Charney’s Codification: Prohibitive Perfectionism

Star with PurseThis being that most wonderful time of the year, I was at the shopping mall searching for that perfect gift. A few weeks previously, my wife had informed me of her interest in a new leather handbag and gave me a specific set of criteria for its selection. These criteria included a description of size, style, material, color, shape, and a specific demand that the bag have a shoulder strap in preference to handle. Taking into account our combined income level, she also suggested a budget range that would not break our bank.

Armed with this information I drove down to Macy’s. Inside the accessories department, I met a kindly female sale’s manager with blue business suit, puffed coiffure, tinted glasses, and rouged cheeks. I described my desired handbag to her, and asked if she possessed such a one that I might purchase. She showed me what she had, a few samples of which met all of my requirements, except for the shoulder strap. “But my wife really wants that strap,” I told her. “And I can understand, I’ve witnessed her carrying method, she likes hanging bags over her shoulder.”

“I guess you’ll have to keep looking,” said the kindly sale’s manager. “There are other stores. Maybe you’ll find what you’re after at Nordstrom’s.”

“You’ve got a point there,” I told her, but by now, I was starting to worry. Macy’s had always been my go-to store, and I knew Nordstrom’s was good but usually more expensive. My panic must have been apparent to the sale’s manager. Had she noticed my lower lip beginning to quiver? The season was hard upon me, and I was running out of time.

“Do you want me to come with you?” She offered. “There are many stores with handbags. I could tell you about them, but it might be easier to show you. I knock off here at about 3:30, so if you’re willing to wait, I can help you focus your efforts.”

“Would you really! That would be sooo helpful!”

This is not the handbag I was looking for.

This is not the handbag I was looking for.

I waited outside of Macy’s until 3:30 when she got off work, and we walked down to Nordstrom’s first. There I saw exactly the bag I was after, shoulder strap and all. Then I spied the price tag. “Is it just me,” I asked my retail shopping expert, whose name it turned out was Rhonda, “or does $250 sound like a lot to pay for a purse? I had budgeted a generous $150. I might have considered an extra twenty, but an added hundred?!”

“It’s nice to know you’re willing to make compromises,” said Rhonda. “But I also admire you sticking to principles. An extra hundred does seem a stretch.”

“You see,” I said gloomily. “I had also planned on getting a fifty dollar frying pan. I just thought it would be nice if my wife had more than one package to open for Christmas.”

“Yes, it’s always more fun to open two gifts on Christmas morning. You should hold out for that frying pan.”

Rhonda escorted me to other stores, but without much luck. The handbags were either the wrong color, didn’t have the strap, or exceeded my budget. After the fourth store, she was starting to share in my panic. I saw sweat glistening on her scalp. What’s worse, I began to review all of the criteria that my wife had suggested about the purse. Even as I’d been walking through stores and shopping for the past three hours, the well-imagined purse that I had started searching for began to morph into various shades and shapes, a fuzzy tassel might appear here, an alternative insignia there. Like a Namaqua chameleon  surfing desert sands, my “abstract” or “ideal” purse kept gaining and losing characteristics. In exasperation, I shouted up to the second story balconies of the mall, “Why does shopping have to be such hard work?!”

Rhonda shook her head, “You’re telling me. You should have seen me yesterday when I was helping a father pick a red bow for his daughter’s hair.”

I wanted to say, “Really!” But I couldn’t help looking around into the farthest reaches of the mall, past the glass elevator and fake birch trees. As I did so, I could spy all of those frantic shoppers rushing from store to store, some with empty hands, no packages. Others bore gifts and packages that were obviously snapped up in haste. For despite their packages, the faces of those shoppers showed no signs of relief. These gentle folk had no doubt settled on anything they could find. Perhaps they were afraid the store would run out of merchandise before they had made a purchase. Among all of those bustling shoppers, and within myself, I began to sense signs of a disturbing condition.

“This is insanity,” I said to Rhonda, wanting to clip on Victoria’s Secret angel wings, fly up through the mall’s skylight, and escape. Instead, I reached down for a bench so I could sit and steady my nerves. “My standards of ‘purse-ness’ will not standardize themselves,” I said, looking about at the other shoppers. “None of our standards will. How can we please others when we can’t even please ourselves?”

Charney’s Codification: “…pursuit of perfection prohibits pleasurable purchase or even pontification.”

“Oh that’s the commercialism talking,” Rhonda said. “The commercials and billboards you see around the holidays are always a hazard. They build up expectations that you can never meet. Try not to think about those distractions. Just purchase what’s in your heart.”

“No, no,” I said. “I can’t blame the advertisers this time. It’s not the commercials. It’s me. I know it’s me. Nothing will ever be adequate to my taste. My taste isn’t even adequate to my taste.”

Rhonda’s eyes met mine and grew wide, her face became drawn in terror, and she shrunk within her blue business suit. I knew that she knew: I was right.

Here I would like to say that I am a great fan of eponymous laws, especially those built upon social and psychological observations but which have very little purpose outside of seeming clever. I have always loved hearing about such laws. One personal favorite is Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Another would be The Peter Principle: “Managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” And who, after a bad morning in which the hot water does not come on, the bread does not rise, and the dog refuses to poop in the backyard before you lock him in the house and drive off to work, hasn’t invoked Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

The truth is, my life’s long pursuit has been to name a law after myself. Sitting on that bench at the shopping mall, watching the crowd of shoppers, I felt as though I had been offered a moment of clarity. Under the glittering plastic snowflakes that spun overhead, the eponymous law that had eluded my naming all of my life was well within reach. I had been saving the title for some time, but now I had hit upon the actual law. “Charney’s Codification,” I said aloud.

“What’s that?” asked Rhonda.

“Charney’s Codification,” I repeated. “My eponymous law: The idea that pursuit of perfection prohibits pleasurable purchase or even pontification.”

“Explain further,” said my companion, adjusting her reindeer brooch.

“It’s the thought about the thought that counts…” [are] the compassionate bywords of all gift recipients.”

“You see,” I continued, “we humans struggle constantly not only to acquire what is perfect but to idealize it, and this struggle leaves us stricken, often paralyzed, unable to settle, even on an idea, and unable to enjoy something as simple as Christmas, a time meant for merriment.

“Oh,” said my companion retailer, “You must think I didn’t go to college. Wasn’t it Plato who foretold that we can never achieve perfection. He figured this out without even knowing about Madison Avenue.”

“Yes,” I said somewhat hesitantly, still working through my formulation. “But I am not so sure that Plato didn’t find the contemplation of perfection perfectly satisfactory. My codification amends his idealism. In Charney’s Codification, there can be no contemplation of perfection without torment and probable paralysis.”

“Wow, you are a total downer kiddo,” Rhonda said. “Besides I’m sure that someone else has thought of this, I just haven’t read enough books to know who it is yet.”

“You might be right.” I agreed. “I don’t read either, and I might be restating another thinker’s idea, but who would deny that philosophies and laws cannot use an occasional update. Dressing up ancient Platonic-like principles and applying them to a shopping mall experience is more likely to have resonance for modern folk than an anecdote set in a Lyceum, Madrasa, or Gurukula. I have also made my codification attractively alliterative for English speakers: ‘pursuit of perfection prohibits pleasurable purchase, etc. etc.’ And consider this: many old laws rely on foreign languages that Americans don’t speak. Mine does not. So do me a favor, grant me my imperfect Christmas wish, let me have my “Charney’s Codification,” and I’ll buy you a biscotti for your trouble.

“It’s still a downer,” Rhonda insisted.

This is also not the handbag I was looking for.

This is also not the handbag I was looking for.

“Well, not necessarily,” I said, thinking very hard. “I believe Charney’s Codification paves the way for empathy and compassion. Imagine if you will, a world in which all people understand that perfection, even in the realm of personal thought, is not possible, a world in which no criteria can be fixed, and no manifestation of an idea can be adequate. In such a world, presentation of even the well intentioned Christmas wish, let alone gift, should be recognized as falling far short of what the bearer had hoped to offer. In such a world, “It’s the thought about the thought that counts” would be the compassionate bywords of all gift recipients.”

As I filled out the ramifications of my codification, my companion checked her watch and yawned, telling me it was way past time for picking her grandkids up from school. I could not let her go however. “And here I am willing to take a step back!” I shouted after Rhonda as she took her leave. “My projected compassionate outcome should only be considered an afterthought to my codification! Real world application is of little concern when presenting a new theory! As with all purely scientific discoveries, rediscoveries, or let’s say, even verifications, the scientist’s job is not to project how others will ultimately react to his or her formulation but to simply describe the phenomenon! The outcomes may vary depending upon the level of the listener’s understanding of the term perfection!”

By then I was much winded and had lost her in the crowd. She’d been enveloped by shoppers, and I was left only with my strained voice and personal thoughts. Those thoughts settled gently on my wife and how I hoped that she, at least, would consider Charney’s Codification carefully and use it as means to understand, when the moment came, why she had received neither purse nor frying pan for Christmas.

Posted in Business Communication, Satire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Female Foreign Nationals: A Good Time to Discuss?

Slovene U-turnI have long been irritated by emails from females from Russia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe: women offering to travel to meet me and promising matrimony if I turn out to be a nice guy. If they had done their research, they would know I am happily married to the daughter of a Mid-West farmer’s daughter. Even so, these women often send along pictures of themselves in fetching and flattering poses. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate their gifts, but I sometimes question whether those pictures are truly representative.

Word on the internet has it that these women are searching out American men, preferably old business magnates, to get into our country, marry them, stay married for a few short years until they gain citizenry, and then dump their hoodwinked husbands, absconding with great fortunes. Only a few of these kinder golddiggers wait until the old men die; however, once the husbands are done away with, these females, undeterred by tales of how the American dream is dead, use their newfound riches as seed money to start clothing, beauty supply, and jewelry businesses. In doing so, they take opportunities away from our less conniving native-born American girls.

Not only this, but for every foreign-born female who dupes an American male into marrying her, that’s one native born American girl who might end up living life as an old maid. With the ratio of men to women at 0.97 to 1, the odds are already stacked against our Betty Fords and Jackie Kennedys. So having a foreign-born female come into this country and fill traditional wifery roles is bound to aggravate and incite jealousy. Not only that, but because many of these foreign nationals are either models or former models, and because the media likes using them to represent diversity, constant exposure to such female foreign nationals threatens to increase what scientists call “normative discontent” in millions of our native-born American mothers, sisters, and daughters.

This Slovene foreign national and ex-model targeted a billionaire to be her sugar daddy. Twenty-six years her husband’s junior, she shouldn’t have to wait long for her big payday and unfettered independence.

This Slovene foreign national and ex-model targeted a billionaire to be her sugar daddy. Twenty-six years her husband’s junior, she shouldn’t have to wait long for her big payday and unfettered independence.

Anyone who studies the numbers will have to conclude that the threat of these foreign-born women is real and can no longer be ignored. Of the 800,000 immigrants that arrive in America each year, some 50,000 are females here for the sole purpose of marrying American men. Fifty thousand may not sound like a lot in a country of 300 million, but consider the consequences. In a generation or two, these women will be giving birth to foreign national female babies, and these foreign national female babies will be birthing more foreign national female babies, and soon our nation will be full of foreign national females shacking up with every eligible and potentially eligible American tycoon.

With this imposing threat, it’s time that we Americans had a conversation about halting the influx of these female foreign nationals and perhaps even deporting the ones who are already here, married or otherwise. In keeping with the ideals of American democracy, it’s always important to discuss proposals of this nature before enacting them, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t dedicate one blog post to doing just that.

Kicking off the discussion, I’d like to frame the issue as follows: To protect the rights of our American female citizens to obtain more jobs, to cultivate a better self-image, and to marry men of healthy and wealthy stock, our country needs to stop the immigration of female foreign nationals. Not only will such a policy benefit American women, it will also guarantee that numerous American males aren’t made fools of.

Furthermore, taking into account my thorough internet research and those emails I spoke of earlier, I would identify a very large portion of this threat coming from Eastern Europe, especially Eastern-block countries of the former Soviet Union, which have never recovered from cold war economic oppression. In researching the topic of female foreign nationals, I stumbled upon a startling statistic. Since 1986, almost 30,000,000 Eastern European immigrants have come to the United States.

This Czech foreign national bombshell raided her American ex-husband’s holdings and got away with a reported $40 million in cash and property, not to mention a $350,000 annual allowance.

This Czech foreign national bombshell raided her American ex-husband’s holdings and got away with a reported $40 million in cash and property, not to mention a $350,000 annual allowance.

As half of these Eastern Europeans are likely female, that’s a fifth of our nation’s current population, and no one can deny, that’s a big chunk of old-world “hunky.” Such a sizable influx seems a good reason, therefore, to single this group out. Full disclosure: to be clear and reassure everyone, my own Eastern European forebears came to this country long before 1986, and my loyalties are here, with America, not overseas. I’ve never even been to Eastern Europe; just check the record.

Before proceeding, let me extend my gratitude to presidential candidate Donald Trump for bringing this important immigration issue to my attention. When Trump recently began talking about immigrant threats from Hispanics and Muslims and the importance of keeping these people, both male and female, from our borders, I couldn’t help but start looking at the immigrant numbers. That’s what made me aware of the Eastern European danger. And when I say danger, I would not dismiss the idea that these females could perhaps be working for Vladimir Putin as Russian spies.

Now that this threat is clearly identified, and the solution as plain as the nose on a Polish face, the payback on halting Eastern European female immigration should be apparent. I believe that once this threat is removed, a myriad of opportunities are bound to open up. For one, more American women will be able to work in the clothing, jewelry, and beauty product industries. Others might even get hired as models.

As to the aging male millionaires who often fall victim to these Eastern European vixens, those titans of industry will no longer be embarrassed when their vaults are looted. And even if these men are happily married, once the veil has been lifted, they will see how they’ve been cuckolded and thank us for the intervention. Additionally, we can only venture to guess how traditional American marriages will be fortified once the temptation to leave East Coast and California girls for Ukrainian and Georgian ones has been removed.

Quarantine for actors who have the potential to portray and enhance the image of foreign nationals, like the one shown here, may also be required.

Quarantine for actors who have the potential to portray and enhance the image of foreign nationals, like the one shown here, may also be required.

Here I must touch on the ancillary issue of deportation. When it comes to unburdening our shores of the feminine Slav, many readers may fret that the logistics are untenable. How are we going to round up all these women and send them back home? Actually, they should not be too hard to identify. They are the ones that pronounce “the” as “dah,” add syllables to words where they don’t belong, flavor sentences with clumsy British accents, and employ nasal sing-song intonation where real Americans speak in flat monotone. These women might also be easily recognizable by their tawdry clothing, for it seems that once they leave their second and third world nations, they have an overwhelming desire to take advantage of our treasured American freedoms and “express themselves.”

I am glad that Mr. Trump has brought the important issue of immigration to our attention. He seems to have hit upon a hot topic that many Americans say they have been thinking about for a long time but which they haven’t felt comfortable discussing openly. While I don’t support him for president—my leanings being more local—it’s clear that his wealth gives him a distinct advantage over his competitors, as he is not beholden to special interests and can talk openly about anything he damn well pleases: something most Americans appreciate and an enviable position to say the least.

Should Mr. Trump win the election, I’m sure he’ll be ready to turn my “Eastern European Golddigger Proposition” into policy, the policy into law, and enforce that law with all the powers available to him as commander and chief. I’d even venture to guess that as he’s been willing to single out Muslims and Mexicans, President Trump will be the first to identify any Eastern European foreign national women he knows, married or otherwise, and hold down the barbed wire as those women exit our borders.

Posted in Satire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Guiding Light for Baltimore

OutletAnyone who has followed the news in Baltimore this year knows that we have been a city in turmoil. After the death of Freddie Gray, allegedly at the hands of several of our city’s police officers, Baltimore experienced terrible riots. Protesters and police faced off across barriers, automobiles were set aflame, stores looted, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reacted with a few unfortunate missteps before declaring a curfew, and the Maryland National Guard occupied our streets.

Now that one of the police officers involved in the incident is on trial, the city waits anxiously, not sure what will happen when the trial ends. What will the verdict be and how will the public react when it’s announced? While so many hope for a just outcome and a non-violent public reaction, there’s really no way for us to be sure.

In light of our city’s worries and wishes about the future, life goes on. We keep updated with trial news, go to our jobs, attend our schools, come home to moderately warm houses, eat dinner, and take comfort in the company of family and friends. Now that the holiday season has arrived, we are especially hopeful that the ideas of peace on earth, goodwill toward women and men will take hold and see us well into 2016.

For me, nothing serves better to symbolize Baltimore’s hopes for a brighter future than our annual holiday lighting of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Place. Before this year’s lighting, the 44th, I had the pleasure of walking through the crowd of thousands. As I did, I couldn’t help but observe the shared hopefulness in people’s eyes and faces.

Although bundled tightly in winter jackets and sweaters, residents came out in force. They engaged vendors by purchasing pizza slices, fried Oreos, wine, beer, and coffee. They visited the Walters Art Gallery to drink hot chocolate and tap their feet to a jug and banjo band. They listened to the Morgan State University Choir as the choir sang holiday carols. And they waited in eager anticipation for the monument light switch to get flipped.

The monument’s base constituents include both commercial and consumer interests.

The monument’s base constituents include both commercial and consumer interests.

But here I must note one difference between this year’s lighting ceremony and those of years past. This year featured no bigtime celebrities—no Mariah Carey, no Dorothy Hamill, no Michael Phelps, no popular Oriole, and no low-flying Raven. Were they afraid to come out? More notably though was the absence of a high-profile public official. And when I say high profile, I am especially alluding to our Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who usually aids in the ceremonial task of flipping the switch.

When I noticed her absence, I was somewhat perplexed. I have been attending this event on and off for some fifteen years, and most mayors seem to jump at the chance to gain public exposure, feed off the good spirits of the crowd, and boost the citizenry’s sense of civic pride. Hearing a little something reassuring from the mayor this year would have been especially nice considering all that has happened. But then I reflected on how she was not running for another term, citing that she wanted to concentrate on the business of the city rather than that of a campaign.

And so I must ask, what city business is more important than the monument lighting? Were officials courting a corporation that would deliver us thousands of jobs? Were they bolstering defenses against terrorist attacks and passing laws to protect us from deranged gunmen? I hope so, but thus far, no such progress has been reported.

My thoughts then led me to the candidates running to take the place of Mayor Rawlings-Blake. Thus far, the frontrunner, former Mayor Sheila Dixon does not have me looking to the future with optimistic eyes. Before Mayor Rawlings-Blake, Mayor Dixon was ousted from office when she was found to be using gift cards that had been intended for the poor.

If our mayors aren’t going to conduct themselves honestly and competently, why do we need mayors at all?

So I ask myself, shouldn’t our mayor, current or future, be a person in whom we can trust, and in whom we can trust to make smart choices, especially during tough times? Furthermore, if our mayors aren’t going to conduct themselves honestly and competently, why do we need mayors at all?

It seems to me, what we really need is a stabilizing force, a pillar of strength, a figure beyond reproach. As I stood there looking up at the monument and the light switch got tripped, the column burst into bluish flame, and I began to ask myself, “Why shouldn’t we Baltimoreans elect this beacon of hope? Why couldn’t our beloved monument, lights ablaze, also be our mayor?”

With its noble stature and 17,000 LED bulbs, the monument already inspires the citizenry with two things that most candidates do not, stability and a guiding light—or vision. In terms of credentials, having been built in 1829, it has long experience in public life. It’s already given our city 186 years of distinguished service. Asking it to perform in a slightly different capacity for another four or eight would not appear to be requesting too much.

Monument supporters are a diverse breed.

Monument supporters are a diverse breed.

In addition, while its stature has always been impressive, it has never failed to maintain a quiet confidence, and when caught in a deluge, it doesn’t hesitate to take the high ground. As such, Baltimoreans can rest assured that when controversial issues arise, the monument won’t bungle statements and exacerbate existing problems.

As regards the bottom line, enlisting the Washington Monument as our next mayor would also be a smart financial move. Our citizens have already spent six million to have its structure restored, and with an investment like that, we should hope to squeeze more out of this most stout public servant than the ability to direct traffic and attract tourists.

I have heard tale that many political figures are excellent multitaskers, so I don’t see why the citizenry, in lean times and good, shouldn’t expect our monuments to take on a few added responsibilities. And not to cast too dark a shadow, but with so many civil servants wittingly or unwittingly giving their constituents the shaft, at least here is one that will make no bones about it.

My moment of insight during the Monument lighting points to a lesson that I seem to be learning repeatedly. As with most problems in life, when you are struggling to find a solution, you will often discover it in plain view. Considering Baltimore’s need to fill its top job, I say let’s search no further than Mount Vernon Place. Sure, we could enlist another monument, the Battle on Calvert Street or the National Katyn one on President, but none of these capture the imagination or impress like this well-proportioned phallus cut from a local quarry in Cockeysville.

It’s true that our city contains higher profile and more vibrantly lit architectural candidates, the Inner Harbor’s Science Center, one or other of the two pavilions, or the National Aquarium. But while these landmarks command our attention, they don’t embody the stature, sobriety, and symbolism of a great American General and President. During these difficult times, Baltimore can’t afford to go with a questionable or untested candidate. We should put all our support behind one that has already proven itself capable of weathering any storm.

Posted in Baltimore, Politics, Satire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Still Over the Moon for Caribou

Caribou imageI am not one to believe that a person grieves, gets over, and moves on. For me, the loss of a loved one sends shock waves through my system that can linger for a lifetime. Such are my feelings concerning Baltimore’s, and much of the nation’s, loss, some two years ago, of the Caribou Coffee chain—although I am told that a few outlets remain in distant Minnesota. Caribou was, for me, the Jaclyn Smith of coffee shops when all of the other boys had crushes on Farrah Fawcett (please read: “Starbucks”).

Today, as a honorary member of the latte-drinking liberal elite, I often roam the streets of Baltimore and drop in on the growing number of locally run cafes—Charmington’s, Spro, Artifact, Atwater’s, or Dooby’s—great coffee shops all. I appreciate these cafes for their packeted saccharine and flavored syrups. Still I can’t help but lament the loss of my once cozy and oaken Caribou on York Road. In location, I thought it well-balanced by its next-door neighbor, Well’s Liquors. And with its lattes, it provided me my first serious coffee shop crush.

As with most aroma- and gusta-mances, it wasn’t just one thing that drew me to Caribou, it was that special blend, the full balance of menu items. So that I might never forget, I record a few of them here for posterity. I also find that writing about a loss helps to aid in the grieving process.

  • The Caribou latte—my preferred drink. Whereas Starbucks offers two shots of espresso in their “Venti” size, Caribou offered three and didn’t ask me to say “Venti.”
  • Caribou computer kindness—For me, coffee and work are cohorts, and I am known to take up in electricity what I have spent on drink. My lost Caribou offered two computer necessities:
    • Plenty of electrical outlets.
    • Quick and reliable Wi-Fi access. Some shops seem to place time limits on Wi-Fi and it’s not nice. Caribou never teased me with here-one-hour, gone-the-next internet access. They kept the bandwidth coming, and I kept my work and caffeine buzz humming.
  • Fun Baristas—The Caribou baristas I spoke with attended college and could converse about history, English lit, or film; they modeled the latest hairstyles, tattoos, and body piercings; they never embarrassed me by knowing my name, but maintained a healthy self-absorption; and they always struggled mightily to improve their foam hearts and ferns.
  • Ambient music for the masses—A mix of music that was more soothing and nostalgic than danceable, a soundtrack for work and quiet conversation more than a concentrated listen, and music played not-so-loud that I couldn’t put my earbuds in and listen to my own tunes when I’d had enough of theirs.
  • Interior décor—This included reasonably comfortable chairs, relatively spacious tables, long and wide windows to let in sunlight and a view of the parked cars and parking spaces beyond. I have to give special bonus points for the gas fireplaces at several of the Caribou locations. I also much enjoyed the chalkboard quizzes, the correct answer of which could earn 10-cents off any item. How I fondly remember guessing that paraskevidekatriaphobia meant “fear of Friday the 13.” I’ll take that discount now.

When you find that special coffee shop, don’t take it for granted. Cherish and savor it. Make each sip count, and go back for frequent refills.

Having found many of these items at my local Caribou, I became a permanent fixture. Caribou and I had two remarkable caffeinated years together and then it ended. Despite my five-dollar-a-day contributions, Peet’s Coffee of Berkeley, California, descended upon and shot down my beloved Rangifer tarandus. They closed all five of the Baltimore locations, including the one on York Road, claiming that the old Caribous were “Underperforming,” which I suppose was another way of saying they didn’t have any customers. I hadn’t noticed, but had I known, I might have done more recommending. In any case, I was devastated. For me, Peet’s announcement was akin to my parents telling me that the girl I’d been dating simply wasn’t good enough for me, and either I’d break it off with her or they wouldn’t buy me the ‘67 Mustang I’d been begging for.

Caribou gone, I was left scrambling for a coffee shop replacement. Sure, I went to Starbucks once or twice. I even tried Panera’s lattes—mostly warm milk. When I heard that one of my Caribous would reopen in Hunt Valley under the new Peet’s branding, I held out hope, waiting for the renovation to be completed. When it was, I took the twenty-minute trip from the City.

Peet's Coffee raises the stakes on wood flooring for other Baltimore cafés.

Peet’s Coffee raises the stakes on wood flooring for other Baltimore cafés.

I have to admit, the latte was good, the baristas could talk film, the outlets were plentiful, but I couldn’t help notice, no more chalkboard, and no more trivia quizzes on the chalkboard. When the internet began to get finicky, I broke out in a cold sweat. And in the end, the interior was just too much California shine and sparkle and not enough Minnesota cozy.  As the store manager, a holdover from Caribou days proudly informed me, “Peet’s spent more money on the new floor than Caribou spent on most of their interior.” I told him quietly that I wished Peet’s had kept the Caribou fireplace.

Meanwhile the storefront at the former York Road Caribou location remained vacant, the old signage loosening on its hinges. Some nights I would spot a ghostly barista inside foaming milk and wanted to stop in. Eventually, the Caribou sign was replaced by a Verizon one, and two men wearing Izod shirts and khaki pants took up positions on the inside. They seemed always to be speaking to one another until that store closed too.

Slowly, since the death of Caribou, more local, specialty coffee shops have begun to spring up, or at least I have become more aware of them. Several I mentioned earlier: Artifact, Charmington’s, Spro, Dooby’s, and they offer some fine lattes. Several of them can claim all of Caribou’s interior charms as well, certainly more charms than I found at Peet’s.

And recently, I believe I’ve even discovered The One, a more mature, more reliable, local representation of great coffee and interior splendor. It has many of the elements that Caribou had, and it’s even frothed with people, which makes me confident that it might stick around for a while. I’m not going to mention its name. It’s too early in our relationship for that, and I don’t want to jinx anything. Let’s just say, right now, we are blending nicely.

And yet, as much as I make room for this new shop in my life, one never loses their first coffee shop imprint. After allowing the matter to percolate and settle, I’d like to end with a few words to those who haven’t experienced that first blush of coffee shop romance. When you find that special coffee shop, don’t take it for granted. Cherish and savor it. Make each sip count, and go back for frequent refills.

All in this life is fleeting, and there are many things beyond your control. At any moment, the powers that be, whether they be Providential or Corporate, can swoop down and snatch the beloved from your embrace. Should that happen, don’t be morose or bitter; use whatever talents you have to fashion a small memorial—a blog post for instance. And when you feel the sting of grief, return to that memorial for a time, add to it, revise it, edit it, and then move on.

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Thanksgiving Day Trippin’, Yeah!

Deadhead TurkeyAt no time of year does it become more apparent that Americans are a people who enjoy their freedom of choice than on Thanksgiving Day. Aside from those vegans and vegetarians who will opt for Tofurky, most cooks will weigh the options of roasting, grilling, smoking, basting, deep-frying, slow cooking, brown bagging, or saltwater-brining their birds.

When it comes to stuffing, many preparers will fill their Toms with onions, garlic, and breadcrumbs; enliven their Butterballs further with dried fruit, nuts, wild rice, or sausage; and season with cloves, oregano, peppercorns, or a myriad of other spices. Many shades, temperatures, and viscosities of gravy will also be poured. And as to the sides, I know of one cook who buys his cranberry sauce jelled in a can, another who gets her berries fresh from a plastic bag, then heats them to a bitter sauce.

Continuing with the choice of sides, does your Anaxagorean palate recognize the infinite textures, between chunky and smooth, of mashed potato?  And when it comes to the creamed corns, the marshmallow-topped candied sweet potatoes, the green beans in mushroom sauce, sourdough and pumpernickel rolls, and salads topped with Thousand Island dressing, do your choices span the full range of a clothed table?

Setting aside the pumpkin, pecan, and minced meat pies, as well as the plum puddings, there’s one thing that most turkey tasters have no choice about on Thanksgiving Day: the experience of an after-dinner tryptophan high. As we now understand from persistent, investigative science, consumption of massive amounts of carbohydrates, wine, and turkey meat products induces in us a post-coital-like head-trip. And in this experience, all Thanksgiving Day feasters are united.

While I have heard people complain that this comatose state can be annoying, distracting from time otherwise reserved for exhilarating after-dinner family arguments, I’ve never heard anyone say that they had a bad trip. In fact, for most, despite the bloated belly, trippin’ on turkey yields a welcomed feeling of contentment.

Speaking for myself, my tryptophan torpors have always provided a pleasant journey through what I’d call a personalized and collective American mythology. It begins with my announcement that I’m about to lie down and take a nap. Once supine on a couch, bed, or carpeted floor, one hand on my swollen belly, the other beneath my head, I shut my eyes and  flash through a few of the day’s residual images:

Grandma’s dining room chandelier hung above a table that’s set with china and silverware. Squash, gourds, and miniature pumpkins spilling forth from Norman Rockwell cornucopias. The morning’s televised Thanksgiving Day parade with Santa Clause afloat, cruising down Central Park West. And of course, stadiums abuzz with cheering football fans as Cowboys and Lions brutalize, or get brutalized by, their opponents in stimulating combat.

Consumption of massive amounts of carbohydrates, wine, and turkey meat products induces in us a post-coital-like head-trip.

The next images are more abstract, a combination of past, present, and future: the approaching gray winter skies, wet russet leaves paper-macheted to sidewalks, smell of kitty litter, smoke rising from the neighbor’s corn furnace, and foam mustache from the chai latte I drank yesterday.

Backwards into history I float, to Abraham Lincoln top-hatted on the steps of the Gettysburg Hotel, paring a 700-word Thanksgiving Day Proclamation down to 500 words. When I peal the onion further, Pilgrims appear, setting up redwood picnic tables near Plymouth Rock, hiding loaded muskets under their long coats while kindly Wampanoag Indians offer deer meat and wait for relocation westward.

Fast forward to a giddy Wayne LaPierre proposing stricter gun control laws, singing, “what do you want me to do?” and I begin to emerge from my coma, hearing a child talk excitedly about Black Friday shopping at Best Buy, purchasing the latest Apple electronic, Justin Bieber CD, and cartloads of holiday wrapping paper.

Awakening from my drowse, I catch a rope of drool descending a corner of my mouth, and while still disregarding those obstinate vegetarians and vegans who will have none of this, I begin to wonder if others have similar visions during our collective tryptophan drunk. Do you too get a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln reclining in his Barcalounger, enjoying a day of civility and serotonin uplift? Or of Benjamin Franklin seated at roll-top desk, quill in hand, pondering his preference for turkey or eagle meat?

I understand we should all be allowed to keep our private dreams private, but I do wonder about yours. Given the chance, I wouldn’t mind training my bird’s eye on your postprandial wishbone visions, tapping the cell phone of your subconscious to find out how your giblets are cooked.

On the other hand, I do respect your privacy, and I know that nothing is more precious than your innermost hallucinations. In deference to those, perhaps you would be willing to meet me half way. Please, if you have a moment, don’t hesitate to send me any Thanksgiving Day recipes that induce particularly pleasant tryptophan highs. For such generosity, I would be seasonably grateful.

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Fiddler on the Tomb: MHS Picks a New Poe Toaster

Poe Toaster NemoWhen the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) announced they would be taking proposals to choose a new Poe Toaster and holding a competition in the manner of American Idol and America’s Got Talent, I was excited to see what my fellow Baltimore artists of theatric bent might come up with. As has been described ad nauseam here and in other Baltimore publications, the anonymous, confusingly named, and awkwardly imagined Poe Toaster was once a Baltimore institution, a man (or woman) who appeared at the cenotaph of Poe, on Poe’s January 19th birthday, for 75 years, and honored the dead writer with three roses and a glass of cognac.

Having written previously about the MHS Toaster contest, I felt I would be remiss not to attend the event and follow up with a reportorial post. So at the appropriately haunting hour of 9:30 PM on a moonlit Saturday night, I walked through the MHS’s open doors and was directed to the museum’s auditorium. I must applaud the MHS for offering free admission, three-dollar beers, four-dollar wines, and twenty-dollar tickets for all-you-or-I-could-drink: my beverage of choice being a tart and tangy apple juice and cognac mixture. I must also laud the finger bowls of snacks: pretzels and M&Ms, plain and peanut.

Having soaked my brain in cognac and apple juice and stuffed my pockets with pretzel sticks, I entered the auditorium. There the MHS had arranged a foam cenotaph on one side of the stage and a fake wrought iron gate on another. Over the gate, an MHS prop-manager had placed the token prize, a handcrafted red scarf. Scarf aside, everyone knew what the evening’s real prize would be: a chance to replace the old Toaster and perform a new three-minute toasting ritual at Poe’s Westminster Hall gravesite. I should relate however that unlike the old Toaster, the new one will perform his or her toasting duties on January 19th during daylight hours and also at additional as-yet-to-be-disclosed locations about the city.

The Ghoulish Wife stands and sings before the prized Poe Toaster scarf

The Ghoulish Wife stands and sings before the prized Poe Toaster scarf

As the auditorium filled in, I’d like to say that the Baltimore performing arts community came out in force, but I don’t know much about the Baltimore performing arts community—I spend too much time slaving over these blogs to accept free tickets to the theater. But I will transmit that none of the familiar faces so much associated with Poe were present: no specters with the pedigree of a Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Christopher Walken, or John Cusack. I would have especially thrilled to see Baltimore native and Buddhist John Astin, now 85, who has performed Poe on past occasions, taught acting classes at Johns Hopkins University, and, if I might digress, scared the hell out of my toddler self as Gomez in the 60s television production of the Addams family.

So who was there? First off, the MHS estimated the crowd-size at about 100 necromancers. Additionally, I counted a panel of three judges, an assemblage of Poe experts who certainly know more about Poe and adapting Poe works to dramaturgy than Poe himself. These included celebrity judges Jeff Jarrow, a tour guide at Westminster Hall who was said to have witnessed many a visit from the original Toaster; Susan Rome, a local performer, playwright at Center Stage, and television actor; and David Gaylin, a student of Poe, member of the Maryland Historical Society, and the author of Edgar Allen Poe’s Baltimore. Sitting in for Ryan Seacrest was Jenna Rossman, assisted by Sarah Gretchen Heiderman, both of whom are currently appearing in The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe, an “immersive experience” at the Enoch Pratt House.

Before the proceedings, Ms. Rossman swore the audience to secrecy regarding the identities of the 10 contestants. However, I don’t believe I’ll be breaking my oath if I give their pseudonyms. These included Holmes, Death, Art Pymme, Lady A, The Visitor, Sarah Bright, Nemo Outis, Catarina del Monte, The Ghoulish Wife, and The Ghost of Rod Serling. Unfortunately, Sarah Bright and the Ghost of Rod Serling must have gotten stuck in Twilight Zone traffic because neither showed; however, the black holes left by their absences were adequately filled by members of the audience, attendees who Ms. Rossman encouraged to perform extemporaneously as “wild cards.”

So let me describe a few of the evening’s highlights. An early favorite in the contest was The Ghoulish Wife. She appeared in black robes but then discarded these for what seemed to be a white wedding dress. During the changeover, she descanted a haunting melody in a lovely voice that must have been operatically trained. Another young female talent, Death, appeared in gory red and black grease paint, black robes, and donned some incredibly well-crafted ruler-length, red finger extensions, which Judge Jarrow described as looking like crab claws. Death recited a mournful elegy, but a little too softly, and thus earned scowls from the judges.

My personal favorite was Catarina del Monte’s contribution, an illustrated three-minute film based on The Fall of the House of Usher. One might envision this film projected on an exterior brick or interior plaster wall of the Westminster Church, but the judges seemed to prefer live performances. As to the wild cards, these participants were obviously inspired by their love of Poe to rise from their seats like religious converts, take the stage, and make their devotionals. Of the two who took to toasting, the audience was most taken by a gentleman in tweed who must have been an English teacher. He addressed the foam cenotaph with a heartfelt thank you to Poe for writing poems and short stories, which unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, did not bore his students to death.

After each of the performances, the judges weighed in, and the audience, at first taken aback by some judgy pronouncements, soon concurred. Early on, it became clear that the judges had a specific Toaster-type in mind. For one, they wanted to honor the memory of both the Toaster and Poe. Second, they wanted the winning performance directed toward Poe’s cenotaph rather than any audience that might assemble to watch. Third, they didn’t want any piped in soundtracks: the explanation being that the music could not be heard above the din of Westminster’s adjacent street and sidewalk noise.

This is what Death looked like on Nov. 7, 2015.

This is what Death looked like on Nov. 7, 2015.

Most importantly, however, it became clear that the judges were interested in treating the event with as much sincerity, respect, and gravitas as possible. Those who might have wished to present camp, kitsch, or ironic performances need not to have applied. My guess is that the judges weeded out these types of acts early when reviewing the original proposals. Understandable I suppose, since less than 166 years have passed since Poe’s death, and we should hope to attain a more charitable distance from that sad day before cracking wise at his expense.

Based upon the above criteria, the audience voted Nemo Outis the winner. Outis seemed to encapsulate all the items the judges desired. Outis appeared dressed as the original Toaster: black coat, black hat, white scarf. Also, as the original Toaster had done, Outis placed three red roses at the foot of the cenotaph, then poured himself a glass of cognac, and made his toast. There were, however, a few added touches, the primary one being a truncated but virtuoso violin performance of Saint-Saens “Danse Macabre.” Outis also added a white rose to the three red ones and incanted several Latinisms, which Poe might have understood, but which left the audience audibly munching their pretzel sticks. Outis then took his violin and exited stage left.

As Outis received the winning red scarf and the chance to take his show to the tomb, the weary late-night crowd stretched their legs, and I approached Judge Gaylin to ask if the new Toaster would be serving a lifetime term, as had his predecessor. The judge said that the MHS would choose a fresh Toaster next year and each year after. That being the case, I believe future Toaster aspirants should take note. If you’re interested in the post of Toaster, study what the tastemakers, judges and public alike, approve. A present-day Toaster should honor the spirit of the old Toaster and Poe, but amend the ritual with a few classy flourishes. Most important, the new Toaster should bury all thoughts of a kitsch or completely original presentation, because as we all know, if there’s one thing the master of the macabre and the inventor of detective and horror genres would not abide, it’s an elegy, the artistic presentation of which, breaks new ground.

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O’Malley’s Green Energy Grid Could Soon Be Trumped

IMG_2080 I am all for electing Maryland’s former Governor Martin O’Malley the 45th president of these United States, not because I align myself with his political party, but mostly because I believe in good old-fashioned nepotism, and I’m convinced that his election will bring more writing and editing jobs to the Old Line State.

What’s more, I like to see representatives of little known ethnic groups, like O’Malley’s, holding federal office. For instance, as a boy I was a great fan of Spiro Agnew, whom I believed had invented the Spirograph, and more recently, I was very saddened to hear that Baltimore native Barbara Mikulski would be retiring and thus relinquishing Maryland’s seniority membership on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Oh, how we Marylander’s will miss the sweet smell of Polish pork kielbasa.

But as much as I would like my former Maryland Governor to reshape the oval office, I’ll be the first to admit, Governor O’Malley could do a better job of selling his Eco-friendly platform: green energy, green energy jobs, and a fresh coat of non-lead-based paint for the White House. Yes, I like his energy plan, but during the first Democratic debate, when he called Las Vegas, “one of the most sustainable cities in America,” I was tempted to double-check his Green Card.

And while his goal of a clean electricity grid is most estimable, the deadline of having this accomplished by 2050 will certainly tax the average American’s patience. For instance, on July 20th of 1969, I can still remember my parents tapping their toes and checking their watches waiting for Neil Armstrong’s capsule and JFK’s 10-year space program to reach the lunar surface before my bedtime.

Overall, O’Malley’s clean electricity grid platform isn’t a bad one, but I’m increasingly worried about its ability to put the former Governor and, by association, Marylanders in the executive suite. The trouble involves one Donald J. Trump, a man who has already set himself up as the candidate with the most energy. Added to this, because Trump’s poll numbers have recently taken a hit from challenger Ben Carson—whose poll numbers seem continuously poised to take a hit from Ben Carson—I’m convinced that Mr. Trump is about to make a bold move.

My political instincts, which once successfully predicted that Doreen Dugas would beat me in my sixth-grade elementary school vice-presidential election, tell me that Trump will soon be revamping his fossilized energy plan. His new policy could best be summed up as one of “Passionate Energy,” because as Trump has already laid out, “If you don’t have passion, you have no energy, and if you don’t have energy, you have nothing.”

“We’re here in Las Vegas, one of the most sustainable cities in America…”  Martin O’Malley

On this point, the great negotiator and supporter of “Passionate Energy” will not negotiate, and the policy change will be a brilliant political move, one that’s sure to reinvigorate his campaign, leave brain surgeon Ben Carson fumbling with his scalpel, but worst of all, leave Martin O’Malley and ambitious Marylanders watching our chances of success sift through our fingers like so many grains of Old Bay seasoning.

With a revised energy policy, Trump’s poll numbers will likely fly through the green roofs of his towers. And, much to the delight of talk show hosts everywhere, this will give him the boost he needs to secure the Republican lead. It will also give him an edge when he inevitably starts raising bad blood between himself and O’Malley in the general election. Here I’m assuming that by the time of the general, O’Malley’s irresistible charisma will have positioned him as the Democratic nominee.

But those who might think that Trump’s total conversion to a “Passionate Energy” policy would have me jumping on the Trump ch00-choo would be sorely mistaken. As I said before, I am a nepotist and a regionalist at heart; choosing a candidate by policy is often an afterthought. Although I’ve never shaken Martin O’Malley’s hand, he’s appeared frequently on my local news channels, and I’ve been to a few of the venues that his band, O’Malley’s March, has rocked. So in other words, unless Mr. Trump builds a shiny gold tower in my city’s Inner Harbor and changes his residency, I’ll always be marching to the O’Malley fife and drum.

But before Trump completely steals O’Malley’s and O’Maryland’s initiative on a revolutionary energy plan, I’d like to give our former Governor a few suggestion on how to approach the campaign and win the day. First off Governor, take a lesson from the Donald, or Don Rickles if you like. Start insulting Hillary and Bernie more. They’re both crusty old geezers and they can take it. If your mild Mid-Atlantic conscience bothers you, you can always tell them it’s nothing personal in private. Confess to them that sharpening your insult skills is the only way to prepare for the general election. We all know that hearing candidates deliver barbs is the best way to get the public’s and the press’s attention.

My second piece of advice would be to task some of our scientists from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland to work on harnessing the kind of energy that invective seems to generate and then pump that energy into your clean electricity grid. Despite the negative connotations, I’m convinced that insults, like wind and solar power, are a form of clean energy, and what’s more, a form of energy guaranteed by the First Amendment.

And finally, while your campaign advisers might not agree, I’d suggest that you not only raise the level of invective but also the level of dirty talk, which I hypothesize as another form of clean energy. Speaking from personal experience, I know that dirty talk generates tremendous heat. In fact, I’m certain that if not only you but all politicians infused their rhetoric with more dirty talk, and if the resulting radiation could be harnessed, our country could easily reach your goal of clean, green energy independence well before 2050.

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Let’s Keep Our Skies Open to Drones

IMG_2070My friend and financial advisor, Ellis Wyatt III, who I am pleased to relate, has recovered nicely from the hate mongering he endured after the 2008 financial crisis, tells me he’s got a new issue on his radar. In the last weeks, he’s disconcerted about the possibility of increased restrictions on American freedoms, most particularly our ability to own and fly drones.

“Add this to not being allowed to enjoy an occasional cigar at a ball park,” he says. “Not being able to catch the fish we wish to catch in the manner and season in which we wish to catch them. And not being able to drive our Range Rovers through the areas in which we wish to drive, and we should all be feeling a bit put out.”

The cause for Ellis’s concern regarding his recent drone purchases should not be lightly passed over. When I went to visit him at his estate, he took me out back to see his drone collection. It was located in a custom-built hanger, not far from his quarter horse stable and his classic car garage. The drone collection takes up only a small corner of the hanger; the remaining floor space he reserves for his Cessna 310.

“This indulgence in drone collecting,” he says, “began about five years ago when I passed by a display kiosk at the Towson Mall. I paid about fifty dollars for my first drone. But my interest has grown rapidly ever since.” He shows me his first quadcopter, then moves on to an octocopter, a hexacopter, and finally a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the model of which he asked me not to specify. “The prices can range anywhere from thirty bucks to many thousands,” he says. “Some will fly only a dozen or so yards for five minutes on a battery; others can go hundreds of miles for up to twenty hours.”

At least once a day, Ellis visits his drone hanger and checks in with Herb Denning, a former Royal Air Force captain and security expert. Denning works at a small console room housed inside the hanger, and he’s Ellis’s dedicated drone pilot. “I use the drones mainly to surveil my property,” Ellis says, taking up a joystick and sitting before a bank of monitors. “They’ve helped cut costs. Whereas I used to employ several security guards, the new arrangement requires only a pilot, a mechanic, and a few Rotties.” Ellis has shown me his kennel on previous occasions.

“And of course,” he continues, concentrating on one screen and vigorously handling his joystick. “I didn’t show you before, but I have a number of weaponized, defensive drones.” Like the Rotties, he tells me that these drones serve as a deterrent to those who might wish to breach his moat. “More to the point,” he says, “the defensive drones give me the latitude to fly over the estate and take down any intruding state or local law enforcement trespassers, as well as federal government and un-neighborly private surveillance snoopers. That way I don’t have to brave the cold with my shotgun.”

Ellis says that other people’s drones represent an increasing threat. “Read the news,” he says, “local law enforcement agencies are employing drones with cameras, mace, and Tasers to patrol ground and airspace and to allegedly prevent crimes. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently appointed a task force to study how private drone ownership and air space usage can be limited.”

The FAA says that a drone flying into public airspace runs the risk of interfering with commercial aircraft, but Ellis assures me that such a threat is as likely to come from government-operated drones. “The Feds are always positing the irresponsibility of freedom-loving Americans,” he says. “But most drone owners are conscientious flyers, and even so, your average drone doesn’t fly that high. Besides, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the idea that drone and commercial flight collisions can be totally avoided is a pipe dream. Accidents will happen. That’s the price we pay for innovative technologies. A society founded on entrepreneurial risk has to assume occasional losses. The same is true in the financial industry, Mark, as you know.”

I am somewhat sympathetic with Ellis’s concerns about the U.S. government, local law enforcement agencies, and nosey neighbors using drones to surveil private property. But I’m unsure about the need for people to have weaponized drones, so I ask Ellis, instead of assuming that the best solution is to ramp up drone ownership and weaponization, why don’t we work toward preventing drone use altogether. “Maybe if government agencies and American citizens agreed to keep drones out of the skies,” I suggest, “we could avoid potential domestic conflicts, regional skirmishes, and accidents.”

“My dear idealistic friend,” Ellis says, abandoning his joystick, making a fist, and using his opposite hand to crack his knuckles. “Do you think we are a former world empire where Bobbies run around naked with nightsticks? Seriously, you’re not asking to shut down an entire new economic growth industry are you? If so, it’s never going to happen. Besides, when drones are illegal, only criminals will own drones, or something like that. The rest of us will be sitting ducks.”

“Look to your history,” he continues, “The government tried to ban alcohol, but what happened? Organized crime made a fortune on it. Even today, as the government prohibits drugs, drug abuse is at an all-time high, our prisons are overflowing, and all of those American dollars are jumping the border. And then there’s Russia. They prohibited innovation and capitalist enterprise for seventy years and what happened there? They still haven’t managed to stabilize the price of Pampers.”

“No my friend,” Ellis continues, “drone ownership is a fundamental right and drone owners need to organize, get involved with the National Drone Association (NDA) and the National Association of Drone Sportsmen (NADS). We don’t need further attacks on our freedoms: registration of drone ownership, limits on where and how high we can fly, and prohibitions on the items we’re allowed to mount on our drones. We should really be opening up the skies for everyone: not only to drone owners but to sky lovers in general. All we have to do is look to nature. When so many birds seem to navigate without incident, certainly humans can learn to do the same.”

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New Poe Toaster will be Show Star

IMG_2069As an acolyte of Edgar Allan Poe and someone without much to do in the evenings, I’ve spent the past nine years, on the anniversary of Poe’s birthday, January 19th, waiting outside of Westminster Hall, beside the author’s grave, for the return of the Poe Toaster. For those who live beyond the borders of my charmed city and who are unfamiliar with the Toaster, this fellow devotee of Poe was a man (or woman—can we really say which?) who for 75 years celebrated Poe’s life by placing three roses on the poet’s cenotaph and toasting him with a glass of Martell cognac.

During those years, the winter sport of Baltimoreans—those who do not read or root for Ravens—was to catch the Toaster in the act. But somehow, while we learned that he dressed in black with wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, we never ventured to defrock or unwrap him. Much like Linus van Pelt waiting for The Great Pumpkin, we seemed always to play a cloak-and-dagger game with the Toaster, and we were left hoping that our beloved Baltimore tomb cruiser would return each year. By 2006 however, he decided that he’d had enough. The mercurial Toaster stopped delivering roses and the cognac stopped flowing.

Having waited nine long years for the Toaster’s return, pressing my cold cheeks to the bars of Westminster Hall’s wrought iron fences but spying the Toaster nevermore, this year I was ready to pack it in, ready to bury my hopes of catching the Toaster in the act. In the privacy of my own digs, I resolved to celebrate one last birthday, Poe’s two hundred and seventh, by placing three roses on my mantelpiece, lighting a candle, and raising a glass to Poe and his anonymous Toaster from the comfort of a creaky but cushioned rocking chair.

But as we all know, you can’t keep a dead ritual or institution down. And so when the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) announced this fall that they had come up with a way to reinvigorate the Poe Toaster’s tradition by picking a Toaster replacement, a “Faux Toaster” of sorts, many spirits were raised. To inaugurate the new tradition, the MHS will be holding a contest after the manner of American Idol or America’s Got Talent and select an act with the best toast. The contest is open to all artists, even those with jobs. Proposals were due on October 23rd, finalists will be chosen this Halloween, and auditions will take place on November 7th. The MHS also plans on a democratic selection process. While the winner will be chosen by public ballot, public opinion will be swayed by three celebrity judges.

As you might expect, not everyone is welcoming the Toaster’s triumphant return. Upon hearing that the MHS would be selecting a new Poe Toaster, an international contingent of “Just-Say-No-To-Toasters” began to assemble and set out to stick a pin in the proceedings. On one Edgar Allan Poe Facebook page, the No-Toasters wrote comments criticizing the audacity of the MHS, skewering the contest and the finale performance as deeds designed to create a spectacle of one person’s anonymous gesture, one soul’s valiant attempt to honor a troubled poet with a few flowers and a restorative beverage. “Noooo!!!” wrote Ms. Sabrina Fisher, a hostess at bd’s Mongolian Grill in Columbus Ohio, “It needs to be left alone.”

But who can blame the MHS, a venerable, white-gloved institution, for trying to elicit civic chuckles and gain some much-needed publicity? Pass by the MHS on any day and, except for a few rare and unread scholars holding doors open for one another, you are bound to find the building ominously inactive. Any college graduate with a course in marketing or public relations can see that one night spent transforming a cemetery into a circus ring might add luster to the MHS image.

So what might the public expect from the winning Toaster? Taking a look back at former American Idol and America’s Got Talent talent, the new Poe Toaster is not likely to remain as low key as his or her solemn predecessor. Past AI and AGT contestants have included the likes of puppeteers, regurgitators, ventriloquists, magicians, impressionists, comedians, dance troupes, martial artists, opera singers, country singers, singers of American standards, and the Olate Dogs, a dog act that played Vegas’s Palazzo Theater and later released a Christmas album.

After running through this list, my first tendency is to agree with the No-Toasters. The contest and the command performance that follows could wind up being a horrific exhibition. But upon some reflection, isn’t that exactly as it should be? What better way to honor the first master of the macabre than with a kitsch celebration of his life and death. Poe’s ridiculous tales of black cats, people cemented in walls, and men getting nosebleeds in hot air balloons that exit our atmosphere are clearly fantastical and comical.

In light of Poe’s Gothic grotesques, the idea that an unpaid artist should spend one night riding a unicycle and juggling chainsaws alongside Poe’s tomb sounds most appropriate. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that another famous son of Mob Town, John Waters, had come up with this stroke of genius. And as to the Poe Toaster, will his anonymous, sentimental, and clearly heartfelt gesture be denigrated by a juggler on a unicycle or a Gallagheresque comic with a trash bag full of plastic roses and a sippy cup of ginger beer? Well, let’s leave that up to the judges.

Postscript: As the MHS had no response to my inquiry about remuneration for the chosen Toaster, and as their website gives no indication of such, I have assumed there will be no financial reward for the winning contestant. However, most artists—who are all unrepentant egotists at heart—already know that the publicity should be enough.

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Capturing Fall Color

IMG_2042We’ve arrived at the peak of fall, and much like mold allergies and runny noses, the tumbling leaves and colors of the season are everywhere: the purple maple, the copper oak, the golden-bronze beech. With low gas prices, nature lovers throughout the country will likely be able to escape to the corn mazes or mountains of their local regions, and if you live in the Mid-Atlantic, as I do, you’ll only have to drive a short hundred miles or so to reach the Appalachians.

As no vacation or day trip can be enjoyed unless viewed primarily through the lens of a camera, I’d suggest purchasing an expensive digital one to capture the season’s richness. But if you haven’t got that kind of dough, even the camera on your smartphone and a state-of-the-art copy of Photoshop will do.

I have to confess that while many thrill to the colors of fall foliage, I enjoy the season’s changes more for the textures revealed. I take pleasure in leaf galls and blisters, decay nibbling at fronds, jagged and smooth blade shapes, luminous or opaque thicknesses. I’m always on the hunt to capture a world of rotten apples, burrs, burls, and mothy invasions. Call it a reaction to living in the age of HD—movie, television, and phone—but I can’t help looking for nature’s jagged edges and snapping stalks.

That’s why, when I recently returned from my annual autumn outing to the mountains, I downloaded an accumulated cache of pictures to my computer and immediately converted them to grayscale. In an instant, my silver maples rippled and ruffled, the brown sycamores buckled and cracked, and my red oaks bent and bounced sunlight. In grayscale, the competing harlequin colors of fall quieted, and undetected leafy shapes and textures were revealed and enhanced.

As I pored over the details of those pixelated textures through Photoshop’s zoom, I discovered that an impostor had made his way into several of my shots, a nut-gathering gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). I like squirrels as much as I like any other rodent, but as every serious photographer knows, grayscale photos do nothing for gray squirrels. In such shots, an otherwise noble species fades into the background, and the more I scrutinized this fine varmint, the more I wished for him to step forward. To me his acorn-gathering ritual seemed to sum up everything that needed to be said about nature’s imminent retreat, and I wanted him front and center in my photo so that I might better frame him for placement in my battleship gray-painted trophy room.

To get the best picture possible, I returned to my color originals and picked the nut-rummager out of several other photos as well. Zooming into the sections where he appeared, I was pleased to see that my phone camera had captured, along with the sparkle in his black eye and the forceful chomp in his muscled jaw, the full range of his grayness. With no third party coaxing, I printed these shots in color. As most nature lovers and photographers will tell you, only a color image can reveal the full spectrum of a squirrel’s raw grayness and the jaw-dropping luxuriance of this marvelous season.

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