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This Time Machine Serves Coffee

The book I was reading over Christmas was a bit of a departure for me, an impulse buy on a bargain table at the local Barnes & Noble – Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. It’s a relatively short book, a collection of four related short stories. Hey, it was on sale, takes place in a coffee shop and had a bonus cat on the cover, so what’s not to like?

With a name like Kawaguchi, it probably should have occurred to me that it was a Japanese book, translated into English. But in fact it didn’t until I was several pages in, not that it mattered. It came out in Japan in 2015 and was released in the English version in 2020. In between those years it was made into a Japanese film, Cafe Funiculi Funicula, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it adapted into an American flick before long as well. It certainly had a sort of theatrical feel to the story and prose.

One thing I found interesting was the very style of that prose. It was clearly different than what we North Americans have gotten accustomed to reading. A little denser, perhaps, a little more poetic for sure. Even though set in the modern day, there is a distinctly “old”,literary feel to it. Kawaguchi goes to great lengths to describe the characters, and the setting, sparse as most of it is. “He was wearing a navy polo shirt and beige knee-length shorts. It was what he often wore on his days off. It must have been hot outside, as he was fanning himself with his black zippered portfolio…” One imagines most American writers would have described him, if at all like “he was dressed casually and fanning himself.” The effect is both charmingly poetic and yet a bit of a detour to quick consumption of the novel. As are the moderately-long list of characters, with names foreign and often similar-sounding to our ears – Hirai, Kazu, Kohtake, Kei… one can imagine how a Japanese reader reacts to a Western story full of Jordans and Josh’s and Jacksons.

All that noted, the story is still the thing in it, and it is quite a compelling one at that. Without too many spoilers, the setting is a mystical Japanese cafe, a small underground club, run by a small family and close friends. Limited seating, limited menu but a big reputation. It is rumored to be a place where if you ask, you can go back in time! Oh and it has a resident ghost too.

However, it’s not that simple for would-be time-travelers. There are any number of restrictions on their voyages. They can only sit at one seat…which is usually occupied. They only have a short time to spend in the past when they do go…until their coffee gets cold, in fact. And most importantly, whatever they do back in the past, it’s not going to change the present day…which sort of defeats the purpose for most. So, going back three weeks to place a bet on last week’s bowl game won’t add a dollar to your bank account when you return; asking out that girl who might have had a crush on you two years ago brings you back to your same single existence now, should that be the case.

Yet four different travelers, all cafe regulars, choose to do so …and find that even if the here and now looks the same, a different decision in the past can bring them to a better mindset now. Or change the way they will make decisions from today onwards.

As the Christian Science Monitor note, the prose is “uneven and tends to meander” however, it has an “unerring ability to find lasting emotional resonance”.

All in all, it seemed like an enjoyable enough little visit to a foreign city and perhaps, to the Twilight Zone. It also left me pondering if I’d bother trying to revisit the past, if the restrictions placed on it were as set out there? Couldn’t wander around, so there’d be no going to Dallas in November ’63 to try and stop Oswald…or see who really pulled the trigger even. No going to a club in L.A. In 1982 to meet a then-single and unknown Susanna Hoffs before her Bangles became a million-selling band. And even if it seemed like maybe a friend you had a coffee with five years ago had a great idea for a business that you both should have followed up on, going back to the conversation would leave that business unbuilt and you in the job you have today. Is it worth it?

Perhaps. Maybe there’d be time for one more phone call to that parent a few days before they passed away, say the things that were left unsaid. Maybe the guy playing the guitar on stage no one noticed ten years ago is now the next Bob Dylan. Going back there wouldn’t make you his manager or part of his jet-setting entourage now, but might give you a second chance to really pay attention, so today you could say “I remember seeing him when…”.

Then again, maybe just thinking such things can leave us more aware of making better choices today. If a 240 page book can accomplish that, it’s a worthy read in my estimation.

Let’s Do The Right Thing People

First off, a Happy New Year to all my readers! I hope 2023 finds you optimistic about the dozen  months ahead, as well as in good shape. Which will lead us to this column’s topic.

Recently my friend Keith at Nostalgic Italian was good enough to put up a nice review of a book I wrote a few years ago called Thank Goodness : 101 Things To Be Grateful For. It got me thinking about the world right now…and I’ve got a bit of extra time since currently I’m quarantining for Covid. Let me say, thankfully I’m not feeling very sick and seem to be on the mend…and for that I’m grateful.

But what it reminded me was one of the things I put in the book was “Being able to do the right thing when no one’s watching.” It’s not something that always comes automatically to me, nor I suspect, most of us. I noted that it was what came to mind when someone had asked me how I defined “character.” After all, it’s easy to do the right thing when you’re being watched. Most of us do. We pick up the doggie doo when walking the pup through a park. Stop at the red lights when there’s traffic. Wash our hands when we are finished in a public washroom. But what matters is doing that when no one is around. Give back the extra $20 the cashier accidentally handed you in change. Pick up the garbage on your neighbor’s lawn, even though you didn’t throw it there. And stay home when you’re sick!

That last one is a bit more challenging to me than the others I mentioned. And, from what I see around me, it’s downright impossible it would seem for most people in this city. But it’s what we need right now.

My sweetie came down with Covid a week ago. Although at first it only manifested itself with cold-like symptoms and a little fatigue. However, by day 2, she’d developed a bad cough and got to talk to her doctor through a tele-conference. She was prescribed some meds, and by then was trying to wear a mask all the time around the house. I too, began doing that in an effort not to catch it as well. And that worked well, for a few days. At least I’m grateful (there’s that theme again) I stayed well while she was at her sickest, thus being able to go out to get her prescriptions, get our supplies, cook her some soup and all that. But by Friday night I wasn’t feeling good, and I awoke Saturday, after an entirely uncharacteristic 11 or more hours sleep, feeling feverish and having zero energy. So, I decided to try to do the right thing and take one of the home tests. The little bar just about flew off the control strip, so high was my virus concentration it would seem. So I agreed, I should do the right thing…namely quarantine, for at least the five days the CDC recommends.

This is not a lot of fun for me. Although I am a homebody, I am also used to going out pretty regularly, running errands, shopping, taking the kiddo to work…even if only to get some fresh air and out and about for an hour. Being confined to the bedroom and bathroom is not pleasing. Especially when it’s quite nice outside, and again, thankfully, by yesterday I was already starting to feel better. Not “great” nor close to “100%” but not that bad. A bit worn out and feeling like I had a cold or very bad hayfever. Today, the trend continues, I find myself a little less exhausted than yesterday and still sniffling some. And I find myself short on coffee, and almost out of deodorant (of course, right now I can barely smell anything… but other people can!) . Certainly the temptation is there to just go out, do a bit of quick shopping, get a few steps in. I’d wear a mask, because that’s one frustrating thing through all this. I am one of those rare ones who’s refused to stop wearing masks when I go to stores or other indoors people places outside the home.

Alas, some members of the extended family don’t share my enthusiasm for that, and come by when they’re sick. And judging from what I’ve seen around town, they’re in the majority. When I went to get my sweetie’s meds from the pharmacy, the usually reasonably quiet spot in our local supermarket had a lineup at least a dozen long. Many were coughing with gusto; only two besides myself bothered to don masks; no one was trying to keep a six-foot social distance between themselves and others. Perhaps understandably. The line was so impatient one thinks that if it was attempted, four more angry sick people might squeeze in front of you and dared you to say anything.  A trip around that same store that night yielded no more than two others wearing masks, but a whole infirmary’s collection of people coughing and sneezing. And almost empty over-the-counter cough and cold sections, as the photo above illustrates.

Now, I am aware a few unfortunate souls are pretty much all alone and really might have needed to go out for themselves to buy a bottle of cough syrup, a loaf of bread or pick up Paxlovid from the pharmacist despite feeling ill. My heart goes out to them.  Although it is worth noting, the store delivers. But most people have someone they could call, or yell across the hallway to that is healthy and could do it for them, or else already have well-used Door Dash and Favor delivery accounts. And as for those shopping for cosmetics or the first swimsuit of the summer while their noses run and they’re barking like an angry seal with a Covid cough…well, don’t even get me started.

Again, I say it’s not always easy to do the right thing. It would be easy for me to say both A) I don’t feel very sick right now and B) almost no one else around this area is acting responsibly and quarantining, so why should I? and go on my merry way out into the crowds. But I won’t. Because the one person I happened to sneeze on in a lineup might be the 80 year old with no immune system, or the person you didn’t know was undergoing cancer treatment and this inconvenient extra-strength “cold” might be infinitely more serious for them.

Do the right thing people. Show some character when you’re sick these days. Let’s make it a happier and healthier new year.

A Christmas Questionnaire

Thanks to Keith at Nostalgic Italian, who gave me this idea with a post he did recently. A look at our Christmas preferences and traditions, feel free to comment or make your own list!

  1. 24th or 25th? I always liked celebrating Christmas on Christmas, the 25th. That’s what we did when I was growing up. Seems nice to be able to sleep in, get up, get around to opening presents and such at our leisure on the day itself, followed by a nice meal. When I was single but grown, I’d sometimes go to church with friends on the Eve – the candlelit services are quite touching and spectacular looking – , other times watch Christmas movies, sometimes at home, sometimes with one of my parents. Nowadays though we have our big celebration on the evening of the 24th, a meal with opening of the majority of the gifts, sometimes a game or bingo or something like that. Now that I’m in a big, extended family, it makes some sense, as relatives have grown kids who have spouses or significant others and often they’ll need to find time to spend time with those families. Getting together on Christmas Eve seems to work. And having a quieter 25th to reflect, eat and maybe play with the gifts isn’t a bad deal either.

  1. Real or Fake? Trees that is – get your minds out of the gutter! I, and others in my family both as a child and now with my wife and her family, have allergies. Pine is one of them, so we always had a fake tree as a kid. It’s a tradition I’ve kept and we have here too. Real trees seem a lot of work, a fire hazard and at times prone to looking mediocre rather soon. Plus, not that budget friendly… spend $100 on a store tree and it’ll last years and years. Spend $50 on a real one and you’ll spend $50 more next year and so on. Fake trees these days can look fantastic and quite realistic.

  1. White or Green? Everyone loves singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”, but do they really dream of one? Well some do, but not me. Of course, context probably matters. I grew up in Canada, and even though I was in the southern part of that land, white Christmases were the norm. If the snow had fallen on the 24th or on Christmas itself, it could look pretty, but it made getting around to visit treacherous. If it was from days before, it tends to look pretty ugly really… pristine white snow doesn’t stay pristine or white for long in a big city. And I’m not fond of being cold. Now I’m in Texas and the average high on Christmas is 60 degrees, 15 Celcius. I love it. I can go outside and enjoy it in a hoodie or light jacket rather than layers of clothes and gloves. But most of the locals do dream of a white Christmas, because real snow is so rare here.

  1. Colored Lights or White Ones? To me, Christmas lights are a rainbow of colors. Red and green primarily, but you need some blue and yellow, maybe pink or orange added in too. It looks festive! But I find more and more I’m in the minority because most people I know like the uniform white ones. It’s not the same, but they can still look very nice on a tree or around a house.

  1. Eggnog or Hot chocolate? See above on allergies! I can’t eat eggs, so the nog is a no-go for me, but even if I could, somehow I don’t think I’d like it. Something about its look, smell and consistency just seems quite unpleasant to me. Hot chocolate I like now and again, with a few little marshmallows in it. So it would win that battle easily for me, though a nice winter ale followed by a good blend of coffee still top my Christmas Eve drink list.

  1. Turkey or ham? Both are quite nice, but ham is my pick. Growing up, it was usually turkey. My Mom, God love her, tried. She wasn’t a big cook, but she’d make some dinners and she always went all out on the Christmas one. But the turkey was almost always dry. She’d get up early in the morn to put it in the oven, and we’d eat at 5 or 6PM. More recently, I’ve found turkeys don’t need about 12 hours of cooking! Green bean casserole is one Southern specialty that I’ve really come to enjoy as a sidedish. Keith, whom I mentioned gave me this column idea, says it’s ravioli for him. Nothing wrong with that… eat whatever food you really enjoy on the special day.

  1. Gift cards or Gifts? On my most recent birthday, someone gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card. I love books, so I made use of it but I actually did something unusual – I splurged on a couple of things I’d normally not buy. It was an over-priced, but thoroughly interesting “magazine” documenting the entire career of Roxy Music, a band I’ve always liked, and a novel I’d never heard of but looked like it might be interesting. So it was sort of like an unexpected gift, if you will. That said, I’m not a big fan of gift cards for gifts. It’s not that they’re bad in themselves, I just find too many people give them with no thought . I prefer to give and get things that show the giver really was thinking about the person getting it and what they might really like.

  1. Christmas Story or Home Alone? A no-brainer to me, A Christmas Story. It makes me laugh every time from the “fraj-eel-ee” leg lamp to the pink bunny pjs to the villainous store Santa. Home Alone just seems mean-spirited to me and I’m sorry, but something about that Culkin lad just irritates me just looking at him. But better still…

  1. The Grinch or Charlie Brown? I’d give Charlie a tiny edge but my answer is “both”. Both were part of my childhood routines and two things I try to see each and every Christmas season still. I love both, for their stories and even their rather simplistic animation. Linus telling everyone what Christmas is really about and the tree springing to life when they gather around and sing. The Grinch’s heart growing three sizes and little Max wagging his tail at the Christmas table with the tiny Who butlers taking successively smaller trays to the kids. How can they not make you smile and appreciate the magic of the season? Point of order by the way – always the animated Grinch over the overly-long and needlessly explanatory live action remake.

  1. At home or clocking in? Most of us enjoy having the day off (with pay no less! Few think Scrooge hard done by for having his pocket picked every 25th of December, LOL). I know I always did and usually have the luxury of being at home with my family which is great. But on at least two occasions I volunteered to work on the 25th when I was single. It was when I was working as a department head in a large drug store which stayed open due to the pharmacy and other necessities it sold. I figured someone had to do it, so I might as well, get some overtime pay and let the married types with kids have the day off to enjoy. I found most people coming in the doors were in good moods, and the mood was pretty relaxed among us staff. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but it did heighten my already existing appreciation for those who have to work on Christmas – police, fire fighters, hospital nurses and staff, even the radio DJs and TV techs who make sure A Christmas Story or Home Alone are airing for the rest of us to enjoy. Keep all those types in your thoughts on this Christmas, and give them a nice word at least should you see any of them.

That’s some of my thoughts, would love to hear yours! One more thought – no matter what Christmas means to you , or even if Hanukkah or something else is your special time at this end of the calendar, I wish you a happy and healthy one and thank you for reading.

Older And … Wiser?

Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn once had a song which went “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” Sometimes it’s hard not to think Bruce was right. I was reminded of that while looking at a story on Bored Panda recently about “40 People Share Things They Used To Love That Have Become Less Fun With Age.” I was nodding along in agreement faster than you could say “hey you kids, get off my lawn!”

Among the lengthy list, “leaving the house – I used to be a social butterfly, but now I have to convince myself to go get the basic necessities”, which led into another suggestion, “shopping.” Yep, I get that, even if I was never precisely a social “butterfly”, Saturday nights used to be for going out and hanging with friends. I used to live near one of the country’s biggest malls and would go walk around it for recreation if I was bored when I was young. I enjoyed looking at the new clothes rolling in and could spend countless hours in the three record stores.

Now, there are no more record stores, I don’t live anywhere near that mall and my attitude is largely “I have clothes, why would I need more?” If eventually something doesn’t fit or has holes in it, there’s a Walmart close by. I did splurge on a blazer not long ago; found it online. I have a nagging fear that one of my deathbed thoughts will be “I wish I hadn’t willingly spent so much time in stores when I was young!”. And Saturday nights? For quietly watching Netflix or reruns with my sweetie in our room. Her employer used to have Christmas parties, I used to look forward to them. It was the one night to be out with a large number of people, which to me was a good way of filling the annual quota. But they’ve not run those for a couple of years. I think the pandemic showed us there are two types of people. One type went stir-crazy and bounced off the walls counting the days til bars would re-open and they would have to shove their way through the crowds in department stores once more come December. The other had a lightbulb go on in their heads and realize “hey! There’s a lot that I can do right here at home!” Guess which category I fall into.

Several people mentioned loud noises and places. Gotcha. If I go to a bar, which is a real Whooping crane-type rarity these days, I want to be able to talk to whoever I’m with without shouting or pressing my ear upto their face. I used to go to a few concerts a year. The Stranglers, Bob Mould, both in the ’80s left my ears ringing the next morning. Now, there might be about half a dozen artists I’d think of going to see in concert and I’d be happy to be well back from the stage. Probably wearing earplugs. And movies? Turn it down, I’d be thinking…if I went out to them, which led to another suggestion “going to theaters to watch movies.”

I must admit, I thought Covid would actually bring about the death of the field of movie theaters. It hasn’t but neither is it a thriving enterprise these days. Why would it be? The reasons are pretty obvious.

First off, now most of us seem to already have a theater in the house! When I was a kid, when my parents got a 26” color TV in the late-’70s we felt like royalty. Livin’ large! Of course, that was the one TV in the house. Now? We have a 42” TV in our room and I recently saw them marked as “small TVs” in a big box store! Watching a 42” TV with stereo sound in a dark 15-foot room isn’t that much different than looking at a 30-foot screen in a 20 000-square foot auditorium. But, the floor isn’t sticky, I don’t have to eat popcorn and if I do want popcorn, I don’t have to pay $10 for a garbage bag-sized container of it, half of which will surely be thrown away. And for the $14 admittance, we can pay a month of Netflix or HBO and watch movies every night. Not to mention, the kicker – if a new movie comes out that I really want to see, it’s probably on the TV the day it hits the theaters. Gone are the days of waiting six months for a VHS tape of it to get to Blockbuster.

Another person noted “commercial radio is unlistenable.” Sadly that’s close to true too. Too little variety, too much repetition, too few people on it with personalities. I could write pages on that topic alone. In fact, I have on my music blog so I won’t bother here.

Junk Food” someone opined. Check! I was never a huge chips and candy type guy (maybe that’s why I’m not a huge guy in fact?) but the older I get the less inclined I am to want any food that comes in large bags filled with air or that is colored day-glo orange. I still enjoy a chocolate bar once in a blue moon, but for the most part, I’d rather have a salad, or a sammie (which I grant you isn’t the healthiest of snacks when if features salami and Swiss cheese , but sure is tasty and full of stuff that actually looks like food rather than a Dupont chemical tanker manifest in the ingredient list).

But that leads to my next point. Sure there’s a lot I, and many others it seems, don’t like much now that maybe we did years ago. But the flipside is true. There are things I appreciate much more. Fresh vegetables being one.

I appreciate open-minded and pragmatic people more than my firebrand 20-something version did. Especially politicians. The way to get things done isn’t to try and find the extreme zenith of any position and try to shout down everyone else until you get your way (usually soon to be reversed entirely by the next election or change of the tides). Trying to reach a compromise that everyone can live with works so much better whether it’s in the kitchen, at the grocery store, the office or Capitol Hill.

I enjoy “my” music more than I once used to. It’s a paradox, because I listen to it less. When I was young and single, I’d have the stereo on most of the time I was home. For a few years I even typically left it on at night while I slept. I would buy new music weekly.

Now, people are often at work in the house, or sleeping, or we’re watching something together. Not music time. Not so many nights do I put on CD after CD or tune the computer to a fine internet station. But… when I do, I often find myself mesmorized, continually marveling at how good some of those records I’d forgotten or once took for granted are. Soaking them in, in awe and appreciation.

I appreciate now that I can improve other people’s days. Or at least I hope to. Often the best way to feel better if you’re a bit down or stressed is to simply pretend you’re not. Which doesn’t come naturally to me, I might add, but as I get older I learn that sometimes a few good words can change the mood altogether. Just the other day I was in a large store and the cashier, a middle-aged lady looking both rushed by the previous customer and surly, rang me through, barely looking at me. Until she came across an item with A Christmas Story markings on it came up. She brightened up. “Ohh, that’s my all-time favorite Christmas movie” she exclaimed. I told her I loved it too and asked if she’d heard they were making a sequel. She had and we marveled at how little Ralphie still looks the same 30-odd years later and how we hoped it could match the charm of the original. If there hadn’t been a lineup we would have likely dissected Elf, which she volunteered was her second-favorite seasonal film. As I walked away she was grinning and made sure to wish me a fantastic day. 45 seconds, a minute, of idle chit-chat turned her day around, temporarily at least. And mine too to some degree. That in itself gave me some satisfaction I wouldn’t have cared about a few decades ago.

Mostly, I think though the older I get the more I appreciate how special, and many, the good things in my life are. I’ve had bad days, losses, as we all have but I’ve come to realize not to take things that are great – big or small – for granted. That was a message largely lost on 1990s me. Perhaps lost on any teen or 20-something. And for that, I’d say getting old isn’t a bad thing at all.

Life Is Baseball…

Life is a carnival, an old song told us. Life is like a box of chocolates, a well-loved movie suggested. Perhaps so, but to me, life is baseball.

Now, I’m a baseball fan, have been since I was a youngster…but I don’t mean to suggest that baseball is all there is to life, nor that it’s the most important thing in it. Nothing like it. But I do mean that it is the best sport to follow to teach you how to deal with life. There’s a reason so many great movies have been made about it – Bull Durham, Moneyball, 42 – they’re great because they’re about people and struggles. The goings-on on the ball diamond are the backdrop rather than the core or essence. You don’t need to have a clue what a ground rule double is to appreciate the struggles Jackie Robinson went through to make it to the Major Leagues as the first Black man in it (depicted in 42) , or understand what an unearned run is to admire how Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) went against all conventional wisdom to win in Moneyball. I can well imagine since it came out, a new manager or two at a failing store might have decided to buck the system and try all new strategies after being inspired by how Beane had done so and created a winning team against improbable odds.

Being a baseball fan teaches you math. Whole groups of computer science/mathematician nerds now work in most professional ball team front offices, because there are so many numbers to take in and make sense of. So many averages. So many ratios. My sweetie works in a call department for a large company. Often she deals with customers with billing problems. They flat out don’t understand things like averages. “Why’s my bill higher than last month? I thought it was averaged out!” But a baseball fan has an idea that if you’re batter is hitting .250, what that average means, and understands that if he goes 0-5 …has a bad game … the average will drop. They understand that a hitter who hits for a .300 average is good, one who hits .200 probably not so good. Pitcher Justin Verlander’s ERA of 1.74 this season was one of the best of his generation; Mitch White’s 7.74 with Toronto one of the worst in recent memory. Baseball fans are nodding along. Non-fans are probably thinking this sounds a lot like Greek to them. Numbers. Lots of numbers to understand baseball.

But that’s secondary. Let’s get back to that batting average. It’s a way of expressing a percentage of times a batter gets a hit. How often they succeed. And .300 is good. That’s a 30% success rate; 300 times out of 1000. A .400 average hasn’t been done over a full season in some eight decades. It’s flat out hard to swing a rounded bat and hit a ball flying in its direction at over 90MPH, and then have it not drop right into someone’s glove on top of that. To be a baseball player means to know failure, left and right. And to be a fan, if you’re not going to drive yourself utterly crazy quickly, means accepting that.

That extends out to the actual teams. Major League Baseball plays a long season with 162 regular games played by each team. The surprising thing is the amount of “parity” ; how things even themselves out over that long season. Even the really “bad” teams win – more frequently than many would guess – and the “great” teams all suffer their share of losses and heartbreaking defeats. Not so football; their shorter season and less equal talent leads to things like Miami going the entire 1972 season without a loss or Jacksonville winning just once out of 16 games in 2020. Golf, tennis, they have stars who seemingly never lose. Not so baseball. In baseball this year, Philadelphia are playing for the World Series – the finals for the championship – after winning 87 of 162 games during the regular season. A .537 winning percentage; they won about 54% of the time. If they had lost three or four more games between April and September, they’d be sitting at home waiting for next year…like players in Tampa, who won 86 games and missed the playoffs, are. You know to make the most of every game, every chance in this sport.

Take a look at the list of the past eight World Series champions : 2014 – San Francisco, 2015 – Kansas City, 2016 – Chicago, 2017 – Houston, 2018 – Boston, 2019 – Washington, 2020 – Los Angeles, 2021 – Atlanta. Eight years, eight teams, no repeat winners. It’s worth noting that Washington, the champions in ’19, had the worst record of any team this year. So enjoy your victories!

I think of this sometimes when I’m having a bad day, or when something I try for falls through. If I succeed even a third of the time, that would be a good batting average! Don’t get too down, nor for that matter too high when things go your way. But especially the former. The Philadelphia Phillies might be drinking championship champagne a week from now, and they lost 75 games this year. 75 setbacks. If your teams loses 10-0 tonight; they could just as easily win like that tomorrow. Just keep getting back out there, taking your swings, day in, day out… and you’ll get there. Savor the victories. Don’t let the strikeouts ruin your day or keep you from going back out there to give it another try..

Life is baseball.

Charitably Uncharitable ?

I don’t mean to be uncharitable…but some charities are really beginning to get my goat. To be polite about it. Which is to say, I’m all for giving but regret that I’m starting to be less forgiving of some who are asking.

A bit about me. I believe in helping out where you can, and getting behind charities and services you believe in deeply. I was raised by parents who taught me about “tithing” and it was a core value for my dad and stepmother. My dad walked the walk, giving to a range of charities and even doing hands-on work to help a local charity – a homeless shelter that also offered some counseling and education to the people who wound up there – for several years after he retired. So, ever since I was old enough to get paycheques, I’d try to give what I could. I still do and in the last couple of years, situations have changed so I could give a little more.

Personally, as regular readers here know, I’m a strong environmental advocate and organizations that try to preserve natural areas, protect wildlife and improve the environment are always front and center in my mind. But so too are the ones which help out people having hard times, often through no fault of their own. It’s a pretty sure bet I won’t walk out of a grocery store that has a Food Drive collection bin without dropping in a few cans of soup or stew, maybe some rice, cereal, peanut butter. Hospitals that help out those who can’t afford regular topnotch treatment win my approval and when I can, my dollars too, as do several medical research charities. I use Wikipedia regularly for research and love that it’s free and runs without ads (which would clutter it and possibly influence the content), so I help them out now and then.

I say that not to toot my own horn; most people I know will do what they can for the causes they believe in too and I never want to forget I’m pretty fortunate in many ways.

All that said, charities are getting a bit out of hand in my house… or mailbox. Obviously at least a good portion of the charitable causes extend their charity to sharing their list of donors with any number of other ones. This is OK… to an extent. It even makes sense in some cases. If I give to an organization that buys up natural areas to preserve, it might make sense that I’d also be interested in one which, perhaps spends money to preserve or improve existing parkland. But lately I find it’s spiraled crazily.

I’ve gotten used to getting regular mailings from organizations remotely similar to the ones I have contributed to – obscure diseases trying to spread the word on their unusual illnesses and combat them, nature clubs from all four corners of the globe, things involving libraries or literacy…you name it. I usually read over their mailing, stash away the address labels they’ve enclosed – because they always send address stickers – and divide into three groups basically. The “wow, that’s good work! I am going to do something for them right now!” pile, the “interesting, maybe at some point I’ll send them $10 or so” one and the “nah, doesn’t interest me, into the recycling bin with you” pile.

Lately though, the mailbox is getting more crammed and the requests more “out there.” I’ve had mailings from both far Left and far Right political orgs. I’ve had requests to give to fight abortion laws and ones from other groups wanting help lobbying judges and politicians to strengthen those same laws. Go figure.

All this is fine and well I suppose. I’m not obliged to help them or even spend time reading their spiel. But the limits on my patience have been sorely tested this past week. Twice, I’ve gone to the mailbox to find stuff literally jammed in there, mail bent, magazines rolled up tight. The culprit – huge, fat unsolicited mailings from charities I’d never even heard of!

I won’t specifically name them because they might both do some good and the problem I fear isn’t limited to them specifically. One was for a private school for less fortunate kids. They sent a reusable vinyl shopping bag, a calendar, a pen and various notepads. That was eclipsed a few days later by an even fatter envelope from some sort of a shelter. It had a calendar, a day book, three pens, a CD of Christmas music, notepads and welll… I don’t know what all else. I haven’t even emptied their envelope yet.

Scrunched in with the mail being squeezed by that package was another envelope from the first group, in an envelope marked “the favor of your reply is requested!” It wondered why they hadn’t heard from me with a generous gift in response to their shopping bag and other knicknacks I hadn’t requested. Now, I believe in education and improving levels of it but have never been a fan of private schools. Send everyone to the same schools, and put the saved money into making them better is my philosophy. Still, their cause did seem like it was well-intentioned, so their mailing sat in my “middle pile.” Sorry to say, after the “where’s our money?” mailing, any thoughts I might have harbored of giving them a small donation flew out the window faster than a canary who’s cage door had been opened for the first time.

Now, a couple of things come to mind about it. Including some small little gift with a request no doubt works well… for awhile. It’s basic psychology. It makes us more likely to feel positive about the giver, and I’m sure they hope, makes us feel a bit guilty if we don’t dole out. I’m OK with that, but I’m sure I’m not the only person with a whole little office drawer full of return address stickers that have pictures of everything from my initials in Gothic script to pictures of bears to children’s cartoons on them. To a point, they’re handy, but when the stack gets to be an inch thick or more, I get to thinking I’d never mail enough things to use them up if I lived to 100 years old and never left my current address.

The charities probably have thought of this themselves and have lately looked to other things they can put in an envelope we might appreciate more. Calendars are in vogue, but becoming a similar problem. For 2023, I believe I’ve kept three of the free ones and have put another half dozen or more into little free libraries in town so someone else could perhaps get some use out of them.

I give kudos to the ones I mentioned this week that came up with a CD or a reusable shopping tote; it’s creative and might be of use. But at some point, I have to wonder shouldn’t they be using more of the money coming in for the causes they promote instead of buying mass merchandise and mailing unsolicited half-pound packages to unsuspecting targets, err “prospective donors”? How many responses do they have to get back with money enclosed to even break even on their costs? And sending a snippy “where’s our gift” sort of letter three short days later seems unlikely to increase the roll call of said donors.

I have to add, I’m not all that wealthy; the sum of my giving is not huge by anyone’s account. I have to wonder what kind of barrage of requests and unwanted gifts the rich who can routinely drop $1000 cheques without a worry face everyday.

So my charitable message to these groups is this : send me a nice little note about what you do and why I might like to help you out. If I do that, then maybe send me a calendar or a notepad and do keep me in the loop with news about what you’re doing. Don’t send me pounds of unsolicited gifts that divert funds from your goals and don’t give my name and address to any old Tom, Dick or Harry organization whose goals are nothing like your own.

Is it just me? Are any of you out there starting to feel just a little uncharitable towards some charities?

The End Of An Era

The Queen is dead! Long live the King!

So went the cries around Britain, and for that matter, around the world yesterday with the news that 96 year-old Queen Elizabeth had passed away after an incredible 70 years of being on the throne. At long last, and 73, her son Charles finally becomes king.

When my stepson texted me the news midday yesterday, it didn’t come as a big surprise only because earlier I’d caught a bit of a TV morning news show that talked about how her doctors had issued a statement saying they were “concerned” for her health and that any of the Royals who seemed in good standing (that is to say, those besides Andrew, Harry or Meghan) had canceled all their plans and were rushing to her bedside in the Scottish Balmoral home. Her doctors typically notably never said they were concerned. Even when she was 95 and suffering from Covid, they merely issued some lukewarm news release about Her Majesty being told to rest for a couple of days and ease up on her schedule for the rest of the week. That sort of thing. To hear they were “concerned” was a not-too-subtle code for her days on the Earth were very numbered. But the news took most by huge surprise, even though she was…96. As the stepson’s text said, “I thought she was immortal. Have I been lied to?”

Joking, obviously, but the basic sentiment was shared by many. No wonder, she seemed like a fixture as constant as the Tower Bridge over there. Her mother lived to 102, and she grew up in an era with health care inferior to ours today. For the majority of people there, and elsewhere, she was the only British monarch in their lifetime. Eventually, despite the inevitability of death, one came to assume she would go on and on and outlive us all. It’s probably what I thought, albeit subconsciously.

I felt quite a range of emotions and thoughts about it. As a Canadian, she had been a big, albeit low-key presence in my life there. She was pictured on the back of all our coins. Her face was on the $20 bill. Many postage stamps. When I was a child, her photo, a young queen in royal furs and crown, was framed and on the wall of every public school classroom. Once in a blue moon, she’d come to Canada to visit and she’d be about all one would see on national news for the duration. Whether you like the person or not, it’s hard to imagine a world where that wasn’t going to be the case. I thought about my Dad, an avid coin collector, and how he’d have been excited at the prospect of new commemorative coins that are sure to be issued in good time and seeing a new design on the backs of quarters and loonies. A coin with Prince, err, “KING” Charles will probably look as phoney to Canucks as the brightly colored paper money does to Americans. Alas, my Dad preceded the Queen into the Great Beyond last year so he won’t be rifling through a pocket full of change looking for them. My dad was a constant in life; so too was the Queen. Now they’re both gone. That’s a little saddening for me.

I thought of my Mom as well. Only a couple of years younger than Elizabeth, she too passed away, a few years back. She was British and spent the first couple of decades of her life there. She wasn’t an ardent monarchist, but all in all figured they were a good institution. She was particularly impressed by the Queen because of her behavior in World War II. Rather than shelter away out of sight, young Elizabeth toured London after bombings, talking to people, and volunteered for the Army, driving trucks for them. That kind of solidarity with Her people didn’t go unnoticed and goes a ways toward explaining the loyalty shown towards her, if not all the Royal Family, by so many old-timers from there. Mom was a rarity in that she didn’t like Princess Diana. She wasn’t keen on this new king either, with his obvious carrying on with his mistress (now the new Queen it turns out) Camilla, but she thought Diana was too “common” for the role and demeaned the concept of royalty by being photographed in a bikini or going to rock concerts. I thought Diana did a great job of humanizing the family and helping good causes get noticed.

Back then, I was no fan of the Queen nor royalty. I didn’t like the idea of that kind of privilege being bestowed on someone merely because of their birth and having power without being voted for. I especially didn’t like that we in Canada had a picture of a foreign person on our money instead of an actual Canadian dignitary or hero.

I’m still not a big fan of the concept of royalty, but as I’ve matured, I see it through less hostile eyes. And I must say, I’d become something of an admirer of QEII. I wrote about it two years back, actually, in reference to the show The Crown which I have been a fan of; a semi-fictionalized look back at her life and times. I wrote then that perhaps – just perhaps – it wasn’t the worst idea having some body overseeing the elected government, just in case they got too out of control. And as for Elizabeth, she was “an ordinary woman asked to do extraordinary things.” Indeed, the show made me realize that the role of Queen was in many ways a burden…and one she would have preferred not to shoulder when she was young. She was a fun-loving, country girl – a rich one, make no mistake – who liked being on farms, riding horses, going on grouse hunts, wearing wading boots and so on. She was thrust into a world of official parties, openings, world tours to shake hands and smile. Wear the crown, both literally and figuratively. In one telling and fun clip of her shown on many news reports yesterday, an elderly Elizabeth is asked about the official crown and she says it weighs “about three pounds”, and when asked if that was comfortable, she laughed a little and with no hesitation replied emphatically “No!”. What a daft question, you could almost imagine her thinking. She was a real person it turns out, a mother worrying about her wayward kids and doting on the little grandkids and great-grandchildren, wanting to spend more time with them and her dogs…and less on official business. But she did what was expected of her, and did it well. At times it couldn’t have been easy, like recently when she made the decision to essentially “fire” her own son Andrew and turf him out of the family for his behavior and association with criminal Jeffrey Epstein, but she did it anyway. She had an undeniable sense of dignity about her.

A constant presence no longer present. And a role model of putting duty ahead of herself and her own desires… a lesson very many politicians these days could do well to learn and adopt if they are to continue “serving”. An imperfect woman to be sure, but one who tried and helped steady her land. That will be missed.

The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

A Children’s Classic…A Few Decades Late

Better late than never? I finally watched a children’s classic this weekend. It might represent overcoming about forty years of tardiness in my case, since the British Film Institute lists The Wizard of Oz as one of the “50 Films to be Seen By 14.” Or forty years of subconscious fears perhaps.

Of course, it’s not like I was unaware of the film, or the novel it was based on. I knew its premise and the characters, I’d seen little clips from the movie here and there; I even have a Tinman ornament for the Christmas tree. No particular reason for that, I had no special affinity for the character. I just thought it looked rather neat and would fit in with other silvery ornaments. Nonetheless, I’d never sat down and watched the movie in its 100 minute glory. Perhaps that goes back to my childhood memories related to it.

One December when I was young, probably three, four at the most, I was in hospital. Coincidentally, the local theatre company in town must have been staging their version of the Baum classic. So, some outside-the-box thinker at the hospital had some of the cast visit the kids. You can see what’s coming, can’t you? It wasn’t blue-dress clad, wide-eyed Alice who popped in to see us, nor the affable Scarecrow. No, instead the hospital had the Wicked Witch of the West , green face and all, burst into our rooms cackling. (Whenever I tell stories like this, my sweetie asks “does Canada just not like kids or what?”). Suffice to say it didn’t cheer my tiny self that holiday season and in later years I lamented that they couldn’t have been staging The House at Pooh Corner at the theatre at that time. In the hospitals credit, they didn’t deliver our lunches via flying monkey.

My mom was of the age to be taken to see it when it came out in the theaters as a child, being promised it was a tale about a little girl like her. She recalled that she thought the movie was good…but why did they have an adult playing little Dorothy? It marred the experience for her, and I must say it did strike me as I watched that the reason Judy Garland was able to act the part so well was that she looked like a seasoned, mature actress rather than someone age-appropriate for the role. She was, if you were keeping track, 17 when the movie premiered. But big Dorothy or not, the movie was good. It still plays quite well but if we put it in context of 1930s audiences, it must have been a mind-blowing experience. Just the fact that most of it was filmed in color – vivid, day-glo colors by and large – would have made it stand out in the midst of the Black & White era, and the special effects – flying monkeys, the shimmery Emerald City, the floating bubbly Glinda witch – seem cheesy to us now, but back then would have been like nothing anyone had seen before. Our generation experienced the same sort of effect while watching the 1977 Star Wars. Try explaining to a Gen Z kid why that movie was then the most spectacular blockbuster with unprecedented effects and they’ll look at you with a mixture of pity and disbelief, quickly changing to an expression of joy at not being born in the Stone Age like us old-timers.

Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie, in context of its times, was that it won only two Academy Awards of the six it got nominated for – Best Original Score and Best Original Song. It surely would have snagged more trophies had it not the misfortune of coming out in the same year as Gone With the Wind, which took home eight including Best Picture.

The movie, and the story itself, remains beloved, it would seem to me primarily because it represents one of the classic, timeless story themes. One of only six (or seven depending on which literary nerd you ask) archetypical themes that comprise all stories of note, the story of Voyage and Return. “There’s no place like home.” In fact, the theme is the same as that of one of the ’80s most decadent and popular novels and movie adaptations , Bright Lights, Big City. Frank Baum might seem to have nothing much in common with Jay McInerney and the Yellow Brick Road may seem to have little in common with Interstate 80, but both lead to big shiny cities. Cities which offer much more excitement and opportunity than Kansas, but leave the heroes ultimately wishing to return to the simpler life they once so wanted to escape.

Oddly, although I’d not seen the movie nor read the book, I had read the sort of counterpoint to it, Wicked. That one turns Oz on its tail and presents the story of Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, who in fact doesn’t start out as all that wicked, but finds herself rejected and scorned on account of her green color. When this new interloper (Dorothy) sails in and kills her sister, only to be rewarded with the prized family possession (the ruby slippers), it’s about the last straw. I quite liked that one and it was a good reminder of how there are usually more than one side to a story, no matter how well told.

Things may look different from the other person’s perspective; be thankful for your “home” wherever, whatever or whomever it might be to you. Great, timeless messages from a great, timeless movie. And one more great message – don’t send a Wicked Witch in to cheer up tiny sick children, people!

Dog Days Not So ‘Ruff’

There’s no mistaking it. They’re here – the Dog Days of Summer that is. Me, being ever the weather nerd, noted yesterday was the 52nd day at or above 100 degrees (or 38 Celcius for any of my readers living anywhere besides the U.S.!) of the year so far at my home. More surprising, the heat’s extended to places like northern New Jersey, where Newark had five days in a row in that temperature range, and Britain where airport tarmacs began melting in the 104 degree heat recently. Britain as in, home of the pasty-skinned locals and homes with no air conditioning. That Britain.

I’ve heard the expression “Dog Days” since I was young and always assumed they just referred to any old hot spells in summer. I was surprised to find, according to the Farmer’s Almanac and Wikipedia both that this year the “dog days” end tomorrow , on August 11. They began on July 3. Who knew? Not me. Turns out they’re a specified time and it ties in to the meaning of the phrase.

I was never sure why they were “Dog Days” but I had guessed it had something to do with dog behavior in summer. It’s said only “mad dogs” (and Englishmen) go out in the mid-day sun. Your typical perky pup usually prefers long snoozes in the shade to tiring jogs on the most humid days, and the wiser people among us probably concur. There’s a reason Mexicans used to take “siestas” after lunch on a summer day. Thus, dog days were lazy days, days so hot it makes doing anything seem like it’s doing too much. Turns out I was wrong. The Dog Days are days when Sirius is prominent in the early morning sky.

Sirius, also called the “Dog Star” is in the Canis Major constellation – Big Dog – and the ancient Egyptians noticed it always was prominent in the mid-summer pre-sunrise sky. Lacking calendars with wacky Far Side cartoons to tell them what day it was, they planned some of their agriculture and festivals around the star showing up. The Canis Major days. After a month or so, the nighttime sky had shifted enough for it to not be on their dawn horizon and the period was over for another year. I think I like my explanation better.

It all got me thinking though, of the four seasons. When I first came to Texas, I was rather dumbfounded that most of the locals hate summer. As a northerner, it made no sense. After all, in Canada, we look forward to the “Dog Days” …both of them! I kid, but winter’s are long there, days short for close to half the year. So when we get to shed layers of clothing, spend evenings outside at concerts or sporting events, or just strolling around, without seeing our breath and shivering, that’s reason to celebrate! Not to mention things like summer holidays, BBQs, picnics, sleeping with the windows open, and for us guys, yes, seeing the ladies shed some layers of clothes. They have legs! Who knew? Not us in mid-winter! It’s a fun time to enjoy being outside, get together and do things. Little coincidence that most of the big festivals, fairs and picnics are held within the brief late-May to Labor Day time frame there.

Down here though, things are a bit different. While up there, people revel in the days when it hits 80, here people wait longingly for the time when the nights at least will drop below that temperature. Air conditioners run non-stop, and electric bills and tempers rise in lockstep. Fingers get burned on the steering wheel of cars when you hop in before the AC starts blasting…and one still drives, even to the neighbor’s it would seem, because who wants to be walking anywhere when it’s 111 in the shade. And shade is nowhere to be seen? Texans, it seems don’t care much for summer.

It got me thinking too, if we have summer “Dog Days” what would represent the other seasons?

Fall here comes late, but can be rather pleasing… cool, sunny days. But where I came from, although fall meant miles of glowing, beautiful fall colors mostly it meant cold, rainy, dreary dark days…until the rainy days turned to dreary snowy ones! Once Labor Day had passed I guess we had the Elephant Seal Days of Autumn. Cold, gray, wet and a bit on the mean side. Of course, many older northerners take the first few snowflakes as a message to fly south to sunnier locales for a few months. As soon as the Snow Goose Days arrive.

Winters here when we see snow long enough to take a picture, let alone for the kids to make a tiny snowman, are memorable. Up north… they’re endless. Or so it seems. Cold, best spent indoors as much as possible, snoozing or ignoring all that goes on outside one’s door. Those little furry masked bandits have it right. They don’t quite hibernate; they just stay in their homes for days on end, sleeping a lot when the winter winds howl and pop out briefly when the sun comes out….on the Raccoon Days of Winter.

Which leads us to spring. I always loved spring up north…when it finally arrived. Days were lengthening, it was getting warmer, new growth popped up everywhere, birds were plentiful and singing and summer things like baseball were beginning to slowly get back up to speed. Down here, well lo and behold, people like spring too, for many of the same reasons. It just shows up much earlier and lasts fewer days before turning to full-on summer. But it seems everywhere, people are a bit happier and more energetic when spring has sprung. They even have a “spring” in their step. During the Baby Goat Days of Spring!

One good thing about the Dog Days… they give us time to sit inside, sweat and ponder – about things like Baby Goat Days!

Three Hours Later, We Still Don’t Know “Who Be” D.B.

I watched a Netflix documentary called D.B. Cooper, Where Are You ? on the weekend. I knew a little background about Cooper and the story before; after seeing the four-part, three hour doc, I know a lot more…but, despite the trailer’s suggestion, not who “D.B.” is or where he is now. But it was interesting if a bit drawn out. It got me thinking about human psychology more than it did the mystery man Cooper.

D.B. Cooper, in case you’re unfamiliar, is the name given to a hijacker who disappeared in 1971; according to the film it remains the only unsolved air hijacking in the U.S. Cooper hopped on a commercial flight going from Portland to Seattle, a short flight they note is barely long enough to enjoy a cocktail on. He wore dark sunglasses and held a case in his lap. Shortly after take-off he passed a note to a stewardess (and yes, that was their title back then). It told her he had a bomb in his case and he needed her to relay information to the pilot. He asked for four parachutes and a bag with $200 000 in “negotiable U.S. currency” to be awaiting him in Seattle. Upon landing, a landing delayed while authorities on the ground tried to come up with a plan and the things he demanded just in case, he let the 30-odd passengers get off, keeping only the flight crew with him. He had a stewardess close all the window blinds so police snipers couldn’t locate him in the plane and shoot him. A flight crew member retrieved a bag from the tarmac, containing the $200 000 in American bills and the four parachutes he’d requested and gave them to him. The show speculates he wanted four because it would suggest he might jump off taking crew members as hostages, making it highly unlikely the authorities would deliberately rig the chutes to fail as they might if he asked for just one for himself.

He told the pilot they were going to fly to Reno, and for him to fly at a low altitude at only 250 MPH – a very, very slow rate for the 727 plane. The pilot doubted it was possible to fly under those conditions, but Cooper was sure it was and the pilot figured it would be better to comply than risk having the criminal blow the plane up. It turned out Cooper was correct, and somewhere along the flight path, he opened a rear hatch with a staircase (causing pressure problems and pain in the crew ears but not enough depressurization to cause a crash) and it’s assumed, jumped out with a parachute and the bag of money into the night. That was the last anyone saw of D.B. Cooper.

One can see why that generated interest in the day. Although hijackings were quite disturbingly common back then, most were done by known hijackers who wanted either to be flown somewhere else (often Cuba) or else to be paid a ransom which often involved political gains such as prisoners being set free. For one to get paid and jump off the plane, never to be found, was truly the stuff of action movies, not news reports… or so people would have believed until then.

The next day the hunt was on for Cooper. The name of course, was almost certainly an alias; he signed in as “Dan Cooper” but somehow the media changed it to “D.B.” but there’s nothing to suggest that was his real name in the first place. Finding him afterwards would make the proverbial needle in the haystack seem the stuff of child’s play. For one thing, the pilot didn’t know exactly where Cooper jumped out. It was night, he was flying an unusual route and while he had an idea of when the rear door opened, he hadn’t got exact co-ordinates. There were no onboard cameras, or computerized second-by-second data compiling on planes of the 1970s. So the police and others on the ground, and up in helicopters, had an area of several hundred square miles to look for him in. Several hundred square miles largely composed of dense Northwestern forest, lakes and rivers. Try finding one man in an entire county or two’s worth of overgrown forest!

Many think his ‘chute might not have opened properly and he may have plummeted to his death. Or that it did, but he was caught in a tree and couldn’t escape it. More think the might have drowned in the Columbia River nearby. But no one knows, and no trace of his body, or the parachute has ever been found. So perhaps he did indeed make it safely to the ground and took off. If so, he could have been living a good life for decades since…although as the passenger reports put him in his 40s at the time, he’d be well into his 90s by now. Time isn’t on the side of anyone wanting to find D.B. alive now.

It seems obvious that whoever D.B. was, he was somebody who was relatively fearless, had done some parachuting before and was familiar with aircraft. He knew the plane’s capabilities better than its own pilot did. Most assume with his demeanor and apparent training, he’d been in the military and likely served in Vietnam.

Less obvious is that he might well have somehow been a fan of French comic books. Turned out that “Dan Cooper” – the name he put on his boarding pass and their flight log – is also the name of a hero of a French-Canadian comic book series published before the crime. In them, Cooper was a Canadian air force jet pilot who was daring, and in one adventure even jumped out of a plane, well, “Cooper-style.” It seems too much of a coincidence that the Oregon hijacker would pick that name, out of the countless thousands of ones he could have used, entirely randomly. However, the Cooper comics were never translated to English, so they only were popular in Quebec and Francophone areas of Europe. Many, including some Canadian military personnel are convinced “Cooper” was in fact a Canadian who’d worked in their air force. They note that he asked for “U.S.” money, something few Americans might actually think to request (to them, a “dollar” is automatically an American dollar.)

This however, wasn’t the film-makers tack. The main producer/creator/backer of the original concept, Tom Colbert, looked through a list of suspects once identified and interviewed by the FBI and focused in on one he came to believe – to know in his own parlance – was D.B., a man called Robert Rackstraw. When they found him and tried to interview him in 2015, he was an aging man operating a marina in San Diego, but by every account he was a bit of a hellraiser in his younger years, one convicted of some fraud charges and the like but accused of drug running and murder. Prior to that, he’d been a pilot and chutist in Vietnam with alleged ties to the CIA. Old photos of him closely resemble the sketches of the hijacker and while on trial in the ’70s for other things he enjoyed toying with journalists, neither confirming nor denying that he was the infamous Cooper, suggesting things like “I could be” or “if I was investigating, I wouldn’t eliminate my name from the list either.” He made an entirely reasonable suspect for the crime. The problem is, so too did several other people also looked at closely by the FBI but almost ignored by the film-makers. When they find Rackstraw, they try to ambush him for interviews, offering him money for talking and lying about filming him at the time. Although he doesn’t say he isn’t D.B., he doesn’t say he is either and after awhile tells them he talked to a lawyer who advises him not to speak to them. That does nothing to stop them, and on a subsequent day of stalking him around his work , he retreats to a large storage unit, which they use as more proof he’s guilty “ Innocent Men Don’t Hide In Storage Bins” they declare.

Which leads to the second part of the Netflix special’s story. That is the obsession people have with the story. They visit spots in Washington and Oregon that have festivals devoted to D.B. Cooper, bars that sell only Cooper-themed microbrews. A cold “Skyjacker IPA” anyone? And they go to forums reminiscent of Trekkie conventions, where the devout go, sometimes in Cooper costumes no less, to talk to other obsessed amateur sleuths and listen to obscure experts like long-retired local police discuss the case. More and more as the documentary drags on, it distances itself from its conceiver, Colbert. Others who’d taken part in it early on, and outside experts weigh in on how obsessed Colbert had become. “Confirmation Bias” one psychologist calls it. He became so sure of his own hypothesis he refused to look at any other opinion or possibility, and took even the most remote shred of evidence as more proof he was right. All the while discarding greater amounts of evidence that he was wrong. In one instance, he takes a letter Cooper alledgedly wrote a newspaper and converted some of the text into a numeric code (whereby each letter was given a numeric value and then were added together) and found one phrase used in the letter has the same numeric value as “I am Robert Rackstraw”. He sees it as proof and says it’s a verified top secret military code. A critic showed that “Spongebob Squarepants” also had the identical numeric value as the phrase in quesiton using his secret “code.”

It is an interesting time capsule. Short clips show some interesting fashions and autos of the early-’70s, and moreover, remind us of a much more innocent time. No one had to take off their shoes in airports back then, nor it would seem even show any ID. Just sign a book and hop on board a flight. If Cooper were Canadian, he would have likely had an easy time getting across the border to Vancouver, “U.S. negotiable” funds and all. Cameras were something families had one of to take vacation photos, not things set every few feet apart and running constantly in public places… there’s not one known photo of the hijacker at the airport nor on the plane. And police forensics were….well, not what they are now. The hijacker smoked on the plane, and while police collected the butts, they somehow lost them. Mind you, at the time, they wouldn’t have known they might contain DNA that could solve the case by way of D.B.’s identity, or at least clear other suspects. That would come about 13 years later. There isn’t even any mention of them checking things like the airport flight log for fingerprints, although hopefully they did!

But mostly, D.B. Cooper Where Are You? shows the problems of obsession. Hey, I like a good mystery as much as most people…and most people must given how Agatha Christie is a household name. I like to let my mind work out and see if I can come up with my own conclusion, maybe find one bit of evidence others overlooked, solve a tough case. But that is about the extent of it. I began to regret devoting three hours to watching the special. Thousands have apparently devoted most of their spare time for decades trying to do what the FBI and other police agencies couldn’t. One wonders what Colbert thinks after putting in over ten years and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to get to a dead end on it?

D.B. Cooper was a criminal, not a hero. A smart one, it would seem, well-schooled in things like aeronautics among other things, but a criminal nonetheless. He shouldn’t be idolized; one might wonder what message we give the young when we hold people like him up as romantic heros. Not a hero, but a criminal… who is in all likelihood dead by now and even the FBI suggest they’ve given up on finding. My advice to you is if you’re obsessed enough to want to spend your vacation in Washington talking to other similar types about information you’ve already seen and heard, you might need to rethink your priorities. And if you think spending a decade of your life and a good chunk of your entire savings on it, it might be time to parachute out of the plane your life is on. It seems to be on a crash course right now.

(Image above from Salon.com)