Selfish Shopping

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is on full display this week.  We’ve reached the critical timeframe – ten days out – where packages must be sent if they’re getting to destinations by Christmas.  We’re making lists, not just for Santa but also for last-minute purchases.  Now here’s the good news, weary shopper: no matter where you’re spending your holiday dollars, self-checkout is often an option.

If you’re like me, you beeline to self-checkout when you’re done shopping.  You still have “the control”, as people like to say (who also prefer to drive instead of fly).  With self-checkout you believe you can scan and bag faster than those who are paid to do so.  Maybe, but consider the decisions you have to make in the process::

  1. When do you choose self-checkout?  Most of the time, (especially if the checker-bagger lines are long) but what if you have a lot of items?  Self-checkout is awkward with a full shopping basket (ignore the stares).  One time my wife and I snagged side-by-side registers, put the cart between them, and scanned away.  Against the rules, you say?  What rules? 🙂
  2. Where do you stand in line?  This is touchy territory, shopper.  If you face the typical arrangement where one set of registers sits opposite the other, with enough open space in between, you can get separate lines for each set… which gets ugly when a person assumes he/she is entitled to the next available register on either side.  Prepare for battle.
  3. Which register do you choose?  Murphy’s Law of Self-Checkout: One of the registers doesn’t work.  You just assumed it was available because you couldn’t see the “out of order” screen until you were right in front of it.  Now you have to turn around and reclaim your place in line.  Again, ignore the stares.
  4. When do you alert the self-checkout human assistant (oxymoron?)  How many times have you gotten ahead of the system only to hear, “unexpected item in bagging area” or “please wait for assistance”?  Here’s a tip: don’t wait for assistance.  Most of the time the register is trying to catch up and just needs a little more time.  Congrats, you’re faster than a computer.

Hard to believe, but retail self-checkout just celebrated forty years.  We shoppers been doing what one writer describes as “quasi-paid unforced labor under surveillance” since the 1980s.  I remember how I wasn’t thrilled about the concept when it debuted.  Back then I thought, “Why do I have to do the checking out when someone else is paid to do it for me?”

I was even more annoyed when the airlines put up their “selfish” kiosks and dared travelers to check themselves in and print their own boarding passes.  How quickly we adapt.  Today I’ll choose self-checkout any time I’m given the option (even though surveys say 67% have a bad experience).  In fact, we’ve been conditioned to self-checking out ever since the debut of the bank ATM in the late 60s.  DIY checkout will only get more prevalent as companies reduce labor costs.  One of these days I can picture a self-checkout Starbucks, with a fully mechanical barista standing by to whip up your skinny latte.  Don’t bet against it.

Reasons we choose self-checkout (web.mit.edu)

Self-checkout is about to enter a new arena: clothing stores.  But what about those security devices attached to the sleeves or pant legs?  And how will they know if we slip an extra pair of shoes into the box? The bigger concern, however, may be image.  How will Saks or Bloomingdales look with a bank of self-checkout registers next to their fancy cosmetic counters?  Not the pretty picture of luxury shopping we’ve come to expect.

Image doesn’t matter to me so much, but my time does.  If self-checkout returns a few minutes to my day, I say sign me up.  But somewhere we’ve got to draw the line, people.  At the rate we’re going, human interaction will soon be the exception, not the rule.  It’s also not the direction a world in need of more face time should be heading.

With that, I put down the keyboard for the remainder of 2022.  Remember, the holidays are anything but “selfish”, and everything about face time.  Merry Christmas!

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Self-checkout annoys some customers…”

Bread, Salt, and Wine

As the endless loop of Christmas-cookie-cut Hallmark movies beckons yet again this year, the tried-and-true season classics struggle for air time and our time.  If it weren’t for streaming you might not be able to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas anymore.  You’ll have an easier time finding Miracle on 34th Street (but maybe not the 1947 original).  On the other hand, you should find It’s A Wonderful Life right there in your online library or movie collection.  You do have a copy of the greatest Christmas movie of all time, don’t you?

CNN Entertainment recently posted a list of “Hollywood’s stars’ favorite Christmas movies”, which is wrong on so many levels.  I’m not saying an actor can’t be an authority on movies.  Some of those interviewed have been in Christmas movies themselves.  No, it’s more about the concept of ranking Christmas movies.  It’s a futile attempt to place one above another, when the truth is each of us already has a favorite.  I may be trying to sway you to my favorites today, but deep down I know you have yours and they’ll never change.  Until a better one comes along, that is.

CNN’s list – or anyone’s for that matter – includes movies I struggle to associate with Christmas.  Home AloneThe HolidayYou’ve Got Mail?  Sure, each of these takes place during the season but they’re not really Christmas movies.  Strike them from the list, please.

How about The Santa Clause, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the 1964 stop-motion original), or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff or Jim Carrey, you choose).  Okay, now we’re starting to get somewhere.  With each of these films you can at least claim a story about Christmas.  They even include pretty good messages about the spirit of Christmas.  Just not THE message.

A Charlie Brown Christmas still gets me at the end when the Peanuts gang sings, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.  The Polar Express asks us to just “Believe”, which I would if I could get past its creepy animation technique.  And Love Actually is a collection of feel-good rom-com stories where viewers tend to choose just one as their favorite (again with the rankings).  But none of these films dig much below the surface of the reason for the season. 

[For the record, I’ve never been a fan of “A Christmas Story”.  I think it’s a cult classic with a bizarre sense of humor.  One or more of you will disagree, which means you’ll be happy to know about HBO Max’s follow-up film featuring Peter Billingsley (again) as very grown-up Ralphie.]

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.  I could take on another dozen so-called classics and explain why they don’t belong on any “best list” of the season’s movies.  Instead, let’s cut to the chase and cover the three films whose stories illustrate the meaning of Christmas:

A Christmas Carol.  The Charles Dickens classic has been recreated on film more times than I can count (and most versions are pretty good) but it’s hard to top the 1938 original.  Maybe it’s because Dickens’ ghosts really scared me the first time I saw them (even in black-and-white).  More likely it’s because Reginald Owen so perfectly portrays the remarkable transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from mean and miserly to giddy and grateful.

Miracle on 34th Street.  Again we have several versions here, but none better than Edmund Gwenn’s turn as Kris Kringle in the 1937 original (for which he won an Academy Award).  Also, I’ll watch any movie with the lovely Maureen O’Hara, and Natalie Wood is adorable as sweet, innocent Susan Walker.  But above all, “Miracle…” is about believing.  C’mon, you remember the scene… all those bags of letters to Santa being dragged into the courtroom…

It’s A Wonderful Life… is, simply put, in a Christmas class all by itself.  When critics describe this film as, “The holiday classic to define all holiday classics…”, you know you’ve got something special.  If you’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life, kindly put down your electronic device and spend the next two hours with George Bailey in his little town of Bedford Falls.  Talk about the meaning of Christmas.  I won’t give it away, but the final scene where Mary drags George down the stairs to see “the miracle” is the message of the entire movie.

Maybe you don’t agree with my top Christmas movies (comments, please!), but you should at least admit to an underlying concern.  All three of my choices were produced over fifty years ago.  Fifty years!  Am I suggesting there hasn’t been a more meaningful Christmas movie made in the last half-century?  YES, I AM!  Seriously, Hollywood, you can do a whole lot better than Elf.

If you’ve spent any time watching the Hallmark Channel this season (and… sigh… a ranking of those Christmas movies can be found here), you owe it to yourself to also watch at least one of the three movies I highlight above.  Hopefully you’re watching them again, not for the first time.  After all, as we learn in It’s A Wonderful Life, there’s much more to bread, salt, and wine than just the title of a blog post.

Some content sourced from the CNN Entertainment article, “Tom Hanks and more stars share their favorite Christmas movies”, and IMDb, the Internet Movie Database.

Doorstop Topper

The word nerd in me thinks it’s cool when one can be modified to make four others simply by changing the same vowel. Batter will be in abundance the next several weeks with all of the baking. The holidays are always better when shared with others. Colorado’s bitter cold winters are a thing of our past now that we’ve moved to the South. The chaos of the holiday season doesn’t really “bott_er” me (okay, that one’s reaching). But finally, we have butter. Ah, there’s nothing better than (or bitter about) butter, is there?

The topic of butter is brought to you today by an utterly ridiculous here-today-gone-tomorrow suggestion to make your holiday hosting more glam than your neighbor’s: butter boards.  When I saw this picture I didn’t even understand what I was looking at.  Even more insulting to this word nerd: the opinion piece I found describes a butter board as “charcuterie”.  No, it’s not.  Charcuterie is meats, not dairy.  This unappetizing appetizer is nothing but butter, spread on a board, with toppings designed to take your attention away from the fact that it’s, well, butter on a board.  I mean, if you’re gonna do faux-fancy at least go with peanut butter on a board, right?

Butter boards are an insult to butter.  I think we can all agree, butter stands alone.  You don’t need nuts or roasted garlic or dried fruit to hide dress it up.  As long as your butter comes from fresh, quality ingredients, it makes anything it pairs with better.  Except a board.

Can you tell I’m “bott_ered” by butter boards?  It’s because my wife and I take our butter so seriously.  Ever since a trip to Ireland, we learned the best butter is not only about quality, but quantity.  At dinner in a quaint hotel in the Connemara region north of Galway, the waiter brought us a big serving of bread with an even bigger serving of butter.  Seriously, the butter was more “brick” than “stick” (and certainly not “pat”).  Ever since, our go-to butter is a brick.  It also makes a great doorstop straight from the freezer.

Our butter dish is even designed for a brick, see?  A stick would be lost in this Irish pottery; a pat even more so.

Speaking of butter pats, I must make mention of the device in the photo below.  I wrote a whole post about it once called Sentimental Utensil.  Who knew this petit guillotine was a timesaver to make butter pats?  It showed up mysteriously in one of our kitchen drawers one day and I can only assume I inherited it from my mother.  But inherited it shall stay.  I can never get enough memories of my mother, as I alluded to in this paragraph from the past post:

And thinking about it even more, I can picture my mother using her butter cutter when I was a kid, leaving a perfect little pat beside the crescent roll that was positioned carefully on the bread plate beside each place setting at the dinner table. Because that was my mother. She was all about the dinner table. Everything had its place, even the pats of butter.

If you read the article on butter boards (please don’t) there are several dead giveaways on how forced this holiday trend feels.  The first is right up there in the teaser subtitle: “Butter boards have gone viral…”.  No, they haven’t, else this topic wouldn’t be worth warning you posting about.  “… because of their novelty and shock value.”  Their novelty?  Shock value?  Is one of your guests going to look at your butter board and say, “Well now, isn’t that novel?”  And just what about a butter board causes “shock” other than the writer’s excuse to use (part of) the overused phrase “shock and awe”?  It’s just butter, people.

The article should’ve gone with just the title so we could draw our own conclusions.  Instead, you’ll find phrases like “… how fun the concept is…”, “… what’s fascinating about butter boards…”, and “… extremely versatile as an appetizer…”; none of which are true.  The writing takes itself way too seriously and goes on way too long about something I will way never prepare.  Unless it were frosting, of course.  A “frosting board” would get my attention for sure.  Put out a plate of cookies with a frosting board and I’m all hands.

But enough of the butter boards.  You’d have to be blind as a bat to fall for this faux-fancy offering.  I’ll bet you’ve already stopped reading.  If you did make it this far, thanks for sparing a bit of your time.  Comment so I know you’re not a bot.

Some content sourced from the Food Network article, “How to Make the Perfect Butter Board for the Holidays”.

Feast of Family

  • The turkey reminds me of my father-in-law, who always assumed the carving duties and insisted all dinners begin precisely at the top of the hour.
  • The dressing reminds me of my mother-in-law, who insists you taste-test as you go to make her meal-in-itself recipe just right.
  • The whipped cream reminds me of my son, who would top off his pie and then tip the can directly into his mouth for a second helping.
  • The crescent rolls remind me of my other son, who never lets the meal go forward without them.
  • The sweet potatoes (in scooped-out oranges) remind me of my daughter, whose version is best described as a work in progress.
  • The Waldorf salad reminds me of my dear mother, whose recipe – as I discovered years later – is notably different than the one served at the famous New York City hotel.
  • The mincemeat pie reminds me of my dear father, with whom I was the only family member to indulge in this carb-laden throwback treat.
  • … and finally, the pumpkin pie reminds me of my beautiful wife, who always doubles the spices to make the dessert (and everything else about the meal) twice as nice.

Today reminds me of the bounty of family and friends; a Thursday best spent with those you love (instead of reading blog posts).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Decades to Decadence

Waiting in line for the bank teller, as I did last Monday, is decidedly old-school. It’s a face-to-face experience so much more inefficient than the drive-thru lane or smartphone options. But sometimes we still go brick-and-mortar, don’t we?  Stopping into the bank is either convenient in the moment or perhaps the transaction demands a real, live person. And so we wait.  But at least cashing a check doesn’t take thirty years.  It just seems that long sometimes.

Every now and then you see a headline and say, “Wait a minute… WHAT?”  And then, even with no interest whatsoever you still read the article.  Such was the case this week with a story about Kobe beef.  I’ve never eaten Kobe beef.  I’m too cheap to even give it a try.  I’ll concede the price is justified by the high quality, high demand, and low supply.  But what if you had to wait until Thanksgiving of 2052 to be able to enjoy it?

Here’s the gist of the story.  A small, family-run butcher shop in Japan makes a beef croquette so popular it’ll take you thirty years to get one.  Asahiya, about to celebrate a century in the meat business, began producing its croquettes shortly after World War II.  The deep-fried meat-and-potato dumplings were designed as a tease; a mere taste to draw customers to its larger, more expensive products.  The strategy didn’t pan out so well but the croquettes themselves became an Internet sensation, and the inevitable hype that followed created a line of customers thirty years long.

[Note: If a Kobe beef croquette sounds “decadent” you’re probably right, but you’re using the wrong word to describe it.  Decadent actually means “excessively self-indulgent”.  Instead of the food itself perhaps you’re talking about a customer willing to wait thirty years.]

I hear what you’re saying.  I wouldn’t pay big bucks for something like this Dave, let alone wait thirty years for it.  But go figure; an Asahiya beef croquette costs only $3.40 USD.  You could buy a box of ten for less than you probably paid for your Thanksgiving turkey.  You just need a very comfortable chair as well.  Asahiya makes only two hundred croquettes a day (or twenty customers’ worth) so it’s no wonder you have to wait so long.

Technology being what it is today, we’re not patient waiters anymore.  Amazon and others are getting close to same-day delivery on the items we consume regularly.  Many amusement parks and tourist attractions have adopted Disney’s approach, where you can pay more to “jump the line”.  Want tickets to the next Taylor Swift concert?  Pay a “line-stander” to buy them for you.  Want season tickets to the Green Bay Packers?  Okay, sorry, there’s no way around that one.  The seats at sold-out Lambeau Field simply pass down the line from generation to generation.  But you can still join the list for this impossible get, just to say you’re on it.

This week’s visit to the bank felt like an impossible get.  I made it to within one customer of the front of the line before things came to a grinding halt.  Only two tellers were open out of the four.  One was preoccupied by a woman who wanted cash and a money order, with terms so specific you knew she was going to be awhile.  The other was completely preoccupied by an older gent, carrying on a personal conversation while constantly losing track of whatever he was asking for in the first place.  Meanwhile, the back window drive-thru teller was cranking out transaction after transaction after transaction.  Shoulda, coulda… I know, I know.

I thought the beef croquette story was timely, not because I went to the bank but because next Thursday is Thanksgiving, when Americans wait all day long.  We wake up early, get the oven going, prep the bird, and spend a long time putting the rest of the meal together.  We eat earlier than most dinners (does that make it “supper”?) but it’s still a waiting game.  Hours and hours of anticipation before the food is finally brought to the table.

If there’s any good news about Asahiya’s Kobe products, it’s that they have options besides the “Extreme” beef croquettes.  There’s a more accessible variety called the “Premiere”.  You only have to wait four years for those.  When you consider how fast we’re going through U.S. Presidents lately, four years doesn’t seem like a long time at all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “These Japanese beef croquettes are so popular there’s a 30-year waiting list”.

Big Shoes to Fill-y

Last Sunday, the day before Halloween, our neighborhood hosted a lively parade. Kids of all ages dressed in adorable to “a-horror-full” costumes, to trick-or-treat past each driveway… on horseback. In a bit of a role reversal, we residents walked treats out to the horses and riders (because trust me, a stallion trotting up your front walk is not recommended). Candy for the kids, cookies for the parents who walked beside them, and carrots for the hardworking horses. As you would expect, a steady “clip-clop” filled the air for hours. Yet it could’ve been a lot quieter.

Here’s an idea I never ever would’ve thought of.  Take a pair of sneakers, break them down into their component parts, and reassemble them to fit a horse’s hoof.  Making a statement of purely fashion (vs. function), Horse Kicks allow your equine to sport two pairs of your favorite New Balance, Adidas, or Nikes. These giant “tennis shoes” are built on top of a pre-made protective boot so they really do support an animal weighing a thousand pounds or more.  Order yours today for only $1,200.

Sorry, I’m not buying.  I don’t think sneakers are a good look on horses, any more than when paired with formalwear on a human.  If a filly could talk, she would say, “Get those ridiculous things off of me!”, even though ladies love shoes.  Sneakers are best left to walkers and athletes, while steel horseshoes, as they have for thousands of years, fill a horse’s bill as comfortably as a couple of pairs of flip-flops (er, “clip-clops?”)

I can’t imagine the effort it takes for Horse Kicks to create their shoes (besides the seventeen hours of assembly time) but they don’t work nearly as hard as a traditional horseshoer.  That person, a farrier, might as well be an ironworker.  Watch one in action sometime as he/she trims a horse’s hoof or hammers the steel shoes to achieve the perfect fit.  It’s the kind of backbreaking work that can lead to early retirement.

Occasionally a horse throws a shoe, which is probably the origin of horseshoes as a game.  The first time I “threw a shoe”- besides getting it nowhere near the stake – I remember thinking, “Man, these are kind of heavy”. (A horse wouldn’t agree.)  And weight matters in the game because the shoe needs to fly a long way, like forty feet, for the chance for a “ringer”.  Yes, horseshoes is basic (and predates similar games like ring toss, cornhole, and bocce) but it has its finer points.  You flip a shoe to determine who goes first.  After players throw two shoes each you’ve completed an “inning”.  And a “dead ringer” really is a horseshoes term (too complicated to explain here), not just someone who looks like someone else. 

[Snack break.  Speaking of horseshoes, if you’re looking for “the best darn donuts in Colorado” you should check out Horseshoe Donuts, where we used to live just north of Colorado Springs.  You’ll pay upwards of $25/dozen but trust me, these shoes… er, doughnuts are huge and worthy of expensive tastes.  Most are shaped like traditional rings but the raised, glazed variety are giant horseshoes.]

Even if I never buy a pair of Horse Kicks, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.  You’ll probably see several on display this weekend at the Breeder’s Cup races in Lexington, KY (close to where they’re created).  Part of the company’s initiative is to “bring awareness to the Bluegrass State”.  And 10% of the proceeds go to central Kentucky charities.  All of which makes Horse Kicks a worthy product.  Not that I expect to see any in next year’s neigh-h-h-h-borhood trick-or-treat parade.  It’ll be, as usual, clip-clops in steel flip-flops.

Some content sourced from the CNN Style article, “You can now buy $1,200 sneakers — for horses”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

First Class is now un-American

On our return flight from Denver last Saturday, the woman across the aisle coughed so many times I lost count before I had a sip of my complimentary beverage. Another woman ten rows back had a speaking voice so loud you wondered how she could hear herself think. And then there were the backpacks, so… many… backpacks. Nothing wrong with carrying your stuff on your shoulders, except when walking down the aisle and the slightest turn of the hips gives me a not-so-gentle whack as I sit in my aisle seat. Which pretty much confirmed what I already knew.  I should’ve flown First Class.

Heads up, weary travelers.  If your brand of travel abroad is a first-class seat, you’d better book one while you can.  American Airlines (AA) just announced they’re removing those premium seats in favor of several more in Business Class. Why? Because nobody wants them.  It’s not rocket science.  Airplanes need to be full (like, 97% full) or airlines don’t make money.  If a class of seat doesn’t interest a passenger the airline will find one that does.  Put the champagne on ice, flight attendants.

Even if dropping the very best seats makes good business sense, it doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.  I’ve never deliberately flown First Class but I still get to walk down their aisle on the way to the cozier confines of Cattle Economy.  As I do, I steal a glance to the left and to the right.  What are they wearing?  What are they drinking?  Most importantly, what are they talking about?  After all, these are America’s movers and shakers.

Except they’re not anymore, now are they?  Tell me who (or “what”) you see the next time you pass through First Class.  The domain of the rich and famous is now diluted with passengers who simply rack up enough frequent flyer miles.  Thus, next to the woman in the stylish suit with the glass of Pinot Noir, wrapping her important business call, you have the young tattooed character in tank top, shorts, and sandals, slurping a Rockstar energy drink while obliterating his latest Call of Duty foe.  No wonder these seats aren’t selling anymore.

My kids don’t believe me but there was an era when people dressed up to travel.  When I was young I wore a suit and tie on airplanes, as spiffy as a Sunday morning in church (although church attire has changed too, sigh…).  Instead of a palm-sized bag of peanuts in Economy, you still got something of a meal.  Flying was, back then, a classy step above other forms of travel.

Just because I can – and knowing American’s about to crash the party (poor choice of words) – I decided to book a first-class ticket to London for Thanksgiving.  Get me to jolly ol’ England the day before (so I can overcome jet lag before the big meal) and have me back in my own bed by Sunday night.  I know, I know, it’s practically Halloween already but guess what?  There are still plenty of first-class seats for my un-American Thanksgiving. They’re just a little – ahem – pricey.

My least expensive option on AA is $6,054, which includes two stops, choice of seat (but isn’t every first-class seat equally wonderful?), free baggage, and a full refund if I have second thoughts (which I will).  My most expensive option is $12,966, with identical terms as the first option except this ticket is nonrefundable.  Huh?  Whatever.  Even the least expensive option is more than my annual grocery bill.  Let’s not book this trip after all.  Let’s have turkey at home instead.

You can see where this is headed.  Next thing you know AA will get rid of First Class on all of its flights.  Then passengers will lose interest in Business Class so that’ll have to go too.  Premium Economy will be the last to fold, until all we’re left with is a planeful of Cattle Economy, every row and every seat.  But given the attire and attitudes of passengers these days, isn’t Economy a perfectly-fitting shoe?  As a friend described it, air travel these days is effectively a Greyhound bus with a couple of wings.

I just ran another itinerary on the AA website.  I can visit my son in Dallas over Thanksgiving, flying First Class, for just over $1,000 roundtrip.  That’s a bargain compared to London and I can get my turkey from a smoker (delicious!)  Maybe I’ll splurge.  After all, there may come a day when my grandchildren ask me, “What’s ‘First Class’?”

Some content sourced from the Fox Business article, “American Airlines ditching first class…“.

Conifer Confetti

When you move to a new city and state, you deal with the expected and the unexpected. The expected includes boxes that don’t unpack themselves (but what a great invention, right?), over-the-fence greetings with neighbors (categorized as “nice”, “cranky”, and “utterly weird”), and enough wrong turns on roads where you finally pull over and mutter, “Where the heck am I?” Unexpected includes the drip of a leaky pipe ($$$, sigh), chew-crazy squirrels in the backyard (anything plastic is fair game), and, oh yes… pine cones. Lots and lots of pine cones.

Five acres may seem like a lot to some of you readers but to us it’s downsizing from our ranch in Colorado.  You’d think a property a sixth the size of the former would suggest lower maintenance.  After last Sunday I’m not so sure.  My wife came in from the barn the day before and said, rather gently, “We should probably pick up the pine cones in the back pasture before they get out of control.”  Simple enough.  After we fed and watered the horses, we went out to the field with the muck rakes and began picking.  A muck rake can hold ten pine cones.  Around the first tree I figured I picked up fifteen rakes’ worth.  Again, simple enough… except we have at least twenty pine trees.  Do the math.  Our pickup amounted to a motherlode of pine cones, somewhere between two and three thousand.

Back in Colorado we had, like, one pine tree on our property (a magical one actually, which I wrote about in My Dandy-Lion Pine Tree).  After last weekend I’m thinking I should’ve amended our purchase agreement on the new place to say, “Remove nineteen of twenty pine trees”.

I need the “giant” version of this

What does Dave do with all of his pine cones?  Nothing, for now.  The most efficient system of gathering is to throw them against the base of the trees and then haul them away to the “yard waste” dump.  But in the three hours we collected cones, I had plenty of time to think about better ways to do it.  The neighbors suggested a “pasture vacuum”, which is like one of those big spinning brushes you see in the car wash, dragged behind the tractor.  Others suggested a big bonfire, pretty much the last thing a person from Colorado wants to see in their backyard.

My new pet

Here’s thinking outside of the box: I could get a pet Parasaurolophus, the dinosaur with a distinctive crested head.  The Para has thousands of teeth perfectly suited for their favorite meal: pine cones.  But I’d need a time machine so I can bring one back from sixty million years ago.  Looks like it’s still me and the muck rake for now.

Conifer cones”, which include pine cones, play a vital role in the evolution of the trees.  Between all those little wooden scales are the seeds, first pollinated and later released.  It’s a sophisticated process which you can read a lot more about here.  In its simplest terms you have the smaller, meeker “males”, who release pollen for the “females” to catch.  Then the females release the seeds, even after they lay in my pastures by the thousands, seemingly dead.

“He” (lower) doesn’t even look like a pine cone

There was a moment in all that raking where I followed a squirrel as he bounded across the grass and onto the trunk of one of the trees.  Up, up, up he went until he disappeared into the umbrella of the branches above.  And that’s where, to my horror, I noticed how many thousands of pine cones sat poised above me. Maybe millions… almost all of them female.  It’s like having the world’s biggest sorority row above my backyard, and every house is about to disgorge its girls for a giant party on the ground.  Maybe I should hire Sticky Vikki & The Pine Cones for the music.

“Widowmaker” cone

I know, I know, it could be worse.  I could live in Maine, where there are so many pine trees the state flower is the pine cone (and a pine cone is not even a flower).  Or I could have Coulter pine trees, with cones so big they’re nicknamed “widowmakers”.  Seriously, these ladies are massive – you don’t want one falling on your head. Speaking of falling, the mere sound of a plummeting cone is unnerving enough.  It’s like a warplane flying overhead and releasing a bomb, only the bomb whistles straight to the ground without detonating. “THUNK”.

I’d have a massive herd of these Scandinavian toys

We shared the story of our pine cone bounty with my brother-in-law, who promptly encouraged us to do something creative with them.  Make wreaths for the holidays.  Turn them into coffee and jam like they do in Eastern Europe.  Sell them as the fertility charm they’re supposed to be.  Nah, I don’t have time for all that.  We’re expecting extra wind in the next few days courtesy of Hurricane Ian.  I have another three thousand pine cones to pick up.

Some content sourced from the HuffPost blog, “Thirteen Things You Never Knew About Pine Cones…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

P.S. I Love You

When it comes to snack foods, I’m not a fan of variations on a theme. Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts debuted in the 1960s with just four flavors: strawberry, blueberry, apple, and brown sugar cinnamon. Today you choose from more than twenty Tarts, including “Hot Fudge Sundae”. The original Triscuit cracker was a baked whole wheat square with a little salt. Today you’ll find a dozen Triscuit flavors on the shelf, including “Fire Roasted Tomato & Olive Oil”. Then we have the Oreo cookie. The original, of course, was two chocolate wafers sandwiching just the right amount of vanilla cream filling. Now Oreo flavors are too numerous to count.  But there’s one you can be sure is a whopping success: pumpkin spice.

 Welcome to mid-September, Americans, and the beginning of our pumpkin spice delirium.  For the next two months you can expect an endless parade of “P.S.” product advertisements.  My wife & I, we’ve already caved to the obsession.  We have a package of “Pumpkin Spice Snaps” sitting on the counter.  We have two leftover pieces of this year’s first homemade pumpkin pie sitting in our frig.  And it’s only a matter of time before my car veers off the road and right through a Starbucks drive-thru for one of their classic P.S. lattes.  (I’ll take a grande, if you please).

My daughter just reminded me Starbucks also brings back their pumpkin cream cold brew this time of year.  That’s a good one too but let’s be real: none of Starbucks’ P.S. offerings should be considered “coffee”.  We buy them for the spice and the sweet, not for the taste of the beans underneath.

Lest you think Starbucks gets the credit for our pumpkin spice mania, the record must be set straight.  McCormick and Company, they of the little red-capped spice bottles, debuted their “Pumpkin Pie Spice” in 1934.  At least three of the following are in the bottle: cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg.  Do I have this spice blend?  Yes.  Do I use it?  Heck, no.  My wife’s family recipe for pumpkin pie contains a different proportion of the individual spices than McCormick’s, which may be the secret to its delectable flavor.  Plus, pumpkin pie is easy enough to make without having the spices combined for you. Dump the ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Pour into a pie shell.  Bake. My kind of dessert.

Starbucks can’t even take the credit for the first P.S. latte.  That accolade goes to Mexico’s Candle Company in 1995.  The Starbucks version debuted eight years later.  But you could argue Starbucks kicked off the forever-trend where we infuse P.S. into everything imaginable, including the good (Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Cheerios, candles) and the ridiculous  (lip balm, deodorant, beer).  As of 2016, “pumpkin spice consumables” accounted for an annual market of over $500M. Yep, we’re hooked.

The “Pumpkin Spice Flavored Creme Oreo” is not even an Oreo, at least not in my pantry.  Nabisco attached the word “Oreo” but c’mon, let’s just admit it’s a seasonal wolf in sandwich cookie clothing.  “Golden” Oreo cookies… with “festive pumpkin spice flavored cream” (and is it cream or creme?)  Nope, the only Oreos in my book are black and white, though I will allow shelf space for the “Double Stuf” variety.

I’m not sure why this topic caught my eye because I haven’t had an Oreo in years.  The last time I did I realized the taste was different from the Oreo of my youth.  The cookies are not as soft, and there’s less cream filling in between (which is like messing with the ratio of chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s, a sin for all mankind).  Like the misfortune of many other snack foods though, size and ingredients change for the sake of profit.  And new varieties pop up to keep consumers buying.  At least we’re not talking about the Lady Gaga Oreo.  You’ll need your sunglasses for that one.

Now you’ll excuse me as I head off to a doctor’s appointment.  My drive will take me past several Starbucks, which means I could be caving to my first P.S. latte of the season.  Not that I’m worried about missing out.  As soon as the P.S. season is over I can look forward to Starbucks’ Chestnut Praline latte all the way through New Year’s Day.  Now we’re talking!

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Oreo is bringing back this flavor after a 5-year hiatus:, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Lost in a Dense Fog

When I first learned to play the piano, it was a challenge to master the weight of the keys. Weighted keys allow the piano’s sound to be louder or softer depending on how hard you press them down. Since fingers vary in size and shape it takes practice before the index and ring fingers (for example) generate the same volume on the keyboard. In hindsight, if I’d chosen the theremin over the piano I could’ve developed the technique much faster because this instrument makes its music without weighted keys. In fact, the theremin makes music without any touch at all.

I should’ve posted about the theremin closer to Halloween because it produces one of the eeriest sounds you’ll ever hear.  Click the red preview button on this list of Theramin Sound Effects and tell me if you disagree. Doesn’t your mind conjure up a ghostly apparition floating in the darkness of a haunted house?  The theremin provides the perfect soundtrack for all things scary. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg once described the theremin’s wail as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”  I like that (and it’s much classier than “pig squeal”).

How the theremin creates its unique sound involves too much science to keep your attention today (and more words than I want to type).  Suffice it to say, the instrument has two antennae; a looped one to control volume and an upright one to delineate pitch.  The player’s darting hand/finger movements – touching nothing but the air in between – create its spooky music. 

Now watch the following performance.  Seeing the theremin played is almost as jaw-dropping as listening to it.

I find the theremin to be a fish out of water next to traditional orchestra instruments, yet there are several other weirdos out there.  The bassoon features a tiny mouthpiece attached to a massive piece of black pipe and requires a deliberate overbite to create its nasal tones.  The glockenspiel (which gets points for a fancy name) is really nothing more than a metal xylophone.  The tam-tam is a giant gong, lucky to be struck more than once in a performance.  And the hand saw doubles as a musical instrument when you warp and release the blade (and sounds pretty darned close to the theremin).  But each of these outliers requires physical touch to make their sounds.  The theremin sings with mere jabs of the air.

[Author’s aside:  Every time I write theremin my brain wants to override with Theraflu, the over-the-counter cold and flu medicine (“Discover the Powerful Relief!”)  You don’t find many thera- words in the English language – therapy being the only other one I can come up with.  I’m happy to announce I need neither Theraflu nor therapy at the moment.]

The theremin was invented in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin (whose life story involved a lot more than science).  RCA picked up the commercial production rights but the musical instrument never really developed a following.  Instead, its soprano voice showed up randomly in music and movies.  If you recall the Beach Boys’ hit, “Good Vibrations” you should also recall the theramin solo at the end of the song.  You’ll also hear its moan in the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.  But the theramin seems a more logical fit in the soundtracks of horror and science fiction movies like The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and more recently, Monster House.

My favorite account of the theremin (and with this I close) is a collection of melodies recorded and blasted into outer space back in 2001.  The effort was an attempt to communicate with other worlds, including Gershwin’s Summertime and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  The name of this collection? First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials.  Seriously?  We chose the theremin?  Wouldn’t these classics have sounded a whole lot smarter on the instruments they were originally written for?  No wonder the (more intelligent) races out there haven’t stopped by our little planet to say hello.

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