Mass Distraction

Hundreds (if not thousands) of bloggers commented on last weekend’s tragic events in El Paso and Dayton. A search of either city on the WordPress website produces an endless list of posts. As it should be. Some of us process by writing; others by reading. Within these countless perspectives are paragraphs to help us cope, reflect, heal, and begin to move on. Not that we should move on; not at all. Like 9/11, the loss of life is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to a modicum of positive change.

Politicians will debate this issue relentlessly; their credibility questionable in concert with partisan agendas and unrealistic campaign promises. The media will focus on band-aid suggestions which appear to address the issue but don’t land anywhere close to its foundations. Regardless, if all this attention – misguided as it may be – leads to constructive conversation and heightened awareness, we’re taking a step in the right direction. The capacity for mass murder is far more complicated than we want to admit.

I tried several times this week to blog as normal. I found the usual du jour topics worth delving into. Yet every time I started typing I was distracted, for at least a couple of reasons. One, any topic besides this one would be utterly trivial by comparison. Two, any topic besides this one suggests my head – and my heart – are not where they should be.

Do I know anyone in El Paso? No, I don’t, nor in Dayton. Doesn’t matter. I still grieve for the victims and their families. After all, these are fellow countrymen and women. These are people I believe share similar values and a love of country, regardless of race, political persuasion, and all the other so-called differentiators. These are people I’d be delighted to run into if I were halfway around the world. They are far from strangers.

American flags fly at half-staff this week, as if our country needs a reminder of a horrific behavior already ingrained in our culture for decades. My own reminder is my inability to adequately express my myriad feelings today. Perhaps the writings of my fellow bloggers will bring me solace.

Speaking of other writers, my thanks to Feeding On Folly, who re-posted Mitch Teemley’s “The 32 Second Killing Spree” (read it here). Mitch’s post narrows the issue to the specifics we need to consider and the questions we must answer. Here’s one answer. Good and evil will always coexist, but we have to find a way to tip the scales a little more towards the good. If only for them.

I’ll be back next week, less troubled and a little more hopeful. At least, that’s the plan.

Slipping Away

Every time we travel to California – this past weekend, for example – I have to be reminded about their statewide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags.  You think I’d remember – Cali put the kibosh on the bags three years ago.  Still, we fill our basket with groceries, head to the check-out, and the cashier goes, “want to purchase bags?”  Argh.  I should store a couple of reusables in my suitcase; the very ones I keep in my car in Colorado.

Plastic straws followed plastic bags, of course.  Four months ago, the Golden State placed “discouragement” on the plastic variety (you must ask for them now).  We sat down to a meal and our waitress brought glasses of water – with paper straws (argh again).  Admittedly, “legal” sippers are pretty good.  No reduction to mush like breakfast cereal sitting too long in milk.  Other than the cost (several times more than plastic), and the fine ($25/day for un-requested plastic), paper straws are hardly inconvenient.

Now then, the real topic for today.  California is looking to “strike up the ban” yet again – on paper receipts; the little critters we receive after credit card transactions.  Say it isn’t so, West Coasters!  Bags and straws I can deal with, but a ban on paper receipts?  That’s just stealing another book from my old-school library.

According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the facts are these: paper receipts generate 686 million pounds of waste per year. (Can someone please quantify 686 million pounds – say, number of filled swimming pools?)  Paper receipts also generate 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. (Again, quantify – number of breathing humans?)  Also, paper receipts contain Bisphenol A (BPA); not exactly an appetizing compound.  In other words, don’t eat your receipts just because the food was lousy.

Without paper receipts, my personal budget maintenance takes a blow.  I keep everything in Quicken, so give me points for electronic accounting.  But I also use paper receipts – an old-fashioned double-check mechanism.  I enter the transaction from the receipt; then cross-check against the Visa statement (Jacob Marley reincarnated?)  Why do I do this?  Because once upon a time a waiter decided to triple my tip after I’d signed the bill and left the restaurant.  Later, my paper receipt didn’t reconcile with my Visa statement.  Busted.  I promptly called the manager, who investigated and lo-and-behold, discovered a pattern of gouging.  The waiter was fired.  More points for me!

Now here’s the irony in my triple-the-tip story.  What if the restaurant didn’t use paper receipts?  What if I processed my transaction through Square or an iPad, self-swiping my card and choosing the percentage tip?  For starters (and finishers) there wouldn’t have been gouging because there wouldn’t have been a waiter.  It would be like standing over the shoulder of the processor at Visa – instant reconciliation.  In effect, my story is a vote for no paper receipts.

Truth be told, I’m already evolving – slowly – from paper receipts.  When given the choice (Home Depot comes to mind), I select “email receipt” or “no receipt” more often than “paper”.  Unlike robo-calls, I accept the unsolicited side effects of electronic commerce (i.e. email spam).  In a nod to maintaining control, I select self-check-in at airports and self-check-out at markets.

More likely, I’m caving on paper receipts because I’ve already done so with a laundry list of other paper products.  My written letters have (d)evolved into email.  My paper-printed books have dissolved into bits/bytes on my Kindle e-reader.  My to-do lists now reside in a phone app.  Bills arrive in my online inbox instead of my streetside mailbox.

Phil Dyer, one reader of the Wall Street Journal piece, commented, “California will soon attempt to regulate earthquakes”.  49 of 50 U.S. states just LOL’d.  Me, not so much.  After all, I never thought I’d see the day where I’d give up my paper receipts.

Jack Be Quick

If the lazy days of summer sap your get-up-n-go, here’s an idea. Find a friendly donkey (not a stubborn one). Halter him and attach a solid lead rope – at least fifteen feet worth. Saddle your jack with thirty pounds of gear, including a pick, a shovel, and a gold pan.  Finally, don your running shoes and head out to Fairplay, CO. $50 gets you into the World Championship of Pack Burro Racing.  Welcome to the state sport of Colorado.

Pack burro racing seemed a little ridiculous to me… until I dived into the details.  For starters, its origin is as legendary as the Greeks and the marathon.  Back in the strike-it-rich days, two Colorado gold-miners hit it big in the same location, and supposedly raced back to town (burros in tow) – first miner to the claims office wins.  Here’s another detail: pack burro racing really is a marathon – 28-30 miles up and back with your donkey, making the halfway turn at an elevation of 13,000 ft.  My favorite rule?  No riding.  However, the runner may push, pull, drag, or carry the burro.  Carry the burro?  A thousand pounds of ass?

Capitals, flags, songs, and birds – of course – but I never knew states had official sports, until recently, when California considered its options.  If your first choice for the Golden State is surfing, California’s state assembly agrees with you.  The Wall Street Journal reports the assembly just passed the “bill”, and now the tiff moves to the state senate.  I say tiff because a host of other Cali residents say not so fast.  Those who don’t live near the beach choose skateboarding.  Why skateboarding?  Because surfing is already the state sport of Hawaii.  They also say skateboarding is essentially surfing on wheels.  Maybe.

I grew up in California, but neither surfed nor skateboarded.  Still, I deserve a vote.  I did my share of body-surfing, so know what it’s like to catch a wave.  I did my share of bicycling, so know what it’s like to cruise on wheels.  You can put yourself in either camp, but arguments abound for both.  As one state assemblyman said, “Hawaii may have invented surfing, but California ‘mainstreamed’ the sport”.  Others say, “Surf ranches” and their wave machines bring the sport to the inland areas of the state.  On the other side of the aisle, skateboarding is a sport enjoyed by the masses just about anywhere.  And skateboarding really was invented in California, evolving from crude combinations of roller skates and wooden produce boxes.  Marty McFly should get a vote too.

By coincidence, surfing and skateboarding will join the Olympics in 2020.  The lighting of the torch in Tokyo will surely reignite the debate in California, no matter which sport is chosen.  Or maybe the state will still be arguing one over the other, instead of dealing with – ahem – more important issues of government.

Only a handful of U.S. states claim a sport in their list of symbols.  Some make sense, as in Alaska (dog-mushing), Minnesota (ice hockey), and Wyoming (rodeo).  Others have me saying, “What the heck?”, as in Maryland (jousting), and Delaware (bicycling).  I don’t live in Maryland or Delaware.  Maybe they banned every other sport in those states.  Of course, Marylanders and Delawareans probably feel the same way about Colorado and its pack burro racing.

Admittedly, Colorado could wage a healthy state-sport debate of its own.  The Rocky Mountains alone inspire a half-dozen seemingly better options.  If on water, go with river-rafting or kayaking.  If on snow, go with skiing or snowboarding.  If on land, go with hiking or mountain biking.  Yet none of those acknowledge the state’s rich lore of gold-mining.  None of them combine a human activity with an equestrian one.  Come to think of it, Colorado has enough runners and horses to win the debate, gold-mining legend or not.

According to the Western Pack Burro Association (“Celebrating 70 Years of Hauling Ass”), Colorado’s pack burro racing series still has several to go this year.  The first three are considered the “Triple Crown”, but I can still catch the remaining action in the towns of Leadville, Buena Vista, and Victor.  It’ll be like the running of the bulls in Pamplona!

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

American Tune-Up

Each of the fifty United States is represented by more than just a flag. America’s state symbols include animals, birds, trees, flowers, and songs. As a kid growing up in California I memorized these items, and years later I’ve still got them.  The “Golden State” has the Grizzly Bear, the Valley Quail, the Redwood, the Poppy, and “I Love You, California”.  Imagine my interest then, when Brooklyn Magazine took an updated stab at the state songs, publishing “The Musical Map of the United States”.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Magazine, October 2016

Brooklyn Mag’s map is more than meets the eye (see here).  It’s not a collection of easy ditties you and I might come up with: Beach Boys for CA, John Denver for CO, Frank Sinatra for NY.  Instead, it’s a broad spectrum of lesser-known tunes, attached to the states by writers who chose them.  Read their stories and listen to their song choices.  It’s like 50+ blogs in one, plus a playlist if you want to shift the whole shebang to your smartphone.

Here’s a sampling of the Map’s creativity.  The writers chose Kenny Knight’s “America” for Colorado, a “dusty, country rock gem” with lyrics befitting its patriotic title (even if the song itself twangs along modestly).  For California, the writers needed two songs – Joni Mitchell’s “California”, and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”.  The former artist is Canadian; the latter raised in the gangland streets of Compton near Los Angeles.  You’ll find Mitchell’s folk music as appropriate as Dre’s rap for such a diverse state.

As I studied the Map, I realized each of us possesses our own musical geography, accumulating map dots as we move through life.  My own map began on the 8-track player of my father’s Cadillac in the 1960’s, crooning along with Perry Como as he claimed, “the bluest skies you’ve ever seen (are) in Seattle”.  By the 1970’s, I’d moved on to a hard-earned collection of 45-rpm records (“singles”), focusing on Top 40 bubble-gum one-hit wonders like Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” and Terry Jack’s “Seasons in the Sun”.  Also in the 70’s – courtesy of my brother’s extensive LP collection (and a stereo capable of a sonic boom) – I mapped to all kinds of rock, including Emerson Lake, & Palmer, The Eagles, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt.

By the 1980’s, I’d graduated to cassette tapes and the easy-listening music of John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Barry Manilow (to which some would say, two steps forward three steps back).  Later in the ’80’s, I embraced compact discs with a budding affection for country music (Alabama), continuing to this day (Thomas Rhett).

Throw in a handful of downloads from my kids (Katy Perry, Meghan Trainor), sprinkle the whole mess with classical symphonies and concertos – a carryover from childhood piano lessons – and you have my musical map.  I’ll bet yours is wildly different.

Even the world of sports has a musical map, as Steve Rushin wrote in an excellent piece in this week’s Sports Illustrated (“Cheer and Trebling”).  You can’t hear the whistling of “Sweet Georgia Brown” without thinking Harlem Globetrotters, just as you can’t make it through baseball’s seventh inning without singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.  You won’t leave Yankee Stadium without Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, just as you won’t hear John Williams’ spectacular “Fanfare” without thinking Olympic Games.  Moments of silence at sporting events are literally reserved for the dearly departed.  Otherwise it’s all marching bands, pipe organs, and loudspeaker instrumentals.

My now-home state Colorado has a set of symbols like California.  The “Centennial State” has the Bighorn Sheep, the Lark Bunting, the Blue Spruce, the Columbine, and John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”.  But the song could just as easily be Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, inspired by the Rocky Mountain peak I can see as I type.  The song could also be Kenny Knight’s “America”.

You listen.  You choose.  There are no right or wrong answers here.  Remember, even Google Maps gives you several options as you navigate your way.

Space Invader

Last week my family and I were on the road, heading west to Los Angeles. One morning we stopped for breakfast just short of the California state line. As I was paying and the cashier handed back my receipt, I asked her, “so… how’s your day going today?” She gave me a wary smile and replied “f-i-n-e…”. Then she looked at me a little more carefully and asked back (with no small amount of curiosity), “where you from, anyway?” And that’s when it hit me – I had invaded her personal space. At least, the big-city version of personal space.

46 - insular

Take a step back and assess the town you live in.  You’ll quickly decide whether you live in the “small” or the “big” variety. I’m not talking about physical size (though size does matter – ha). No, I’m talking about the chemistry of the place, and how you interact with the people around you.

I live in a rural area, and the surrounding towns are not much bigger than “one-street”. And here’s what I observe. People wave to each other from their cars or when walking on the road. People take face-to-face moments – however small – to have conversation. People gather at the local establishments to catch up with each other. The “hometown” parades and festivals and meals still draw decent crowds.

The big city – for all its energy and activities and diversity – is much more insular at the individual level. Its residents seek the comfort of their personal space, whether that is defined as neighborhood or house or even electronic device (personal space guaranteed by headphones and music). Indeed, retreat to personal space in the big city is a survival tactic – a stab at decompression and calm after the hectic hours on the sidewalk or in the car or office.

Be careful if you assume I favor small-town over big-city – far from it. I simply observe the outward differences as well as the inward coping mechanisms. In small towns we tend to have only one of everything (i.e. Mexican restaurant, Starbucks, dry cleaner). In big cities the choices are so vast that choosing Chipotle over the several local options feels like selling yourself short. As my big-city brother so succinctly puts it: small-town means opening the newspaper to see what there is to do, while big-city means deciding what you want to do; then opening the newspaper to see where it’s happening.

Small-town interactions fill the void of perhaps too much time in isolation. Big-city personal spaces ease the stress of perhaps too much time in the crowds. Hence it’s interesting to flip the dynamic every now and then, as I did with my breakfast cashier. She was comfortable in her personal space until I invaded with my casual question. And maybe just for a moment, she let down her distrust guard and realized I was simply interested in how her day was going.

Old-World Charming

One of my favorite musicals is “Brigadoon”.  The original production dates a long way back; to 1947.  Brigadoon tells the tale of two Americans traveling in the Scottish Highlands.  A town quietly appears to them through the fog: charming, simple and untouched by time.  It is idyllic.  To protect itself from the changing outside world, “Brigadoon” only appears to outsiders one day every hundred years.  So when one of these travelers falls in love with a Scottish lass from the town, he only has a few hours to decide if that love means remaining in Brigadoon and disappearing into the fog forever.  The ending is fitting (and not so predictable).  I won’t give it away here.

31 - idyllic

My own Brigadoon appears to me, once a year for only a week or two.  Just north of San Diego lies the little coastal town of Del Mar.  It is a quiet village by the sea, with pretty little shops and restaurants, a prominent hotel, and a train that whistles its way along the nearby cliffs several times a day.  You can stroll leisurely from the beach to the center of town in a matter of minutes.  You can sit in the park on the bluffs and lose yourself in the horizon.  The flip-flop pace is slow and the carefree inhabitants always seem relaxed and happy.  Like Brigadoon, Del Mar is simple, romantic, and idyllic.

I keep returning to Del Mar, just as I did when I was a boy.  Growing up in the bustle of Los Angeles, Del Mar was only a two-hour drive south by car or an effortless journey by train; yet always seemed a world away.  My family spent the summers at our house on the beach, including countless hours in the sand and surf.  In those days – a half-century ago or more (gulp) – Del Mar was as modest a burg as you can imagine.  The beachhouses were drab single-story wood-sided bungalows.  A walk on the shore encountered a lot of seaweed and rocks and only an occasional shell.  The town was unremarkable; more practical than boutique.  My child’s eye recalls the 7-Eleven as a highlight; the only place a kid cared about thanks to its Slurpees and pinball machines.  Del Mar’s drugstore was almost forgettable, except you could buy chocolate malt tablets (meant for indigestion but candy to us kids).  The park contained a snack shack where you couldn’t get much more than a grilled cheese and a Coke.  And my friends and I used to sneak under the highway through a culvert, giving us a back door entrance to the nearby horse-racing grounds.  I can still picture the jockeys, exercising their thoroughbreds in the ocean waves.

Del Mar is a wholly different animal today.  The draw of the coast, the consistently good weather, and the summer horse-racing season has transformed a modest locale into quite the tony address.  The beach is groomed daily and the sand is marked into areas for swimming and other areas for games and still other areas for dogs.  The hotel commands a nightly rate of $350.  The park on the bluffs is all spruced up – no more snack bar – and used for concerts and festivals.  A sunset wedding/reception sets you back $4k just for the use of the park.  The local Starbucks sells enough coffee and tea to rank among the most successful locations in the country.  The racetrack patrons hit the town in their Sunday best the first day of the season (think Kentucky Derby).  And most notably, a house on the beach – with a very narrow slot of property abutting the ocean – cannot be had for less than $10 million.  Yes, Del Mar is all dressed up these days and hardly simple.

But it’s still my Brigadoon.

My family and I make our annual pilgrimage to Del Mar every July.  We leave behind landlocked Colorado for yet another taste of the sun and surf and salty air.  And as soon as I arrive, the little town I remember reveals itself to me from the fog that has enveloped it over the years.  The fancy shops, restaurants, and patrons step aside in favor of the simpler and more idyllic memories of the Del Mar I first fell in love with.  If it were possible, I might just choose to take a leap – forever – into the Brigadoon of my yesteryear.