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!

My Number One Planet…How ‘Bout You?

Happy Earth Day! I’m thankful someone about 50 years back had the foresight to begin a special day to think about and pay attention to this wonderful planet we call our own.

In Earth Day news, I was pleased to read that a team of researchers this winter were able to find, and get some photos of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Louisiana. I’ve mentioned them before, perhaps the most iconic of American birds, a giant woodpecker of the Southern deep woods and swamps that many are for some reason eager to write off as extinct. So even though their findings made news as far afield as British newspapers, it will likely not change people’s minds if they inexplicably want the bird to be gone. There are a series of odd paradoxes and errors in logic applied to the secretive bird. For instance, people who manage to get a poor quality photo or video of one (the bird was long hunted by both Natives and settlers and is thus remarkably shy around people) get written off because the pictures are deemed “not good enough” or “inconclusive.” Come up with a decent photo of one, as happened one time in the ’70s, and the same experts say the photo is too good and thus must be staged or fake. Anyway, without belaboring the point, let’s say that optimists among us are pleased that there’s still more evidence that the “ghost bird” still flies….adding to the 40+ records, several photographic, detailed by naturalist/author Christopher Haney in the first decade of the 2000s alone in areas as far flung as southernmost Illinois and coastal North Carolina.

Undertaking a serious search for a bird like that takes money, which brings me to my main Earth Day theme. Last night somehow our family got talking about Elon Musk, which generated some strong opinions pro and con. Personally, I admire his curiosity and ambition but question many of his choices. Especially his fixation on Mars. The Space X guy keeps firing rockets up, many just going a few miles then falling back down, and is full-speed ahead on getting to Mars. He even hopes to be able to build a city there by 2050. To which, again, I ask “why?”

A brief science tutorial. The average temperature on the Red Planet is anything but red hot – about -80 F in fact. And while there is an atmosphere, it’s nothing like ours. It contains only 1% oxygen (Earth’s atmosphere is about 21%) . So you’d better take along some woolly socks and maybe a few air tanks if you want to go space truckin’. Obviously, any habitation there would require huge domes with oxygen (presumably rocketed in from here) piped in and some form of climate control… not to mention water tankered in from… well, your kitchen taps. There’s no water there they we know of either.

Musk casually throws around figures into the trillions of dollars required to build a permanent settlement there. But I thought, let’s get back closer to the imaginable and look a the cost of just one manned flight getting there and back home safely. NASA put the cost of that at just under $3 billion. Three billion to fly for months or years, get out , maybe knock a golf ball a few feet, say something like it’s another small step for man… then hightail back to our little blue ball in space.

Now, if it’s NASA that comes from the pockets of you and me. If Elon does it, it comes from his own deep pockets (which of course have been funded by our consumer choices.) Still, whoever funds it, doesn’t it seem just a bit wrong to spend so much for so little?

To put it in context, here are a few things that could be done with $3 b down here. For instance, take the Amazon. Not the warehouse that sends you books on how to straighten your hair and shiny hair curlers, but the big old rainforest in South America. It’s deforestation is having serious effects on the climate of the southern Hemisphere, adding to extinctions of many species of plants and animals and ultimately creates farmland that’s only usable for a couple of years due to overall lack of nutrients in the soil – which quickly bakes anyway. Bloomberg magazine estimates it costs, on average under $1000 to buy an acre of actual rainforest there. Some United Nations agencies suggest it might be up to $2000. If we split the difference and guess $1500, that means you could buy a full square mile of jungle (640 acres) for just shy of a million. For the cost of one Mars flight, you could save about 3000 square miles. For two flights, you could buy an area of forest as big as Connecticut and have money left over to pay for security and game wardens, or maybe pay the Natives who try in vain to have sustainable farms on the land. Brazil might be encouraging its use for lumber right now, but do we think they’d turn down an offer of several hundred billion dollars up front to turn a good chunk of the Amazon into a natural reserve? I don’t.

Or, we could tackle the problem of “greenhouse heating” and our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. Obviously, energy is a big and complex problem lacking easy solutions, but let’s just imagine how much of a difference wider use of solar power could make. In areas well-suited to it – particularly fast-growing Sun Belt locales like Texas and Arizona – a substantial amount of the electricity consumed could come from “Mr. Sol”. Getting definitive stats on the costs of that are tricky, but averages suggest it would take about 24 normal solar panels on the roof of one 1500 sq. foot house in such areas to provide enough electricity to run it completely. Typical prices to have those installed, are about $15 000 per house. A bit expensive, but a long-term investment that eventually pays for itself. Well, that $3 billion could get about 200 000 houses off the conventional grid and self-sustaining. Not an answer to all the problems, but enough to make most of El Paso, or Austin no longer dependent on oil or gas… and create a ton of jobs in the process. Those panels don’t float themselves up to the roofs or get hooked up. Every Mars flight could be Tucson, or part of Phoenix, or San Bernadino going “green” instead.

Or let’s think smaller still, and more hands-on. Trees add oxygen to our atmosphere, prevent erosion and flooding and of course, are home to beneficial birds. Not to mention cute squirrels. How about a giant tree-planting campaign. Reforest some of the abandoned farms in the Midwest and New England, fill in some empty lots in run-down cities, give each school child a tree for wherever they want it. Little oak saplings cost about 89 cents each and are ideal shade trees and food sources for wildlife. Rounding up to a dollar each, that could be about three billion trees for the cost of the rocket flight. Even if we cut that in half, and added in some extra soil and paid some out-of-work people to put them in the ground if volunteers were in short supply, a billion and a half trees would be growing.

Well that’s a lot of acorns and a lot of forest in the making. Assuming we plant them about ten feet apart, you’d need something like 500 per acre. Three billion dollars? That’s about two million acres growing, or about 3000 square miles. An area bigger than Delaware going green for every Mars shot.

That’s just a start. I’m sure many of you could come up with equally inventive and beneficial ways to put that money to use. Personally, I’d admire Mr. Musk a lot more if he used his creative noodle to come up with ways to help our one and only planet rather than think about how we, as a species can move and despoil another one.

Smith’s Punch Drunk Love

That was one hard slap! How hard? Well, apparently the reverberations it caused are still being felt over a week later! It’s the story which seemingly won’t go away, so I’ll weigh in on “Slapgate.” If somehow you’ve been lucky enough to be on a tropical holiday on a beach without wi-fi for the past ten days or so, I am of course referring to an incident at this year’s Academy Awards show, in which Will Smith seemingly “lost it” and barreled on stage and hit (“slapped” seems too mild a description) comic Chris Rock in the face for making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, Will’s wife. He then continued to yell obscenities Rock’s way from the front of the audience for some time after that. It turned out to make this year’s “Oscars” the most talked-about in years…for all the wrong reasons.

For me, some issues are very gray. Issues where one can see both sides of an argument, have difficulty really discerning the right and wrong. This, is not one of those cases. Smith was wrong. So too was the Academy itself. Rock on the other hand did nothing wrong and actually carried himself with surprising maturity given the situation.

First let’s examine the situation. The Smiths, (Will and Jada that is, not the British band) big-name stars that they are, were seated right up in the best seats, in easy sight of the people on stage. Chris Rock is a comedian, and was expected to do a few little funny bits between trophy hand-outs. As most in his position usually do, he ran through a few jokes about the night’s subject – movies, and threw in a few references to the stars he could see in the crowd. Routine for awards shows. His actual “offence” was making a joke about seeing Pinkett there and waiting for the new GI Jane movie. An obvious reference to her more-or-less shaved headed, bald appearance, reminiscent of Demi Moore in the ’90s movie he mentioned.

A fall-off-your-chair, slap-your-thigh kind of joke for the ages? Hardly. But neither was it an insult of any significance. He didn’t call her “ugly” or “fat” nor refer to her as dumb or invoke the “n-word”…he just made note that she seemed to have a bald head and playfully suggest she was making a movie about being a military cadet. Most actresses would smile politely at least and probably be pleased to even be mentioned and get the cameras pointing her way. And the initial – momentary – facial reaction of Will Smith was that. Mild amusement. His wife though, was clearly steamed. Others nearby suggested she was furious and said something to him like “you gonna let him get away with that?” and queried Will’s manliness. That’s when Will-Hulk kicked in and he stormed the stage and decked his fellow star.

Turns out Pinkett has alopecia, a term for a number of similar medical conditions which in men usually get termed “male pattern baldness.” In a nutshell, her hair’s falling out. Unfortunate, absolutely, even more so for a lady than a guy. But not cancer that could kill nor anything genuinely embarrassing like syphilis. She’s got thinning hair. If she wanted to hide that fact, she could very easily have worn a wig…many of which look more realistic than real hair these days. She could have phoned Elton John months ago and asked for his hair replacement guy’s phone number. She could have shown up wearing some low-slung cap or hat and been lauded as making a wonderful bold fashion statement. Instead she chose to not disguise it and by the look of it, shave off what hair she still had a day or two earlier. In a business all about looks and superficiality, she couldn’t be dumb enough to think that would go unnoticed.

Rock seemingly didn’t even know about her condition, but going back to the earlier point… his joke wasn’t really that “out there.” I’m not a huge fan of Chris’s but he can be funny at times. At other times, he can be a bit rude or offensive. So be it. Lenny Bruce made a career out of being considered vulgar or offensive, being arrested for it several times. Now many consider him one of the best stand-up comedians of all-time. Don Rickles, a favorite of late night shows for decades, once said “every night when I go out on stage, there’s always one nagging fear … I’m always afraid that there is one person in the audience that I’m not going to offend.”  Most of what we call “comedy” today is offensive to at least some people and pushes boundaries. There are some out there these days who are popular that I find dumb, rude and all-around offensive. My way of dealing with them? Not watching their shows.

If Will Smith really had a problem with the innocuous little joke, he should have gone up to Rock afterwards and told him – with his words, not his fist – that it was disrespectful to his wife and fill him in on her medical condition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rock would have apologized and sent her a bottle of champagne or a bouquet of roses to let her know. But instead, he acts like the hyper-aggressive fool so many of his colleagues in the audience get paid millions to play on the big screen, hitting first, crying later. Not only does it set the wrong example for children who are fans of his movies but as the Today Show‘s Craig Melvin railed it perpetuates “this long held perception that men of color can’t control their rage and anger.” It’s doing ordinary, peaceful Black people no favors when the only thing anyone is talking about after an awards show is one angry Black man assaulting another Black man there.

Then there’s the show’s producers and the Academy itself, who say they “asked” Smith to leave but didn’t press the issue when he refused. “Asked”? If you have someone at an event who disrupts the ceremony and commits what would normally be construed a criminal act on stage, you don’t “ask” them to leave. You tell them to, and if they refuse, you remember why you pay to have security at such events and make sure they do leave. Instead, they let him get up on stage and accept an award and give a teary speech minutes later. I’m not in the faction who believe he should have lost the award automatically. He’d won it based on a role he played in a film months earlier, he was the one chosen for it and deserves to keep it. But he didn’t deserve to get back up on that stage that night and revel in the glory and make a self-serving speech.

Everyone, Will Smith included, have bad days and do something ill-advised at one time or another.  In the end, this will all go away. Smith will go back to making movies; Rock will do more stand-up routines and now have some more material to use in them. But to a lot of people like myself, I’ll long think that despite Will’s height advantage , Chris Rock is the far bigger man of the two.

But How Many Tuna Could A Piano Tuner Fit In A Tuned Piano?

How many piano tuners are there in New York City? I guessed 50, after thinking about it for a minute or so.

It’s a bizarrely random question that the author of a book I’m currently reading, Range, mentioned encountering on a university chemistry exam. Chemistry. And he figured it was a good thing. Most of his classmates did not!

Three days ago I’d never heard of Tennessee’s Remnant Church, nor of Gwen Shamblin. But that was before I watched the new three-part documentary The Way Down : God, Greed and The Cult of Gwen Shamblin. I mention the two things because it occurs to me that both of them really bring up an interesting point – by and large we’re smarter than ever, but not necessarily able to think well.

Shamblin was a lady whose weight had fluctuated wildly when young. Perhaps as a result, she studied nutrition and chemistry at university. In the 1980s, she began to write books and run seminars on weight loss, called “Weigh Down.” The gist of it seemed to be, at the time, to not eat unless you were really, really hungry. Exercise, portion control and food type didn’t seem to matter much to her so long as one only ate when they really heard their stomach growl. She was raised as a conservative Christian, and probably prayed upon it , or at least we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she did. She found that her message was more accepted if she added in a suggestion to pray to God that He lift the pounds off you and keep you slim. Once she did this, she found that many churches, especially in the American South started offering her workshops to their congregation. Business boomed.

So much so that she and her husband soon started their own church near Nashville, the Remnant Church. It mixed a message of traditional, strict Christianity that emphasized children being very obedient and dressing in traditional garb (long white turn-of-the-century dresses for girls, jackets and ties for boys) and the wife being obedient to the husband. As well as an ongoing message of Hell looming large for any who strayed from the path. But what set it apart was its twin message of God loving slim people only. Her church was also the pulpit for her Weigh Down program, and those who were chubby were rather shunned, shamed and told they were unfaithful to God because they liked food too much.

Now granted, from the reports, some members did successfully lose weight and feel better about themselves. But so too did some that struggled with weight get verbally abused and fall into deep depression. The “spare not the rod” mentality towards the kids of the congregation helped some children grow up to be fine and productive but again, caused mental issues for some and was cited in at least one murder case. A couple who were members of the church beat their son to death, citing instructions given them by one of the church edlers; they are in prison but the authorities couldn’t tie together enough evidence to charge anyone from Remnant, even though they executed a search warrant on the facility and found tapes of calls with the couple being urged to hit the child with glue sticks and so on.

The irony seemingly missed by most in the fancy pews was that the seemingly all-powerful leader of their church, Gwen, preached submission to men but ruled with an iron fist. The church forbad divorce, but she took up with a buff failed-actor, shown as rather a grifter in the documentary, while married to her (slightly overweight) husband who stayed in the shadows, and eventually …yep, divorced him to marry the more photogenic actor. God works in mysterious ways, I suppose. When her baby granddaughter died tragically, she called in some of the chubbier members of the congregation and told them God was judging the church and since it couldn’t be her or her family, one of them must be responsible. And while she preached modesty from the altar, as she got skinnier and older, the hemline of her short skirts seemed to rise in conjunction with her hair which would have put the buoffants of the ladies in the B-52s to shame.

I say that while adding, the people in the church were by no means “stupid”. Most were well-spoken, many had good jobs and drove nice cars. They perhaps liked the fellowship the church offered, all the more important when one considers that socializing with outsiders was frowned upon. But the bottom line is that they seemed to lack the skills of critical thinking needed to evaluate if their leader was giving them good advice or practicing what she preached.

Which brings us back to the piano tuners. Some student apparently made wild guesses (“10 000”), more answered to the effect of “I’m a chemistry student. How am I supposed to know?” Most these days would try to pick up their phone and say “Hey Siri, how many piano tuners are there in New York?” (to which it would probably respond, in my experience “ok, turning off dining room lights!”) The point is, in the book’s words, “that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.”

They explained the method used to come up with a guess, which was approximately how I came up with my 50. I knew the population of the city was around 8.5 million. Even if you’re not a geography fan, there’s a good chance you’ve come across that fact in a movie or book (picture the rom com where the girl complains to her Big Apple friend “there are eight million people in this city! Why can’t I find one nice man in that?”) Then estimate how many households make up that population (with a lot of singles and couples in a city and not so many large families, I guess about 2.5 per household) and that means maybe 3.5 million homes. Then guess how many of those have a piano. The city has a large wealthy population, but also some poverty and a lot of tiny apartments, so I guess 1 in 10. That’s 350 000 pianos. Add in a few for restaurants and studios, so maybe 375 000 of the 88-keys in all. Assume many of them aren’t being used, so maybe 200 000. Then also assume some people fool around on them but don’t care how they sound, so maybe 100 000 get attended to. How often do pianos need tuning? I have no idea actually, but I would guess every few years. Maybe five years on average? If so, then about 20 000 a year would get tuned. And how many pianos would a piano tuner tune? Again, guessing here. I have a vague idea of how it’s done. The have to adjust strings and such, but don’t need to move the instrument or rebuild it. Maybe two hours? Add in bit of transit time, and one might think a full-time tuner could do 12 a week. But some no doubt would just work weekends or after a day job, so maybe the average might be more like eight per week, or about 400 a year. 20 000 pianos per year would take 50 people to tune them, if those guesses were right or close at least. The object of the question isn’t really to find out how many there are, but to see if one could work through a complex problem that they don’t have expertise in. A skill a few more in Remnant Church perhaps could have benefitted from.

Believe in God by all means. Try to lose weight if you like. Think men should be leaders of organizations and women if you want. But stop and think about the reasons and if they make sense before making them your mantra.

Shamblin and her new husband died last year in a small plane crash. Her daughter now leads the ongoing House of the Holy.

By the way, Google tells us there are 8300 piano tuners in all of the U.S. and “more than 100 but far less than 1000 in New York City.” So now you know.

Counting Blue Cars? Good Luck With That

Hallelujah! Finally we’ve found something that everyone apparently agrees on. Bland cars.

We might not be able to, as a people, agree on whether abortion should be a woman’s choice or a serious crime, on if marijuana is a fine consumable item, a cash cow to tax or a reason to send people to jail, or if our climate is changing, let alone if people are the cause of it. We can’t quite come to concur on whether Fox News is a sell-out to the liberal Left or a radical arm of the self-righteous Right or whether we should cut off Russian oil or buy more of it because Putin might have a glut of it and it could put the price at the pumps down by a dime. But it seems when it comes to our vehicles, there’s no argument – make it bland, just like our neighbors!

Such is the conclusion one might reach driving around any city or highway these days but it’s confirmed by Autoblog. com which recently noted “despite vibrant choices, people stick with bland” when it comes to car colors. In 2021, 24% of all new cars sold were white. 18% of them were black, and fully 34% were gray or grayish silver. Thus over ¾ of new cars weren’t even what the report classified as “real colors.” By the way, blue was the most popular of those “real” colors, edging out red by 8% to 7%. Both have seen serious declines in popularity recently, but not so much as green. Kermit-kolored kars represented over 7% of sales back in 2004; these days it’s barely 2%…which still heavily outperforms yellow, orange and pink which combined represent about one lone percent. One in a hundred to leave the lot. What’s more, we’re adventurous compared to the rest of the world. In Asia, 40% of all cars hitting the road are white, and 20% black. All this despite what PPG describe as a huge variety of “special colors, tinted clear coats and matte finishes” available to “better reflect vehicle owners individual personalities.” Back in the ’90s, the band Dishwalla had a hit with a song called “Counting Blue Cars”, and a line in it went “we count only blue cars.” It’d be pretty easy to do these days. They might have to re-write the lyric as “we count blue cars. Zero, all white.”

Not that many years ago, I lived close to a GM plant that made Chevy Impalas. They had a huge – football fields galore–sized – parking lot of them sprawling between the factory and the rail yards, waiting hopefully for some dealer somewhere to want them. An island of misfit cars. There’d be a gray one here and there, maybe a black one, but almost all were plain white. At the time, I thought one thing they were doing wrong was having such boring car colors. At that time Ford at least offered a few interesting oranges, and coppers and metallic primary colors. Turns out I was wrong. The uniform, boring look was the one thing they did right, it would seem.

Now, mind you, there are some advantages to having a blend-in, white or gray car (or pickup). If you are an aspiring bank robber, it’s probably much better to make your getaway in one. Good luck to the police looking for the getaway car that was “white. A car, a sedan. Maybe a Toyota. Or a VW. Maybe it was a Chevy. Or a Nissan. They all look alike.” If you are wanting a life in crime, a yellow convertible Tesla or two-tone ’70s Lincoln is probably not the car to have. But for the rest of us… it makes me nostalgic for my childhood with all its lime green Novas, sun yellow VW bugs and orange Dodges lining our street. Cars that had a bit of character and which you could actually find when you got back out into the mall parking lot.

I think the world would be a little bit better place if people would agree for inoffensive, middle-of-the-road choices for things like policing, taxes and immigration and go wild with passion for extreme car looks. And spend time counting… mauve cars!

Books : Paul Is Indeed Mr. Everybody

Some time back I sang the praises of libraries here. To me, not only do they allow one to cut back on your expenses a little (obviously, by borrowing rather than buying books and other media) but they also widen my interests considerably, by making me “take chances” on books or records I wouldn’t ordinarily touch. I’ve always been “working class”, so it can be a big deal to put out $15, 20 or more on a book only to find a few dozen pages in it’s boring or unreadable. But, if it’s checked out of the library, all I’m out is an hour or so of time finding that out and a return trip to drop it back. Which leads me to the latest book I read.

Actually two out of the past four or five. Paul Goes Fishing, and its predecessor, Paul Moves Out. They’re graphic novels by Canadian Michel Rabiaglati, a Montreal-born and based graphic artist who began drawing fairly autobiographical accounts of his life about 20 years back. We see his alter-ego Paul growing up and dealing with the struggles of everyday life through the lens of the Canadian (and more specifically Quebec) ’80s and ’90s. “I’m from Montreal and I don’t travel a lot,” he told the Toronto Star, “so my stories are rooted in Quebec… the best way to have international success is to stay local.” Which he does, as well as living up to the famous writing adage “write what you know.” “It’s not pow-pow violence,” he points out, “it’s normal relations…it’s a normal guy. ‘Mr. Everybody’.”

Which is just where the charm of it lies. In Paul Moves Out, the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat event is simply a gay professor hitting on the very straight Paul. We see a snippets of his coming of age, moving away from home, finishing college, getting an apartment with his new girlfriend, babysitting relatives kids. Nothing entirely unique nor thrilling, but thoroughly interesting and story-driven enough to have you rooting for him (and his gal Lucie). In Paul Goes Fishing, he’s a bit older and having a few more adult problems…secretly envying his richer friends, Lucie having difficulty getting pregnant. All while set against the sanguine backdrop of a weekend fishing trip in the country. Again, you’re rooting for them because, as the author says, Paul is “Mr. Everybody.” The illustrations are black-and-white cartoons, realistic enough to be compelling while lacking excessive detail that would be distracting.paul art

The books really speak to me, since Rabiaglati is only a bit older than I am and is depicting growing up in my old homeland, albeit a different section. It’s relatable. Call me crazy but I secretly cheer a little inside to see a little depiction of quintessentially-Canuck things from my youth like Molsons beer or Canadian Tire stores; or that reflect my own life – a picture of a Stranglers album cover at a party he went to, for instance. It puts me in mind of another Canadian author a little – Douglas Coupland. The Generation X guy likewise has fashioned a career, which at its best is merely creating interesting stories about very ordinary and relatable people. Perhaps the somewhat low-key national identity we’re known for helps us excel at noticing interesting little things and eschewing the big, blockbuster blow-’em-ups Hollywood (and much of the rest of the world) seem to fall in love with.

I brought up libraries in the beginning because generally I am not a “comic book” guy. Didn’t read them as a kid basically, so sure not inspired to do so now. I, perhaps unfairly, tend to lump graphic novels in with them. Were it not for one of the “Paul” books being prominently displayed on a front table of my local library years ago, I would never in a thousand years stumbled upon the tales. And would have been a bit poorer for the absence of them. So, two messages to take from that perhaps.

One, to be more open to new experiences…something I admittedly am not great with. But just because I might find Superman or Aquaman ridiculous wastes of time, it’s silly to write off the whole genre of comics and things only remotely like them. And two, stories don’t need a lot of “pow” and flash to be compelling. Mr.Everybody probably leads an interesting life once you stop and consider it all. You and I have stories to tell as interesting as any Caped Crusader. Perhaps not quite as exciting but more compelling, since they’re real.

I’m looking forward to getting the next instalment he wrote. Maybe he and Lucie will have a kid. And I hope the rat doesn’t show back up in their bathroom! One encounter with it is “pow-pow” enough for anybody.

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