The Original “Black Friday”

The first two weeks of November were jammed with “un-often” events this year.  For starters the bright light of Halloween’s blue moon spilled into the wee hours of November 1st.  During those same wee hours most of us lost Daylight Savings Time.  The very next day (Monday) marked the official arrival of Hurricane Eta to our shores. The day after that we voted in a presidential election. A week later we staged the Masters golf tournament (it’s supposed to be in April, people).  Then we had another hurricane (Iota), the first time we’ve had two in November.  Finally, we spiked positive COVID-19 tests in record numbers after months of declines.

That’s a pile of rarities in a short amount of time.  So why not add one more to the heap?  Friday the 13th.  I missed it completely.  Maybe you missed it too (and you’d be forgiven with all those other distractions).  Last Friday – the 13th – came and went without an ounce of bad luck to blog about.  Ironically, the only story I can share brought good luck.  I placed a carry-out dinner order last Thursday night and the restaurant gave me someone else’s food.  When I went back for the right order they told me to keep both.  As a result my Friday the 13th dinner was unexpectedly “on the house”.

Are you superstitious?  I’m not – not in the least.  I have no problems with sidewalk cracks, leaning ladders, or black cats. I don’t lose sleep anticipating the third occurrence of a bad thing.  I gladly pick up a penny (it’s free money after all) but with no expectations of luck.  I’ve broken mirrors (deliberately, in remodel projects) and wishbones (on a whim, in turkeys).  I’ve even knocked on lots of wood (mostly doors) but hey, my life goes on as usual.

Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece

As for Friday the 13th’s “un-luck”, its long-ago origins are suspiciously weak.  The most common comes from the story of Jesus in the Bible: thirteen individuals at the Last Supper (Thursday) followed by Jesus’ foretold crucifixion the following day.  Other theories point to fighting gods in mythology and fighting knights in the Middle Ages.  None of these carry water in my book.  Seriously, how did misfortune come to be associated with the collision of a particular day and date?

I read up on calendar averages, thinking the 13th falling on a Friday was as uncommon as a blue moon.  Maybe the 13th favors the other days of the week instead?  Nope, try the reverse.  Over a significant number of years the 13th falls on Friday more than Saturday, Sunday, or any other day of the week.

To add a helping of confusion, look no further than Spain or Greece.  These countries have an irrational fear of Tuesday the 13th.  Italy?  Friday the 17th.  Imagine watching America’s famous horror movie franchise in any of these places and wondering, “so… why do they call it ‘Friday the 13th'”?

No matter my efforts to undermine this superstition, the effects are real.  Over 17 million Americans admit to a dread of Friday the 13th.  Some avoid airplane travel and others won’t even get out of bed.  Buildings remove the thirteenth floor from the stack (which is a lot of demolition for a superstition, isn’t it?)  Elevators conspicuously delete the “13” button.  Numbered seats in stadiums go 10, 11, 12… 14, 15, 16.

For some of you, Black Friday means bargains.  For others, Black Friday means “13”. If nothing else, I’ll give you a couple of words to describe the circumstance of the latter’s irrational fear.  If you’re afraid of the number 13 you have triskaidekaphobia.  If you’re afraid of just Friday the 13th you have paraskevidekatriaphobia.  (Me, I only have acrophobia.  At least your phobias sound more sophisticated.)

Fact check.  This post was published close to the midpoint between Black Friday (the 13th) and Black Friday (the retail binge).  Okay-y-y-y.  This post also contains exactly 666 words.  WHOO boy.

Let me repeat… I am NOT superstitious.

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

Halloween’s Element of Surprise

Same ol’, same ol’… sigh…

Our grocer dedicates an entire aisle to Halloween this time of year.  It’s a pile-on of kid costumes, yard decor, plastic jack-o’-lanterns, and party supplies.  You’ll also find massive bags of assorted small candies, enough to load up your front door bowl with a single pour.  These treats are individually wrapped and brand-familiar to carefully conform to the holiday’s “safe standards”.  In other words, there’s no element of surprise in all that sugar.

When was the last time you were treated to a little something you didn’t expect?  Here’s a good example.  My wife and I traveled to Texas last weekend to visit our son.  As we settled into the hotel room we noticed a tray on the table with two bottles of water and a couple of wrapped candies.  Not so unusual.  But then we read the little card next to the tray.  Not only was the water free of charge (hotels typically stick it to you with bottled water) but the candies were handmade salted caramels from a local culinary kitchen.  Suddenly I’m thinking, “What a nice hotel!”

Perhaps you know a few other hotels with the same gesture, as Doubletree does with its chocolate-chip cookies (see Calories of Contentment for more on that).  But unlike our Texas hotel, Doubletree always goes with the chocolate-chip cookies.  Stay there enough and you come to expect them.  No surprise.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Halloween today.  You still get the occasional trick (TP in the trees?  Shaving cream in the pumpkins?) but the “or-treat” routine has been reduced to just that – routine.  Think about a child’s anticipation for the big night.  Hours spent making sure their costume stands out in a crowd.  Miles spent covering sidewalks and front walks.  Fingers spent on doorbells and knockers, all so they can get, what… another fun-size Hershey bar?  Where-oh-where is the element of surprise?

Mom’s Halloween treats

Back in the “ol’ days” (because I’m feeling old today) a lot of front-door Halloween treats were homemade.  People handed out family-recipe popcorn balls and caramel apples.  My mother made the frosted ginger pumpkin cookies you see here.  A guy down the street dressed as Dracula and manned a little round grill in his driveway, handing out barbecued hot dog bites on toothpicks.  You never knew what you’d walk away with until you made it to the next house.

A mini pumpkin has zero HTV

Creative treats only boosted the night’s excitement back then.  I remember catching up with friends in the darkened streets to compare the collective efforts in our bags.  More importantly, the wide variety of treats upped the ante on what one candy-ranking opinion piece referred to as “HTV” or Halloween Trade Value.  After all, the most important event of the night was the post trick-or-treat trade, right?  You’d spill the contents of your pillowcase into a big pile on the floor and the back-n-forth would begin.  “I’ll give you three rolls of Smarties and a Baby Ruth for your Charleston Chew”.  Yes, friends, those were the days.

Everything changed when Halloween lost its young-and-innocent status.  Parents inspected treat bags to filter out anything remotely suspicious.  Homemade items only made it as far as the next-door neighbor’s kids or backyard Halloween parties.  Suddenly a treat didn’t pass muster if it wasn’t recognizable and wrapped.  The creative license of trick-or-treating has expired.

But hold on now.  What about the other 364 days of the year?  Can’t the element of surprise show up on one or more of those?  Can’t we still be caught off guard… in a good way?

Here’s an attempt.  At least two companies offer monthly treats by subscription and you have no idea what’s coming.  SnackCrate describes its product as “a world of snack surprises – monthly”.  TryTreats advertises “each month’s box will feature snacks from a different country in the world.  The country you’ll receive is a secret until you receive the box!”  Kind of a spin on my ol’-days Halloween nights, don’t you think?

Speaking of treats I think the dog got wind of this topic.  The other night I prepped his dinner with the usual two cups of kibble topped with a few bits of lunch meat.  He ate the bits but left the kibble.  He’s never done that before.  Maybe he’s bored with it?  I need to shake things up.  Throw in a few doggie treats.  Add the ol’ Halloween element of surprise and get his tail wagging again.

The Ghost of Saint Francis

“Saint Francis” (Digital Art by Randy Wollenmann)

I’ve long been a fan of the Google Calendar app, even after switching my mobile from Android to Apple. Google Calendar allows the option to add “Christian Holidays” so I promptly checked the box. We’re talking Christmas and Easter of course, but how about the Feast Day of Saint Francis (last Sunday), Saint David (3/1), and Saint Patrick (3/17)? Saint Patrick sure, but why also Francis and David? There are hundreds of saints yet Google chose just three. My curiosity was piqued.

So begins my beyond-the-grave story, perfect with Halloween on the horizon. Google’s choice of saint days got me wondering if there’s a spectral connection between me (David) and Francis. So I dove into the details. Now all I can say is, be careful what you wonder about.

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy

The quick history of Francis. He’s the patron saint of animals. He was an Italian living in the 1200s from the central hill town of Assisi. Francis grew up wealthy but abandoned his riches to serve the Church and the poor. But it’s the animals that make him so popular among today’s saints. He (supposedly) communicated with wolves. He often preached to flocks of birds. He built the very first Christmas crèche, including live animals alongside the manger.

Now then, my Francis ghost story. Let’s cover this spookiness from present to past. I’ve discovered a pattern of events that has me convinced Saint Francis is trying to reach out. As a matter of fact, he’s been in touch every ten years back to when I was a baby. If you agree you can see why I’m expecting another “call” in 2023.

  • 2013: I’ve told you Francis is the patron saint of animals but guess what? He’s also the patron saint of avoiding fires. In June 2013, my family and I evacuated our Colorado house for a week (horses and dogs in tow) to escape one of the worst fires in our state’s history. When we returned, our house was not only intact but had no smoke damage. Meanwhile, over 500 properties within a five-mile radius were completely destroyed.

  • (Also in) 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope. He promptly changed his name to Francis. There have been 266 Popes in history, but Cardinal Bergoglio is the very first to select the name “Francis”.

  • 2003: The Front Range of the Colorado Rockies experienced one of the worst blizzards in our state’s history. In a matter of hours a single storm dropped over thirty inches of snow, with drifts of five feet or more. My family and I were snow-locked in our house for over a week. 100,000 residents lost power while 4,000 travelers were stuck at the international airport in Denver. Saint Francis is also the patron saint of the environment. Was he making his presence felt with unprecedented weather?
    Assisi’s sister city

  • 1993: My family and I moved from San Francisco to Colorado. San Francisco (named for Francis) is the sister city of his birth town of Assisi. But here’s where I really paused. Francis is also the patron saint of… Colorado. And how many other U.S. states chose Francis as their patron saint? Zero.

  • 1983: I’m in my junior year in college, studying abroad in Italy. The patron saint of Italy is… Francis, of course. I also traveled to Assisi while I was there, including a visit to the church where Francis is buried. This is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy.

  • 1973: Acclaimed biographer Ira Peck writes, The Life and Words of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a short read, with easy language intended for middle-schoolers. Where was I in 1973? Starting my first year of middle school.

  • 1963: On March 21st, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed for good after thirty years. Alcatraz is the famous island prison in the San Francisco Bay. What does Alcatraz have to do with my ghost?  Back in 1202, a young Francis was thrown in prison for a year, captured while serving a military effort. His spiritual conversion from wealthy patron to humble priest, it is said, took place during this time in prison.

Our Saint Francis statue

And there you have it. Every ten years – starting the year after I was born – Saint Francis seems to have reached out to me. Oh, one more thing.  My wife and I have a statue of Saint Francis in our garden. “Of course you do”, says Francis.  He’s been standing quietly there for years, facing the house, just keeping his eye on us.

Francis will reach out to me again in 2023, I’m sure of it now. He’ll find another way to make his presence felt. When I read up on him I noted he’s also the patron saint against dying alone and the patron saint of needleworkers. Against dying alone? Am I destined to perish alongside several others in 2023? That’s not very nice of you, Francis.  I’d better take up knitting.

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

(Not) Paying the Piper

One player, many pipes

Our church is weighing creative approaches to conducting in-person services next month. Pastor Bob sent out a survey recently asking we-the-congregation to consider options like outdoor church, weekday church, and evening church – all in the name of social distancing.  We’ll also be shaking up the service “touchpoints”, like sharing the peace, passing the (offering) plate, and partaking in communion. The Big Guy doesn’t care about the where’s, when’s, and how’s, of course – just that we have church.  On the other hand, He (She?) might have something to say about the music. After all, how does a church organ sound after a three-month absence from tuning?

It’s bad enough our congregation is gloriously inharmonious when we bellow out the hymns (no choir of angels are we), but add in a fully discordant church organ and you have a complete mess. Organs need tuning like the human back needs a chiropractor: maintenance is key. When dust accumulates and seasons change, organ pipes sound noticeably different than they’re supposed to (hence the term “off-key”).  Imagine the pitch-perfect tones of a bass saxophone, but instead you get more of a sour wail.  That’s an organ pipe sans “tune-up”.

Every one needs tuning

Tuning organ pipes is serious business and can run thousands of dollars per visit.  Consider, the biggest organs have as many as 25,000 pipes.  The booming bass pipes can be thirty feet long and two feet in diameter, while the little pixie sopranos look more like metal soda straws. Each pipe must be individually tested and tuned no matter how big or small.  Tuner A presses a key on the (up to four) keyboards down below, while Tuner B adjusts the pitch of the pipe up above (sometimes on a ladder, sometimes on a suspended platform).  It’s hours and hours of monotonous – and in the case of cathedrals, death-defying work, one demanding pipe at a time.  Better love what you do.

Here’s another reason organ tuners deserve hazard pay.  Imagine you’re suspended hundreds of feet above the sanctuary floor on a swaying rope-suspended platform (I’m already saying “no”), virtually floating like the angels, and as you reach over to adjust the pitch of a mid-sized pipe, bats fly out.  Yep, that’s the kind of critters tuners encounter when an organ wants for too long (or a single pipe sounds suspiciously out-of-tune).  Squirrels even make their homes in the pipes – though don’t ask me how they don’t go plummeting to their death the moment a note is blasted from the keyboard.  Maybe they’re flying squirrels?

The view from above

In the land of COVID-19 there are no organ tuners (or very few).  Those Peter Pipers are being denied access to their church-bound “patients” because a) COVID may reside on a surface like, say, a keyboard, and b) no congregation means no offering plate means precious few payments to the Piper.  So what do stay-at-home tuners do instead?  Why, they tune their pianos of course!  Then they play those pianos hours on end.  We may come out of COVID with a whole new genre of classical music called “tuner tunes”.

Talk about a sprint from feast to famine.  An organ tuner’s busiest weeks are those leading up to Easter, often requiring extra staff and longer hours.  COVID downpoured on that parade.  Demand for pre-Easter tuning disappeared faster than Mr. Bunny himself.  In the case of one tuner – profiled in the Wall Street Journal – 100 contracts withered to less than a dozen inside of two weeks.  He furloughed his entire workforce, worried instead over simply paying the rent on his shop.

One day soon, we faithful will walk away from our laptops and wander back into church sanctuaries instead.  We’ll spread out over more services.  We’ll wave hands instead of shake hands.  We’ll drop the offering into the plate from a “safe height”.  We’ll bypass communion servers and help ourselves to the bread and wine instead.  The organist will play and the congregation will sing; both noticeably off-key.  And when that happens give a nod to the organ tuners, who will someday get the pipes pitch-perfect again. 

Just hope they don’t need an exterminator as well.

Some content sourced from the 3/25/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “As Coronavirus Shutters Churches, an Organ Whisperer Changes Key”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Confection Perfection

While grocery shopping the other day, my wife asked me if I’d eat something containing “77% dark chocolate”. I replied casually, “No, my limit’s more like 72%”. To those in the know, the percentages refer to the cacao content; not the broader term “chocolate”. And that level of technical shows you how far I’ve come from the 3 Musketeers bar of my youth.

Each of us taps into our particular coping mechanisms as we deal with impacts of the pandemic. My wife spends countless hours playing brain games on her iPad. More of my neighbors take daily walks than I’ve ever seen before. Me? I’m getting lost in a few rainy-day projects, but more to the subject at hand, I’m tapping into my dark chocolate stash. There’s something therapeutic about a small square of the good stuff slowly dissolving on the tongue.  Dark chocolate is medication for troubled times.  It sates my soul.

I can’t recall when I graduated from “candy bar” to “chocolate bar”, let alone dark chocolate.  Like most kids of the 1970’s, I was drawn to Milky Way, Snickers, Nestle Crunch and the like, due to an annual dose of “fun-size” every Halloween.  But somewhere I had an epiphany and realized chocolate was pretty good all by itself. The clincher: studying abroad in Italy during college.  Overnight it seemed, I graduated from the products of Hershey’s and Mars to the more refined of Perugina and Ferrero. 

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Thierry Muret, the executive chef chocolatier at Godiva, and after reading the article I thought, “Now there’s a dream job”.  Not so fast, Mr. Goodbar.  Turns out Monsieur Muret is an industrial chemistry grad who leans heavily on his knowledge of science to create Godiva-worthy delicacies.  Muret’s all about “molecular gastronomy”, or decomposing/recomposing the very elements of chocolate to develop new textures and tastes.  Think about that the next time you bite into a Godiva truffle.

This much I know.  Chocolate’s most common varieties are “milk”, “dark”, and “white”, and while each contains cocoa butter, they’re better defined by their other ingredients (i.e. the dairy in “milk”).  My taste for dark chocolate evolved over a lot of years, the way my coffee matured from “instant” to “espresso”, and my wine from “Chardonnay” to “Cabernet”.  The basic versions simply don’t cut it anymore.

Thanks to Monsieur Muret, this much I don’t know about chocolate.  There’s a tight temperature range (65°-75° F) where fine chocolate can be “tempered” (shaped into truffles, etc.) without altering its delicate flavor.  There’s also a tight time frame to temper, because you don’t want the temperature to fluctuate more than a degree or two.  But Muret colors outside of the lines.  He throws temperature and time frame to the wind to concoct new textures and tastes.  He once spent an entire year perfecting a single ganache.  Whoa; that’s taking it to a whole new level.

The path to chocolatier typically goes through culinary school, not the chemistry lab.  You start with a pastry degree (pastry degree?) and then specialize in chocolate/confections.  Nope, not what I studied in college – not even close.  But I do deserve a “tasting degree” for my years of experience.

If the pandemic goes on long enough, I may find the shelves of our grocery store devoid of dark chocolate.  No problem: I’ll settle for a good ol’ 3 Musketeers bar instead.  Milk chocolate (not to mention the dose of childhood nostalgia) is a passable backup coping mechanism.

The so-called experts say there’s “no high-quality evidence that dark chocolate provides health benefits”.  With coping in mind, I couldn’t disagree more.

Some content sourced from the 2/7/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Nothing Could Be Sweeter Than Being Godiva’s Top Chocolate Chef”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Not So Fast, Mr. March!

In 2010, New York City premiered a wee little romantic comedy called Leap Year. The movie starred Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, and spun a creative love story around a Leap Day tradition of marriage proposals. In Ireland (and Britain), the tradition held if a woman proposed to a man on February 29th, the man must accept her offer or face significant penalty. Leap Year begins in Boston with the intent of ending in a Dublin marriage proposal, but the coastal Irish town of Dingle (and Matthew Goode) gets in the way. That’s where the real story begins.

If you haven’t seen Leap Year, you’ll have to search elsewhere for the complete plot summary. Just avoid the movie reviews. Leap Year earned a not-even-modest 23% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a not-even-one-third 33 out of 100 on Metacritic. My favorite assessment comes from reviewer Nathan Rabin, who concluded, “The film functions as the cinematic equivalent of a (McDonald’s) Shamrock Shake: sickeningly, artificially sweet, formulaic, and about as authentically Gaelic as an Irish Spring commercial”.

Yeah, I get it. Mr. Rabin refers to the several “overly-Irish” details in Leap Year, which seek to pay homage to the country’s culture but instead come off as cliched (with a capital C). But do viewers really care? Leap Year‘s underlying story is fun, and even if rom-com isn’t your bowl of Irish Stew, at least you have Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. I repeat, Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, two of the most appealing actors in the movie industry today.

I’ve been hooked on the lovely Ms. Adams ever since she took her Oscar-nominated spin as Giselle in Enchanted (2007). It doesn’t hurt she grew up just a few minutes north of where I live here in Colorado. My wife’s been hooked on Matthew Goode ever since he stole scenes from Mandy Moore in Chasing Liberty (2004). It doesn’t hurt he added a passable Irish accent in Leap Year. Both actors have been nominated for awards in far better films, but put them on the big screen together and a little chemistry goes a long way.

Speaking of leap year, my preference for order and logic takes a serious hit whenever the short month of February rolls around. A month of twenty-eight days when the other eleven have thirty or thirty-one? Why not just reduce two or three other months from thirty-one to thirty days and make February “full”? The only credible historical explanation I can find is this: Caesar Augustus stole a few days from February to make his month (August) as long as Caesar Julius’ (July).  We future generations are left to deal with the anomaly. Gee, thanks Gus.

In a rather odd example of redemption, February gets extra attention by boasting an extra day every four years. We need the quadrennial Leap Day to put the calendar, the seasons, and the universe back into sync. Not so fast, Mr. March. And yet, pity the poor souls born on Leap Day. Must’ve been pretty traumatic as a kid, trying to understand why your special day doesn’t show up on the calendar like the other kids. Or consider a “leaper’s” 21st year (or whatever year one earns drinking privileges). How do you convince the barkeep you’ve reached your drinking birthday in a year without a February 29th?

Perhaps you’ll “celebrate” Leap Year 2020 by seeing the movie of the same name. We’ll watch Leap Year for the zillionth time. My wife will remind me Matthew Goode’s character and her own Irish Draught horse share the same name (Declan). I’ll remind her several Leap Year scenes take place in Connemara and County Wicklow, two of our favorite places in Ireland.

Matthew Goode recently admitted, “I just know there are a lot of people who say (Leap Year) was the worst film of 2020″. But Goode also admitted to signing on so he could work closer to home and to see his girlfriend and newborn daughter more often. Doesn’t that make the (English)man even more likable?  Maybe.  At least Amy’s doing a sequel to Enchanted.

(Author’s Note: Just noticed this is my 229th post on Life In A Word. 229 as in 2-29 as in February 29th as in Leap Day. WHOA.)

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the 2/28/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Leap-Year Babies Fight a Lonely, Quadrennial Fight for Recognition”.

Creamer Schemers

A couple weeks ago, my Nespresso coffee maker sprung a leak. As it brewed a cup, it also “espressed” a small river of coffee from the base of the unit. An online chat with the good people at Nespresso determined, a) the maker really was broken, b) the one-year warranty covered the repair (whoo-hoo!), and c) the fix would take up to ten business days. Well beans; ten business days meant regressing a full two weeks on drip coffee instead.  Hold the phone; did I just label myself a coffee snob?

Nespresso

Nespresso – for those of you not familiar – is one of the many capsule coffee systems on the market today. Unlike the Keurig K-Cup, “Nestle-Espresso” capsules spin as the water passes through the grounds (7,000 RPMs – vroom vroom!), adding a light-colored frothy cap of “crema” on top. The crema enhances the aroma, but more importantly delivers the mouth-feel of a latte, as if you stirred something in from the dairy family. But call me fooled; Nespresso’s nothing more than coffee in the cup.

Bunn’s coffee-monster

Coffee snob? Parvenu, perhaps. It wasn’t that long ago I contentedly drank “joe” from one of those big metal Bunn machines, flavor-boosting my Styrofoam cup contents with a sugar cube and powdered Coffee-mate. Then, I spent a year in Rome and my world was forever coffee-rocked. I returned to the States armed with words like cappuccino and espresso and caffe latte. But America didn’t even know the word Starbucks yet. A “coffee shop” was still a greasy spoon diner; forgettable joe in a forgettable cup.

Mind you, not having Starbucks didn’t mean I was gonna crawl back to the Bunn, especially after a year of Italy’s la dolce vita (look it up). Eventually I dropped hard-earned cash on one of those early model home coffee/espresso/steamed milk contraptions – a machine requiring twenty minutes, twenty steps, and a phone-book-sized operations manual to produce a small cappuccino. The birth of the American barista did not start at Starbucks, my friends. It started in the frustration of orchestrating an overly complicated home-brew system in search of pseudo-Italian-style coffee.

Sometime after Starbucks opened its first doors (but before Nespresso), Keurig developed the K-Cup. The Keurig coffeemaker felt like a huge step up from standard drip (and ushered in the concept of single-serve coffee at home). Keurig opened a seemingly new world of coffee to me – exotic names like Green Mountain or Paul Newman’s or Donut Shop – but let’s be honest. Keurig was basically glorified drip, and I still wasn’t taking my coffee straight, like I did in Italy. And that’s where Nespresso shines. If the K-Cup is a step up from drip, Nespresso is the entire staircase.

Ironically, the same company producing Nespresso markets a line of oil-based creamers sugary enough to make your coffee taste like Easter in a cup. Nestle already offered creamer flavors like Peppermint Mocha or Italian Sweet Creme or Toasted Marshmallow, before recently adding Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Funfetti. Not to be outdone, International Delight augmented its own coffee creamer line – REESE’S Peanut Butter Cup, Cinnabon, and OREO Cookie Flavored, with – no joke – a PEEPS flavor. Better check for bunnies before you take a sip.

For the record (if the Pulptastic website is to be believed), I’m not even close to being a coffee snob. I can choose from any of their twelve defining characteristics and come up short. I don’t read about coffee. I don’t speak the lingo (“Robusta?” “Arabica?”). I don’t know what “cupping” is. I do enjoy a Starbucks coffee every now and then. Finally, I’m half-tempted to check out the PEEPS creamer (maybe I won’t even need the coffee in my cup). See the Pulptastic list for yourself. Maybe you’re the coffee snob instead of me.

I’m still waiting (im)patiently for my repaired Nespresso coffeemaker to come back. I’m barely surviving on my backup K-Cups. But I’m no coffee snob. And I was just kidding about wanting to try PEEPS in a bottle. On the contrary, those creamer schemers can keep their product far, far away from my Nespresso.

Some content sourced from the 2/3/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Rich Sales Boost Coffee Creamers”.

Ribbons and Bows

My wife and I went to the movies the day after Christmas. The theater lobby looked a little forlorn after the holiday rush. There weren’t many patrons besides the two of us. The employees wandered here and there without seemingly much to do. The concessions were woefully under-stocked. In fact, as we stood at the counter, we realized there were no nachos, no hot dogs, and not a single bottle of water to be found. Did all those “Star Wars” groupies buy up everything before us?  Did a link go missing in the supply chain? Can we blame the aliens?  Ah, but popcorn.  At least they had popcorn.

I can’t see a movie without cradling a big ol’ tub of theater popcorn.  Don’t ask me what chains the two together, but popcorn and movies are a heaven-on-earth marriage.  It’s like that Kacey Musgraves Christmas song about a ribbon without a bow.  The movie might be Oscar-worthy but there’s a big something missing without popcorn.  The next time you watch “Field of Dreams”, consider the ball field is surrounded by acres and acres of corn.  As if you need a metaphor.

Popcorn wasn’t always an option at the movies.  In the early 1900’s, the theater-going experience was different.  The auditoriums were much smaller.  The carpets and seats were lush and expensive.  The patrons tended towards upper-crust.  And the movies themselves… had no sound.  Any one of those reasons made popcorn a poor concession choice.  Theaters didn’t want kernels ground into their pricey floor coverings.  Patrons didn’t want a snack associated with the lower-class circuses and sporting events of the time.  Most importantly, no one wanted to hear crunching and munching while trying to read the subtitles of a silent movie.

The Great Depression – and “talkies” – ushered in the union of popcorn and movies.  A broader cross-section of patrons sought the theater for an inexpensive distraction to the hard times.  Popcorn was easy to mass-produce, and the smell and pop created an effective lure for the concession stand.  Crunching and munching was no longer a concern up against soundtracks.  And popcorn was affordable, even to those who could barely scrape together enough for the movie itself.

Do you prefer “mushroom” or “butterfly”?

There’s a little science behind popcorn to get it from husk to Hollywood.  Growers developed the appealing “butterfly bud”, with several “ears” to trap the butter and salt.  Growers also worked to shape popcorn to take up as much room in the bag as possible (less air), giving a more satisfying feel to the overall weight.  They coined terms like “expansion rate” and “mouth feel” and “finger control” – anything to make you buy more of the fluffy stuff.

All this talk of popcorn reminds me of a children’s book about a farmer who grew acres and acres of corn.  He’d store his corn in giant metal silos next to his field.  One summer day, the silos got so hot the corn inside started to pop.  The farmer heard the sound and climbed on the roof of one of the silos to see what was going on.  Suddenly the silo burst open, and the roof started rising above all that popcorn.  Up, up, up went the farmer.  When the popping finally stopped, the farmer was high up in the sky with no way to get down.  His neighbors came from miles around to try to help him.  The fire department’s ladders weren’t long enough.  The town had no helicopter.  Finally, the people talked it over and realized all they had to do was start eating the popcorn straight from the silo.  Down, down, down came the farmer until he was safe.

As much as I love popcorn, I only seem to eat it at the movies.  When my son was in college, he admitted to going to the theater, buying popcorn at the concession stand, and… leaving the building.  Who does that?  Then again, there’s nothing wrong with the idea (high price aside).  It’s like having turkey when it’s not Thanksgiving.  Or dessert before dinner.  Seems a little off, but really, why not?

As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy my popcorn with my movie.  I’ll pay the ridiculous price for the shrinking bag, and still eat too much.  The only problem with this scenario?  Finding decent movies anymore.  They seem to be fewer and further, at least on the big screen.  Thank goodness for Netflix and my air popper.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “How AMC Gets Its Popcorn From Stalk to ‘Star Wars'”, and from the Smithsonian Magazine article, “Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?”

The Twenty-four Days of Christmas

The Christmas season seems to begin a little earlier each year. Stores decorate and start their sales around Halloween. Lights go up on houses well before Thanksgiving, while Christmas cards show up in mailboxes by Black Friday.  The longer the season though, the more abrupt the conclusion. Be honest; who among us sings Christmas carols (or watches Hallmark movies) on December 26th?  Not many.  We worry and scurry for weeks about a single day – then suddenly it’s over.  Here’s a better approach.  Let’s focus instead on the one, true Christmas season preceding the day. Let’s focus on Advent.

For most Christians, Advent refers to the twenty-four days before Christmas (not to be confused with the song-famous Twelve Days, which come after Christmas).  Advent begins four Sundays before December 25th.  The word literally means “coming”, as in the (first coming) birth of Jesus at Christmas, and the (second coming) reappearance of Jesus at the end of time.  If you’re looking for the season’s theme song, go with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  It’s the one, true Advent carol.

Once upon a time Advent included fasting, penance, and daily prayer, but today the season seems to be nothing more than a countdown.  Even in Sunday church services, the four candles of the Advent wreath are lit as the four Sundays pass by – a weekly countdown to the Christmas candle in the center. Here’s a more efficient idea.  Let’s add another ball in Times Square; one that takes twenty-four days to drop instead of sixty seconds.  Might save a lot of wreaths and calendars.

Speaking of calendars, maybe a countdown is enough to signify a season.  Advent calendars are all the rage these days.  I had one when I was a kid; the flat, cardboard kind with twenty-four numbered doors of varying shapes and sizes.  Oddly, the doors were never arranged numerically, as if the calendar was made more appealing by having to search for a given day.  Not so oddly, each door fronted a bit of chocolate.  As if waiting twenty-four days for Christmas wasn’t hard enough, Advent calendars forced a kid to wait twenty-four hours to “open” each piece of chocolate.  A test of patience.

       

If cardboard and chocolate don’t catch your attention, perhaps you’d prefer a more elaborate version of an Advent calendar.  Consider Fran’s Chocolates of Seattle (above left), which produces its annual calendar fronted by an original watercolor.  Add in twenty-four delectable chocolates in twenty-four drawers, and this calendar sets you back $175.  Or how about Liberty London’s “Beauty Advent Calendar” (above right), which includes twenty-four wellness products – many of them full-size – like probiotic deodorant, essential oil candles, and skin bronzer?  This one sets you back $275, with the price justification you can re-gift whatever items are not to your taste.

Lest you think a fancy (or not) calendar is the only way to acknowledge Advent, I can’t close without mentioning the Christingle.  I don’t remember creating one of these as a kid.  A Christingle is made up of an orange, a candle, a bit of red ribbon, and four sets of dried fruits or sweets, skewered on cocktail sticks.  It’s a strange-looking assembly, but the Christingle gets an “A” for symbolism.  The orange represents the world.  The candle represents Jesus as the light of the world.  The red ribbon represents God’s love (or Jesus’ blood).  The fruits/sweets represent the gifts God gives us, and the cocktails sticks represent the four corners of the globe.  Lots going on in one sort-of-neat package.

Austria may lay claim to the biggest Advent calendar in the world!

If you’re reading this post before December 1st, you have the entire twenty-four days of Advent ahead of you.  Twenty-four days to slow down and appreciate the meaning of day twenty-five.  Sounds more like a season than a single day, doesn’t it?  Mark your calendar then.  Advent is here.

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

The Senior Years

A human life has several stages, but exactly how many stages will probably cost you a Google search. Would you believe nine? Pregnancy, infancy, “the toddler years”, childhood, puberty, “the adolescent years”, adulthood, middle age, and “the senior years”. That’s a lot of stages (and I suddenly feel tired).  According to my age – 57 – I’ve battled Father Time through the first seven on the list and hover somewhere between the last two. And therein lies today’s question: What the heck defines “the senior years”?

In case I forget – as seniors are wont to do – allow me to wish you a very happy “Senior Citizens Day”!  No joke (and no Hallmark card – I checked), August 21st is the calendar date set aside “to increase awareness about the issues that face older adults”.  Well now, doesn’t that just call for a celebration?  No, it doesn’t.  In fact, my fingers feel a little more arthritic just typing about it.

Admittedly, I’ve been a senior before, back in a couple of those earlier life stages.  I was a senior in high school.  I was a senior in college.  In the Boy Scouts, I was a senior patrol leader.  If I’d thought to name one of my sons after myself, I could’ve been “Dave Sr.”.  Now however, wrestling with the idea of advanced middle age, I’m forced to confront the one, true definition of “senior”.  The word in that sense (especially senior citizen) – is a little daunting.  I prefer “older” or “more experienced”.  You know, the softer side of Sears.

Reagan

Blame former U.S. President Ronald Reagan if you’re looking for a scapegoat.  After all, he’s the one who – while in office – declared August 21st to be “National Senior Citizens Day” in America.  Reagan signed said proclamation in 1988 at the ripe (older) age of 77.  By all definitions, that made Reagan a senior citizen himself.  Isn’t that kind of like throwing yourself a party?

Speaking of definitions, for all my searches I can’t thumb a tack into the specific age one enters life’s final stage.  Consider the following takes on “senior citizen”:

  1. A polite expression for an old person.
  2. An older person, usually over the age of 60 or 65, esp. one who is no longer employed.
  3. The age at which one qualifies for certain government-sponsored benefits (i.e. Social Security, Medicare).
  4. The United Nations has agreed that 65+ may be usually denoted as “old age”.
  5. Being a senior citizen may be based on your age, but it is not a specific age (say what?)

The definitions get even vaguer, but you see the pattern.  No one – not the United Nations nor Merriam-Webster – wants to tag “senior citizen” with a specific age.  Well, I do.  I want my bedside clock to turn to midnight on the designated date, and instead of beeping the alarm it squawks, “Senior Citizen! Senior Citizen!”  I suppose, if someone held my aging feet to the fire and said, “Choose!”, I’d go with Definitions #2 and #4.  At least then I’m backing up my truck to “middle age”.

Perhaps your definition of senior citizen is more towards retail; as in, the age you start qualifying for discounts, freebies and such.  Sorry old man (old woman?), you’re just complicating the matter (and seniors don’t do “complicated”).  The shopping website DealNews just updated their article, “The 123 Best Senior Discounts to Use in 2019”.  That’s a lot of “bests”, DealNews.  But there’s even more homework for those nearsighted eyes.  You must also know which discount kicks in at what age.  Senior discounts ≠ senior citizen unless you need the following thirteen-year time frame to get used to the idea:

  • Hardee’s – age 52 (that’s me!)
  • McDonald’s – 55 (that’s me again!  But only for coffee and I don’t do McDonald’s coffee).
  • Applebee’s – 60 (may require “Golden Apple Card”.  Oooooooo)
  • Fazoli’s – 62 (and you get the “Club 62” discount menu.  Okay, that sounds cooler than a “Golden Apple Card”)
  • Taco Bell – 65 (plus free drink – ¡Olé!)
  • Wendy’s – “age and offer vary depending on restaurant location” (c’mon, Wendy’s!)

Atta boy, Norm!

Poets and playwrights try to soften the blow of “the senior years” with their eloquent quotes.  The Englishman Robert Browning said, “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be.”  The American Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “As we grow old… the beauty steals inward.”  Nice tries, noble poets, but I’ll go with positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale instead.  Norm simply said, “Live your life and forget your age”.  Take that, senior years!