DAY TRIPPING FROM TRASH CAN TO TRASH CAN By John Watts

trash can

A day trip with my wife recently brought home a very sad reality.  It is very hard for soft modern car travelers like us to break the habit of ONLY exiting our cars for the sole purpose of throwing away the previous stops fast food trash and buy some more for the fast food trash can on the next stop.

The getting out and stretching part or getting out and walking part is just slightly incidental.

Truly a sequential travel slump designed to further soften mid sections and prolong New Year’s resolutions!

And our recent 4-hour road trip was just the right size for falling into the same old pattern.

Here is how it worked. Our Saturday trip started early with Chik-Fila at 6 AM.  We ate as we drove—smacking our lips in ecstasy to the harmonious flavors of the number 7 chicken and egg bagel.  2 hours later we had crossed the Bay Bridge at stopped at Dunkin Donuts.  This naturally meant we had to dispose of the previous Chik-Fila Styrofoam cups and assorted food trash rounded up into our big to go bag and chuck it all in the Dunkin Donut trash can.  And, as any good red-blooded American would do, after surveying the wide array of donut offerings on the overhead menu, we then were forced into taking some maple drizzled donuts to go for company on the next leg of our trip plus beverages to wash it all down.

Royal Farms was last the last stop before our final destination.  By this point all we needed to do was buy some water and iced tea.  And, I think you guessed it by now, we had to dispose of our last collection of fast food trash, which in this case was the donut wrappers and bags plus the coffee and orange juice container from the previous Dunkin Donuts.

With 5 miles to go on this fast food travel chain, we had a final decision to make.  We needed breath mints before we arrived at our hosts house.  We also needed to dispose of the beverage trash from Royal Farms.  So, we stopped at a tiny gas station convenience store, where upon we threw out the plastic and Styrofoam cup and bottle and then bought our breath mints.

As we pulled into the driveway we had COMPLETED our evolutionary fast food chain to the point that all we had left to throw away was a TINY wrapper from the breath mints.

Mission accomplished!

So, there you have it folks.  Another routine, one-way travel link successfully completed, with a series of familiar, guilt inducing road side stops.

It was all so convenient and……vaguely disconcerting.

But it got us to our destination in 4 hours.  Super highways.  Efficient restrooms.  Fast, disposable food and voluminous trash cans.

All links in the chain.  Each residual fast food trash to be disposed of at the next fast food place.

Such “consuming and disposing” stepping stones are how we movers and shakers gain weight and find comfort in this fast paced, stressful world we live in.

So where will your fast food trash get disposed of on your next road trip?

Will you rise and shine and then go from McDonalds to Tastee Freeze?  Or perhaps Starbucks to Subway?

—the possibilities for mixed trash can pollination just leaves one in a forever stupor of anticipation!

 

 

 

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PRAISE AS A CONSTANT ACCOMPANIMENT By John Watts

 

Dog walking never ceases to amaze me with its never-ending life lessons.

Take my daily walks with my highly percolated Jack Russell, Jackson.  He has become so used to hearing “good boy” and other positive vocal inflections from me, that he rarely ever looks back or bats an ear.

And I think this is a good thing.

Because that means it is part of the routine.  He associates a nice voice with me.

And I like that part of myself that walks with my dog routinely—even though each walk holds the promise of being anything BUT routine.

For dog walking remains for me the purest way of plugging back into an almost trance like state of affirmation and appreciation.

Let the rest of the world worry about dog training and selling books about 5 easy steps to some kind of mastery.

I like that my dog is never startled when I talk sweetly to him.

And while I am on subject.  I have another confession.  I also unequivocally admit to dabbling freely in the habit of employing a high rising “baby talk” inflection with my Jackson when I communicate.

Why not?  I understand from what I have read that the highly appealing habit of baby talk is universally understood in any language by our pets.  Animals find deeper connection with it–even as stern alpha male types grimace.  “Why can’t you talk in age appropriate, adult terms?” they bemoan.

And it seems to sooth me too and give me great release.

Heck some of the words are just some made up gobbledygook anyway and have no real meaning or translation–apart from the vibe of LOVE and acceptance.

Again, let coaches and strict disciplinarians worry about losing one’s credibility by over saturating praise too disproportionately.

Jackson moves along ahead of me on the leash with nary a look back when my praise voice is on auto pilot.

We are free from judgement and performance.  And when sternness or anger does flash, it is only out of urgency and concern for his safety or to prevent him from putting something unspeakably gross in his mouth—or perhaps if I trip and stub my toe.

But for the most part, I will keep on heaping on the praise and the baby talk.

And Jackson will intuitively know that tone and never need to look back.

Because it will be a daily occurrence and never just a technique or some grudgingly administered prize.

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SOMEWHERE BETWEEN PARTICIPATION AND FAME  (Losing focus on what constitutes successful living) By John Watts

 

How do you define “success?”

Is it defined as some kind of concrete, measurable level of achievement or more of a warm, fuzzy feeling of contentment and peace?

Recently I was overhearing a staff person at my school talk about a grounds keeper employed with us who had, in his younger prime, actually tried out with the Washington Redskins and almost made the team.

Quite a cool achievement I thought to myself.  Everyone I mentioned this too, was quite blown away.  Just imagining that OUR own co-worker having had such a serious football career and almost making the Redskins.  What a great story.

But removed from my work setting, the same kind of testimonial offered to casual sports fans gets a different reaction.  More like indifference and boredom.

People with no emotional investment, who never knew the guy, preferred to look at it in a different way.  “How sad that this guy couldn’t even make the team.”

The next week a conversation ensued between me and another staff person regarding a quote from former Redskins Quarterback Robert Griffin the 111.  I jokingly reminded him of Griffin’s oft quoted line, “You have to have pressure in order to make diamonds.”  To which he retorted, “Well it looks he doesn’t do well with the diamond business since he couldn’t even stay on the Cleveland Browns.”

Truly, removed from social context and personal accountability, especially with sports–the heart of a fan is fickle and cold.

“Players only love you when their playing” Fleetwood Mac once sang.  And this claim may be even truer when it comes to the cut throat nature of FANDOM.

And fandom, by itself, is just another manifestation of the old high school success formula that we were all taught to be into all those years ago.

Any way you want to slice it, the measuring stick for what is a great achievement gets obscured and reconstituted all the time.

One need only consider the strangely polarizing case of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Despite winning their 5th Super Bowl ring and producing the most amazing comeback game in Super Bowl history, I was dumbfounded at the tenacity of the rhetoric afterwards by people that still maintained that Tom Brady and the Patriots were cheaters and undeserving of any mention of greatness.

When emotions are high enough, any accomplishment or statistic can be distorted or rationalized.  Even the loftiest feat and super star.  Take for example, the ridiculous standards of an NHL player like Alex Ovechkin gets when one of his season scoring total is not record setting or league leading.  Suddenly, due to his having reached his early 30s, the whispers come out early on his decline and soon to be demise.

All this makes me reconsider the old sports paradigm about legitimately earning something against ALL competition rather than just getting an award for participation or for some watered-down, trumped up set of circumstance.

When are we finally at liberty to say that we have truly earned a 1st place trophy and a blue-ribbon finish with NO fear of reconsideration or asterick?

What is “the real world” that we are preparing our youth for?  Is it true competition or true compassion?

The problem with the absolute methodology of success is that it ignores the contextual and relational aspects of what constitutes personal achievement.

What is most meaningful in our lives, with the passage of time, is often the little things like sharing laughs and great locations with people we love.

Assessing mere statistics in life and sports completely overlooks all the daily challenges and triumphs that each person faces on a day to day basis.

Otherwise, our lives could be laid out there, very vulnerably, for all the world to see, to be examined and recast by all the lawyers and sports pundits of the world.  And I would lose all those head to head sports fantasy challenges every time—like comparing John Bon Jovi’s (who is only a year younger to me) to me myself, John Watts.  Heck, as John Watts’s go, I am probably below half on that aponymous list!

And no way can I compare myself to Jon Bon Jovi.  I have no gold records and he has many.

Ah, wait a minute, maybe the act of COMPARING itself is valuable only in very limited circumstances anyway.

Because going too far down that road is a time tested, proven way to meet up with unhappiness and discontent.

There exists inside all of us, a gnawing, yearning need to be accepted–far beyond mere straight A grades or gold medals.  Official praise decreed by men and praised to the heavens as being the peak of perfection—often becomes diluted and dismantled over time; and never more dramatically as Lance Armstrong’s erased presence in the history books or Bill Cosby’s.

It seems to me that we owe it to ourselves to have a foundational plan in place that is much more second nature for us than just a plan B.  Because when the fickle fortunes of time blow us along our uneven pathway, it is good to know that we can feel successful regardless of how strict the judge is or whether some committee votes us in to the Hall of Fame or not.

In other words: One must turn to the INTERNAL in order to find the ETERNAL.

And therein lies the big secret of success—found smack dab in the middle between the extremes of participation and fame!

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BY THE WAY (restaurant travel) By John Watts

 

By the way—may I say, when it comes to going out on the town to a carefully selected, diary worthy restaurant; I find that the best way to savor its unique properties, is to make very good use, of the best little excuse, that I know for truly touring the distinctive personality of a place.

Suddenly stand up from the company you are with and announce that you need to use the bathroom.  That’s it.

Heck you may even need to USE the bathroom for all I know, which makes it even easier to look more convincing.

Trust me.  It’s one of my best moves as a costumer you can make==especially if you who want to transcend your role from to “restaurant explorer.”  Because it’s the best sure-fire way I know for traveling the lengths and breath of the inner world contained within a restaurant floor.  And it separates you from the careworn ranks of those habitual stuffed shirt  types that choose to remain glued to their hand held devices and undervalue where they are.

Look around the place.  You owe it to yourself to take the most indirect route possible to the bathroom.  Compare notes.  Soak in the ambiance.  Learn from the dishes ordered by other customers.  Enjoy the high ceilings.  The picture frames.  The bay windows.

And this inquiry extends into the bathroom.  Notice the vanity.  How automatic are the sink and hand washing devices?

Is the hand warming unit a manual, old school one or a state of the art one–with powerful jet action that forces deep wrinkles and furrows across your hands?

Let me know what you think.

And then, of course, you must wind your way back to the table from a different direction.  Get close enough to the kitchen to see the haggling and the interior drama of food prep.  Brush close to the “employees only” section.  Barely avoid bumping into a tray carrying waiter.

Once you find the way back to your table you will feel transported.  You will possess certain knowledge that others do not.

And then, right on cue, your food will have arrived!  And while your taste buds are being treated, you will feel so glad, BY THE WAY, that you decided to take the time to truly SEE and FEEL the place that you have chosen to attend on this epic, one and only night.

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WATCHING THE RIVER FROM THE SHORE Bye John Watts

 

“Long have you timidly waded
Holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer”

Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”

Watching the river from the shore can be inspiring.  It captures something elemental and primordial, some  kind of original source wrapped deeply inside our DNA and souls—which produces the need to intersect with the sound of rushing water and to see the gleam of the sun on its ripples.  Something elemental.  Like flocking to a train station when you hear that lonesome whistle whine.

Certainly, just beholding river life from the shoreline can be adventure enough when it comes to a full sensory experience; the gurgling sounds, the subtleties of the current with its various pools, channels and sand bars.  The mapping out of fishing holes.

The places to skip flat stones and the places to drop a heavy rock smack dab into the deepest toned water so as to hear that delightfully fat sounding “ker-plunk” as it sinks.

And taken in from the safety of the shoreline– just witnessing the swiftness of a river can make such a powerful impression on the onlooker that they decide to take a pass entirely on joining the river by paddling or swimming its waters.

“Perhaps some other time, some future trip.  When I have all my gear and equipment.  And when the water is safer.”

I remember from experience how much more formidable and uninviting a river current can look from the perspective of the shore.  It can make one hesitate and postpone any plans for joining in—especially when one is rusty from a long time away.

Certainly, caution and respect need to be exercised when it comes to the river, especially during times of storm and heavy rain.  But I am often amazed at how doable a kayak trip can really be once I have joined the water and become acclimated to its swiftness.

But we shouldn’t put it off too long in this lifetime of ours.

It reminds me of snow days and the sweet inactivity of glimpsing the wintry world outside from within the confines of home.  Once one becomes inured by the nesting effect of staying cozily inside during snow storms, the total accumulation of inches can seem overwhelmingly daunting.  The street looks way too untreated and treacherous.

In the case of the river and the street, one can scan back and forth and become intimidated by the prospects of reading which groove or channel to head down first.

With time, out instincts become so helpless and out of tune, that we dismiss mustering up a journey all-together.  In the case of the snow day, it can also be that the meteorologists and anchor people on TV have over brainwashed you into not trying.

But the underlying message in all this is to not delay too long in embarking on some perspective adventure.

As long as there is no monsoon or hurricane flood occurring, or the rapids too dangerous, I find it revelatory how different the situation looks once I have pushed off and JOINED the highway or river in question.  But it does require a commitment and an overcoming of one’s timidity and the casting off of one’s learned tameness that creeps in over the ensuing years.

Join that highway or river and you will find a different reality from the shoreline.  The speed no longer seems too fast and the elements not as threatening.

Either way, it’s a “win win” situation whether you are on the shore or in the river.

But like me, you may find yourself needing to become fully baptized in the water and not just craning your neck to look at it from over a bank.

The rushing water may be calling for us to do more than just watch.

We may need to see where the river actually goes and connects with.

We owe it to ourselves to gain that life altering perspective of leaving our observation post from without—and floating along WITHIN all of it.

Once you do, no river will ever look the same to you again.

 

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VACANT AND ABANDONED? By John Watts

 

You know that north end of the shopping center down the street from where we live right?

There’s a very good chance you don’t.

So, allow me to fill you in.

It’s the one that’s very close to a lot of things, and yet, it might just as well be stuck out in the furthest reaches of the solar system for all the difference it makes in terms of relevance.

And I don’t cite the “solar system” term to infer that the people are aliens or act spacey.  Because there are no people and barely any signs of life in this dormant ex-shopping area.

I merely suggest that the commercial zoning in this neglected hideaway looks more like “Twilight” zoning than anything else.

The buildings have the neglected faces of missed opportunity brought on by the cruel hand of fate.  Smack dab in the economic heart of one of the most prosperous counties in Northern Virginia.

And it’s such a pity because had but one decent service road been extended from Route 7 (the mother highway) things could have been dramatically different.

Just one little tributary emptying into this asphalt river and the lights might be shining all around.

It reminds me of the fateful “Lady Be Good” plane crash in the Libyan desert during WW2 in 1943.  As a brief history recap—this was a case in which had the stranded men headed south on foot instead of north when seeking rescue, they most likely would have made it to an oasis and survived.

Same thing here.  Just remove a few yards of concrete and grassy field, and it would have been a different story.  The businesses would have been rescued.  “Should of, could of” hand ringing I know—all bathed in the light of hindsight but you can’t deny the parallel pathos and drama.

Instead, it is the prosperous south end of the shopping center that has all the condos and townhouses and commuter car access.

To add to the irony, the well-known restaurant row in the front side of the shopping center is doing just peachy.  Patrons circulate effortlessly in from the road on the opposite end.  When one business takes a hit, it is quickly replaced by a new start.

So, to better examine this issue, let’s look at the grey areas between light and dark from the south end to the north.  Those surrounding reference points where signs of life still exist before we fall into the “black out” that is the north shopping area.

Restaurant Row gives way to Home Depot and Marshalls and behind that block, the anchor of the shopping center, Giant food grocery store.  And of course, there’s a Starbucks there too.

The middle demarcation line is the Hallmark store.  It alone separates darkness from light.  On the front sidewalk lies success and clarity on the other—well let’s just say it might as well just sport a gigantic wall that says “Keep Out” to deflect respectable consumers.

Given all this normality and assurance, who would even imagine gazing further down the inky black expanses of the service roads to a deeper layer?

But just a few blocks away, past the senior center, the public library and the shining high beacon that is the Hampton Inn, the north ends wallows in its solitude.  It’s lights out as it is there that the north end sits, neglected and alone.  A strange little no man’s land that has defied restaurant success for years.

This is where the circulation ceases for shoppers when it comes to doing business.

Like a black hole in the retail universe, you are more likely to see skateboarders and homeless people here than any kind of clientele or prospective businessmen.

Let’s trace just some of the casualty stores to fall victim to termination in the past several years in this retail ghost town.

Just the past month, pathetically before the Christmas season, the Office Depot drew up their tent and unexpectedly closed with nary a ‘Thank You” sign.

The Sports Authority had left the year before, after hemorrhaging for months with closeout sales.

Now its spaces are occupied only intermittingly by the blood sucking vampires of commerce—the SPIRIT franchise which runs Halloween costume sales very greedily during that hot part of the retail calendar.

The latest round of restaurants to leave were Logan’s Roadhouse and Famous Dave’s.

When it was alive, Logan’s had a great symbiotic relationship with the nearby Hampton Inn, which rises resiliently above this pit of despair like a Crackerbarrel exit sign—with its neon bright sign shining like an SOS flare gun out to Route 7 traffic.

Now the hotel guests must get maps to further away restaurants or eat inside the hotel.

Perhaps it was just another reminder on the OVER-retailing of America, especially with the on-line convenience of today’s insular switch to an electronic community instead of a brick and mortar one.

Who knows.

All I know is that I have been long drawn into the black maw of this vacant wasteland—not just as a sentimental old man who fears change, but as a man who shares a similar fate.

Because I happen to also live in a similarly neglected street grid—one that NEARLY succeeds in sharing a main therefore, but fell short by just the small field by a cul de sac.

And in that small field lies the unsightly spectacle of a water tower which has kept our property value low.

Even though Route 7 roars to life faithfully like the surging rapids on a river, we are denied the benefits due to some cruel oversights of inaccessibility.

The super deluxe mall is across this double split highway, but presents too dangerous a prospect for foot travel.

So, I hang out with the drifters and the skateboarders, way back in the upper reaches of the vacant universe.  Every night.  I walk my dog there.  I revisit store fronts to see if there are any signs of a pulse.

And I wait.  Just as I have waited this past decade for the Sports Authority to reopen and the Blockbuster to magically turn the hands of time around.

It’s really not such a bad wait.  The contours of a very pretty, tastefully man-made lake lie to the outside corner by the Home Depot.  And an asphalt hiking trail curves towards the abandoned Logan’s.

And as I approach all the empty sockets of stores and restaurants, I still hold out some perverse remnant of faith that maybe things will be different and some new era will start.

Will the vacant space at the old Logan’s restaurant lead to a more vibrant, and tastier looking new establishment?

Perhaps some “Ma & Pa” diner will open up that will be the best ever escape ever for flavor and some sense of community connectivity.

Amid the walking, I often pause and sit on my favorite bench with my dog at my feet.  And it makes me ponder even more.

I think of the good times with friends and family dining at Logan’s with their soft rolls and attempts at honkytonk roadhouse music.  Or the boom times eating my favorite sharp cheddar chicken barbecue at Famous Dave’s.  How about those great shrimp deals at Mahalo Bay, with its Jimmy Buffet meets sports bar, happy hour façade?

So, on and on it went.  I kept on hiking my dog and sitting on the bench at that north end of the shopping center.  And the retail space remained vacant and abandoned.

My kinship with this odd anomaly complete.

Until one fateful trip when I caught myself having fallen asleep on my favorite bench and woke with a start to see another man across me sat in a similar “thinker” statue pose at a bench that he must have favored.

In many respects, his features looked very much like mine, just a bit more weathered and wrinkled for having been down the road a bit more.

Something about the disconcerting nature of seeing someone else interrupt my solitude out in the otherwise empty field of the north end of the shopping center, made me stand up and walk towards this stranger.

And as I approached acceptable social exchange range, I instinctively nodded my head at the man.

He seemed too sad to bother nodding back.

“How’s it going?” I asked gamely.

“I miss my daily farm.” the man replied to throw me off my stride and accelerate the chit chat to another level.

“How’s that?” I queried.

“I used to own all this property 3 decades ago.  I was the last in a family line of dairy farmers.  Our dairy cows grazed all the way up to the fence by the community college property.”

I was dazed.

Could it be?  Before my sad little north side of the shopping center had ever been birthed, this land had a completely different identity.

Cows chewing their cud right right in plain sight of the community college students back in the early 80’s.  Imagine.

It gave me a dramatic paradigm shift.

While I was commiserating with the lost stores and restaurants scattered along this neglected area, another guy much older than me, was missing his farm property from a far earlier time.

Perhaps this land wasn’t always tragically cut off from Route 7 all the time.    If anything, it might have been too close.

Progress had swallowed it up—swept everyone up in the excitement, and then, ironically left it largely neglected and empty anyway.

And as I peered back at the old fellow (apparition?) on the bench, I swear I could see the ghosts of all his former head of cattle all assembled behind him, as adept as ever for loitering and passing the time (like only cows can).

And it was then that the big lesson hit me squarely, right between the eyes.

Change and loss is all relative.  No one had any claim that makes them more entitled than anyone else.

I was jarred out of my reverie by the sound of skateboarding kids in the distance, trying to find new angles to try new stunts on the slope of the old Staples store side walk.

And when I looked back, the old dairy farmer had faded away, along with his cattle—before I could thank him.

And as I walked the dog home; back to my tragically cut off residential area behind the retaining wall, it was then that I finally realized that the only real isolation was found in one’s perspective.

All the true amenities in life remain all around us–if we don’t assume that we get to keep everything and fail to see the gift.  Everything that really matters in any landscape, conveys anyway, regardless of ownership and paperwork—deep down in the heart of the admirer.

 

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“Come Quick!  Look Who That Is!”  (the Murphy’s Law about TV viewing) By John Watts

 

Have you ever noticed, in the course of watching TV shows, that whenever you call someone over to look at a certain actor’s face, by the time they DO come into the room or look up from their handheld device, the camera NEVER pans back to that face again?

I see this happen all the time.  Right when you are so proud to confirm to someone that you were perceptive enough to recognize an old actor famous from a previous show, that is when this phenomenon happens to ruin your moment.

It doesn’t matter how near or far the kitchen or bedroom, or bathroom is where your colleague has retreated to.  The sought-after actors face will surely disappear and not come back again until your friend leaves once more.

And how about those vexing 24-hour news bands that rotate a steady stream of text from left to right at the bottom of your screen while you are watching the news or sports channel.

It never fails that the box score that you want to see has just passed by while you were obliviously watching the picture images of the show instead.  Or most pressing of all, the 2-hour delay and closing announcements for area schools during a snow storm.  Invariably the letter of the alphabet is always just passing the county that affects you for your potential freedom so you must go through the rotations one more time.

And so it goes and so it goes.  The perverse elusiveness of incoming stimuli on your TV screen.  Just as your spouse yells out “Did you catch what highway the traffic jam is on?”  you are fixated instead on last night’s Washington Wizards late basketball game score and can’t be bothered.  It is why we drive each crazy with asking the other potential witness in the room, if they caught what we ALMOST caught.

We might as well all be sequestered far away on our lonely cell phones, each one apart on their own sofa or easy chair.

With modern TV, and media in general, we are always going to be looking away and missing something in our quest to stay caught up.

And we so dearly need validation.  Because so much of our music and video selections tend to be splintered, solo journey’s—often to a binged degree.

And so the age old question waits to be answered—“Please.  Just once.  Did anyone else catch that face of that former star that we used to enjoy watching way back when we were younger?”

Meanwhile, with the efficiency of some ticket taking turnstile, our unfeeling, unthinking TV program on the screen keeps on cutting away to the next rapid-fire scene without our approval.

“DVR it!”  “DVR it!” we implore.

It makes no difference.  And the moment is lost.

We are merely going along for the ride.

 

 

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