my wife.  On our wedding day in 1987, she presented me with Korg’s “Sampling Grand”, an electronic keyboard with weighted keys and surprisingly realistic sound, much less expensive than the real thing.  Thirty-five years later, the Korg still plays like a champ and still earns a spot in our living room. (Unlike the Lego version, the Korg was already assembled when I got it.)

The start-to-finish journey of my Lego Grand Piano has been a more enjoyable ride than I expected.  When I opened the box last Christmas, I remember my jaw dropping a little, not only because I never saw the gift coming but because of the sheer complexity of the project staring up at me from the box  That’s a complicated-looking instrument, I thought.  That’s a ton of pieces, I also thought.

The unopened Lego box sat on my home office desk for a couple of weeks, looking elegant without even being touched.  My curiosity eventually got the better of me and I finally had a look inside.  Talk about intimidating.  A 500-page instruction manual awaited, along with forty-odd individual bags of pieces.  Even though this was a twenty-one-step journey, some steps involved “sub-bags” of tiny, tiny pieces, grouped separately so as not to escape!  Was I really brave enough to dive into this mess?

Contents of the box

The first chapter – shared with you readers on January 6th of this year (a date we Americans wish to forget) – spoke to my hesitation when I wrote an entire post about building the piano without actually building anything.  I just poked around the box and marveled at the contents and felt pretty good about even opening up the box.  But I did get started seven days later, and the subsequent journey was wholly satisfying and something of a weekly escape.

Leftovers

At first, I made several mistakes as the piano began to take shape.  Since the pieces are small it’s easy to place them backward, or even mistake one for another.  I also fretted when extra pieces remained after a given section of the build. (For the record, there were 38 extra pieces when all was said and done.  I can fit all of them into the palm of my hand.)  There were at least two instances where I had to disassemble several pieces to get back to the point where I’d done something wrong.  Those moments were utterly unnerving and confidence-shattering (take your pick).

[Author’s Note: After weeks and weeks of building the Lego Grand Piano, it only now occurs to me I’m describing one type of keyboard while typing on another. Don’t you just love the coincidence?]

So let’s finish this post by revisiting “finishing”.  What should be a moment of triumph feels a tad sad instead.  After the first few weeks, the build of the Lego Grand Piano became a weekly treat, accompanied by some of my favorite classical music.  Many stages were mini-surprises, not knowing what section I was building until the last piece was in place.  And of course, sharing the progress with all of you was also fun.  One reader admitted she would first scroll to the bottom of a post before reading my weekly topic.  She couldn’t wait to find out how the piano was coming along.

So, here we are now, finally done.  Next week’s post will feel a little empty without a reference to the Lego Grand Piano.  By total coincidence, my daughter got married this past weekend, also the end of a journey (months of planning and all).  My son just turned 30 yesterday, the finish line of his 20’s.  And soon, my wife and I will point our cars east for our move to South Carolina, the finish of our days in Colorado.  To be finished is to be sad?  You bet it is.

I’ll dive into another Lego build one of these days, I promise.  Maybe I’ll even take you along for the ride again.  In the meantime, I’ll flip the hidden switch and play the piano every now and then.  I’ll also find an acrylic box in which I can display this magnificent project.  After all, with my mother’s good habits in mind, I don’t want it gathering dust.

——————–

Lego Grand Piano – Update #21

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

The finále of the Lego Grand Piano assembly, as expected, was the build of the pianist’s bench and the placement of the sheet music onto the stand.  Bag #21 – of 21 bags of pieces – was bigger than I expected.  I mean, a bench is a seat with four legs, right?  Not according to Lego.  This bench raises and lowers with the little dials you see on the sides, to accommodate the height of our fictitious pianist.

       

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  The Lego Grand Piano was designed by the guy you see below, Donny Chen, a 33-year-old piano teacher and tuner from Guangzhou, China.  No surprise, Donny’s passions are the piano and Lego.  He’s a lot smarter than I am, evidenced by this quote: “I’ve always seen toys as something to be imagined, not just played with”.  Me, I just played with toys.

[Pianist’s Note: The Lego Grand Piano DOES play, I know it does.  I just have to figure out two things.  One, how did I manage to disconnect the cable to the sound box buried deep within the piano frame?  Two, how the heck am I going to get it reconnected?  That’ll take more time than I have today and is part of why I “finished on a low note”.  But I’ll share a concert with you when you least expect it – I promise. “Stay tuned”.]

Donny Chen

Running Build Time: 14.0 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Jarratt and Reedman’s Hooked on Classics. Leftover pieces: 1

Conductor’s Note: Apologies to the purists but I just couldn’t resist this somewhat tongue-in-cheek accompaniment to the final chapter of the Lego Grand Piano.  Hooked on Classics is a top-ten Billboard Hot 100 hit from 1981, a mashed-up perversion of bits of the world’s most recognized classical pieces… overlaid on a drum track.  It was recorded by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and bred several spin-offs (ex. Hooked on RomanceHooked on Classics came along just as I was wrapping up my childhood piano “career”.  I much prefer the originals of the several classical pieces in Hooked but maybe this peppy number is your cup of tea.  Have a listen:

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

I Made This Up

Words get stuck in my head – often.  If I hear “cattywampus” or “chartreuse” or “onomatopoeia” (and for the record, spellcheck didn’t flag any of them) my brain hangs on for a while because I’m entertained by the sound or the meaning. Sometimes a word repeats so often in my mind it doesn’t sound right anymore, like putting the accent on the wrong syll-AH-ble. But this is the reason I never struggle to include a unique word in every Life In A Word post. It’s the reason my topics often become unexpected adventures in writing – several hundred words spun from the single word ricocheting around in my brain. So what word am I stuck on this week, you ask? Make.

I know, I know.  You expected a more sophisticated word; something you could really sink your teeth into.  Certainly a word with more than four letters.  But here’s the thing.  Some words have one meaning while others have a list of definitions a mile long.  “Make” is wonderfully (sometimes confusingly) versatile.  It seems to have limitless uses. So, while “make” shows up in, like, every other conversation we have, consider just how many different ways we’re using it.

Here’s an example, probably my favorite for today’s topic.  We contracted with a bakery in Denver to create the perfect cake for my daughter’s upcoming wedding.  You call them first to make a sit-down appointment (yes, I’m aware I just used our word-of-the-day).  Then you work with a consultant on sketch paper to design exactly what you’re looking for. Then you taste-test six cakes and six frostings (using a tray of cupcakes) to come up with your dream combination.  The name of this establishment?  The Makery.  At first I thought it was a strange name, but then I realized, no; it’s a cool, tidy spin on words.  The Makery is not just a bakery.  A bakery would fill their glass display case with creations for you to choose from.  The Makery is all about custom creations, based on your input and your preferences.  In other words, The Makery declares “baking” a subset of “making”.

Without peeking at your Webster, guess how many definitions you’ll find for “make” in the dictionary.  Five? Ten? Two dozen? How about fifty-six? “Make” has forty-seven definitions as a verb and another nine as a noun.  I told you “make” was versatile, didn’t I?

I’m not about to go through fifty-six definitions of “make” because you can make better use of your time.  But here are my favorites:

  • To bring into existence by shaping or changing material, combining parts, etc. (as in, “Dave is making his Lego Grand Piano”).  The formality of this definition – the first in the line-up of the fifty-six – cracks me up.  It takes a lot of words to explain the most basic use of “make”.
  • To put in the proper condition or state, as for use; fix, prepare.  “This morning, Dave made his bed.  Then he made his coffee.  Tonight, Dave will make his dinner.”
  • To become by development; prove to be.  “Someday, Dave, you’ll make a heckuva writer.”
  • To be sufficient to constitute.  “One blog post does not make a writer, Dave.”
  • To arrive at or reach, attain.  Dave just turned sixty years old. Will he make it to sixty-one?
  • To plant and cultivate or produce (a crop). “Dave makes some of the best corn in the entire county.” (Note: this one is specific to the U.S. South.  Since I’m moving there soon I’d better get used to it.  And no, I don’t have any plans to “make” corn when I get there.)
  • To cause oneself, or something understood, to be as specified.Make sure this is a good blog topic, Dave.”
  • To show oneself to be or seem in action or behavior.  “Dave plans to make merry the day his daughter gets married.”

Make Love, Not War” was a slogan born out of protests over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War but it’s probably getting renewed use in the last couple of months.  Not that I can explain what “make love” really means.  Something physical?  Metaphysical?  Peace treaties?  Making out? I can’t make up my mind (and don’t make me).  Besides, it’s time I make for the exits with this post.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #20

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

Today’s section of the Lego symphony was a ten-minute sprint.  Bag #20 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled nothing more than the underlying support structure of the piano lid, with hinges to anchor it in place on the left side of the instrument. The dark, raised bar you see running across the top of the lid is part of that structure.  The support “stick” to the right was already there, lying quietly across the piano strings from a previous build, just waiting to be raised.

Bag #21 will be a rapid final chapter, perhaps as fast as this one.  We only have the free-standing bench for the pianist to go, and (with a final flourish), the sheet music we’ll center on the stand above the keys.  We’ll bring the entire assembly to the finish line inside of fourteen hours. Then you and I will step back, admire all that we’ve accomplished these last twenty-one weeks, and take a well-deserved bow.

Next week: the final movement!

Running Build Time: 13.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat Major (two times through). Leftover pieces: None again!

Conductor’s Note: Liebestraum means “love dream” in German. This short piano piece could certainly be interpreted that way. It starts out soft and melodious, a soothing lullaby. But it picks up steam in a hurry, building to a crescendo and using the entire keyboard.  It’s a beautiful piece, which is more than I can say for Franz Liszt’s last name.  Every time I say “Liszt” I sound like I have a lisp.  Maybe he did too?

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

Curtains for Calls

Denver’s getting a new area code next month!

No, I’m not short on blog topics – stay with me here.

“983” will be added to 303 and 720 because Denver’s rapid growth means they’re running out of new phone numbers. But it’s not our state’s fifth area code itself that has my attention (by comparison, California blows us away with 36). It’s the 25 years “983” is expected to last before Colorado needs a sixth area code. Seriously? Will we even have phones in 25 years?

“719” reaches my corner of Colorado

“Area code” feels like an old-fashioned term. I associate area codes with the physical act of “dialing” (also an old-fashioned term). Sure, we need area codes to establish new numbers the first time we get smartphones (as preschoolers?) but then they become more labels than three-digit numbers, don’t they?  Think about it.  If you need to call someone these days, forget about their area code because you already have it in their profile.  You either tell your phone to call the person or you pull them up in “Contacts” and simply touch the number on the screen.  In other words, your phone dials the area code but you do not. Not anymore.

How to call someone in D.C.

Before smartphones, area codes had more prestige.  They were required to make “long-distance” phone calls, which meant you had to dial an extra three digits.  Outside of toll-free numbers, area codes conjured up exotic destinations, as if dialing halfway around the world instead of somewhere else in your state.  Area codes made you feel like you were calling someone important.  Today, they’re just labels.

If I really wanted to date myself, I could be talking about telephone exchange numbers instead of area codes.  KLondike, WRigley, and TEmpleton all referred to the central offices of telephone exchanges, with every phone number in an exchange starting with the first two letters of the central office.  PEnnsylvania 6-5000 was a memorable example because it connected you with the famous Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City, and Glenn Miller made the number into a popular swing jazz tune in the 1940s.  I wasn’t around in the 1940s (or even the 1950s), so enough with this topic.

Let’s flush “dialing” out of conversations about phones, shall we? Nobody “dials” anymore.  Dialing (for you preschoolers) hearkens back to a time when phones were phones.  You picked up the corded “handset” from the “cradle” on the “base”, nestled it against your jaw so the “receiver” lined up with the ear and the “microphone” with the mouth, toggled the “switchhook” for “dial tone”, and placed a call by spinning the rotary dial once for each digit in the phone number (got all that, kids?)  The dial would rotate back to its original position after each digit so you could dial the next one.  The whole process took 30-45 seconds, followed by a long pause, and then the “ringer” sounded on the receiving phone.  With that in mind, do you take the ease of your smartphone touchscreen for granted?  Of course you do.

[Author’s Note: The mechanics of rotary phones (base, dial, ringer, handset) made them HEAVY.  You can find movies from the 1940s or 1950s where a character uses a rotary phone as a weapon simply by clocking someone over the head with it.]

Dialing eventually gave way to “touch-tones” (thanks to the invention of the transistor).  The rotary dial was replaced with a grid of plastic pushbuttons, one for each digit.  Yes, we still “dialed” area codes but with buttons instead.  The buttons then migrated from the phone base to the handset.  The handset then went cordless.  Finally, the base disappeared altogether, and voila! – you had the first “mobile” phone.

Area codes make me nostalgic because I associate them with actual phone calls, one voice talking to another.  Today we’d sooner text than talk.  Delivered mail to your box on the street isn’t long for this world.  One of these days it’ll be curtains for phone calls as well.  Which re-begs the question about Denver’s latest area code.  Do we really need bright and shiny-new “983”?

The Jetsons don’t know “phones”

Phone calls of the future may simply be mind games where we’re able to “ring” each other brain-to-brain. A little far-fetched, you say?  Probably, and the idea of thought control makes me squeamish anyway.  Call it old-fashioned, but I hope we’re still talking about area codes in 25 years after all.

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

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #19

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

Today’s section of the symphony was short and entirely predictable.  Bag #19 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled the rest of the piano’s top lid, shown completed in the photos below.  I simply picked up where I left off from last week’s Bag #18, continuing to build up the “wall” of the lid until it was complete.  It’s a repetitive process using pieces of similar sizes and shapes.  Now, all we are left with – my patient audience members – is the support structure of the piano lid (so it can be raised to its very elegant angle when open), and the free-standing pianist’s bench.

  Today’s build took less than twenty minutes. (I could’ve built Bag #20 as well, but why change my weekly pace this late in the game?)  As I was finishing the piano lid it occurred to me using Mr. Instruction Manual is a lot like using sheet music.  You shift your eyes between the manual and the piano itself constantly as you work, step-by-step-by-step.  Just as you would when playing the piano from a sheet of music.

Running Build Time: 13.3 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Brahams’ Violin Concerto in D. Leftover pieces: None again!

Conductor’s Note: Johannes Brahms had to be included in the list of musical accompaniments for my Lego Grand Piano build because, well, he’s one of the “bigs” in classical music. His Violin Concerto in D Major sits on Germany’s Mount Rushmore of violin concertos, beside Beethoven’s, Mendelssohn’s, and Max Bruch’s.  You, however, know Brahms best for his beloved lullaby “Cradle Song”, which starts “Lullaby, and goodnight, with roses bedight…”

Changing Planes

My wife & I are boarding more flights than usual as we anticipate our upcoming relocation to South Carolina. “More than usual” deserves context I suppose, since so many of us skipped airports altogether the last couple of years. Flying is different now – some ways better, others not so much (and unquestionably more expensive). Regardless, I was happy to learn our favorite choice of airline before AND after the emergence of COVID just earned the label “world’s best” for 2021. Care to guess which one?

I already gave you the subtlest of hints in my blog title.  With mathematics at least, the world’s best airline is also known as “an incremental change in a variable”, which makes its logo – the triangle – a fitting symbol.  Its slogan is the uber-confident “world’s most trusted airline” but I prefer one of its older ones:

Maybe Delta Air Lines is your airline of choice too.  If not, you’re wondering where your favorite ranks among the world’s best.  I’ve never heard of Cirium (have you?) but the data-mining company spends its days converting 300 terabytes of aviation performance metrics into annual best-in-class rankings. (300 TB meant nothing to me until I crunched a few numbers.  A ten-page Word doc is about 2 MB  By my calcs Cirium is sorting through five million pages of data.  I’d say their rankings are legit, wouldn’t you?)

Let’s end the suspense.  Here are the top ten airlines measured by “operational performance”, for 2021:

  1. Delta (“Platinum Award” winner)
  2. Alaska
  3. American
  4. United
  5. Spirit
  6. Frontier
  7. Southwest
  8. JetBlue
  9. Air Canada
  10. Allegiant

Delta should put a lot of stock in this win, and not just because 9 of its 10 aircraft arrived on time in 2021 (10% better than second-place Alaska).  It’s more about the impact of the passenger experience to the result.  Is the boarding process efficient?  Is the flight crew rested and available?  Is the aircraft properly maintained? How is baggage handled? How are unruly passengers dealt with (a more recent trend)?  Every one of these details number-crunches to a measure of on-time arrivals.  And no one does it better than Delta.

I may be biased but my own experiences seem to back up the numbers.  My wife & I have flown Delta several times since 2019 (including a trip to Europe) and every one of those journeys met or surpassed our expectations.  I’m not saying Delta goes over the top to gain customer loyalty (though a warm chocolate-chip cookie would help).  They simply do what I expect.  Arrive on time and make the journey as pleasant and efficient as possible.  Is that too much to ask?

Sadly, my affection for Delta is bolstered by my dissatisfaction with its competitors. I’m surprised to see American and United make the top five.  My family and I have had several lousy experiences with American, including delayed or canceled flights and could-care-less customer service agents.  Meanwhile, United may know how to arrive on time, but their coach seats should be labeled “cattle class” (not unlike Spirit and Frontier).  Drop down the tray table and open your laptop.  I challenge you to type comfortably.

Southwest could’ve been higher in Cirium’s rankings but I’m sure their logistical issues last year contributed to the number.  Scores of their canceled flights were attributed to “weather challenges” during an unprecedented upheaval in the workforce.  I’ll forgive the bald-faced excuse.  When Southwest is running on “all engines” their brand of customer service is second to none – which keeps me coming back for more.

From my days in corporate America, I remember an equilateral triangle as the symbol of a successful company, giving balance to customers, employees, and shareholders.  Looks a lot like the Delta logo, doesn’t it?  More than just a nod to the Greek letter (Delta) or a throwback to its origins in the Mississippi (“Delta”, that is).  Even the dictionary definition of delta belongs in the conversation. Positive change befits operational excellence.

If my wife & I were relocating to Salt Lake City or Atlanta (or one of Delta’s other hubs), we’d be changing planes and flying more often with the “triangle”. Just this week my wife enjoyed another Delta flight she described as “perfect except for a few inconsiderate passengers” (which seems to be the norm these days). Delta celebrates one hundred years of passenger flights in 2029 so it’s safe to say they’re guided by experience.  The Cirium ranking is just a numbers-crunching confirmation of what I already know.  Delta is ready when I am.  Or, to put it mathematically, Δ = (S)atisfaction + (L)oyalty.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “The world’s best-performing airline has been revealed”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #18

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

Today’s section of the symphony could’ve, maybe should’ve used a stand-in pianist.  Bag #18 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled a little more than half of the piano’s top lid.  I show the structure on its side in the first photo because that’s how I built it, from the ground, er… desk up.  I imagined myself as a tiny mason, building a wall brick-by-little-brick, working right-to-left, then over to the right again.  You – my faithful reader – could’ve handled this part of the construction easily.  In Lego terms, it’s a wall made with various lengths of rectangle pieces.  That’s it.

Not a wall, but part of the hinging piano lid.

Know what I love about this adventure? (which is rapidly coming to a close!) You don’t always see what’s coming.  I knew I was building the top lid, but it was hard to see how it fit the piano until I set it on its side when I was done (second photo).  More to my point, I have three bags of pieces remaining.  One is the remainder of the piano lid.  One is the free-standing bench for the pianist.  Which leaves… you see? I still have no idea what’s coming.

Running Build Time: 13.0 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Leftover pieces: None!

The top lid rests in its future location.

Conductor’s Note: The story behind Louis-Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is more interesting than the piece itself (seriously).  At the somewhat tender age of 24, Berlioz fell in love with an Irish Shakespearean actress, who kept him at bay until she finally agreed to be his –  seven years later. Maybe the length of Berlioz’s pursuit extinguished the flame because the romance didn’t last.  But Berlioz wasn’t left empty-handed.  He composed the Symphonie fantastique to depict the idealized version of his Irish lover. I just didn’t find his music fantastique.

Emerald Greens

In the final lines of our national anthem, Americans sing, “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave”.  Those labels are a little dicey today.  Are we really free?  Are we really brave?  It’s a debate best left to more intellectual bloggers. I’m simply looking for less controversial words to describe the United States.  Take Ireland, for example.  The little republic is nicknamed “The Emerald Isle”.  Of this, there can be no doubt.  Before your flight even touches down, the window seat view is nothing but endless rolling green hills.  And not just any green.

See what I did there?  Inside of a single paragraph I distanced myself from heavy topics like freedom and bravery, and now I’m focused on the color green.  Bravo, Dave! Now then, let’s continue.

“The Emerald Isle”

Emeralds have always been my favorite of the precious gems.  In the jewelry shop it’s hard to ignore diamonds (because they’re everywhere), yet somewhere in the glass cases you’ll find the more colorful stones. Blood-red rubies. Royal blue sapphires. Modest little garnets (my birthstone).  And green, green emeralds.  I’m drawn to emeralds because green is my favorite color.  On that note, do you realize your favorite color never changes?  Nobody says, “Well, I used to like purple but now my favorite color is orange”.  You can move to another country, switch up your career, or overhaul your wardrobe, but your favorite color is a constant.

I digress (sorry). I have emeralds on the brain for good reason.  My wife & I just celebrated thirty-five years of marriage (thank you very much), and she hinted emeralds might be a nice gift.  So I paid a visit to my jeweler.  I told her I was looking for something understated, maybe earrings and a necklace.  She showed me a pretty set, where I thought my only decision was the shape of the stones (Round? Square? Pear?).  But then she threw me a curve when she said, “Would you prefer natural or lab-created?” Huh? Why would I buy my wife anything other than the real thing?

“Natural”
“Lab-created”

Here’s the rub of the green.  Lab-created gems are the real thing.  They’re “chemically, physically, and optically identical to their natural counterparts.” So why choose one over the other?  Cost. Lab-created gems can be significantly less expensive, especially as the number of carats grows.  In other words, easy choice, right?  Wrong.  The lab-created gems – at least in my jewelry shop – were small enough to be the same price as the naturals.  Instead, my decision came down to color.

Was I tempted by the blue-green clarity of the lab-created?  Absolutely.  Did I choose them?  Absolutely not.  I kept coming back to the emeralds in my brain.  Call it natural green, kelly green, or Irish green, but I prefer the green on the left.  And I think my wife did too.

Liz is wearing $6.5M worth of emeralds and diamonds

I’d like to share some trivia on today’s topic but – warning – it’s a little pedestrian.  Emeralds are one of the twelve birthstones (conveniently, the month of May).  Emeralds come from the mineral Beryl (as do aquamarines).  Their rarity makes them “precious”, alongside diamonds, rubies, and sapphires.  They’re delicate, susceptible to chipping.  Finally, emeralds are considered, among other things, a symbol of rebirth.

A section of the Florida Panhandle is called the Emerald Coast for the area’s clear, green water.  The Wizard of Oz lived in the Emerald City for reasons only Oz fanatics can explain.  And little Ireland, deservedly, earns its nickname for those rolling green hills, as well as Irish jewelry, made primarily from green gems (if not all emeralds).

Florida’s Emerald Coast

I saved one more fact for last, mostly to make points with my wife.  After I bought her the earrings and necklace, I said to my jeweler, “By the way, it’s silver for the 25th anniversary and gold for the 50th, but what about the 35th?” She replied, “Emerald” (even though several Google searches suggest jade).  Whoa. I didn’t plan on that coincidence but I’ll certainly take the credit.  After all, my wife is one-quarter Irish. My daughter’s name is Kelly. And my favorite color is green. How could it be anything but emeralds?

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

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #17

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

Today’s build demanded more of an overhead view so you can see the difference between last week and this week. Bag #17 – of 21 bags of pieces – earned me the row of seventeen black caps you see in the second photo (on top of the piano wires), as well as the wide stand for sheet music, just behind the keyboard cover.

Last week

The piano is a remarkable instrument.  When you press down on a key, you’re actually pushing a “hammer” up against the underside of a piano wire, creating a musical sound (or “note”).  When you release the key, a black “damper” (one of the seventeen I just built) drops down on the top of the wire, silencing the sound.  Add in the functions of the three pedals at the base and you should consider the piano a musical mechanical marvel.

Running Build Time: 12.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Leftover pieces: 2

This week

Conductor’s Note: The Bumblebee is a brief orchestral interlude of an opera, composed well over a hundred years ago. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s furious little piece, when played on the violin, really does sound like a buzzing bee.  It’s only 84 seconds in length, but you find yourself catching your breath after you’ve heard it.  It’s even more remarkable when played on the piano, the fingers almost a blur.  Have a listen to the audio file here. I’m sure you’ll recognize the tune from some of today’s movies and cartoons.