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) 

Ridding Ourselves OF The Unwelcome Guest Something To Be Thankful For

One of the things I’m most grateful for in life, day in, day out is good health. It’s a cliché, but its true,,, if you don’t have health, you don’t have anything. Granted, if you’re sick and have a lot of money, you can perhaps get enhanced health care and buy more remedies. But that still doesn’t make for a good life. The list of rich and famous people taken down by cancer or heart attacks is a lengthy one. So having decent health, along with a few people who care about you along for the journey, are really the things that matter. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a middle-aged guy and I have issues like almost anyone else. I have to check the ingredients of almost everything I eat because of food allergies; there seem to be some kind of pollens in the air for about eight months out of the year that keep me making allergy pill manufacturers richer. But all in all, I feel good most days and that I celebrate every day. Now even more so now that we had the unwelcome visitor of Covid come to our house last month.

I remember when Covid first made the news – over two years ago, when it was being called the “corona virus” and there were only a dozen or so cases known over here. When it was largely confined to one or two Chinese cities – I rather thought it was overkill and hype from a bored media. But as pro sports began cancelling months of their schedules, awards shows were canceled and the daily death count in the U.S. began to rise, I took note. And took it seriously. So too did my sweetie, and the “kiddo” , her daughter who’d just joined the workforce not long before.

We did things we were supposed to. Mostly, we all wore masks every time we went out into some store or enclosed place. And we did that a lot more sparingly than before. Recreational shopping became passe; trips to Walmart or the supermarket for necessities, which we navigated as quickly as possible were about the only such excursions for us for over a year. we tried curbside deliveries. We helped make Amazon richer by the month; if it wasn’t at Walmart or the HEB (the local supermarket) and we felt like we needed it, it was coming through the mailbox via Jeff Bezos & Co. We tried to watch those little cutout footprints on store floors and keep our distance from other shoppers. Sitting in a restaurant became as distant a memory as thinking leg warmers or parachute pants were cool. I became a habitual hand washer; the ladies went through jug after jug of hand sanitizer. And it worked.

Thankfully, for two years or so, we avoided Covid. Personally, I felt like I was healthier than almost ever before. I went a full winter without anything resembling a cold or flu, something of a rarity. But it eventually caught up to us a couple of weeks back. Because of course, no matter how careful you are yourself, you’re fighting a losing battle unless you also jettison everyone from your life who doesn’t take the illness threat as seriously as you do. That we didn’t do. Suffice to say some members of the extended family had grown tired of things like masks or hearing the news tell of the death toll topping one million from the illness in the States; they figured the threat was over, if there ever was one to begin with. They lived their lives just like before the pandemic.

So Father’s Day weekend came around and we spent a little time with a family member who had a bad throat. We tried to keep a bit of distance, but didn’t think all that much of it, especially since they’d had some dental work days earlier and had been having oral problems from it. We even went over to my sweetie’s eldest. He and his wife cooked us a lunch. When we left, sweetie and I both felt a little short of breath, wheezy, but that wasn’t unusual since there are friendly – but free-shedding – cats there who do set off our allergies.

When we got home, my sweetie was worn out, and slept for most of the rest of the day. That night was hellish. She began coughing. I was dead tired…but couldn’t get to sleep. I tossed, turned, sweated, and had a headache like never before. A pounding sinus headache, periodically interrupted by lightning-like jolts through my head. Finally I got to sleep mid-afternoon Monday. Napping is something I normally do about once a decade, but it was the only option this time. My sweetie coughed some more. Neither of us felt like eating anything.

I got a good sleep that night, for maybe 12 hours, alternately sweating like a sauna visitor and shivering, it seemed. Indeed, the next day I could barely pick up a plate to take to the kitchen because I was shaking so much because I felt cold. It was over 100 outside, and the AC wasn’t set on “Arctic” by any means, but I pulled on a sweater. Then pulled a winter blanket over top of me. Meanwhile, my sweetie’s cough was getting worse and more continuous. Thankfully she took my advice and called her doctor.

Turns out her doctor was off then…with Covid himself. But they set up a teleconference with an associate of his. He had her take a test – one of the government-issued ones – and she quickly tested positive for the dreaded illness. Not a surprise given the symptoms and that we’d heard the other family member and his wife, had gone from bad throat to having Covid too. The doctor prescribed her Paxlovid, something a doctor friend of ours had said was the best thing out there. They were probably right. She started to take the med that night, and by mid-day next day, she was coughing a whole lot less…something to really be thankful for.

Around that time the kiddo came down with the symptoms too. And so it went. For four or five days, I had almost no energy. Walking to the kitchen was a chore that required lying down for ten, twenty minutes afterwards to recuperate from. The shivering/sweating cycle continued for days. Miraculously, I didn’t develop much of a cough, but my nose was running a marathon for several days.

In time, it ran its course. Now, two weeks later, we’re all back to normal-ish. We’re lucky for that, and for maybe not catching it until now. The dominant strains – BA4, BA5, I think – are a little less lethal than the first round of the illness which killed many of the 1 050 000 people in this country who’ve died from it so far. We’re all getting back into the daily routine, work and chores and everything else that you miss more than might expect when incapacitated. Even with that, things aren’t quite the same as before. “Covid brain is real,” my sweetie’s commented. The mental fuzziness many have described hasn’t been severe for us…but has been real. She’s needing more notes to remind her of some routine things at her work. I have this blog, but also post a daily music one. I’ve put over 3000 posts up on it so far. Writing the blogs takes a little thought, of course, but actually publishing it is something I could normally do in my sleep. But several times this past week, I’ve had to stop and ponder how to do something dead simple – post a link to a video , eliminate excessive space between paragraphs. And there’s that taste loss people talk about. Real too.

My sense of smell, or lack of, is a family joke. We can drive by a poor dead skunk, and I’ll see it but not smell it. One of the ladies will ask “what’s that burning smell?” and I’ll respond “what smell?” It’s not acute, and nor I presume is my sense of taste. Hot sauce on everything basically. But for all that, I do have a sense of smell and taste. Or at least, did. After a few days of Covid, it became noticeable to me I couldn’t taste some things I used to. For instance, coffee. I drink a lot of coffee, often quite strong. I can taste that. But suddenly, it began to seem like just warm water to me… a whole level of flavor had disappeared. I added more grounds to the brews, but nothing. I’d stick my nose in the coffee jar and inhale…and smell nothing. Likewise, some IPA beers I had on hand…quite strongly flavored. But not now (curiously, the light lagers which always have little flavor taste the same as ever to me.) I can detect sweet, and spicy hot, and a few other basics but all in all, my sense of taste is probably half gone. Hopefully it will come back; even today I noticed I could taste a little of the meat and hot sauce in a sandwich I had, something I don’t think I could have last week. Maybe someday I’ll smell a skunk and cheer.

So, things are getting back to normal, slowly. And that includes me being thankful every day for good health. I recommend you do the same if you’re feeling good…and put on a mask if you’re going shopping, or to a restaurant, no matter how passe it might feel by now.

Think For Yourself – An Apology To Robert Wagner

Sometimes, a bit of thought and 90 minutes could make you rethink what you believe.

Last night my sweetie and I watched a relatively new HBO documentary, What Remains Behind. It was made by Natasha Gregson Wagner…actress and daughter of famous actress Natalie Wood. I recognized her from her bit role in High Fidelity (the journalist who flirts with Rob near the end, causing him to make her a mix tape before he began asking himself what was wrong with him and why he couldn’t be happy) . I knew Natalie Wood’s name, and that she was a pretty successful actress in the ’60s…and that she drowned under suspicious circumstances way back in 1981. She had been on a boat with her husband Robert Wagner, and actor Christopher Walken before she met her demise. Somehow, I hadn’t realized that Natalie was the little cynical girl in Miracle on 34th Street, nor the star of West Side Story. Nor that she was so very good looking as a young woman, nor that she was one of the hottest stars in Hollywood. I did know that she drowned, the California coroner considered her death accidental…and that many people for years accused Wagner of killing her. A few figured Walken might have. It seemed few believed the official report, and more gas was thrown on the fire when the boat captain wrote a book in the 2000s suggesting maybe she got knocked overboard in an big fight, be it deliberate or not. L.A. Investigators actually re-opened the case because of it. And I knew my sweetie, who was a fan of Natalie’s, firmly believed Wagner had killed her and struck some kind of deal to cover it up. It made sense to me, based on tabloid headlines and innuendo I saw.

Enter the movie. The whole fact that her daughter, not Robert’s biological one,  made the film and narrated it, and its whole context was to clear Wagner might be a clue. Not every conspiracy theory is really covering something sinister. Natasha, her half-sister and step-brother all talked at length about what a complex, warm but slightly troubled person Natalie was. Her childhood wasn’t happy, with her mom being very critical and pushing her to be a star in order to make enough money to pay the bills for her parents. She was a movie star by age eight. She was talented, pretty, and headstrong. Ahead of her time. She was perhaps a bit promiscuous as a teen and young star…nothing new these days but probably quite scandalous back then. And she knew what she wanted, be it in men, movie roles, or later, children and a a happy home. She usually got it, but not without a price. She had the looks and the acting chops to get them all, but at times she still struggled with depression.

Wagner, for some reason nicknamed “RJ”, entered the scene when they were both kids, and it didn’t work out. Initially. Years later, they hooked up again, more mature, and both with kids. They remarried and remained so, with no hints of black clouds on their marriage horizon, until her death. They became a family. Both Natasha and her siblings (be they from Natalie, Robert or both of them) spoke about how happy the house was and how both parents loved them unconditionally. Natasha interviewed Wagner and calls him “Daddy Wagner”. They talked about the family, their love of his boat, and the trips to Catalina Island on it. Oddly, Natalie was noted as being afraid of “dark water.”

Flash forward to Thanksgiving 1981, a rainy, stormy weekend in the L.A. area, and Natalie, Wagner, and Walken (whom she was in a movie with at the time) took off for a spin on his boat. Natasha said she had a bad feeling and begged her mom not to go; other friends said they were invited and felt guilty for not going out with them in the rain. Maybe they could have changed things and she’d still be alive. But, like it or not, hours later she was found dead in the water not far from the boat, with its dinghy floating around. Many piled on to accuse Wagner of killing her in a jealous rage.

The coroner found she drowned, and had quite a bit of booze in her system as well as sleeping pills and other (unnamed but presumably prescription) drugs. She had a bang on her head, but the ultimate demise came from the water. He called it accidental. But that wasn’t enough for many…especially supermarket tabloids who lured buyers with tales of lurid affairs and drugged out violent orgies, and other total fabrications of their imagination. Then came the boat captain’s book decades later, and it all came to the front again.

Not hard to imagine then that her mad, jealous husband beat her up and threw her off the boat in the dead of night. But, there is little to support that. Numerous police agencies investigated and found no evidence of it. And Natasha – her daughter – sat and talked to her stepdad, “Daddy Wagner” and clearly loved him like a real father. She recalled how he wouldn’t get out of bed for days after Natalie died. How the press would climb on top of fences to snap pictures at the funeral and while the kids walked around their home yard, distraught. She detailed the emotional toll it took on her, her brothers and sisters , and most of all, on Robert Wagner. And he seemed fully believable. Yes, he’s an actor, and yes, he admits to drinking a lot that night and being “a little high”. But it’s also clear she was the love of his life. He eventually got back on his feet and kept the kids – his and hers and theirs alike – close. He was breaking up thinking about Natalie and about that fateful night.

The most likely explanation, the original one. Natalie was, a bit drunk, a bit under the influence of sleeping pills, just wanting to sleep. She got up and went to the boat life raft/dinghy which was banging against the boat in the storm. Making noise. Her daughter said she was a light sleeper and had complained before of the noise the dinghy made banging into the boat. She probably figured she could tie it up tighter to keep it from banging around, and fell overboard in the stormy seas, perhaps banging her head off the little boat doing so. A tragic accident.

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy… I do believe there are at least some extraterrestrials flying around our planet at time and not all UFOs are ‘swamp gas’ … but this one seems like … the obvious answer was the real one. Moreover, my love, who for years fully believed Wagner to be a murderer, was turned around after watching it. Nothing pointed towards murder. She, and I, now fully believe it was a horrible accident, a result of poor choices by all involved regarding going out on a boat in a storm and drinking too much …but an accident nonetheless.

It was a good lesson. Sometimes bad things happen for no apparent reason, and remember, the entertainment and tabloid media need headlines to sell their product. At times they may uncover real dirt…but sometimes, they just fabricate it. And real people end up paying the price for it. And it showed the power of a good, thoughtful documentary.

Moral of the story – once again…examine all the evidence, then think for yourself. The truth is out there… and sometimes, it’s not as hidden as we might think.

Time For Politicians Thoughts To Turn To Taking Action Not Offering More Prayers

If people had ever heard of Uvalde, Texas before last week, it was probably in context of being the home town of movie star Matthew McConaughey. In a matter of about 45 minutes one evil teenager changed all that, as we know. Now, wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute for the town to be remembered as the place where the straw broke the camel’s back and things began to change for the better?

21 dead, 19 of them small kids, because one piece of human refuse was having a bad day. Because he supposedly had been bullied when he was younger. Because he didn’t like his low-wage job at Whataburger. And mostly because he could go out and celebrate his birthday by buying two assault rifles, guns designed to be used by the army in a war. Days before that, Buffalo, New York made the headlines for reasons other than the usual snowstorms because another 18 year old was disgruntled to see so many Black people around and fancied himself an action hero in some sort of real-life killing video game. And had access to weapons of war.

The little bodies weren’t even put into the Uvalde ground before 10 people got shot at a wild party in Charleston, SC (where the party-goers met the responding police with more gunfire). It was the 151st mass shooting of this year in the U.S. I don’t know if it was just before or just after the six kids, under 16 years of age, were shot in Chattanooga; the police there note some of those youth were “unintended victims”…but you know what happens when some high school age, or junior high school age kids run into each other on the street and one looks at another in a funny way. Two nights back, in my home city area, four people were shot at one location, only two blocks and less than 24 hours or so away from where one woman shot another…while police were investigating another disturbance a further block away. They just followed the sound of gunfire. So routine is that becoming that it was only the fourth or fifth top story on most local news sites. A new high school principal being hired was ranked more important by one TV station website. And of course, last night an evil man with a backache decided to shoot up his doctor’s clinic in Tulsa.

We could go on and on, but by now we all get the point – we’re in a gun violence epidemic and it’s showing no signs of going away. As McConaughey put it eloquently, “we have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us.” He adds, “every American (needs) to take a longer look in the mirror and ask ourselves ‘what is it that we truly value? How do we repair the problem?”

Sadly, a complete repair probably won’t happen, at least not in our lifetimes. There are too many guns out there, too many irresponsible hotheads, too many who value the Second Amendment above all else to make the problem go away. However, I don’t believe that means we can do nothing to ease the toll, reduce the body count and make us somewhat safer, whether shopping at a grocery store or sending our little children to the classroom. It’s ridiculous to call for a ban on guns altogether or anything remotely like that. Few politicians would even consider it, and fewer citizens would bother obeying anyway. There are too many of them and they’re too much a way of life in parts of the land. But there are some things we could do that I think the majority might consider. Such as –

Ban sales of AK-47/AR-15 style assault weapons. Vice President Harris said, in response to the Uvalde shooting, “assault weapons (are) designed for a specific purpose – to kill a lot of human beings quickly. An assault weapon is a weapon of war, with no place in civil society.” Little surprise they are a weapon of choice then for uncivil street gangs and deranged loner gunmen. Just as banning guns is a non-starter, so too is outlawing hunting. But you don’t need one of those military-grade weapons to take a squirrel out of a tree or a canvasback out of the sky. Ban their sales and importation. Existing ones can be grandfathered in, but not sold or given away and if they are found in possession of criminals or used for any criminal act, they will be confiscated and destroyed. If that were to occur, even if (or when) evil psychopaths go on a rampage, the damage they inflict will be lessened if they’re restricted to ordinary hunting rifles or shotguns, or non-automatic handguns.

Raise the minimum age to buy guns to 21. It seems ludicrous that we don’t as a society, think 18 year olds responsible enough to have a beer or glass of wine…but we’ll allow them to buy as many weapons of war as they can afford. In many states, that 18 year old is too much a “boy” to be able to legally have sex with a girlfriend who’s six months younger than him, and in none of them can he buy a six pack of lite beer or a pack of cigarettes. What’s more, few lawmakers are clamoring to give them such rights. But there are few if any restrictions on the same “boy” buying semi-automatic, high-powered guns. Where’s the rationale relating to potential damage there?

Speaking of teens, if they’re old enough to be handling and using guns, they should be old enough to face the consequences. Treat young offenders in gun crimes like adult ones. By all means give 14, 15 year old non-violent offenders – the kids painting graffiti or maybe shoplifting a pair of shoes – a chance for redemption. For them the current system works. But the 14, 15 year olds who are killing others in gang fights, armed robberies, school shootings, and the like are not innocent children. They’re dangerous individuals who society should be protected from. If you like, house them in youth facilities until they hit 18 and move to grown-up jail… but don’t mistake them for little children who are just misbehaving a wee bit.

Institute tougher penalties – and mandatory mental evaluation – for animal cruelty offenders. I like animals, so I find these crimes abhorrent, but that isn’t relevant here. What is relevant is that a large percentage of mass-shooters have histories of abusing animals first. It’s seemingly the training ground for killing people with ease later in life. The Uvalde killer was reported beating a dog senseless in the weeks leading up to the school massacre. If we take such crimes more seriously, and get the offenders checked over by psychiatrists (with those found to have violent of sociopathic tendencies flagged to at least make their access to guns more difficult), tomorrow’s mass-shooter might be discovered today.

Work with social media to help do more to prevent it. I note, I do not blame the online sites – be it Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitch or anything else that comes along – for causing the killings or failing to prevent them. In many cases, including the Buffalo and Uvalde ones, the criminals put up messages on some of these outlets suggesting what might happen. The sites are just too busy to screen everything effectively. Instagram, for instance, report over 500 million people post to it daily. Even if they only put up one picture or clip per day, that’s half a billion posts to look through (and if you’ve ever looked at Instagram, you know that people and companies who like it like it a lot. Some seem to put up a post an hour more than a post a day.) However, with today’s technology, there must be AI filters around which can quickly find suspicious “red flags” – repeated pictures of multiple firearms, threatening phrases, gang (be they street gangs or cyber-extremist groups) code words. If Facebook can quickly see your face in someone else’s group photo and “tag” you, it should be able to quickly do the same with an AR-style rifle or racist dog-whistles for violence. Those posts could be more quickly looked at by authorities. We’ll never be ahead of all the criminals who are blatant enough to preview their attentions, but we could get the drop on some more than we do now.

And lastly, we need police to go back to acting like police all the time. I’m aware it’s a tough and demanding job and that right now, a sizable chunk of society look at them disapprovingly. I think the vast majority of them are good people trying to do a sometimes thankless, sometimes dangerous job. Rarely is it more dangerous than when confronted by sociopathic killers with semi-automatic weapons bent on destruction. But that is sadly, part of the job…even if they’re only street patrol officers or “school cops.” It was irresponsible for the police on scene at Uvalde to wait outside for upwards of 40 minutes as children and teachers were being shot, because they were waiting for an out-of-town, more highly-skilled SWAT team to come by. Forget the arguments that perhaps most of the victims were shot already by the time the first couple of police arrived. If so, it was only because the killer got bored. Seemingly he could have carried on and wiped out most of the students in the building before any police were willing to go in and confront him. This is not acceptable, even if it might be official policy on some forces which prefer SWAT to handle such things. It’s tough to make policy to cover every possible situation. Perhaps a robber holding hostages can be stalled and negotiated with while waiting for special squads to show. But the Buffalo supermarket freak and the Uvalde demon were not that. Bottom line is that if it’s an “Active” shooter, once there are at most a couple of officers on site, they need to go in and confront the killer and minimize his (or her) death toll. Give them bullet-proof vests by all means (most police wear them routinely already) and battle helmets if you like, but get them into the fray.

Mere suggestions, and I’m afraid, ones which won’t eliminate gun violence in the country. But we’d not be banning guns, stopping deer hunts or ownership of pistols or shotguns by law-abiding adults… nothing to step too hard on the toes of the advocates of the Second Amendment. And I believe they would significantly reduce the number of times we’re confronted with yet another Buffalo, or Columbine, or Uvalde. Once we take that McConaughey longer look in the mirror, it seems the very least we can do in good conscience.

Reality , What A Concept

A pair of Cardinals nested outside our front window this spring. The well-hidden nest was probably no more than eight feet from where I’d stand looking out. Yesterday I noticed the bright male adult feeding a couple of little ones, who’d somehow wandered away from the nest. They sat on a branch, looking like tiny little still clumps of leaves until the parent got near, at which point they’d get excited and flap their tiny wings and jump a bit. A couple of times during the day I just stopped and watched the activity. It was quite relaxing…and got me thinking of a couple of news tidbits I’d seen recently. Two quite disparate items which were so different, it got me thinking, maybe they pointed out the same thing – we need to be more in touch with reality, and with our planet.

The first story was about Canada, where some doctors can now “prescribe” Nature for patients. The BC Parks Federation started a program which has now spread to several provinces including Ontario, whereby doctors are allowed to “prescribe” time in nature for their patients and even give them a Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which allows free entry into Canadian national parks and some other provincial or regional ones.

It’s not just a gimmick devised by some granola company or binocular manufacturer either. Dr. M. Lem, speaking about the idea says “there’s a strong body of evidence on the health benefits of nature time, from better immune function, (increased) life expectancy, to reduced risk of heart disease and depression.” A Dr. R. Phillips adds “we practically live in virtual worlds…it’s important to set an intention to regularly spend time in nature.” He says “I often prescribe nature time for patients who struggle with chronic stress, anxiety or depression.” He reports “improved clarity and mood” generally result in those who follow those doctor’s orders. So far, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore are watching the program with thoughts of doing something similar and a few American doctors have already followed suit on their own. Seems as though sometimes a walk in the woods or coffee break watching ducks on a pond does the trick better than a couple of Xanax or Valium.

Which brings me to the second news item. A follow-up to a story which I somehow missed four years ago about Akihiko Kondo. Kondo’s a Japanese 30-something man who made headlines for himself in 2018 by “marrying” – I won’t write that without quotation marks, sorry – a cartoon character, Hatsune Miku. Hatsune in apparently an anime character who’s been used in some video games and a few music videos. She is supposed to be a 16 year old, big-eyed, blue-haired Japanese girl.

Akihiko says he has trouble meeting girls…that is real, human ones … and many of them have made fun of him in the past, calling him an “ataku”, which apparently is Japanese for “nerd” of “Sheldon Cooper-like.” So his solution was to escape further into a world of make believe and make his life partner a fictitious one.

He says “I’m in love with the whole concept of Hatsune Miku,” saying they’d “dated” for ten years before he asked her to marry him. “I will never have to see her ill or die,” he enthuses and she’ll always “be there for” him. His greatest day, or at least besides his “wedding” day, was when a tech company called Gatebox rolled out a $3000 device that allows people to have little holograms, so with it he could see a 3D Hatsune and talk to her. Ahh, young love!

So then he asked her to be his one and only, and we’re told she said yes, so they had a wedding, with a certificate and all. He had his little hologram of her by his side, but since he realized that he couldn’t actually put a ring on a holographic finger, he got a plush toy version of her and put the ring on that as a surrogate. One imagines the doll also stood in for his bride on the honeymoon. He does add sorrowfully that his mother wouldn’t attend the wedding. She “wants (me) to meet and fall in love with a real person.” Poor Hatsune might not get along with her new mother-in-law, methinks.

He’s taken the hologram “wife” on dates and holidays with him, but then crisis arose. During the pandemic, Gatebox stopped offering service for his device and now he can “no longer communicate” with her. Sad Akihiko! He still proclaims his love for her and undying devotion but laments not being able to talk to a 3D representation of the already fictional creation.

Now, it would be easy to write him off as either a hopefully harmless but sadly deranged individual or just a savvy publicity hound looking to get interviews and his photo in magazines. Perhaps he is one or both. But reports say there are thousands more just like him now, particularly in Japan where being “fictosexual” is being looked upon as a fairly normal way of living life. I wonder if Betty Boop is still single?

I’ve met men who joke about Betty Rubble and her Flintstones body, but emphasize “joke”. And while there’s probably not a straight man around who hasn’t watched a Jennifer Aniston or Julia Roberts or, insert actress of your choice’s name, movie and let their mind wander a little and think “boy, wouldn’t that be nice” , they also know that it is a fantasy. Not reality, even though Ms. Aniston, Ms. Roberts and Ms. Your Choice are in fact real humans, which is more than we can say about Hatsune. They age, get sick, and sadly one day will die like every one of us, including the real mates we love in real life.

Video games are entertainment, but not real life, and teenage girls in them are fictitious characters, not soulmates. Real life involves real people in real settings on this real planet. Real relationships mean putting up with bad, including things like illness and losing one’s looks as age marches on. Most of us know this and agree to the terms of this big “game of life.” Alarmingly though, as Dr. Phillips says, more and more people seem oblivious to those things, as they live in their “virtual worlds.” I see signs of it increasingly frequently in the youngest generations amongst us, who might well see Akihiko as some sort of role model, oblivious to what they may be missing out on.

Is this making them happy? Far from it. A body of evidence shows that depression is rising among the younger generations and affects more under-30 types who have their whole lives ahead of them than elderly people. If you know any Millennials or Gen Z’s, you probably don’t need scientific studies to tell you how prevalent depression and “stress” issues are among them. 

It makes me hope the Nature Prescription may be the next wonder drug.I hold out hope that we as a species are smarter than your typical Cardinal. Or at least smarter than your typical video game avatar.  One final bit of advice from the docs at Nature RX – when you fill your “prescription,” leave your phone behind.

Animated Hank More Real Than Real People

Recently I’ve been pleased to take part in an ongoing review of great TV shows with a number of other pop culture writers, hosted by Max at his Power Pop blog.  There I’ve written recently about Friends and about Emergency, both of which I’ve discussed here at one time or another, but for openers I picked something a wee bit off the beaten patch. There are so many good TV shows to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll opt for one that seems to hit close to home for me (LOL – literally)… King of the Hill.

King of the Hill was a long-running animated prime-time cartoon that somehow had characters a lot more “real” than most of its contemporaries made with real actors. It ran on Fox Network for 259 episodes from 1997- 2010, and has been seen in re-runs in syndication and on some of the streaming services. I’m not a gigantic fan of Fox overall, but one thing they do well is cartoons!

It typically ran on Sunday nights after The Simpsons, – itself a hilarious and ground-breaking show – at 8:30 Eastern time. Fox seemed to clue in on how much of a good thing they had going with Sunday night cartoons aimed at adults and forever were searching for ones to lineup with their corporate flagship show and its yellow-skinned Springfielders. Some of them caught on (e.g. Family Guy or, though I can’t fathom why, Bob’s Burgers), others were come and gone faster than you could say “Eat my shorts” …anyone remember Border Town? Although a few of the post-Bart and Homer series might have now topped King of the Hill in episodes, I don’t think any have topped it for humor and creating characters we felt we could relate to. No wonder Time magazine once called it “the most acutely-observed and realistic sitcom about American life, bar none.” Perhaps all the more surprising since its main creator was Mike Judge, whose previous claim to fame was Beavis and Butthead.

King of the Hill revolved around Hank Hill and his family – wife Peggy, tween son Bobby and their dog, a lazy hound called Ladybird. And the niece who lived with them, to Hank’s mild disapproval, Luanne. They were a typical, middle-class Texan family living somewhere in the suburbs, in the city of “Arlen.” Hank sold propane, and propane products and was proud of it. Peggy was a substitute teacher, specializing in Spanish classes (although her knowledge of the language was barely functional) who loved Boggle and making green bean casseroles; a woman described as “confidant, sometimes to the point of lacking self-awareness.” Like most Texans, they loved things like rodeos, pickup trucks and Dallas Cowboys football – in one memorable episode Hank tries to get together a movement to move the Cowboys training camp to Arlen, but they pick Wichita Falls. To which Hank replies that city which claims to be “north Texas! More like south Oklahoma if you ask me!” a pretty stinging insult in the Lone Star State! Bobby, to his dad’s chagrin, is chubby, has little interest in sports and wants to be a stand-up comedian or worse yet, a clown.

Joining Hank is a supporting cast of neighbors we all seem to know in real life. There’s Bill, balding, overweight veteran who’s lonely and cuts hair on the nearby military base for income and amusement. Boomhauer, the suave, thin ladies man with the weird hillbilly accent who always seems to have female companionship and little to do outside of that but drink beer with the other guys and watch the world go by. (In the final episode’s surprise twist, we see his wallet lying open and find he’s a Texas Ranger – the elite branch of the state police.) And there’s Dale, a man ahead of his time. Chain-smoker, exterminator by day, full-time conspiracy theorist and paranoid political commentator at night. Somehow he’s married to the lovely Nancy, the local TV weather girl and they have a son, Joseph… who looks nothing at all like him nor the blonde Nancy…but suspiciously like John Redcorn, the Native “healer” who has been giving her lengthy massages for her migraines for years. Dale has trouble figuring out why Joseph looks like that…but thinks maybe his wife was abducted and impregnated by aliens. And we can’t forget Cotton, Hank’s cranky old father, lacking the bottom of his legs due to a war injury, nor the Khans. The Khans are from Laos, and while their daughter, Kahn Jr. (Connie to her friends) has assimilated well and is Bobby’s erstwhile girlfriend, and mother Mihn tries, Kahn Sr. fancies himself a successful businessman and can’t believe his bad luck landing up on a street full of hillbillies and rednecks. Somehow, the men all seem to get along and bond over things like appreciation of a good garbage can or love of (in Khan’s case, grudging acceptance of) Alamo Beer.

For the most part, the stories were fully relatable. They never starred in freaky Halloween episodes nor a big Broadway show (although ZZ Top did guest star once and put Hank unwillingly into a reality show following him around) or get abducted by aliens, perhaps to Dale’s surprise. Instead there were events like Hank trying to get the city to rescind it’s bylaw necessitating water-conserving toilets, or camping out in the local Megalomart with Dale (which bears a lot of resemblance to another American big box department store) trying to catch a rat. In one episode, Bobby gets picked on by bullies leading Hank to try to get the boy into a boxing class. Instead of that, Bobby ends up in a women’s self-defence course and learns to kick anyone he’s mad at in the testicles…Hank included. And one of the final episodes really amused me … I was born and raised near Toronto, if you didn’t know that already. In it, Boomhauer decides to take a vacation in Canada and temporarily trades houses with a Canadian family. Hank and the Canadian dad take an instant disliking to each other, with them competing over who brews the best beer and whose brand of lawn mower rules. End result? Both get arrested for DWI while mowing their lawns; Hank and his buddies eventually sell a “keginator” beer-pump to bail the Canuck out of jail, because that’s what neighbors do. “We’re Americans,” Hank declares “we’re the world’s welcome mat. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Canada, Laos, or God forbid, even California!”

The show had Greg Daniels co-writing early on, a good pedigree since he’d worked on Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons and co-wrote the Seinfeld episode “The Parking Space”. When it first came on, I liked it and often watched it, but it took years for it to really grow on me and come to appreciate how fully nuanced the characters were and how much attention to detail of human nature it showed…all the while being hilarious. There was a great sense of humanity in it all. People like Hank were trying their best, having a hard time keeping up with the changing times (he was the holdout on the office’s love of Facebook, for example) but doing his best to understand and be better. Nancy had her ongoing affair, but called it off eventually when she realized it was wrong to do to her husband, wacky as he was. And Luanne, sweet as pie and about as dumb as one too, with her little Christian puppets trying to teach kids right from wrong, boyfriend Lucky in tow. Lucky got his nickname when he slipped on pee at a Walmart and sued them for hundreds of thousands! (That makes watching it a tiny bit sad as both of the voice actors are gone – Brittany Murphy who did Luanne, and the one and only Tom Petty who was ‘Lucky’). They were all good people and the shows funny. But once I came to Texas…boy howdy, it took to another level for me.

Judge spent time in the Dallas Metroplex when young and said he based it on the suburbs like Arlington and Garland, Texas. Once I saw Waco, it seemed like Waco was Arlen…or vice versa. There are so many details that ring true like the Bush’s beans at dinner or love of Whataburger. When Peggy wants to have a serious talk with Bobby, she’ll treat him to one of those burgers…leading him to suspiciously note last time she took him there, she told him about Doggie Heaven!

I started this thinking I wouldn’t have enough to say about King of the Hill. Turns out I have too much to say for one column really. So one more thing – I just reminded myself how funny the show was. I think I’m going to go watch a few now!

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started