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Daily Penny Report

  • 1 penny at McDonald’s: 1985, fine, no mint luster.
  • 1 penny at McDonald’s: 2005-D, extremely fine, 50% mint luster.

Daily Penny Report

  • 1 penny at McDonald’s: 1978, very fine, 5% mint luster.
  • 1 penny at McDonald’s: 2000, near-uncirculated, 60% mint luster.
  • 1 penny at McDonald’s: 2002-D, extremely fine, 20% mint luster

Let me clarify how these reports work: I am posting a line item for every penny I receive in change on any given day, not a line item for each transaction. (Actually, if I get two pennies with the same date, I’ll report them in a single line item, as I did yesterday.) Today’s pennies came to me in one purchase at MickeyD’s. If you don’t see a Daily Penny Report, it means I didn’t buy anything that day that gave me pennies in change. Big stuff I typically charge, but I pay cash for little stuff so as not to clutter my charge statements.

Daily Penny Report Intro

I’m getting 25, 30, and 35-year-old pennies almost every day when I get change at all. So for awhile I’m going to post a short entry each day when I get pennies in change. I’ll give a year, a condition, and where it came from, for each penny I get. Maybe there’s no trend. Maybe I just notice the older pennies more. Except…I look at them all. The old ones outnumber the new ones. I’m doing this more to keep a log than to provide engaging reading. Is this a passing phenomenon, or is it real and long-term? I won’t be adding this intro each time. So you’ll see a lot of one- or two-line entries, even on days when I post something bigger. Let’s see what the numbers eventually say.


  • 1 penny at McDonald’s: 1985-D, near-uncirculated, 50% of mint luster
  • 2 pennies at Natural Grocer: 2019-D, brilliant uncirculated, 100% mint luster
  • 1 penny at Natural Grocer: 2016-D, uncirculated, smudgy, 90% mint luster

Odd Lots

  • Amazon is selling hand-made (in Latvia) steampunk thumb drives incorporating copper pipe caps and a Soviet-made pentode vacuum tube. LEDs light up the glass from the bottom of the tube when there’s power available at the USB connector. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for the pointer.)
  • Tonight would be a good night to see Mercury. It’s never easy because the planet never gets too far from the Sun in the sky, but with smartphone apps like Sky Map (on all Android phones by default) it’s certainly easier than it once was. Start by finding Venus in the west, immediately after the Sun goes below the horizon. (You can’t miss Venus.) Mercury lies roughly on a line between Venus and the Sun. There are no bright stars in that part of the sky, so if you see a star near that line, it’s not a star but ol’ Merc himself.
  • Speaking of the Sun… Here’s a solid overview of the history of solar science. It’s a long piece, and even if you choose not to read it, the photos and diagrams are worth the visit.
  • Betelgeuse continues to dim for unknown reasons. It’s fallen from 10th brightest star in the sky to 24th brightest. Orion is the first constellation I can clearly recall seeing, and these days, it just looks…off. This may mean it’s about to go supernova…for large values of “about.” (Hundreds or more likely thousands of years. Stars are never in a hurry.)
  • I’ve been following the coronavirus epidemic using a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins. Who knows how accurate it is, but one does get a feeling that China is currently in a world of hurt. I got the link from my friend Charlie Martin, and he’s got a good article about the issues involved.
  • This is a little weird, but it’s one more telltale that the technical publishing industry I loved for so long is no longer with us. I went searching for a book on installing, configuring, and customizing the MediaWiki software, and found…nothing. There’s plenty online, but I’m talking about book-length treatments. If you know of one let me know. My longstanding heuristic is that if it’s not on Amazon, it isn’t available.
  • How to turn a waterway into wine. At least it wasn’t a Zinfandel.
  • Ah, but this was a sweet, sweet hack: Some guy wandered around downtown Berlin pulling a little red wagon full of smartphones, all running Google Maps. Wherever he happened to be during his wander, Google Maps reported a traffic jam.
  • If politics bores you as much as it bores me, here’s a solid distraction from all the tiresome yelling and screaming: The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets. Eat quick: My instincts tell me that as a category buffets are not long for this world.
  • Finally, you’ve heard me say that there’s funny, there’s National Lampoon funny, and then there’s Babylon Bee funny. This may be one of the Bee’s best pieces yet–given this season’s nonstop nonsense.

Monthwander

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The old pennies continue to arrive in my hand, at both McDonald’s drive-through and the Fry’s supermarket across the parking lot. Just yesterday I got a 40-year-old penny in change from my $1.09 coffee, again with plenty of mint luster. And about a week ago, something wonderful ker-chunged out of the Fry’s autocashier machine, after I fed it a twenty for some groceries. It was a 77-year-old penny, and one-of-a-kind for US coins: It was struck in steel in 1943, because in 1943 American bronze was going elsewhere, primarily into shell casings.

Although it certainly looks its age, the penny was clearly not a parking-lot penny. It had some dirt and oxide on it but none of the pits and scratches that parking-lot service will impress on a coin. Even when I was a kid they were curiousities. Ever so rarely we’d get one in change, and when we did we put them in our penny jars. I don’t think I’ve seen one in the wild since 1965 or so.

Now, if you remember, take a look at the pennies you get in change. I’d be curious to see how widespread this phenomenon is.

And the next time we get one of those little glass bottles of heavy cream, I think I’m going to start a penny bottle, with nothing but 20+ year old pennies in it.

_…_ _…_

In my spam bin a few days ago I found an email pitch for…wait for it…a Monkees fan convention. I will readily admit that I was a big Monkees fan when I was 14. The band recorded some good material, with the caveat that not all of it was used in the TV show, like their wonderful cover of the Mann/Weil song “Shades of Gray.” But a Monkees convention? Their show went off the air 52 years ago. Half of the Monkees are (alas) dead. Who’s the demographic? Sixtysomething Boomers? The con is real. If it were in the Southwest I might even be talked into attending, just to see who else shows up. (It’s in Connecticut.) It’s funny how I remember the TV show as being hilarious. Carol and I watched a few episodes on Netflex a couple of years ago. It had its moments, but I would not describe it as anything better than whimsical. Of course our standards for humor have gone up. That’s what standards do.

_…_ _…_

Summer weather in Scottsdale ended pretty abruptly last fall, skipped autumn entirely, and went right to winter. Of course, for us that means daily highs in the 50s and 60s, and nightly lows in the 40s. This year, we were dipping into the 30s in November. Carol’s had to cover some of her plants with old towels and pillowcases to protect them from radiative freezing, and that was even before the winter solstice. It’s been a mighty chilly year in a lot of places, including some you don’t generally associate with cold weather, like Saudi Arabia. You will not see anything mentioned in the MSM. Of course it’s weather. But line up enough weather in a row, and you get something else, heh.

We don’t get three dog nights here. (That’s a big part of why we’re here.) But we’ve been having some two-dog nights lately, even though there are six dog beds in the great room alone:

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_…_ _…_

Once again, a reminder: Those links and (very) short bits I used to do here as “Odd Lots” I’m now doing on Twitter. I have 512 followers, and that’s more people than those who read Contra regularly. You can find me on Twitter at @JeffDuntemann. I’ll probably be doing more of these “wander” items here, plus longer form essays as they occur to me.

Green Grow the Russians, Oh!

A song got stuck in my head the other day, but I had forgotten the words. No, wait: I never entirely knew them to begin with. They made no sense, but that didn’t matter, as for the most part they were unintelligible. About all I could clearly recall at first was the line:

I’ll sing you five-oh; green grow the Russians, oh!

And with that, a whole dumpster of brain sludge emptied out into my forebrain. It is a tale (probably) worth telling.

Ok. In the summer of 1963, I went to Boy Scout Camp for the first time. I was 11. It was at Camp Owassipe, the big Scout reservation inland of Muskegon, Michigan. The camp at that point was 11,000 acres huge, and that first year we were at Camp West, one of several camp centers within Owassipe. Camp West was for tent camping (no cabins) and was a CCC project from the ’30s that had not been well-maintained and after thirty years was falling apart. But it was right on a lake and we loved it.

Part of the Camp West experience was eating three meals a day in a big log-lodge mess hall that must have held two hundred tweener boys. The food was hot dogs and hamburgers. We didn’t care; we were lower-middle-class upstarts and had no issues with hot dogs and hamburgers. I don’t remember there being any green vegetables, and I was good with that.

But one thing none of us had ever experienced before was singing songs after meals. There were several college-age junior scoutmasters at Camp West, and they led the digesting masses in several rousing pieces before sending us on our way. I remember only two of the songs, and only one clearly: Rise and Shine. One of the mess hall song leaders was a junior scoutmaster named Jory, so as you can imagine, most of us sang:

Rise and shine and give God your glory, Jory!

Being tweener boys, it was funny even after singing it seventeen hundred times. Fortunately for us, Jory was a good sort, a little overweight and very much the showman. For all we could tell, he was singing it too.

Now, the other song. Our Scout troop was based at our Catholic church, and what we sang at school were either Catholic hymns or odd little songs in songbooks published by the Sisters of Providence, which were more or less junior Catholic hymnals with some kid stuff tossed in for seasoning. (Gregorian chant wasn’t the sort of thing you sang at Scout camp.) I’m guessing that most of the other kids were Protestants, because they knew the songs and we didn’t. The song leaders assumed that we all knew the songs, and didn’t take time to teach them. We learned them by listening to the other kids. Except this time, the lyrics were nowhere near as clear–especially with half the boys horsing around and generating plenty of QRM. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the weirdest kid song ever. This has “Baby Shark” beat all cold: Meet Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!

It was a counting song, like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which gave us some clues, at least. It started out with a grammar puzzle:

I’ll sing you one, oh; green grow the rushes oh!

What is your one-oh?

One is one and all alone and evermore shall be it so.

First of all…rushes? This was pre-Vatican II, and although we were taught Bible stories, we did not read them from the Bible, even baby Moses in the rushes. (This was a Catholic peccadillo that ended with the Council.) The word “rushes” was not in our working vocabulary. We knew them as “cat tails.” However, the Russians loomed large in almost every part of life in that era. They were the emblematic Bad Guys of my grade school ’60s, who we were sure would first beat us to the Moon and then kill us all with nuclear missiles. So we insulted them at every opportunity. Swapping in “Russians” for “rushes” made no objective sense, but it made perfect sense to Cold War era tweener boys.

Alas, we couldn’t quite parse the clause “evermore shall be it so.” Sister Marie Bernard would have circled that in red and taken points off. So we sang “and evermore shall be a stone.” It was a good guess, and better still, we could diagram it if we had to.

Some of the others were obvious, like “Twelve for the Twelve Apostles.” Which made this a God song, just like “Rise and Shine.” Ditto “Ten for the Ten Commandments.” “Eleven for the Eleven Who Went to Heaven” was also obvious, in part because not much rhymes with “eleven” but “seven” and “heaven.” (The word “leaven” was not yet in our vocabulary books.) Were there only eleven people in Heaven? Kind of a lonely place. Our Mass books were crusty with saints, and we had to wonder where they all ended up.

After ten it got a little freaky. “Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners?” What were they? God’s baseball team? “Eight for the April Rainers?” I remember singing this as “April Rangers.” Maybe the April Rainers were God’s farm team. Farmers like rain, no?

“Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky.” As with the saints in Heaven, this figure seemed a little short, especially since you could see every star there was in rural Michigan night skies in 1963. Maybe the songwriter lived in Chicago, where you might see seven, if you were lucky and had good eyes.

“Six for the Six Proud Walkers.” I believe I heard this one correctly, but that didn’t prevent us from singing “Six for the Six Loud Talkers.” Given that talking in class was a sort of secular mortal sin, we assumed these guys were not among the eleven in Heaven. Besides, Pride was a Capital Sin.

“Five for the symbols at your door.” Hmmm. I heard that word as “sinfuls” which while wholeheartedly Catholic seemed off somehow. Maybe it accounted for the semiregular visits by the Jehovah Witnesses, who much annoyed my very pious mother.

“Four for the Gospel makers.” I’m pretty sure everyone was singing “Gospel Writers,” which at least made sense numerically, and we were back to God territory. (Every writeup admits that some of the lines came in multiple versions.)

“Three, three, arrivals.” Huh? I swear, the first time we sang the song, this came to me as “Please clean the rifles.” “Three, three survivors” was what we ended up singing, lacking any strong clue as to who had survived, nor what trials they had undergone. Without being able to name them, I recalled the three guys who got thrown in a furnace by the Babylonians but survived because Jesus was in there with them, and you did not mess with Jesus.

“Two, two little white boys, dressed in all their green-oh.” I’m also pretty sure this is what everybody was singing, even though the definitive version is “lily-white boys.” Supposedly this is about the two main stars in Gemini, which on bad nights might well be the only stars you could see in Chicago. As for dressing a star in anything, well, you dress the star of your choice. I’ll watch–from a hundred million miles or so.

One, as mentioned earlier, was a stone. If it was all alone, it should have ducked down a Chicago alley, which in 1963 were gravel-paved and where most of our stones came from.

My following two years at Boy Scout Camp were at a much newer campground, which did not have a mess hall. They delivered hot food in giant thermos bottles from a jeep, and we ate at picnic tables. We sang some songs around the central campfire in the evenings, but beyond a somber item about Chief Owassipe none of them have stuck even a little.

Considering “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh”‘s cloudy origins and multitude of verse variations and interpretations, I can’t say we did it much violence. After all, see this, from the song’s entry on Wikipedia:

“The musicologist Cecil Sharp, influential in the folklore revival in England, noted in his 1916 One Hundred English Folksongs that the words are “so corrupt, indeed, that in some cases we can do little more than guess at their original meaning”.

We were from Chicago. Corruption there was so ubiquitous that most people didn’t even notice it. As for guessing, well, we guessed, and our guesses were as good as anybody’s. If it came back to me fifty-five years later, I’d say its evolution as an earworm was very robust. Plus, it propelled me to a long and motley career of writing silly lyrics to well-known songs.

As for the Russians, they were the wrong color, unless they were like bell peppers. You never can tell with Russians.

Christmas in the French Alps

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(Start the saga with yesterday’s entry, if you haven’t read it already.) Once the river cruise boat saw us down the gangplank, the six of us hopped a train in Basel, Switzerland and took off for Geneva: Carol and I, Kathy and Bob, and Alexis and Brian. One of my friends had told me before we left that the run between those two cities was flattish and not especially scenic.

Well. There’s Nebraska flattish, and then there’s Switzerland flattish. Nebraska wins hands down. The land we crossed was rugged, and there were always mountains in the distance in one direction or another. It was a gorgeous ride, and our first look at rural Switzerland. I found myself thinking, if this is the flat part of Switzerland, what must the mountainous parts be like?

We’ll check into that next trip. Matt met us in Geneva, and we stopped for a while at his house before piling into several cars and heading across the border into France. The drive took an hour, and it wasn’t long as the crow flies. Not being crows, we had to deal with endless doglegs on mountain roads. But late afternoon we found ourselves in Morzine, a ski town in the foothills of the French Alps. Morzine itself is at 1000 meters (3300 feet) above sea level, but that’s just the town. All the real action is uphill. From Morzine you can take a dozen ski lifts a good deal higher.

For our second week in Europe we teamed up with several people in Carol’s extended family and rented an entire (small) ski chalet in Morzine. Everybody except for the old folks (like us) were skiers–and a couple of the old folks were too. Me, well, at 67 I’ve never broken a bone, and don’t intend to start now. You ski. We’ll watch.

The chalet was comfortable, if chilly at times on the first floor. The common areas were bright and cozy, with a wood-burning fireplace and lots of chairs and sofas:

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The dining room had huge windows overlooking the mountainsides. That is, when the weather was clear, we could see the mountainsides. Clear weather wasn’t the norm, so I took the shots when I could. This is the view from the dining room, on Christmas Day:

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And this was the view (without any zoom) through a nearby window that was typical of most of the rest of the week:

The ginormous dining table could easily seat 16, but we were only twelve plus a toddler. And the food, good lord, it was like nothing else we’ve ever had. Chef Michael prepared breakfast and dinner, and left fruit and fresh bread on the table for those who would still be in the chalet at lunchtime. This is a standard ski chalet practice, rooted in the assumption that skiers would not be coming back to the chalet for lunch. Carol and I bought ham, turkey, and cheese down in the town center for sandwiches.

Below is Christmas Eve dinner. After the meal we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a long-time family favorite. Most of us had brought Christmas Vacation-themed T-shirts, and some of us even dressed like the characters, especialy Grandma Wilma, Brian, and Alexis. (Carol bought the two of us T-shirts at our local thrift store. Mine was an XXL, but that’s what was there.)

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It snowed most days, if not a lot. (And Morzine knew how to deal with it.) Christmas Day, however, was crystal clear and brilliantly sunny. The whole bunch of us decided to take the big cable gondola up the mountain to Avioraz, a sort of satellite town that catered almost solely to skiers. Those who ski, skied. The rest of us wandered around looking in shop windows. The streets of Avioraz were (deliberately) under a foot or so of hard-packed show, and could be skied as easily as walked.

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Avioraz, as you might expect, consists mostly of ski chalets, ski shops, restaurants, and bars. We had lunch outside in bright sun–mercifully, there was no wind to speak of, so it was almost warm. Not long after lunch, while Carol and I were walking around (most of the gang had gone even further up the mountain on the ski lifts) I heard bells. And what should come around the corner but…a one-horse open sleigh! Egad, I’d been singing that song ever since I was a toddler, but until Christmas Day 2019 I had never actually seen a “one-horse open sleigh.” Maybe I just don’t get out enough.

We did get out Christmas night, and went to church in Morzine. It was the first time I had ever heard Mass in French, though we had heard it in German when we last visited Europe in 2002.

Sagely predicting that at least some of the week would suffer lousy weather, Matt brought a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Bob Ross mountains-and-trees painting. We dedicated a game table to it and got to work on the first day. We worked on it whenever there was nothing much else to do. I had never before attempted a puzzle that large (nor one with such vast expanses of blue) and didn’t contribute a great deal. Carol worked at it a lot, as did her sister Kathy. Brian’s wife Alexis had a near-magical touch with puzzles, and whatever time she spent on it greatly accelerated its assembly.

It took us until the middle of the last night we spent at the chalet, but at some point the last piece clicked into place and it was finished.

The skiers among us were gone a lot, but overall, we talked, laughed, drank good French wine, read, worked the puzzle, and entertained little Molly while her parents were out on the slopes. Molly’s parents, both her grandmothers, and her great-grandmother Wilma were all there, so Molly got plenty of attention. She’s starting to talk, and almost got the hang of “Uncle Jeff” during our week together.

Our trip home was long but uneventful: We flew from Geneva to London Heathrow, then from London to Dallas, where we had to retrieve our suitcases and go through customs. Carol got the two of us TSA’s Global Entry certification earlier last year, and so customs was trivial. We re-checked our bags and hopped a flight from Dallas to Phoenix.

At the airport we ordered up a Lyft ride. The driver told us that airport management was pushing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft out of the airport, and that he would no longer be serving passengers after a whole raft of new fees and requirements are imposed later in January. The fees are being challenged in court, so the whole thing could collapse if the ruling goes against the city. I like Lyft and will miss it for airport trips, but technology has its way of getting past government interference. It’ll be interesting to see what ways eventually emerge.

Overall it was a wonderful trip, both on the water and in the mountains. I got behind on a number of projects (not least being the final bits of my novel) but it was worth it. On the upside, we didn’t put up much in the line of decorations here in Phoenix, so there was less to put away on our return. Alas, one of the first things that happened was the noisy death of our built-in 1500-watt microwave oven. We ran down to Walmart and picked up a smaller 900-watt unit for…$65. That’ll do until the JennAir repairman can make it out here.

In the meantime, we’re enjoying our (slightly chilly) Phoenix winter, and gradually getting over eight hours’ worth of jetlag. Happy new year to everyone here, and don’t believe the doomsayers: This is by far the best time in human history to be alive!

Five Countries, No Waiting

Ok. Some waiting. It’s tough to pinball your way around five European countries in two weeks without a little bit of butt-in-chair time. Then again, it allowed us to catch our breaths. We just got back and I’m still jetlagged. Longitude is a bitch. (I’m only now realizing that keto flu may also be involved. More on this in a future entry.)

But the trip, wow: It was something else.

We’d been planning this for a long time: a Christmas gathering of Carol’s close-in family in Europe, where our younger nephew Matt is working for a few years. Matt, his wife Justine, and their daughter live in Geneva, Switzerland, which is at the extreme southwestern corner of the country. Their townhome wouldn’t hold us all, so we pooled funds and rented a small ski chalet in Morzine, France, about an hour’s drive west. The chalet came with a caterer so that we could enjoy being together without worrying about where to buy food and how to cook it. All told, twelve adults and one little girl spent a week at the chalet.

For us, however, the chalet was the endpoint. To celebrate fifty years together, Carol and I took a week’s river cruise down the Rhine, from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. We’d been wanting to do a river cruise for years, and there’s no better excuse than to celebrate half a century of being in love. Carol and I flew to Amsterdam via London Heathrow. We were joined by Carol’s sister Kathy and her husband Bob, and our older nephew Brian and his wife Alexis.

The cruise began in Amsterdam. The ship was the Amastella, from Ama Waterways. It’s 443 feet long and 38 feet wide. There were 140-odd people on the cruise. I never got a really good shot of the ship because it was so long; definitely follow the link to the company site for a photo. River cruise ship dimensions are constrained by the locks along the river. We traversed ten in a week, and the Amastella barely fit.

We passed a lot of quaint little towns, most of which had their names painted on the river levees, as shown with Filsen, below:

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This part of the Rhine is castle country, and there were castles anywhere there were hilltops. Some were ruins. Some looked rebuilt or at least thoroughly repaired. Many were a mix of ruins and more modern construction. I pondered that I might possibly enjoy living in the one below—but would not enjoy the heating bills.

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Every day there was a stop, and we typically toured the local cathedral and the many Christmas markets. We attended a wine tasting in a wine cave in Rudesheim, which was the first time I had ever been in a wine cave. The wine itself was marginal (I much prefer reds to whites) but at least I was able to put certain recent news items in perspective. (No thanks, Phil.)

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Also in Rudesheim was Siegfried’s Mechanical Instrument Museum. My pictures were not terrific, but Atlas Obscura has a very nice article on it, with excellent photos. Before conventional music recording, to have music people either had to play it themselves (or have other people play it) or have access to self-playing instruments. The player piano is the best known of these, and they were still being made circa 1960, when the family down the block from us bought one.

An orchestrion is just that: not merely a player piano, but a whole player orchestra. The museum has several, including one that has and plays six violins, all mechanically. It’s done with a revolving circular horsehair bow. The violins are tilted against the bow when played. Drums, chimes, and other instruments are often present, and the overall effect, given that it’s all stored as holes in rolls of paper, is uncanny.

The lighting in the museum was not the best, and the only reasonable photo I got was of the Weber Maesto, which was at heart a sort of player pipe organ. There’s a YouTube video of one in operation, and the quality of the music is startling.

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In Speyer was something I had not heard about until just before the trip and did not expect: The Speyer Technical Museum. Even now it defies description: They have machines of all sorts on display, with an emphasis on vehicles and aircraft. (They do have some boats and two submarines–and 25 sewing machines. I counted.) You can walk through the bigger submarine, although if you’re the least claustrophobic, don’t. Bogglingly, they have an entire 747 mounted at an odd angle literally 75 feet in the air, and you can climb down a ladder into its baggage compartment. Not boggled yet? Although the stairs up to the 747 can be arduous, if you have a nose for thrills you can slide back down to the ground in a (long) stainless-steel playground tube. (My nose for thrills is notoriously absent. I took the stairs both ways.)

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Above is an aerial view from the 747 platform. Inside is an incredible, jam-packed collection of damned near anything that moves. (Below.) Lotsa cars, planes, boats, trucks, locomotives, and military vehicles, including a halftrack motorcycle. Oh–and a merry-go-round.

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A couple of snapshots can’t do it justice. If you’re ever anywhere near Speyer, do not miss it–and plan to spend a couple of hours, minimum.

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The architecture was an attraction no matter where we went. The building below (in Freiburg) is one of the coolest structures we saw. Alas, the tour guide told us what it is now (it may be an ex-rathaus) but I’ve forgotten.

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Among the cities we saw, Strasbourg (in France) was my personal favorite. Its cathedral is dazzling, especially its 3-story tall astronomical clock. I was unable to get decent pictures inside the Cathedral, but there’s an excellent article (with good photos) on Atlas Obscura. The clock shows planetary motions out to Saturn, phases of the Moon, sunrise and sunset times, and lots more, with all sorts of interesting mechanical gimmicks, including a mechanical rooster that crows, and a parade of the Apostles past the figure of Christ happening each day at solar noon in Strasbourg. And all this in a device built in 1843, with roots centuries before that.

I’ll get to the Christmas markets shortly, but in front of the Freiburg Cathedral there is a longstanding farmer’s market selling locally grown produce of all sorts, practically every day. Squash, carrots, bell peppers, leeks as long as my arm, and parsnips you could kill a man with:

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How all this produce survived to the end of December seems mysterious. I wonder how much can be had in late February? Greenhouses? If I’d known more German I would have asked.

I haven’t been in Europe a lot, and never over Christmas, so the Christmas market phenomenon took me a little by surprise. In virtually every town we visited, there was a Christmas market, and we saw most of them. It’s like nothing I’ve seen here: substantial booths selling Christmas food, ornaments, wine (especially gluhwein, which is warm mulled wine; white or red, your choice) jewelry, and handicrafts. German potato pancakes (kartoffelpuffers) and many kinds of sausages were everywhere.

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The handicrafts were generally winter clothing, including a booth that takes the cake for the most socks I have ever seen in a single 15 foot expanse, ever:

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In the absense of an English translation of the little sign above, I might have thought they were selling gummi socks candy. But no: In German, “gummi” means “rubber,” and “Strumpfe ohne Gummi” means “socks without rubber.” I’m not sure why that’s a selling point, but he had two signs to make sure no one misunderstood.

We didn’t buy much. I had brought plenty of socks, and whatever we bought we’d have to drag home in our suitcases, which were already plenty heavy.

Frieburg was the last stop on the cruise, and the next day we docked at Basel, Switzerland, having visited Holland, Germany, and France. One final note: The food on the Amastella was superb, by far the best food on any cruise we’ve taken. The service was wonderful, the staterooms comfortable. I needn’t have worried about souvenirs; the three or four pounds I gained on the boat were more than enough.

And that’s where I’ll stop for today, given how long this entry has turned out to be. Next entry: Christmas with family…in the French Alps!

Flashback: Synchronicity and the Combinatorially Exploding Penny

Heads-up: I’ve never done a Contra flashback before, but given my post yesterday about pennies, this seemed to be a good time to republish a Contra entry I wrote back in 2005. I could have posted a link, I guess, but I wanted as many people to see it as I could manage, as it is just the…damndest…thing. Fifteen-ish years later, I’ve not encountered synchronicity anything like this boggling. I may do flashbacks again with older entries that I consider significant, especially if I’m in the middle of a dry period time/energy wise. Oh, to be 50 again…


penny1923.jpgSynchronicity (meaningful coincidences of preposterous unlikelihood) is something that doesn’t interest people very much until such a coincidence happens to them. I can point to three instances of synchonicity in my life: One marginal, one peculiar, and one that just floored me. The marginal one was the Exuberant Cross, which is an excellent example of seeing symbolism in the ordinary, though there is some peculiarity in seeing it the first morning I was living in Colorado. The peculiar one we’ll leave for another time. But then there’s the big one…

Back in 1996 I went down the road aways from the office to get a sandwich. This was unusual to begin with; I usually ate lunch with Carol, but she wasn’t at work that day. I was in a bad mood, a little depressed from thinking too much about my father. As I’ve said too often here, he died young and in a gruesome fashion, and there was unfinished business between us. I was only beginning to work through the issues in the mid-1990s. Now and then I rage at his memory; most of the time I just miss him. I turned on the car radio and the oldies station was playing something obnoxious, so I hit the country button. After the concluding seconds of some cowboy song and a few seconds of DJ chatter, another song started up.

I’d heard it before: It was Colin Raye’s “Love, Me”, an otherwise unremarkable country tearjerker thing about a boy whose grandma dies. Carol always turned the radio off when it came on. There are times when I can listen and times when I just punch another button. This time I listened, and boy, the song worked as designed. Read the lyrics; they’re clever. (Ignore the sappy formatting.) The first line is significant:

“I read a note my grandma wrote, back in 1923…”

I had failed out of engineering school while my father was dying, and I felt for many years like I had let him down, just like I did when I had failed to love baseball as a ten-year-old. He could not imagine how a writer could make a living, and I could not imagine how an engineer could smoke himself to death. As a young man, I often wanted to say, Don’t give up on me. And all my life it was a private point of honor for me not to let him down. (I didn’t.) So there were some connections there, in that stupid song.

It wasn’t that far to the sandwich place. When I parked I mopped my eyes and turned the radio off in exasperation, feeling like it had suckered me in to an unnecessary sentimental tate. Shaking my head, I went into the shop and ordered my usual ham and swiss. The soda-and-sandwich lunch special came out to $4.99. I handed the guy a fiver. He dug in the drawer and pulled out a penny, which he slid across the counter to me. It looked pretty beat up, and when I picked it up I flipped it over and took a closer look.

The date on the penny was 1923.

Hoo-boy.

So. What are the chances? I got one coin in change. I hadn’t seen a penny that old in change in probably twenty years. I didn’t listen to country music all that often. And it was maybe a five-minute ride to the sandwich place, during which that one song alone had begun and played to completion. How could all those things line up so perfectly, on a day when I was already depressed from ruminating about losing my father? A New Ager would say “It’s a Sign. He’s there. He knows you didn’t let him down.”

A part of me wanted to think of it as a Sign. (Another little part still does.) On the other hand, I’m not a New Ager, and the incident forced me to think a little bit about about outrageous coincidences. Here are the major points that come out of the exercise:

  • In 45 years of living, a human being experiences an enormous number of identifiable things, from country songs to birds on the lawn to oddly shaped clouds and everything else that we notice during the 16-odd hours we’re awake every day.
  • Human beings are complex things, with a great many thoughts, memories, cravings, articles of faith, and emotional flashpoints.
  • Something in our mental machinery tries very hard to find meaning in everyday life.

In rolling those three points together I come up with an interesting conclusion: It would be remarkable for someone to live 45 years and not run into a coincidence like that at least once. (My other two experiences of synchronicity are pikers by comparison.) In each life there is a combinatorial explosion of possible alignments of thoughts, feelings, and objective experiences so large as to be beyond expressing. Little alignments happen now and then. (“Just as I pulled into the packed parking lot, somebody was pulling out right in front of me!”) Every so often, an alignment happens that makes us shake our heads in wonder. (I’ll tell you about the “I love you” stone someday.) But sooner or later, everybody is going to run into a whopper.

Keep your eyes open. You wouldn’t want to miss it!

Two Penny Mysteries

Two Pennies-500 wide.jpg

I got another one today, just now when I ran up to McDonald’s to clear my head and grab a large coffee. With tax that’s $1.09. I gave the cashier lady a dollar and a dime. She gave me back a shiny new penny. Except…the penny was not new.

It was 18 years old.

I like pennies. Always have, and I’m not entirely sure why I should like pennies more than I like nickels or dimes. Color is part of it. Every other (common) coin is the same blah bare-metal not-steel, not silver color. A new penny is the color of bare copper wire, and copper wire and I go way back. Besides, I was born and raised in the land of Lincoln, whose face has now been on pennies for 110 years.

I like pennies so much that I still pick them up when I see them on the blacktop in parking lots. This is a habit vanishing into history, judging by the emergence of a phenomenon I’ve only begun to see in the last few years. I’ve coined the term “parking-lot penny” for the battered specimen above on the right. I picked it up a month or so ago in the Fry’s parking lot. Making a penny look like that takes time and tires. That poor little thing has been ground into the Arizona dust for a long time, what might be years. Once it approached the color of the dusty blacktop it rested on, I doubt many people even noticed it, much less bent down to pick it up. Me, I’ll rescue a penny anywhere, in any shape.

1977 penny-350 wide.kpg.jpgPennies don’t represent value much anymore. They’ve become accounting tokens. I think people now consider them a necessary nuisance; hence parking-lot pennies, of which I now have a dozen or so, gathered over the past year and (as it were) change.

Let’s go back to the mystery of the shiny 2001 D specimen at the top of this entry. Getting a penny like that now and then is unremarkable. The mystery lies in the fact that I am seeing a great many pennies in change that go back 50 years or more. Some of those oldies still have significant mint luster. A week or so ago I got a 1977 D at Fry’s with a lot of mint luster for a penny that’s been kicking around for 42 years. See for yourself. A week before that I got a 1969 penny that was in excellent shape, if lacking mint luster. Pennies in the 70s are a lot commoner than they were ten years ago, when the 70s were ten years closer.

I have a theory about this: Those anomalously old and good-looking pennies have not been kicking around. They’ve been in jars and milk bottles and other containers, some of them for a very long time. Alluva sudden, I’m seeing them several times a week. This takes me back a little to ordinary life in the 1960s and 1970s. Middle-class people often had a jar on the kitchen counter or, more commonly, on the dresser in the bedroom. People (men, mostly; men have pockets) would undress for the night, and if they had coins in their pants pockets, would toss them in a jar so they wouldn’t fall out when said pants were hung up in the closet. My parents didn’t do that, though I did, at least in high school. I had friends who did, and friends who had parents who did. It was not one of my (numerous) eccentricities. It was mainstream.

The penny-jar thing worked this way: Back when phone calls were a dime and quarters could buy gum or bus fare, people would dig in the jar while getting dressed in the morning and and fish out a few nickels, dimes and quarters for the day’s minor expenses. For the most part, the pennies were left behind, and over time what began as a small-change jar became a penny jar, with maybe a few dimes buried in the middle somewhere.

This habit slowly dwindled as coins lost value to inflation, but the penny jars remained somewhere, on the high shelf or in a bedroom dresser drawer. As Greatest Generationals (and now Boomers too) die, their children, while emptying out their parents’ houses to sell, lug the penny jar over to the bank or a grocery-store change machine and trade the pennies in for whatever they add up to, in somewhat more manageable form, like ten-dollar bills.

The banks wrap them in rolls and return them to circulation. And as people get change at McDonald’s, they get pennies back that look brand-new and yet may be 50 or 60 years old. But who even looks at pennies these days?

I do.

When I got the shiny 2001 penny this morning, I wondered for a moment about whomever had saved it from getting dirty or scraped around by SUVs in a parking lot somewhere. Had they died? Or just decided that ten pounds of pennies was more than enough? Whoever and wherever you are, good luck and…penny for your thoughts?