A View Master’s Impact

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in traveling, and recently I’ve been thinking about why that is so. I’ve concluded that a toy that we had at our house–the View Master–is at least partly responsible for my travel itch.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the View Master was a plastic, goggle-like device that you put up to your eyes. You inserted a round photo circle into a designated slot, then toggled down a lever to advance the photos, one by one. The cool thing about the View Master was that it allowed you to look at the photos in a three-dimensional way, giving some depth to the pictures.

Of course, the View Master didn’t produce photos of your family, your house, or your friends. Instead, its photo circles inevitably were of faraway destinations or the natural wonders of the world, richly colored and exotic and much different from daily life in Akron, Ohio. The View Master world was one of men in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats and women in dirndls dancing in a square in some quaint medieval town, the Arc de Triomphe surrounded by headlights at night, or scenes from Yosemite National Park.

The View Master’s core message was that there was a big, amazingly interesting world out there, just waiting to be seen by you with your own two eyes. I got that message. My favorite View Master circle was one on American national parks, and when our family decided to take a driving trip west in 1967 or 1968, I wanted to see in person some of what the View Master had shown me–and once I saw the Grand Canyon and Old Faithful, I was hooked, and ever since I’ve wanted to see more.

Like many toys of that era, the View Master was simple, but it definitely had an impact.

The Kayak Tell

In poker, a “tell” occurs when players exhibit some visible sign that betrays their view of their position. They might touch an ear, or blink, or shift their position in response to a very good hand, or a very bad predicament. The experienced poker player watches for such tells, and profits from them.

“Tells” extend beyond the poker table. Rivers have tells, too. And when I took my walk along the Scioto River today, I saw one of them. In two different places along the river, in the heart of downtown and near the Audubon Park dam, I saw groups of kayaks on the water, as well as a pop-up kayak company along the riverbank near the Main Street bridge.

Kayaks are a significant “tell” for the Scioto River, because they indicate that what the Scioto River project hoped to achieve is, in fact, moving closer to reality. When the project began years ago, the designers hoped that by narrowing the river and removing some of the dams, the river might be transformed from a shallow, muddy, debris-choked mess into a real river, with an actual, discernible current. Kayaks are a pretty good tell that the goal is being achieved, because they move with the current. Even more important, no one would have wanted to be at seated kayak distance from the sluggish, smelly Scioto of days gone by.

The Scioto has a long way to go before it could be viewed as a natural river, but every journey begins with a single step. Kayaks on the water are a good sign.

The New Restaurant On The Block

It’s always exciting when a new restaurant opens in downtown Columbus. It’s especially exciting when the new restaurant is in your neighborhood, only a few steps away from your door. That’s why I’ve been keenly interested in following the progress as Speck Italian Eatery builds out its space and gets ready to open its doors. Recently, the name went up over the front door, as shown in the photo above, which it usually a good sign that the grand opening is not far away.

Speck was a beloved Delaware, Ohio landmark that decided to relocate to downtown Columbus. It offers what it calls “innovative modern Italian recipes” that drew raves from the customers who frequented its Delaware location. And, after our recent visit to Italy and Sicily, I’ve got a decided taste for more Italian cooking–so having a place nearby that offers that fare will be much appreciated.

It’s not clear exactly when Speck will open, but the scuttlebutt in the Gay Street District is that the restaurant is aiming for mid-July. Welcome to the neighborhood, Speck!

Back To Comfest

Here’s another reason to celebrate the end of the COVID pandemic: Comfest is back, and celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend at Goodale Park after a two-year pandemic-fueled absence. Today was a beautiful day, and it was clear that a lot of people thought, as I did, that a trip to Comfest was a good idea. The event was crowded, which made me wonder just how packed it will get tonight, when the partying really begins in earnest.

I spent the morning and early afternoon at the park, joining hundreds of my closest friends for a classic Columbus event. Comfest—which is short for Community Festival—attracts people from just about every part of the Columbus community and from all age groups, too. Some bring their lawn chairs and blankets; others just plop themselves down on the grass in one of the shady spots near the center of the action. Some come for the free music, some come for the crafts, clothing, and “head shop” gear sold at the many stands set up along the sidewalks of the park, some come for the food, and some come for the beer.

Judging from the long lines at the beer trucks, one of which is shown in the photo above, I’d say that beer was the most popular item at Comfest today–which is no surprise, because it was a hot, bright day. The food options were out in force, however, as shown in the photo below. There were a lot of people chowing down on fair-style classics like french fries in a cup, barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, and assorted sugary items, as well as on the offerings from food stands set up by local restaurants. I resisted both the beer and the fair food and just enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells of the Comfest. And the smells suggested, incidentally, that many of the Comfest attendees had medical conditions that qualified them to take advantage of Ohio’s medical marijuana law.

I like to sample the music being played, so I toured all of the Comfest stages, sitting down on the grass and just relishing the chance to hear live music in a crowd again. All of the bands were good, but my favorite was a power group that played on the Goodale stage, shown below, and sent out crushing waves of sound that left me and other audience members transfixed. With the Nationwide building and other downtown skyscrapers in the background and the music blaring, I realized once again that Comfest is a blast. If you are in town this weekend, it’s worth a visit.

Green Spaces (III)

One of the nicer, and smaller, parks in the downtown Columbus area is located right next to the Grange Insurance headquarters on South High Street. There doesn’t seem to be a sign naming the park, and Google Maps identifies it, simply, as “Grange Insurance South Green.”

That’s actually a pretty apt name for this lush, verdant, quiet, and well-landscaped spot just a few blocks south of the I-70/I-71 highway snarl, where the Grange buildings loom in the background. Most people aren’t aware of it, which is just fine with the locals who like to sit in the shade on one of the benches or take their dogs there for some happy outdoor playtime. In fact, it’s such a popular spot for our canine friends that some German Village residents refer to it as the “Grange Dog Park.”

That’s not quite fair, because the park isn’t only for our pooch pals to enjoy; it’s also a nice stopping point for anyone who is walking down High Street along the border of German Village. It’s not unusual to see visitors to Columbus taking a breather there on one of the benches, looking at a map and deciding where they are going to go next in the German Village/Brewery District area. That’s exactly why parks can play such a notable role in our communities: they send a message about valuing nature and outdoor spaces that resonates with both residents and tourists. I’m pretty sure that any visitor who enjoyed the “Grange Insurance South Green” came away with a more positive view of Columbus than they would have had otherwise.

The Individual Versus The Arc

TV has changed a lot since the three-network days of my youth. One of the more significant changes involves the basic concept of what you are trying to accomplish with a TV series. In those days, every series (that I can think of, at least) consisted of disconnected individual episodes, and what happened in one episode wouldn’t affect future episodes unless the producers decided to bring on a new character at the start of a season. Every episode began and ended with the Cartwrights back at the Ponderosa, or the Bunkers at their tidy house at 704 Houser Street in Queens, or Kirk, Bones, and Spock on the command deck of the Enterprise.

Now, many series focus not on individual episodes, but on broad season-long story arcs. Episodes may tell an individual tale within that overall framework, but each episode also must have at least some elements that advance the general seasonal story line. I’m not quite sure when the arc concept took hold, but it’s been here for a while.

Here’s the issue: the arc approach is wholly dependent on the quality of that overall story line for the season. If that story line is compelling and the individual episodes help to fulfill its promise, the show can be great. If the seasonal plot is stupid or annoying, on the other hand, each episode is yoked to that failure and weighed down by it. I was thinking of this very basic point as I watched two of the most recent Star Trek offerings. Star Trek: Picard follows the arc concept, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds doesn’t.

In my view, Picard exposes the intrinsic weakness of the arc concept: in both seasons, the seasonal story line just has not justified multiple episodes in the telling. As a result, the show has felt bloated and self-indulgent and overly impressed with the supposed importance of its message. I’ve watched it, because I’ll watch pretty much any Star Trek offering, but it really sets my teeth on edge.

On the other hand, Strange New Worlds is freed from the heavy messaging that has made Picard such a leaden exercise. To be sure, there are some general character points being illustrated, such as Captain Pike’s (apparent) awareness of his own future fate, but each episodes stands on its own. As a result, the show has a kind of liberated, old-school feel to it that is much more in line with the original Star Trek series. Whereas watching Picard grind on to the end of season became a grueling chore, watching Strange New Worlds has been enjoyable and fun. (I say this even though I groaned, initially, at yet another show involving Spock and other familiar characters, like Uhura and Chapel, rather than exploring totally new ground, but the show’s creators and writers have dealt with that issue in an intriguing way that I’ll probably address at some point after I’ve watched a few more episodes.)

I’m not saying that the arc approach to a TV series is necessarily flawed or doomed to inevitable failure; shows like Better Call Saul would refute such an argument. I’m just saying that if you’re going to go with the arc approach, you’d better be darned sure that the story line is important and robust enough to carry the heavy burden of multiple episodes. Not every story line merits that kind of treatment, and when it doesn’t, the show suffers mightily for it. The individual episode approach, in contrast, has a kind of built-in protection against the clinker story line. There might be a lame episode here and there, but the next week the crew is back in their places and a new, and hopefully better, story is ready to be told.

A Whale Of A Fish Tale

Fishermen are legendary for their powers of exaggeration, if not outright lies. From Cambodia, however, comes a story about fishermen landing a real whopper, with no puffery involved.

Cambodians fishing the Mekong River have caught what is believed to be the world’s largest freshwater fish. Weighing in at an absurd 661 pounds, the stingray required a dozen villagers to reel in and haul to shore. Consider, by way of comparison, that in America landing a bass that weighs more than 20 pounds is considered remarkable. The Cambodian stingray is more than 30 times heavier. Of course, no American lakes or rivers are inhabited by freshwater stingrays that are 13 feet long, either. In fact, I’d wager that any American angler who hooked a fish that looked like this record catch would probably drop their rod and reel in astonishment at what they had hooked.

Before the stingray was caught last week, the record freshwater fish was a 645-pound catfish caught in the Thailand section of the Mekong River in 2005. (Interestingly, there are reports of a 736-pound catfish caught in the Mississippi River, but apparently there must be some doubt about the size of that fish, because it isn’t mentioned in the story of the Mekong River catch.) In any event, the stingray will still be there in the Mekong River, ready to amaze future fishermen, because the villagers who caught it tagged and released it. And that is perhaps the coolest aspect of this fantastic fish tale.

The Power Of “THE”

As a matter of the English language, “the” is a definite article. Dictionary.com explains that “the” is “used, especially before a noun, with a specifying or particularizing effect, as opposed to the indefinite or generalizing force of the indefinite article a or an.”

Of course, any graduate or fan of The Ohio State University knows that “THE” is used with “a specifying or particularizing effect.” And, as of this week, so does the rest of the world–because this week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office registered “THE” as a trademark of the Ohio State University when that word is used on branded products associated with and sold through athletics and collegiate channels. That recognition reflects the efforts and emphasis of the many Ohio State athletes who have identified their alma mater as “THE Ohio State University” on sports broadcasts.

I think it is great that Ohio State has successfully registered “THE” as a trademark for THE University, because it bugs the crap out of other schools–like TTUN. Let those other schools stumble along with their indefinite articles or prepositions! Ohio State may not win the national championship, or even the Big Ten, every year, but we’ll always be “THE.”

Paying For Points

I belong to many different airline and hotel rewards programs (which I am sure the rewards program pros would say is not a good approach, by the way). Lately, it seems like I am increasingly being offered a chance to buy points or miles in those programs. That happens whenever I check in for a flight on one of my rewards program carriers. Similarly, one of the hotel programs recently sent an email announcing that I can get “free” miles by buying points and then having the hotel chain match the points I’ve purchased.

The notion of buying points or miles seems incredibly weird to me–like using real money to buy Monopoly money. Sure, points can be used to buy certain things, but there always are conditions, limitations, and strings attached. Why would you want to take money that can be used unconditionally, to purchase whatever you want, and convert it into something that can be used only to buy one thing, with restrictions? My inherent cheapskate tendencies rebel against that notion. At least some people who profess to be proficient in rewards programs agree that, except in very limited circumstances, paying for points or miles doesn’t make sense. And the exceptions kind of prove my point. You need to spend a lot of time with rewards program provisions to figure out whether your circumstances justifying buying the points or miles–and who has the time to study rewards program fine print?

There’s one other thing about the buying points or miles that bugs me: the program sponsors are being paid for doing nothing. It’s no wonder that prospect of purchasing points or miles is raised so frequently. And it also seems to distract from the businesses’ attention to their core activities, too. Rather than figuring out whether they can entice me to spend money on points or miles, I’d rather that the hotel chains focus exclusively on providing clean, decent rooms in good locations, and the airlines focus on offering safe, on-time, uncancelled flights.

The Pilot Shortage

America is facing a lot of shortages right now. One of them is a shortage of airline pilots, which is helping to make air travel a bit of a crap shoot.

This past weekend was a challenging one for the air travel industry, with many flights being delayed or cancelled. One of our flights was abruptly cancelled for no stated reason, requiring us to do some on-the-fly rebooking. According to the linked article, 370 flights were cancelled over the weekend. Some of the flight cancellations, and other flight delays, were attributed to severe weather in different parts of the country, but “staff shortages” also played a role.

The pilot unions at the major airlines say that the airlines haven’t been quick enough to replace pilots who have retired or left the job during the COVID pandemic, when the demand for air travel plummeted and some pilots objected to vaccination requirements. Now the demand for air travel has increased substantially, and there just aren’t enough pilots to meet the demand for flights.

The pilot shortage is affecting airline decisions in other ways, too. American Airlines has decided to stop flying to three airports–in Toledo, Ohio and Ithaca and Islip, New York–due to the pilot shortage. The pilot shortage has hit the small regional carriers, like the American Eagle brand, the hardest, as experienced pilots are lured from those brands to work at the mainline carriers, which can offer better pay, benefits, and work schedules. That’s tough news for cities like Toledo, where American’s departure means the airport will not be serviced by any major airline.

The other thing about a pilot shortage is that it won’t be solved overnight. It takes time and lots of training to become an airline pilot, and we passengers wouldn’t want the airlines to cut corners in finding pilots. That suggests that travelers should brace themselves for more staffing-related cancellations in the months ahead.

My First Visit To Buc-ee’s

Buc-ee’s is a kind of legendary business in these parts. I had my first experience with the legend during our brief visit to Austin, when we stopped at a Buc-ee’s off I-35 between Austin and New Braunfels. It is a gas station, to be sure, but calling Buc-ee’s a gas station would be like calling the Taj Mahal a building. You first get a sense of that reality when you pull in and see two seemingly endless rows of gas pumps. There is no waiting at Buc-ee’s!

It’s not just the dozens of gas pumps, either —everything at Buc-ee’s is outsized. The soft drink station offered pretty much every kind of soda you could imagine, and there was an entire wall of jerky that included seemingly exotic flavors like “Bohemian Garlic.” And even though the place was jammed, everything was spotlessly clean.

Speaking of spotlessly clean, Buc-ee’s also is famous for its sparkling and enormous restrooms. Strict adherence to the rigid standards of propriety that are a hallmark of this blog prevents the publication of any pictures, but I did confirm that the bathroom facilities were both immaculate and immense, with urinals on every wall. As I mentioned, there is no waiting at Buc-ee’s.

It’s pretty clear that the Texas natives love Buc-ees. They take selfies with the bronze Buc-ee’s ballcap-wearing beaver mascot at the entrance to the store and buy Buc-ee’s branded merchandise, like the cooler bags shown above. It’s not hard to see why they love the place. It’s huge, well-maintained, slightly overwhelming, and offers everything a traveler could possibly want. The whole Buc-ee’s experience screams “Texas.”

Which reminds me: did I mention that Buc-ee’s also has its own in-store barbecue station, which serves up a very credible version of the dish the Lone Star State loves?

The New Airline Announcement

In my recent travels, I’ve noticed that pilots and flight attendants have modified their pre-flight announcements. We no longer hear about how it is mandatory to wear a face mask that covers your nose and chin and how “neck gaiters” don’t cut it. Instead, the new announcement goes something like this:

“Due to a recent FAA announcement, face coverings are no longer mandatory on domestic flights. Whether passengers decide to wear a mask is a matter of personal choice. We ask that you respect the choices made by other passengers.”

In short, it’s pretty clear that the airlines think the skies aren’t that friendly anymore, and that they need to lecture us on how to behave lest arguments and fisticuffs break out between masked and non-masked passengers.

The fact that the airlines see a need to make that kind of personal behavior statement is weird and sad, but you can’t blame them: there have been multiple incidents of violent behavior by airline passengers in recent months. For what it’s worth, though, I’m not seeing any inclination by fellow passengers to mix it up over masks. Instead, there seems to be a kind of COVID exhaustion at work. Everyone on both sides seems to want to move on, rather than engaging on mask issues.

Let’s hope that this traditional American “live and let live” ‘tude continues to prevail and even spreads to encompass non-COVID issues, too. That would be a refreshing change.

Bier At New Braunfels

We’re in Austin for a quick weekend visit. Yesterday we drove to New Braunfels, Texas, a town located off I-35 between Austin and San Antonio. New Braunfels was settled by German immigrants and remains loud and proud about its German heritage. And when you think German, you think . . . beer. So it made sense that we stopped at Krause’s, a legendary Biergarten and restaurant just off the main drag.

Krause’s was, in a word, fantastic. If you’ve ever been to the original Hofbrau Haus in Munich, Krause’s will look very familiar to you. You can sit inside or outside, at long picnic tables, as shown in the photos above and below. Live zydeco music was playing from a stage at one end of the outdoor seating area, and the place was hopping. Because it was about 100 degrees outside (no exaggeration!) we sat inside, but right next to the door so we could enjoy the great music. It was a festive, colorful atmosphere that made for a fun lunch setting.

The Krause’s menu features a lot of German fare, which is right up my alley. I ordered chicken schnitzel, which came with a helping of beer cheese and fries. (It also came with colossal pieces of broccoli that were promptly deposited on Kish’s plate so as not to ruin the photo below.) The schnitzel was lightly breaded and fried just right, so that the chicken was juicy and quite tasty. The beer cheese was also good, and I did the scarpetta routine with my fries to enjoy every bite.

Oh, and I should mention the beer, shouldn’t I? Krauses’s offers an overwhelming beer menu, as reflected in the photo of the taps at the top of this post. I opted for a weissbier and was glad to see that it was served in a large, cool stein that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Hofbrau Haus. It had lots of flavor and went down easy in the scorching heat. so I decided to have another. As I lingered over a second cold beer, enjoying the company and the bouncy live music, and scarpettaing up the remnants of the bier cheese, I decided I liked New Braunfels just fine.

Outdoor Laps

I’ve been at meetings at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado over the past few days. It’s a very fine facility, with great amenities and beautiful grounds. It has one particular feature that I’ve enjoyed during my brief visit: an outdoor walkway that runs in a continuous loop around the pond and the swimming pool on the grounds. In short, you can do laps if you want. Every day I’ve joined other guests in doing laps around the grounds.

On the Broadmoor walking loop, you can easily distinguish the casual strollers from the ardent exercisers. The strollers are taking their time, smiling, and enjoying the scenery; the exercisers–some of whom wear headbands, by the way–have a much more serious expression on their faces and are moving at a faster clip, often weaving around other walkers and checking their watches with a dissatisfied huffiness, as if the mere fact that they have to take slight detours around other pedestrians could ruin their workouts. I’d like to think I fall somewhere in between those groups on the lap-walking spectrum.

I’ve become a dedicated treadmiller when I’m at home, but I’ve enjoyed doing some outdoor walking during my visit here. Treadmills offer certain advantages, like keeping you at a steady pace and allowing you to keep track of calories burned and miles covered, but walking outside, taking deep gulps of fresh air and enjoying beautiful scenery, obviously offers its own special advantages.

The Garden Of The Gods

Yesterday we took a break from meetings in Colorado Springs to hike around the Garden of the Gods, an amazing array of rock formations. You drive through suburban neighborhoods, basketball courts, and soccer fields, then suddenly you notice jagged and colorful rock formations off in the distance, with Pike’s Peak and the Rockies in the background, One of the formations is bleached white, as shown in the photo above, but most of them are a vibrant and deep red. That’s when you know you’ve reached the Garden of the Gods.

The colossal rock formations in the Garden are sandstone, and they trace their history back hundreds of millions of years, to the period after the “ancestral Rockies”–the mountain range that existed here before the current Rockies were formed–had been eroded down to low hills and sediment. The climate then dried out and the landscape was covered with huge sand dunes, which eventually were covered by new layers of sediment that caused the sand to become compacted, forming horizontal sheets of sandstone. When tectonic plate shifts created the Rockies millions of years later, the sandstone formations were tilted and thrust upward, creating the Garden. In short, the story of the Garden is the story of geology and the inexorable forces of planetary change and pressure that have changed the landscape. When you think about it, the story of the Garden is also a humbling reminder that the human lifetime is a drop in the bucket compared to the millennia that shaped the formations that we mortals now enjoy.

The Garden is an easy hike, with most of the walking on paved paths. It’s also a relatively short hike, because the formations are confined to a limited area. We walked from the overflow lot to the site, spent about an hour and a half walking around and seeing the different formations from different vantage points, and enjoying the red crags against the blue skies, the little windows between the rocks in some of the formations, and the rocky balancing acts like the one seen in the photo below.

It was a brilliantly sunny day, with only a few clouds drifting across a bright blue sky, making for perfect conditions for taking photos of the formations. One thing to keep in mind if you visit the Garden of the Gods is that it is a dry climate and you will be changing elevation as you walk up and down–which means you’re going to want to bring a water bottle. We remembered to bring ours and were glad we did, because by the time our visit was ended we had drained our water supply.

One of the trails leads upward, via a series of steps, to a point where there is very little vegetation and visitors can scramble out onto the rock. Taking that trail allows you a close-up view of the sandstone and see some of the sedimentary layering, and allows you to get a better sense of how the area was formed. Except for a lone bush, you might as well be on the surface of Mars.

Some of the sheer rock faces are available for experienced and well-equipped rock climbers. During our visit we saw some hardy climbers on the top of one of the tallest formations. You can see the climbers below, as a tiny dot just to the left of the pinnacle of the formation on the right side of the photo. They must have had an amazing view of the Garden and the Rockies beyond.

From the upper trail you also get an interesting view of some of the formations, jutting dramatically above the surrounding trees, giving the observer a breathtaking vista that is a study in reds, blue, and greens. Whether you are an amateur geologist, or just interested in taking a walk through some beautiful scenery, the Garden of the Gods is worth a visit.