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.

Sliced With Love

In ten months’ time, my daughter will be getting married. The planning of this event is sure to inspire an occasional post on this blog. My daughter is so laser-focused on the details of her big day it’s as if her hospital crib should’ve been labeled “Wedding Planner” instead of “Kelly”. Let’s pluck one item from her list today.  Or rather, taste one item.  Let’s talk about wedding cake.

Are you a fan of this grandiose dessert?  Do you revel in the wedding ceremony and the reception, but secretly count down the minutes ’til the big white cake is sliced and served?  Twenty years ago you’d be guaranteed a piece of wedding cake.  Today, the after-dinner options run the gamut.  A cupcake from a tower.  A cookie from an endless table.  Strawberries from a chocolate fountain.  Petit fours or truffles.  Cream puffs.

That’s some veil… er, CAKE!

Given all those temptations, I still choose wedding cake.  Why?  Because it’s not just any cake.  Wedding cake is heavy and layered and full of frosting.  It’s sinfully delicious.  Furthermore, wedding cake makes a statement, one much bigger than the generic desserts you find in the supermarket bakery.  Consider, wedding cake is:

  • white.  “Well of course it is, Dave, but so are a lot of other cakes.”  Yes, but in this case, white means pure and refined (as with the bride’s dress).  Makes that bite of cake just a little more special.
  • tiered.  It’s like several cakes in one.  Stacked with columns or not, cake tiers create an elegant display (and serve a lot of people, avoiding a cake the size of the American flag).  Don’t even think about a taste of the uppermost layer.  It’s (supposed to be) reserved for the bride & groom to enjoy on their one-year anniversary.
  • topped.  Sure, a kid’s cake can have a doll or a dump truck, or some other toy on its surface.  Birthday cakes are dotted with candles.  But only wedding cakes have true “toppers”, typically a miniature bride & groom.  These days you don’t see wedding cake toppers so much.  I’m okay with that (even though I liked the little Precious Moments couple atop our own cake).
  • fondant-ed.  Fondant is like edible wallpaper.  It’s a smooth, dense, shiny layer of sugary frosting you can roll out like cookie dough, to perfectly costume the cake, or to create flowers and other three-dimensional objects.  Fondant seems to come out of the closet just for wedding cakes.  My take?  Fondant looks a lot better than it tastes.  In other words, I’m not really “fond” of it.
  • a statement.  Think about it.  At a wedding you’re celebrating what is, at least for now, the most important day in the lives of the bride & groom.  It’s not as if this occasion happens once a year or on holidays.  It happens once.  Sit back and admire your plate for a second.  That’s an important slice of cake you’ve got there.
Gotcha!

Here’s a happy-ending wedding cake story for you.  When my wife & I got married, our hotel not only hosted the reception, but also created the wedding cake.  As we dashed away to our honeymoon they assured us they’d keep the top layer in their refrigerators.  But when we returned, there was no top layer to be found anywhere.  Maybe a waiter got a little hungry one night or something.  Anyway, without skipping a beat, they perfectly recreated our top layer at no extra charge.  One year later we enjoyed our anniversary with cake after all.  How did it taste?  Just like you’d expect a one-year-old piece of cake to taste.  We threw the rest away.

Our cake (w/ fondant latticework!)

Here’s a slice of wedding cake trivia.  It’s technically called “bride’s cake”.  Sometimes you find two cakes at wedding receptions.  The darker, shorter, more modest-looking dessert; he’s called a “groom’s cake”.  He’s meant to acknowledge more manly tastes.  Accordingly, a groom’s cake is often alcohol-infused.  Or covered in chocolate.  Or shaped like a football.  But no matter how you slice it, the bride’s cake wins out with the bigger, bolder statement.  Hmmm… guys, is there an underlying message at work here?

A groom’s cake

Heads up as I close this post.  There’s a reason I chose wedding cake as today’s topic.  This week, you and the $300 you’ve been saving for a rainy day could win a slice of Princess Diana’s wedding cake.  It’s up for auction as we speak.  It’s forty years old, wrapped in plastic and packed into an old cake tin.  One of a kind, right?  Not really.  Charles and Diana had so many guests at their royal celebration they required twenty-three wedding cakes.

No wonder there’s still a slice left.

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “A slice of Princess Diana’s wedding cake is going up for auction”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Arid (and) Extra Dry

Most of us reacted to eighteen months in the unwelcome company of COVID-19 the same. We reflected on our time with Mr. Virus and wondered, “What would we have done more of?” More get-togethers? More travel? More dinners out?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But instead, we hunkered down and waited for things to get better. Our routines became more… routine.  Everything faded to black and white.  Clocks came to a standstill. It’s the same feeling I had, coincidentally, enduring a drive from Colorado to California earlier this month.

My advice: choose “East” while you still can

Maybe you’ve made the trek: Denver to San Diego via Interstate 70 and then Interstate 15.  Sounds so clean and easy, doesn’t it?  Two highways.  Plenty of lanes.  Rocky Mountains on one end and Pacific Ocean on the other.  Yeah, well, it’s all the mind-numbing in-between stuff that makes you want to burst through your sunroof and flag down a helicopter heading west.  There’s a whole lot of nothing in the desert.

The problem with this drive (which was not a flight because my wife & I wanted to bring our bikes) is the beautiful part comes first.  From Denver, it’s four hours of majestic snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, red rock canyons, and breathless (literally) summits as you cruise on over to Grand Junction.  There’s good reason America the Beautiful was penned in the Rockies.

Cruise control suggested here

But don’t get comfortable.  Once you reach Grand Junction (which isn’t so grand), beauty takes a big break.  Pretend you’re a marble inside a rolled-up blanket.  Then someone flips that blanket out and off you go, rolling across the flattest, most desolate desert floor you’ve ever seen.  The mountains reduce to buttes reduce to sand dunes reduce to nothing.  The highway morphs from all sorts of curvy to ruler-straight. Your cell phone signal goes MIA.  You suddenly feel parched.  And you wonder, why-oh-why does the dusty sign say “Welcome to Utah” when there’s nothing welcoming about it at all?

So it goes in middle-eastern Utah.  Every exit is anonymously labeled “Ranch Road” (and why would you want to exit anyway?)  The highway signs counting down the mileage to Interstate 15 march endlessly.  When you finally do arrive at I-15 (your single steering wheel turn the entire journey), you bring out the balloons and the confetti and do a happy dance.  YOU MADE IT ACROSS THE MOON!  Well, sort of.  Now you’re just in central Utah.

I-15 wanders south a couple hours to St. George.  It’s probably a perfectly nice place to live, but St. George reminds me of the Middle East.  Squarish stucco/stone buildings, mostly white.  Not many people on the streets.  The temperatures quietly ascended to triple digits when you weren’t looking.  You realize you’re starting to sunburn through the car windows.

Proceed with caution (and water)

But then you make it to Arizona (briefly).  The landscape changes, suddenly and dramatically, as if Arizona declares, “Take that, Utah!  We’re a much prettier state!”  You descend through curve after highway curve of a twisting, narrow canyon, rich with layers of red rock. It’s the entrance to the promised land!  Alas, Arizona then gives way to Nevada, and here my friends, are the proverbial gates of Hell.  Welcome to the arid, endless, scrub-oak-laden vastness of the Mojave Desert, where everything is decidedly dead except for a brief glittery oasis known as Las Vegas.  The Mojave looks like it wants to swallow you whole and spit you out (except spit requires water so you’d probably just be gone forever).

Hang on to those dashboard gauges for dear life, friends, because it’s a full four hours in the Mojave broiler before your car gasps past the “Welcome to California” sign.  In those hours you’ll call your kids (one last time?), declare your final wishes, and wonder why you didn’t visit your parents more often.  Anything you see in motion off the highway is probably a mirage.  If you do make it to California, you’ll pull over and kiss the ground sand before wondering, “Hey, how come California looks exactly like Nevada?  Then Google Maps smirks the bad news.  You’re nowhere near the end of the Mojave Desert.

Baker. Barstow. Victorville. Hesperia.  You’ll pass through each of these towns and wonder, a) Why does anybody live here? and b) Is this the land that time forgot?  But finally, mercifully, you’ll descend the mighty Cajon Pass (the outside temperature descending alongside you), burst forth onto the freeway spaghetti of the LA Basin, and declare, “Los Angeles.  Thank the Good Lord.  I must be close now”.

You’re never alone on the Cajon

Except you’re not.  The Basin is dozens of cities, hundreds of miles, and millions of cars collectively called “Los Angeles”.  Hunker down, good buddy.  The Pacific is still hours away.

Here’s the short of it.  My wife & I made it to San Diego.  The car didn’t die in the middle of the Mojave.  Neither did we (though I left a piece of my soul behind).  We even rode the bikes a few times.  But I can’t account for those nineteen hours behind the wheel.  It’s like Monday morning became Tuesday night in a single blink.  Just like 2019 became 2021 without much in between.

What goes down must come back up.  The time has come to do the death drive in reverse.  Ugh.  Maybe we’ll leave the bikes in San Diego and catch a flight instead.

Covering My Tracks

A passenger train sweeps through this little vacation town every morning at a quarter past eight. The first sound you hear is an almost apologetic “ding-ding-ding” to alert cars approaching the seaside crossing. The next is the “click-clack-click-clack” as the wheels grind a percussive beat with the twin rails below. Finally, you’re consumed by the rush and roar of the train itself, barreling towards its next destination without so much as a split-second’s thought about stopping.

Dings, clicks, rushes, and roars – which typically wake me from my vacation slumber – are comforting music to my aging ears.  These trains cover the same tracks they did during the innocent summer days of yesteryear.  The beaches here are more crowded than they used to be.  The houses make grander statements.  The ocean is a few centimeters higher and the sand threatens to wash away with each passing season.  But the train, which once called this town a destination (but now simply passes through), faithfully maintains its daily schedule from points north to points south and back again.  Some things never change.

My family’s first summer house here – the upper floor of a duplex – was mere steps from the train tracks.  In those ten-and-under years, well past dark, my pajama-clad bleary-eyed brothers and I would bolt to the front screen door in the middle of the night, drawn to the roar of an oncoming freight train.  We just had to see the roving locomotive headlight flash by one more time.  During the day we’d dash to the rails just before the train passed by, laying down countless pennies to be flattened.  I still see them – pancaked, shiny and hot – as the giant wheels flipped the coins wildly off the rails.  Sometimes we’d never find them again.

The allure of the passing train was something intangible; a magnetism I can’t find words for, even today.  You had its awesome mechanical power, its symphony of distinct sounds, the romance of faraway destinations, and the untold stories of countless passengers.  You had the promise there would always be another train coming down the tracks, if you were just willing to wait long enough.  To a kid, the train was equal parts come hither and go away; the exciting and the scary combined into one imposing, larger-than-life spectacle.

There was a time I would’ve thought trains were meant for childhood and nothing more.  But they still click-clacked through my life after that.  As a teenager, I rode those same “Pacific Surfliner” coaches several times as a convenient connection between Los Angeles and San Diego.  In college, a freight train rumbled across campus in the wee hours, most often witnessed as I walked back to my dorm from late-night dates.  In my junior year in Rome, Italy; Eurail pass in pocket, the entire continent beckoned with its on-schedule trains and speedy routes to exotic locales.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area begged a resident to ride trains.  My first corporate commute was on a train of sorts: the Powell-Hyde cable car line from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square.  When we moved south of the city, Caltrain became the easiest way to commute to the heart of downtown.  When my job also moved to the south, Caltrain still served as the easiest option, the nearest station a twenty-minute walk from my front door.

“Royal Canadian Pacific”

No mention of trains – at least for me – would be complete without a nod to the Royal Candian Pacific.  RCP rail tours include private rooms in restored vintage carriages, daily meal service prepared on-board, and spectacular scenery as you click-clack through the Canadian Rockies wilderness.  The RCP is kind of like a…, no, it’s exactly like a five-star hotel on wheels. They even throw in tuxedoed waitstaff.  Unless the Orient Express is your idea of a typical vacation there’s nothing quite as grand as the RCP.

Years ago, my wife bought me an LGB model train set.  The LGB was probably the largest scale of any of the model railway sets out at the time; its cars a good foot in length and almost as high.  We’d set up the tracks every December so our “Christmas train” could cruise under the boughs of the tree above.  I often wonder why my wife bought me that train set.  Maybe I commented enough about how much I enjoyed the rail commute to work back then.  More likely, she still recognized the boy in the man, the one who would rush to the screen door in his pajamas when the locomotive went barreling past.

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