A Baker's Half-Dozen

If you’ve ever been to an IKEA home furnishings store, you know the shopping experience is more about navigating a vast warehouse than a cozy “store”.  IKEA retail covers several football fields worth of showrooms and merchandise, with clever navigation arrows projected onto the floor so you don’t lose yourself in the maze.  Before or after your purchases, IKEA offers a spacious sit-down cafeteria, so you can fuel or restore your energy levels as needed.  And it is here – in the IKEA cafeteria – where I can’t help but picture the Swedish Chef from the The Muppet Show.

You remember Swedish Chef, don’t you?  Even if you only occasionally glanced over the shoulders of your children as they watched The Muppet Show, Swedish Chef left an indelible impression.  Chef had those big, bushy brows completely covering his eyes.  He always had a handful of utensils, inevitably launched into the air of his kitchen as his gibberish songs ended with “… BORK, BORK, BORK!”  Chef sported a colorful bow tie, a white apron, and the distinctive toque blanche (white hat) on his head.  Swedish Chef was always my favorite Muppet.

Chef could be working behind the counter of the IKEA cafeteria, because naturally; IKEA serves Swedish food.  My favorite entree (as if I dine at IKEA regularly) is the Swedish meatballs in brown sauce (köttbullar), served with a side of the crepe-like potato pancakes (raggmunkar) and a dollop of lingonberry jam (Sweden’s famous “food freshener”).

There’s another fellow in the States who reminds me of Swedish Chef, and he doesn’t work in the IKEA cafeteria.  Ever heard of Mimal, “the Man in the Middle of the USA”?  Mimal lives in the Midwestern states, and he’s a big boy.  In fact, Mimal’s so big he barely fits between Canada’s border to the north and Mexico’s to the south.

Have a look at the map.  Mimal (sometimes called “the Elf”) is a silhouette of a chef, represented by the outlines of seven American states.  MIMAL is quite literally (M)innesota, (I)owa, (M)issouri, (A)rkansas, and (L)ouisiana.  He holds a pan (Tennessee) of fried chicken (perfectly represented by Kentucky).  Mimal can thank the west bank of the Mississippi River for the shape of his five-state body.  He also looks like he’s about to march his chicken right off the map, over the Atlantic Ocean, and on into Europe.  Maybe he’s headed to Sweden?

Whoever discovered Mimal hiding in America came up with a clever way for children to memorize a handful of states.  Appropriately, Mimal the chef is made up of a baker’s half-dozen of them.  A baker’s dozen (13) began in the 11th century, when an extra loaf was added to the bread basket to guarantee the minimum sales weight.  A baker’s half-dozen then – rounded-up – is seven loaves.  Or seven American states.

Leave it to Americans to deny Mimal his innocence.  Based on one or more unsolved mysteries in the MIMAL states, the elf-chef was once connected with a real-life kidnapper/murderer.  The legend claimed if you drove straight from Minnesota to Louisiana – through each of Mimal’s five “body” states, you’d be abducted (never to be seen again) once you crossed Louisiana’s northern border.  My logical brain asks how said abductor knows you made it through all five states?  But this is legend we’re talking about, much like the monster in Scotland’s Loch Ness.  Tabloid fodder at best.

Educators expanded on Mimal’s seven-state profile, including all fifty American states in a story designed to help students memorize names and locations (would’ve been helpful back in my school days, when I’d confuse Wyoming with Colorado).  Still, I prefer to limit the game to Mimal’s baker’s half-dozen.  I can’t help but see a big chef every time I look at a map of the United States.  I also can’t help hearing him sing, “…BORK, BORK, BORK!”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Laughing Squid blog.

The Fourth on the Fence

America’s Independence Day celebrations go full-on patriotic today, including a plethora of centuries-old traditions. Barbecues and fireworks. Downtown parades with marching bands. Baseball, apple pie, and ice cream. Flags, and countless costumes of red, white, and blue. Another round of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. These are the images consistent with America’s 243rd birthday party. But tennis shoes and tanks? Nope; not what I had in mind.

Photo by Nike

I’m referring to recent headlines, of course.  Nike – in an obvious nod to Independence Day – produced a limited-edition running shoe with the “Betsy Ross” on the heels (the version of the American Flag with a circle of thirteen stars on the field of blue).  The shoe would’ve made it to hundreds of feet were it not for concerns voiced by activist (and Nike spokesperson) Colin Kaepernick.  In response, Nike immediately recalled the shoe.  In response to that, the state of Arizona withdrew financial incentives for the construction of Nike’s latest manufacturing plant.  In response to that, the state of New Mexico created a political fence at the NM/AZ border, inviting Nike to “come on over”.  “Betsy Ross” instantly became a hot topic on Twitter.

Photo by Andrew Harnik – AP

As for the tanks, President Trump requested “reinforcements” for the “Salute to America” parade and flyover in Washington D.C.  In a nod to the U.S. Armed Forces, parade-goers will enjoy a convoy of loud-and-proud servicemen and women and their vehicles.  I can’t think of anything more patriotic: a fortified Independence Day parade in our nation’s capital hosted by the leader of the free world.  But like the Betsy Ross shoes, we have controversy.  D.C. locals are worried about tank-track damage to city streets and bridges.  More predictably, the progressive left sees President Trump’s actions (and Salute speech) as an inappropriate opportunity for political gain.  In response to that, there will be protestors and flag-burners galore.

My Independence Day childhood memories have nothing to do with flag-burning, let alone tennis shoes and tanks.  Our family would trek to the beach in Southern California full of pride and patriotism.  We’d spread blankets on the sand at dusk alongside thousands of others, with a couple of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.  My brothers and I would run around in circles with sparklers.  When it got dark enough we’d enjoy the fireworks erupting from a nearby pier.

As a teenage boy – and budding pyrotechnic – Independence Day was all about the fireworks.  My dad would purchase a large “Red Devil” assortment and we’d set them off on the beach.  My favorites included “black snakes”, “ground-spinners”, and “fountains”. (Alas, I never experienced the machine-gunner thrill of hoisting a Roman Candle.)

When my own children were young, I delighted in our local (and thoroughly hokey) Independence Day parade.  Our supermarket participated with a group of dancing, shopping-cart-wielding cashiers.  Our dentist shamelessly advertised on a float with a giant toothbrush. But our son carried the flag as a Boy Scout and our daughter rode her pony as part of an equestrian team.  Later in the evening we’d gather at the shore of the nearby lake to watch the fireworks display, fully funded by donations to the local fire department.  Small-town America at its best.

Like any other living, breathing American, I have my opinions on the tennis shoes and tanks.  I don’t think Nike intended to dredge up Revolutionary War-era civil liberties simply by displaying the Betsy Ross on its products.  I don’t think President Trump did anything more than exercise the privilege of the office by serving as host of our nation’s capital’s celebration.  In both cases, I think digging for dirt below the surface only makes things dirtier.  I’d wear the shoes or attend the Washington D.C. bash without an iota of self-consciousness.  I’d simply be an American celebrating our Independence Day.

Nike defended its shoe recall by claiming it’s “proud of its American heritage”, but worried the Betsy Ross would “unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday”.  President Trump’s advocates said he’s “… not afraid to buck convention and put his own twist on these types of events”.  How about we get off the fence, take a step back, and remember what we’re celebrating?  America’s birthday deserves more than focus on yesterday’s regrettable events or today’s relentless politics.  Perhaps – just for a day – we could be the “United States” of America once again.

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”.

Down Goes The Flag

Lately it seems the American flag is more often at half-staff than not. When the flag is at full-staff I get lost in the surrounding scenery, with just a passing glance at the Stars & Stripes. But at half-staff the flag is an effigy of its prouder self.  It might as well be illuminated with several of those Hollywood-style searchlights, as if to say, “something’s wrong with this picture.”

There is something wrong with this picture: I don’t immediately know the reason the flag goes to half-staff. There’s no accompanying billboard to tell me who or what we’re commemorating with this gesture. In fact, it wasn’t until I wrote this piece that I navigated to halfstaff.org (of course there’s a website), where you can learn why and when the red, white, and blue becomes more than just the unfurled symbol of America’s freedom.

Let’s get two misconceptions out of the way. One, the flag is not considered “half-mast” but rather “half-staff”. If the flag is “half-mast” you’re probably rocking and rolling on a ship at sea instead of standing on dry land (but the significance remains the same – respect, mourning, distress, or a salute).  Two, the flag is not “raised to half-staff”.  First it is raised to full-staff, paused, and then lowered to half-staff for the rest of the day. But unless you’re there at sunrise you’ll probably miss that little detail.

“Half-staff” dates to the century before America’s founding fathers.  Today the President issues the request through executive order, and all government facilities (including schools and military bases) are expected to comply.  Typically, we’re commemorating the death of a prominent government official, whether on the day of passing or the day of remembrance.  And speaking of passing, the gesture of lowering the flag is said to make room for an “invisible flag of death” flying above.  I kind of like that.

As if to play copycat, state, city, and other flags and pennants are expected to follow suit whenever the American flag goes half-mast.  But state flags can go half-mast by their own right.  Here in Colorado our state flag has been lowered more than twenty times in the past five years.  Just yesterday our governor ordered half-mast, to honor the passing of Ray Kogovsek, a former Colorado lawmaker and U.S. Congressman.

The American flag is also flown at half-mast to acknowledge days or events in U.S. history.  Thus, you can expect the raise-then-lower on Memorial Day, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (12/7), and what is now called Patriot Day (9/11).  Also since 2001, the flag is flown at half-mast in conjunction with the annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service.

Several similar gestures to half-staff – especially since the advent of social media – have emerged to enlighten us to those who suffer.  Think about all those “Awareness Ribbons” (or bracelets), displayed on clothing and cars.  Their meaning is linked to their color, as in the following examples: Blue – Drunk-driving intolerance; Pink – Breast Cancer awareness; Rainbow – Gay Pride and support of the LGBT community; White – Victims of terrorism or violence against women; Yellow – Support of U.S. troops (among a dozen other designations), but generally a symbol of hope.

Recently I’ve noticed houses in our neighborhoods with a single green light brightly illuminated next to the front door at night.  As I discovered here, I’m seeing the “Greenlight A Vet” program, meant to “show America’s veterans the appreciation they deserve when, back home and out of uniform, they’re more camouflaged than ever.”  You can even purchase and/or register your green light on the website as a show of solidarity.  9.3 million people have done just that.  Four are right here in my zip code.

The green lights do catch my attention.  As a civilian I don’t think our veterans get nearly the appreciation or respect they deserve, so “bravo” to the program.  But the American flag doesn’t get the appreciation or respect it deserves either (a topic for another post).  Thankfully, it’s hard to ignore the right-but-somehow-wrong image of the Stars and Stripes at “half-staff”.

The Aging of Independence

Ten years from now – this month – the U.S. will celebrate its 250th birthday. That’s remarkable to me considering I still have vivid memories of America’s bicentennial back in 1976.  To put it another way, I’ve been witness to more than 20% of the entire history of the United States.  We really are a young country, aren’t we?

54 - sesquicentennial

Earlier this week my wife and I were driving back to Colorado from California, after a week of vacation at the beach. Passing through Utah we reached a small town called Cedar City. There’s nothing remarkable about Cedar City. It’s the home of Southern Utah University and almost 30,000 residents. But the name stirred a memory in the deep recesses of my brain. And then it hit me. Cedar City was part of a contest the Los Angeles Times newspaper sponsored when I was a teenager – a creative way of celebrating the nation’s big birthday.

The contest (if my vague memories serve me correctly) took place over fifty of the fifty-two weeks that year. Each week The Times published a trivia puzzle consisting of a jumbled American city name and a couple other facts you had to figure out about the locale or surrounding state. As the contest went on you realized The Times was picking one city from every state in the union. You cut out and completed each puzzle by hand, and at the end of the contest submitted the whole pile to The Times, to be included in a cash drawing. Our family’s World Book Encyclopedia – not the Internet that was still twenty years from reality – helped me with the research.

I didn’t win The Times contest but I know I learned a lot about our country in the process – including a few details about little Cedar City, Utah.  Needless to say we are a remarkably diverse collection of states, towns and people; especially for a country so young.

America’s 150th birthday – the “sesquicentennial” – was honored back in 1926 when Calvin Coolidge was president.  You can find Coolidge’s celebratory address to the people here.  One passage in particular resonated with me: “Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.”  Powerful words then, but I wonder if today’s leaders would be so bold as to make the same statement?  Look no further than the current presidential election: the Constitution and the Declaration are being called into question like never before.

Ten years from now the U.S. will celebrate its “sestercentennial” – fully 250 years of glorious independence.  Philadelphia is already campaigning to be the host city for the national celebration.  2026 won’t be a presidential election year nor an Olympic year, but the fireworks and pageantry will surely be brighter.  Let’s hope another decade brings not only renewed pride and optimism in America, but also a sense that we are – states, towns, citizens – “united” once more.