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.

Flying Furballs

As I glance out the windows of my home office I’m struck by the calm of a late fall afternoon; the cloudless blue sky with just a whisper of wind through the trees.  I don’t see any aircraft heading to or from the local military bases, nor the white vapor trails they often leave behind.  No flocks of birds heading in perfect formation south for the winter.  No falling leaves spinning to the ground.  Heck, I don’t even see a flying squirrel!

Maybe you caught the story earlier this week.  Seven people locked up in a Florida prison are charged with spearheading a “flying squirrel ring”.  They trapped thousands of the little guys in the wild, laundered them through a dealer (what sort of person deals in flying squirrels?), who distributed them to several buyers.  The buyers then drove to airports around the U.S., where the winged creatures were loaded onto airplanes headed to far eastern countries.  Who knew: there’s a market for flying squirrels as exotic pets?  Asians pay top dollar for them.

Is it just me or is there something a little redundant about shipping a flying squirrel on an airplane?

Also, what kind of a weirdo goes to the trouble to capture, launder, distribute, sell, drive, and transport thousands of flying squirrels halfway around the world?  If you’re going to do something illegal why not deal drugs?  Does a flying squirrel sell for that much?

Here’s another thing I can’t figure.  What do you call a litter of flying squirrels… a “squadron”?

You must admit, flying squirrels probably make the top-ten list of God’s coolest creatures.  The Northern species is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  They have big doe eyes to help them see in the dark (picture a Disney character).  They forage for fruit, seeds, tree sap, and the occasional bird egg.  They’ve been buzzing the planet for millions of years now – almost prehistoric.

But let’s talk about those “wings”.  Flying squirrels have what’s called a patagium: a furry, parachute-like membrane stretching from tiny wrist to tiny ankle.  When the membrane’s stretched taut they can glide from tree to tree, using their tail for stability.  They can even steer their body like an airplane, using limbs and tail.  How far can a flying squirrel fly, you ask?  How about 300 feet?  Yep, put one of these babies on top of an American football goalpost and he can soar all the way through the other end zone.  “Touchdown”!

“Boo!”

Okay BUT… flying squirrels lost some of their coolness when I discovered this picture.  OMG, that’s just wicked scary.  Can you imagine camping under the stars relaxed in your sleeping bag and you wake up to the rapid descent of that?  I’d NEVER be the same.  And here’s another Halloween-ish detail: flying squirrels glow.  Their underbody fluoresces pink under UV light.  Why?  No idea, but that just makes them creepier.

Maybe I don’t want a flying furball for a pet after all.

I suppose I’d take flying squirrels over some of the other flying organisms out there.  You know about flying fish.  You may even know about flying frogs.  But did you know about the flying squid in our oceans?  Seriously, they can jettison out of the water by expelling water from their “funnel” and travel up to 160 feet.  They can even keep that water blast going in the air for extra distance.  And there you have it: the world’s only jet-propelled aerial locomotion animal.

This is wrong on so many levels…

Now let’s get to the stuff of real nightmares.  How about flying snakes?  Five species in Southeast Asia and India can glide like the squirrels.  They contort their long bodies to be concave (like an upside-down taco shell), which allows them to buoy on a cushion of air.  Not to be outdone by the squirrels, flying snakes can also cover the length of a football field.  They even make mid-air 90-degree turns.  I didn’t have plans to visit Southeast Asia or India anytime soon but now I’m never going.  No way.

Finally, we have the undisputed king of flying nightmares: balloon spiders.  These ungodly insects spin a silky globe along with a sturdy dragline and go for a ride wherever the wind may take them.  If I was talking about one flying spider I might deal with it but these guys travel in packs.  Large packs.  Can you imagine?  An endless assault of mini paratroopers on a mini Normandy, only you are Normandy.  “Incoming!”

“I’ll get you, my pretty…”

You can fill your skies with whatever you want but I’ll pass on flying squids, snakes, and spiders.  I’ll even pass on the Northern squirrel (they only live 5-6 years and have no interest in bonding with humans)  Oh, and for those of you with flying monkeys on the brain, those would’ve been on the cool list if I hadn’t watched Dorothy and her friends at such a young and impressionable age.  Still gets me.

Nope, I choose late fall cloudless blue skies with just a whisper of wind.  No squirrels anywhere in sight.

Some content sourced from the 10/20/2020 CNN article, “Florida officials say several people charged in flying squirrel trafficking operation”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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”.

Brand Spankin’

Years before Haagen-Dazs, Klondike, and Dove Bars competed for your freezer space, you had a revolutionary creation known as the Eskimo Pie.  Foil-covered, with a thin coat of chocolate magically adhered to a small bar of ice cream, the Eskimo Pie was the first of its kind: a two-desserts-in-one sensation brought to market almost a hundred years ago.  The version I remember (from the 1960s) was a hockey puck – a little larger, a little flatter – with mint ice cream in the middle.  Today, the (Dreyer’s) Eskimo Pie looks no different than any other ice cream bar.  Someday soon it won’t even be called an “Eskimo Pie”.

You know what I’m talking about, of course.  Eskimo Pie lands on the list of brand names considered negative racial stereotypes.  Before you know it, Eskimo Pie will be rebranded into something more socially acceptable.  News to me, “Eskimo” is considered derogatory by the Inuit and Yupik people of Alaska.  An “Inuit Pie” doesn’t sound quite as tasty but maybe Dreyer’s should adopt the name anyway.  At least they could retain the cute little fur-lined character they already have on the box.

America: land of stereotypes

I get it; I really do.  As much as the Caucasian and the male in me make it virtually impossible to stand in another’s shoes, I still empathize.  Brands get spanked because their names, images, or associations are knowingly insensitive – even harmful – to groups of people.  That needs to change, even if it means renaming a product that’s been around a century or more.

My mother may have been a woman ahead of her time.  When I consider the brands I was raised with, I remember Minute Rice (not Uncle Ben’s), Log Cabin Syrup (not Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Butterworth’s), and Challenge Butter (not Land O’Lakes, whose logo centered around the image of a Native American woman).  Nothing controversial about my childhood brands (thanks Mom!)  The only character who might’ve caused a stir was the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box, but I don’t think the Irish made a fuss about him (yet).

While you’re wondering about the new names for Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben (the latter announced just yesterday as Ben’s Original), broaden your perspective a little as these other products/people/places step up to the home plate of scrutiny:

  • Dixie (i.e. Cups, Beer, Chicks).  “Dixie” originated in (black) minstrel shows and denotes the former Confederate States of the Southern U.S.  Either association doesn’t bode well for this Americana word.
  • Mutual of Omaha.  Nothing wrong with the name, but the logo is effectively a Native American in full headdress.  What say a cornucopia instead (get it?)
  • Nestle Candies.  Overseas brands include “Red Skins”, “Chicos”, and “Beso de Negra” (Kiss of the Black Woman).  Maybe just drop these products entirely for now.
  • Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.  Whoops.  At least they can just go with “Alpine Meadows”.
  • Disney’s “Splash Mountain”.  To me it’s just a theme-park water flume ride with hollowed-out logs, but others see the connection to Disney’s 1946 stereotypic animation “Song of the South”.  Look for less controversial ties to “The Princess and the Frog” soon.
  • L’Oréal.  Products claiming to make the skin “fair”, “light”, and towards “whitening” are going to need different words.  Way different words.

Then you have businesses like ManpowerGroup Global, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Two Men and a Truck.  There’s just no winning with these (unless you label 50% of the company/restaurants/ fleet as the female equivalent?)

I found it funny the (former) Washington Redskins couldn’t come up with a socially acceptable team name in time for the 2020 NFL season, so they’re simply known as “Washington Football Team” today.  That’s so generic I picture every player on the roster identical: same height, same weight, same hair color, same number on the jersey.  With that in mind, here’s some advice for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.  Come up with a new name pronto.  Not the “Edmonton Inuits” or “Edmonton Yupiks”, neither of which roll off the tongue.  Just something, else you’ll be known as “Edmonton American Football Team”.  Uh, come again?

Some content sourced from the 6/19/2020 USA Today article, “Are the Washington Redskins Next?…”, the ONGIG article, “20+ Top Brands Changing Their Name to Avoid Racial Bias”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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”.

Tough Nuts to Crack

My wife and I live on horse property here in Colorado: flat, open acreage with high-desert grass in all directions. When you’re out in the pastures it can feel like you’re alone on top of God’s green earth. But make no mistake; there’s a bustling world just below the surface. Every day it seems, one or more of our eight billion ground squirrels darts out of a hole, stands at attention, and gives me the cold-eyed stare down, as if to say, “you think this is your property, huh?”

Okay, so eight billion ground squirrels is a bit of an exaggeration (let’s go with seven billion).  And they’re not really our ground squirrels (although some definitions of real estate would disagree).  The fact of the matter is, we’re cohabitating with tons of rodents, and I often wonder which of us is in charge.

“Admit it – you think I’m cute.”

To be clear, we’re not talking about prairie dogs (the larger members of the squirrel family) nor chipmunks (the smaller), but rather those gregarious in-between’ers with the bold racing stripes down the back.  Ground squirrels have short tails, beady eyes, and perky little ears on top of smallish heads.  They forage for nuts and seeds (of which we have precious few) or insects in a pinch, and they can dig holes like champs.  Ground squirrels rise up on their hind legs in an instant when they sense danger, standing straight as a board and totally aware (an annoyingly cute habit).  They vanish into the earth with an alarming screech when they sense the slightest movement.

“Ah-ten…TION!”

But I digress.  I’ve seen enough of these little furballs to know who’s responsible for the Swiss cheese look of our land.  I saw one of them disappear down a hole once, then pop up fifty yards away mere seconds later.  And damn these little critters are bold.  One time I was looping the lawn on my John Deere ride-on mower when a squirrel stared me down from right there amongst the blades until I practically ran him over.  Picture that famous photo of the Tiananmen Square protestor in China; the one who refused to back down from the approaching tank.  That was me and the squirrel.

Bring it…

We have an understanding, the groundies and I (or so I thought).  I willingly cede them the pastures while they keep a distance from the lawn and patio.  Their holes are too small to cripple the horses, and it’s not like we have a grove of walnut trees just beckoning them to the buffet.  But the lawn?  Now that’s sacred territory, friends.  I used to think my lawn had a force field around the perimeter, keeping the ground squirrels at bay.  No longer.  I recently discovered two of their holes smack dab in the middle of the green.  In an instant I was thinking, “payback time, you, you rodents, you”.  I grabbed a big coil of garden hose, thrust the nozzle down one of the holes like a big ol’ snake, and turned on the water full-blast.  Then I watched the other hole with a smirk, waiting for my little traitor to come flying out atop a geyser of water.

Alas, Old Faithful never happened, not even like you see in cartoons.  Thirty minutes of fill-‘er-up and then I gave up and turned off the water.  Not only did I not flush out a ground squirrel, I didn’t even fully flood wherever those holes led to.  Which got me to wondering, just how big is this underground Habitrail?  Can you picture one of those sand-filled ant farms you used to get as a kid?  Is the foundation of our house resting precipitously on a network of squirrel tunnels and my water-dousing only accelerating its collapse?  Let’s hope I don’t tumble out of bed one night and wonder what just happened.  I will admit to this: a little while after me and the garden hose, I was at the kitchen sink when a groundie popped right up from one of those holes in the lawn.  He didn’t even look wet, but boy did he look pissed.  He stared right at me through the window with his beady little eyes, as if to say, “YOU. You killed my family”.  Nah.  More likely he was saying, “nyah, nyah, nyah – you didn’t get me”.  Probably stuck out his teeny-tiny tongue while he was at it.

I’m not one to take up arms, but ground squirrels have me thinking about a BB gun.  I’m just an average shot but the little critters make easy targets with their stand-and-freeze habits.  Maybe I could fashion a coat out of several dozen squirrel pelts and parade around the(ir) pastures.  But seriously now, how many BB’s would it take to make a dent in our Chip ‘n Dale population?  Ten thousand?  Twenty?  For crying out loud, that’s less than one-quarter of one percent (of seven billion).  The squirrels seem to be winning.

I’m going about this all wrong.  I need something stronger.  Do they sell nuclear bombs at Wal*Mart?

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

Come What Mayo

When I was a kid, I had this inexplicable obsession with cheese sandwiches. Maybe it was the popular Wonder Bread of the time (a slice of which could be reduced down to a compact dough ball with minimal effort). Maybe it was fondness for the Tillamook cheese my mother always had on hand; the sandwich merely serving as an edible container.  Surely it was because they were super-simple to make.  Whatever the reason, cheese sandwiches would’ve been utterly dry-mouthed and unappealing without the essential third ingredient: mayonnaise.

Tartar sauce or mayonnaise?

The easy guess here is you have mayonnaise in your refrigerator.  Go check.  Even if you don’t, you have the ingredients to make your own: eggs, oil, and vinegar or lemon juice (blended together at high speed and allowed to set).  The fancier versions of mayo add in some spices.  Your particular brand probably lives quietly in the refrigerator door or towards the back of one of the shelves, alongside several other condiments.  But the more I learn about mayonnaise the less inclined I am to group it together with the basics like ketchup and mustard.

West of the Rockies where I grew up, the standard brand of mayonnaise was always Best Foods.  When I moved east of the Rockies later in life, the name changed to Hellmann’s but the label, the jar, and ingredients were exactly the same.  That was always an oddity to me – until I learned Best Foods acquired Hellmann’s after both brands were solidly established.  Rather than drop one for the other Best Foods just kept them both.  Same product, same packaging, different name.  [Note: those of you in the southeastern U.S. may prefer Duke’s Mayonnaise – a distant third in sales.  At least Duke’s tastes distinctly different than these fraternal twins.]

The essential ingredients

Mayonnaise has one of those prolonged evolutions you could care less about, including its debatable origins.  Several moments in European history claim ties to its invention.  The most credible story (or the most romantic – take your pick) has the French winning the Seven Years’ War in 1756, and the victory dinner including a fish course, but no cream to make the tartar sauce.  The chef improvised with eggs, oil, and garlic instead, and voila: mayonnaise.  Further, the dinner took place in the Spanish port city of Mahon, so the sauce was dubbed “mahonnaise”.  Elegant name, no?

On French fries – seriously?

But for a few uses I can take or leave mayonnaise.  In addition to my childhood cheese sandwiches I only use mayonnaise for tuna salad, potato salad, or cole slaw.  I never put mayonnaise on a burger (do you?)  It’s ketchup on my French fries not mayonnaise (apparently that’s a “thing” with some of you).  It’s drawn butter on my artichokes (again, not mayonnaise).  And speaking of the cheese sandwiches, I recall my mother packing school lunches with bologna-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.  Meat and mayo on the bread – that was it.  No Tillamook cheese, no lettuce or tomato, no pickle on the side.  There’s a harsh simplicity to bologna and mayonnaise.  In other words, I hated the combo (and maybe that’s why mayonnaise only gets “a few uses” in my world now).

After my wife and I met, I discovered another refrigerator regular besides Hellmann’s: Miracle Whip.  You could say Miracle Whip masquerades as mayonnaise (same look, same wide-mouthed jar) but the taste is decidedly sweeter.  Check out MW’s ingredients and you’ll discover a clone of mayonnaise… but with a healthy dose of high fructose corn syrup (sugar).  I like the tangy taste of Miracle Whip but I can’t help thinking mayonnaise is the healthier alternative.  Credit Kraft Foods though, who debuted their “less expensive alternative to mayonnaise” at the Depression-era 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.  Almost a hundred years later MW’s a staple condiment, and the Miracle Whip-or-mayonnaise debate lands in the same conversation as Coke vs. Pepsi, Uncle Ben’s vs. Minute (rice), and Aunt Jemima’s vs. Log Cabin (syrup).

“Mayo-nnaise…”

If you’re like me, at some point in this post your sub-conscience drums up the 1982 romance “An Officer and a Gentleman” (If not, you’ve missed a great film).  If you’ve been to Ireland you probably know County Mayo in the northwest corner of the country.  Better yet, go visit the town of Mayo on the northeast coast of Florida.  A few years ago Mayo changed its name to Miracle Whip as a publicity stunt.  Okay, that tops all other “mayo” references I can come up with.

As little as I dip into my mayonnaise jar, I’ve seen plenty of expiration dates.  It might behoove me to make my own instead.  Eggs, oil, and vinegar, with a little salt to taste, whipped at high speed.  Sounds American easy-as-pie.  But call it mahonnaise, okay?  Then you’ll have something sounding more like what the French cooked up all those years ago.

Some content sourced from the 7/9/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “The Delicious Evolution of Mayonnaise”, 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”.