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Reality , What A Concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animated Hank More Real Than Real People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Number One Planet…How ‘Bout You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smith’s Punch Drunk Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counting Blue Cars? Good Luck With That

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books : Paul Is Indeed Mr. Everybody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books : Crawdads Sing A Winning Record

About 20 or 25 years ago, I spent many a night trying to write my first novel. It had quite a bit going on. There was a Generation X-like theme about young people working in “McJobs”, an environmental message, some romance, some intrigue that led to corruption in the corridors of power, even a nod to whispers of terrorism… months before 9/11 as luck (bad) would have it. I say that not to toot my own horn. Although, to my perhaps biased eyes, there were some great passages and wonderfully descriptive bits I came up with, the story itself plodded along with the components not really fully meshing and over 100 pages in, neither I nor any potential reader really had a clue as to where the story was leading. It’s tough to stray outside the boundaries of one specific genre in a book. I say that to preface my latest book read, which somehow does mix together several genres and does it well. No wonder Reese Witherspoon liked Where the Crawdads Sing.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the acclaimed first novel by biologist Delia Owens, whom apparently has written non-fiction about ecology before. It was picked by Reese for her “book club” and quickly rose to #1 on the best-sellers list. It’s being made into a movie which is due to open this summer, and if it holds true to the book, should be a blockbuster. Because while romance stories are common, and murder mystery books are common and historical pieces dealing with the troubles of the American South are common, getting all three in one is not common. Getting all three in an interesting story, downright rare. Plus, it has a modest yet sexy girl the story revolves around. Can’t go wrong there.

The girl is Kya, a girl who grew into a woman essentially on her own in the marshes of North Carolina after her drunk and abusive father drove the family to abandon the home. She lives near a town, but wants no part of it since they make it clear they want no part of her or her “white trash” type family. She has to fend for herself with only one or two real friends… besides the birds and other animals living around her that she totally connects with.

The second focus of the book is Chase, a few years ahead of Kya’s back story. Chase is one of the town’s popular young men, a star football player as a teen, now a handsome playboy about to take over his family business. We don’t get far into the novel before he turns up dead. Figuring out what happened to him, however, takes much longer. Eventually the two storylines intermingle, rather intriguingly.

Coming from a naturalist writer, it’s no surprise it paints the marshy coastline in wonderful and loving detail. Arguably more of a surprise is how well she captures the different personalities of the people around the area and reflects how some can change and better themselves while others stay stuck in their mental ditches no matter what.

The book wins as a biography of an interesting, albeit fictional person and those whose lives intersect with hers and as a compelling crime story… although we really don’t even know if there was a crime committed. It’s sad in places and uplifting in others. I will say though that to me, the ending wasn’t as good as it could have been. I won’t give it away with spoilers, but if you’re interested, I’ll give you my impression of how it should have played out. To use a sports metaphor Chase might understand, the book is like a pitcher sailing along with a no-hitter into the 9th inning who dishes up one bad pitch that gets hit to the wall for a double. It ruins the no-hitter, but they still win and it’s still impressive. And that’s what Where the Crawdads Sing is – impressive, but just a wee bit shy of perfect. I give it 4.5 flying egrets out of five.

Will Phones Be Invisible By 2097?

One of the cool gifts I was given this past Christmas was a thick book titled Strange But True Science. A compendium of interesting facts, it covers topics that vary from Area 51 and a bit of UFO lore to about five pages on the history of roads (Romans built a 50 000 mile highway system in their empire, with stone roads running as far afield as Spain. Who knew?) to a look at whether Vitamin C prevents colds (their verdict – no, but it might have a slightly beneficial effect in preventing heart disease.)

One thing that caught my attention was their entry on mobile phones. I always was surprised that in the 1954 movie Sabrina, one of the business mogul brothers played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, has a phone in his limo. Both brothers wanted to impress Sabrina, played by Audrey Hepburn. The car phone seemed far-fetched to me, yet I wondered how they would have incorporated such a thing if it didn’t exist in reality. I think I first encountered one over three decades after the movie so it was mind-boggling to think of them being around in the ’50s. Turns out, it wasn’t fantasy…but it wasn’t common by any stretch of the imagination.

The book says that as far back as 1946, Bell Labs had established a mobile telephone network in St. Louis, and soon AT&T had it available in a hundred cities across the country. But it wasn’t for everyone. For one thing, callers could only call within the same set of antennae, which is to say basically in-town, local calls only. Worse, only three frequencies were available, “limiting calls to only three users per city”! But with the phone and receiver combined weighing 80 pounds at the time and the service charge of $15 a month (close to $200 a month in today’s funds), it might have been tough to find even three buyers in some cities.

By 1967, prototype celphones were built, but they were limited by their bulk and need for the caller to stay fairly close to the “base station” when using it. Fast-forward another 26 years and an early “smart phone” was made by IBM, allowing for e-mail and even faxing from the phone, but its’ brick-like heft and short battery life meant it wasn’t quite finding its way into many back pockets.

Now? Well, we know the story. As of last year, 97% of Americans had celphones, and 85% of those were “smart phones.” Around the world, 78% of all people have a phone in their pockets…even those who probably don’t have clothes to have a pocket in. Countries as far-flung as Uganda and Azerbaijan have 100% of their land covered by cell networks (it’s estimated you can use your cell in a little over 99% of the U.S. landmass.) Facts I quickly checked by…my celphone and Google.

Now, while I love being able to make a call if I need to when I’m out, or check the latest ball scores – if there were in fact ballgames being played, but that’s a story for another blog – or the weather from a parking lot along the way, I tend to think we love our phones and rely on them a bit too much. But what it does tell me is how much the world can change quickly. In terms of human history, 75 years is a blink of the eye. But telephones were things wired into walls you had to stand still at, and quite possibly shared the line with others with. Devices which cost you an exorbitant amount of money to use to call someone in the next county with, let alone the next country. Now, handheld devices let you get in touch with most people through much of the globe on the go, comparatively cheaply. And let you check your mail or read the news while you’re on hold. It’s an amazing leap forward.

What it gives me hope about is thinking that if we can use technology to make “space age” “sci-fi” phones a reality in 75 years, imagine what other problems we can solve by the 22nd century, if not sooner. Climate change? Our need for fossil fuel energy depleting our resources and despoiling our land and oceans? Toxic chemicals needed to combat pests, many of them invasive? New airborne diseases emerging from Third World markets and threatening humankind ? Hey, we got this! If we can make an 80-pound phone that only called others within about a five miles radius fit in our pocket and instantly call someone on a different continent, these problems too should be solvable. All it takes it enough bright minds and some imagination. And perhaps a latter-day Audrey Hepburn to impress.

Boy Howdy, That’s Good Ice Cream

It’s nice to get a good news story once in awhile, and what could be better than one involving indulging a minor vice resulting in good for the world. I once reported on Save The World Brewery, a beer company run by a former minister which puts its profits back into community charities. Well, if beer’s not your thing but a sweet tooth is, there’s Howdy Homemade Ice Cream.

Howdy is a Texas-based chain of ice cream shops staffed by people with intellectual or developmental difficulties. Seemingly a large portion of the workforce have Down Syndrome; others have Autism, and any number of similar afflictions. The company was started by Tom Landis, a Dallas-area businessman who was inspired by Gene Stallings, a celebrated football coach (he was running the 1992 Alabama Crimson Tide which went undefeated that year and were National Champions) who won acclaim as well for writing about his son John who had Down Syndrome. Stallings went on to be an advisor to President George W. Bush on Intellectual Disabilities, believing firmly that people like his son could do far more than most people would give them credit for.

Landis started the ice cream business with the idea of a “relentless pursuit to crreate jos for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through the power of our smiles and amazing ice cream.” He feels such people are “marginalized because of society’s misunderstandings.” So he opened his shop and hired people most places wouldn’t consider. It was a hit, and now he’s got shops in Katy (a Houston suburb) and Asheville, NC with plans to open ones in Las Cruces, NM, Delaware and Syracuse, NY soon.

They offer occasional seasonal specials plus 18 regular flavors… “regular” being a bit inappropriate perhaps since things like Cold Brew, Dr. Pepper and Avocado aren’t everyday choices everywhere. Of course they also have Butter Pecan, Chocolate (“As all get out!”) and, yes, vanilla. They’re available for catering weddings complete with cakes (ice cream I presume) as well.

The chain was showcased recently on ABC News and has been featured by NBC’s Today Show and the Dallas Morning News among other media sites. They’ve taken the next step in their business as well, offering Howdy Ice Cream for sale in tubs at 100 HEB supermarkets in Texas. Each container has the photo of one of the workers gaining experience and dignity working for them.

Reviews are generally good. Yelp averages 4.5-stars out of 5; Trip Advisor 5 out of 5. Complaints, while infrequent suggest the portions are too small …which I guess is the mark of a good dessert!

I must admit that I’ve never seen their product in my local supermarket and haven’t given it a go. As well, their website is a little sparse on details such as where they source their ice cream (do they make the supermarket batch themselves or merely re-label and existing product, for instance) and number of people working for them, but that doesn’t leave too much of a bitter taste when we’re dealing with quality ice cream and jobs for people who need a little boost.

So, if you’re in the Lone Star State (or soon, elsewhere) and get a hankering for a cold treat on a hot day, why not say “Howdy” to a most unusual – and most admirable – ice cream and the happy faces that serve it up.