Lucky Strikes

Have you checked your basement lately? (uh, Dave, I don’t have a basement). How about the crawl space (nope, don’t have one of those either). Maybe a deep closet, the kind with empty space behind the hanging clothes? If I haven’t pegged you yet, just lift up your area rugs (assuming your floors have been around a while). Why? You might find something interesting down there! Loose change. Old love letters. Bowling balls.

Bowling balls?

A small part of Dave’s “bowl” collection

Talk about a lucky strike.  Another Dave in my country (he of Norton Shores, MI) recently began a DIY house renovation when he unearthed a bowling ball from behind the crumbling concrete of his back porch.  So he pawed the sand some more and found another ball.  And another.  Pretty soon he had fifteen.  By the time our industrious friend cleaned out his subterranean bowling alley – er, crawl space, he’d amassed 150 balls – some black, most blue, and all designed to knock down pins.  I’m sure Dave would agree with this Dave when I say, “What the HECK?

Seriously, how would you react if you found hundreds of bowling balls under your house?  Me, I’d wonder if they weren’t part of the structural foundation (Don’t laugh; a 1940’s house we used to live in had glued-together schoolroom yardsticks in the walls.)  My next thought would go to an abandoned underground city, with my house right on top of the bowling alley.  And my final thought?  Aliens.  Aliens put those hundreds of bowling balls down there.

Did THIS used to be under Dave’s house?

Norton Shores Dave was more rational than my own thinking.  After finding the first fifteen balls he stopped digging and picked up the phone to Brunswick Bowling.  Some of the balls had date stamps back to the 1950s and Dave was concerned about toxicity. (Good thinking there, Dave.) But Brunswick glanced at a few of the photos he sent and said the balls were fine.  So it’s official: bowling balls last forever.

Hidden rooms – and the hidden treasures they contain – have always captured my imagination.  In the movie National Treasure, Nicolas Cage sorts through clue after clue on the hunt for a hidden fortune.  The final scene where the underground room reveals itself in bursting firelight is jaw-dropping.  Or how about any movie scene where a sliding bookcase protects a passage to the secret space beyond?  Wouldn’t that be a great feature in your house?

I designed a house with a sliding bookcase once (true story), back in my days as an architect.  The hidden room was accessed from the landing halfway up an open staircase, behind innocent-looking shelves of books.  The hidden room was meant to be a home office, with a small balcony overlooking the backyard.  I pictured the owner’s guests, standing on the lawn and looking up, saying, “Wait a sec’, how come I haven’t seen that room?

Admittedly, bowling balls aren’t a sexy find (even 150 of them).  It’s not like you’d go, “Perfect… just what I’d been hoping for!”  That’s not stopping Norton Shores Dave, however.  He thinks there may be even more balls down there, but – letdown ending to the story – he’ll probably just turn them into decorative pavers in the yard.

Plant orange trees… find a church instead!

Other hidden-space stories yield more satisfying treasures.  Last year a gardener in England – simply pulling weeds – unearthed sixty-three gold coins from the era of Henry VIII (now that’s what you call “paydirt”).  Another gardener – this one in Turkey – found an entire 6th-century church under the ten acres of land where he was about to plant orange trees.  Old rolled-up movie posters under the floorboards of a house were so pristine they brought $600,000 USD at auction.  Finally, in 2009, an English doctor passed away and left his house to his relatives.  What they overlooked for many months? The dusty, vintage 1937 Bugatti in the garage.  Selling price: $4.2 million.

Maybe the best finds are up in the attic.  In 2013 a family found a Van Gogh in the rafters of the house of deceased relatives.  The painting had been gathering dust for over a century because the original owner thought it was a fake.  Not so.  It turned out to be a priceless example from Van Gogh’s most prolific years.  Okay, not quite “priceless”, but how about $90.6 million?

It’s only fitting – as Halloween approaches – I ask you to crack the seal on your hidden spaces.  You’ll probably need a flashlight.  You’ll brush aside spiderwebs or put the boot on a creepy crawler or two.  But c’mon, you know you’re curious.  There could be something valuable right there underneath your feet.  A stash of cash.  A famous painting.  Or 150 bowling balls!

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “Home renovation leads to the discovery of over 150 bowling balls under a family’s porch”, and the lovemoney.com article, “People who bought homes and found treasure”.

Sour Grapes

I’m not a fan of French wines. Er, let me rephrase – I don’t appreciate French wines. My palate for bottles of the red and the white has traveled as far as Napa (Chardonnay and Cabernet) and California’s Central Coast (red blends) but nowhere further unless I count the occasional bottle of Chianti from a college year in Italy. I can’t even name a French wine, other than a sparkler like Dom Pérignon. But maybe it’s time for a change, my friends. I’ve taken a sudden interest in a new Viognier… you know, the wine from the vineyards of Grey Poupon?

But does it “pass muster”?

You read that right.  Grey Poupon, the maker of Dijon mustard, wants to be a maker of fine wine as well.  Described as “bright hints of spice and pronounced citrus” and “floral characteristics”, a bottle of Grey Poupon white “pairs ideally with charcuterie boards and sandwiches”.  Of course it does, because there’s an infusion of crushed mustard seeds in every glass.

Mustard-flavored wine.  Sounds like sour grapes, doesn’t it?  Mustard wine sounds as appealing as the scoop of Goat Cheese Beet Swirl ice cream I can get right up the road in Denver.  And if you think the name on the Grey Poupon bottle sounds fancy – La Moutarde Vin – think again.  Translation: mustard wine.

I don’t expect to stock my wine cellar with bottles of La Moutarde Vin (once I have a wine cellar, that is) but I do stock my frig with mustard.  Despite endless baloney-and-mustard-on-white sandwiches in my grade school days, I bounced back as an adult and reembraced mustard.  The yellowest of condiments is delicious in potato salad.  It’s ideal on bratwurst or a hot dog.  And mustard wins out over mayonnaise any day on a ham-and-cheese.

For all the attention ketchup gets (for some reason Batman and Robin come to mind here), mustard has been around longer and comes in more varieties.  In typical fashion, Americans first flocked to its most basic version, “yellow mustard”, before maturing to the spicy brown varieties of Europe.  Mustard was created in Dijon (France) in the 1800s.  Anyone who knows the taste of Dijon knows it’s a wholly different animal than the yellow.  Why so different?  Dijon mustard is made with white wine.  And there’s the role reversal in a nutshell.  Now we have white wine made with Dijon mustard.

[Trivia break: A popular brand of mustard in America is French’s.  Where in France did it come from?  No, no, no, back up the truck.  It’s just yellow mustard.  It has nothing to do with France. But it has everything to do with the guy who invented it: Robert Timothy French.]

We Americans adore mustard so much we built a shrine in its honor.  The National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI proudly boasts the world’s largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia.  I have no plans to visit, but I do wonder if they’ve added a bottle of La Moutarde Vin to their display.

As long as I’m grappling with American vs. Dijon or mild vs. spicy, let’s address another challenge with mustard.  It’s a branded color, as in mustard yellow.  Sure, I get it – the yellow evokes the bright blooms of mustard plants.  You’ll even find mustard yellow in a box of Crayola crayons.  But what if you’re a kid in France?  How does a French mom explain to her kid why his mustard yellow crayon looks like bright sunshine instead of Grey Poupon?

Grey Poupon’s La Moutarde Vin is a limited-edition product, sort of a “cheers” to the wine used in the mustard.  At $30 a bottle, it’s reaching the high end of what I typically spend on wine.  But with every bottle you also get a free jar of Grey Poupon.  Okay, so maybe I have a taste for mustard wine after all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Grey Poupon wine now exists”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Coup de Grâce

On my green and pristine back lawn, a solitary fallen leaf lies captive among the blades, a sure sign of the coming fall. A summer lengthened by oppressive heat is mercifully at its end. Fellow bloggers eagerly write about crisp mornings, cool nights, and college football games. But here’s a better nod to the upcoming season, a beckoning more sublime than anything “pumpkin spice”. Have a listen to Antonio Vivaldi’s violin concerto “Autumn”, from his best-known work, “The Four Seasons”.

Sure, I could bore you with the details of a classical composition written over four hundred years ago. “The Four Seasons” was cutting edge for its time because the music reflected real-life events: singing birds (“Spring”), soft breezes (“Summer”), and icy paths (“Winter”).  But today’s post is not really about “Autumn” and its drunken dancers.  It’s about the performance of the piece by Frederieke Saeijs.

Ms. Saeijs

I’d never heard of Frederieke Saeijs before I watched the eleven minutes of her violin solo in the video above but I must confess, I’m absolutely smitten.  Frederieke (pronounced exactly like it reads, unlike her last name), is Dutch by birth but worldly in every other respect, including her education, performances, and teaching.  Her list of accomplishments and awards suggests there is nothing further she can achieve with her instrument… and she’s only forty-two.

But I digress (and can you blame me after seeing her photo?)  Let’s get back to this performance of “Autumn”.  Here is what I found so captivating.  First, Frederieke’s eyes and her movements with her violin are unabashedly expressive as she plays, clearly one with the music.  She is a picture of grace with her slender frame, elegant hairstyle, and striking purple gown.  In other words, you could watch this video on mute and still be impressed.  But please don’t.  You need to hear the music, even just a few minutes of it.  I admit to distraction by some other things on my computer screen yet I kept coming back to this performance until I’d completed all eleven minutes.

If I haven’t yet persuaded you to spend a few minutes with Frederieke, consider this.  She plays the entire piece from memory (which, in ‘Autumn’s more furious moments, is mind-boggling).  Also, her performance – as well as those of the smallish orchestra around her – is captured from a dozen different angles.  This was a busy production, both in front of and behind the camera.

I kept waiting for something – anything – to bring this performance back to earth so I could describe it as less than perfect.  Except for a cough in the audience minutes from the end, I don’t see how the concerto could’ve been purer.  Seriously, have you ever wondered how a soloist of this caliber avoids a sneeze or a cough, or even slips a little on her high heels?  Perhaps this explains why Frederieke is a world-class violinist and I am not.

Finally, if you made it to the end of this performance like I did, you’ll find it interesting the video concluded before the audience applause (and standing ovation, no doubt).  I say “good call” to whoever posted the video.  The silent fade-to-black conclusion only makes the performance more powerful.

Mr. Vivaldi

A coup de grâce is defined as “a decisive blow”, and further, “one delivered mercifully to end suffering”.  I love the double meaning here.  The season of autumn delivers a merciful end to the suffering of a hot summer.  More to today’s topic, Ms. Saeijs’ violin performance speaks of force and grace as one.  In other words, she offers you a most sublime welcome to fall.

The poem which inspired Vivaldi’s “Autumn” concerto includes the line, “… And (by) the season that invites so many, many…”  After watching today’s video I feel very much invited.  I suggest you raise a glass of hot cider to the calm of fall.  While you’re at it, give thanks for the breathtaking talent of Frederieke Saeijs.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Do YOU Know the Muffin Man?

I have a hodgepodge of baked goods on the kitchen counter right now. A loaf of sourdough sliced and ready for sandwiches. Brioche buns to cradle the bratwurst I barbecued over the weekend. Angel food cake for dessert topped with berries and whipped cream. And tortillas (which, okay, are “fried goods”) by the bagful. But we’re not done here. There’s one more option, one where my starchy carb willpower goes flying out the window. English muffins.

Who among us doesn’t love a warm, toasty English muffin?  The little round breakfast breads give us so many reasons to choose them.  They’re delicious, whether with butter, jam, or as an ingredient in Eggs Benedict.  They’re satisfyingly circular.  They’re usually fork-split so they break apart easy for the toaster.  You feel like you get two-for-one instead of a single piece of boring toast.  And as if to boast of their popularity, McDonald’s bakes millions of them into their Egg McMuffins.

Here’s another appeal of English muffins.  They have all those nooks and crannies to secure the melted butter.  You’re familiar with the term “nooks and crannies” (I know you are).  It’s the primary descriptor in Thomas’ English Muffins advertisements.  But you probably don’t know the backstory.  Thomas – as in Samuel Bath Thomas – created the “American” English muffin in 1880, after moving to the United States from England.  He brought with him a griddle-baking process for the muffins, which results in the signature crunchy outside and soft inside.  140 years later, I’m hard-pressed to come up with another manufacturer of English Muffins.  Okay, maybe Bays.  That’s it.

Ironically, English muffins are a more popular breakfast item in North America, Australia, and New Zealand than in England.  But you can’t just call them “muffins”, at least not in America.  Muffins (coming from the German muffen for “little cake”) refer to blueberry or corn or some other muffin with a more specific taste than the sourdough of English.  Not sure about you, but my consumption of English muffins to blueberry or corn is probably 100:1.

Eggs Benedict

You think you “know the muffin man”, but I’ll bet you’re just singing the children’s song (and you’re welcome for getting it stuck in your head).  There really were muffin men, you see, way back in the mid-1800’s.  They’d walk the streets selling their fresh-baked muffins, ringing bells like an ice cream truck.  In Britain there used to be so many muffin men ring-ring-a-ringing, Parliament passed a law to ban the bells.  But people still bought their fresh-baked muffins (at least until houses started getting this new invention called a “stove”).

When Mr. Thomas first sold his muffins in America he called them toaster crumpets, described as a “more elegant alternative to toast” to appeal to finer hotels.  Over time he changed the description to “English muffins” to better serve the masses.  The company bearing his name has been making them ever since, and the griddle-baking approach is the secret to all those nooks and crannies.

Crumpets, aka “English muffin imposters”

While we’re on the subject, let’s settle the debate on crumpets (and scones, for that matter) vs. English muffins.  Crumpets look like English muffins.  They’re about the same size.  But that’s where the similarities end.  Crumpets are only cooked on one side.  They have a milder taste.  And there’s a good explanation for the popularity of English muffins over crumpets in America.  Muffins go better with coffee, which Americans drink a lot more of than tea.  Can’t tell you when I’ve ever seen someone having a crumpet with their coffee.

“The Muffin Man” song includes the lyric, “… who lives on Drury Lane?”  Turns out, Drury Lane is a real street; a thoroughfare bordering Covent Garden in London.  But I prefer to think the Muffin Man lives right here on my street.  The Muffin Man is me, because not a week goes by where I don’t include the English rounds in my breakfast.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Five High

Last Thursday, my brothers and I took an overnight train from Northern California to Northern Oregon as part of an every-other-year reunion. The trip, which would take eleven hours if you drove from San Jose to Portland instead, took twice that long on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. But the meals come with the ride and everyone gets a bed and a hot shower, so it’s a cozy way to watch the world go by. In hindsight, for all the time sitting and staring out the window, we could’ve been stacking M&M’s. Just five of the colorful candies one atop the other would’ve landed my brothers and me in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Buy a bag of plain M&M’s (you’ll have zero chance with the peanut variety), count out five, and let the stacking commence.  You’ll get to a tower of two quickly.  You’ll get three one atop the other with time and patience.  But that’s the proverbial end of the line, my friends.  You won’t make it to four.  If you did, you’d join the two co-holders of the former world record.  Last January, Will Cutbill, a twenty-something British engineer, pushed the record to a stack of five.

The “original” M&M’s

The history of M&M’s suggests it’s only appropriate a Brit broke the stacking record.  M&M’s were copied (and somehow uniquely patented) from British-made Smarties, the first candy where a hard-shelled coating protected the chocolate inside from melting.  Here’s another interesting M&M’s factoid.  The first “M” is for Forrest Mars, Sr., the founder of the Mars candy company.  The second “M”?  Bruce Murrie, the son of the president of Hershey’s Chocolate.  No, the companies didn’t join forces to create M&M’s.  During the wartime years of the 1940’s Hershey had a monopoly on rationed chocolate so Mars was forced to use them as their supplier.  Today, M&M’s have evolved to a “fully Mars” product.

It’s safe to say Will Cutbill wouldn’t have broken the M&M’s stacking record without the pandemic.  He was in the middle of the UK’s third lockdown earlier this year when he pondered a lifelong dream of getting into the Guinness book.  He also had a bag of M&M’s in his hand at the time.  Practice led to more practice, and as you’ll see in the video here, the record-breaking moment came as a happy, unexpected surprise.

Marawa Ibrahim – Most hula hoops spun simultaneously

Maybe you’re thinking what I’m thinking.  Why can’t one of us become a world record holder as well?  As I type, I’m munching on Triscuit wheat crackers.  I just built a stack of five on my desk.  What if I went to the store and bought several more boxes, then stacked all those crackers to the ceiling of my double-height living room?  Wouldn’t I and my Triscuits join the Guinness book as well?

Eliud Kipchoge – Fastest marathon

Not so fast, record-setting wannabes.  As you should expect, Guinness has a tried-and-true process, not only to establish world records but to decide if they’re worth pursuing.  You must submit a formal application (even if attempting to break an existing world record).  Your attempt must be deemed ethical (ex. no killing of animals).  Your attempt mustn’t be harmful to the participant (ex. excessive consumption of alcohol).  Your record must be deemed environmentally friendly.  Finally, Guinness must approve the process by which your record will be adjudicated (which in Cutbill’s case included a video instead of an in-person judge). Oh, and unless you’re willing to contribute several thousand dollars to speed things up, plan on a year or more to complete the process.

Mya-Rose Craig – Most northerly climate protest

Now you know why the Guinness book hasn’t grown to a ridiculous number of pages and entries.  The content is regularly reviewed against cultural, societal, and environmental standards.  Records even slightly in question are removed.  For example, Guinness used to list the “largest fish on record” of a given species.  Then people started overfeeding fish just to break the record.  Guinness realized this kind of manipulation was not only cruel but potentially a source of litigation, so they removed the entries.

This quick dive into the pool of Guinness World Records has me thinking my brothers and I made the right choice in not challenging the M&M’s stacking record.  We’d be better off drinking a Guinness than breaking one of their world records (yes, the beer and the book come from the same family).  Besides, how would we stack five M&M’s on a rocking, rolling passenger train anyway?  Nope, not interested in breaking world records today.  But if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to stacking my Triscuits now.

Some content sourced from CNN Business video, “Good luck breaking this deceptively tough world record”, the Guinness World Records website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Shelf Life

The rural neighborhood I live in hosts a Nextdoor electronic newsletter, allowing residents to post online for all sorts of reasons. (Loose animals are a frequent topic.) Today, however, one thoughtful neighbor said to look beyond first responders and hospital staff for a moment and acknowledge other workers deserving of the spotlight: grocery store employees. Talk about people we take for granted. After all, they’re keeping an eye on 20,000 different products on the shelves of the average U.S. supermarket.

I had to double-check that number to believe what I was reading.  Nielsen, the research and ratings firm not only confirmed the number but said U.S. grocery stores experienced a 4.5% decline in 2020 (so more like 18,000 products).  Shouldn’t surprise us, especially with global supply chain interruptions.  And it’s easy to remember the most popular products missing in action.  Bath tissue, cleaning wipes, and canned soup, for example.  Others however, you probably didn’t notice.  Bumble Bee, the tuna maker, reduced its product count from 300 to 225.  Progresso Soup (a personal favorite), dropped its canned choices from 90 to 50.

Now, guess what?  Bumble Bee is not only back to its 300 products but adding new ones regularly.  Progresso is back to its ninety soups and doing the same thing.  So much for the “death of variety”, huh?  And speaking of variety, did I say ninety soups from a single manufacturer?  I’d be lucky if I could name twenty-five (“tomato”, “chicken noodle”, “clam chowder”, uh, uh…)  No wonder soup gets so much real estate on supermarket shelves.

J.M. Smucker is taking a similar tack.  They make a dozen varieties of peanut butter and two dozen more of jelly but last year you had to go without “Simply Jif”, “Reduced Fat”, and “Omega 3” versions of both.  Today, not only are their PB&J’s back but Smucker has introduced “Jif Natural Squeeze” and a smaller snack version of their popular “Uncrustables” frozen sandwiches.  It’s as if the pandemic was a small speed bump en route to ever-increasing variety.

Post Grape-Nuts cereal (which earned solo attention from me in “Ever Eat a Pine Tree?“) disappeared entirely in 2020.  For a while there you couldn’t find any version of the tooth-shattering cereal on the shelves.  But now the gravel is back, and Post is making a bold move to “apologize” for last year’s inconvenience.  If you paid $10 or more for a box of Grape-Nuts from November 2020 to March 2021, Post will issue a partial refund for the “unreasonable” portion of the cost.  You need your receipt, of course.  Clever marketing there.  How many people keep their grocery store receipts from six months ago?

Speaking of bold moves, here’s one I think we should sustain; a sort of pandemic silver lining.  At many hotels “housekeeping” has been reduced to the time between stays instead of every day.  My wife and I recently spent four nights in a Marriott hotel and at no time did housekeeping enter our room.  Instead, we gathered up dirty towels and exchanged for new ones at the front desk.  We emptied our own trash.  We made the mini soap/shampoo/conditioner bottles last.  It was hardly an inconvenience.  It was also nice to know our room was undisturbed the entire time.

Similarly, dropping grocery store product totals from 20,000 to 18,000 was subtly a good thing.  We were forced to simplify our pantries and go more back-to-basics.  We cooked more.  We ate more whole foods (instead of fast foods).  Let’s hope those habits remain, even while consumer goods manufacturers crank out ever-more variety.

There’s a newish bad habit driving grocery store shelf life however; one bound to stay a while.  The percentage of snack/junk foods you’ll find is higher than pre-pandemic days.  Why?  Because working from home drives the demand.  Accordingly, you’ll find 10.9% more salty snacks on the shelves, 11.5% more energy drinks (including PepsiCo’s caffeine-laden Mountain Dew Rise), and 14.8% more pastry items.  And (most disturbingly), you’ll find 79.2% more pre-mixed cocktails.  Whoa now.  Somebody might want to post on Nextdoor for the invention of a web-based sobriety test.  They’ll make a fortune.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “These foods disappeared from grocery stores last year…”, the CNN Business article, “The Grape-Nuts shortage is over…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Bl-ess-ed Island

I’ve always liked Southwest Airlines’ slogan. “Wanna Get Away?” Their first television commercials featured people having bad days – then up pops the Southwest phrase in big, bold letters. It wasn’t so much where you wanted to go, just that you wanted to go.  So today I have Southwest on the brain, not only because I “wanna get away” (and don’t we all?) but because I know precisely where. Take me to the Julian Alps in northwest Slovenia, please.  There you’ll find a tiny fairyland oasis known as Lake Bled.

Let me tease you with a photo.  Here, you’re standing on a steep vista known as Little Osojnica Hill.  Lake Bled’s emerald green waters are a squarish mile of blended glacial melt and hot springs.  And those mountains in the distance?  You’re looking at Austria and its Alps.  The country and its majestic peaks are less than ten miles from Slovenia and Lake Bled.

But forget about the surroundings for a moment because it’s Lake Bled I really want to talk about.  Here’s how you get there.  From Frankfurt, Germany, catch a 75-minute flight (KLM or Lufthansa, not Southwest) to Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana.  Instead of spending time trying to pronounce “Ljubljana”, make your way to the city train station.  Travel thirty miles northwest on the rails and step off at the Lesce-Bled station.  Congrats!  You’re only a two-mile walk from Lake Bled.

Now for the best part.  You’re not only going to Lake Bled; you’re going to the island in the middle.  Bled Island may be the most picturesque islet I’ve ever seen.  It’s perfectly surrounded by the lake.  It’s lush with trees.  But best of all, Bled Island hosts a soaring 17th-century pilgrimage church.  It’s like a miniature Mont-Saint-Michel, only it’s not in France and you have to climb a wide stairway to get to the church doors.  Brace yourself; we’re talking ninety-nine steps on that stairway.  But you’re not gonna come all this way and not see the church, right?

Earlier I told you Lake Bled is like something out of a fairy tale.  Here’s another reason why.  The only way to get from the lakeshore to the island is on a pletna.  What’s a pletna? A wooden, flat-bottomed boat, seating a dozen or so and powered by a very-much-in-shape Slovenian oarsman.  He stands in the back like a Venetian gondolier, using his two oars to propel the boat slowly across the pristine waters.  Doesn’t it just add to the image?  Better than muddying up things with something motorized.

Bled Castle

If Lake Bled and its islet aren’t enough to get you booking flights, how about a couple more temptations?  High above the lakeshore stands the oldest medieval castle in all of Slovenia.  Drawbridge, moat, courtyards, towers; Bled Castle has everything you’d expect in an 11th-century fortification.  Must be worth the price of admission because it’s one of the most visited attractions in the entire country.

Yum!

Maybe you’re not into castles.  How about a plate of Chantilly cream pastries instead?  The cremeschnitte is the region’s culinary specialty.  The pastry is so highly regarded, the Slovenian government designated it a “protected dish” in 2016.  An annual festival celebrates nothing but the dessert.  Over the last sixty years, a hotel near Lake Bled has baked over sixty million of them.  That’s what I’d call a recipe refined to perfection.

In a recent post I mentioned my daughter is getting married next year.  For my future son-in-law’s sake, I’m glad she didn’t choose the church on Bled Island.  Local tradition says it’s good luck for the groom to carry the bride up the stone steps before ringing the church bell and making a wish.  Up ninety-nine steps?  The groom better be as strong as a pletna oarsman if he’s going to make that kind of climb.

Photos are nice but videos are the real clincher.  Spend a couple of minutes with the following YouTube tour.  I guarantee you’ll “wanna get away” to Bled Island, and soon.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Picking Poison

If you have me over for dinner and ask what I’d like to drink, I’m probably going to disappoint you. My go-to “adult beverages” are wine and, well… wine.  Nothing mixed.  Nothing with a lot of proof on the bottle.  A margarita with Mexican and a beer after a long day in the sun, but otherwise it’s pretty much a glass of Chardonnay or a full-bodied Cabernet. Not much creativity in picking my poison, it seems. Yet that’s not quite true.  Out on my property I’m faced with poison just about every day, as I fight a persistent onslaught of noxious weeds.

Dalmatian toadflax

Noxious weeds make their appearance around here every spring – without fail – just when I’m fooled into thinking this, this is the year they’ll cut me a break and infiltrate someone else’s property instead.  I’ll walk out one morning and seemingly overnight the uninviteds have taken prominent positions among the prairie grass.  Knapweed.  Toadflax.  Mullein.  And the worst of this noxious bunch: thistle.

Weeds annoy most anyone, but noxious weeds deserve a place in Hollywood’s scariest horror flick.  These bad boys earn descriptors like “aggressive invader”, “detrimental to native plants”, and “poisonous to livestock”.  Noxious weeds fall into a family of growees known as “alien plants”, which means they don’t belong here in Colorado.  Nor anywhere else on Earth if you ask me.  Name one redeeming aspect of these pernicious inhabitants.  I can’t, except perhaps I get a solid workout while I struggle to keep them at bay.

Thistle

Operative phrase there, keep them at bay.  Not kill them.  Most noxious weeds establish an underground root system as strong as chain link fence.  Many are impervious to the most aggressive chemical warfare.  Try yanking out the whole plant and you’ll burn through a bank’s worth of sweat equity.  Better to use something gas-powered instead.  Or a flame thrower.

Knapweed

Yes, Colorado has its Rocky Mountains and seasons of snow, but most of the Centennial State is high and dry desert.  We’re constantly challenged by drought, and in those conditions noxious weeds thrive.  Our county even has a “Noxious Weeds Division”, of the Environmental Division of the Community Services Department.  Send them an email and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about noxious weeds.  Most disturbingly, how they’re here… to… stay.

Let’s get to know these persistent plants a little better:

  • Diffuse knapweed – Picture a tumbleweed.  Large, round, and spiny.  Not very nice to look at.  You can knock off knapweed by severing the single taproot, but, its seeds can still develop on the cut plant.  Time for a bonfire.
  • Dalmatian toadflax – Showy, yellow, snapdragon-like flowers.  One plant can produce a half-million seeds.  The best way to control this bugger is… with bugs.  Can anyone spare some root-boring moths or stem-boring weevils?
  • Common mullein – Starts as an innocent, flat, green “rosette”, then bursts into a ramrod straight stalk, several feet tall.  Mercifully, mullein has a shallow root.  Meanwhile, people think you’re growing corn in your pasture.
  • Canada thistle – Small purple flowers bunched on tall, dark green stalks, replete with thorns and other self-defense mechanisms.  Hand-pulling this freakshow of nature stimulates its growth.  If you ask me, Canada thistle is better named “Satan’s Rosebush”.
I prefer this kind of dalmatian

How do I know the exact species of my noxious weeds?  Because my county’s Noxious Weeds Division tells me… when they send letters threatening to charge for maintenance if I don’t do it myself.  My advice: it’s best to obey the Noxious Weeds Division.

Mullein

Now for some noxious weed trivia:

  • Worldwide damage caused by noxious weeds: $1.4 trillion USD.
  • Russian thistle lives longer than humans.
  • Giant hogweed (which causes a nasty, blistering skin rash) earns a spot in the Guinness Book as “world’s largest weed”.  Its umbrella-like blooms can hover more than eighteen feet, on stalks three or more inches around.  “Giant” indeed.
  • Lastly… (and my personal favorite), before the chemical embalming process, tansy ragwort was used to line coffins because of its ability to repel vermin.  Hey!  Another redeeming aspect of noxious weeds.

I have a fond weed memory (believe it or not).  When I was a kid, I stayed at my uncle’s house for several days alongside a cousin about the same age.  Somehow my uncle had us weeding his front yard (work in exchange for food?).  Those straight-and-tall weeds looked like a vast army of soldiers.  So that’s how my cousin and I took to the job.  We split the yard down the middle, declared ourselves generals, and started taking down the soldiers one by one.  When the dust cleared and the “bodies” were removed, the battlefield was admirably clean.  We declared victory and went inside for a much-needed shower.

I’ve just returned from another battle with my noxious weeds.  I lopped off dozens of mullein tops with my pruning shears, to shut down their seed spread.  It’s exhausting work and I’m done picking poison for the day.  I could use a drink.  Nothing mixed, of course.  A beer will do just fine.

Some content sourced from the Noxious Weeds and Control Methods guidelines document, State of Colorado, El Paso County, Community Services Department, Environmental Division.

Meet Cute

Every now and then McDonald’s gets it right. In 1973, they introduced the Quarter-Pounder because customers demanded more than a 10 oz. patty inside of a boring bun. In 1987, McDonald’s added “PlayPlace” indoor playgrounds to suburban locations: crawl tubes, slides, and ball pits contributing to countless happy childhoods.  This year, the restaurant chain is stepping it up with its McCafé Bakery offerings. The Apple Fritter, Blueberry Muffin, and Cinnamon Roll will step back to give the spotlight to the newest McDonald’s kid on the block: the adorable Glazed Donut.

Seriously, just look at this little guy.  Isn’t he the cutest donut you’ve ever seen?  The McCafé Glazed Donut looks like a happy gathering of donut holes, all nestled up against each other for warmth and protection.  The Donut is pleasingly symmetrical.  Even the spelling is cute (instead of the more substantial “doughnut”).  And the best part: its “donettes” pull apart the way you would a hot, flaky croissant.  It’s like getting seven for the price of one.  And it’s cute to boot.

I admit I didn’t wake up this morning intending to write about cute donuts.  Even the headline about this doughnut’s upcoming debut didn’t really catch my eye.  But then I saw the photo and I was utterly smitten.  It’s the same way I felt when I first saw a package of those colorful little Plink garbage disposal cleaners.  I just had to have them.

Some would describe this as a “meet cute” moment.  Meet cute is the early-on scene in television or movies where two people connect for the first time and you just know they’re headed for romance.  The Hallmark Channel is all about meet cute.  Any scene where Hallmark movie man meets Hallmark movie woman, combined with something funny or unusual is 99% headed towards future romance.  It’s like you’re ten minutes into the story and you already know how it ends.

Plenty of “meet cute” in this one

And that’s how it’s gonna go with the McCafé Glazed Donut.  We had our meet cute this morning.  Now I have two weeks of anticipation and heart palpitations before I can actually buy one.  But I already see it.  I (almost) already taste it.  And the whole pull-apart thing?  Pure sex(y) appeal.

Meet cutes don’t always lead to predictable endings.  After the meet, the movie leads you to believe the characters are destined for romance.  But sometimes they’ll throw a curve (usually in the form of a third character) and the story goes in another direction.  Could happen with the Glazed Donut too.

Let’s use supermarkets as an example.  You stroll into the store, grab a basket, and think about your shopping list.  But before you even reach the aisles you’re greeted with front-of-store marked-down day-old doughnuts.  They’re just sitting there like little round orphans, begging you to spend another $0.69 to “adopt” one.

They’ll be front-of-store by tomorrow

So you do.  And you make sure the little guy’s placed in your basket as an easy find.  Then you slide behind the steering wheel and polish him off before you even leave the parking lot.  Tastes great, right?  Maybe now.  Later you’ll reflect on the slight, sickly feeling in the pit of your stomach and wonder why you caved.

That’s my thinking with the McCafé Glazed Donut.  I can cruise past the Fritter, Muffin, and Cinnamon Roll without so much as a passing glance.  But mark my words, next month I’ll find any excuse to be near a McDonald’s during McCafé Bakery hours.  I’ll purchase the Glazed Donut and my meet cute will blossom into a full-on romance. When I consider the Protein Shake I have most mornings, I’ll feel like I’m about to cheat on my mainstay.  Heck, this scandal could go viral! I see the headline now: Man Opts for Sweet & Sexy over Cold & Icy.  But can you blame me?  My Protein Shake really IS cold and icy, and there’s nothing satisfyingly pull-apart about it at all.  Meanwhile a small, soft, almost UFO-looking donut beckons.

Forgive me, my beautiful, healthy breakfast-in-a-cup.  Looks like I’m gonna stray.

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “McDonald’s is adding a sweet new treat for fall”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Merry (go) Round Numbers

Smack-dab in the middle of last week the odometer on my car clicked over to 111,111 miles. I noticed the running total around 111,100, so for eleven slow-as-molasses miles I had one eye on the road and the other on the digits. The final mile was an unusually scenic tour of a Costco parking lot, but at long last there it was.  One hundred and eleven thousand, one hundred and eleven, on the nosey.  My phone was already balanced on the steering wheel for the photo. Click!

I know what you’re thinking.  Who keeps an eye on their car’s odometer at all, except when it’s time for an oil change?  Who even knows where their odometer is on the dashboard, what with trip computers and cruise control and all those other digits taking up space?  Well… I do, thank you very much.  I look at my odometer almost as much as my speedometer.  Because I’m searching.  Searching for merry numbers as they go round.  Like 111,111.

It’s a knack for knowing numbers to come, this game.  It’s the reason I didn’t miss the spectacular 98,765.  Or the elegant 48,484.  One glance at the odometer and my brain senses a “fun” number is just around the street corner.  When the final digit clicks into place there’s this little feeling of euphoria.  At least, until I drive another mile.

The numbers-game gene comes from my dad, I’m sure of it.  He has a laser-keen eye for the fun ones.  I still remember when I was a kid, him leaning over in the front seat to my mom and saying, “Marion, look at THAT!” And the mechanical (vs. digital) odometers of his day, they made the moment more dramatic.  Odometers used to count in tenths of a mile, and you’d watch a digit s-l-o-w-l-y slide up and out of view as it expired, to be replaced by a fresh one from below.

Right about now you’re thinking who is this guy and why do I read his posts?  Sorry, we all have our quirks and one of mine is fun numbers.  So here’s another angle.  I remember the zip codes of my childhood neighborhoods as if they’re tattooed on my brain.  90049.  92014.  Also the street addresses.  3349. 2600. 1944.  Even the ten-digit phone numbers.  Today, those zip codes come in handy when I need a short, numeric password, like a locker combination or a luggage lock.  At least zip codes are more unpredictable than 12345.  Disturbingly, 12345 is a popular passcode.  People can be so lazy.

As for the street addresses, four-digit numbers don’t allow for much creativity.  I don’t find myself glued to my bedside digital clock, waiting for 01:23am or even 1:22am (my birthday).  I don’t get a grin out of 11:11 or 4:44.  On the other hand, 9:11 catches my attention way too often.  Nothing fun about that one.

To be clear, I’m not describing obsessive-compulsive behavior (more like get-a-life behavior, right?)  This is just me getting satisfaction out of random numbers.  Numbers OCD is more like – using my wife as the example – turning the radio volume up, but only to the even numbers (as if the odds don’t exist).  Or nightmares about recipes calling for the oven to be set to 351°.  Or countdowns from ten that go “THREE… TWO…”, but “ONE” never comes.  OCD peeps don’t handle those numbers scenarios very well.

Here’s one more numbers game I take a lot of pride in.  My four brothers and I were born in (respectively) 1956, 1958, 1960, 1962 (hello, world), and 1964.  As a result, one of us celebrates a round-numbered birthday every two years.  When the middle brother turned 40 we started gathering together, face-to-face, at a location of the birthday guy’s choosing.  And we’ve done so ten times since, for the rest of the 40’s birthdays, all of the 50’s birthdays, and now into the 60’s birthdays.  Next month we’ll celebrate again (COVID delayed this gathering by a year).  Nice to know I’ll see my brothers every two years from here on “out”.

If you’re still reading to this point, maybe merry, round numbers aren’t the quirk I think they are.  I’m still reveling in the appearance of 111,111 on my odometer last week.  Yes, I might’ve had a little cry when it blinked over to 111,112 a few minutes later.  But that’s okay.  I captured the moment on my phone.  Not to mention, I’ll be targeting 123,456 before I know it.