Thankful Thursday XXXIII – Benevolent Celebrities

As many of you know, I also do a daily music blog. Recently while writing pieces I featured Janis Ian. Janis is a singer who had one big hit in the 1970s, “At Seventeen” and has periodically recorded since as well as written a few books. But an interesting sidebar to her story is that she also runs a charity called the Pearl Foundation that raises money for scholarship for adults returning to school. I think that’s pretty great and noble. To date, with her help it’s given out over a million dollars to help further the education of people who might not otherwise be able to go back to school to better their lives. The same week I looked at Farm Aid, a charity designed to help out struggling small family farmers around the country. It was started as a one-off rock concert in 1985 set up by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Little did they know back then that it would still be an ongoing event, and they’d all still be performing almost every year and the charity a round-the-calendar organization assisting farmers and lobbying for their interests. Again, a very worthy cause. So, this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for celebrities who use their fame (and quite often money) to help others through such events and organizations.

There’s no shortage of them of course. Elton John has worked extensively for various organizations helping AIDS patients. Peter Gabriel brought Amnesty International onto the radar for millions of his fans by talking about them and having booths of theirs set up at his concerts. And of course, it’s by no means limited to the music world. Actor Gary Sinise became a hard-working advocate for disabled veterans after playing one in Forrest Gump and being contacted by many real-life people with stories like his fictitious Lt. Dan. Reese Witherspoon has been involved with a number of organizations promoting improving childrens’ lives in the Third World, helping battered women and encouraging reading. And the list goes on and on.

It’s often said we idolize our entertainers far too much. Perhaps true. Also true is that the bar keeps being lowered for what it takes to be considered a “star”. These days a “leaked” sex tape or filming yourself walking around dollar stores pointing out new items with a little bit of panache are sometimes all it takes. We can debate what this means for society in general, but while it is the case, I say more power to those who find that rising star and use the enormous pulpit they have to influence their fans and make the world a little better.

Thankful Thursday XXII – Trains… A Nature Lover’s Best Friend?

This “Thankful Thursday” is a Friday as it turns out. Either way, I’m thankful for trains.

Now as many of you know, I grew up like many little boys, living near a busy rail line, watching the big, colorful, loud trains rumble by with fascination. And of course, I had a model train set and my dad and I periodically worked away on a table in the “spare room,” putting together a layout that never really was fully realized. But we had fun together.

Later on, living not far outside Toronto, the easy and fast way into the downtown was by the GO Train, a commuter rail line that served the various suburbs and brought people downtown, right by the offices, Eaton Centre mall and the baseball stadium, and pretty much everything else in the city center. The commute was far less stressful than trying to drive through the gridlocked highways and was at times quite fun. A stretch of the run ran alongside the lake, atop the “bluffs”, affording great views of the lake below on one side, the glittering skyline on the other. I even took a longer train ride to visit a girlfriend on the East Coast in the ’80s…it took about two days to get there (compared to maybe half a day by plane, given the time in airports ) but it was fun. Sleeping in one of those little berths that fold up in the daytime, eating in the dining car… kind of a Canuck version of The City of New Orleans.

I still like watching trains go by, but I’m thankful for them for a bigger reason than that. I also love nature and am an environmentalist, and trains really help us preserve our natural resources and keep the environment clean. A hard thing to believe when you see clouds of black smoke puffing out of a diesel locomotive struggling to get going, but true nonetheless.

Trains burn a lot of diesel fuel, it’s true. But the important point is they burn a lot less fuel than trucks, let alone planes, do. It makes sense when you stop and look. A regular Class I (that is mainline, intercity) freight train usually has over 100 cars behind it. Coal hoppers, 80+ foot long auto racks carrying new cars and trucks, tankers, 50′ boxcars, flat cars stacked up with containers from overseas. And these days, they’re usually pulled by just two big locomotives. A tractor trailer, by comparison, obviously pulls just one “freight car”, usually 53′ in length behind it. Ergo, each big freight train is equivalent to over a hundred trucks. And there is their greatness. Not only do they keep our already over-crowded highways less congested, making all our drives a bit quicker and safer, they also do so using a lot less fossil fuel.

Now getting accurate figures for fuel use by either trucks or trains is notoriously difficult, and inexact. The weight of the load, whether they’re on a flat road or a grade, the temperature, all play into the equation. But in general, a Peterbilt 379, one of the most popular trucks of the past decade, gets about 4 mpg pulling a trailer, according to drivers themselves. A newer Peterbilt was recently tested at over 10 mpg – not bad at all as a minivan we had averaged only 15! – but that was under test conditions, barreling along by itself, without a payload to haul.

Compare that to a new locomotive. The SD70ace is perhaps the most ubiquitous locomotive this century. It packs 4300 horsepower, and can theoretically pull 200 loaded freight cars by itself … although rail crews point out, it would have a heck of a hard time getting going from a stop with that much behind it. Typically they pull about 50 to 60 cars (hence the multiple engines afront a long train.) And pulling a fully loaded coal train, engineers report they get about a third of a mile per gallon. 0.3 mpg! Not good… except when one considers that is doing what 130 trucks would be needed to do otherwise. On average, the U.S. government rate trains as the most efficient way of moving heavy loads… about seven times less fuel used per ton than trucks in fact, and an absurd 70 times better than planes.

So, next time you’re stuck in traffic, waiting to go and counting those Railboxes roll by, don’t be impatient. Be grateful. That train is making our air a little cleaner and our oil supply last a little longer.

Thankful Thursday XXXI – Talking About My Generation

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for my generation. Not the Who song – that was representative of the generation before me – but Gen X, as we’ve come to be known. Or more precisely, to be a part of it.

Of course, each generation probably thinks it’s the best. I, perhaps typical of this generation, don’t necessarily claim that ours was the best. But I’m glad I grew up when I did.

To me, my generation got the best of music, the best of TV and, more importantly, the best conditions to grow up in. Notice I don’t say “easiest” however. I love that I grew up listening to Top 40 radio on transistor radios in the ’70s that exposed me to a bit of everything ranging from Motown to country to early heavy metal to disco. Sure, we didn’t really see The Beatles in real time, but I heard them plenty on radio and courtesy my older brother. By the ’80s as adulthood came a-knockin’, college classes were bookended by a new music that was actually exciting. Young kids these days won’t know the High Fidelity-like experience of hanging out at a grubby, crowded record shop looking for import Depeche Mode singles and hearing the music snobs behind the counter going on about the Pixies and Marshall Crenshaw. We were a generation that wanted to change the world. Well, don’t they all, I suppose. But it seems to me that outside of the tail-end of the Baby Boom, young people before were too conventional to challenge the status quo. The youth of today want to change the world too, but I’m not sure that that extends too far beyond the right for young women to call themselves”men” and vice versa for most of them. Some of my happiest times were summers during my university years, working for a conservation agency, with dozens of similarly-involved people around my age. We sure knew how to party at night… but by day, we were all about working on environmental projects and educating people about the need for conservation. Whether it amounted to a lot or not, we were doing something that we felt was bigger than ourselves, that was going to make the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I’m lucky because I straddle the digital and analog age. I grew up spending lots of time in libraries. At school, at the city ones, looking through stacks of books, going through card catalogs to find a title. It seemed like there wasn’t a question that couldn’t be answered by the Encyclopedia Britannica, all fifteen feet of shelving of it. I took typing classes at school, banging away on old manual machines, periodically getting my hands dirty changing the ribbons. It was good experience. But thankfully I was just young enough to see the value of computers by some time in the ’90s, and pick up the skills I needed to write articles, fix photos, design posters or search the internet for wacky kitten videos quickly. My brother, about six years older than me, got through school long before “cyber” was a word and hates computers to this day. Our dad, bless him, tried hard to adapt, but never got beyond playing Solitaire or checking, with extreme difficulty, his e-mail on his laptop. My mom never even got that far along in the process. I feel lucky I am reasonably tech-savvy, but have the background in old, analog ways. I wonder if anyone under 18 today could find an answer any question about science, history or pretty much anything else besides BTS if Siri stopped answering or Google went on holiday.

We didn’t have it easy, but then again, it wasn’t a battle. My parents both were youth in Europe during WWII. That’s hardship and stress. We on the other hand, had to live with the sword of Reagan and Gorbachev’s missiles hanging over us, which was stressful but there was always food to be had, electricity for the lights and despite the fears, no big wars materialized to worry about. We were however, the first generation of “latchkey kids.” For the first time, most women were working and one-parent households were common, so I wasn’t unusual in often coming home to an empty house after school. Like so many others of my peers, that was OK. It gave us a bit of freedom to grow, and more importantly, let us learn real quickly how to make a dinner, or wash our clothes. We walked or rode our bikes to school…yes, yes, you know, in the snow, uphill both ways!… and had our own legs and our friends to rely on. We got part-time jobs as soon as we could to buy our own records and snacks and if we were real lucky and smooth, use the funds to go on dates with. It astonishes me to go by a neighborhood school these days and see cars backed up around the block waiting to get their ten and twelve year olds and drive them immediately home, where they will stay, playing video games, until it’s time to drive them back to class the next morning. Where will their sense of adventure or independence arise from? Will it ever arise, for that matter?

Well that’s my grumpy old, thankful rant for this day, now that we Gen X-ers are getting up there … tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” in case you’re keeping track. So how about you? Are you happy you were born when you were? What is your generation’s best feature? Whatever it is, I hope you’re thankful to be you.

Thankful Thursday XXX – Netflix Shows Nothing Came Easy To Forrest, Forrest Gump

This Thankful Thursday, which is to say “yesterday”, I thought of a show I saw on TV the night before that : The Movies That Made Us. It’s a semi-regular show made for Netflix that looks at how movies we loved came together… often not as easily as it might seem! This week I’d watched the one concerning Forrest Gump. I’ve seen several other instalments, including recently Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing, all movies I like or love. They have movies chronicled that I don’t care for too, but it’s not as interesting watching what almost went wrong on a movie I wish had gone south, is it?

Dirty Dancing was a small budget feature that couldn’t find anyone interested in buying the script until a direct-to-video company that seemingly operated out of a small office bought it for a pittance. It didn’t go direct-to-video and made more money than pretty much everything else the company did combined. Pretty Woman‘s creators wanted Richard Gere to be the leading man all along, and got him, and Julia Roberts to be the heroine, the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Only at the time, Roberts was an almost-unknown quantity, a co-star of the B-movie Mystic Pizza and not much else, and Gere was holding out for a known superstar to drive people to the box office to see him. Once he was convinced Julia had screen appeal, it still took weeks to find the right fabric and right designer to assemble her style metamorphosis. Oh… and in the original script, Vivian, (Roberts) was a druggie prostitute who was left behind after her whirlwind week of the high life with him. Not exactly the romantic fairytale, “Cinderella” people dream about or pay money to see. Re-write!

Then there’s Forrest Gump – the all-American unlikely hero movie that was the third-biggest money maker ever for Hollywood at the time and took home a cart of Academy Awards big enough to carpet Alabama. It starred Tom Hanks, already a solid, A-list actor, and Sally Field, one of America’s sweethearts. Seemed like a can’t miss, right? Of course, it was far from it. The orignal novel which it was based on is vaguely similar in outline … to put it impolitely, “idiot savant stumbles onto great deeds accidently”. But the author’s Gump was rather a rude, unlikeable sod with a pet monkey. Hardly anyone to get the masses cheering on. So, new writers came in to revise his character and it got bought by a biggish studio. But people changed desks there and soon the studio was telling the director, Robert Zemeckis, to cut back, it was costing too much. They wanted no shrimp story in the movie – filming on a boat on water costs more than on land -, wanted no part of the Vietnam saga… costs money to ship people overseas and some of the shots might be expensive, and if he had to run across the country, couldn’t they shoot all the shots in an L.A. city park instead of all across the country? And don’t even get us started on the complications of superimposing Hanks into historical footage of JFK and so on. Thankfully, Zemeckis stood his ground and he and Hanks ended up pitching in some of their own cash to get it completed.

Now, the reason I’m telling you all this isn’t to make you turn on the TV or pitch myself for a Cinema 101 tutoring job. It is instead to point out that things that things that work out great and seem easy are actually quite problematic and often require many hurdles to be jumped. If it took Tom Hanks and Richard Gere so much to get their classics completed, why should we think it’s got to be a lot easier for any of us to see anything we care about through to completion?

Greatness of any sort requires a lot of work and patience… and a little luck. I’m thankful to Netflix and their series for reminding me that.

From Bugspray Pitch Man To Shaper Of Minds In 430 Pages Or Less

Good is good, bad is bad, black is black and white is white,

But the lines are not that clear to see, try as we might!

So people refuse the gray, and of the good lose sight…

And miss the ways grays bring light and do what is right!

With apologies to the late Theodor Geisel…my latest read is a bio of an American hero who’s fallen on hard-times, image-wise of late – that same Geisel, better known and loved as Dr. Seuss. Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones looks at him in detail, in the good, the bad and the ugly. Actually, like good journalists are often going to do, I daresay Jones does so in a manner that may end up annoying both the left-wing and right-wing segments of his readership. Based on his author photo, he’s young enough to be of the modern politically correct revisionist opinions of history, but he also is evidently full of respect for his subject’s better achievements. His well over 400 pages give us readers an ample understanding of the acclaimed children’s author, warts and all.

Geisel is beloved for creating children’s classics like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. But he didn’t start out trying to change the world – or how kids learned. He grew up in early-20th Century New England, the son of a German immigrant who was a successful brewer, the family running one of Massachusetts most popular beer companies. Which led to two pivotal events in his early life. First, when WWI happened, he felt the sting of discrimination and prejudice, as locals suddenly turned on anyone vaguely German, no matter how well-loved and respected they may have been until then. Secondly, prohibition shortly thereafter caused his family hardship and devestated his family business, embedding in him a deep resentment of government meddling and the sanctimonious types among us.

For a man so intrinsically tied into educating in our minds, Seuss wasn’t all that good a student, although he did earn a degree. He didn’t care much for studying and preferred doodling. This led to his first career, as a successful ad man, back when many newspaper and magazine ads were hand-drawn. At the height of the Great Depression, he got a contract from Flit, a bug-spray company, to do a dozen ads for them at $100 a pop – good money for the age, and for a young man with a new wife. Not very much changed for him, in fact, until WWII came along, and he was drafted… but sent to California to work on films for the troops working under the guidance of Frank Capra. There he began to really understand the power of his cartoons and effective wordplay. Eventually, as we know, he found his way into writing and illustrating children’s books, full of his interesting make-believe characters who seemed every bit as real as, if not more so, than many people, and his clever rhyming prose. Even though he and his first wife Helen never had children, he became more and more impassioned about them being the future and more and more convinced that the conventional reading material for kids turned them off reading rather than encouraged it. He particularly hated the drab, boring “Dick and Jane” readers that most schools used extensively in the junior grades, with their simple but boring as mud sentences like “See Dick run. See Spot. See Dick run with Spot.” It became his passion – obsession even – to write books kids would like to read, learn from and that at their best, make adults stop and think a little too. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Lorax. Horton Hears a Who. After a few semi-popular titles, he finally hit paydirt in the late-’50s with the Cat in the Hat (written with a highly restricted list of words the publisher felt kids could understand) , soon becoming one of America’s best-loved writers, going on to sell over 600 million copies of his 60 or so titles.

Ah yes, but there was the negative to him as well, as many are quick to point out. As most men from his age, he loved his cocktails and nearly chain-smoked, despite a few attempts to quit. Some of his early works depict what now seem like “racist” portrayals of people of foreign cultures and even use words like “Chinamen” which seem less than tactful these days. Jones rakes him over the coals for these offences, but does at least put it in context of the times he grew up in; when the “Orient” was exotic and strange and Black people at home were the subject of many jokes and now-offensive portrayals by Whites in blackface on stage were considered high comedy. He does point out that as time went on, Theodor’s sensibilites changed as well, and notes that while he seemed suspicious of his own German people after the war, he was horrified by the bombing of Japan and went out of his way to get to know Japanese people and befriend them.

Many of my happy memories as a very small child involve having Seuss books read to me. They made me laugh every time, and want to pick up books, want to read them myself. Christmas to this day isn’t really Christmas for this 50-something until I’ve seen the animated TV version of his Grinch. It’s not a far stretch to say that I might not have liked school nearly as much or have been writing books (albeit entirely less successful than Geisel’s) as an adult had I been restricted to the merry adventures of Dick and Jane as a small child. For that, Seuss/Geisel seemed a friend to me. And after 430 pages of his life in print, when we arrive at his passing in 1991, it seemed again like saying goodbye not just to a creative sort, but to someone very close.

Thankful Thursday XXIX – Children’s Authors

Yesterday, while waiting for my stepson to get done with his medical appointment, I decided to spend a bit of time in a used book store nearby. Bookstores are always something I’m thankful for, by the way. Browsing through the many aisles of only semi-sorted novels, bios, texts and more, I noticed a little kids bird book on a clearance table for 50 cents. It was the same one I had when I was little – maybe eight or nine, the first one I had about birds. I put out the two quarters happily for nostalgia’s sake. Sure, the book is tiny and only about 100 pages, and has perhaps only one-fifth of the species of birds in the country listed and illustrated, and sure I have three full-detailed, upto date, proper field guides listing the 700 or more types of birds one might see, or hope to see, in North America already. But this brought back memories of when I was a kid and we put out a bird feeder in the garden and I’d see some colorful little bird at it. I’d stare lovingly, then go to the book to see if I could identify it. Often I could, sometimes it remained a mystery. But it piqued my interest. I’d look through thinking, “yeah, I’d like to see a Bobolink” or “where could I find one of these Pileated woodpeckers?” . It helped spur on a lifetime hobby and source of relaxation for me.

As well, of late, I’ve been reading the biography of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. A polarizing figure in today’s world to be sure, but the creator of so many of the books that I, and many others my age, learned to read with : Green Eggs and Ham. The Cat In The Hat. The Grinch. They were books that made me laugh, and made me think (about the Grinch’s selfishness and how he turned it around at the end, for instance, a lesson in good and bad that anyone can get). I loved having them read to me and were simple enough for me to begin to figure out the words as I followed along. Soon I could read them myself. Precisely what the Doctor had set out to do. He wanted kids to read, and he figured out that the “Dick & Jane” readers that were so prevalent in the pre-WWII era tended to bore kids and drive them away from books. He set out to make books that spoke to children as equals and made them want to turn pages and look forward to their next one. Whether you like his socio-political views or not, you’d have to agree he succeeded on that.

So this Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for children’s authors. As a writer myself, I know how difficult it is to write a story that’s compelling and interests adults. Doing the same for small children is that much harder. The vocabulary is more limited, some of the morals or storylines have to be much simplified, the characters more memorable and the work has to keep going without slowing down lest they throw the book away and wander off to stick a waffle in the DVD player or whatever little kids do. Yet with the world becoming so complex, and so very much media to consume, our whole future relies on today’s children learning to read…and wanting to do so.

So a tip of the hat, on the back a pat, a full salute, from the horn a toot… here’s to you, children’s writer – you are making today’s tomorrows so much brighter!

Thankful “Thursday” XXVIII – Allie Dog

This Thankful Thursday… err, Saturday in reality – I’m thankful for Allie Dog. Long gone, sadly, but remembered fondly as the only dog I’ve ever had. A bit of backstory.

I love animals, but have allergies. We never had pets when I was a kid, save for a fishtank for a bit. This saddened me a bit, but was just a fact of life. I particularly like cats, and most of them seem to take readily to me, so if not for allergies, it’s likely I’d have been surrounded by kitties over the years. As my dad grew older, he turned into a Cat Person, taking in a couple of tiny black kittens and putting food out for neighborhood strays.

Dogs however, were a bit of a different story. Not only do they seem a bit messy, they can be frightening. While I’ve always been OK with little dogs, big ones tend to scare me. I’ve had too many run-ins with boxers, German shepherds and other similar ones running loose to take fondly to them. And as luck would have it, despite being chased through a city street by a doberman (which had gotten loose from an auto shop) once, the only time I actually ever got bitten was by a Black lab, of all dogs. Supposedly the friendliest of pups, I seemed to come leg to face with the one and only mean-spirited representative of his kind. I was a teen and hiking through an urban woodlot when one rushed me, took a chomp out of my thigh and barked ferociously. Besides ruining a good pair of new jeans, it also necessitated a trip to the ER, a tetanus shot, and a call to police, who found the dog, just as aggressive as advertised, and took it in. Luckily it wasn’t rabid. Since then, I was particularly disinclined to like big black dogs.

Of course, God or fate or karma, whichever you prefer, has its sense of humor. Fast forward about thirty years, and my sweetie (also with fur allergies) are living a nice domestic life in happy, dog-free house when one of her distant relatives had to move and couldn’t find anyone to look after his dog while he got settled in to his new digs. She volunteered to look after the dog while he did that. A week, two tops, we figured. I was not amused and the dog and I seemed to view each other with suspicion when it came. She was set up with a food dish and water and an old doghouse in the backyard and seemed dejected when her owner took off, leaving her behind.

You can probably guess the rest. The one or two weeks became well over a year. The dog, Allie, seemed glum the first few days in a new home without her familiar person. We had a leash; eventually I apprehensively put it on her and tried to see if she’d walk. She did. It didn’t take long for her to decide I was the best human around, and me to notice Allie was the best dog in the world. She was a quiet dog, a definite plus to me. Her bark would scare off the most hardened burglar, I’m sure, but it would almost take someone trying to break in to coax her to show that. I’d spend time with her out in the backyard, and rain or shine, we’d go for a walk to the park down the road every day. Although by “walk”, I tend to mean “jog”…Allie was always energetic and ready to examine the next smell along the way. It was a daily highlight for us both.

Inevitably, over a year later, her original owner returned and took her back. It was a sad day in our household. However, the already aging pup (we figure she was about 12 at the time) lived a few more happy years and I got to see pictures of her frollicking in the Gulf of Mexico, quite enjoying it before she took off to the Happy Butt-sniffing Grounds of the doggie great beyond.

So here’s to pets. They add so much to our lives and ask so little in return for their friendship. And to the unexpected circumstances. Allie showed me again that life’s detours don’t always lead us into unwanted areas.

Thankful Thursday XXVII – Health

A few days ago, I threw my back out. I think a 12-pack of pop was the culprit. Of course, it’s not the weight, it was some tiny mistake I made in moving to pick it up, twisting in just the right way to make standing back up difficult and ouch-filled. By now, it’s just a dull ache as I sit here typing and sniffling a bit from allergies. If it sounds like I’m complaining, I don’t mean to be. Actually it just leads me to my topic – this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for good health.

Literally. I mean, I count myself lucky. As someone now over half a century old, if occasional back pains and sneezing bouts are all I really have to be bothered by, I am entirely lucky. By now, I’m at the age where I’ve had friends I went to school with pass away from horrible ailments. I see people who look somewhere around my age hobbling through stores lugging oxygen tanks they need to breathe. Each week now, I’m driving an older brother-in-law to doctor’s appointments to try and remedy some weird illness that caused him to basically lose the ability to stand or walk for a year or more. (Now he can do both, but is needing a walker to go more than a few feet.) Some people in my household have diabetes; others, chronic knee pain. Not to mention my dear dad who passed away this year from a heart attack, months after his wife died from a myriad of problems tied to diabetes but best described as “old age.” And of course, the elephant in the room, this awful new disease inflicted upon the world last year that’s killed more people in this country than the entire population of Memphis or Miami. I’ll take an occasional feeling of a jolt of electricity when I pick up a package wrong or a bit of a runny nose until the allergy pill kicks in any day. With good grace.

I try to make a point to walk; I could still do more. I try to eat fairly healthy foods; I could eat more fruit and a sandwich or two less. But I never take being healthy for granted. Money, toys, respect… all fine things. But they don’t mean much at all if you don’t have your health. If you’re feeling good today, say ‘thank you’ to God, Mother Nature, karma or whomever you choose and keep a bounce in your step.

Thankful Thursday XXVI – Parks

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for city parks.

I’ve often said that the single greatest thing about New York City isn’t the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Broadway plays nor the shopping experiences. It’s Central Park. We should all give kudos to the city fathers who had the incredible foresight years ago to set aside 843 acres of parkland in the middle of the city for the residents to enjoy in so many ways. It’s probably the chief reason the downtown of a crowded city of over 8 million people is quite livable.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, in a house which backed onto a large park. It was great, even if in summer the powerful lights on the tennis courts (about 40 feet behind our fence) did make sleeping before 11PM a bit of a challenge at times. It had a wooden fort for us kids to play on, tennis courts for the adults (which were commandeered for ‘street hockey’ in winter) , swings, and acres of grassy field sloping down from a public school at the end of the street. Tobogganing in winter? Check? Soccer games in summer? Check. Flying a kite in windy weather? Check. Old Scotsman practicing bagpipes at sunset? Check, much to my (and some other nearby residents) chagrin. No matter what the season, the park was in use by people from blocks around. No wonder a study in Boulder, Colorado showed that house prices increase by over $4 per foot the closer they are to a park. Put another way, a house beside a city park is worth about $20 000 more than the identical one a mile away.

Parks provide actual physical benefits to the cities they’re in. They filter out rainwater and can reduce flooding. The grassy, or especially treed ones actually cool down summer heat. A large park can reduce the temperature by up to five degrees in summer compared to nearby areas. (Urban “heat islands” tend to cause cities to be much hotter than nearby rural areas because of the amount of pavement radiating heat back up from the ground.) They add oxygen, so, if extensive enough, they can reduce air pollution. And often times, they’re homes to wildlife. But even those things are really just side-effects. The real glory of parks is the psychological and social.

Parks offer residents places to congregate and to exercise safely. I would guess many of the joggers in Central Park would be much more sedentary if they were having to job between couriers and taxis down 42nd Street. Playing hockey on a snowy tennis court? Fine. Playing hockey on a busy city street? Not looked at as fondly by drivers or even police. They keep us in shape. But the real thing… they calm us down. They make us happy. A Finnish study showed even 10 minutes in a city park “tangibly reduces stress” in most people. Imagine what a “Saturday in the Park” would do for our mental state.

So here’s to parks…and the cities smart enough to maintain and promote them.

Thankful Thursday XXV – The Biggest Craft Fair…

Last week I mentioned one of the relatively good new byproducts of our cyber-age, namely delivery services like Door Dash. This Thursday, I’m thankful for another creation of our wired times – Etsy.

When I was a kid, artists would have booths in local flea markets selling their wares – hand-painted T-shirts, framed pictures, crocheted things, you name it. Sometimes you’d see a truck parked in the corner of a dusty gas station with paintings (as likely as not mass-produced) propped up against it for sale. It was an alright way for creative types to share their work and make a few bucks. But that might have been the limits of it… a few. After all, it was a bit of a crapshoot. They’d have to rely on the right person coming along at the right time, and having cash on hand and a desire for their particular piece of work. Maybe a hundred, two hundred people might pass by their table in a day, most of them disinterested. If the person who would absolutely love your painting in their living room was the next town over, it would probably be going back home with the you, gathering dust. Similarly, if you were in the mood to add something unique to your walls or wardrobe, you were playing lottery-type odds expecting to find something just right among 20 vendors in a local clubhouse on a Sunday afternoon. Etsy has changed all that to the benefit of the creators and shoppers.

Now, to state the obvious, anyone with a computer, tablet or smart phone, anywhere, can see your creations and order them, and by looking for a specific category, find your needle in the huge haystack quickly. Rainbow-colored wool scarf? Picture of Paris on a rainy night? Union Pacific-adorned baseball cap? Rock that looks like WC Fields? All there, just a click or two away. Suddenly that person who would absolutely love your painting who’s in the next country over will find it, its days of gathering dust gone with the wind.

I love it. I’ve used it to sell books I’ve written (a few copies), baseball caps I’ve customized (a handful), and a few wall hangings or paintings (well… at least I’ve listed them ). Never made a lot of money off it, but it’s nice to make a few extra dollars and find someone appreciative of my work at the same time. On the other side of the counter, I’ve purchased a couple of cool vintage photos, some one-of-a-kind clothes and gifts for others on it that I’d not have found at the local Walmart or Kohls.

Ironic in a way, isn’t it? The internet has allowed Amazon to become one of the world’s dominant companies and biggest retailers, mass-marketing everything from books to soap to pharmaceuticals. But at the same time, it’s allowed individual tiny home businesses to set up and offer an alternative to the conglomerate mass-marketed products homogenizing culture across the globe.

I’m thankful for little craft fairs and the people who create for them. And for the world’s biggest, virtual craft fair, the one at our fingertips.

PS- the talent behind the picture above is someone else’s; the painting is not mine. But thanks to Etsy, it could be…

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