Maker’s Marks

In the 1993 thriller Cliffhanger, the opening scene is truly disturbing. Having summited a mountaintop for a little adventure, young climbers suspend a cable across a deep chasm to a nearby peak, then cross the open space one by one in zip-line fashion. One climber, terrified to cross the void, gets caught in the middle of the fraying cable, holding on by her fingers for dear life. Despite Sylvester Stallone’s valiant efforts, she shockingly loses her grip, plunging untold feet into the abyss. I remember envisioning myself as her and thinking, “I’m going to die”.

Almost sixty years into life as I know it, I have three unforgettable, take-it-to-the-grave moments where I thought, “I’m going to die”.  One of them happened two nights ago.

Returning from a Rockies baseball game in downtown Denver, I drove myself and a friend through a long stretch of interstate road construction.  We chatted about nothing and everything as we eyed the late-night traffic around us.  I’ve driven this stretch countless times, so much so my brain moves to a certain degree of autopilot.  However, I was not prepared for one unexpected moment.  As we ascended a rise in the divided two-lane highway, the lane to our right began to disappear without warning.  Orange cones cut across its width too quickly, with no signage or blinking lights to grab our attention.

All would’ve been fine were it not for the well-lit semi-trailer truck already occupying the disappearing lane.  He was just enough ahead of me he wasn’t going to back off.  I don’t think he could even see my car was occupying the lane into which he was about to merge.  Instinctively, I pressed the brake pedal, but not before realizing how much of his trailer was still trailing my car.  How the back of his trailer didn’t merge directly with the hood of my car is beyond me.  As he swung over into my lane there couldn’t have been two inches between his bumper and mine.

This miracle of a no-accident is an example of a “shoulda died” moment.  The semi was at least four times the length of my car (and three times as high).  It’s safe to say he and his truck would’ve survived the collision (me, not so much).  It’s also safe to say providence of a higher being was present at that very moment.

The two other “shoulda” moments in my life are etched into my brain as clear as crystal.  When I was a kid, I once hit a tennis ball over my neighbor’s fence and into their backyard.  It was easy enough to sneak through their side gate and down the side of their house.  Then I ran into their tall grass to the approximate location of the ball.  Just short of it, I leaped instinctively over a fully coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike.  No question, the most terrifying moment of my young life.  I remember yelling and screaming until our neighbor came out and killed the snake.  “Shoulda died?”  Maybe not, but tell that to a ten-year-old who was sure he’d be bitten by a poisonous snake.  To this day I’m convinced there was an angel nearby telling me to “JUMP!” at just the right moment.

My one other “shoulda” happened in my twenties.  Driving back to my college after a road trip, I fell asleep at the wheel in the early-morning hours of an almost deserted divided highway.  My car drove itself into the road’s grass median at 60 mph, where I awoke to the horrifying realization I was completely out of control.  Struggling to get the car in hand, I swerved this way and that until finally crossing three lanes of oncoming traffic, plunging into a ditch, completely rolling the car, and finally skidding to a stop, adding the flourish of a 180° spin.  How was the hospital?  Never saw it.  I walked away from my totaled car with just cuts and bruises, in an understandable state of shock.  Why wasn’t I hit by oncoming traffic?  Why didn’t I perish in the remains of my car?  Another dose of providence, I think.

We all have one or two of these “shoulda” moments in our lives.  They leave an indelible stamp on our memory as if to say, “Nope, not done with this life just yet.”  Now let’s add “coulda” and “woulda” moments.

“Coulda died” moments are all over the map:

I coulda died if I didn’t catch my balance on the edge of that cliff.

I coulda died if I hadn’t been strong enough to swim out of that riptide.

I coulda died if I rode my bicycle on that busy highway.

And so on.

Woulda died” moments are even worse because you know the life-or-death consequences beforehand.  “Woulda’s” are typically fraught with ignorance.  Choosing to drag race down a busy city street.  Choosing to scale the steep roof of your house in shorts and sandals.  Choosing to act on your road rage.  Have I done any of these “woulda’s” myself?  No. I choose to live instead.

Maker’s Mark is a small-batch bourbon whiskey produced in Loretto, Kentucky by the company Beam Suntory. Maker’s marks, by my definition, are those “shoulda” moments where we emerge on the other side, a sweating bundle of nerves, thankful to be alive.

That semi and I had a “shoulda” moment the other night, but divine providence chose to play a part.

Thanks be to God.

Amending Fences

We’re keeping a close eye on our new neighbor these days.  You see, he’s building a fence on his property.  In most cases the only discussion neighbors have about fences is who pays for what, or how the fence will look on either side.  But this situation’s more complicated.  Our neighbor doesn’t realize the driveway separating he and me is not right on the property line.  If his new fence line marches down his side of the driveway, he’s actually claiming several square yards of our property.

Better left alone

Here’s a story you never hear, certainly not in the United States.  A Belgian farmer was working on his property and decided to move a giant rock in one of his fields.  Several days later, federal authorities knocked on his front door.  Turns out, moving that rock adjusted the border of Belgium.  Our farmer moved one rock (as it turns out, a 300-year-old stone marker) and singlehandedly increased the size of his country by 1,000 square meters.  The very sovereignty of his nation was called into question.  Neighboring France was not thrilled.

So it is with my neighbor.  Unless he has a plot plan on hand he’ll unknowingly increase the size of his property while decreasing mine.  But that’s why we put up fences, right?  A fence specifies property; a literal landmark to indicate, “this is mine”.  That’s just for starters because we use fences for a lot of other reasons.

If I’m guessing right, my neighbor needs a fence to keep horses (or other livestock) between his house and the edges of his property.  His animals will be shut in from adjacent roads and lands.  Good luck with that, friend.  Most people around here seem to have breaks in their fences (if they have fences at all).  Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t post a notice on our neighborhood’s electronic newsletter about animals on the loose.  This morning’s alert concerned a bunch of cows grazing peacefully… on the wrong property.  You can’t blame ’em if “the grass is greener on the other side”, right?

Last week on our vacation to Charleston, South Carolina, we drove down streets full of the town’s characteristic row houses, with tasteful pastel colors and two-story side “piazza” porches.  We also walked by stately antebellum mansions in the waterfront “south of Broad” neighborhood.  Each of these estates was surrounded by high gates and brick walls, an obvious nod to security.  Yes, these palaces were beautiful, but their surrounding “fences” seemed to declare, “keep out”.  So we did.

Here’s another need for fences.  At last Saturday’s Triple Crown Belmont Stakes in New York, the eight thoroughbreds were guided – and in one case pushed – into the starting gate before the race began.  In the split second where the horses were all in a row, each standing in a sort of starting cage, there was structure.  Once they burst out of the gate, all horses and riders shifted to the left, jockeying chaotically for prime position on the rail.  Imagine the start of that race without that starting “fence”.  Disorder with a capital “D”.

Some fences don’t even need a physical definition.  Picture your city streets without lane markings (as if you lived in India).  All cars would tend to compete for the best position, just like those Belmont Stakes horses.  Horns would honk and road rage would rise to new levels.  Roll down your window and throw out any sense of safety.

I leave you with one final fence.  The shuttered Cal Neva Lodge and Casino overlooking Lake Tahoe straddles the border between California and Nevada.  A solid line on the floor splits the dining room and then the swimming pool, to indicate which state you’re dining or soaking in.  Drink on one side of the line; drink and gamble on the other.  I just hope the hotel’s current remodel doesn’t include relocating the pool.  California might become even bigger!

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “Belgian farmer moves border with France by mistake”.

Ice Cream Dreams

Before our vacation in South Carolina last week, I took measures to ensure I was fully prepared for the low country’s late-May heat and humidity. I packed a reliable SPF 30 sunscreen. I purchased a couple of bottles of spray-on insect repellant. I added several hats to the wardrobe. I even brought a USB-chargeable mini-fan, which hangs around the neck, operates at three speeds, and adjusts to just the right angle. But guess what? I didn’t need any of these items in South Carolina last week (for the weather gods were merciful). Instead, I should’ve left it all at home and just brought my bed.

South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”

Is it me getting older or can we all agree on the exceptional value of a good night’s sleep?  For me, it’s a day of brain fog if I don’t get a quality 7.5 hours in la-la land the night before.  When I’m up past midnight (which is never my intention), I know I’m going to pay dearly at 7am the next morning.  Because, I wake up without fail (and without alarm clock) every morning at 7am.  Even if I don’t hit the hay until 3am.

 Stay in a hotel – any hotel – and after one night you’re reminded how the circumstances of quality sleep are frustratingly beyond your control.  My wife and I booked a charming historic inn our first night last week, and what-do-you-know, our bed was just as historic.  The seemingly elegant four-poster contained a lumpy mattress with a few squeaky springs, and a decided slope from my side of the bed to my wife’s.  Throw in the two-hour time change and we tossed and turned like a washing machine’s most violent agitation cycle.

The second day we drove over to Charleston (half asleep), where you’d think a Courtyard-by-Marriott room would deliver the Z’s just a little bit better.  No such luck.  Our fifth-floor corner space included two windows with not-so-blackout curtains.  Our first night’s sleep was interrupted by the hotel fire alarm, triggered because one of the elevators malfunctioned.  The rest of our night’s sleeps were interrupted by the several amped-up bachelorettes and wedding parties resident in the hotel.  Finally, we were adjacent to the fire exit stairs, with a bangy access door used constantly… because of the malfunctioning elevator.

Once upon a time, I was happy just to afford a bed to sleep in.  But over the years I’ve developed a respect for the crucial elements of quality sleep.  A comfortable mattress is worth the max you can afford to pay.  A mattress where you can raise/lower the head and foot is even better.  Make the room pitch black (which in our case includes a small piece of cardboard to block the fireplace pilot flame).  Adjust the temp to the high sixties °F.  Invest in a white noise machine.  And table the electronic devices and alcohol several hours before bedtime.

If there was a plus side to my Charleston sleep, it was this.  We discovered a very good ice cream place within walking distance of the hotel.  Don’t know about you but ice cream does wonders for my sleep.  Specifically, my dreams.  Maybe it’s the sugar or maybe it’s just the late-night munchies, but I’m guaranteed all kinds of REM-sleep adventures when I’ve had ice cream.  Some are haunted-house scary, others earn a movie-theater R-rating, and still others are a jumbled hodgepodge of individual memories making no sense when thrown together.  Whatever the subject, my ice cream dreams are a ton of fun.  They also disappear from memory as fast as the ice cream did the night before.  I’m not one of those who greet you at breakfast with, “You’re not gonna believe what I dreamed about last night!”  Because I’ve already forgotten.

Dreams are the topic of an entire post and alas, I’ve already used up my typical word count this time around.  But let me leave you with some dreamy trivia.  The average person enjoys three to five dreams a night.  Like me, most people quickly forget their dreams the moment they wake up.  Dreams last longer as the night progresses.  The older you get, the less you dream.  Finally, for all we know about the brain, we know next to nothing about dreaming.

I can’t fit a bed in my suitcase so I already know the next time I travel means quality sleep stays behind.  But maybe I’ll pack a little ice cream on dry ice.  If I can’t get my usual dose of Z’s, the least I can do is enjoy a forgettable sweet dream or two.

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

Gadgets… Be Gone!

The defining elements of the 1970s included disco music, bell-bottom pants, and really big sunglasses. You had block-long lines at gas stations thanks to the “Energy Crisis”, President Nixon’s resignation because of Watergate, and the long-overdue wrap of the Vietnam War. People preferred their clothes and cars in bright colors, their hair shaggy. I don’t remember much of this stuff, since I was only a budding teenager. But I’ll never forget my very first audio cassette tape deck.

90 minutes of songs in your pocket

You’re seeing obituaries in the news these days for noteworthy people of the 1970s.  Fifty years ago these people were generally in their thirties or forties; a reasonable age to invent something.  So it didn’t surprise me to read about Lou Ottens, who died in March at the age of 94.  Ottens was an engineer for the Philips Corporation.  Never knew him, never heard of him, but I’m forever grateful he invented the compact cassette audiotape.

[Millennials, roll back the clock on music media.  From your digital subscriptions, pass through Blu-Ray and DVD, then compact disc (CDs), until you finally land in the 1970s and the compact cassette audiotape.  If you made it to long-play (LP) vinyl records you went a little too far.]

Cassette tapes were a sensation in the 1970s because not only were they pants-pocket-portable, they were recordable.  Me and my cassette deck spent many an afternoon capturing Top-40 hits off the local FM radio station (Barry Manilow!  Helen Reddy!)  Then I’d store my precious cassettes in their little suitcase, which could hold twenty or thirty inside plastic cases.  Add in the invention of the Sony Walkman at the end of the decade (the first handheld cassette player) and you’ve got a broad overview of 1970s music media.

1970s chic

I did have a Walkman somewhere along the way, but the better memories come with my tabletop cassette deck (like the one shown here).  It lived on the desk in my bedroom, with its square speaker and giant pushbuttons, a precursor to today’s boom box.  It ate the occasional cassette tape with relish, and background noise always accompanied recordings off the radio, but my tape deck was still fairly state-of-the-art for the 1970s.  It only weighed a couple of pounds including the four C batteries.  The pop-out handle made for easy carry.

Lou Otten’s passing speaks to how many inventions, no matter how novel or cutting-edge, are sooner or later kaput.  Like the wax occupants of Madame Tussauds, you know your useful life has passed when you’d be better off in a museum.  So how about a few more inventions from my childhood years – once useful but now “almost gone”?

1960s

  • magnetic stripe card (smartphones are saying, “move over”)
  • plasma display panel (PDP)
  • handheld calculator (just ask Siri now)
  • 8-track cartridge (whoa, that’s ancient history)
  • Liquid Paper
Soon to be kaput

1970s

  • Pong (one of the earliest arcade video games)
  • floppy disk (removable computer file storage)
  • portable GPS device
  • cell phone (audio calls, nothing else)
  • videocassette recorder/player (VCRs)
“Floppy” file storage

I was just as curious to check out the decades of my parents’ childhood.  What inventions from their formative years are no longer?

1930s

  • Polaroid photography (in its original form)
  • IBM electric typewriter
  • coin-operated parking meter (now accepts credit cards)
  • drive-in movie theater (making a COVID-era comeback, perhaps?)
  • twist-tie (now built into your kitchen trash bag)

1940s

  • aerosol spray can (can we at least agree, these need to go?)
  • Slinky and Silly Putty (not today’s child’s toy of choice)
  • atomic bomb (let’s just pretend these are obsolete, shall we?)
  • lp phonograph record
  • jukebox
Early-model boombox

Last summer I went through a few neglected boxes in the garage and found a few of my old audiocassette tapes.  I keep a still-kicking boombox in the garage (for AM radio baseball games), with a dusty cassette tape player in the middle.  One afternoon I popped in one of those old tapes, pressed PLAY, and behold: John Denver was alive and singing again.  The music was as crisp and clear as 1970.

So give it up for Lou Ottens.  Not only did he design audiocassette tapes, he designed those little guys to last!

Some content sourced from the Hackaday.com article, “RIP Lou Ottens, Developer of the Compact Cassette and More”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Polishing the Pearls

Twice a day, my toothpaste tube and I do battle.  When I take the tube out of the medicine cabinet and realize there’s only a little bit left, I can see it smirking as if to say, “You’re not getting any more out of ME!”  Yeah, right.  I just flatten it from one end to the other (I recommend a hairbrush here), forcing every last bit of paste to gather at the top, ready to launch.  Then I take off the cap and squeeze like crazy.  It’s a good workout for the hands, and a mindless challenge to extend the life of your toothpaste.

Speaking of toothpaste – yep, that’s my topic today – here’s a really good trivia question.  In the Roald Dahl classic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, what did Charlie’s dad do for a living?  He screwed the caps onto toothpaste tubes… before machines were invented to do the job for him.  (He also died before the first paragraph and was never part of the story, so it’s a little weird I remember that bit.  But I digress.)

Quick, name the first ingredient you think of in toothpaste.  Flouride?  Not a bad guess, but did you know fluoride makes up only a tenth of a percent of toothpaste?  That’s like a pinprick on the tip of your finger.  Flouride is potent, my friends.  Good for healthy enamel but only in itty-bitty doses.  Keep those chemicals close, but not too close.

Was your first ingredient surfactants?  A surfactant is basically a “foaming agent”, which helps distribute the paste around the inside of your mouth, which translates to better cleaning.  Surfactants remind me of those animated scrubbing bubbles you’d see in TV commercials, whirling around the bathtub surface.  You also find them in shampoos and conditioners.  Without surfactants, most of the hairs on your head would get clean and conditioned, but others would be left high and dry.

“Minty fresh!”

How about flavorants – you know, peppermint, spearmint, wintergreen, or cinnamon?  If flavorants were the first ingredient you thought about with toothpaste, go directly to Jail (i.e. do not pass GO, do not collect $200).  Flavorants do zilch for your teeth.  They just make brushing a more pleasant experience and fool you into thinking you have a fresher mouth when you’re done.  You might as well chew gum.  The sugarless kind, that is.

Okay, let’s cut to the chase.  The primary ingredient in toothpaste is abrasives (and if this was your answer, you win a free dental drill).  Abrasives make up 50% of what’s inside the toothpaste tube.  They’re “designed to help remove plaque” (remember that phrase).  Think of abrasive-laden toothpaste as liquid sandpaper.  Abrasives are the reason you don’t want to swallow toothpaste.  And don’t brush too hard either.  With enough pressure, these bad boys would be happy to remove your enamel.

Toothpaste also has grit

I could list even more toothpaste ingredients (ex. antibacterial agents, whiteners, re-mineralizers), but let’s just agree: there’s a big, diverse party going on inside the tube.  Now for the bad news.  Toothpaste has no significant impact on the reduction of plaque – so says certain clinical studies. That’s why abrasives are described as “designed to help remove”.  That’s a sneaky way of saying they just keep things in check until your next appointment with the dentist.  Sorry (Charlie), no amount of brushing can replace those nasty power tools your hygienist has so much fun using.

For all my talk about toothpaste ingredients, the brand I use has very few.  Earthpaste (“Amazingly Effective!”) has no fluoride, no foaming agents, and almost no flavor.  In fact, Earthpaste has only four ingredients – water, clay, salt, and essential oils.  It’s like brushing with mud.  Wait, it IS brushing with mud!  Just as effective, without the chemicals (subtle plug).  You’ll find it on Amazon.

So all this talk about toothpaste may be important, but so is getting every last bit out of the tube.  And there may finally be a solution to that battle.  The very smart peeps at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed an edible product called LiquiGlide.  It’s invisible (which okay, is a little disturbing), and it’s designed to coat the inside of a container so the contents will completely empty with just gravitational pull.  Can you imagine?  No more flattening, squeezing, or hand workouts.  Just upend the tube and 100% of the product comes pouring out.  Get-your-money’s-worth people like me silently rejoice.

LiquiGlide’s proof is in the pudding, er – ketchup.  No more smacking or shaking the bottle.  No more “An-ti-ci-pay-yay-tion” (for those of you who remember the 1970s Heinz jingle).  Our future ketchup bottles and toothpaste tubes will be transparent – and empty – by the time they head to the recycling bin.

Unfortunately, I’d have to give up my Earthpaste and move to Europe if I want to experience the benefits of LiquiGlide.  (The company has no immediate plans to sell its products in North America).  That’s not gonna happen, so until further notice you’ll find me in the bathroom, doing battle with my toothpaste tube.  It’s not so much about getting my teeth clean.  It’s about getting my money’s worth.

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “How MIT could help you pour ketchup”, the CNN.com article, “Colgate’s new toothpaste tube…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Tale of the Little-Dog

When my son and his wife visited with their daughters last week, the consensus for dinner was hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill.  These choices were noteworthy in that I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate a hot dog.  Sweet Italian sausage?  A couple of times a month cut up into a stir-fry of vegetables.  Beer brats?  Also delicious, hot off the grill with a little mustard.  But a hot dog is child’s play by comparison.  Or should I say, a “dachshund sausage”?

It’s true.  The Germans, who by all accounts can take credit for the invention of the hot dog (five hundred years ago!) nicknamed their frankfurters “dachshunds” – or “little-dog” sausages because, well, they looked exactly like the dog breed.  The only history Americans claim is the re-nickname “hot dog”.  Even the hot dog bun – which really took hold at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 – points back to the Germans, who always ate their sausages with bread.

Are hot dogs a staple in your diet, or like me are they simply a distant memory?  If they weren’t hot off the grill in the backyard or at a summer picnic, perhaps you had one at a baseball game (but not so much football or basketball, go figure).  You’ve probably also seen hot dogs on the midway at carnivals and county fairs.  Wherever you get your franks today, they’re just not as likely to come from established restaurants.

In the 1970s, America seemed to have hot dog stands on every corner.  The most popular of these was the distinctive drive-thru Der Wienerschnitzel’s, but you also had – at least from my California-based memory – Pup ‘N’ Taco, Ben Franks, Tail o’ the Pup, and the walk-up Hot Dog on-a-Stick booths you’d find at amusement parks.  Today’s retail hot dog is at a Sonic Drive-In or the food court at Costco.  If you live anywhere near New York’s Coney Island, you can also include “Nathan’s Famous”, or at least the annual hot dog eating contest of the same name.

A hot dog may be “a cooked sausage eaten in a long, soft piece of bread”, but its secondary meanings are less definitive.  “Hot Dog!” is something you used to say when you were VERY happy about something else (“used to”, meaning sixty or seventy years ago).  A “hot dog” is also a person “who makes fast, skillful movements in skiing, snowboarding, or surfing to make people notice them”.  That last definition still stands.

Speaking of “used to say”, we also used to sing about hot dogs, didn’t we?  Oscar Mayer’s jingle convinced us we should BE hot dogs (so everyone would be in love with us).  But the better song came from Armour, which asked us what kind of kids eat Armour hot dogs?  Per the lyrics, “…fat kids, skinny kids, kids that climb on rocks… tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox…”  Today’s version of the Armour jingle would probably be censored just for using the word “kids”.

“I wish I had a million dollars. HOT DOG!” (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and “It’s A Wonderful Life”)

Hot dogs will always be a childhood memory more than a dietary preference in my book.  My mother, raising five hungry boys, developed several dinner recipes when time and ingredients were in short supply.  These included canned baked beans and weenies (two ingredients = dinner!), and a truly odd creation from the Betty Crocker cookbook made up of hot dogs, mashed potatoes, and cheese (three ingredients!).  Whether it tasted good or not – I honestly can’t remember – dogs, mash, and cheese conveniently covered the protein, carb, and fat categories, all in one broiler-blasted casserole.

The Oscar Mayer “Wienermobile”

My most vivid childhood hot dog memories are not the dinners mentioned above.  Instead, I can’t forget snacking on raw hot dogs from the refrigerator (which sounds awful now, but hey, I was a kid).  My mother was faithful to the Oscar Mayer brand so I ate a lot of their hot dogs raw.   Speaking of Oscar Mayer, here’s the better memory.  They built a motorized advertisement which to this day may be the coolest vehicle on wheels.  The “Wienermobile” cruised the streets of Los Angeles, stopping every now and then in a parking lot so you could view it up close.  The driver handed out tiny plastic replicas of the vehicle, appropriately labeled “Weenie Whistles”.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures and “The Santa Clause”)

Let me conclude with a solved hot dog mystery.  Your grocery store sells most brands in packages of ten.  They also sell hot dog buns but in packages of eight.  Why?  Because hot dogs weigh about 1.6 ounces, which makes a package of ten a convenient sale of exactly one pound of meat.  On the other hand, hot dog buns are baked in trays of four, which work best with conveyor belts and processing.  An odd number of buns – trays of five – is a model of inefficiency.  So until one or the other manufacturer changes their standard, you’ll always have leftovers for snacks.  Or better yet, for your dog.

The hot dogs I served my granddaughters last week were comically advertised as healthy: no fillers, no preservatives, and so on.  They weren’t very good.  Maybe the worst part of a hot dog is what makes it taste so good?  Or maybe hot dogs have simply lost their appeal to me?  No, wait, that can’t be true.  Anything my granddaughters ask me to eat has instant appeal.

Guess I haven’t eaten my last little-dog sausage just yet.

Some content sourced from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC) website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

A Million Little Leaks

Several years ago, I worked out with a personal trainer in a bunch of one-hour sessions at my gym.  She was all about proper lifting and careful stretching – and nasty core exercises I’ve patently avoided to this day.  But she did give me one time-proven piece of advice: after working out, go relax 10-15 minutes in the dry sauna. You’ve already revved up your metabolism with the workout, so the sauna helps extract toxins from the body. Yes, and the sauna also helps imitate the heat and humidity of South Carolina in the summertime.

My wife & I are heading to the Palmetto State for a long-overdue getaway at the end of May.  We’ll be spending a few days in the western counties before catching up with our daughter and her boyfriend in coastal Charleston.  We’ve taken this trip before.  The difference?  Last time we were there in early April when the heat and humidity sort of caressed your cheek with a soft kiss.  This time we’ll be there to kick off summer and it’ll feel like standing under a hot shower.  Outdoors.  Fully dressed.

I’ve always been a sweater (no, I don’t mean the extra layer you pull over your head in the winter months).  After a long jog, my t-shirt and shorts are so wet they could double as sponges.  My hair falls wet-stringy straight down my forehead and the perspiration runs in rivers here and streams there.  Yep, I’m one handsome dude.  But where most people say ick, I recognize sweating for the healthy cooling/cleansing process it is. A sign my metabolism is alive and kicking.  Turn on the faucets, baby.

Speaking of moisture, isn’t moist one of the most atrocious-sounding words in the English language?  I’ve never made peace with those five letters and I know I haven’t used moist in a sentence in years (no matter how good my baked goods taste).  The English language has such beautiful words, like chimes and delicacy and silhouette.  Why disrupt the sweet-sounding party with a word like moist?

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not gonna pretend a good sweat is ever comfortable (maybe it’s because I feel moist) but I’ve certainly gotten used to the sensation over the years.  And now that I live in Colorado?  Zero humidity.  Well, okay, there’s a little humidity here at 7,500 feet above sea level.  But most of the time it’s so dry, the needle on your tank seems to be perpetually on “E”.  This pathetic little voice deep inside your body pleads for, “water… water…” (think Tin Man asking for his oil can – that kind of voice).

A dry sauna room (aka a “hot box”)

Let’s go back to my dry sauna sessions.  Since you’re already asking the question, I don’t mean “wet sauna” (where steam is introduced into a room as tiled as a Chinese kitchen). I’m talking about that other room, with nothing but wooden benches and a nasty little blast furnace in the corner (wood-burning, electric, hot rocks – whatever heats like hell).  You sit there draped in a small towel in 200º F and for a few minutes, all is quiet and comfortable.  But then, almost imperceptibly, your skin develops a sheen.  You begin to glisten.  Suddenly droplets of perspiration pop out all over the place and it’s “open the floodgates, Poseidon”.  A million little leaks.

I won’t speak for the ladies’ locker room (that mysterious country club adjacent to our locker room), but sometimes the men’s dry sauna can get a little awkward.  When you approach the glass door, it’s so steamed you can’t tell how many guys are already in there.  Once you enter, choose a place on the bench without hesitation or you’ll be judged.  Good chance you’ll end up next to a heavy breather, which in some schools of thought is therapeutic.  Other times you’ll end up next to someone with headphones, which somehow don’t block the four-letter words of his rap music.  One time I was subjected to the wellness preachings of a huge Samoan-looking guy, where I thought it best not to argue with his musings.  All of which is to say, you never really know what you’re gonna get with the dry sauna.  It’s an intimate little sweatbox filled with semi-naked strangers.  Good times, huh?

South Carolina’s “Holy City”

When I’m in Charleston I won’t miss the dry sauna because Mom Nature will provide her own version round-the-clock.  The heat and humidity will promote enough of my perspiration to – as the family says – “make my face rain”.  I’m like one of those mysterious underground springs, where the water keeps bubbling up from the ground and you wonder if it’s ever gonna stop.  Every gonna stop?  Not with my metabolism.  For sheer entertainment value, if you’re in Charleston later this month, keep an eye out for me.  I’m the one with the million little leaks.

Whirlybird Wonder

“Ginny”

If you haven’t been following the dog-and-pony pony-and-dog show taking place on Mars the last couple of months, you might want to break out the telescope. Not that you’ll be able to see a car-sized rover or a toy-sized helicopter from millions of miles away. But you can see Mars itself, and then you can imagine “Percy” and “Ginny” sniffing around the red dirt and rocks up there. They’re just sampling things to see if Mars can roll out the welcome mat to humans someday.

The rover “Perseverance” is the pony in this show; “Ingenuity” the dog. I want to talk about the dog. Last July Percy hitched a nine-month ride to Mars, launching from Florida’s Cape Canaveral aboard a massive Atlas V rocket. Little Ginny hitched a ride on Percy; she the steadfast little soldier clinging to the rover’s underbelly. Considering Ginny measures only a few feet in all dimensions, it must’ve been a hang-on-for-dear-life E-ticket kind of adventure.

I’d love to make this a children’s story, but Ginny is anything but soft and cuddly. Have a look. She’s about as cute as a wasp. Consider Martian atmosphere is only 1/100th as dense as that of Earth, which means Ginny has virtually nothing to grab onto to sustain flight. But she whirls at five times the rate of a regular helicopter (2,400 rpm!), and then she rises.  Product safety warning: don’t go anywhere near Ginny’s rotor blades.

Ten days ago Ginny lifted off Mars to a skyscraping height of ten feet.  Then she hovered briefly before rotating about ninety degrees, kind of just observing the Mars-scape.  Finally, she landed.  The whole exercise lasted less than forty seconds.  Big deal, right?  Well, that little maneuver qualified Ginny as “the first powered controlled flight by an aircraft on a planet besides Earth”. Way to go, little wasp.  You just reserved a spot in the Smithsonian after you return home.

Will Ginny end up here?

When I picture Ginny clinging to the rover Percy, then hurtling through outer space for months on end, my middle-aged mind recalled the old Thunderbirds television show.  Thunderbirds featured the Tracy family (marionettes!) and their fleet of wicked-cool space vehicles.  The five Thunderbirds included a giant green supersonic carrier (“Thunderbird Two”), whose massive belly carried a yellow utility submersible (“Thunderbird Four”).  Kind of like Percy carried Ginny.  Trust me young(er) readers, Thunderbirds was awesome television in the 1960s… even if it was just puppets getting their strings pulled.

I’ve ridden in a helicopter exactly once in my life, on our honeymoon over the Napali Coast on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.  I turned to my bride mid-flight and probably uttered some not-so-nice words as I remembered how much I dislike heights.  The glass of champagne beforehand certainly helped.  For me, the fear has always been a toss-up between vertigo (physical) or the idea that terra firma is far, far below me (mental).  No matter the reason, heights just aren’t my cup of tea.

My acrophobia probably goes back to my first ride on a Ferris Wheel, with adolescent nightmares of slipping through the metal lap bar and taking an unplanned skydive.  Or ski lifts, where a little bit of fiddling with the lap bar latch could mean the end of everything.  Parasailing? (No).  Hang-gliding? (Never).  Hot-air balloons? (Why even ask?).  Sorry – airplanes aside, and only the bigger ones mind you – I prefer my thrills securely grounded.

For all the recent broadcast news on Percy and Ginny, I can’t seem to find the part of the story where Ginny returns to Percy, who then returns to the Atlas V rocket, who then returns to Earth.  I’m looking for the part about splashdowns and photo ops and ticker-tape parades – the happy-ending kind of stuff.  My earlier comment about a spot in the Smithsonian may have been a little premature (can you say, “Ginny replica”?).  Note to reader: if you do decide to make this a children’s story you might want to edit things a bit.  Just say our little pony and dog are now asleep on Mars, waiting for their human friends to get there someday.  It sounds much better than, “we just left them there”.

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

Springtime Rings

My daughter drops little hints on our phone calls recently, teasers to suggest her boyfriend will soon pop the proverbial question. If he does propose, her left hand will be adorned with an engagement ring and she’ll become – literally – a marked woman. She might as well sport a little neon sign on her ring finger blinking, T-A-K-E-N.

While my daughter gets excited about her potential Ring by Spring (Hallmark Channel movie, March 2014), I glance down now at the gold band I’ve been wearing for the last thirty-four years.  My wife and I decided a plain ring wasn’t enough of a statement for wedded bliss so we chose one with seven inset diamonds across the top.  Now that I think about it, those seven gems might as well broadcast M-A-R-R-I-E-D.

My ring

Over the years, I’ve grown fond of the string of bling inside my ring.  It’s a unique setting and the diamonds draw compliments.  But credit to my wife, there’s purpose behind the glitter.  She gives me her coy smile and declares, “When you’re walking down the street by yourself, the woman with her eye on you a block away will easily know you’re married”.  A block away?  That’s pushing it, but my diamond shine certainly does seem to advertise M-I-N-E.

Speaking of the opposite sex, Irwin Shaw, a playwright and author from the early 1900’s, wrote a short story that seems appropriate here.  It’s called The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.  Shaw puts us on the streets of New York City on a beautiful day, where a married couple is going for a walk.  The husband keeps getting distracted by every pretty girl passing by and his wife calls him out on it.  Their conversation over drinks after – and his closing thought – make for an interesting perspective on marriage.  You can read The Girls in Their Summer Dresses here.

Claddagh ring

I can’t talk about my daughter’s forthcoming engagement ring and my own circle of gold without including a ring of my wife’s.  No, not her wedding band (though it’s a beaut’) but rather a Claddagh ring she’ll receive from Ireland in the next few days.  As we learned when we visited the Emerald Isle (and also from the Hallmark Channel – As Luck Would Have It, April 2021), the Claddagh ring includes symbols of love (heart), friendship (clasped hands), and loyalty (crown).  Wear the ring facing one way to show you’re single and looking for love.  Wear the ring the way my wife will, to show you’re already “captured”.

“Eternity” ring

So there’s one more ring for love out there in jewelry shops (and it’s not a “promise ring”, which doesn’t count for much of anything).  Ever heard of an eternity ring?  It’s a band of precious metal with little gems all the way around the circle, to symbolize “never-ending love”.  Talk about a bauble.  Women describe it as “cumbersome”, and rumor has De Beers came up with the concept to justify a large purchase agreement with Russia for small diamonds.  My wife will never get an eternity ring from me.  Our vows included a nod to her wedding ring as “a forever sign of my love and fidelity”.  See?  I’ve got “never-ending” covered already.

My newsfeed included a recent wedding proposal in Atlanta, where the groom-to-be took his bride-to-be on a helicopter tour of the city, then promptly dropped to one knee on top of the skyscraper they landed on.  When he popped the question he opened a box of five engagement rings.  Seriously?  I hope the guy my daughter will marry is way more decisive than that.  Commit to just O-N-E, son, kind of like you did when you chose my daughter.

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “Man tops off helicopter proposal with five engagement rings”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Ketchup Catch-Up

At the Communion rail in our pre-COVID, in-person church days, my wife and I would sometimes laugh at the size of the hunk of bread they’d tear off the loaf. The pieces were so big I’d often be chewing all the way back to my seat (and think I should’ve asked for seconds). On the other hand, today’s “drive-in church” Communion amounts to hermetically-sealed plastic capsules handed gingerly through the car window. Peel back the plastic to reveal the tasteless wafer and half-swallow of grape juice inside. No, it’s not breakfast by any definition, but at least we’re still achieving the higher purpose.

Communion and ketchup are strange bedfellows but I’m about to explain why they belong in the same sentence.  If you’ve followed the headlines lately, you know – just below the latest details of the Myanmar conflict – we’re all worried about whether there’ll be enough ketchup packets for our next take-out meal.  That’s right, the world is currently lacking in – not ketchup – but ketchup packets.  If we don’t address the situation soon, buildings will burn and looting will run rampant.  Even worse, we might have to top everything with mustard instead.

It’s the pandemic to blame, of course.  As soon as traditional sit-down restaurants shifted to pick-up and delivery, their demand for packeted condiments jumped up to the level of Wendy’s and McDonald’s.  In fact, Wendy’s and McDonald’s removed ketchup packets from their front counters, not because customers were taking too many, but because other restaurants were raiding their supplies.  Yep, it’s gotten that kind of desperate out there in burger land.

Heinz, the undisputed king of ketchup, recently committed to increasing packet production by 25% to fend off potential mayhem in the streets.  125% of Heinz’s typical annual production amounts to, well… let’s just say there’d be enough to place a packet in the hand of every man, woman, and child on the planet.  Dang.  That’s a whole lot of processed tomato spread.

Speaking of processed tomato spread, here’s my favorite ingredient in ketchup: mustard (powder).  It’s true.  Go check the ingredients list on the bottle I know you have in your refrigerator.

Will there be enough to go around?

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the global packet shortage.  Call me highbrow but I’m having a hard time caring, because honestly I can’t remember the last time I used a ketchup packet.  The restaurants of my choosing always bring the bottle to the table when you ask for it.  Furthermore – burgers aside – I don’t have a lot of use for ketchup.  Not on my fries, not on my meatloaf, neither eggs nor hash browns.  And while we’re at it can we all agree: mustard only on a bratwurst or a hot dog?  It should be a cardinal rule.

But I digress… again.  FOCUS!

If I don my eco-friendly hat for a moment (and don’t I look sharp?), the last thing I want to hear about is Heinz upping ketchup packet production to 12 billion a year.  That sounds like enough plastic to Ziploc a small country many times over.  But I get it.  In these times of please-pass-the-virus (or better yet, don’t), we demand individually wrapped one-and-done solutions.  Like ketchup packets.  Like Communion elements.

Handy host

Good things come in small packages, so the saying goes.  Yeah, well, they come in big packages too.  Like ketchup from a bottle instead of a plastic packet.  Like Communion from a loaf of freshly baked bread instead of hole-punched from a sheet of Styrofoam. And seriously, who uses just one ketchup packet?  Picture a baby burger you can balance between your finger and thumb and maybe it’s enough.  Anything larger and you’re grabbing packets by the handful.

Let’s wrap this topic on a personal note.  If ketchup packets disappear, my granddaughters won’t understand a really good bedtime story, the kind where they’ll giggle every time they talk about it.  You know the story, the one where my buddies and I pocket ketchup packets from our school lunch trays, take ’em out to the playground asphalt, and stomp on ’em to give some unsuspecting kid a tomato facewash?  Oh please, drop the mock horror.  You know you were out there on the playground too, doing the very same thing.

Some content sourced from the 4/8/2021 CNN.com article, “America is facing a ketchup packet shortage”.