Christmas Wrap-Up From '08-'09!

Man, I talk about being all good and posting this year's Christmas narrative, and then before I know it three weeks fly by. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose!

Since I live in Minnesota and my family lives in Illinois, I had to get a considerable amount of time off from my job in order to visit them for the Christmas holidays. I thought that this would be a problem, seeing as I have to coordinate work schedules at two locations, but it turned out not to be an issue at all. I would leave Monday night after work (11PM) and return for work on Monday the following week (before 2PM). That would give me almost a full week to spend with my family. Happy times!

I packed my van in the afternoon and left straight from work, taking sunflower seeds and two Extra Strength Five-Hour Energy along with me to keep me awake. I had plenty of music along as well, because, after all, this was going to be a seven-hour drive. Things went smoothly for the first forty-five minutes, and then I hit my first snag - I had no music.

The music set-up in my van is a bit unorthodox. As I explained in this post, my van doesn’t have a working sound system; I use computer speaker hooked up to a converter that runs off my cigarette lighter outlet. Since I moved, those speakers have been moved to my desk, and a new set of Audio-Technica speakers are now in my van. The problem is that the power adaptor for those speakers is so large that it occupies the space of the other outlet, which is where I would normally plug in my iPod. My 6GB iPod Mini no longer has any amount of usable battery life left, and thus has to be plugged in all the time. I thus had a problem: I needed both the iPod and the speakers plugged in to have any music, and I could only plug in one at a time. You’d think I would’ve noticed this problem and solved it before I set out, but, alas, I didn’t. So I didn’t have any music.

The driving nonetheless went smoothly until I got to about 150 miles west of Madison, WI, where upon I hit a snowstorm. Speed was universally dropped to below 50mph, and I and a bunch of trucks puttered through Wisconsin at two in the morning. The wind was blowing snow everywhere, and I couldn’t see anything save for the truck in front of me. To make matters worse, trucks would pass me and kick snow up into my windshield, further restricting my vision. This storm lasted for about one hundred miles, and then lifted. But the worst was yet to come.

I could see a little bit better now, but I still had to follow the ruts made in the highway snow by the trucks. These ruts were the only clear spots of pavement on the highway, and I decided it would be a good idea to stay in side them. Then a truck passed me, kicking snow in my face for the hundredth time of the night, and I decided I wasn’t going to stand for it any longer. I sped up to 65 to ensure that I no truck would pass me, ensuring that I could see the road well. It was a grueling pace; one that I was bound to abandon sooner or later.

Unfortunately, sooner came rather than later. I was wide awake at 3:45, December 23rd, 2008, mile marker #144 on I-90 East, when my wheels veered ever so slightly to the left onto the snow-covered yellow line and I lost traction. My van, all 8,500lbs of it, plowed into the center grass strip through eight inches of snow. Frankly, I was amazed I stayed upright. For a very real second, I thought I was going to be stuck on my right side, wheels spinning, in the middle of the highway at four in the morning. But I was alive, upright, and conscious. I flicked on my emergency flashers. Man, I thought to myself, what was I going to do now? I reached for my CB.

I had bought a brand-new, still-in-the-box CB radio at Goodwill a month earlier, because I thought it was cool and because I had never owned a CB before. It was one of those nostalgia-for-things-you-never-owned-or-used type of deals. Anyway, I had it along with me, so I flicked it to channel nine and radioed out. “Breaker Oh-nine, this is, uh, the huge van stuck in the ditch.” Heck, I had never used a CB before. What was I supposed to say? I had the inkling feeling, however, that my handheld CB sucked, and that no one heard me. So I called my mom. My mom was immediately concerned, obviously, but there wasn’t really anything she could DO for me, so after talking briefly with her and my Dad, I hung up. I suppose this would also be a good time to mention that my van has no heat. It was not warm. Here I was in the middle of a snowy ditch in a van that had no heat. My feet were already pretty numb even before I slid off the road, and the prospect of frostbite didn’t appeal to me at all. It was in the middle of thinking how unattractive black toes are when I saw a car going the opposite way slow down, put on its flashers and stop on the shoulder. This is how I met Rhonda.

Rhonda was Canadian, in her late 20’s/early 30’s, had a cute little toy dog that was hyperactive, and drove a blue, four-door Toyota Yaris. Let’s take a moment here to acknowledge how screwed up it is that, while dashing across the interstate at four in the morning to meet a stranger who stopped to help me, I do a complete mental run-down of her car. Anyway, Rhonda was very concerned and offered to call a tow-truck, for which I was grateful, and let me hop into her very warm car to thaw out my toes, for which I was even more grateful. I had barely closed her car door, however, when a state trooper pulled up to my van. I got out of the Yaris, and ran back to greet the officer.

“Is this your vehicle?” he asked.
“Yeah, it is,” I answered.
“Ok. Go tell that guy up there to get off the road,” the officer ordered, “or he’s gonna get rear-ended.”

I ran back to the Yaris, opened the door, and told Rhonda, smiling, “The officer wants you to beat it.”
“Excellent. I’m out of here then.”
“Thanks again for stopping. I really appreciate it.”

I waved goodbye, and she motored off westward. I ran back to the officer, who by now had radioed for a tow-truck to come and winch me out.

“You just go back and stay in your vehicle now until the tow truck arrives, ok?” he said.
“I would, but my vehicle has no heat, sir.”
“Your vehicle has no heat!?”
“No, sir.”
“Well, I guess you’ll have to get in my cruiser then.”

And thus, I got to ride in a police car for the first time in my life.The officer was clearly annoyed that he would have to stay around and keep me warm until the truck arrived, but he was a very good sport about it. Though the cruiser wasn’t perfect (the back seat has almost no leg room and my feet didn’t warm up one bit) it was certainly better than freezing to death in my van.

The tow tow truck took about half an hour to arrive, winched me out with no trouble, charged me $150, which I paid in cash on the spot, and by 5:20 I was back on track, rolling down the Wisconsin highway. I had lost a little bit of time and a lot of money (the statie gave me a ticket for going too fast for conditions), but was happy that things hadn’t been worse. I was thankful that I hadn’t rolled over, that the trooper let me stay warm, and that my van wasn’t harmed.

I continued the trip, but my nerves were shot. I was so afraid of going off the road again that I kept my speed to 50 and gripped the wheel tightly with both hands for the entire three hours left of my trip. I had to fill up for gas around 6:30, so exited and pulled into a BP station. I filled up both my tanks and then walked to a nearby diner. I ate four eggs, over-easy, downed a glass of water, and just sat at the counter, trying to calm my nerves.

I arrived at my parents house just before 9 am, a little under ten hours after I had left. I was still wide awake, thanks to the Five-Hour Energy, and remained alert and coherent until about 2PM, at which time I had been up for 26 hours, and then crashed.

Thankfully the return trip was completely uneventful, and during the time in between I played a lot of Guitar Hero World Tour, ate a lot of good food, played a lot of family games, and even shoveled a bit of snow and helped out with washing dishes.

My family doesn’t have a lot of long-standing traditions beyond stockings and gifts (not even a Christmas tree), and because of that, I had no idea what I would miss once I was living alone when the season rolled around. When late December, 2007, finally came, I actually didn’t think that I would miss anything. I mean, sure, I missed being with my family, but that was ongoing and not specifically related to Christmas. One, thing, however, did hit me. I spent the Sunday before Christmas that year with my friend Dan and his family in Lancaster, PA. We went to a conservative Lutheran church that morning, and during the service I realized what I missed more than anything else during the Christmas season. Listening to the Christmas hymns being sung around me, a tear rolled down my cheek I realized that what I really missed was hearing my father’s voice sing the Christmas hymns that he loved so dearly. My father used to sing me and my brother to sleep at night when we were little, and every year of my life I had heard my father sing hymns in church.

On Christmas Eve of this year, however, my family and I went to a late-night candle-light service, and I got to hear my father sing; his low, baritone singing the harmony to songs loved the world over. And again it hit me, how blessed I truly am to have a family that loves me, a car that runs, and to be part of a tradition in which certain songs are timeless.


submit to reddit


The Combini and Filling Station as Unique Aspects of Culture

When was the last time you wanted a snack or a drink really suddenly, or forgot you needed an extra pack of cigarettes? What did you do? Chances are, if you were in the neighborhood of a convenient store, you drove or walked over there to get what you needed. Once inside, maybe you realized you needed some other things too, like milk, bread, or cough drops. You bought the items, and walked outside. Now, if you had driven there, you might decide that you also needed some gas, and took the opportunity to fill up. You have just had a uniquely suburban American experience.

Because the expansion of the suburban US was based around the automobile and, subsequently, the highway, gas stations and convenient stores have mostly evolved as one and the same. It seems natural to be able to stop by the gas station on the way home if you suddenly realize you need bread or some other grocery item. The separation of the convenient store and the gas station is seen only in very urban areas, at least in America. In other cultures, in this case I will highlight Japanese culture, it is not always the case.

Take a look at this picture. This is a Casey’s General Store, a chain prevalent in the upper midwest United States despite its name being best said in a Southern drawl. It is in a suburban neighborhood, as evident by the houses around it. It is not stranded on some highway exit oasis. It has a few gas pumps, and inside you will likely find fresh pots of coffee, donuts, coolers full of soda pop, bags of chips, and beef jerky, among many other things. The store will probably stock some basic automotive items, such as motor oil and air fresheners, and along one window will be a magazine rack, filled with glossy periodicals. Behind the counter you will also probably find cigarettes and in the back cooler, depending on the state, there will be alcohol. In short, it seems to be a typical American convenient store. I imagine that the store follows the formula typical of just about any so-called “convenient store” around the globe. But why the gas pumps? Why is shopping for goods and gassing your car associated with one another? Because of America’s fondness for the automobile and the prevalence of it in the expansion of suburban American life across the continent.

Japan is a nation that loves its cars. They are very good at making them, as evidenced by the availability of Mazdas, Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans, etc, all around the world. But cars came to Japan after the country was already entirely settled. Cars were a luxury; a way of getting from Point A to Point B more quickly as opposed to exploring a brand-new Point C. As such, the homogeneity that convenient stores have with gas station in the US did not play out the same way as it did in Japan. Indeed, convenient stores and gas station in japan are two entirely separate businesses. Popular convenient store, or combini, brands in Japan such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, FamilyMart, AM/PM, Sunkus and MiniStop have nothing to with selling gasoline, instead leaving that to well-known petrol brands such as Shell, Jomo, Esso, Eneos, and Cosmo. These filling stations almost always have garages and car-washes attached to them as well. They are also the hubs of the local automotive culture. Hot-rodders congregate at the local gas stations late at night, admiring one anothers’ cars, and full-service attendants will pump your gas, wash your windows, and empty your cars ashtray with a smile. A Japanese gas station will occasionally have a restroom or vending machine inside, but not much else. Certainly not food.

Combinis, on the other hand, are always stocked with a wealth of foods, drinks (both hard and soft), cigarettes, magazines, and household items. Most will even stock toys and video games and will let you pay your cellphone and utility bills! These goods and services are almost never found in American convenient stores. There are a few other notable differences as well.

Combinis do not have fountain drinks. This is indicative of Japan in general, actually, where free-refill-type fountain drinks are rarely found.
• Also related to drinks, combinis do not have fresh coffee. Japan seems to have cornered the market on canned coffee (though the legitimacy of actual competition in this market is debatable), and most coffee in Japan is thus sold in a can.
• Japan in general is not a big consumer of beef jerky. While in any American gas station one can be expected to be confronted with a wall of dried beef as soon as they enter the store, this is not the case in a combini.
• Apart from a delicious dish called oden, very little food in a combini is what Americans would consider “fresh”. While it’s true that most food in a combini is encased in plastic, it does taste surprisingly fresh once removed and eaten. I attribute this to the ease of transport across Japan (though I mean mainly Tokyo and other cities here). Food is able to to be moved quickly, allowing for fresher food on the combini shelves. It is wrapped in plastic because, well, let’s face it, nearly everything in Japan comes wrapped in plastic.
• Lottery is handled by a separate system in Japan, and combinis do not sell lotto tickets.
• Despite having bottled soft drinks in the store, most combinis will have vending machines right outside the door selling the exact same things! Not only do Japanese vending machines sell drinks, but also tobacco and alcohol as well. It is truly curious to see vending machines right outside of the stores.

While it s no secret that frameworks of commerce in countries reflect the lifestyles of its people, I find it really interesting to compare the cultural differences evident when contrasting the American filling station and convenient store with the Japanese combini and gas station. Japan clearly was a nation where the combini came first and cemented itself as the go-to spot for spur-of-the-moment groceries and other goods, while the gas stations sprung up later to cater solely to the automotive needs and demands of a growing economy. In America, however, the growth was synergic, resulting is brands like BP, Casey’s General Store, WaWa, and Texaco that have a good deal of food and home products for the man or woman on the go. Such contrasts are beautiful examples of diversity in this increasingly connected world, and should be enjoyed and treasured.


submit to reddit


Buying a Powerball Ticket - The Key to Happiness, Fulfilled Dreams, and Camaros?

My local paper, the Pioneer Press, ran a syndicated article today telling how, even in these hard economic times, people are buying lottery tickets. In fact, they are buying more lottery tickets than they normally do. I thought that this was only true of alcohol sales during a recession, but I guess I was wrong. Perhaps, even, the two are related?

I can, however, attest to booming Powerball sales at my station, though this might have more to do with the recent improvement in odds and the Chevrolet Camaro giveaway promotion than the poor economy.

The article goes on to interview a Tennessee man who concedes that, yes, the money he spends on the lottery ($100/week) would be better spent elsewhere, but “everybody has dreams.” This is how this man copes with life - by entertaining his dreams.

I like dreams. I think that, sometimes, dreams can generate increased productivity. But not these kinds of dreams. Not dreams that only exist to help release dopamine into you system - that help you ignore what’s going on around you.

A few fortnights ago, I accidentally bumped by elbow in to the touch-screen lotto machine and bought myself a $1 Northstar Cash ticket. What followed was the worst Friday night that I can remember (other than St. Patty’s Day, 2007. But that is another story entirely). My entire evening was spent fantasizing about what I would do with the money, in this case $62,000 before taxes, if my ticket happened to be the lucky one. Would I give it away? Invest it? Use it to go back to college? Donate it to charity? Move somewhere else? Go on another roadtrip? The possibilities were so endless that I could not concentrate on my job, ideas to write about, or even sudoku in the paper that day. I was completely lost in la-la land, and I hated it. I hated not being able to focus, not being able to concentrate on the present.

Two things resulted from this experience. The first was any lingering temptation I had to play the lotto was completely annihilated. The second was that I now understood why people played the lottery even though the odds of winning are so miniscule. They don’t buy to win, though that would be a nice bonus. They aren’t throwing money away - rather they are buying a positive psychological effect, a ‘high,’ as it were. They are buying the opportunity to fantasize for a day, or a week, or however long it is until the next drawing.

So what is the point of explaining this? After all, if you already play the lottery, this is all familiar to you. If you already refrain, chances are that this article isn’t going to change your mind in the slightest. I’m not condemning those who play the lotto or saying that it is somehow “below” me. Everyone has his or her vices. Heck, if you live in Minnesota, I encourage you to play the lottery. After all, that money is going straight to the state, and the state is the one who’s going to be paying for my health insurance in a few months. Buy all the Powerball you want, and I hope you win that Camaro, too.


submit to reddit