Vicious Circles

When I was ten years old, the progressive rock band “Yes” released an unforgettable song called “Roundabout”. The lyrics included trippy phrases like, “… mountains come out of the sky and they stand there…”, and, “… go closer hold the land feel partly no more than grains of sand…” The words made no sense but the melody hooked me with its driving beat and wandering synthesizer. “Roundabout” and “Stairway to Heaven” – both released in 1971 – are perfect examples of my rock music baptism.

Turns out, “Roundabout” was not a metaphor for the song’s underlying message nor even a made-up word. The lyrics really were spawned from an overdose of traffic circles. Yes was on tour and traveling from Aberdeen to Glasgow when its lead singer Jon Anderson says their van passed through “maybe 40 or so” roundabouts. Anderson promptly teamed up with guitarist Steve Howe to produce one of Yes’s biggest hits.  Wikipedia dedicates an entire article to “Roundabout” here.

A “roundabout” (in the UK, of course)

Fifty years forward, roundabouts are more prevalent than ever on our city streets – and in some setups, as mind-boggling to navigate as a Yessong lyric. In a neighborhood near my house, I pass through three consecutive roundabouts to get to a friend’s house.  Each has two lanes entering and exiting the circle from four directions.  If I’m not conscious of the lane I’m in when I enter a circle, I’ll find myself going round and round before I remember it’s safe to exit from both lanes.  If I lose track of which circle I’m in (all three look entirely alike), I’ll exit onto a street nowhere near my friend’s house.

A “rotary”

You’d think we’d have them figured out by now since roundabouts first appeared in 1966 and have proliferated ever since.  (By definition, we’re talking about circles tight enough to induce centrifugal force, not the more leisurely curves of an urban “rotary”.)  The Wall Street Journal reports traffic authorities still toy with public awareness campaigns, signage, and modified roadway designs in an almost desperate effort to reduce roundabout fender-benders.

Here are two lingering oversights with the rules of roundabouts.  First, drivers entering the circle sometimes assume they have the right-of-way over drivers already in the circle.  Second, drivers approaching a two-lane roundabout don’t check signage to see whether one or both lanes also exit the roundabout.  On the latter problem, I admit to several instances where I had to quickly change lanes while circling, just to exit where I needed to.  Changing lanes in a roundabout ranks among the scariest driving maneuvers of them all.

Not in this lifetime

Roundabouts really do make a lot of sense, even if drivers never, ever figure them out.  They eliminate electronic signal systems or stop signs.  They create a safer environment for pedestrians (who only have to look one direction for oncoming traffic instead of three).  They force vehicles to slow down, and statistics show a dramatic reduction in the number of T-bone and head-on collisions.  Finally, roundabouts require less asphalt to create a new intersection, and are sometimes enhanced with an eye-pleasing landscaped island in the center.

Look closely and you’ll see (all four) Bristol Circles

The first time I ever drove in circles was in West Los Angeles.  A street known as “Bristol Avenue” earned the nickname “Bristol Circles” by teenage drivers in the neighborhood.  That’s because Bristol’s four rotaries allowed for a lively game of “car tag”, where my friends and I would zoom around trying to “tag” each other with the headlights of our cars.  If we were really daring (i.e stupid), we included the topmost of Bristol’s four circles, which is bisected by busy, unpredictable Sunset Blvd.

Cities in the northeastern states of the U.S. have some pretty good-sized rotaries these days but for the really daring, it’s hard to beat the giant urban circles in France or the tighter many-tentacled roundabouts in the UK.  Paris’s Arc de Triomphe rotary may deserve the title “most vicious circle”.  Watch the following video and see if you don’t agree.  This rotary may be the genesis of the term “distracted driving”.  Note to viewer: no lanes.  Note to self: no thanks.

Some content sourced from the 3/14/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Car Crash Mystery: Why Can’t Drivers Figure Out Roundabouts?” and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Putting the Kettle On

Kacey Musgraves is a blossoming country music artist whose recent album “Golden Hour” will compete with heavy-hitters at this year’s Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. She’s released only four albums (through major labels), so the nomination is remarkable. And yet – despite the acclaim heaped on “Golden Hour” – my favorite Kacey song remains a track from her second album, “Pageant Material”. In her words, it’s “a little, tiny, music-box-of-a-song” called “Cup of Tea”.

The message in “Cup of Tea” (have a listen here) – is simple: no matter who you are or what you stand for, you’re never going to appeal to everybody.  There will always be haters out there no matter how you present yourself.  My favorite lyrics in “Cup of Tea” are the refrain itself:

You can’t be, everybody’s cup of tea
Some like it bitter, some like it sweet
Nobody’s everybody’s favorite
So you might as well just make it how you please

Kacey wouldn’t mind if I told her “Cup of Tea” gets me thinking just as much about tea as about how well I mesh with other people.  Not that I’ll be steeping anytime soon, mind you.  I can’t seem to acquire tea-taste, no matter how many times I put the kettle on.  Go figure – half my DNA originates from England, so you’d think my instincts would have me setting out the fine china and doilies every afternoon.  I’d nibble on the cakes or scones or whatever comes with, but no tea, please.  I much prefer my morning coffee.

Ironically, tea brews with some of my earliest childhood memories.  My parents used to take my brothers and I downtown in Los Angeles, to restaurants on the streets of Chinatown – probably as much for the cultural experience as for the food. I can still picture those dark, quiet dining rooms, with the strange music and gaudy decor.  The meal always began with a pot of tea, including the little round cups that seemed to have misplaced their handles.  Tea was a cool experience back then. Listen, when all you drank was milk or water (or the occasional soda), tea was pretty sweet no matter how it tasted.  It was like having a “grown-up” drink before being grown up.

Forty-odd years later, I notched another tea-riffic memory.  My wife and I took a cruise on the Baltic Sea a few summers ago (“six countries in eight days”), and chose Oceania, one of the nicer cruise lines.  Good decision.  As much as we enjoyed the excursions off the ship, we enjoyed the return even more, because every day we were treated to “afternoon tea”.  Oceania’s tea was the perfect respite between the early morning touring and the evening dinners/dancing.  “Tea” included tableside service from tuxedoed waitstaff, countless cakes and petit fours, and those little triangle sandwiches with the crusts removed.  “Tea” even included a string quartet; their soft music adding to the ambiance.  I suppose I could’ve asked for coffee instead, but that would’ve tainted the experience.  Not to say I enjoyed the tea itself.  Just “afternoon tea”.

The culture, history, and preparations of tea could generate a week’s worth of posts.  (See the Wikipedia article here).  What I find more interesting is how tea has become the daily routine of several global cultures.  The Chinese and Japanese consume tea in the morning “to heighten calm alertness”.  The Brits serve tea to guests upon arrival (or in the mid-afternoon), for “enjoyment in a refined setting”.  The Russians consider a social gathering “incomplete” without tea.  Not sure about all that, but I can at least agree with the moment of pause tea provides; the respite from the faster pace.  It’s just… my “cup of tea” is coffee.

All By Myself

I’ve always thought “Prime Minister” is an elegant name for a politician.  Prime suggests first-in-charge, while Prime Minister implies several others in the political hierarchy one or more levels down.  In the United Kingdom, Theresa May is the PM; the head of “Her Majesty’s Government”, with a cabinet of other Ministers at her disposal on par with Secretaries in the United States.  Minister of Agriculture, Minister of the Interior, Minister of the Defence (love the British spelling), and so on.  In all, Ms. May commands twenty-one unique ministers.  As of January, make that twenty-two.  Who’s the latest to join the tea party?  The Minister of Loneliness.

When I think “lonely”, a country of 60 million people doesn’t come to mind.  No country comes to mind.  Instead, I think about individuals in far-away, desolate places.  A scientist conducting an experiment near the Arctic Circle.  A criminal in solitary confinement in the bowels of an isolated prison.  Tom Hanks in “Castaway”.  So it’s no wonder the New York Times article about the newest U.K. minister, Tracey Crouch, caught my eye.  Even more eye-opening was to read about the loneliness “epidemic” responsible for her appointment.

Britain’s research indicates nine million or more of its citizens “often or always feel lonely”.  That’s 15% of their population.  I find it remarkable all those people would own up to feeling that way, but perhaps the survey was their opportunity to say, “please help”.  Consider this: 200,000 senior citizens in the U.K. hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.  Makes me wonder if vocal cords stop working if they’re not used long enough.

Loneliness is not a trademark of the U.K. alone, of course.  It’s unavoidable in any country or culture.  “Lonely” brings to mind several songs over the past fifty years: Bobby Vinton’s Mr. Lonely (1962) to Adam Lambert’s Another Lonely Night (2015).  Elvis had a hit with Are You Lonesome Tonight?, as did Roy Orbison with Only The Lonely and Yes with Owner of a Lonely Heart.  Eric Carmen’s two biggest hits in the 1970’s were about loneliness: All By Myself and Never Gonna Fall In Love Again.  And if you want the best example of loneliness in music, look no further than Charles Ives’ short classical piece The Unanswered Question.  The haunting conversation between solo trumpet and woodwind quartet makes you realize even a brass instrument wishes it had a few friends.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists over 75 movies about loneliness.  A few familiar examples: Carrie, Silence of the Lambs, and Brokeback Mountain.  The History Channel hosted several years of a reality television series called “Alone”, which shared the daily struggles of individuals as they survived in the wilderness for as long as possible. The participants were isolated from each other and all other humans, and the one who remained the longest won a grand prize of $500,000.  This is entertainment?

I don’t want to be lonely just to be able to write a best-selling song or win a half-million dollars, but that doesn’t mean I mind being alone.  Lonely and alone are decidedly different creatures.  If one is lonely, the dictionary says he is “destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship” (sounds miserable, doesn’t it?).  If one is alone, he is “separate, apart, or isolated from others”.  And that is not such a bad thing.  In fact, we introverts (persons concerned primarily with their own thoughts and feelings) handle “alone” much better than you extroverts (persons concerned primarily with the physical and social environment).  We introverts prefer our gatherings in smaller numbers.

I’ll never forget an encounter I had with a neighbor years ago, at Halloween.  As my kids knocked on her door for treats, I realized we’d lived right next door for several months but never formally introduced ourselves.  I apologized as I shook her hand, yet her response was, “oh no problem at all; that’s why we moved to this neighborhood.  People stay to themselves here.”

Is this the world we live in now, with electronics and social media and work-from-home promoting more alone time?  At least the Brits are acting, before too much “alone” becomes too much “lonely”.   They’ve started a Facebook group for those affected by loneliness.  They’ve set up a fund to study the detrimental effects.  And they’ve appointed a new minister to lead the way.

Perhaps the U.S. should appoint a Secretary of Loneliness too, ministering to those who can’t seem to find companionship among 323 million others.  The Surgeon General claims loneliness can be associated with “greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety”.  On that note, what first appeared to be an LOL headline is no laughing matter at all.  Get out there and mingle.

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