Traveling Under Cover Of Darkness

Last night we boarded a plane in Columbus at about 6 p.m., as dusk was falling.  The plane took off and headed west, flying through the gray, turbulent Midwestern skies toward the rapidly setting sun.

128215212Soon it was black outside.  From a look out the window and past the wing you could just make out the dim outline of the darkened ground far below, with a few winking lights of small towns rolling past to mark our progress.  We chatted, dozed, fiddled with our cell phones, drank our free beverages, and ate our complementary snacks as the long flight wore on.  Hours later, we landed in utter darkness at a faraway airport, boarded a shuttle bus to the rental car center, grabbed a random SUV for our rental car, and hit the highway, heading southeast.

It was dark as pitch outside and for most of the way the highway was under construction.  You couldn’t really see much of anything other than the rising moon backlighting light cloud cover, the temporary lane barriers that made us feel like we were driving through a narrow tunnel, the taillights of the tractor-trailers we were passing, and the blinding headlights of the oncoming cars.  We hadn’t had dinner, so we stopped at a Burger King to get a a very late, generic — but welcome — fast food meal.

We finally arrived at our destination at about 11:30 p.m. local time, dropped our bags, and hit the sack.  This morning I’m up early, local time, because I haven’t adjusted to the new time zone — and also because I’m excited about where we are.  But because we traveled entirely under cover of darkness last night, our location doesn’t seem quite real yet.  It won’t, not really, until the sun rises and we get a good look at our new surroundings for the first time.

It’s exactly why I like traveling under darkness.  There’s a certain mystery to moving from point A to point B at night, when you can’t actually see landmarks and process the change in topography.  You don’t get the big reveal until morning comes and you find yourself on a new day in an entirely new place.

Where are we, exactly?  In an hour or so we’ll find out.

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Thinking Mainely Positive Thoughts

One way to combat the Midwestern mid-winter gray sky blahs is to consciously think about a better, sunnier, place and time.  It’s even more effective if you really try to lock in specifics about where you’ll be and what it’s like.  My happy mental place of refuge these days envisions a bright, cloudless, pleasantly warm summer day in Maine, sitting on a deck overlooking Stonington Harbor and feeling a slight breeze ruffling by.  Russell’s Christmas presents — he made us a smiling, radiant Mr. Sun and a cool Maine key ring holder — help to keep the mind focused on those ultimate summer days.

February is always a tough month, where it’s impossible not to be sick of winter because it seems like it’s been winter forever.  Rather than despairing of ever becoming truly warm and blessedly free of a drippy nose again, why not indulge in some of the power of positive thinking?  Better days lie ahead, and the current crummy weather is just going to make the eventual sultry summer all the sweeter.

Peter Tork, R.I.P.

There are news reports today that Peter Tork, one of the members of the musical group the Monkees, has died.  Tork was 77, but for those of us of a certain generation — including me — he’ll always be remembered as he was as a young guy, when he was one of the four stars of the TV show The Monkees and part of the band that produced lots of hit singles and albums during the ’60s.

gettyimages-530242673-e1550770849823The Monkees were the first designer musical group, carefully crafted to appeal to a mainstream TV audience, a mainstream musical audience, and the teenyboppers who bought magazines like Tiger Beat.  They borrowed some of the antics that the Beatles popularized in movies like A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the four members of the group followed a pretty rote formula.  There was the cute one (Davy Jones), the quirky smart one (Mike Nesmith), and the zany, funny ones (Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork).  In the TV shows, Peter Tork seemed to be the happy-go-lucky Monkee who always got into goofy predicaments and took the comedic pratfalls.

I liked Peter Tork then, and I’m not ashamed to say that I liked the Monkees and their records, too.  I still do, in fact, and I’ve got a bunch of their songs on my iPod — including Tork’s big song, Your Auntie Grizelda, complete with its odd sound effects and fuzz guitar.  Who cares if the Monkees didn’t play all of the instruments themselves?  The songs were classic examples of ’60s flower power music that still stand the test of time.

It’s sad when figures from your childhood pass on, because it just makes you feel old.  Rest in peace, Peter Tork.  You’ll live on in your music and our fond memories of an innocent TV show from days gone by.

Reining In Excessive Fines

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” — imposes limits on the abilities of state and local governments to seize assets and property and impose financial penalties.  And the Court’s ruling applying the “excessive fines” clause of the amendment to state and local governments was a unanimous one, which is a welcome development in our era of increasingly divided politics.

gettyimages-1066751830The case involved an Indiana man who was arrested for selling several hundred dollars’ worth of heroin, had his $42,000 Range Rover seized as part of the process — even though the maximum fine for his crime was $10,000 — and sued to get his car back.  The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the “excessive fines” clause of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to the states, even though the “excessive bail” and “cruel and unusual punishment” clauses have long been applied to the states.  The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, disagreed.

The decision yesterday addresses a significant real world issue — namely, how far can states and local governments go in imposing monetary penalties and seizing property from people who violate the law . . . or, in some cases, are only accused of violating the law.  Because raising taxes isn’t popular with voters, state and local governments have increasingly looked to aggressive forfeiture practices to fund part of their operations.  Briefs filed in the Supreme Court noted that more than half of municipal and county agencies who participated in a survey said reliance on forfeiture profits was a “necessary” part of their budgets, and that, in 2017, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees and forfeitures. And the aggressive penalties aren’t limited to drug offenses.  One brief in the Supreme Court, for example, described how a $100 ticket for a red-light violation in California results in another $390 in fees.

In holding that the excessive fines clause applies to the states and local governments, Justice Ginsberg noted that “[e]xorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” and added:  “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

Now that the states know that they can’t impose excessive fines, it will be up to the courts to determine whether the aggressive property forfeiture and fining practices, like the seizure of the Range Rover, are “excessive” or not.  We’ll have to see how that works out, but for now it’s nice to know that Americans have another constitutional protection against potentially overreaching governmental actions.

The Winter That Wouldn’t Leave

Last night we received breathless reports of another winter storm “bearing down” on the hapless residents of the Midwest.  I groaned when I heard them.  The winter storms always seem to be presented as evilly “bearing down,” as if they are a malevolent living thing bent on doing us harm and moving intentionally in furtherance of that goal, rather than the random product of atmospheric conditions, ocean currents, the tilt of the Earth’s axis, solar flares, butterfly wings, and other unthinking variables that produce what we know as weather.

Sure enough, this morning, when I woke up and looked out the front door, an inch or so of snow had already fallen and large, heavy snowflakes were pelting down like raindrops and accumulating rapidly.  Sirens sounded in the distance because — of course — the latest winter storm just had to hit Columbus on the front edge of rush hour, when it could cause maximum disruption and havoc and misery for the unfortunate souls commuting to work.

Maybe there really is something to this “bearing down” stuff.  Maybe a Midwestern winter really is a living thing that just wants to hang on, like the unwelcome guest that wouldn’t leave, and make us cold and wet and drippy and put us in an ugly funk for as long as it can.

When another winter storm hits on February 20, you can’t help but think grim, gray thoughts.  You wonder when it will finally end, and we’ll finally — or ever — get to see the blossoms and green shoots of spring.

The Simple Pleasures Of Hooked Handles

I’ve got a black office umbrella, and a black house umbrella, so I’m covered — literally — whether it’s raining when I’m leaving the office and heading for home or when I’m leaving home and heading for the office.  For my little system to work, though, I have to remember to take the umbrella back to its “home,” rain or shine.

gold-umbrella-handle-flatThat means it’s not unusual for me to be walking one way or the other with a closed-up and snapped shut umbrella that isn’t being used to shield me from the rain.  And that means that, on those brief journeys, I get to enjoy some “hook time,” where I can use the umbrella’s hooked handle to twirl the umbrella windmill style, trying to do so a la Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain, or carry it on my forearm, like a proper British gentleman, or use it as a cane and tap the sidewalk as I go along.  The hook is crucial to such maneuvers and my innocent fun, and I got to wondering:  when and why did umbrellas start to be manufactured with hooked handles?

According to The Gentleman’s Gazette, the hooked handle was added to the umbrella design in the 17th century.  That website explains:  “The curvature of the handle was intended to allow a servant to easily hold the umbrella at an angle to shield their employer. Although we primarily use this handle today as a method of hanging the umbrella from the arm, it still maintains its original practicality for doormen style umbrellas used by valets and doormen throughout much of the world. In fact, even in American cities like New York, it’s widely considered inappropriate for a doorman not to be prepared with a large canopy for those entering or exiting the premises.”

I’m not sure whether the servant explanation is historically accurate, but it’s certainly plausible, as anybody who has had to position their umbrella at an angle to brace it against the wind on a gusty day can attest.  It’s a lot more comfortable to do so with a hooked handle than a straight handle, because the hooked handle really allows you to get a firm grip.  But if the hooked handle was invented for that utilitarian purpose, it’s certainly provided other important benefits that perhaps weren’t fully appreciated in those pre-Singin’ In The Rain days.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and if I’m caught somewhere during an unexpected rainstorm I’ll use any umbrella to keep the rain off.  But if I’ve got a choice, give me an umbrella with a hook.

Cannabusiness

Cannabis sativa — the name of the plant species that includes marijuana and industrial hemp — seems to have gone mainstream in modern America.

When I was walking through LaGuardia Airport last week for my flight back to Columbus, I passed a shop that featured the above advertisement for cannabis sativa seed oil, as an “herbal fix for problem skin” with “100% naturally derived ingredients.”  And Kish and I have been to parties where people our age have knowledgeably and seriously discussed the claimed health benefits of cannabis-infused oils and creams for conditions like sore shoulders and aching backs.  For years, people who have pushed for legalization have claimed that the plant could produce many different types of useful products — and now it seems those claims are being realized.

If cannabis products are being accepted by the masses for skin care and health care purposes, it’s a pretty good indicator that cannabis has become big business.  In America, there aren’t many product areas that are bigger than skin care and health care.