Design a site like this with
Get started

Gateway To A Healthier Environment?

Little things can make big differences. Like four-inch long birds. Or turning off bright lights at night at times. So, congratulations to the National Park Service for taking a small step to make things just a bit better for wildlife and the ecology by turning off the lights at the St. Louis Gateway Arch at night during May.

The Arch, of course, is the symbol of St. Louis, the “Gateway to the West”, a 630-foot tall (also 630-foot wide as it turns out) steel arch overlooking the Mississippi River, opened in 1965. It looks great and makes the city instantly recognizable on film during the day, but for years it was close to invisible at night. Logically, people had the idea of lighting it up at night to make it seen and make the skyline more impressive. By the late-’90s, it was generally illuminated nightly by 44 bright floodlights, usually bright white although pink in October (Breast Cancer month) and occasionally other tones to fit the day.

All of that is great…unless you’re a tired bird. As with many other tall, bright buildings, it unfortunately confuses and attracts migrating birds, which all too frequently collide with it, knocking them dead to the ground. It’s not entirely clear why, but it would seem that the bright lights confuse the flyers, or else they mistake them for bright stars since many seemingly navigate by following specific stars or constellations. NPR cite studies that suggest close to a billion birds a year die of that cause in the States, and that St. Louis is probably the fifth worst city for those collisions, after Chicago, Houston, Dallas and New York City. One organization that monitors the ground in a single square mile of Chicago every spring find 5000 or more dead birds that met their demise by running into the bright lights. The reason St. Louis, (as well as Chicago, Dallas and Houston) are such bird death magnets is that they lie right underneath the so-called Mississippi Flyway, the busiest of four major paths migrating birds follow between their winter homes in the South and the summer nesting grounds, often in Canada. Think of them as the natural interstates for feathered friends. The National Park Service suggest fully 40% of all North American ducks and geese follow it, and half of the migrating songbirds. Most of the tiny Blackburnian Warblers – smaller than a regular sparrow and weighing the same as two nickels – (seen below) follow that path of about 3500 or so miles between their summer homes in the boreal forests of Canada and the upper Midwest and their wintering grounds in Venezuela and the South American Andes. Like most songbirds, they migrate at night, and rest and feed as much as possible in the daylight hours.

blackburnianSuch collisions not only seem tragic and unfair (it’s got to be incredibly tough for a bird the size of a mouse with wings to fly thousands of miles over two weeks or so without having to worry about a steel monolith that their ancestors never encountered standing in their way), it’s bad for the environment. Most of the songbirds affected are warblers, vireos, thrushes… small birds that eat a whole lot of bugs. Many eat close to their own body weight in flies, mosquitoes, wasps, caterpillars, plant-killing beetles and mites daily. You name the bug, there’s something that eats it , and when their populations decline, the nuisance bug numbers and their resultant problems increase wildly. Turning the lights off lets the vast majority of the long-distance travelers fly by, above the rooftop level unfazed.

Thus the Arch stands dark in May, when almost all the migrating songbirds are heading north, and a number of other office buildings in some of the cities mentioned as well as Toronto to the north voluntarily turn off any lights in unused parts of the building at night. Each dark empty office at midnight means just a few more brilliantly colored warblers arriving safely in forests and fields of the land, adding color to the landscape and removing a lot of much less desireable flying critters from them. And, it even saves some money for the building owners. A small thing, but a big difference.

If Only He Wasn’t So Proud And She Wasn’t So…Well, You Know

Recently I had an accomplishment that millions more before me have had. I finished reading Pride and Prejudice. Of course, it shouldn’t seem an accomplishment because I like to read, consider myself a writer and the book is a literary classic. But still, it was a little self-challenge met. You see, I’d begun reading it perhaps half a dozen years back and just flat out lost interest by about when we’d be getting to the first commercial if I had been instead watching a film version on TV.

Pride and Prejudice, should you not know (and no shade thrown if you don’t) was an early 19th Century novel by Jane Austen, one of England’s most beloved authors to this day, over 200 years after she died. It’s considered a classic, it’s a part of the base curriculum in quite a few English or Literature courses around the world and has been adapted into several movie versions as well as loosely – very loosely – inspiring quite a few more like Bridget Jones Diary.

I read a number of literary classics during a little phase I went through perhaps twenty years back. Pop music fan I am, the idea came to me when listening to Kate Bush’s brilliant song “Wuthering Heights” and it occurred to me I had no real idea what the book was about. Yet, I reasoned, it must’ve been impressive to inspire young Kate like that. Turns out Miss Bush hadn’t read the book herself when she wrote her song, but I found that out later and in the meantime had read that 19th Century novel (quite liked it) and a few others – Dracula, A Christmas Carol (which I of course knew by way of the movies made of it), Of Mice and Men. It just seemed like something a well-read adult should have done…and good trivia sure to be at least one $300 question answered should I ever make it onto Jeopardy!

Pride and Prejudice, and Austen’s other, well-received but not quite as successful few novels never made my list. But when I met my sweetie, I found it was one of her all-time favorite books and movies as well. So I figured, hey, I should try to read through it to understand it better. By then I’d already seen the glam Hollywood version with lovely Kiera Knightley playing the book’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, and the much longer BBC version with the cute but not known-like-Knightley Jennifer Ehle playing her and the dashing, then young Colin Firth playing the eventual object of her affection , Mr. Darcy. This was my sweetie’s preferred version; she felt it stuck closer to the book.

So, after a few more viewings of the movie and eventually getting a feel for the characters, I dug into the print version and about two weeks later, finished it up. I came away with a bit more appreciation for it and an idea of why it is so well-loved by so many.

So what is the appeal? First, and probably a big part of its enduring nature, it was a feminist manifesto…for the times it was written. While by today’s standards even Elizabeth might seem a little shallow, and her sisters far worse (her father was known to refer to the younger ones as “three of the silliest girls of all of England”), by early-1800s standards she was a real renegade. She was an equal for most men in the room when it came to intelligence and quick thinking and she was determinedly headstrong. She tried to change her dad’s thinking on some family decisions (quite unlike a proper young lady in pre-Victorian England) and had the audacity to turn down an offer of marriage from a respectable man whom she not only didn’t love but thought a bit of a buffoon – Mr. Collins. That drew the ire of her mother, whose chief concern was getting her girls married off. In that day and age, a girl of ordinary standing didn’t say “no” to an offer of marriage from someone who had a job and house. No wonder she appeals to modern women!

At the same time, Austen’s works, this one especially, were quite revolutionary in their treatment of how women were put upon. They were indeed quite truly Second Class Citizens in that day and age. Not only were they not expected to speak up about anything more substantial than dinner or dances, they weren’t allowed by law to inherit property. Hence the major plotline in Pride & Prejudice, the Bennet girls could all be turfed out of their home were they not to marry should their father die. He wasn’t allowed to leave the house and property to them, regardless of his wishes. Austen’s book was a not-so-subtle plea for the equal rights they obviously deserved.

It too was a statement about marriage. It was portrayed as important, life’s goal in fact, but also as something to be decided upon carefully. As mentioned, Elizabeth had the audacity to turn down one man she didn’t care for at all, seeing her own parents as an example of a poor choice. The book (more so than the films) makes it clear her father had grown to despise his wife and chose her originally only for her fleeting good looks. Elizabeth didn’t want to be caught up in a situation like that and demanded a man she could love and feel a mental equal…which she ended up finding in the “Proud” Mr. Darcy. She in turn had the audacity to ignore his family’s demands that she not marry him because they felt her to be below his station in life. This kind of thinking (“my courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me”) would have made a young woman a pariah back then but has become a sort of mantra for today’s women – “Obstinate headstrong girl” appears on many a t-shirt these days, and with good reason.

But perhaps the reason the book remains popular to this day is for two more big reasons – it’s a love story, albeit one that twists and surprises, and those are timeless. But as well, it is a reminder of a different time, a more leisurely one we’d like to think. Time seemed of little concern to Elizabeth or any of her family; they had times for walks, reading books, planning ahead for parties they’d attend. And Austen wrote in such a fashion too; she was in no hurry to get the story to its conclusion, adding rich details and insights into the characters’ minds aplenty. Reading it slowed me down a little; one couldn’t imagine an author today writing this story which clocks in over 300 pages as a book of that length. It could probably be summarized in 20 and should the modern writer attempt to pad it into more than 100, one could imagine editors screaming and throwing it at them. “Nobody has time to read all this!” Indeed, with today’s hectic schedules, overtime at work, and ever-at-hand phones making sure we check in on social media, reading through it does take a bit of commitment. But ultimately, I found one well worth making …much like making a successful marriage. Something Elizabeth would’ve approved of I’m sure.

That’s me, what about you? Are there any books you’ve been wanting to dig into but just can’t quite bring yourself to?

Bass-ically Much Ado About Nothing?

Another “baseball” story that’s really not about baseball at all. But it does start an interesting discussion for those whether sports fans or not.

If you watch the “trending” news lists on Twitter or news portals like Yahoo, you might have noticed Anthony Bass trending in the last week. This obviously got my attention since he happens to be a pitcher for my favorite team, the Toronto Blue Jays. But the reason he’s trending has nothing to do with his performance on the mound, nor actually about himself per se. Instead, it’s his wife and kids that are fueling heated debates far and wide.

Bass tweeted that his wife, Sydney Rae James, was on a United Airlines flight last week and… well, we’ll just quote him : “The flight attendant @ United just made my 22-week pregnant wife traveling with a 5 year old and a 2 year old to get on her hands and knees to pick up the popcorn mess (made) by my youngest daughter. Are you kidding me?

Bass added that the airline crew handed out the popcorn. He included a photo, probably taken by his wife that showed the two sweet-looking children sitting properly with a small amount of popcorn spread around on the floor. Sydney’s sister, singer Jessie James Decker chimed in that her sister was distraught, “humiliated” and crying in the aisles.

United for their part haven’t weighed in other than to say they’re reviewing it with the flight attendant, and the union the staff belong to wisely say “our experience tells us that commenting on this specific incident without all the information likely won’t help.” They’re likely right!

The debate was on, and both sides got hotter than the golden topping poured over movie theatre popcorn. Many accused Bass and his wife of being “entitled” and even bad parents. Bass retorted that that’s why the airline has cleaning staff, while others, including a former flight attendant who now runs an etiquette school suggest the staffer was way out of line and on some kind of power trip of their own.

For me… I dunno. I can see both sides. It would be nice to hear the staff member’s take on it , or better yet, other passengers on the flight.

On the one hand, if the pitcher and his wife are shooting us straight, it does seem downright ridiculous, rude and perhaps even offensive for her to be “made to” get down on her hands and knees to pick up a handful or two of popcorn kernels. As some mentioned, ushers in movie theatres don’t do that to patrons who spill in the aisles. Popcorn seems inoffensive, so there wouldn’t be a safety risk having a bit on the floor for part of the flight. No one’s going to have an anaphylactic allergy reaction from it and a kernel or two of soft popcorn isn’t likely to trip anyone. What does United expect if they give away the snack, especially to kids?

But there’s the flipside too. Did the food just get spilled a little or was the child throwing it all around the compartment? Having a temper tantrum? Had the flight attendant had to talk to the mother already before this about the kids’ behavior? If so, the odd request might make more sense. And as others have said, perhaps mom could have/should have told the kids to clean up their mess themselves… teach them a bit about being responsible.

It put me in mind of comedian Sebastian Maniscalsco who jokes that he hates parents who take their kids to restaurants and let them run around, throwing food around and say “isn’t that cute?” “No!”, he retorts, “what’s cute is that two year old Japanese kid sitting quietly in a suit, eating with sticks!”

In the end, it seems like two things stick with me about this whole brouhaha. One, both the mother and the plane’s staff probably could have handled it much better and more politely. The attendant must know that in today’s social media world, that such a stunt is going to lead to bad publicity for their company even if the lady wasn’t a star athlete’s wife. And Mrs. Bass could have probably reacted more calmly and if she was in discomfort due to her pregnancy, explained that politely to the crew member. Instead she seemed to fly off the handle and let her celebrity husband and sister ramp up the battle. It makes me wonder how she’d react to something like a car cutting her off in a parking lot.

The second thing that occurs to me is this – in this day and age, I am very happy the biggest scandal hanging over my favorite ball club involves messy little children.

To pick up or not to pick up. What do you think?

A Baseball Story That’s Not About Baseball

Here’s a nice little story that combines two things I love – baseball, and people doing good.

Few baseball fans, especially outside of southern California probably remember Andrew Toles. Toles, like so many other young men, was briefly a promising young star who seemed to disappear overnight. He was an outfielder who grew up near Atlanta and went to the University of Tennessee. He was drafted to be a pro player back in 2010, when he was 18, and eventually made the Tampa minor league system. Fortunately for him, they dropped him and he was signed to a small contract by the L.A. Dodgers in 2015.

He debuted in the Majors in 2016, and wasn’t bad. He played in their playoff run that year, going 8-for-22. That’s actually quite good for you non-baseball fans. However, the next year he tore a ligament running after a flyball and missed most of the season and the next year, he looked mediocre. He wasn’t on the team roster when they went to the World Series in the fall of 2018. Over his brief career, he played 96 games (less than 2/3 of one full season), hitting .286 with eight home runs. Not bad numbers, but nothing head-turning either. And here’s where it gets interesting to the non-ball fans… the humans out there, which hopefully includes all of us.

He showed up at Spring Training in 2019, but didn’t make the big club and soon after was… put on the “Restricted List” by the Dodgers. That might have raised a few eyebrows at the time. The Restricted List in baseball is a rarely-used tool allowing a team to hang onto a player without counting them on their active roster and also without paying them. It’s usually used when either a player has disappeared, just not shown up for a few days due to personal problems, or else has been suspended by the sport for things like domestic violence. If Toles wasn’t quite back to full health after his injury or not good enough to make the grade, the usual procedure would have been to either offer him a minor league role, with hopes he might work his way back to the big team, or else release him outright.

It’s not really stated whether or not his leg was back in shape to let him compete at a high level, but  it turns out the club had probably begun to notice Andrew was a bit “off.” Unfortunately, Toles is schizophrenic and it would seem that the illness had begun to really kick in.

The next anyone really would know of him was in 2020, when he was arrested in Key West for trespassing. He was found sleeping by a Fed Ex building, and refused to leave when police showed up and requested he vacate. His family in Georgia were contacted, and tried to get guardianship over him, but initially he refused. Since then his dad has succeeded and has Andrew back at home with him. At first his family described him as “zombie-like”. He stared at baseball games on TV or his computer but didn’t seem to follow them, let alone recognize he was on those very diamonds not long back. TV causes him problems because the voices confuse him and interfere with other voices he hears in his head.

Schizophrenia is difficult to control and requires a lot of attention, medicine, and quite frequently mental hospital stays. Which can get pricey. Although MLB players get paid very well, Toles was on the Dodgers roster for only a short time and might not have amassed much…and who knows what he did with it when he had it. Here’s where the baseball club comes in. They have kept him on the roster since.

With an asterisk to be sure. He’s still on the Restricted List and isn’t eligible to play for them, although it’s impossible to think he could even try right now. He’s not getting the current $700 000 or so minimum salary a playing player would. BUT, he is getting the full benefits of a major league player. That includes full health insurance that covers his prescriptions, medical visits and hospital stays.

His sister says “people assume that we want Andrew to be what he was before. That’s not true. We just want him to be happy and healthy. “ And thanks to the baseball team, there’s a decent chance at that.

A tip of the cap to the L.A. Dodgers for showing baseball really is about more than just throwing and hitting a ball.

A Decade About Nothing

There’s an old Chinese curse that says “may you live in interesting times!”. Well, the 1990s were interesting and I lived through them. They’re now a good ways behind us in the rearview of life, chronologically and culturally. So, no surprise that I enjoyed reading the book entitled The Nineties, A Book (truth in advertising there!) by Chuck Klosterman. But I’m not sure I’d like Mr. Klosterman quite as much.

The ’90s were interesting…just not as interesting as the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or the decades which have come after it. It was all in all, a comparatively docile, almost boring time when, on the grand scale, not a lot happened. There were two minor skirmishes in the Middle East but the Cold War had ended, temporarily as it now would seem, acts of terrorism were generally small, localized and more often than not overseas, putting North American minds at ease. Most economies were doing just fine… at least on our side of the world. Russia was struggling a little, but at least they were peaceful and electing their leaders, so we figured all was dandy in that part of the world. And for people like myself, it was when our generation – Generation X – found a name and its footing in the Grown-up world. Klosterman speaks to all these topics and much more in his book, a decent summation of the 10 years, or 12, we call the ’90s. Wait – I can hear you saying “12? A decade by definition is 10 years!”. True as that might be, Klosterman suggests the “’90s” began in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting Germany and putting a visual to the concept of the “Iron Curtain” dissipating and freedom sweeping former Communist lands. And it ended, he argues, on Sep. 11, 2001, when the carefree days of the ’90s suddenly came crashing to the ground.

Overall, its a nice, nostalgic look back at the decade when people still generally considered a phone something attached to your wall that you called to talk to people on and when you had to be home on Thursday nights to see “Must See TV”, or else… you missed them (unless your VHS was set up and didn’t go on the fritz). No binge watching a whole season on the weekend back then, needless to say.

Which leads to the biggest change-maker of the decade – the internet. Only by 2000, many Americans still couldn’t comprehend how much of a life-changing factor the “World Wide Web” was going to be. But as the author points out, at the time, about half the population didn’t have internet access, or in many cases any interest in obtaining it and those who did probably used AOL and to get there had to listen to half a minute of screeching sounds as their dial-up modem connected. Newspaper readership was still about the same in 2000 as it had been about 30 years prior and Napster was in the process of being shut down but seemed like a college phenomenon to most older people who still bought their music. On CDs – compact disc sales actually peaked in the year 2000, at just under one billion units in the U.S. alone. By 2010, they’d be a quarter of that.

Klosterman looks over the big news events of the ’90s like the brief Gulf War, the “Waco seige” (as someone who knows many people in Waco, I can add that the locals hate that description and almost invariably point out that the compound and the uprising took place some 20 miles away from the city), the Columbine shooting and of course, O.J. Simpson. He has some interesting details and insights into each and lets his opinions show through. He refers to O.J.,like so many of us do, as a killer who got away with it : “two people had been brutally killed by a familiar celebrity.”

And of course he reminds us of Monica Lewinsky and the man who made her a household name, Bill Clinton. He writes a lot about Clinton.

As befitting a book by a Gen X-er about the ’90s, he also looks back at pop culture. How alternative music became the norm. How Seinfeld and Friends ruled the TV world. He disliked both but preferred Seinfeld, it would seem because being a “show about nothing” was different and fit the times. Curiously, he forgets to give a shout-out to the ultimate TV symbol of the times, the Simpsons. To him, it only merited one passing brief mention, in context of a movie it spoofed . He mentions how Titanic succeeded to not only make a profit but become the biggest movie ever at the time, despite long odds against it. He correctly notes that for all the hype about Nirvana, Garth Brooks sold more records that decade than anybody else. In his opinion by taking on the persona of a classic rock macho man, dressed up in a country costume, to replace the aging rockers made redundant by the Seattle grungers.

Which leads to my personal beef with the book. While it’s great Klosterman expresses his own opinions, I find them at times both contradictory and sometimes condescending. He’s the typical hipster art snob in places, the one who thinks that Quentin Tarantino was the only person making worthwhile movies but wasn’t elevated to James Cameron or Steven Spielberg heights because only a tiny handful of people like Quentin and himself were smart enough to understand them. And then he writes as much about Reality Bites as almost any other film or cultural event, but only to detail how it only appealed to us Gen X types because everyone else could see how idiotic the Winona Ryder character was in it. He seems to in places deride Nirvana but then spends three pages praising “Smells like Teen Spirit” suggesting will still be a cultural cornerstone 50 or 100 years from now and that it , and only it, changed the face of popular music. “(it) is not transposable. It had to be this song, delivered by this person.” (Italics his, not mine.) But then he casually suggests in that time period, Pavement might have been the best band in the world, while limiting R.E.M. to a brief passing reference and forgetting about U2 – the biggest touring rock act of the decade – altogether. Such are the contradictions of Klosterman. Which are expanded when looking at politics.

While seemingly identifying himself as a “progressive” rather than even a “liberal” or “Democrat”, he barely disguises his disdain for President Clinton, although he grudgingly admits “the Nineties were a good time to be president and (Clinton) was a good president for good times.” Much of this was due to Clinton’s willingness to compromise to get things done, but more than anything it seemed to revolve around Ms. Lewinsky. He states that a “progressive” a decade or two from now will not be able to comprehend how “slick Willy” could be elected, let alone twice, and worse yet, have been popular! Whether or not you agree with that, or somehow think Arkansas Bill was the very first president to have sex outside of his marriage, it seems incredible that the left-wing Progressive writer in turn had no real complaints about Clinton’s bookends, Presidents Bush 1 and 2. In fact, he didn’t see any differences between George W. and Al Gore, other than people thought Bush wasn’t as condescending and would be nicer to have a beer with. Perhaps correct, but it seems silly to suggest that Bush pushed the same agenda Gore and the Democrats did, and sillier yet to suggest the American public didn’t care at all who won the election and were bored with the recounts and tussle after the 2000 election. He must have been on another planet to have experienced it that way; I was in a different country but saw day after day of stories about the election and the protests about it in the news and how high the fevers ran on both sides.

However, he might be right in suggesting that in the end, the course of the country for the 2000s might not have been as influenced by the “hanging chads” as we thought then. About nine months after Florida was officially called for Bush’s favor, who knows what would have happened had Gore been in the White House. Because then the World Trade Center came crashing down and as Klosterman states, all at once, “the Nineties collapsed with the skyscrapers.”

The Nineties. Sort of a “decade about nothing”…which isn’t such a bad thing we now can see.

A Real Life Jeckyl & Hyde Story, Straight From The Palace

Seems like he’s everywhere these days. But he might not be at Westminster Abbey on May 6 to see his dad officially crowned “King”. Obviously I’m talking about Prince Harry, or perhaps Harry Wales as he might be called now. I just finished reading his memoir, Spare, and my reaction is…complicated. Like Harry. Probably seldom since Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde has there been a story about a character with such opposing sides to him. He’s responsible yet irresponsible, mature at times yet largely immature, fiercely loyal yet disloyal as well, smart but dumb, a conservationist who at times shows little regard for life, a soldier who at times shows little regard for military protocol. One thing about his book – it’s never a dull read.

The book really covers his whole life so far, at least as he remembers it, right up through his grandma Queen Elizabeth’s death last year. For the few who might not know, Harry was the younger son of Prince Charles (now “King” Charles) and Princess Diana. Which set up the two major points which have shaped his life. One, his difficult relationship with his older brother William, compounded by the fact that William would be next in line for the crown after their dad, making him the “heir” and Harry, “the spare”. William seemingly always gets preferential treatment therefore, from better houses to more plum diplomatic assignments on behalf of the country. Two, his difficult relationship with his parents. He adored his mom, but as we know, she died in 1997, when Harry was not yet 13. In contrast, Charles was always distant and rather cold towards Harry, and things didn’t improve when dad took up with his long-time mistress, Camilla.

Given the circumstances of his mother’s death (being in an accident when chased by paparazzi) it’s understandable he has a longstanding, deep dislike for the press and especially their photographers. “Paps” he calls them, when he’s being polite. But while William has avoided major controversies and abuse from the British press, Harry has seemed a magnet for it. Some fair, some not so, but even he admits some of his actions didn’t help his case any. Wearing a Nazi uniform out, even to a costume party, can’t help but draw negative attention to oneself, as he found out bitterly. Even he admits now that was rather boneheaded, though he blames his brother and sister-in-law Kate for encouraging him. Which points to that overall immaturity mentioned before. He’s been portrayed as wild and drugged-out, which he has taken issue with all the while documenting his ongoing use of marijuana (still illegal in the UK) and frequent use of psychedelic drugs – throwing his “friend” Courteney Cox under the bus while doing so – and years of heavy drinking. He was criticized by various press members for joining the Army and going to fight in Afghanistan, which is probably very unwarranted. He seemed to sincerely want to be one of the men and do his country’s bidding. But, he then goes on to detail, “brag” some might say, about how many Taliban he killed over there, which has incited the military brass – that’s not something you talk about – and made him more of a target for terrorists than ever before. This while he goes on to document and complain about the troubles of finding adequate security to protect him and his family. And, as an environmentalist myself, I am in admiration of his work in Africa and hands-on support for animals like Rhinos and elephants… but equally displeased by his love of blood sports, fondness for shooting birds, rabbits and squirrels unchecked and am dumbfounded he seems to think killing off the biggest, strongest deer around is good for nature. Obviously, if trying to hunt to “help” the natural balance, one would cull the smallest, lamest members of the species.

All that said, he does make some good points and have some valid reasons to complain. He seems quite concerned about returning soldiers and helping them deal with physical and mental harm they endured overseas, something many a government, the United States included, often seem to ignore. And, many of his good traits deal with his wife, Meghan Markle, who seemingly can’t win for losing with the British tabloids. She has worn clothes picked out for her by the palace and been slut-shamed by the press for them, been reprimanded publicly for getting into a car before Queen Elizabeth when the queen told her to “get in the car”. Curiously, the late Queen is one member of his family he speaks of in good terms and seemed to genuinely love. Meg’s been slammed for her former life as an actress and been slurred because of her mixed racial background. Some of the racism, which he says is far stronger in Jolly Ol’ than in the U.S., or Canada (where she lived seven years) , might be perceived. His mom, Diana was the whitest of women but still got raked over the coals by the tabloids. But some of it is clearcut and vile – there’s no way to put a good spin on a newspaper running a photo of a couple with a chimpanzee and labeling it “royal baby goes home”. No wonder he’s angry. And I would say his loyalty to his wife is one of his best traits, although unfortunately it seems to require casting his family aside to do so. But for that, Charles and William share at least as much blame.

All in all, a complicated man to figure out, but one who has an interesting story to tell. I hope he continues to mature, little by little and can really find his life’s calling. For his many flaws it’s hard not to rather like him, nor to admire his willingness to throw away his royal title and ties.  And after reading the book, one might think that we could also hope his work endures even if his father’s does not. Because Spare is certainly not a great endorsement of the British royalty or the system it comes from.

Zen & The Art Of Mockingbird Feeding

We live on a reasonably quiet street, and each day I see three or four people dutifully walking their dogs along it. Often twice a day. At times I feel envious.

Not on days when it’s pouring or one of the rare days it’s below freezing and the roads are icy here, but many days. Seems a peaceful way to get some fresh air and exercise, and be alone with your thoughts.

We don’t have any pets, though some readers may remember me writing about Allie Dog a couple of years back. That was a fine black lab we ‘baby sat’ for over a year. A more pleasant disposition one never found on a dog, and I quite enjoyed walking her down the road to the local park. It seemed like she enjoyed that too. But she long since was reclaimed by her owner, and in fact, has gone on to the Great Sniffing Grounds beyond since then. We’ve had no inclination to replace her.

Now, I like cats – they usually seem innately drawn to me too – and found with Allie that at least some dogs are wonderful companions. But our little family all have allergies (Allie was largely an outside dog during the day, in a makeshift little bed in the garage at night type dog, though on freezing nights we’d put an old sheet on the sofa and let her in , usually all of us waking up sneezing and very congested the next day) and that doesn’t go together well with having “fur babies.” Plus we share a house with a couple of relatives who would have to be included in the decision-making process anyhow.

So no pets… but I do feel like I have some nonetheless. Especially “Morgan”.

Morgan” – a name I just came up with now – is a Mockingbird. As readers also probably know, I love birds. So there’s a bird feeder in the front yard, not too far from the bedroom window. I make a point of putting the food out in the morning in winter. We get a great array of common feeder species – Cardinals, Blue Jays (a bird I’d love even if my favorite sports team wasn’t named after them), chickadees and their perky relatives, titmice (hey, I didn’t name ’em!), various sparrows on the ground – but this year we’ve also had a Mockingbird or two.

Now Mockingbirds aren’t at all rare here , in fact they’re the state bird. They’re prominent in almost any suburban area or bushy area. But they’re not generally known to come to feeders. But “Morgan” certainly does. It’s not surprising really. I actually undertook a study of them in Canada, where they’re not at all common, and found they are great generalists. I saw them eat almost anything imaginable – tiny bugs, large hornets, all kinds of berries, sunflower seeds in parks. Their dietary range isn’t that far off our own.

Anyhow, after a few weeks this winter, it seemed as soon as I walked out the door with the container of seed, “Morgan” flew in from wherever he – or she, they all look alike to us! – was. It was uncanny. At first he’d sit at the far side of the large oak tree up high. I’d be back in the house looking out the window before he’d fly down and grab a snack. As the winter wore on though, he got bolder and bolder. Nowadays, he’s often on a branch staring down at me, within arm’s length, and is feasting away before I have the lid on the seed jug. If I’m running a bit late, I swear Morgan seems to be giving me a “where were YOU?” look.

It’s funny because that’s a bird that not only isn’t normally a “feeder” bird but also has a great reputation in bird books for being “aggressive” – flying at people’s heads and so forth. I’ve never found that to be the case…but then again, other studies show they can identify individual people, flying at one person regularly while sitting, chirping demurely when someone of similar size in the same clothing goes by. Makes you wonder what they – and other animals – would say if they could really speak our language.

It’s not walking half a mile with an animal, but it makes me feel connected to something else, gives me a sense of just giving back a little to this world we as a species do so much harm to. Helps set my day off on the right foot.

Not yoga or meditation, it’s the Zen of Mockingbird feeding.

Odd Job Memory Jogs

Do you have any talents that might surprise others? I think we all do. Someone asked that not long ago, and it got me thinking. Not so much about a specific talent, but about a job I had and did well in that was rather out of the blue. For a good two years, I was on essentially a construction team for a large retailer.

Now those who know me know that I’m not exactly “mechanically inclined”, nor am I any kind of weight lifter. I’m more inclined to be working at a computer desk, or maybe with pro photographers, processing their films (there’s a blast from the past – “film”?) or helping them pick out equipment. Or going back a ways, in parks, cataloguing birds and leading hikes than donning a hard hat. But that’s what I did for some time…and I loved it!

The situation was that I’d just moved back to my home area, and had been out of work for a bit. Back to the “film” becoming an anachronism thing; jobs working with it were becoming scarce by a few years into this century. So, a large pharmacy/small department store was building a brand new, bigger store near where I was living. I decided to apply. After all, nothing much to lose and the pay was OK for a temp job. I was apprehensive the first day, when I, and about 50 others who had nothing better to do I guess, showed up at the empty concrete shell that would be a bustling store in a month or so. We were given hard hats and a utility knife; we’d already been told we needed steel toed shoes on the site. We went in, were broken into little teams, surveyed the vast empty space, with a few half-walls here and there and stacks and stacks of metal shelves piled up, covered in shrink wrap. There was tape on the new, shiny floor, and blueprints (well, actually on regular paper but the same idea) every few yards. After a short introduction and marginal demonstration, we were to assemble the shelves, four foot by four foot section, where they were supposed to go. The shelves clicked into the supporting racks pretty easily, but there were of course different sized ones, some wider, some narrow. Some had lights built in. Some were in refrigerated sections.  Some of the store was white shelving, other areas gray. The work wasn’t overly heavy, but it was a workout nonetheless. They rang a bell, almost like school, when it was time for lunch or a break, and again when we were to be back on the floor. I went home the first night tired, but not dreading going back the next day like I feared I might.

Many others didn’t feel the same; by Wednesday of the first week, only about half of us still were coming in. I learned they always hire a lot more people than they think they need because a large proportion simply won’t come back after a day or two, or will be too unwilling to work and follow rules so get let go. As the time wore on, the shelves went up, the pharmacy equipment and cash registers got put in, and then came the trucks…and the planograms. It takes a lot of products to fill a 25 000 square foot store. After a few days, there was a steady stream of tractor trailers backing up, dropping off skids (or what most people here call “pallets” apparently) of boxed merchandise. It had to be quickly dissembled, whenever possible carted right out to the floor, with overstock going on skyhigh racks in the warehouse part. And that’s where the planograms come in. Basically, it’s a map of where every single item in the store is going. Believe me, in a large national chain, things aren’t just put out “willynilly”. Everything is in its specific place and it’s planned down to the arrangement of colors of hair twirly thing on a rotating displayer. Most of it was pretty easy – if you followed the plan exactly. Which many people didn’t. And of course, those hundreds of feet or planned shelving and displayers all needed price labels. Computers were brought in, hundreds of pages of stickers were printed out and carefully applied to the shelving, again each one in precisely the right spot.

All this was being done with the oversight of a trio of Head Office people who were in charge of overseeing the company’s expansion. Head Office or not, they wore jeans and hard hats like the rest of us. After a few days, I found them all pretty approachable; liked working with them.

By about the second week, I’d been basically placed in a little team with a couple of other guys, one, we’ll call him “Tom”, a millennial and a Yankees fan (well, no one’s perfect!) and a bit of a cynic, the other an older guy, “Paul” , who’d retired from a skilled job at a factory and didn’t especially need the money but wanted something to do to keep busy and pay for his beer – of which he’d consume less with a day job to keep him occupied. We were pretty ordinary guys, but we got along fine and at least we could figure out how to stack boxes of detergent on a shelf or know it was important to attend to frozen food coming through the back door quicker than, say plastic totes full of batteries and dog toys.

The big day came for the  grand opening, and of course, it was remarkably busy. Most of the crew that had made it through the month were kept on for a few days to help out; after all we knew better than anyone where everything was in the store and the stockroom.

Before we were all finished though, the Head Office types came to my little team and said we’d done really well. They had a similar store being built, a few cities over. Would we like to go work on it? We all agreed that would be cool, so why not? After a week or so to rest, we were back, duplicating the first job in a new city with new co-workers. Paul had a nice car, so we carpooled with him. I got in good because I remembered to give him gas money on payday! Tom sometimes had to be reminded “hey, hey, this car don’t go 70 miles a day on fresh air!” . That job went even smoother since we had experience by then.

And so it went. Along the way, we picked up a fourth guy, around my age too, that had a similar work ethic. We became an in-demand crew. For a couple of years, the company was growing steadily and we were brought in to help set up any new store within about a 50-mile radius. One store was open while we were doing it – they’d bought out an adjacent store and doubled the floor space. That was some fun! Moving shelves around while customers were trying to grab shampoo off them, or walk around electricians trying to run cable across the aisles. One day we went in and the wall between the two was literally gone; demolished overnight in a cloud of dust. It took about six weeks to get that one fully functional.

The Head Office people became, dare I say “friends” ; they were ordinary people doing their job and respected that we were the same. We were even cut a little slack at times. One time we were about six shelves short for an aisle, and most of the day’s work was done. The next day they sent the four of us in a big rental truck to the corporate warehouse, miles away, to pick up the six, four-foot shelves. Suffice to say realistically, it wasn’t a four man job.  “Make sure you’re back before 4”, we were told, and keep a receipt for lunch so we could be reimbursed. One time, one of the REAL Head Office staff, the type who’d have an office in the headquarters and likely wear a suit into it, dropped by to see the progress of one of the stores. We’d met him a couple of times before. He came over and asked us how much we were being paid. I told him and he said … wait for it … “that’s not enough. I’m getting you guys an extra buck an hour.” And he did. If there was a down week, with no construction they’d even gotten into the habit of sending us to problem stores; ones that were very messy or with stockrooms overflowing with unboxed goods, to kind of pull a two or three day store blitz to get them back in shape. It was surprisingly satisfying work. It wasn’t complicated, and gave me time to let my mind wander a bit if I fancied, but by the same token, it wasn’t mind-numbing like some factory jobs. I’d probably go crazy if I had to stand in one place and put one screw into one piece of metal on an assembly line over and over, eight hours a day for years. This one was just different enough from day to day, just enough pressure to meet deadlines and prioritize tasks to be tolerably exciting and easy enough as to not me cause huge levels of stress. And being noticed and praised by office executives is a plus on any job!

Eventually, the growth period for that company slowed and those jobs dried up. Paul got hired on to merchandise one store, weeks later I took a job running a small department of one of the store’s we built and did that for a couple of years more.

I look back on those days quite fondly. And with amazement . That first day I showed up at that empty shell of a store in steel toed boots, I would never have guessed it would be a part of my life for several years and what’s more that I’d have fun doing so. Let alone be seen as very good at it to boot. I think there’s a message in there for all of us. Sometimes it’s good to be open to new experiences and in doing, you find talents you don’t even recognize.

(I didn’t take the above photo, but it was similar to the empty structures we’d go into the first day. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t take a camera in and take some construction sequence shots during them.)

This Time Machine Serves Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Do The Right Thing People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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