Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Image credit: Utah Department of Public Safety

It may have stood in the red rock desert of Utah for nearly five years – images from Google Earth show it appearing some time between late 2015 and early 2016. Miles from anywhere, it was only random chance that the thing was spotted by a helicopter crew doing sheep tallies for the government. A mysterious three-sided metal structure, maybe twelve feet high, dubbed ‘The Utah Monolith’ for its other-worldly similarities in origin (unknown) and meaning (anyone’s guess) to the inscrutable black slab from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Barring actual extraterrestrial interaction, the most likely explanation had to be an art installation, along the lines of the environmental pieces conceptual artist Christo did back in the 60s and early 70s. But whereas Christo always made a show of his work – like the giant orange curtain that was draped across a canyon here in Colorado – this appears to have been done on the down low, erected without fanfare and left for someone to stumble across by and by.

Officials waited a few days before releasing pictures of the anomaly on November 23rd, no doubt debating whether to make them public at all. They refused to reveal its location, hinting only that it was very remote and they didn’t want people trying to find it and getting lost or ‘stranded’ somewhere requiring rescue. But, of course, it only took a matter of hours for someone to ferret out its whereabouts, between flight path tracking apps and the fact that every square inch of the planet is viewable on our computers.

I was among those who looked for and found the monolith, at least on my laptop here in my room. It was a story that instantly piqued my curiosity because there are so few, if any, real mysteries left in this world. A column of polished steel, hiding in the desert, untouched and unexplained? How irresistibly cool! I entertained, briefly, the idea of a pilgrimage but knew that was a pipe dream. Despite the official warnings, it was, in truth, too accessible.

From what I could tell, it was maybe a five-mile hike from a fairly well-established road – albeit a dirt road, and maybe 30 miles down that road from the nearest pavement, but certainly not somewhere requiring days of hiking across barren, baking red rock. Yet I can appreciate that not everyone has enough common sense to act responsibly, a fact for which we all pay the consequences. The feds were simply covering their asses. They knew full well we couldn’t behave ourselves.

But the cat was most definitely out of the bag. Within a day or two, the social media one-upsmanship had begun. Photos of interlopers were already making the rounds, obligatory selfies (the currency of our celebrity-obsessed society) with the monolith looming in the background. And then, just as quickly and mysteriously, it was gone, vanishing some time overnight the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Having stood unnoticed for five years, it was undone in five days.

The Bureau of Land Management, in whose jurisdiction the monolith resided, is professing ignorance, claiming they don’t know what happened. The local county sheriff has offered similar lip service – a dismissive shrug, in essence. Surely both are greatly relieved.

Understandable, as there were no accommodations for people to visit the site, such as a parking lot or bathroom facilities. Even though, technically, BLM land belongs to all of us, the agency reports that vehicles, lots of them, were parked on delicate vegetation and ‘human waste’ was found at the now former site of the monolith. Others would argue that the monolith never belonged there in the first place, that it was the interloper.

And so the worst fears were confirmed and it had to go, for our protection as well as the planet’s. Whether whisked away by government officials, the remorseful artist who first installed it, or the aliens who realized its enigmatic message was lost on we low-wattage humans, only a triangular hole in the ground remains.

Some speculate that Kubrick’s monolith represents mankind’s quest for knowledge. If anything, the Utah monolith is a symbol of our fatuity.

All is Well?

SlimPickens

Whew! Looks like 2020 almost got away from us there. I mean, I’m a big fan of all those movies set in post-apocalyptic times, but that doesn’t mean I want to necessarily enjoy the experience first-hand. I’ll wait for Disney to build an ‘Escape From New York’ theme park, thanks.

Now that cooler heads have prevailed (cooler heads on the other side, it should be noted), I can get back to the New Year’s resolutions I was working on before this little dust-up began. It’s just that, while the bombs were falling, whether or not I eat less red meat seemed a tad picayune. But then came that reassuring tweet from the Mar-a-Lago North situation room proclaiming “all is well.” Ah, back to normal.

So, yes, I’m trying to limit my consumption of animals – of any kind, really. Better for me, better for the animals, better for the planet. And there’s my ultimate goal. Being better to the planet. Trying to avoid the other, slow-motion apocalypse headed our way by acknowledging climate change and doing what I can to reverse course, despite the head-in-the-sand approach of our ‘leadership.’ I think the residents of Australia might have a few thoughts on the subject. Some things transcend turning a buck. Like keeping this blue marble habitable.

For the record, I’ve never been much of a ‘resolution’ type – if I need to change something, I usually don’t wait around until the calendar tells me it’s okay to get started. And, in fact, that was the case here. We actually began the process of going meatless about midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nor was it really a process – more like cold turkey, so to speak.

Pro tip: start slow, and wait until after the holidays.

We figured out pretty quickly that, as with the current administration’s foreign policy, not having a plan made for chaos and near disaster. We had no recipes, no idea what to purchase at the grocery store, no clue what we were doing. A few Youtube videos on which fake meats tasted the best and we were on our way.

Or so we thought. After floundering around for a couple weeks, wherein I wolfed down far too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we have allowed the rogue pound of ground beef into the house on occasion to keep us from starving to death before we figure this thing out.

Blame it on Burger King. Shamefully, I have always been a Whopper fan, despite the sandwich’s staggering nutritional downside – about 750 calories (because I like mine with cheese), 47 grams of fat (16 of which are saturated) and enough sodium to kill an adult moose. I don’t eat them on a regular basis, but even so, they are one of my guilty pleasures. And it was that guilt that prompted me to try their ‘Impossible’ Whopper, the one with the plant-based patty in place of the flame-broiled beef. And I liked it. Well, I found it acceptable which, I’m learning as I try more of the meat substitutes out there, is about the best I can hope for as a long-time carnivore. And the nutritional numbers are only marginally better – a few less calories and grams of fat – but no animals were harmed in the making of my burger.

Of course, it goes way beyond just a change of diet. It’s switching to renewable energy and conserving water (two more concepts that befuddle our Commander-in-Chief), recycling to preserve natural resources, keeping/removing plastic from the environment, and on and on. It’s all about choices. Choices I’m willing to make because I have kids, and even a grandchild now, and they don’t deserve to inherit a shithole world. Nor do the rest of the inhabitants – two-legged or four-legged, present or future.

Not to play the ‘old’ card, but I’ve been at this for a while. I’m talkin’ paper drives and Captain Planet. But if it takes one pissed-off Swedish teenager to breath life back into the movement, so be it. Go get ‘em, Greta – kick some ass. Here’s one boomer who’s got your back.

I’m not one to tell others how to live their lives. I’m only responsible for myself. Nor am I looking for the social media pat on the back, the ‘atta boy’ from my followers. Just trying to do the right thing for our besieged Earth, where, despite what my government tells me, all is not well.

Rant over. Soapbox relinquished.

Happy SAD Day

solstice

And by that, I mean Seasonal Affective Disorder Day, a. k. a. the Winter Solstice. That day when, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, we are graced with only a few hours of viable sunlight before the eternal blackness of despair chases us back into our lairs. That’s probably the reason for all the man-made lights strung on trees and houses – an attempt to ward off the relentless gloom and ennui.

Things have improved for me, personally, since moving to Colorado. Yes, these days in late December are still far too short in terms of the time span between sunrise and sunset, but at least Sol makes an appearance, however brief. We’re even expected to hit sixty degrees this weekend. But back in Michigan, where I was born and raised, winters are far less cordial – cloudy and cold is the typical forecast from November to March.

To their credit, a lot of local residents would soldier on as if nothing was the matter. Towns in the mitten state routinely hold winter festivals to try and lure folks outside with parades, food tents and things like outhouse races and polar plunges. But let’s be honest – how much fun are you really having if your corndog freezes before you can finish it?

I have a link on my computer that takes me to a chart that shows, to the minute, what time the sun rises and sets every day here in Fort Collins. Now begins my obsessive checking of that chart to assure myself that we are, however slowly, coming out from the darkness. And don’t try to have a conversation with me on June 21st, as I will be mourning the fact that the downhill slide has begun.

I’m in therapy.

A lot of us SAD sufferers resort to happy lamps to lift our mood – there’s even a visor one can procure that has tiny fluorescent bulbs on the underside shining down on the wearer’s eyes. Now you know what to get me for Christmas. And a side note – the light in your refrigerator does not qualify as a happy lamp.

Still, that’s the key for me. More illumination to keep the solstice blues at bay. Work lamps, flashlights, glow-sticks, lanterns, candles, torches. So if you’re in the neighborhood, my house will be the one glowing like the core of a nuclear reactor. Happy (well-lit) holidays!

Hold the Phone

boom

Image credit: Calvin and Hobbes

So now that we’ve had our first real cold snap here in Northern Colorado, I’ve decided it’s time to get the camper winterized. And as I’m on the phone with the RV guys, my wife says something to me. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one of those people who can hold two conversations at the same time. If I’m on the phone with someone, that is where my attentions are focused. Which means that anyone else trying to communicate with me comes across much like the sound made by all the adults in the old ‘Peanuts’ cartoons on TV.

It is a game my spouse and I have played for lo these many years. If, for instance, I’m calling the kids, she suddenly has some dire message for them that she feels compelled to have me deliver on her behalf. But all I hear is “wah wah, wuh wuh waahh, wah wuh wah wah…”

Which invariably leads to my ‘What The Hell’ face, thus prompting her to repeat herself, slower and with more conviction. “WAH WAH, WUH WUH WAAHH, WAH WUH WAH WAH…”

This would be the point at which I turn away and cover my exposed ear, because not only can I still not make out what she is telling me, I no longer have any idea what has been said by the person with whom I’m conversing on the phone. Undeterred, she steps into my line of vision and starts to make exaggerated hand gestures to accompany her wah-wahing, the thought being (I assume) that simulating the signals for landing an F-15 on the deck of an aircraft carrier will get her message across. Instead, I’m totally flummoxed by the additional visual stimulation and have resorted to my own hand gestures, mainly trying to wave her off without dropping the phone.

For the love of all that is holy, wasn’t there something in our wedding vows about “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not speak while others are on the phone…”

Finally I give in, because we’re only a week or two away from the arrival of our first grandchild, so she might want to share some crucial last-minute information about the delivery procedure or what essentials the DIL should have in her go-bag. “Hold on, your mother is trying to tell me something,” I mumble by way of an apology to my son, then turn back to my wife with the look that says ‘This better be good.’

“I just wanted you to be sure and tell them I said ‘hello,’” she offers.

I pause because there’s always a momentary loss of verbal capabilities when my head explodes. “We just saw them two days ago. I’m pretty sure they haven’t forgotten about you”

“But you were already talking to them,” she retorts, somewhat indignantly. “I was just trying to be nice.”

According to researchers, attempting to converse with a spouse who is on the phone is the second leading cause of divorce and third leading cause of homicide among married couples (it drives the narrative – just go with it). To combat this problem, I am working on an app that will, utilizing the latest in voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence, record any incoming conversations from external sources, extract the salient points (provided there are any) and inject them into the phone discussion at the appropriate juncture. silenceBarring that, my backup plan is for a small umbrella-like device to deploy from one’s cell phone and envelop the user in a modern-day Cone of Silence, a personal version of the one Maxwell Smart had at his disposal.

You’re welcome.

Technology’s Finest Hour

tp roll

Image credit: chooseaninspiredlife.com

Alright, I’m calling it – the machines have won. The unraveling of Western Civilization is at hand. And it didn’t take Skynet with its implacable Austrian cyborgs from the future to bring our demise, or even self-driving cars for that matter. Nope, our end has come quietly, on the mechanized hum of a toilet paper dispenser.

Don’t get me wrong – technology can be a wonderful thing. Contact lenses can now monitor a person’s blood sugar levels. Drones will soon deliver my Amazon purchases right to my door. I can peek into my fridge from my smartphone (though I can’t for the life of me figure out why I would want to). Yet for every yin, there is a yang. In this case, it is facial recognition capabilities that have run amuck. Trumpeted as a tool of law enforcement meant to help catch bad guys, bean-counters have already found a way to turn it against us. A firm in China (not surprisingly) has come up with a machine that uses the technology to dole out toilet paper in public restrooms. You stand in front of the dispenser and look into a screen for three seconds in order to receive your ration of bum-wipe – all 27 inches of it. If you’re a ‘square-counter,’ that’s a little less than seven sections.

One can only wonder how many sadists/executives seated around the boardroom conference table it took to arrive at that amount.

So it has come to this – the measure of humanity has been reduced to 27 inches of starched bathroom ‘tissue’ with the consistency of 80-grit sandpaper. And the machines will show no mercy, even when we might be at our most vulnerable. Once you’ve presented yourself and been issued the allotted amount – meager though it may be – the dispenser knows who you are and will lock you out, shutting down any further attempts to procure additional toilet paper. So if it’s an emergency, you’ll need to recruit a cadre of friends, co-workers, even passers-by to parade past the viewer in order to keep the supply coming. And if it’s spitting out that gossamer one-ply stuff that disintegrates when you so much as look at it, well, you should probably be prepared to sacrifice an article or two of clothing.

They claim this was instituted as a money-saving measure. That the tried and true ‘honor system’ was no longer working, that people were stealing toilet paper. But rather than set a few rolls of what is obviously the cheapest paper on the planet aside for those who might be in need, the restroom Nazis upped the ante (and no doubt the cost) by choosing a different solution. So now the machines, these collections of circuitry and gears that never contracted the flu or ate bad Thai food or were caught unawares by a rouge shart, have become the arbiters of hygiene. Look, all living things share a certain commonality, embodied by the phrase “I poop, therefore I am.” Wiping, however, is what separates us from the animals (except, of course, for dogs, who insist on butt-dragging on the Persian rug). And what separates us from the machines is knowing when the paperwork is truly done.

From now it looks like I’ll be doing my business at home. While waiting for the barbarians at the gate.

Grocery Day – A Love Story

groceries

Image credit: quickmeme.com

As a heathen, I always try to get my grocery shopping done on Sunday morning – you know, to beat the crowds. Even so, there are the typical hazards that can never be avoided – the young mom blocking an entire aisle with one of those behemoth shopping carts that has a Cozy Coupe attached to the front so her offspring can get in some early drivers’ training, the economist who is deep in a price-per-ounce comparison trance directly in front of the bargain coffee I’m trying to get to, the nutritionist who is grilling the indifferent employee behind the deli counter about every ingredient that went into the making of the chicken salad, wrestling with the two carts that are permanently fused together before moving on to the cart that will only turn right.

The topper, of course, is checkout aisle bingo. Trying to pick the line that will move with the least delay. Based on previous visits, I know which employees are the quickest when it comes to emptying a shopping cart. But the rock star checkout guy, the savant who remembers all the produce codes so he doesn’t have to stop and flip through the reference guide for each item, the one who knows where every bar code is located on every item in the store so he doesn’t have to twist the frozen potato bag 12 different directions in front of the reader to get it to beep, is out today. So let’s see – there’s a new kid on 14 who appears completely befuddled by a bag of carrots that the laser refuses to acknowledge. Nope. I can see those waiting in his line already starting to look around for other options. Next to him is the old guy with orthopedic braces on both wrists who breathes through his mouth and always looks like he just smelled a turd. He likes to talk a lot – wants to know what I have planned for the rest of the day, if I’ll be watching the Broncos game, that sort of crap. I think the mindless chatter is simply a distraction meant to draw my attention away from the fact that the bagger (the one with the classic male-pattern-baldness horseshoe of hair that’s still long enough to tie into a ponytail) is cheerfully, if unwittingly, turning the hamburger buns into tortillas (I learned my lesson long ago and now simply ward off the baggers and do it myself). Wrist Braces is one of those individuals who doesn’t have a high gear, and with one person already in the queue in his lane, I’d probably qualify for social security by the time I came out the other end. That leaves the woman on 16 who’s all business – no feigned interest in my personal life, no sports analysis, just gettin’ customers out the door. Perfect. Even though she has one full cart she’s working on and another in line behind that, the second cart is one of those downsized ‘one-person’ models that are used by retirees and widowers with their pants pulled up to their armpits (the case today) that only hold about a third the volume of a normal cart. I figure All Business can blow through her line in no time, so I cozy up behind High Pants. That’s when I notice that there’s no bagger and the customer at the register is one of those types who refuses to lift a finger to help out. So her groceries are piling up at the end of the conveyor belt, which means All Business will have to abandon her post once she’s done ringing everything up to go do the bagging. Shit! No one is behind me yet, so I can back out easily enough, but by now Wrist Braces has two waiting in the queue and another hovering close by. That leaves New Kid, who’s trying to get Wrist Braces’ attention because he can’t find the code for cherry tomatoes but Wrist Braces is too engrossed in a conversation about the dietary benefits of high fiber with an elderly couple at his register to notice New Kid’s panicked gestures. But wait – the light on 17 just came on. Someone watching on the security cameras probably saw me mouthing expletives and got a cashier to open another register. I start to back out and run ass-first into the mom piloting that Cozy Coupe cart who is just turning in behind me. We trade apologies as she tries to swing her rig around, her kids twisting wildly on their play steering wheels all the while in an attempt to “help mommy drive.” Fully loaded, it’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier and she gets hung up on the magazine rack (where I think I recognize one of her children as Hillary Clinton’s Alien Baby), thwarting my exit as others who share my haunted look sprint toward the open checkout aisle. Too late she clears the path, but now I feel obligated to move away for having made her put in the effort. I stand in the checkout staging area for a moment, without a plan, before muscling my reluctant cart into New Kid’s lane, where I am next in line because everyone else bailed due to his incompetence inexperience. As feared, every item is painstakingly inspected and cross-referenced, and several price checks are required because I managed to find the only two pieces of produce in the store that didn’t have UPC stickers attached. Horseshoe Ponytail starts to approach but I deter him with the wave of a hand. I have all the tortillas I need, thanks. At one point New Kid rings something up incorrectly, a normal head of lettuce going through at the higher ‘organic’ rate, but I decide to let it slide because the extra 29 cents seems a small price to pay for not having any more of my soul sucked from me by what would surely involve calling a supervisor over to reboot the mainframe or realign a satellite in order to make things right. Meanwhile, every other line has cleared its queue – even Cozy Coupe mom has left the building. Finally I stagger to the parking lot where I pass an employee in a day-glow vest pushing a train of shopping carts toward the front door. “Thanks for coming, and have a great day,” he implores me.

I might – just as soon as I’m clear of the parking lot.

The Case for Autonomous Cars – a Rant

merge

Image credit: whyyourmemeiswrong.com

To the morons my fellow motorists in the left lane:

How is it you haven’t noticed those signs for the last three miles, warning you that your lane is about to end? Benefit of the doubt – maybe some of you are visiting from another country and don’t understand the language. But all the license plates on the cars trying to squeeze past me herald from the good ol’ US of A. Surely not every one of these lane crashers is a stranger in a strange land. So that means there’s a good chance the rest of you are illiterate. Why else would you keep racing along right up to the construction barrels before standing on the brakes and forcing your way into the line here in the right lane?

If not illiterate, then you must be, like Forrest Gump, just plain stupid. Somehow, you are still unable to grasp the physics behind a traffic jam. Controlled merging while our cars are still moving, say, about a mile back, allows for everyone to keep rolling along in a continuous flow. But when you (and an endless stream of your butt-wipe friends) insist on driving down to the last inch of pavement, even as the giant flashing arrows and orange Department of Transportation signs implore you to get the hell over, you diddle us all. Don’t expect to be welcomed into the fold, and most certainly don’t offer a friendly wave as you wedge in front of me – I’m calling you every name in the book behind my tinted windows.

Congratulations, though. You’re now seven cars ahead of where you would have been had you made that controlled merge I mentioned. The irony (something else you seem unable to grasp, so I’ll explain it to you) is that a little cooperation would have allowed us to sail through this lane closure and, even seven cars back, you would have made far better time. Instead, since your inability to act in a judicious fashion has brought the entire freeway to a screeching halt, we’ll just sit here and bask in the glow of the brotherly love this moment has produced.

Is there a solution? Well, we could, as a society, just stop repairing our infrastructure – that would alleviate the problem, at least temporarily. Or perhaps the DOT could go all Mad Max and begin installing spike strips in the last half-mile or so of the lane that’s about to close. Hey, just throwing out ideas, here.

No, I suppose the best we can hope for, barring some government-sponsored electroshock ‘re-education’ program, is that your next car will be a ‘self-driver,’ one that comprehends the subtleties of playing nicely and sharing the road, one that will take the decision out of your hands while offering a friendly reminder as you try to make that last-second merge, “I’m sorry Dave (or Tom or Brian or Jennifer), I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

And maybe, just maybe, it could slap you upside the head with the sun visor, for all of us over here in the right lane.