Demolition Derby Day

Yesterday was Demolition Derby Day at the Blue Hill Fair.  Having never been to a demolition derby before, we had to go — and we’re glad we did.

A few thoughts about demolition derbies.  First, they’re popular.  At the Blue Hill Fair, the demolition derby is one of the hottest events going.  We had to wait in a long line for our tickets, and 800 avid demolition buffs ultimately crammed the grandstands to watch already ramshackle cars bash into each other until the steam started spouting, parts were flying, hoods and axles were ripped from their vehicles, and the cars could move no more.  Second, they involve very robust warning signage at the entrances.  We were cautioned that the grandstands could be pelted with flying bits of metal, clods of dirt, and other debris that could cause serious injury and advised that we were accepting the risk by attending.  Of course, this warning deterred absolutely no one, and little kids were among the fans watching the carnage.  And third, a demolition derby seems like a classically American way to dispose of old cars.  Forget about Cash for Clunkers — demolition derbies combine the American taste for waste and violence and clearly are the best way to get rid of the rambling wrecks on the Great American Road.

If you’ve never been to a demolition derby, the rules are simple.  The cars — which have been thoughtfully stripped of all glass windows, headlights, taillights, radiators, and other parts that might go flying into the stands or slice the competitors to ribbons — start at opposite ends of a dirt track directly in front of the spectators that is bounded by concrete barriers.  After the crowd counts down, the vehicles then proceed to ram into each other, with rear-end collisions being the preferred method, until only one car is able to move.  The only rule is that the cars can’t target the driver’s side doors of the other cars in the derby.  The bloodlust quickly came out in the crowd (myself included) and we cheered lustily for the best collisions and the drivers who kept ramming even when their cars were beat to hell.  My favorite was the #17 car pictured below, which kept at it even after its wheels were bent and virtually every piece of metal on the frame had been ripped off or pounded into scrap.  Alas, gutty #17 was reduced to immobility by a huge hit and couldn’t finish, but when the derby was ended the driver received an ovation from the grateful crowd.  His vehicle was then towed or carted off the track, along with virtually every other participant in the derby.

I didn’t think I would like a demolition derby, but it was a riot.  What’s next?  I’m thinking giant tractor pulling contests and monster truck rallies.

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Off-Brand Brands

When you go to the grocer, you’re likely to see at least two options for whatever product you buy.  One option — and often more than one — will always be a major, national brand that is a familiar name that you see advertised on national TV.  The other option will be the off-brand product.  That’s the product that doesn’t advertise on TV and is typically sold for a significantly cheaper price than the major national brand.

I often buy the off-brand alternatives.  Why not?  If I’m buying non-dairy coffee creamer, it really doesn’t make any difference to me whether I’m getting whatever mixture is put together by the national brand or the combination developed by the alternative.  In my experience, the off-brand is often just as good as the brand, and I feel I’ve prudently  saved a few bucks on my grocery bill.

Plus, I like checking out the names of the off-brand product producers.

Typically, the off-brand alternatives are regional in scope and are affiliated with grocery store chains.  You’ll see different off-brand names and options in Columbus than you would in, say, Boise, Idaho.  And often the names are clever plays on words that also are a bit defensive in nature, and geared toward convincing you that the products are really just as good as the national brands — or at least reasonably close.

For example, in Maine off-brand options have names like Heluva Good (as in Heluva Good cheddar cheese), Shur Fine, and Best Yet.  Heluva Good suggests that it will exceed normal off-brand consumer taste and quality expectations.  Shur Fine doesn’t make quite so bold a promise, but still conveys that it will provide ultimate user satisfaction.  But Best Yet is a bit curious.  It’s not addressing consumer reactions, it’s comparing the current product to predecessors.  It suggests that the producer is still tinkering with the formula, experimenting, and coming up with marginal improvements over last year’s offering.  Best Yet is hedging, rather than staking out a clear position.

I’ve been using the Best Yet non-dairy coffee creamer, and it’s perfectly fine.  Now that I think of it, Perfectly Fine would be a heluva good brand for an off-brand product, too.

 

Roots Music

Last night we visited the Burnt Cove Church Community Center to catch a performance of the Loose Cannon Jug Band.  It was a foot-stomping, knee-tapping way to end a sunny Saturday on the Labor Day weekend.

The LCJB is five musicians who play just about every traditional musical instrument you can think of:  tenor banjo, guitars, fiddle, harmonica, squeeze box, washboard, . . . and two jugs, of course.  The only thing they seemed to be missing was a spoons player.  They performed traditional songs and original creations, all in the style of early blues, bouncy gospel, and other American roots music of the ’20s and ’30s.  The songs, old and new, were terrific and often funny, and the band members all seemed to be having a great time — which meant that the audience was having a great time, too.  The audience sing-along to Mud Flat Laundromat was a highlight.

The Loose Cannon Jug Band show was one of the many offerings of the Summer Entertainment Series in Stonington.  For a small community, the Series offers an impressive array of shows — in fact, last night there was a second performance, of folk music, at the Opera House itself.  The LCJB show occurred at the Burnt Cove Church, pictured below, which is a beautiful old church turned into a performance venue, complete with pews for seating and pressed tin ceiling.  When the band launched into one of their raucous gospel numbers about sin and Satan, it was a perfect combination of sound and setting.

Franchise Free

One of the great things about Stonington, Maine is that it’s far off the beaten path.  So far, in fact, that it’s totally franchise-free.  You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks here.  In fact, you’d have to drive dozens of miles into the mainland before you hit your first  franchise fast food restaurant or coffee shop.

Located at the tip of Deer Isle, out in the middle of Penobscot Bay, Stonington is just too small and too remote for the big franchise chains.  That means if you’ve got to start your day with some kind of Starbucks brand caramel-topped pumpkin spice latte grande, this just isn’t the place for you.  (It also means that you won’t find a discarded Starbucks coffee cup or a McDonald’s wrapper around town, either.)

inn-on-the-harbor

That doesn’t mean that Stonington lacks for coffee or the other amenities of modern life.  Instead, locally owned businesses have filled the niche that would otherwise be filled by the big chains.  There’s a great coffee shop called 44 North where you can get your java fix, and there are really good restaurants, ranging from the classic home-cooked offerings offered at the Harbor Cafe (pictured above, where the haddock chowder is addictive and you have to save room for dessert) and Stonecutters Kitchen and the Fin and Fern to the more high-end fare found at Acadia House Provisions and Aragosta.  The other businesses in town are locally owned, too — and some of them are employee-owned co-ops.

The local ownership adds a certain indefinable quality to the buying experience.  There are signs around the island noting that buying from local businesses means local jobs, and that’s clearly the case.  It actually makes you want to shop at the local options and support the local economy, in a way that just doesn’t apply to stopping at a national chain operation.

It’s all a pretty old school approach.  There’s nothing wrong with the big companies and their franchises, of course, but it’s nice to be reminded of what America was like before large-scale national brands took hold and unique local businesses lined the sidewalks along Main Street.

In The Public Domain

A few days ago we went to buy groceries.  In the coffee aisle I found a bag of ground coffee sold by a local company that was called the “Einstein Blend” and featured a drawing of Albert Einstein sipping a cup of coffee.  The slogan under the drawing read:  “An intelligent, medium roast blend of African and Costa Rican coffees.”

Albert Einstein, that unique, world-changing genius, probably the most famous scientist in history, on the cover of a coffee packet?  What’s the world coming to?

The value, and price, of being famous is that your image has value.  But at some point your image and likeness is no longer your own.  When a notable person dies, the clock starts ticking, and ultimately the right to publicity expires and the famous person’s image and likeness slip into the public domain for anyone to use.  That’s why it’s not unusual to see Abraham Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all, in TV ads for car insurance and other products of the modern world.  In the case of the Discoverer of the Theory of Relativity, who died in 1955, a 2012 court ruling concluded that his post mortem publicity rights had expired.  As a result, Albert Einstein’s grandfatherly likeness, with that familiar halo of hair and wise, kindly look in his eyes, is now fair game for advertisers.

At least coffee is a product that Einstein actually used (and enjoyed), unlike Abe Lincoln and car insurance.  And by the way, I bought a pack of the Einstein Blend — how could I not? — and it’s pretty good coffee.  Drinking it, I feel smarter already.

 

Inferences From A Magazine Rack

When you’re killing time during a long layover in an airport, and a Hudson News is the only non-fast food place to visit, you tend to check out the magazine rack. So, what does the generic airport magazine rack tell you?

First, it tells you that magazines aren’t exactly thriving. The current magazine rack is pretty shrimpy by comparison to the full wall of magazines you found in the old days. Airport book options are shrinking, too.

Second, it suggests that modern Americans aren’t all that interested in serious reading. Once you go past The Economist, you’ve pretty much exhausted the serious reading category. Time and Newsweek have become the print equivalent of clickbait and don’t even try to present themselves as serious journalism. The rest of the shelves are devoted to the celebrity culture and the Royals — which is pretty much the same thing. How many interviews with, say, Taylor Swift is a person going to read?

And third, has any celebrity couple been the subject of a longer run in the romantic speculation/break-up/make-up category than Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt? Didn’t they first hit the gossip rags more than 20 years ago? And yet here they are, the subject of rumor and speculation and disclosures by purported insiders. In the history of American popular culture, is there any other couple that has had greater tittle-tattle staying power than these two?

Atop Camelback

I’ve enjoyed spending some time in Boise, Idaho, over the last few months.  It reminds me of Columbus in some ways — it’s a growing town with a good foodie scene and a significant college vibe, thanks to Boise State University — but of course it’s different in come ways, too.  One difference in the overall vibe is the foothills (in flat Columbus, we’d call them mountains) that are found very close to the downtown area.

We decided to hike up Camelback, which is only a few blocks from the core downtown area, up 8th Street through a very cool neighborhood.  Once you reach the trail head, you can walk straight up to the Camelback overlook, or vie with the mountain bikers, horseback riders, joggers, and dogwalkers on one of the main trails that fan out into the area.  We took one of the trails first, heading out into the sagebrush and arid scenery, then ended the excursion with the cool Camelback overlook and its nice view of downtown Boise and the Idaho Statehouse dome.

It’s amazing what a little elevation near downtown can do for you.  Of course, I’m not sure that many downtown officeworkers hike up dusty Camelback on their lunch hours.