Calories of Contentment

The other night – too late for a grocery store run but with few options in the pantry – my wife and I split a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. No spicing things up, no healthy side of vegetables to lessen the guilt – just a heaping bowl of the little pasta elbows with powdered cheese. MAN did that taste good. I promptly considered a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert but caught myself just in time. Whoa, boy. Who says there’s no traveling during the pandemic?  I’ve made the journey to the land of comfort foods!

A little context before we explore the calories of contentment.  After the kids moved out of the house several years ago, our diet moved decidedly to the more healthy.  We upped our fruit and vegetable count.  We focused on meals with whole foods and fewer ingredients.  We started shopping in boutique grocery stores, discovering foods and brands we never knew existed.  Dairy and starchy carbs took the back shelf to pure proteins and Mother Nature’s bounty.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this good intention, a box of Kellogg’s Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts dropped casually into my grocery basket.  I’d heard they were pretty good and I’d never tried them before, so… why not?  Then the kids came to town for a long weekend, so we just had to load up on old family favorites like Cap’n Crunch, Good Humor Creamsicles, and Red Baron frozen pizzas.

But here’s the thing.  Our kids eat so responsibly these days, sugary cereals and snack foods no longer appeal to them.  They make flourless banana pancakes and organic food “bowls”.  They nosh on healthy proteins and Boba teas.  They spend most of their time in the kitchen instead of the drive-thru.  Those comfort foods we purchased got no love, so naturally we purchased a couple more (the Kraft Mac & Cheese and Hostess Ding Dongs).  Heck, we even embellished those choices with a countertop bowl of Brach’s caramel “Royals”, and a huge container of Peanut M&M’s in a nearby cupboard.  There’s now a junk-food roadblock in front of every attempt to eat healthy.

What is going on here?  I blame the coronavirus.  Most of our processed-food pals moved into our pantry in the last six months.  All of them were impulse buys (or “moments of weakness”, or whatever else you want to call them).  No surprise though; we’re contributing to a nationwide, if not worldwide trend during this pandemic.  The world’s biggest packaged-foods manufacturers reported sales growth of 4.3% in the first three months of the year (vs. forecasts of 3%).  Canned soup purchases rose 37%, canned meat 60%, and frozen pizza 51%.  Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs flew off the shelves.

Is one of these YOUR comfort food?

In all seriousness, a turn to comfort foods is a sign of something more complicated below the surface of our psyches.  I wish I could credit nostalgia: the sentimentality for past happier times and places, or emotional eating: the propensity to consume comfort foods in response to positive/negative stimuli.  Instead, I think we’re dealing with declinism – the belief our society is heading towards a prolonged downturn or deterioration.  We’ve been here before America, as in the Depression of the 1930s, the spread of Communism in the 1950s, or the rise of Japan’s economic powerhouse in the 1970s.  In each instance our country soldiered on better than before, but that’s not to say the short-term endurance is any fun.  And that, boys and girls, is why comfort foods maintain a “healthy” presence in grocery stores and in your pantry.

Hilton Hotels rivaled the pandemic headlines when they revealed their Doubletree chocolate-chip cookie recipe to the world last April.  Talk about your classic comfort food.  Doubletree cookies have nestled on hotel pillows since the mid-1980s; a whopping 25,000,000 in less than forty years.  “We know this is an anxious time for everyone”, was Hilton’s excuse for sharing their secret.  I baked a batch as soon as I came across the headline and now I can’t seem to stop.  A heaping bag of Doubletrees now sits in our refrigerator more often than it does not.  I could probably recite the recipe from memory, and I dream about them in my sleep.  Hilton’s got me hooked.

I still haven’t tried those Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts, the preservative-filled pastries responsible for this whole mess.  All are still paired neatly in their foil packets, sitting quietly on the shelf.  The box may even be getting a little dusty.  I figure my willpower remains intact if I leave the tarts alone until their expiration date.  Er, wait – now that I think about it – Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts never expire.  Dang it; that’s a little depressing.  I’d better have a Ding Dong to cheer myself up.

Some content sourced from the 4/24/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Comfort Foods Make a Comeback in the Coronavirus Age”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Matt Match

It happened again this week, as it seems to every couple of months.  I was lying face-up in the chair, with the dentist putting finishing touches on a crown, when she says out of nowhere, “So… celebrity trivia question. Which Hollywood actor do people say you most resemble?” To which I quickly responded – from years of practice – “Matt Damon“.

                                 

That’s me on the left and Matt on the right.  The likeness has never been my own opinion, but rather a conditioned response from so many people making the comparison.  If I really concentrate, focusing on certain facial features, I suppose I can acknowledge some resemblance.  But it’s a stretch at best, so it fascinates me I get this comment over and over again.  In yesterday’s instance, my dentist said it was most obvious when seeing my face in profile.  She must check out a lot of photos of Matt Damon.

Damon has made quite a name for himself on the silver screen.  Alongside Ben Affleck, he burst onto the scene in 1997 with his Academy-award winning screenplay Good Will Hunting.  His resume has been a fairly unbroken string of box-office successes since, including Saving Private Ryan, Ocean’s Eleven, the (four) Jason Bourne movies, The Martian, and most recently, Ford vs. Ferrari.  It’s fair to say Damon leans towards scripts with lots of action, with the occasional foray into comedy and drama.

With something of a physical likeness, I thought I should explore a little further under Damon’s skin (so to speak), to see if he and I have anything in common besides looks.  He’s eight years younger than I am.  He was born in Boston while I was born in Los Angeles.  His parents divorced when he was three while my parents remain married to this day.  He has one brother while I have four.  On the other hand, we’re both married and we both have daughters.  We’re identical in height at 5′-10″ (!!!)  And most significant to the topic at hand, we’re both products of a parent of English descent and another of Swedish.

Portman/Knightley

So Damon is (apparently) my biologically unrelated look-alike (aka doppelganger).  All of us have one or more out there in the world; mine just happens to be a “name”.  My dad was often associated with the late actor George Kennedy.  My mom – Nancy Reagan.  Hollywood itself has plenty of pairs, including Dax Shepherd/Zach Braff, Zooey Deschanel/Katy Perry, and IMHO the most twin-like of them all: Natalie Portman/Keira Knightley.  As for Matt Damon?  His doppelganger is not yours truly, at least not in his own social circles.  Maybe Mark Wahlberg.

Linus Caldwell

Let’s visit Damon’s movie characters for a second.  I identify with one in particular.  No, not the brilliant-but-shy, quick-talking Will from Good Will Hunting, with his rough edges, street smarts, and Boston accent.  Neither Jason Bourne, with his lightning-fast fighting skills and penchant for cross-continent espionage.  Not even Private Ryan, because I can’t claim to have worn the uniform nor lived in wartime. Ah, but then we have Ocean’s Eleven’s Linus Caldwell.  Linus is the hesitant participant in the heist.  He’s not keen to lead, but he likes being part of the team.  He’s on the quieter side, aims to please, takes a risk or two for the sake of respect, and comes across as Mr. Nice Guy.  He also sports the casual polo/khaki look, with the occasional zip-up jacket.  Yep, Linus could be my doppelganger as well.

Matt (not me)

You’ll find a lot of photos of Matt Damon on the web.  You’ll also find some personal quotes.  Here’s one of my favorites: “It’s just better to be yourself than to try to be some version of what you think the other person wants.”  As much as Damon’s an actor by trade, I’ve seen enough of his roles to believe his true persona often reflects in his characters.  He seems like a decent guy and he’s done very well for himself.  He has a solid marriage and three wonderful daughters.  He’s atypically modest and straight-shooting for a Hollywood headliner.  So if people want to “doppelgang” me with someone like that, who am I to care if I actually look like the guy?

Some content sourced from IMDb, “the world’s most popular and authoritative source for movie, TV, and celebrity content”.

A Sound of Thunder

Like it or not, we’ve changed our personal hygiene habits these last six months.  You’re wearing a mask because you choose to (or your governor mandates it).  You’re social distancing to be able to do things as simple as grocery shopping.  You may even be washing your hands longer (though I still can’t get through the “Happy Birthday” song twice).  But one habit hasn’t changed – I’m sure of it.  You’re sneezing as often as you normally would, and not necessarily because you’re sick.

How often do you sneeze?  The answer to that question is as varied as the number of people reading this post.  Sneezing is a highly personal habit, one you have no control over.  Your body needs to sneeze and will do so whether you fight it or not.  Technically, a sneeze is a “semi-autonomous, convulsive explosion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth.”  In plain English, your body is fighting something irritating and sneezing helps to get rid of it.

I sneeze every day, without fail.  I know this because I can recall my last sneeze and the one before that; both within the last twenty-four hours.  More significantly, I sneeze twice at a time.  That’s another highly personal aspect.  Some sneeze once, others twice.  My dad sneezes consistently seven to ten consecutive times (to which he declares, “marvelous!”)  Consecutive sneezes either means a repeated effort to rid the irritant, or the body simply settling down in a reflexive sort of way.

My wife knows when I sneeze because I don’t hold back.  I feel one coming, I rear back, and I erupt for all the world to hear.  But once again, we all have our differences.  For some, it’s a sound of thunder.  For others, it’s akin to a cough.  Occasionally you’ll even hear a person squeak.  No matter the sound, it’s generally unalterable.  The body does what the body will do.

Stanford University once conducted a study and concluded a sneeze is the equivalent physiological response as one-quarter of a sexual orgasm.  Now how would Stanford know what one-quarter of an orgasm feels like?  Your one-quarter may feel different than my one-quarter.  Regardless, both responses release a bunch of endorphins and endorphins feel good.  Kinda makes you want to sneeze more often, doesn’t it?

An effort to control a sneeze can be downright comical.  In situations where you don’t want noise (church!), trying to avoid a sneeze can make it worse than just going through with it.  Picture the person anticipating a sneeze in the pews.  Deep breaths or holding the breath (count to ten!), pinching the nose, tilting the head back, and on and on.  The sneeze often comes anyway.

Trying to thwart a sneeze can be downright dangerous.  There’s no truth to the myth your eyeballs can pop out if you sneeze hard enough (though it’s not impossible to sneeze with your eyes open – try it).  But hold that blast in and you can damage blood vessels or the nasal cavity.  Best to just let the volcano erupt.  Even the mask naysayers can’t deny the value of today’s “mouthpieces” relative to sneezing.  A sneeze can emit up to 40,000 droplets of something you don’t want any part of.

What makes YOU superstitious?

Let’s put the superstitions to rest.  Your heart does not stop when you sneeze, even though there’s a quick break in the rhythm.  Nobody’s talking behind your back when you sneeze, nor does the number of times you sneeze indicate what they’re talking about.  There’s no relevant amount of good or bad luck with sneezing.  Finally, your soul won’t leap out of your body to be carried away by Satan (or for you atheists, your “breath of life”).

I like to think of my wife’s “God bless you!” as the protector of that last superstition.  She and I exchange the blessing unfailingly (religiously?) with every sneeze, as if not doing so will separate the soul from the body.  I suppose we could go with “Gesundheit” instead (since the Almighty certainly speaks German) but the English version somehow sounds more effective.  Here’s a coincidence for 2020: the very first “God bless you’s” were uttered after sneezes associated with the very first pandemic: the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century.

Sneezing can be encouraged, be it with pepper or snuff or some other artificial irritant.  Not for me.  My sneezes come often enough to simply deal with them as they do.  I’m sure you agree; the experience is not altogether unpleasant if you sense it coming.

A final nod to sneezing science-fiction fans, who may recognize this post’s title as one of Ray Bradbury’s very best short stories, from his collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun.  “A Sound of Thunder” was the tale of time-travel, dinosaurs, and seemingly innocent tampering with evolution – suddenly gone very wrong.  It’s as chilling a read today as it was at its publication almost seventy years ago.  And the “sound of thunder”?  It wasn’t a sneeze.  You’ll just have to read the story for the real meaning.

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

Watch Your Steps!

The punk rock duo The Proclaimers are Scottish twins Craig and Charlie Reid. Now 58, the Reid’s were born just a month after I was, back in 1962. Even though The Proclaimers produced eleven albums and sold five million copies, I only know them for their 1988 chart-topper, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. It’s the song thrumming in my head every time I’m close to getting my 10,000 steps for the day.

5,514.  Good Lord, I’m only halfway to my 10,000 steps today and it’s already two in the afternoon.  I need to get moving.  I even worked out this morning (lifting doesn’t get you many steps).  As usual, I strapped on my (Fitbit) tracker immediately after waking up but I’m usually further along by now.  I’m gonna have to go long with the dog tonight if I have any shot at making the magic number.

Magic number?  10,000 steps?  Who made this the “minimum for good health”?  A Japanese pedometer company; that’s who.  In 1965, they nicknamed one of their trackers the “10,000 step meter” and the number stuck all these years later.  Not that 10,000 steps has any significance when it comes to health benefits.  It’s all relative to whatever number you normally walk.  For that reason, we Americans can go less than half the 10,000 and still lower our mortality rate in a big way.

If you’re reading this post and you’re Amish, you’re already pooh-poohing 10,000 steps.  You and your people average 14,000-18,000/day just by removing motor vehicles from your world.  If you’re Australian or Swiss, 10,000 is just another day in the outback or the Alps (yodelayheehoo!).  Even the Japanese find a way to average 7,500 steps/day inside a small island nation.  Bringing up the rear?  The Americans, of course (drum roll, please…).  We clock an average of 4,800 steps a day – downright pathetic for residents of the fourth largest land-mass country in the world.  Is it any coincidence the U.S. makes and sells more vehicles than any other country besides China?

Source: Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, National Cancer Institute

Back to the “magical” 10,000 steps.  Let’s diminish the facts, shall we?  A recent collaborative five-year study of 15,000+ participants determined as few as 4,400 steps a day associates to a 40% reduction in mortality rate (when the norm is more like 2,700 steps).  Make it to 7,500 steps and the mortality rate drops by 65%.  In other words, you’re doing your body good well below 10,000 steps.  Unless you’re Amish, Australian, or Swiss.  Sorry, you people have to keep going.

Alas, no collaborative study nor determined blog post is going to change the world’s obsession with 10,000 steps.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instead recommends five hours of moderate exercise a week (or half that much in “vigorous” exercise).  Doctors prefer a rather vague recommendation of “about 2,000 steps more than you normally walk”.  But none of that shuts down tracker production: 33 million devices shipped in the first quarter of this year alone.  You know who you are; doing mindless laps in the kitchen late at night just to “close your rings”.  10,000 steps remains the benchmark no matter the expert advice.

Close those rings!

Speaking for Americans at least, the magic number really is burned into our culture.  We’ve switched out our most glam watches for fitness trackers (because even a Rolex can’t count steps).  We download apps, print out weekly results, and obsess over “rings”, consecutive days, and “personal bests”.  We get cheap thrills when our tracker vibrates 10,000 and those little digital fireworks shower the screen.  Companies offer employees financial incentives if they can demonstrate extended habits of 10,000+/day.  We are beguiled of time and money for this fairly arbitrary number.

[Side note: The other day I woke up and checked my Fitbit history, only to discover I’d hit 9,999 steps the day before.  Didn’t bum me out; still strapped on the tracker and started a new day.  Kinda proud of that.  On the other hand, one time I strapped my tracker to my ankle to try to get “steps” out of a cycle class.  Didn’t work.  Not so proud of that.]

The pertinent lyrics of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be” go like this:  But I would walk 500 miles, And I would walk 500 more, Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles, To fall down at your door.  No wonder I’ve got that song on the brain.  I don’t think I’d walk a thousand miles, even for my girl.  But I would walk five miles (about 10,000 steps) to hit my daily tracker goal.

Some content sourced from the 6/12/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “10,000 Steps a Day Is A Myth.  The Number to Stay Healthy Is Far Lower”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Saving (the) Daisy

“Daisy” the St. Bernard (photo courtesy of Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team)

Let’s visit the dog days of summer; specifically, a day in the middle of last week. In England, on the highest mountaintop in the land, a group of sixteen rescuers carried an ailing dog down to safety – a rescue operation of more than five hours. These heroes didn’t rescue just any dog; they rescued a full-grown St. Bernard.  Put that image in your head for a moment. People coming to the rescue of a St. Bernard.  That’s “Role Reversal” with capital R’s.

(photo courtesy of Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team)

“Daisy” – the St. Bernard in our story – was descending England’s Scafell Pike last week (owners in tow, presumably) when she experienced pain in her rear legs and refused to go any further.  Rescuers consulted a veterinarian before administering meds, food, water, and treats (lots of treats).  Then they loaded the 121-lb. doggie onto a stretcher and eased their way down the mountain, navigating several steep stretches, rocks, and a waterfall.  Daisy was the model patient the whole way down and it turns out this was her second rescue.  Her first was by her owners, from a relatively “hard life” into a better one just a few months ago.

“Remy” in idle gear

Saving Daisy strikes a chord with me not just because she’s a feel-good story (and we need plenty of those these days), but also because my wife and I own a St. Bernard ourselves.  “Remy” is six years old and lives with us on our ranch, alongside horses, cats, and occasional wildlife.  Remy came from a breeder in Nebraska about six hours to the east.  He joined our family when he was only eight weeks old.  Look at him now!

When I read about Daisy’s rescue my first thought was, “how the heck did a St. Bernard get to the top of a mountain?  To explain, St. Bernards have typical dog gears like sprint, walk, and idle.  The difference: Daisy and Remy spend 95% of their time in “idle” lying down.  Yes, they can “sprint”, but only for about thirty seconds (followed by “collapse”).  They can also walk short distances – say, to the mailbox – but like Daisy, when they choose to “idle” you’re not gonna get ’em to move an inch.  Daisy is a svelte 121 lbs. so maybe she has more gas in the tank than most.  Remy is 160 lbs.  Our first St. Bernard “Sebastian” was well over 200.  They don’t call ’em “gentle giants” for nothing.

A St. Bernard and a mountaintop isn’t an unusual combination, of course.  These big boys were originally bred to be Alpine rescue dogs by monks on the Great St. Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy (hence the name).  It is said St. Bernards rescued 2,000 people over a span of 200 years from Alpine snowstorms.  I’d say they’ve earned their reputation as rescuers (and working-class dogs).

Nope, they don’t carry a barrel of brandy

We named our dog “Remy” after Remy Martin, the cognac variety of brandy.  Perhaps you’ve seen images of St. Bernards with barrels of brandy around their necks.  As romantic as it sounds – a big furry rescue dog bringing stiff drinks to avalanche survivors for warmth – the whole idea is just folklore.  Even the Great St. Bernard Pass monks say they’ve never put a barrel on a Bernard.

St. Bernards weigh fifty pounds at twelve weeks

If Daisy’s anything like Remy, her owners make accommodations atypical of most dog owners.  A water bowl isn’t big enough for a Bernard; better go with a bucket.  Add a large waterproof mat under the bucket because it seems one-third of every slurp ends up on fur or floor.  For those (very short) walks, forget the leash and go with a heavy rope instead (we use a horse’s lead line).  Also, you’ll need a doggie ramp for the car because Bernards aren’t so agile.  While you’re at it, trade the car in for one with a high ceiling clearance.  And be sure to crank the AC so all the panting doesn’t fog the windows.

St. Bernards are classified as “working dogs”; a tribute to their rescue skills.  They compete in dog shows like other breeds, but less in agility and more in carting and weight-pulling.  St. Bernards have starred on the silver screen, as the good (“Beethoven”), the bad (“Cujo”), and the animated (“Nana” in the Disney version of Peter Pan).  I think Daisy’s story might be an even better “Incredible Journey” script, don’t you?  After all, St. Bernards have been rescuing people for thousands of years.  Now we finally get one asking for our help. It’s about time the shoe was on the other foot (er, paw).  Glad you’re okay, Daisy!

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

R.I.P. Restaurants

The next time you dine out, take a good look at the menu options. You may find a few favorites missing thanks to COVID-19. Whether gaps in the supply chain or trims in the workforce, the virus-born experiment of modified operations has restaurants scrutinizing menus for what makes (fiscal) sense and what does not.

Examples: McDonald’s “all-day breakfast” – implemented in 2015 and an immediate success – retreated to morning hours shortly after the virus exploded. Drive-thru wait times promptly decreased – by an average of 25 seconds – so the change may be permanent. Outback Steakhouse axed its wedge salad and French onion soup, favoring fewer appetizers with faster production.  Before you know it Outback may offer steaks, potatoes, and nothing else.

Subtle menu changes like these got me thinking about restaurants closing their doors for good.  At some point all of them go to their graves.  Maybe this is the beginning of the end for McDonald’s and Outback.  Maybe ten years from now we’ll look back and wonder what brought on their respective demises.  I know I would, which brings me to the real topic of this post: what happened to the eateries of my youth and why are most of them now defunct?  Here then, a eulogy of my more memorable ones:

  • The All-American Burger – We had one of these red-white-and-blues in my hometown just a few blocks south of the church where I went to Sunday night youth group.  Mom supplied the cash while All-American supplied the fast-food dinner on those Sundays.  Not sure why AAB closed but they did have their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1982 classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
  • Chi-Chi’s – A super-size Mexican restaurant and one of the first dates for my wife and me in college.  Great food, but Chi-Chi’s U.S. downfall was a grand-scale outbreak of hepatitis-A in one of its Pennsylvania restaurants, in 2003.  You can still find them in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Farrell’s – An ice cream parlor and a great place for parties, since the birthday kid got a free sundae.  Farrell’s had an early-1900’s theme: straw-hatted waitstaff, player-pianos, and menus printed on newspaper.  My favorite Farrell’s memory: “The Zoo” – a giant bowl of ice cream intended for ten or more topped with a menagerie of colored plastic animals.
  • Hamburger Hamlet – “The Hamlet” also had a location in my hometown, and for a burger joint the menu and decor were decidedly upscale.  It was known as a Hollywood celeb hangout.  Curiously, I associate Hamburger Hamlet with O.J. Simpson more than other celebrities.  Simpson’s wife Nicole and friend Ronald Goldman were murdered at the Simpson house, in the residential neighborhood nearby our Hamlet.  Nicole Simpson had just been dining at Mezzaluna (the restaurant where Goldman worked), also just a couple of blocks up from The Hamlet.
  • Lyon’s – The quintessential 1980’s smoke-filled greasy-spoon diner.  There was nothing memorable about Lyon’s (nor healthy on the menu) except the rip-the-boss conversations my coworkers and I had over lunch.  Lyon’s filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and never recovered.  No surprise; none at all.
  • Naugles – My go-to choice in college, Naugles never skimped on their portions of Mexican food (so who cared about the taste?)  Whether it was the massive “Macho Burrito”, the messy “Naugleburger”, or the trash-can sized sodas, Naugles was my all-nighter study buddy. Del Taco took over most of the chain in the 1990’s.
  • Pup ‘N’ Taco – Hot dogs, Mexican food, and – pastrami sandwiches?  I remember Pup ‘N’ Taco more for the buildings than the food; obnoxious red, white, and yellow structures with steep-sloped roofs, similar to the look of the Der Wienerschnitzels of the time.  Taco Bell bought out Pup ‘N’ Taco in 1984, more for the locations than for the menu. Obviously.
  • Sambo’s – I can’t tell you why I remember Sambo’s; I just know my family and I had several meals here.  At its peak Sambo’s had over 1,000 locations in 47 states.  Fittingly the only remaining location changed its name this year, to disassociate with the children’s story The Little Black Sambo.  George Floyd and all, you know.
  • Victoria Station – Chain together several boxcars and a caboose, add kitchen, tables, and steak-and-shrimp menu, and you have a heckuva unique restaurant. Victoria Station ballooned to almost a hundred locations at its peak.  The railcar restaurant concept evolved from a joint graduate project at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Victoria’s seemed like an upscale meal but maybe it was just the train car dining that made me feel upscale.

Someday soon (soon) we’ll be able to say we’re “post-pandemic” but by then it’s predicted thirty percent of our restaurants will have closed.  I’ll pray for those restaurants to R.I.P. as well, but not without another deserving eulogy.

Some content sourced from the 6/27/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Why the American Consumer Has Fewer Choices – Maybe for Good”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

In Defense of Breakfast

I wish I could remember the first time I watched “The Wizard of Oz”. I was probably six or seven, and so many scenes in the movie would’ve been magical at that age.  Black-and-white turning to brilliant color as Dorothy opens the door post-tornado. Glinda the Good Witch descending in a giant soap bubble. The Emerald City gleaming green beyond endless poppies. But one scene disappoints at any age: when (The Great and Powerful) Oz is exposed as a mere mortal (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”)  It’s the same disappointment I have with Mehmet Oz right now.

If you know Oprah Winfrey you probably know Dr. Oz.  A cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor, Oz added “television personality” to his resume when he appeared on Oprah’s show more than sixty times.  Later he launched the daily “Dr. Oz Show”, addressing medical issues and personal health in front of a studio audience.  He also authored the best-selling YOU: On A Diet series of books.

I’ve listened to Dr. Oz a handful of times and his medicine seems credible enough, especially with his attention to homeopathy and alternatives.  But earlier this year he made a statement I simply couldn’t digest.  Oz said (and I quote): “Breakfast should be banned”.  WOOF.  To me and a whole lot of other aficionados, that’s a truly harsh statement.

I’ve written about breakfast before, and my unabashed affection for its foods (ex. see Dream Puffs and The Meal of Champions).  For me, “it’s the most important meal of the day”.  However, those in the know – Dr. Oz included – say I’m victim to a powerful long-ago marketing campaign.  In the 1940’s General Foods decreed breakfast as “most important” based on the claims of anonymous nutritionists, when in fact GF simply wanted to sell more of its breakfast cereal.  Seventy years later many of us still buy into the idea of most important.  We just don’t have the data to back it up.

Now, let’s clarify a couple of points here, especially for those of you who are take-it-or-leave-it about the morning meal.  First, breakfast on my table is usually healthy and/or whole-food.  I like steel-cut oats with fruit, soft-boiled eggs with pepper, and yogurt with granola.  I adore traditional unhealthy breakfast champs like pancakes and waffles, omelets with the works, and bacon/ham/sausage, but those are for occasional Sundays after church or special occasions with family.  My weekday breakfasts are simple and small, designed as much to fuel as to fill.

Second, I have to cut Dr. Oz a little slack with his breakfast ban.  To add context, Oz goes on to say, “instead of eating breakfast first thing every morning, eat your first meal of the day when you are really hungry”.  In other words, Oz isn’t attacking breakfast so much as the timing of breakfast.  Have breakfast for lunch, for all he cares.  In fact Oz says, “Have brunch every day of the week!”

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular approach to diet these days, where meals are timed to create periods of fasting and non-fasting.  If you subscribe to IF it’s difficult to have an early-morning breakfast, else you’ll have dinner for lunch and nothing for the remainder of the day.  I like the concept of IF; I just don’t have the discipline (nor the inclination).  Morning breakfast works best for me – every day at the same time.  I look forward to the foods and I like the fact I’m fueling my mind and body before putting either through its paces.  But you may be different.  You may wake up and not be hungry.  You may venture several hours into the day before even thinking about food.  Your travel mug of coffee may be “breakfast” all by itself.  Different strokes for different folks.

Even if the entire camp isn’t eating breakfast first thing in the morning (or at all), I must stand fast on this: Breakfast is a morning meal. 4am, 7am, 11am – I don’t care, as long as it’s before noon.  None of this “breakfast for dinner” nonsense.  Wait, let me grant one exception: Sunday brunch (where I never partake of the “lunch” items).  Otherwise, I think even Dr. Oz would agree with the old adage, “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper”.  If we could all learn to eat like that, we’d be “great and powerful” every waking hour of the day.

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

No News is Good News

As a kid, my parents would sometimes take my brothers and me to a restaurant called Sir George’s Smorgasbord.  Sir George’s was one of those all-you-can-eat places, and in the 1960’s it cost you a mere $1.69 a plate!  I don’t remember the “royal buffet” being so kid-friendly (except for the fried dough balls for dessert) but that didn’t matter so much.  The idea you could assemble your own dinner from dozens of selections was a dream compared to some of mom’s mandated meals.

Sir George’s closed its doors in the late 1970’s, but I thought about the place the other night.  For years my wife and I used to watch a half-hour of local news on television – our before-bed catch-up on the happenings of the day.  I was always impressed with how many stories the newscasters crammed into thirty minutes; an almost breathless smorgasbord of headlines and reports.  Alas, the real-time information of mobile devices removed much of the appeal of the late-night news (except the weather – always an important topic here in Colorado).  But maybe the loss of appeal should be blamed on something else.  Something more troubling.

With the pandemic and protests of late, my wife and I tune into the news again.  We seek an encouraging stat or bit of research we’ve missed, or we yearn for a better angle on the justification of our country’s continuing unrest.  Whatever the reason, we find we’re tuning out the news almost as fast.  What used to be a buffet of international, national, and local news has changed into something else entirely: essentially a waste of our time.

I’m guessing news broadcasts look about the same in every American locale right now.  The lead story is an incident-based piece on racial injustice (i.e. Seattle’s CHOP), followed by something similar at the local level (i.e. a peaceful protest).  These stories are followed by a statistical update on COVID-19 (global, national, local), which leads to the latest state/city mandates and recommendations.

Click the stopwatch.  Fifteen minutes have already been consumed by protests and pandemic, leaving the other fifteen minutes for weather, sports, and everything else a viewer “needs to know”.  Actually, make that ten minutes.  Our news takes a break halfway through for commercials, then again just before wrapping things up.  Weather is only newsworthy if you live in a place where it changes daily.  Sports isn’t newsworthy at all, at least not right now.

You see where I’m going with this.  The late-night news is simply not “news” anymore.  Without taking anything away from the seriousness of the pandemic and the issues behind the myriad protests, neither topic is end-of-day compelling when you’ve already consumed a healthy dose of both from your phone and newsfeed.  You seek something else entirely late at night, at least to avoid EGO (eyes glazing over).  You seek something newsworthy.

The news lineup won’t change, of course.  Networks broadcast what they think you want to see and hear.  Or more accurately, they broadcast what they want you to see and hear.  Daily pandemic coverage is designed to elevate fear and maybe drive safer practices.  Daily protest coverage is designed to elevate the significance of the issues and maybe drive actual change.  But sorry; these topics are not the most newsworthy day-in and day-out.  They’re not “breaking news”.  Here’s breaking news: the other day we had a large brush fire just to the north of us, threatening our very homes and lives.  By my stopwatch, the news got to that story seventeen minutes after the hour.  Should’ve been the lead.

If the networks retitle these broadcasts something like “Pandemic and Protests Daily” at least I know what to expect.  I could set my DVR to record the show once a week and that’d be all the tuning-in I’d need.  Kind of like daytime soaps, where you can skip a whole week and then watch the next Monday’s episode to get caught up on all you missed.

Mark my words, the nightly news will soon lumber off like the dinosaurs, never to be seen again.  You might ask yourself: will its demise be attributed to the real-time pings of your mobile phone, or because the networks didn’t choose to acknowledge the vast buffet of topics right in front of them?

I say bring back Sir George’s.

True Colors

In the kitchen cabinet convenient to our countertop coffeemaker (I’m on a roll with the letter C today), we keep a couple of large mugs; souvenirs from the San Diego Zoo. Identical in size and shape, both mugs have images of animals on them. More importantly, one mug is light blue while the other is bright red. For this reason and no other, I place the blue mug at the front of the cabinet and the red mug further back. My preference is the blue one.

If these same mugs were in your kitchen cabinet, which would you choose?  What if I added a green mug and a purple mug – would your choice be just as clear?  It should be, since we all have favorite colors.  Unless we’re colorblind we concur when something is blue, or something is red.  We even agree when something blue is “pretty” (say, the summer sky) or something red is not (say, the heart of a forest fire).  But that’s just preference by association.  Favorite colors are part of our DNA.

I’ll take “green”

As far back as I can remember my favorite color is green.  I also like blue and purple, but if I only get a single Skittles make it green.  With board games, I choose the green pieces. With my wardrobe, I own several green shirts (but no red ones).  My wife and I once owned – one after the other – a green van, followed by a green sedan, followed by a green mini-van; even though the more popular vehicle colors are white, silver, black, and dark grey.  It may be no coincidence the colors of my alma mater are blue, gold… and green.

Hello, Marilyn!

Don’t let the numbers influence your choice but 35% of Americans prefer blue while 16% prefer green, 10% purple, and 9% red.  Orange, yellow, and brown sit together at the back of the bus.  Also, gentlemen may prefer blondes, but gentlemen definitely prefer blondes in red.  To heterosexual men at least, women in red draw more romantic attention than any other color.

Infants show a preference for color as early as twelve weeks old.  That’s hardly an age where you associate colors with material things.  Toddlers show a preference for pink and blue regardless of sex (and cool colors over warm), but choose yellow over both of them – perhaps owing to association with the sun, flowers, and other “happy” things.

Here’s where favorite colors get interesting.  At five years of age you begin to associate colors with more than just “things”.  You associate with feelings and states of mind as well.  Consider the table above.  My preference for green suggests a good/bad combination of traits.  Immodestly I like to think I have good taste.  Unquestionably I put a premium on my health.  Envy?  Sure, every now and then.  Eco-friendly?  Nope, not really.

Red and blue make for better arguments.  The “lust”, “power”, and “speed” associated with red explain why it’s the color of choice for sports cars, and why red uniforms statistically improve performance in certain sports (think Tiger Woods).  All five blue traits explain why the color is so prevalent in the American workplace (and primary in the logos of standard brands like Ford, Facebook, and IBM).  Even the traits of violet/purple make sense: the color most associated with royalty.

The Rose of Temperaments

Our desire to interpret the meaning of favorite colors has been around a long time.  The Rose of Temperaments is a wheel-like image from the late eighteenth century, matching colors to character traits and occupations.  See what your color says about you.  If green goes to my very soul, the rose is strikingly accurate.  I can make a case for every trait in the list of phlegmatic. My tendencies are also more introverted than extroverted.  The rose gives me reasons for envying red, yellow, or blue (and reasons for not), but I can’t deny it: I am literally defined by my favorite color.

Speaking of the basic colors, we also favor color names. Mother Nature’s rainbow just doesn’t do it anymore.  In a recent remodel project my wife and I chose the paint color “Cocoa Whip” over “Havana Coffee” and “Wild Truffle”; when in fact we were simply choosing a shade of brown.  In product tests, participants shown swatches of the same color consistently preferred the one with the most elegant name.

Closing comment on my favorite color green.  You do know what they say about green M&M’s, don’t you? The aphrodisiacal effects (urban legend) are explained by the color’s association with fertility.  However, the better story comes from 1976, when the FDA banned the chemical “red dye #2” and red M&M’s temporarily departed the production line.  Rumor had it the reds were the real aphrodisiacs, employees were pocketing them straight from the line, and the whole red dye #2 story was a cover-up.  Red, green, whatever the color; they all taste good to me.  Even the brown ones, which testers swear taste more like chocolate than any other color.

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

Whistle Work

Last weekend my wife and I drove north a couple hours to visit our granddaughters.  The last time we saw them was in the pre-pandemic days of yesteryear.  We spent most of Saturday afternoon in the backyard playing little-kid games in the makeshift pool and breaking out a plastic Tee-Ball set.  Later on after a barbeque, it was time to clean up the toys.  My son and his wife promptly requested the “The Clean Up Song” from Alexa, and my granddaughter hopped to it.  Watching her I caught myself thinking, can’t I help with the clean up too?

Google The Clean Up Song and you’ll find several dozen versions to choose from.  Cleaning-to-music for kids has been around a little while now.  I wish we’d used this approach more often when our own children were little.  It’s a song!  It’s a game!  It’s almost whistling while you work.

For me, household chores morphed to something more therapeutic as the kids grew up and out of the house.  Taking out the trash became extra steps towards my ten thousand (we have a long driveway).  Washing dishes became a mini-spa of warm water and soap bubbles.  Making the bed and arranging its pillows channeled my inner Marie Kondo.  Folding clothes was how to avoid lazing on the couch while watching TV.  (On that note, an ironing board should be called a “clothes-folding board”, if you go by my folding minutes (100%) vs. ironing minutes (0%).

Lest you think me compulsive, a recent Wall Street Journal study comes to my rescue.  During these stay-at-home times – locked-down residents find similar stress relief in housework.  Washing windows allows the slow, deliberate wax-on-wax-off zen of “The Karate Kid”.  Cleaning countertops tempts flowing dance, like Julia Stiles in the diner in “The Prince and Me”.  Ironing doubles as light weightlifting. And vacuuming?  Nah, I got nothing there.  Vacuuming’s still just a chore.

The lovely Ms. Stiles and her diner dance

Headspace

Headspace, a software company focused on meditation and better sleep, includes housecleaning exercises on its app.  They recommend “quiet housework in dim lighting” just before bed (but then how do you see what you’re cleaning?) They want you to sweep the floor and wipe the counter in smooth, restorative motions.  Laugh all you want but the use of their “cleaning-related content” is up 20% since mid-March.

Household products are trending the same way.  Swiffer wants you to mop with “a clean home and a clear mind” and suggests a facial treatment while you’re at it.  They switch “clean the counter” to “give your surfaces a little TLC” (as if your surfaces are close friends).  Proctor & Gamble fortifies its “Gain” laundry detergent with essential oils like lavender and eucalyptus, touted for their calming effects. “Clear Your Mind with a Cooling Clean!  A Soothing Scent with a Mindful Twist!”

Call me one-in-five (not compulsive) because P&G research claims 20% of us clean to relax or reduce stress.  Sure, but we also clean to clean.

I never thought about laundry this way but the Journal article likens clothes-cleaning to problem-solving (which we guys are all about).  Sort the clothes, dose the detergent/softener, fold according to best-fit in drawers, and then put everything away.  It’s a process, and it’s a new puzzle every time.

To take it one step more spiritual, household chores are considered seva – a form of selfless-service.  Says one yogi about dirty dishes, “You’re reminding yourself you’re washing for the divine grace that flows through your husband, your wife, your children, or your parents.”  Whoa now.  Me, I’m just washing dishes.

I’ve neglected to mention another household chore: cleaning bathrooms.  It can be “healing” sponging the porcelain to a sparkling-white shine, conducting the bowl brush in large, lazy circles, or returning to nature in the gentle flow of the sink (waterfall) or toilet (whirlpool).  No, no, NO.  I don’t do bathrooms.  Not even if you ask Alexa to play “The Clean Up Song”.

Some content sourced from the 5/27/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Sick of Cleaning?  Turn It Into Meditation”.