Rideshare

I drive a couple of days per week for a rideshare service. It’s an interesting way to make money, though I’m sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, if you have an aversion to driving this is definitely not the gig for you. That said, there are definite advantages. Enough advantages that I’ve decided to continue doing the rideshare gig for awhile instead of getting a regular job.

For me, the biggest advantage is flexibility. Rideshare drivers do not actually work for Uber or Lyft. They are independent and as such are free to drive as much or as little as they want, during days and times of their choosing. I only drive when I feel like it, which fosters a positive attitude. If my mood changes for the worse while I’m driving I just turn off the driver app and head home. So I never have a “bad day” like people with regular jobs do from time to time. My experience in this regard is not shared by all drivers, though. I have a separate source of income, so I’m not reliant on driving as my primary source of income. For drivers who need the income to support themselves I imagine the experience is quite different. For me, the extra money goes toward savings or things like vacations and entertainment. If I had to rely on it for my primary source of income then rideshare driving would be a compulsory, full-time job.

Another cool thing about rideshare driving is that I encounter places and neighborhoods that I would never come across if I weren’t driving around randomly. The randomness happens because the driver doesn’t know the destination of the ride until after they pick up the passengers. The driver can control the randomness by cancelling the ride, but that is an inconvenience to the passengers and is discouraged by the rideshare service platforms. It also lowers what is referred to as the driver’s “acceptance rate,” which can make the driver ineligible for number-of-ride bonuses. I choose to accept every ride request and never cancel a ride based on the destination. Thus, the randomness. I roll around the region at the behest of strangers, surrendering to the randomness. Each time is like a little adventure. I also see plenty of cool sunsets, rainbows, and weather events. I drive in the San Francisco bay area, so there’s great scenery, too. Some of my favorite rides are ones that cross the Golden Gate Bridge, especially when fog is rolling in through the Golden Gate. The fog is wispy and ethereal when it wraps the towers; beautiful.

The most interesting thing about rideshare driving is experiencing the passengers. There are three basic experiences: 1) the passenger(s) are quiet and don’t interact with the driver; 2) the passengers (e.g., two in the back seat) talk to each other but not to the driver; 3) the passenger(s) engage the driver in conversation. I usually sort out these categories by observing for the first minute or two. If the passenger(s) are in the back interacting with their smartphone I might provide an opening by asking them how their day is going so far. You can tell by the brevity of their response if they want to talk. If they engage by talking about their day instead of just saying, “Good,” then they usually are open to small talk. Sometimes a passenger will ask how I like rideshare driving, and that’s a sure sign they want to talk. This happens most often when I pick people up at an airport (don’t know why).

The trickier situation is when the passengers are talking with each other. In these cases you can hear what they are talking about, even if you’re not focused on listening to them. You can’t not hear them. But the passengers often converse as though they are alone. In these situations it is difficult for me to know if and when to break into a conversation. For example, one passenger says to the other: “What’s the name of that actor? You know, the guy in the Doogie Howser TV show? Oh, man. Now this is going to bug me.” And you know that the actor’s name is Neil Patrick Harris. But if I say, “Neil Patrick Harris,” the passengers know that I’ve been hearing their conversation. In those situations I usually keep quiet.

As a writer, rideshare driving has a side benefit. While I would never write about a particular passenger or situation that comes up in a conversation, it is interesting to note speech patterns and how they differ between, say, two women talking to each other as opposed to two men, or a man and a woman. It’s also helpful in the sense that I have more confidence when writing dialogue. Sometimes a writer thinks, “people don’t talk like that,” or, “no one would ever say that.” Not true! I know from my experience that a writer can formulate dialogue without fear, because every time I think I’ve heard it all, a passenger will surprise me.

I also came up with a cool story idea that involves rideshare driving. Once I was in an Uber car and the driver was a clean cut, clean shaven young man who spoke perfect English, but was playing what sounded like middle eastern music on the car stereo. It turns out he is from Afghanistan and was an interpreter for the U.S. Government. He speaks six languages, other than English. The story idea is that one day such a rideshare driver hears his passengers talking in foreign languages, plotting a terror attack. The driver was granted legal residency in the U.S. because the Taliban found out he was helping the U.S. Government and were going to kill him. Having just arrived to safety in the U.S. he wants to avoid being targeted by a sleeper cell here, so the conflict is what he should do with the information. He contacts a member of the military unit he was embedded with and they advise him to contact the CIA and offer to become a confidential informant. That way he doesn’t have the burden of not sharing the important information while also not having to testify against the suspects and be exposed. I think this is a pretty good story idea, but it’s on the back burner until I complete my second novel, which should be in the middle of next year. The working title of this story is Ubercia.

Burlington, Vermont

My daughter and I spent five days in Burlington, Vermont, during our July 2018 vacation.  We’d been to Vermont before a couple of years ago, but this was our first time in Burlington. It’s a great place to visit and I’d consider moving there except for the Vermont winters.

Burlington is unique because although it’s the largest city in Vermont, it has a population of only 43,000 people. This makes it the smallest, largest city in any state. As a result, the city’s culture is condensed and concentrated. The downtown area is centered around Church Street, with several blocks closed to vehicular traffic, creating a pedestrian thoroughfare. Church Street is full of restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops, with many of the service establishments offering outdoor seating. Lights are strung across the street and provide a inviting atmosphere in the evening. Here’s a photo I took.

IMG_0618

You can walk down the street and hear music from bands and DJ’s. One spot I liked is called Red Square. Everyone was dancing to the DJ’s mix and drinking up a storm. Walk down a few doors and there’s a band playing. On Friday nights there might be a stage set up in the pedestrian thoroughfare with a band playing, as there was the Friday night I was there. You don’t have to get in a car and drive anywhere; everything is concentrated into this one, vibrant area, and it’s a lot of fun. It reminded me a little bit of Bourbon Street and Magazine Street in New Orleans, except neat and tidy. There’s also a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop that shows outdoor movies for the kids. The eating establishments are varied and the food was pretty good wherever we ate. In particular, there’s a very good ramen operation. My daughter is a ramen fan and she rated the ramen there as the best she’s had.

Another cool thing about Burlington is that it sits on Lake Champlain and there is a very beautiful beach, called North Beach, right there in town. North Beach is staffed with lifeguards, has bath/changing rooms, a snack bar, and a concession that rents out stuff like canoes and stand-up paddle boards. During the summertime the water temperature is doable for swimming; about 72 degrees. So, not warm, but doable. Definitely warmer than summertime in Lake Tahoe, if you know what that’s like. Here’s a photo looking across Lake Champlain from North Beach.

IMG_0615

As you can see, there’s a boat there on the right, which probably docks at the marina a mile or so down the coast, a few blocks below Church Street. I was surprised that many of the people I heard talking at North Beach were speaking French, which added a somewhat exotic, European flavor to the experience. The Canadian province of Quebec shares a border with Vermont, and the people there speak French, so that explains it.

The people I met in Burlington were, for the most part, service/wait staff, and were very friendly. I asked if they were Vermont natives and found that many were not. It seems that some of them stumbled across Burlington during travel and decided to stay. One guy in particular said he was working with a traveling carnival and when the carnival hit Burlington he quit and has been living there ever since. So, Burlington has sort of an “island of misfit toys” feel to it, as regards the residents.

There is also a unique museum close by in the town of Shelburne, Vermont, which also sits on Lake Champlain. The Shelburne Museum is about a fifteen minute drive from Burlington and is a must-do activity if you’re visiting the area. It’s unique because it houses a wide variety of Americana art and artifacts in several buildings that were mostly relocated from other parts of Vermont. For example, one building houses a collection of circus artifacts, including a miniature circus. Here’s a photo I took.

IMG_0593

Another building houses what must be the world’s largest collection of decoy ducks. OK, so maybe decoy ducks aren’t your thing. You might like this steamboat, which is parked there on the museum property.

IMG_0587

Another building houses my favorite collection: an authentic general store from the period just after the American Civil War. Every item in the store is genuine and period-specific, so when you walk in it’s like being transported back in time. Here’s a photo.

IMG_0584

There are collections of glassware, fabric, fine art (including a beautiful painting by Andrew Wyeth), and even cigar-store Indians. Almost everyone will find something that will be of interest. You might be wondering where they got this odd collection of so much different stuff. Well, it turns out that most of the stuff was collected by a lady named Electra Havemeyer Webb. This lady was a wealthy New York socialite and world-class pack-rat, er, collector. There was always the question of what would become of all her stuff when she passed away. The answer is the Shelburne Museum.

Another recommendation is to visit the Inn at Shelburne Farm for dinner. It’s a working farm so all the food served at the restaurant is raised or grown right there. Truly “farm to table.” The Inn and restaurant are housed in a mansion that served as a summer home for the Vanderbilt family. It’s situated in a beautiful location on the shore of the lake. Here’s a photo from the lawn at sunset.

IMG_0605

I highly recommend a visit to Burlington and the surrounding area. Hopefully this post will pique the interest of people who never would have considered it as a destination. The next time I go will be during the fall so I can see the trees in autumn.

 

Holy Human

Holy Human is a band from Daytona Beach, Florida. About a month ago they were far away from home, in Burlington, Vermont, having driven there to start a mini-tour celebrating their new album, titled “Epiphany.”

Our paths crossed briefly because I was in Burlington on vacation (great town; more on that in a separate post). A friend of mine who grew up near Burlington told me to check out this bar called Radio Bean. When I got there, Holy Human was just about to start their set. Seeing them was a complete fluke; pure serendipity.

Have you ever gone to a show and there’s an opening band you’ve never heard of, and you’re unfamiliar with their material? The experience of seeing Holy Human was kind of like that, because they write and perform their own songs (except, in this instance, for one cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under my Thumb.”) The cool thing was that they were quite entertaining, even though I was hearing all of their stuff for the first time. I stayed for the whole set. Radio Bean is an intimate setting and I was thus able to interact with the band members afterward. I even bought their CD.

So now I’ve been listening to the CD for a couple of weeks. It sounds better in my car than in the house, especially if I’m in the car with someone else and we’re talking, with the CD playing in the background. I’ve thought a bit about how to describe Holy Human’s style of music, and I came up with psychedelic surf rock, although the songs on the CD are somewhat eclectic. One thing I appreciate about this band and that sets them apart is that four of the five members sing, and they have worked out cool harmonies for most of the songs. The harmonies are somewhat evocative of The Byrds, or the Beach Boys, or the Mama’s and Papa’s; even, at times, The Monkees, though less pop-oriented and more psychedelic. I guess that’s part of why they sound like surf rock, to me.

The first song is “Scary Girl,” which is a heavy tune about a stalker-like acquaintance. Holy Human started their set with that song, and I have a good memory of it. It’s good live material. Other songs that stand out for me are “Tower Hour,” “God Damaged,” and, especially, “The Sunshine Conspiracy.” But I enjoy all the songs, actually. I’ve taken to leaving the CD in the car and playing it as an alternative to the crappy Bay Area rock radio stations.

I don’t know if Holy Human will get out to the west coast, but I’d go see them again if they did. I don’t have any plans to visit Florida in the near future, either, but I would seek them out if I was anywhere near Daytona Beach.

IMG_0608

Here’s a photo of the band in front of Radio Bean. From left to right: Matthew Wall, Woody Moore, Mark Murray, Matthew Aubertin, and Anthony Santisi.

You’ll Never Work in this Town Again!

Hollywood

It’s a cliche, for sure. In the past it was the popular threat lobbed by film industry big-wigs at the powerless in Hollywood. Lately, though, it could well apply to some of those same film industry big-wigs, including a famous producer named Harvey Weinstein. You’ll never work in this town again!

If you haven’t been following the news for the past few weeks, Harvey is (was) a key figure in the film industry, having produced dozens of films through his companies Miramax and The Weinstein Company. Today he has been disowned by his former colleagues, to the extent of being kicked out of the Academy. He might even be indicted on a rape charge in the next few days.

All of this bad news for Harvey stems from allegations that he has engaged in a long pattern of sexual harassment/assault in the context of his role as a Hollywood big-wig; that he used his power to entice/coerce women into sex. I won’t go into the tawdry details, which seem pathetic and idiosyncratic. Suffice to say that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that women would categorize the contact from Harvey as unwanted. There is nothing remotely attractive about Harvey; an older man whose looks disqualify him from appearing in any visual artistic medium, except perhaps as a character actor. I should mention here my suspicion that Harvey was the inspiration for the fictional character Les Grossman, portrayed by Tom Cruise in the comedy “Tropic Thunder.”

I have to say that the allegations against Harvey didn’t surprise me; not because I have any inside information or insight to the workings of Hollywood, but just because men in positions of power will be tempted to use their power to have more sex. What did surprise me is how quickly Harvey’s situation unraveled. He went from being one of the most important figures in Hollywood to being persona non grata within a few short weeks. This happened in the absence of any formal charges being brought by authorities; as though everyone in Hollywood already had all the information they needed to, for example, kick him out of the Academy. But if everyone already knew about Harvey, why was his behavior tolerated? I suspect the reason is because if you crossed him, “you’ll never work in this town again!” While it is appropriate to view the women who were the target of Harvey’s unwanted advances as victims, it is also important to acknowledge that to the extent they were silent in furtherance of their career goals they probably enabled the behavior to go on longer than it might have otherwise.

Let’s do a thought experiment in which we are struggling actors trying to make it in the film industry against all odds. A powerful movie mogul dangles the prospect of being cast in a film and all we have to do is play along with their sexual demands. And this scenario isn’t limited to women actors, because there have also been allegations from male actors that they, too, were harassed/assaulted by powerful Hollywood men. I’m sure we’d all like to think that no, of course we wouldn’t lower ourselves to do something like that. But can we agree that really, we don’t know what we would do unless we were actually faced with a choice like that. One thing that has occurred to me since the scandal broke is how certain films get made. I watch a lot of movies on cable and in some instances I ask myself, about a quarter of the way through: “How did this piece of shit ever get made?” I mean, the acting/script/production is so bad that you think to yourself is this really the best they could come up with? I suspect that some of those films were made to satisfy promises to people who had slept their way into the production.

I don’t know how this is all going to play out as regards Harvey. It does seem like an opportunity for Hollywood to change, though. As someone who enjoys film as an artistic medium, I wonder whether changes in Hollywood will result in better art. One can only hope that going forward decisions on casting and hiring for film productions will become more of a meritocracy and less of a sexual quid pro quo.

 

 

 

Bump Stock Paddock

There’s a lot to talk about since the Sunday when a 64 year old man with no prior criminal record or apparent axe to grind killed 58 people and injured over 500 more by shooting at a large crowd attending a country music festival. Let me start by again offering my condolences to all those affected. This incident becomes more visceral for me each time I am acquainted with the victims, their families and friends.

In my first post on this topic I said I was interested in the shooter’s motive. As of today none has been discovered, or if one has been discovered, it has not yet been reported. I will not be surprised if it turns out that this nut, a guy named Stephen Paddock, turns out to be a terrorist of some stripe. In other words, that his motivation to kill was to further some political goal. That’s the difference, at least in Federal law, between an act of terrorism and other violent acts not associated with a political goal.

The reason I think that the shooter was motivated by politics is that there doesn’t seem to be any other motive, and the extreme nature of his actions are inconsistent with his background. For example, he had no criminal record and according to news reports he is somewhat wealthy. Add to that his age at the time of the shooting and the whole thing doesn’t add up. I mean, who, at the age of 64, just up and decides one day to murder and injure a bunch of random people?

I used to assess workplace violence threats as part of my job and the way you do the assessment is to use a matrix of indicia. Does the employee have a grievance against the employer? Does the employee have a history of violent behavior? Are they in the middle of a personal crisis involving, for example, finances or relationships? Have they verbalized threats to co-workers or others? This list of indicia is not comprehensive but you get the idea. The only indicia in this guy’s case is that he had access to weapons. Other than that you get a giant goose egg.

Now let’s talk about gun control. And no, it’s not “too early” to talk about that, because gun control is an overarching issue that doesn’t relate to this mass shooting in particular, but to the arc of increase in mass shootings in the United States generally. One encouraging sign that has emerged in the aftermath of this shooting is that, for once, the National Rifle Association and both major political parties seem to be in agreement that so-called “bump stocks” should be outlawed. For those who haven’t been following the news reports, a “bump stock” is a device that modifies a semi-automatic weapon such that it acts like a fully automatic weapon, or machine gun. The Vegas shooter had modified several semi-automatic weapons using the bump stock device, such that he had several fully automatic weapons at his disposal for use during the massacre.

Beyond agreement on that one measure, the parties have backed into their usual corners, with Democrats in using the opportunity to advocate in favor of stricter gun control and Republicans (and the NRA) trotting out the usual talking points about how this particular shooting would not have been prevented by, for example, universal background checks. It’s true that the Vegas shooter passed all of the required background checks for purchasing the weapons used in the massacre. But the problem with that argument is that it is anecdotal and, moreover, doesn’t hold up from a common sense perspective. I mean, background checks are already required for most gun purchases, so presumably the government thinks they are a good idea. Common sense tells you background checks are a good idea. So then why would it make sense to have loopholes for gun shows?

Another measure that, at least to me, makes sense is to question why a gun purchaser needs to have several of the same type of weapon. The Vegas shooter had several high powered rifles that he had purchased in the months leading up to the massacre. Some might argue that gun enthusiasts (e.g., collectors) should have a right to own as many weapons as they want, but it doesn’t make sense that a collector would, for example, buy several weapons of the same make and model. At the very least authorities should be able to know when such purchases are occurring and have an opportunity to question the purchaser as to the reason why they want multiples of the same type of gun. In the case of the Vegas shooter, he apparently wanted multiple high powered rifles with the bump stock modification because if he only had one of them the gun barrel would melt down at a certain point due to the heat generated. With multiples of the same gun he could simply swap out for a new one and continue the massacre.

Of course, one way to know if someone is purchasing multiples of the same type of weapon is through a national gun registry, which would be a very controversial move, at least from the perspective of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates. Why would that be so controversial? In my opinion, it has to do with the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which conveys the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Now read that carefully. The stated reason for the right to bear arms is because it is “necessary to the security of a free State.” This is consistent with something that occurred to me when I was on vacation in New England and took a tour that went from Boston to Concord, or what is referred to as the revolutionary “battle trail.” Many Americans know the famous story of Paul Revere alerting the colonists in the middle of the night that the British army was coming. What many don’t know is why they were coming.

In short, the colonial leaders, including John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and the colonists in general, were angry because the British (i.e., the King) had instituted taxes on various imported goods, including tea, in order to fund England’s war with France. That anger came to a head when the colonists dumped tea into Boston harbor, in what is known as the Boston tea party. The King was worried that the anger would lead to insurrection and ordered that the colonists’ guns be confiscated. Word of the King’s intentions leaked to the colonists, who then gathered up all the guns in Boston and hid them in Concord. Then, word leaked to the British army that the colonists had hid the guns in Concord, and the footrace was on. The colonists (or Minutemen) and the British army regulars confronted each other about half way between Boston and Concord, at the town of Lexington, and a battle ensued in which several combatants were killed, and thus began the Revolutionary War that ultimately led to the creation of the United States.

Given this history, you can imagine why the drafters of the Constitution wanted an amendment that guaranteed the “right of the people to keep and bear arms.” But the right to keep and bear arms wasn’t so that people would have those weapons for personal protection. As stated in the Second Amendment, it was “necessary to the security of a free State.” In other words, having lived through the experience of having a government (the King of England) try to confiscate their weapons, they saw it necessary to prevent a government (of the United States) from doing so at some later time. To summarize, the right to bear arms is not so that you can use those arms for your personal protection; it is so that you aren’t living in a tyranny. So, you might forgive those who are suspicious of a national gun registry, it being the Federal government and all. Confiscation could be possible (however unlikely) if the Feds knew who had what.

Personally, I think that’s a paranoid reaction that should not inform public policy. But that’s just me, and I respect those who hold a different view. I think it’s important for all of us to be respectful of each other’s views in order for this discussion to bear fruit.

 

Mandalay Massacre

My condolences to all the victims of the horrific shooting incident in Las Vegas last night. In a time when people are so divided, at least we can all come together in our sadness.

I’ve attended outdoor concerts at a venue similar to, but much smaller than, the venue where the shooting took place. There is an outdoor concert facility in South Lake Tahoe next to a hotel tower. Sometimes people book rooms at that hotel so they can watch the show from their hotel room. In fact, the rock band Weezer is playing there on October 5th. I’ll be interested to see what, if any, changes are made to the security arrangements in light of what just happened, or whether the show might even be cancelled.

I wonder how the shooter came into possession of a machine gun, which you can hear clearly on the many videos they are showing on TV. That’s one of many questions that need to be answered in the coming days and weeks.

The main question I have is the shooter’s motivation.

That’s Entertainment?

I enjoy watching professional sports on television, except for hockey and soccer. But I definitely watch a fair amount of baseball, American football, and basketball. It is the primary reason I have not dropped my cable TV service in favor of streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix.

Of course, professional sports are not the only thing I watch on television. I watch a fair amount of cable news coverage, and I watch a lot of shows like Antiques Road Show, Ice Road Truckers, as well as the History Channel, cooking shows and stuff like that. But live action sports are, for me, the main attraction of cable TV service, because it is live television that let’s you get away from the day to day rumble tumble. I mean, really, the only other live television these days is hurricane coverage, which is not a get away from anything; it’s an immersion into something very bad. Even Saturday Night Live isn’t “live” if you’re watching from the west coast (though supposedly their going to try a live coast to coast broadcast this season; it’ll be interesting to see how many people stay home in prime time on a Saturday night to see that).

Which is why I am dismayed that in the past several months, professional sporting events have began to cross-pollinate with the sort of news coverage that I watch live sports to get away from. It started last season when a certain quarterback decided to sit during the singing of the National Anthem as a protest. Of course, said quarterback has a right under the First Amendment of the Constitution to engage in free speech, even in the context of his employment, because the matter he was protesting is a matter of broad public interest. Even I have written about it previously. So, I have no problem with him (or any other professional athlete) exercising their right to free speech. But you know what? When they engage in that free speech attendant to a professional sporting event, I don’t find that entertaining.

In fact, quite the opposite. It makes we want to change the channel, or turn off the TV. Which is not to say that I think the issues they are protesting are unimportant. I watch a lot of news coverage about those issues and follow the discussions with keen interest. It’s just that maybe I already spent a few hours during the week watching that coverage. Maybe I’ve also watched coverage about street protests in my region about those issues; perhaps I’ve even attended a protest or two. So when I try to watch a live sporting event, the last thing I want to think about at that particular time is protests or the underlying issues. I’m trying to take a break from that for a few dear hours. And it’s now to the point where I can’t listen to sports talk radio without 20% of the content being a meta-level discussion of the protests and the underlying issues.

Some might say that’s selfish on my part; that the protests are so much more important than the live sporting events. That’s true, of course. But then why should I watch the live sporting events at all? I could just watch the cable news coverage about the protests or read about them in articles online without sandwiching in a lot of sweaty guys engaged in various activities involving balls of different shapes and sizes.

I spent some time thinking about this and it occurred to me that the National Anthem is not played or sung at other events, like golf tournaments, for example (I’ve been to several tournaments, so I know first hand). Also, the National Anthem is not played prior to the beginning of most live music event, or when you go to a comedy club or some other type of live entertainment.

Why do the major professional sports leagues in this country play the National Anthem before the games? It isn’t required by law; it’s something the leagues have decided to do at some point and have done for a long time. Frankly, I don’t presume to know why they do it, exactly. If you take them at their word, via the stadium announcer, it is to “honor America.” The stadium announcer always says, “To honor America, please stand and remove your cap during the singing of our National Anthem.” So let’s assume there is no other reason than the stated one: to honor America. Except that some subset of the players have decided to not follow the request of the stadium announcer, which is their right. Well, it seems to me at that point it does not honor America. My suggestion would be to stop playing the National Anthem at professional sporting events until this entire issue is resolved.

In the meantime, I’m going to stop watching live action sports on television, not as a protest or boycott, but because I am not entertained.

IMG_0201

This photo was taken on August 21, 2017 in Madras, Oregon. That’s me, watching as the moon moved in front of the sun to create a total solar eclipse.

It’s taken me awhile to write about my experience because I had to process it for awhile to try be able to convey it adequately. By that I mean my experience viewing a total eclipse was so weird that I’ve had difficulty coming up with proper descriptive language.

But let me start by sharing my appreciation for central Oregon, and in particular, the town of Bend, Oregon, where I stayed in the days leading up to the big event. For those who have never visited Bend, I highly recommend it as a tourist destination. It is a bit out of the way, in the sense that it is not accessible via a major highway like Interstate 5, or Highway 101. For those traveling north-south, you get there via Highway 97, which for the most part is one lane in each direction. If you’re coming from the south, you’ll go by Crater Lake, which is also worth a visit. I recommend visitors to Bend add a day onto their travel plans to visit Crater Lake.

Bend is located on the Deschutes River and was previously a mill town for lumber harvested from Oregon’s forests. The mill has since been converted into a riverside tourist attraction that houses shops, restaurants, and breweries. There are also vendors that rent a variety of watercraft such as canoes, tubes, and paddle boards to those who want to get out on the river and float down into the center of town, where the river backs up into what is known as the Mirror Pond. It is a beautiful, bucolic setting just steps from the main commercial area. You can stroll through the downtown area and around the Mirror Pond. It’s very charming.

For those who like beer, there are more than a dozen breweries in this small town, perhaps most notably the Deschutes Brewery, although locals I spoke with like the one called Boneyard Beer. I tried their IPA and it is fantastic. You can go on a tour of the breweries if that’s your thing. Other activities include river rafting, golf, fishing, and snow skiing in the winter. Mount Bachelor is right next to Bend and you can see it from town. I really can’t say enough about Bend. It is one of my favorite places to visit, which is why I stayed there for my eclipse visit. But Bend was not in the “path of totality.” In other words, you couldn’t see the total eclipse of the sun from Bend, which necessitated a short drive north to the town of Madras.

In the days leading up to the eclipse I was following news reports and intel from friends in Oregon regarding the expected traffic around Madras. Some of the reports were quite breathless and predicted a traffic nightmare on the big day. The guy at the registration desk at my hotel said there was a group from Arizona that planned to leave Bend for Madras at 1:00 a.m. to ensure they were in the proper location at 10:00 a.m., when the total eclipse would occur. I decided to leave Bend at 6:00 a.m., assuming that four hours should be sufficient to travel the roughly 50 miles between Bend and Madras.

As it turned out the traffic situation had been over-hyped. That’s because most of the people viewing the eclipse in Madras had arrived there a couple days early and were camping in areas set up by enterprising locals. One such area had tents and RV’s stretching out to the horizon. Another over-hyped story was that the police and the Oregon National Guard would not allow people who were traveling in their cars when the total eclipse occurred to simply pull over to the side of the road to view it. You were supposed to have a pre-determined location for viewing that was other than the road shoulder. I had worked this part out in advance with my Oregon friends and our pre-determined viewing location was on someone’s property just off Highway 97. We arrived at our viewing spot at around 7:00 a.m. and then just waited there for the eclipse. Oh well. Better safe than sorry.

As for the total eclipse experience? It was the most amazing natural phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. You have to wear the glasses as the moon is passing in front of the sun and all you can see is the moon, which shows up as black, slowly moving over the sun, which shows up as a red crescent. The crescent slowly diminishes to a sliver of a crescent as the moon moves in front of the sun. Then, the sliver disappears and all you can see through the glasses is black.

In the news reports leading up to the eclipse there was a lot of conflicting information about the appropriate eye wear to use so as to avoid permanent damage to the retina. Some reports said “never look directly at the sun without the glasses.” Others said it was OK to look at the eclipse once it had reached totality. I’m not an optometrist, but I can say from my personal experience that you can definitely look at the eclipse once it reaches totality, though I should say that was my personal experience. I looked right at it and suffered no discernible damage to my eyes.

So, I was in a field with about 100 other people from all over the world. There was a couple from Scotland; some people from Australia; a party from Mexico, etc. There were also quite a few locals and cars with California and Washington plates. We were all looking at the event through our glasses until all we could see was black, which meant the event had reached totality. Then, we all took our glasses off at the same time.

Everyone had a verbal reaction to the totality. There was a lot of “oh my God,” along with several “that’s incredible.” Also, “that’s awesome!” There were also quite a few people who uttered a wordless, guttural sound like “gah!” Then, there was what I’ve come to call the “paleo” response. Namely, there were about five people who looked at the totality and screamed. And folks, it wasn’t a scream of excitement, like you might get when a rollercoaster drops from it’s apex. It was a scream of fear: a high pitched shriek of shock and disbelief. I’ve thought quite a bit about this fear response. I can’t believe the people who reacted that way didn’t know, on a scientific level, what was occurring. It’s just that the experience is so…weird, that it bypasses your intellect and hits you on a primal level; something deep and elemental that goes back to caveman days. It made me think about what the reaction was back in the days when people didn’t know, on a scientific level, what was occurring.

When I took off the glasses and looked at the totality I saw a black hole in the sky, with globular light pulsating around the edge. It was a frightening visage, indeed. Also, the ambient light was eerie; not quite like nighttime and not quite like dusk. The effect was similar to what you might see on a cloudless night with a full moon, but it wasn’t quite like that either. As you can see, I’m still struggling with proper descriptive language. I’ve concluded that the problem is that the experience is beyond written description. Photos don’t cover it either. For example, a photo would’t convey the fact that the temperature dropped about 25 degrees (F). It was about 78 degrees just prior to the eclipse, but as the moon moved in front of the sun the temperature dropped quickly, which is why in the photo I’m wearing my Pendleton shirt.

I was so impressed with the total eclipse that I am seriously considering taking a trip to Argentina for the next one, which occurs on July 2, 2019. If you don’t want to travel that far, the next one in the United States is on April 28, 2024. The path of totality goes from Mazatlan Mexico through Maine. The trick will be finding a location where there is the least likelihood of cloud cover, which would ruin the experience. I’m thinking southwest Texas, near the Mexican border, might be a good spot for that one.

 

Oakland Athletics, 2017

IMG_2477

There is a standard admonishment stated at the beginning of every Major League Baseball game broadcast that all accounts, descriptions, etc., without the express written consent of Major League Baseball are strictly prohibited. Which means I can’t write about a particular game I attended, lacking, as I do, the requisite express written consent. Instead, I’m going to write about this year’s Oakland Athletics experience in general, having attended two games so far in this still young season.

Both games I attended were Wednesday games with a 12:30 p.m. start time. Most weekday games are played at night so that people who work during the day can attend in the evening. The Wednesday games precede team travel days prior to a road trip. My work schedule having now changed, I am able to attend day games during the week and I promised myself I would go to as many of these Wednesday games as possible. There is nothing quite so indulgent as whiling away a few hours in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, when so many others toil. It feels sinful, but I am going to get used to it anyway.

The big news for the Athletics this year is not so much the team itself as the changes made to improve the fan experience. You might ask what could improve the fan experience when the Athletics home field occupies the Oakland Coliseum, known by fans throughout baseball as one of the less desirable stadiums. There are some reasons to think that. The Coliseum was completed in 1966. It is also a duel use stadium. In addition to the Athletics, the Oakland Raiders also play home games there, for the time being (more about that later). Also, despite the age of the stadium it does not have the sort of legacy, or shall we say “vintage” appeal of places like Fenway Park in Boston, or Wrigley Field in Chicago. So, it’s old, but not old enough or quirky enough to have any cachet.

Well, it turns out, the Athletics organization has done an admirable job making the most out of what they had to work with. This is due to the efforts of the new team president, a guy named Dave Kaval. The previous public face of the Athletics organization was a guy named Lew Wolff, who decided to sell his stake in the team and leave the organization. Mr. Wolff was know by most fans of the Athletics as the guy who tried to move the team out of Oakland. So, one big change to improve the fan experience is not having to think about him, or worry about the team leaving town. In fact, for me personally, that’s probably the most important change, and the Athletics organization seems to think so, too. They have branded the Coliseum with signs and banners with the declaration “Rooted in Oakland,” with a background of iconic symbols of the city, like shipping cranes (you have to be local to “get” that one) and the stylized symbol of the oak tree that serves as the city’s official logo.

And they’ve tried to lend some vintage cred to the place by naming the baseball field after one of the greatest Athletics, Ricky Henderson, so now it’s Ricky Henderson Field. They’ve also added a mechanized sign in center field in the shape of the words “Holy Toledo!,” which was the tag line of the great sportscaster Bill King. When they play the Star Spangled Banner, the words are washed over with a waving Stars and Stripes. And, in a stroke of genius, they have expanded the “interior” of the Coliseum to include an area outside of the physical stadium in the space between the Coliseum and Oracle Arena. They’ve named this area Championship Plaza, spruced it up with some artificial turf, picnic tables and, best of all, food trucks. Now, instead of being limited to the food and beverage concessions inside the stadium, you can get your food from one of the trucks and take it back to your seat. The difference in the quality of the food cannot be overstated.  The prices are much more reasonable, as well.

The concept of bringing the outside inside extends to what used to be called the West Side Club; now renamed “Shibe Park,” which harkens back to the days when the Athletics were in Philadelphia. There is an elevated patio area that adjoins Shibe Park and overlooks Championship Plaza; kind of like someone got the idea, “Hey, why don’t we open these doors and let a little fresh air in!” Shibe Park has also been upgraded from the old West Side Club configuration; it’s got a billiard table and a ping pong table. There is also a kid-friendly area on the patio with amusements such as a pitching cage, face painting, etc.

Someone told me that Kaval is not the one who came up with all these ideas; that he got these ideas by listening to the fans. If that’s true, it’s consistent with the feel of the Athletics organization these days. For the longest time fans of the Athletics have been saying, “Don’t leave! We’ll support you! We love you! You can stay in Oakland!” It really feels like someone listened, and perhaps that’s the biggest upgrade of all. You see, Oakland is about to lose the Warriors to San Francisco. And the aforementioned Raiders have a deal for a new stadium in Las Vegas. Both teams will leave Oakland in a few years. It feels good to know that at least the Athletics are committed to staying.

Now, as for the team itself, the season is still young and the Athletics have a way of outperforming and surprising people. A few years ago they beat the Texas Rangers (a far better team on paper) on the last day of the season to win the division. Then there was the “Moneyball” team with that crazy 22 game winning streak. They had a terrible record at this point in that season and they went to the playoffs. So, who knows what will happen. They’re a few games under .500 right now. All I know for sure is that the Athletics won both games I attended so far. Those Wednesday games; gotta love ’em.

Let’s go Oakland!

 

 

New York City, Part 3: Hello, Dolly!

On the second night of our trip to New York City we saw “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street. This was the first time I’d seen a play in the Broadway theater district. It struck me that most of the theaters are not actually on Broadway, but instead are located on the cross streets near Times Square.

Around six o’clock in the evening the area is teeming with people trying to get to the theater on time. The show we attended had a sign saying late arrivals will not be seated until intermission, so there is a sense of anxious urgency, especially when you’ve paid a lot of money for your tickets. Some people don’t like cities because they don’t like crowds. If that’s you, avoid Times Square. Myself being someone who likes cities and crowds, getting to the theater was chaotic and invigorating, being among all those thousands of people sharing a similar experience. To me, the place had a warm, joyous energy.

There were two long lines of people waiting to get into the theater and, being new, we didn’t know if which line we were in made any difference. We asked people standing next to us and they said they were wondering the same thing. It turned out there was no difference and once the lines started moving, they moved quickly.

Once inside there is a bit of a jumble in the lobby, which felt cramped. This was ameliorated to a large degree by the excellent staff at the theater, who were very helpful and pleasant. Real pros. I went to coat check and they charge a dollar to hold your stuff. I forgot to bring cash with me and the staff person said I could pay him at the end of the performance. When I went back I still didn’t have any cash and he gave me my stuff anyway, and was nice and understanding. I felt bad because I tip most everyone; I think that’s an important part of the economy.

So now we get to the part of this post where I “review” the play. Reader beware: I consider myself a novice observer of live dramatic arts. I’ve seen about twenty live dramatic performances, including six musicals, so understand this is my subjective opinion as someone who witnessed this particular performance on Saturday, April 1, 2017. I don’t present myself as someone you should take seriously as an expert on Broadway musicals. But maybe you have about the same level of experience. With that in mind…

I’d never seen “Hello, Dolly!” before, except for the film adaptation starring Barbara Streisand, which I own on Blu-Ray. Those who’ve never seen the film or dramatic version of “Hello, Dolly!” might have a meta-level introduction to it, if they’ve seen the Pixar film, “WALL-E,” which cameos scenes from “Hello, Dolly!” via an old video tape that the robot in “WALL-E” plays over and over. In the weeks between when I bought the tickets and when I saw the show, I was wondering how the play would compare to the film I know so well. For the uninitiated, “Hello, Dolly” is a romantic comedy set in early 20th century New York City. The main character, Dolly Levi, is a widowed matchmaker who wants to marry a semi-wealthy bachelor, Horace Vendergelder, owner of a grain and feed store. The comedy revolves around Dolly’s efforts to fix up Horace’s store clerk’s, Cornelius and Barnaby, with two women that work in a hat shop, including one to whom Horace intends to propose marriage.

There was an added level of charm conveyed by the setting of the musical. What could be better than seeing a musical in New York City when the setting is…New York City!

One question in my mind about this performance involves the casting of Bette Midler in the lead role of Dolly Levi. She did a great job, in my opinion. She may not be the best singer, or the best actress, but she is a great entertainer, with loads of star power. Indeed, it was the star power that had me questioning whether the quality of the overall performance relied too much on Midler’s cult of personality. For example, some of the best songs in “Hello, Dolly!” are performed by secondary cast members. I noted that those songs didn’t get the same level of reaction from the audience. In particular, the great love song “It Only Takes A Moment” received what I thought was tepid applause, as did the song “Elegance.” On the other hand, Midler got a standing ovation when she first appeared on the stage, before she sang a note. It would be interesting to see the musical again with the role of Dolly Levi played by the understudy, a woman named Donna Murphy, who will take over the lead role in a limited capacity starting in June.

Aside from Midler, my favorite performance was by David Hyde Pierce in the lead male role of Horace Vandergelder. He managed to wring out every ounce of humor from his lines, with incredible comic timing and physicality. His performance was subtle and I was impressed by his artistry. In fact, the whole cast was great. I also enjoyed the comic interplay of the two bachelors, Cornelius and Barnaby, played by Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch. The Barnaby character did this funny thing where he would imply slyly that he has a man-crush on Cornelius. Like, what are those guys doing down there in the basement of the grain and feed store? And why is Cornelius 30 years old and vows to not go back to Yonkers from New York City “until we kiss a girl?”

Another stand out was Beanie Feldstein in the role of Minnie Faye, the secondary character from the hat shop. Beanie has, shall we say, an atypical “look” for an actress. Short, a bit on the heavy side, etc. Nonetheless, her acting, dancing, and singing were delicate and polished. She stole every seen she was in.

For me, the two highlights were the songs “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By.” The title song, “Hello, Dolly!” was great, as well, but Midler really cut lose on “Parade.” The tone of her vocals on that number exuded a melancholy world weariness at the beginning, then, as though her character was not going to give in to life that easily, built to a rousing finish.

But for me, the best of all was “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Starting with that famous line sung by Cornelius:

Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There’s a slick town, Barnaby!

A had a huge grin plastered on my face through that whole number. The only thing is that I love the show stopping dance sequence from the film. The stage at the Shubert was a bit too small to attempt to replicate that.

Then, of course, the theme song, preceded by the centerpiece dance routine performed by the waiters at the fictional restaurant, Harmonia Gardens. It was over the top, and by the end the dancers were breathing heavily from their exertions.

I recommend seeing “Hello, Dolly!” if you’re in New York. It’s the first Broadway revival of this particular musical since the original run, according to Broadway.com. The tickets are expensive if you’re not able to avoid after-market ticketing services, but it’s a throughly entertaining, extremely charming Broadway experience.