Category: Storytelling

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Amazon Across America

My first reaction to Amazon buying Whole Foods is “Huh?” Few brands could be any more different. The online retailer is all about giving customers the most for the least amount spent, while the grocer is the pricey purview of the alt-organic lifestyle elite. No moment is better metaphor for Whole Foods’ clientele than the exchange I heard between a thirtysomething couple standing at the deli holding chicken luncheon meat. “Is it free range?” the women asked her husband. It had to be, or she wouldn’t buy. They argued. I silently chuckled: luncheon meat—not a bird! It’s all pressed meat, Honey. You do know that?

But from another perspective, and one transcending retail store presence, are other considerations, like brand affinity and buyer demographics. For the first, Amazon may be all about value, but in an increasingly middle-class and well-to-do demographic kind of way, particularly among city dwellers. Despite sharing similar cut-throat margin, expansive business philosophies with Walmart, Amazon doesn’t carry the same stigma among the socially conscious “better-thans”. For the second, who do you think plunks down 99 bucks a year for Prime membership or can’t wait for two-day free delivery or is too busy to go to the store to buy groceries? Without hard numbers to back the supposition, I’d bet there is lots of existing and potential regular shopper overlap among these customers and those who walk Whole Foods’ aisles. 

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Christmas in June?

I spotted Santa Claus while walking in Balboa Park this afternoon. He was out for a stroll—to where is anyone’s guess. An elf helper tagged along, so surely there was some purpose. After passing him, I stopped. Hesitated. Stepped forward. Then turned around and approached Mr. Kringle, rather than let the moment pass. I asked to shoot a portrait.

As you would expect, Santa responded jovially, accepting the invitation. While couching low with Leica Q, I asked about his presence, joking that it wasn’t Christmas in July. He smiled and said something about Christmas being every day for people who keep it in their hearts. Now that is a lovely sentiment. 

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Joe College

I started writing song lyrics around age 14, when given a typewriter. I long had fancied myself a lyricist, and you can be the judge by reviewing some of the verse. Songwriting was harder, but the first song came to me while walking home from high school (gasp) 40 years ago—perhaps a May day like this one, year of my graduation. I don’t recall the date. All my writings from the 1970s and 80s were left, and later lost, in Vermont circa 1989.

“Joe College” is simple, purposely repetitive, and peppy. I remember trying to hold the melody and words together in my head as I rushed back to my bedroom. The tune, as first inspired, changed because of short-term memory loss before being committed to permanent neural storage. Strangely—and I do mean strangely—the inspiration came from an animated Peanuts special, which in part featured Snoopy the dog as Joe Cool attending college. 

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The Ring Returns

Yesterday, I put on my wedding ring for the first time in 13 years. The saga starts in January 2004, in an incident described in missive: “Man on the Train“. I got poison ivy—in Winter, no less—after giving a homeless guy money while riding the DC Metro. That was the suspected scenario from my then doctor, now retired, Gabe Mirkin, a well-known fitness physician whose office was around the block from our house. Dr. Mirkin surmised that the homeless dude had residue on his hands and clothes from sleeping outdoors. Brrrr.

I closed the blogpost recounting the incident: “My left hand is so swollen, today I may ask a jeweler to cut off my wedding ring”. And I did, returning to White Flint Mall, where was the store from which my wife and I bought matching gold bands in 1989. The shop had closed, but another jeweler expertly performed a clean hackjob. Whoa, color returned to my finger! White Flint is gone now, BTW. The upscale mall was torn down in summer 2015. WTH? 

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Regarding ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Before my wife started watching the new series streaming from Hulu, I warned her: “I can’t imagine how I would feel if a woman”. I had already finished first hour “Offred” from the production based on 1985 tome The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Three episodes are online now—and their tone and timeliness are visceral and all too familiar, like was the Battlestar Galactica miniseries that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks by two years. There is something that is too real, too possible—and, unlike the so-called Trump “Resistance”, I don’t refer to the current government in Washington, D.C. No imminent right-wing coup is on the horizon, as so many Liberals want to believe. That’s as fictional as The Handmaid’s Tale.

What’s disturbing is another kind of currency, which is largely lost in the torrent of “it could happen here” commentary: The plight of women portrayed in the series isn’t far removed from what many of them experience elsewhere in 2017. Not in some alternate-reality United States, but across swaths of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—if not both American continents and Europe. Severity may vary by degrees, but where on this planet isn’t there, at the least, some vestige of the subservient, objectified woman? Liberals, who as a class supposedly champion for the human rights of all people, shouldn’t ignore what is while obsessing about what might be for fear it could happen to them. 

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Fly the Unfriendly Skies

Spanning most of my career, whether working as analyst or journalist, I have repeatedly railed against how U.S. law treats businesses—essentially as people. Reason: Moral dichotomy, where the ethical priorities of publicly-traded companies vastly differ from—and often contradict with—values of the people founding, running, or working for them. Keyword is value, where one usage refers to beliefs and another to money; meaning stock price and proceeds returned to shareholders.

My first, best articulation of this concept came during an April 2006 radio interview—I believe for NPR marketplace—when discussing major U.S. search providers Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo censoring results in China, at the government’s insistence. Behind the action there loomed censorship’s morality, such as restricting search terms like “democracy”. I expressed that there is no moral high ground in business. The high ground is quagmire, because all public companies share a single, moral objective: Make profits for stockholders. Plain, pure, and simple. Sadly, that moral agenda explains why United Airline’s PR week from Hell is Heaven for shareholders. Overbooking means the carrier fills seats; operations are lean and mean (quite literally, the latter). 

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Praise Be Citizen Journalists

On this Easter, like others, I think about resurrection—but this day, strangely, how it should apply to the news media. Three years ago, I wrote largely-overlooked ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers. The concept germinated from my June 2009 essay “Iran and the Internet Democracy“, following protests in the country that citizens documented on social media/self-publishing platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which at the time were little more than three years old (with respect to availability to the public). I predicted that these nascent services would disrupt editorial monopolies on news and other information, which has occurred in varying degrees during the nearly eight years since.

By March 2010, a troubling trend lead me to write what would become the other genesis for the book: “The Difference Between Blogging and Journalism“. Too many news gatherers single-source blog and socially-shared posts, without independently confirming their accuracy. As I have told my reporters over the years, when working as an editor: Write only what you know to be true. If you haven’t communicated directly with the source, then you don’t know what’s true. But I am more disturbed by social media activity that mainstream media presents as news, such as stories that turn trending topics, or simply single tweets, into clickable headlines. Often they’re unconfirmed filler for driving pageviews. 

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Warning: Kids and Cats at Play

This sign, spotted for the first time today, adorns the yard where lives Pepe, whom I featured in the Cats of University Heights series on March 9, 2017. His owners have two preschool children and another feline, and I wonder what prompted the warning because of yesterday’s sad sighting: A dead cat on the side of the road, a block-and-a-half further down Cleveland Ave. towards Washington Street.

My wife and I came upon the short-hair, tiger-tabby while walking to the bank to close out her dad’s account. Annie gasped, seeing the poor creature first. My immediate concern: That he was the three-legged feline that lives two houses away. He appeared in the Cats series on Nov. 13, 2016. Luckily not. Having photographed more than 50 furballs around the neighborhood, I was grieved to stand over the kitty, which someone had mercifully moved to the curb. 

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Lemonade Stand

The Fujifilm X100F is now my nearly-always outdoor companion—a role iPhone 7 Plus had filled. The camera is compact and light and comfortably slings over the shoulder attached to the ONA Lima strap. Earlier today, my wife and I walked down Maryland Ave. toward The Hub plaza in Hillcrest. Along the way, we passed a lemonade stand, with some kids fundraising for the local elementary school, Alice Birney. They had already raised $60 when I snapped the pic, at 1:15 p.m. PST. Somebody paid more than the requested 25 cents a cup. Hehe.

The Featured Image is a crop of the original, which is visible below the fold. Both versions are unaltered, except for horizontal cropping to the first and straightening of both. The visual cue is different in each, though. The first is aligned vertically with the lemonade stand and the original against the house in the background. 

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The Two Metaphors

Talk to long-time residents in the University Heights neighborhood and ask if they remember my father-in-law, when yes, the answer typically is the same: Riding his bicycle. A lanky man of advanced age makes a long-lasting impression—must be since he gave up the two-wheeler five years ago. Here, he rides a new bike down Cleveland Ave., on Nov. 13, 2008. At that time, he rode 1.5 km or more most every day—including jaunts down Washington Street that even I wouldn’t risk. By 2012, he switched to a pedal-electric hybrid. A few weeks before Thanksgiving that year, someone stole Bob’s bike from his apartment complex’s laundry room, after failing to get coins from the washing machines. He never rode again.

Today, my wife and I closed out her dad’s apartment. He died on Jan. 11, 2017, the month after reaching 95 years-old. The last item to go was his kitchen table and chairs, which I posted for free to Craigslist. I stared long at the smokey-glass top table, reminiscing, while waiting for the pickup. Anne or I spent most of our time visiting her dad seated there together. Somehow it’s fitting the dining furniture should be the last belongings to leave his place. 

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Missing Kuma

Five years ago, Jan. 15, 2012—also a Sunday—our Maine Coon, Kuma, glanced up at me quizzicality before shimmying under the back gate and into oblivion. We never met eyes again. I still feel guilty about his loss. The cat and I had developed a bond of trust, which I betrayed by letting him out at 6 a.m, into darkness—alone. Typically, he left the apartment an hour later with me as see-him-off, down-the-alley companion. Sixteen days later, city workers found his collar in a nearby canyon, leading us to believe that a coyote got our bear, which is Kuma’s meaning in Japanese.

The 18-month-old Maine Coon and I were constant companions in our apartment building’s courtyard, where I often wrote news stories on my laptop. I have fond memories of Kuma coming and going, slipping under the back gate. Even now, I still look for him when walking up from the alley or along the street when returning home. I no longer work outdoors, because it unsettles the other cats, Cali and Neko, which want to come out, too.