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!

Sitting in the Catbird Seat

Though she’s only four, our granddaughter relishes being the eldest in her family.  She already demonstrates the authority associated with the role, especially in the presence of her siblings.  She seems to understand how her position in the order comes with slightly increased expectations.  Her sisters will challenge her command as they grow older (and won’t that be fun?) but for now, for the most part, they take her lead.  Not that I would understand “first position”, mind you.  I’m neither the oldest nor the youngest in the family I grew up in.  I’m what you might call an “off-center middle”.

If there’s a significant advantage to being a middle child (I’m the fourth of five) I’ve yet to discover it after all these years.  The eldest child experiences the “firsts” (driving, voting, etc.) while the rest of us wonder when it’ll be our turn.  The youngest receives a gentler version of parenting (and who can blame a parent after five kids?)  Meanwhile, the middle(s) are looking in both directions wondering where to take sides. Inevitably, to appease all, the middle child finds a way to agree with everyone.  Our son is also a middle and he’s neutral so often we’ve nicknamed him “Switzerland”.

Maybe we middles have it better after all.  It’s not often I fall into the vast minority on a topic but today I do, because… I prefer the middle seat on airplanes.  A recent survey says only 6 out of every 1,000 frequent flyers feel the same way.  My five outliers and I have our reasons; mine make flying more comfortable for me.  On the aisle I can’t help leaning out a little, to where beverage carts or those passing by brush up against me.  On the window (which I happily bequeath to my wife) I have less elbow room up against the glass.  Even when the passengers on either side of me take the armrests (a subject to toss about another day) I still feel my greatest sense of freedom is in the middle seat.

I can now reap rewards for my middle-mindedness.  In a promotion sounding equal parts creative and desperate, Virgin Australia (VA) is giving away prizes to make the middle seats on its airplanes more appealing. Just by choosing the middle, I enter a lottery for a million VA frequent flyer miles, a helicopter pub crawl (a what?), or a bungee jump (but isn’t Australia flat?).  I can even win tickets to the final of the Australian Football League.  Of course, entering VA’s “Middle Seat Lottery” assumes I want to fly somewhere within Australia.  I also have to join VA’s frequent-flyer program.  And I’ll need to figure out Australian football, which may be the toughest ask of all.  But you get the idea.  “In the middle” is now a little cooler.

Maybe the airlines should revive an old saying.  They could call the middles catbird seats instead.  After all, “sitting in the catbird seat” refers to a position of advantage or superiority.  I can win the helicopter pub crawl and you can’t (advantage) and I’ve deluded myself into thinking I have more elbow room than you do (superiority).  All from the catbird seat.

Try as I might, definitions of “middle” never stray far from “average”, or at best “neither one extreme nor the other”. The dictionary also labels me as “ordinary”, “mediocre”, “commonplace”, and “pedestrian”.  Even if I spice up the word to “middling”, I’m still defined as just “medium” or “moderate”.  I could stretch things a bit and go with “fair to middling” but even then I’m merely slightly above average.  Nope, the only “outstanding” middle I can come up with is our stomachs when we’re, ahem, not in the best of shape. 

“Sitting in the catbird seat” works well for today’s topic, because I moved to the American South just a few months ago.  The phrase originated down here a long time ago.  Literally, it’s a bird’s habit of singing from way up high in a tree, a sort of nyah-nyah-nyah to its predators who can’t climb nearly as high.  And maybe that’s my aim for today: to elevate us “middle-peeps”, even if I haven’t come up with much substance to do so.  But consider this: the more of us there are, the less likely you’ll be sitting in the middle seat.  As a thank-you, the least you can do is meet me in the middle and pick up my beer tab when I win the helicopter pub crawl.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “Airline launches lottery to entice more passengers to sit in the middle seat”.

Drinkin’ Problem

Thanks to social media, product advertising is a complex challenge these days. Hiring an “agency” no longer suffices, at least not for major corporations. They depend on “brand builders” instead – Interbrand, for example. Interbrand boasts “…a global team of thinkers and makers [encouraging] bold moves to leap ahead of customers and competitors.” Interbrand also values the companies they help build. On their list, well inside the top ten: Coca-Cola.

My brothers and I gathered in Atlanta last week for a semi-annual reunion.  Our initial stop wasn’t Coca-Cola’s world headquarters but rather, its popular “World of Coca-Cola” tour.  If you haven’t walked through these doors, Coke has turned an impressive three-story building into a glittery three-ring circus to promote its products, with a side of historical context.  As if Coke needs more promotion.  The genius of this soft drink, as we learn on the tour, is the relentless, boundless effort to put Coke’s brand everywhere imaginable.  Cans, clothing, and cars, just to name a few.  But pixels?

Here’s a weird suggestion.  Go into your home laboratory, create a flavor, and label it something that doesn’t have a flavor.  This is Coke’s latest go-to gimmick to retain market share.  Coca-Cola Zero Sugar “Byte” has come and gone (limited-edition products are another way to retain market share) and you probably didn’t have a taste. And what does “data” taste like?  According to drinkers it’s pretty much the same as Coke Zero, adding in the sensation of the old “Pop Rocks” candy.

Coca-Cola also developed “Coke Starlight”, somehow determining the taste of “outer space”.  Drinkers said it tasted like Coke with an aftertaste of cereal milk (ewwwww).  Go to the store today and you can purchase the latest of these curiosities: “Coke Dreamworld”, which has been described as “Coke soaked in sour peach rings” (ewwwww again).  As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste… or should I say, with Coca-Cola there’s no caring for taste.  Instead, the bottles and cans promote music, videos, and other products through a QR code.  And there’s the branding concept in a nutshell.  You’re attracted to the purchase because it’s a Coca-Cola product, but the draw is anything but the drink itself.

I shouldn’t be surprised how far the taste of Coke has, uh, evolved in the one hundred and thirty years since its market debut.  The variations on the original formula are myriad, including Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke, and “Coke Zero” (no added sugar but plenty of artificial sweeteners).  Let’s not pretend any of these drinks are actually good for your consumption.  But at least vanilla and cherry are tastes we understand.  Dreams?  Not so much.

“Dreamworld” and the other recent flavors target “gamers and younger audiences”.  My brothers and I saw a lot of kids on the “World of Coca-Cola” tour so maybe the advertising is working.  Regardless, Coca-Cola has a bigger challenge to confront.  Sales of soft drinks are on a serious decline, in favor of bottled water and healthier options.  Coke recently cut its portfolio of soft drinks by fifty percent (bye-bye Tab) in an effort to improve its bottom line.  To me, that’s a sound business strategy.  But flavors that aren’t really flavors?  That’s desperate.

Coca-Cola had a big red flag in the 1980s (appropriate color, no?), one that should’ve discouraged future dabbling with their products.  Who among you doesn’t remember the debacle of “New Coke”? The flavor variation – the first in Coca-Cola’s long history – debuted to rave reviews, with claims it was better than Coke or Pepsi.  But here’s what Coca-Cola didn’t see coming: consumers immediately defended the original flavor.  Instead of buying New Coke, they cleared the shelves of the original flavor for fear it would go away forever.  Begrudgingly (and very quickly), Coca-Cola returned the original flavor to stores under the name “Coke Classic”.  But New Coke never found legs and eventually disappeared from the shelves altogether, while “Coke Classic” returned as simply “Coke”.

” Coke Dreamworld”, as you would expect, features prominently in the “World of Coca-Cola” tour.  The flavor that isn’t a flavor, along with a silly 3-D movie and a giant retail store, targets the youngest of consumers.  But let’s be honest, most people go on the tour for the tasting room, where they can sample Coca-Cola’s products to their heart’s content.  “New Coke” is not among those choices.  Pretty soon I don’t expect to see any flavors-that-aren’t flavors either.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Coke’s latest bizarre flavor is here”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Cim-ple Memories

My weekday breakfasts are routine.  Besides a cup of coffee I’ll have yogurt and fruit one day, eggs the next.  That’s about it, alternating between one or the other.  Something about this relatively healthy repeat comforts me.  On the weekends, however, we fancy it up.  Maybe homemade waffles or pancakes.  An omelet with whatever leftovers we can find in the frig.  Or even breakfast out, where someone else does the cooking.  And very occasionally, especially on Sundays, I’ll step back to my childhood and bake the earliest breakfast I can remember – homemade cinnamon rolls.

Last week, my son texted to let me know he was making breakfast with his young daughters.  The three of them were putting together eggs, fruit, and rolls to start their Saturday right.  The rolls – the Pillsbury variety where you whack the tube on the counter and separate the rolls onto a cookie sheet – are topped with a distinctive orange icing my son remembers from many of his childhood breakfasts.  Now he’s carrying on the tradition in his own kitchen, which warms my heart.  But I also realized it’s time he joined the succession of family members who still bake our trademark cinnamon rolls.

If you’re hoping I’ll include a recipe at some point in this post – something with secret ingredients to make our cinnamon rolls the best ever – you’re about to be disappointed.  These rolls are as simple as it gets.  Begin with… Bisquick.  Maybe you’re not familiar with this breakfast-in-a-box product from General Mills but it’s still on the shelf.  You just add milk to the mix and voila, you’re making anything from pancakes to biscuits.

Our cinnamon rolls use the Bisquick biscuit recipe with the dough pressed out flat, adding sugar and spice, and then rolled up to be cut and baked in the oven.  The process is designed to crank out the rolls in hurry, as for a family of seven on the clock before Sunday church.

Now here’s where I pay homage to my father.  He steps into the story because he was the one who made the cinnamon rolls, almost every Sunday without fail.  I’d shuffle into the kitchen bleary-eyed from the night before and there’d be my bathrobed, unshaven father, preparing what we affectionately called the “cims”.  As soon as he rolled out the dough, a kid could help the rest of the way.  Sprinkle brown sugar from one end to the other.  Add raisins here and there.  Dust with cinnamon for a final flourish.  Roll up the dough from one side of the board to the other and cut into segments.

Some of my brothers didn’t like raisins so Dad upped his baking game a bit by leaving them out of some of the rolls.  Eventually he even made “jelly rolls”, substituting the sugar and spices with one of our favorite flavors from Smucker’s or Knott’s.

Speaking of ingredients, our cinnamon rolls were brand dependent.  Besides the essential Bisquick, the brown sugar came from C&H, the raisins from Sun-Maid, and the milk and butter from a local dairy called “Edgemar Farms“.  Funny how those come back to me like yesterday, yet I never thought much about the names until now.  “Bisquick” is literally “biscuit” + “quick”.  C&H is the “California and Hawaiian Sugar Company”, their product refined from sugar cane (instead of beets).  Their jingle still dances around in my head (“C&H… pure cane sugar… from Hawaii… growing in the sun…”)

The updated “Maid”

Sun-Maid put the spin on “Made”, of course, but I never “made” the connection between the name and the woman in the logo until now.  They’ve updated her image several times over the years the way KFC and Wendy’s updated theirs.

Here’s the real point of this post.  My dad and the family cinnamon roll recipe are forever inseparable.  Even though his sons (and their children, I hope) carry on the tradition, it’ll always be Dad and the rolls.  One is not a memory without the other.  I realize – all these years later – Dad made the rolls to give Mom a break from the countless meals she made the rest of the week.  Honestly, the only memories I have of Dad in the kitchen are mixing drinks, tending to the barbecue, or making the “cims”.

Soon after my son texted, I sent him the cinnamon roll recipe.  I hope he “cim-ply” abides as part of his Sunday morning routine.  I hope he refers to the leftover dough bits as “collywobbles” the way my dad did and his dad did before him.  I hope his daughters mispronounce “cinnamon” as “cimmanin” the way I used to (which maybe inspired the nickname “cims”).  But most importantly, I hope he remembers his Grandpa every time he rolls out the dough, preparing breakfast for the family just to give Grandma a break.

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

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”.

Credit Guards (or AT&T pt. 2)

When my “favorite” service provider AT&T (tongue-clearly-in-cheek) challenged my creditworthiness last month amidst an adventurous request for internet service, I was forced to bow down before the Big Three. No, not Ford, Chrysler, Dodge – I don’t drive any of ’em. And not CBS, NBC, ABC either – I can now stream their programming (since I finally have internet). Rather, today’s big three are Equifax, Experian, TransUnion – those behind-the-curtains guards who man the credit rating tollbooths as sternly as passport checkers from former Eastern Bloc countries.

Credit guard companies are more difficult to deal with than credit card companies.  The moment I entered college, offers for credit came pouring into my mailbox.  I could qualify for ridiculous amounts on little plastic cards, even though I was a penniless freshman with little reportable income.  But they want you hooked on credit at an early age so you’ll pay back a lifetime of fees in interest.  Yet now, with decades of credit history under my belt (all of it positive, I say with muted pride), dealing with the credit guards is infinitely more challenging.  It’s like walking up to Fort Knox and asking for a bar of gold.

If you don’t check (or even know) your credit score, you may not be familiar with the Big Three.  They’re like triplets hired to do the same job: “consumer credit reporting agencies… collecting and aggregating information… on consumers and businesses worldwide”.  Equifax tracks 800 million consumers.  Experian tracks a billion.  In other words, the next time you use your credit card, you can bet the Guards will be watching.

The Guards help themselves to your transaction, blend it with the others you’ve racked up recently, look at how well you manage your total credit and debt, and come up with a score.  If you and your wallet behave, you get a number in the neighborhood of 700; if not, you’re closer to 500 (sounds like a college entrance exam, no?) 1.2% of Americans maintain an absolutely perfect credit score, though darned if I know how they do it.  Maybe they pay for everything in cash.

Consumer credit reporting agencies are b-o-r-i-n-g (I’m surprised you’ve made it this far) so I’m not fired up to write about them today.  Instead, let me tell you a story – humor at my expense, really – where the Guards were peripherally involved… and I was fired up.

When I was battling working with AT&T on my request for internet last month, the customer service rep stole took a full hour of my valuable time to botch set up the account, even though I already had another account with AT&T for wireless service.  He asked a million questions (including the oft-scripted “how’s the weather where you are today?”).  A marathon later – because I could’ve run one by this point – he said it was time to check my credit.  Here’s where I should’ve thought to hang up because AT&T owns decades of credit history on me (thanks to the Guards).  If AT&T couldn’t tap into my score already then maybe I shouldn’t be doing business with them.  But I really wanted internet so I surrendered cooperated like a good little lamb, supplying my name, rank, and social security number.  And this is where everything went horribly wrong.

“I’m sorry sir, but your credit is blocked.”

Blocked?  What the *$%^#! HECK does that mean?  When I asked him to please explain, my smooth operator countered by saying, “Let me run the check again.  Repeat <your> social security number”… which I did, only to hear the word “blocked” again.  When the third time wasn’t the charm he made a rather stupid bold announcement:

“I’m sorry sir, but you must have an invalid social security number.”

Invalid social?  So you’re saying the nine-digit number I memorized when I was like, oh, an infant; the one I’ve spoken or written millions of times in my life, the one I’ve been trying to protect from identity thieves since I was born, is “invalid”?  What kind of incompetent fool professional was I dealing with here?

More like “think twice”

Again I should’ve slammed the phone down hung up, but silly me, I surrendered more minutes of time to understand my “two options for service when I have blocked credit”.  One, I could set up the account in my wife’s name. Involve an innocent bystander in this circus request and risk divorce?  No way.  Two, I could pay AT&T a $250 retainer fee to offset my newfound credit liability. Okay, NOW I’m insulted.  When I declined both options, my customer service imposter temporary friend apologized, bid me good day, and hung up without another word.  Seriously, he hung up on me (without so much as a sales pitch for DirecTV). I suppose you could call it a fitting conclusion to a totally worthless call.

My story does have a happy ending.  Several days later I mustered the courage to call (A)nguish, (T)orment, & (T)orture again.  Maybe the more you call them the better the service because the next rep let me know my credit was frozen (not “blocked”).  Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!  Frozen credit, for those of you in the not-know, is initiated by the consumer (me).  A credit freeze is put in place to counter identity theft.  I totally forgot I’d done that, like, last century, but thanks to a smidge of online access (the Guards are more hospitable these days) I was able to drop the freeze with just a few keystrokes. Bingo. Credit check passed. Internet service permitted.

The inspiration for this post was a recent headline about Equifax.  The Guard issued millions of incorrect credit scores last spring, which meant consumers were either denied loans when they shouldn’t have been or charged higher-than-deserved interest rates.  One ambitious soul is leading a class action lawsuit to reclaim the interest she never should’ve have paid.  As for me, I choose not to deal with the Guards any more than I have to.  After all, I get enough credit check grief from AT&T.

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