May Hooray, The Sequel

Flipping around on Netflix a few nights back, I came up with a remedy. Not a cure but a surefire way to “chill” and probably get you snoozing happily quickly. Bob Ross. Never has the world needed Bob more. Sadly, he’s passed away but his TV shows live on full of their “happy little accidents.”

For the uninitiated, Ross was the huge-haired neo-hippie painter who had a long-running show, The Joy of Painting, on PBS in the ’80s and ’90s. Each episode, he’d start with a blank,or nearly so, canvas and quickly in under half an hour work his magic to create a pleasantly predictable landscape painting, full of mountains and little trees in the mist and often a little cabin for someone to live in and enjoy the view. Ross loved nature and every so often would bring in some animals. he particularly liked squirrels and seemed to always have a brood of foster baby squirrels he was raising, “the cutest little devils” in his parlance.

He’d narrate his painting in a stream-of-consciousness patter using catchphrases which now adorn t-shirts : “happy little accidents” for instance, when something didn’t look like you wanted in the painting. He narrated, and narrated with a voice so mellow and low-key he made characters like Venus Flytrap (on WKRP in Cincinnati) seem like hell-raising hooligans by comparison.

Ross was talented and probably turned more people onto dabbling around with paints than any other artist in the late-20th Century. He had talent but was often derided by critics for his predictability and triteness; a Norman Rockwell of the landscape if you will. If artists like Jackson Pollock were the “punk rockers” or new wavers of the visual arts world, Ross was its Carpenters, or Burt Bacharach.

Quiet, calm, predictable and soothing like a bowl of Campbell’s soup and grilled cheese. Watching the world around us, I think the world has never needed Bob and his squirrels more.

May Hooray 7

It’s a shame when doing our best to stay healthy results in us living in a less healthy and pleasant environment! So I was pretty happy to come across this story over the weekend.

A company called Avantium has found a way to make “plastic” water or soft drink bottles out of plants instead of traditional oil-based plastics. The result is a bottle which doesn’t require nearly as much fossil fuel, and which won’t stay around forever and ever if not properly recycled. With literally tens of millions of bottles being discarded by the day, they’ve become a huge water pollution problem in the oceans as well as a visual blight in our parks and cities where too few are bothered to put them in a blue bin to recycle, or even find a garbage can. And if they do end up in the garbage, they quickly fill up landfills. Ecowatch say that about 50 billion – billion – plastic water bottles were sold in the U.S.alone last year, up from 42 billion in 2015. And of those, only 23% get recycled. Container Recycling say an average of 60 million plastic bottles (water and pop) go into American landfills daily, or about 22 billion per year. With an average weight of 9 grams (or about 1/3 ounce) per bottle these days, that relates to 225 000 tons of plastic waste per year… and as much being simply tossed out along the roads or in parks or parking lots by the more slobbish among us. These bottles require millions of gallons of oil to make, and take hundreds of years to decompose if dumped. No wonder many were thirsty for a better way to keep from being dehydrated.

Avantium’s bottles are said to decompose naturally in no more than three years if left outside, possibly less in some environments, and being of plant material are biodegradable and if not actually helpful, at least not harmful to the environment. They “can be recycled, or returned to nature without harm,” the company suggests. Currently they’re using corn or sugar beets to make the product, but they soon hope to be able to use “biowaste” – things like the husks of the corn we assume – to do he same without negatively impacting the food supply.

Happily Coca Cola has pledged to have all their “plastic” bottles made of this or other biodegradable products as soon as 2023, as does Danone (a maker of some bottled waters and drinks as well as yogurt.) Brewer Carlsberg are trying out cardboard bottles with a liner made of the Avantium bio-plastic for their beer in some markets. We hope that Pepsico, Dr. Pepper, Anheiser Busch and other mass manufacturers of cold drinks will follow suit, and in the meantime, raise a glass – or plastic bottle- to Avantium and Coke, Danone and Carlsberg.

May Hooray 6

If there’s one store I miss going into lately (due to the pandemic restrictions), it would be the city’s Barnes & Noble bookstore. I love books, love magazines, love reading. Checking out an eight-foot section of current best-sellers at Walmart doesn’t quite compare, and while Amazon exceeds the range and breadth of selection a 20 000 square foot brick-and-mortar outlet can provide, it lacks the ambience. It lacks the tactile experience. It lacks $3 cups of coffee! And of course, it doesn’t generally provide the great level of surprise that I get when I go in to a store and see something I’d never heard of on the shelves but can’t live without anymore. I’d wager that about half all the books I’ve bought in the past five years have been ones I’d not heard of and wasn’t looking for until I saw them in the store, started reading the slipcover and was hooked.

Anyway, I’ve been reading a bit more than usual during these times, as I hope many of you have been too. The book I’m just about finished right now is My Squirrel Days by actress Ellie Kemper. Many of you would know her from her role as Erin in The Office, but as an infrequent viewer of that (I liked the limited British series that was adapted for the U.S., back in the day, but somehow never really got into the Steve Carell version) I just knew her name a little and non-specifically, and thought “hey, a redhead and a squirrel on the cover. It doesn’t get much better than that!”

And it is quite good, although not Pulitzer Prize good nor fall on the floor laughing funny. It’s witty at times and a good-natured little memoir of a B-list actress who seems likable enough. But that’s not the point of this. The point is, I was able to pick it up for free. And it doesn’t get much better than that! Frankly, it’s not something I would have bought even if discounted from the $26 cover price, but that’s where today’s topic comes in – Little Free Libraries. I picked it up on a whim at a neighborhood one of those while dropping off a book or two I was done with that might brighten or enlighten someone else’s day.

If you’re not familiar with Little Free Libraries, maybe you should be. The “libraries” are little depositories of books that typically volunteers have on their lawns. The idea is simple. They put up what looks like a large mailbox outside their place. Many go to great lengths to creatively decorate theirs, but even if it’s just a plain wooden box, it still serves the same purpose. People who have books they don’t want or have room for anymore drop them off in them. At the same time, anyone can stop at it and help themselves to a book or two if they want. Like one of those “leave a penny, take a penny” trays at a checkout, only for books. And occasionally magazines or movies as well, I find. Since I started noticing around them in my adopted city a few years ago, I’ve come to visit them fairly regularly, dropping off books I figure more likely to gain dust than my renewed attention in the next few years, and picking up a number of ones I’ve read.

The non-profit that runs the service won a World Literacy Award this year and estimate they have around 100 000 little libraries around the world. I’m aware of six or seven around my county, and doubtless there are quite a few more…and some near you too.

Now, it is true that long before “Little Free Libraries” there were big free libraries thanks to our municipalities. Obviously they rather dwarf the little ones in selection and orderliness, given that the little ones usually top out at a few dozen books. But the little ones have some things going for them too.

First, as they point out, they’re open 24/7. Rather more convenient to find something to read on a rainy weekend if it’s 11 o’clock at night. And, since you can actually take the books, there’s no deadline on returning them. No late fees should you forget about them. No library cards needed either.

The big thing they have though is proximity and visibility. City libraries are often few and far between, and not always conveniently located for those without cars. The little libraries aim to be right in the neighborhoods people live in and walk (or drive) by every day. That’s especially useful for kids on their way to school and indeed one of the main objectives they have is to get books into the hands of children who don’t have many – or any- at home. Their figures show that academically, children who grow up without books at home lag three years behind children who have well-stocked bookshelves and read frequently at home. They hope to let some of those kids catch up. As well, the little boxes o’books help promote community, with neighbors meeting more neighbors and getting involved in their own neighborhood. All of that seems like good reason to cheer.

So if you’re “Marie Kondo-ing” while waiting out this virus*, you might want to investigate and see if there isn’t a little library near you to drop off the books that are straining your shelves. And who knows – you might even find a fun book about an actress you didn’t know of . And, if you’re very lucky, maybe even her rodent.

 

*it’s of course worth mentioning that it pays to be cautious right now with the corona virus situation. It’s advisable to wear gloves right now if you’re going to use one of the libraries and, of course maintain social distancing if your neighbors are out there too. And as the CDC note that the virus can live for several days on hard surfaces (Healthline say it can survive on paper up to 4 days), currently it might be wise to file away any new acquisition from them for reading a little later on.

Photo – Waco Tribune Herald

May Hooray 5

Rock musicians get a bad rap at times. Of course some are dumb as posts, but that could be said of many professions from truck drivers to store clerks to senior politicians as well. Many however have a lot going on. There are ones who’ve worked as teachers (Sheryl Crow, Bryan Ferry and Sting to name just three), ones who’ve written books, ones who are pilots (Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden has worked as a commercial jet pilot in his down time from the band), others that have turned successfully into other arts like painting (John Mellencamp, Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs) or photography (Michael Stipe, Chris Stein of Blondie).

One of the quirkier characters in the field is David Byrne, the former singer of Talking Heads. He formed the band while studying art and design at university in Rhode Island and put together some of the most unusual and ground-breaking rock of the late-’70s and early-’80s. He wrote a movie (True Stories) and as eclectic as the band was, found them too confining. He quit and has worked on other movie soundtracks, (one of which won an Academy Award for Best Original Score), several Broadway plays, formed his own record company to promote obscure World Music largely from Africa and published a book of botanical sketches he drew. And he’s an avid cyclist and has worked extensively to make New York City more bike-friendly. Whew! Writing it makes me feel a bit lazy for sitting around at night saying “OK, one more re-run of That 70s Show before cleaning the dishes.

Anyhow, he comes to mind because I was writing about him a few days back on my music blog. Another blogger there, Msjadeli brought another project of Byrne’s to my attention. A website, designed to help us feel a bit more optimistic in these trying times. The name says it all – Reasons to be Cheerful.  Subtitled “News for when you’ve had too much news”, it’s an interesting site. There’s a a hodgepodge of stories that do indeed lend one to seeing more light at the end of the tunnel; stories of smart urban planning, good health news, social good and a whole lot more. Give it a look!

Creative thinkers like Byrne – one more reason to be cheerful!

Tiny Moments

I just took out the garbage from the kitchen, a heavy bag that I’m sure didn’t smell too fragrant to anyone else in the house. I couldn’t smell a thing, which is a common reaction I have, being a renowned Male of Exceptionally Poor Sense of Smell. Anyhow, I put on my flip-flops and hauled it out to the plastic bin beside the garage and stood there for a bit before coming back in.

It was about 10 minutes after sunset, the beautiful twilight photographers and poets alike adore. Still enough light in the sky to see the outline of trees and other things on the horizon clearly against the deepening blue, dark enough for it to be undeniably “night.” Some bright star shone bright in the northwestern sky. Probably a planet actually. For some reason, usually scientific me has little interest in knowing what body up in the sky I’m looking at. If I see a snake slither by, I want to know the species despite having little fear of them (I’m not one to think them bad or expect every one out there is deadly).After about half an hour of web searches yesterday, I figured the baby snake dashing horizontally across the lawn yesterday as I cut the grass was a tiny King snake.  I have written letters published in journals debating whether cute little chickadees are actually just one species of bird, or two. I took a course on being a severe storm reporter for the weather service. All about science. But when it comes to stars, constellations and planets, it’s just look up and “ooh, pretty!”.

Anyway, I stood there by the garbage can and looked at the sky, appreciated the one bright star and tiny little duller ones starting to show, and listened to some wrens and Mockingbirds singing late into the evening and just felt peaceful. Content in the moment. I listened for nighthawks, the plaintive little “beep” call of the nocturnal insect-eating bird of our cities, but didn’t hear one and noted to myself I’d never been in Texas this late in the year before without hearing one. I remembered a night about five, six months back when I took the garbage out similarly late in the evening and stood, listening to a hooting owl and eventually was able to make out its silohuette in a backyard tree, it viewing me with as much interest as I it, I think. So, I came back in and pulled the little bag out of the bedroom trash can and took it out too.

It reminded me of a short story I read not long ago – “A Map of Tiny Perfect Things” by Lev Grossman. In it, two kids get stuck in a sort of Groundhog Day-like time loop and end up mapping all sorts of tiny, perfect moments that happen around their town every day – a hawk swooping down to get a floating fish, a teen making the perfect skateboarding trick and riding down a handrail to finish it, seeing a B-list movie actor drive by. Taking out the garbage, seeing the bright star, anticipating a nasal little bird call, feeling a little bit of a cool breeze on my arms after a humid and briefly stormy day, all was nice.

Not fantastic. Not winning the lottery big. Not best sex of my life soul-quaking. Not seeing my favorite band take the stage or my baseball team win the World Series good, but nice. And the earth-shattering, life-changing moments come around rarely. Those little moments after taking out the garbage, seeing the stars, hearing an owl hoot…every day around us when we become aware.

It’s the tiny moments that make it all good. So, as much as our current situation with the pandemic and worry sucks, if you are aware, I bet you can find your tiny glorious moments today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And suddenly, life seems a whole lot more wonderful.

What are your “owl hooting when you take out the garbage” moments?

May Hooray 1

May is a cheery month, I think. Or at least it should be one. It’s bright, the weather’s getting nice, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, baseball is a quarter-way through the schedule and getting interesting (well, most years!), we’re able to shed our winter clothes. If you’re a student, the end of the school year is almost upon you and if you’re at work, we’re getting to the time of long weekends and summer holidays. May should be a fine month which uplifts us all.

Of course, this year is a bit different. “Covid 19” and “Social distancing” are running neck-and-neck for the most used new entries into our lexicon and both can make us nostalgic for ones which popped into popular use in recent years… things like “Gangham style.” Even “impeachment” see downright warm and fuzzy by comparison.

So since we’re all quite probably stressed about the virus, about our health and the health of the economy, this May looks a bit darker and drearier. But there’s still lots of good out there, lots to enjoy,so this month I’ll try to put out a few thoughts on things which we can be thankful for, or enjoy even in Pandemic Times. It’s an idea that’s not altogether new to me. In 2015, I put out a book (Thank Goodness – 101 Things To Be Grateful For Today) designed to do the same – make one see the good all around them every day.

So let’s start with a simple one…we can still spend time with our families and the ones we love at home. People are finding ways to have fun with their kids. Some families might even be re-discovering forgotten pleasures like playing board games together or running through their library of favorite old movies. And while many, like me, are missing pro baseball and the kids can’t play organized little league that doesn’t stop everyone from having a little fun on the diamond, like this father and son:

Try to enjoy your day, and if you have little ones, remember any day can be a special one.

Boffo Beer Blog, Week 8 : Drinking For God

I decided to do God’s work for the latest beer adventure. Because I savored a beer intriguingly, maybe a little pompously even, named Save The World Agnus Dei, or Witbier. With a name like that, it would be almost sinful not to give it a go, wouldn’t it?

Turns out there’s a good reason and interesting story behind the name. The little brewery from near Austin, TX, bills itself as “a philanthropic brewery” dedicated to “making the best Texas craft beer and giving back.” They work as a non-profit, with profits going to various charities including Meals on wheels, Habitat for Humanity and ones designed to get food to under-nourished children. It was begun around 2012 by a husband and wife team, Drs. Dave and Quynh Rathkamp. The pair were both pediatric doctors in the Dallas area before they decided they wanted to do something different.

Dave says he wanted to do good but also enjoy himself and that his passion for beer was the special gift from God. He’d been a homebrewing hobbyist for over a decade and had slowly converted his wife. She describes herself as a wine lover when they got together but had been won over to “the dark side” by him and his old recipe brews. they relocated to Marble Falls, about 20 miles outside of Austin, and built a small brewery and restaurant. The latter has a selection of board games and ring toss for people to have fun with while testing the selection of brews which tend to be European-styled ales like a Belgian pale ale, a Farmhouse ale and a Grisette, a light, lemony drink.

This one is a typical wheat beer, which they describe as a “thirst-quenching rendition of the classic Belgian wheat ale brewed with orange peel, coriander and a carefully sourced third spice.” Curiously, coriander is derived from the cilantro plant, but it is the seeds which taste quite sweet and fruity, a sharp difference from the bitterish leaves Mexicans love for their sauces.

Save the World suggest pairing it with fish dishes and cheeses, but as it turns out, I had a 12-ounce bottle with a takeout dinner of fried chicken, a couple of the restaurant’s surprisingly hot jalapenos and a roll. The beer showed a nice orangey-golden color and looked, as billed a little “hazy” when poured. It didn’t have a lot of fizz or head.

At first taste, it was very pleasing. I’m partial to wheat beers, their clean feeling and tendency to fall somewhere between the watery disappointment of big brewery lagers and weighty ales. Usually they are brewed with a bit of citrus which gives just a wee hint of sweetness. Which was exactly what this one was. Clean tasting but with a good amount of flavor, just a hint of sweetness which was more noticeable when had with the chicken. The brew did an admirable job of keeping its flavor even with the jalapeno and cutting the burn of that pleasantly. It went down easily and really seemed refreshing. It was rated at 5.7% alcohol, but left me with a tiny buzz characteristic of a stronger drink, making it seem like not a beer for lunchtime or before going out on a road trip, but a very good dinner accompaniment or watching a movie sipper.

All in all, I rate it 4 out of 5 for stength, 4 and a half out of 5 for flavor and

halohalohalohalohalfhalo

Four and a half halos out of five! It makes me want to see how many other ways Dave and Quynh will let us “save the world.”