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”.

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”.

In Defense of Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Night Racquet Sports

My newsfeed nets a lot of headlines, but I almost missed the one about the Saharan sandstorm last week, blowing its way across the southern United States. Our son lives in Austin and said you can’t miss it: eerie dusty brownish fog center-stage in an otherwise hot and humid Texas day. (The silver lining: the sunsets are spectacular.)  I can’t spin a sandstorm positive.  Instead, I picture every granule as a moth and every moth descending on my house like Japanese Zeroes, somehow finding entry and making my life a living hell.

They’re at it again, Mr. & Mrs. Miller and their countless compadres. The million (billion?) miller moth march made its way across the Midwest (today’s letter is “M”), destined for an oasis called Colorado and a house called mine. The little winged beasties arrived unannounced and in droves (awful word: drove). One night I noticed one or two of the millers performing their spastic dance around the outside lights and I thought, “Oh no… scouts“.  The next night one of them sounded a tiny bugle at dusk and the swarming commenced.  I’m convinced miller moths have air traffic controllers, letting them know “Roger that Moth 259 – you’re cleared for landing on any ceiling or wall in Dave’s house”.

Light is a moth’s drug of choice

From the minimal research I’ve conducted (like, I don’t want to know moths have 8,000 eyes or whatever), the high country of the Rocky Mountains is a miller moth’s summer resort.  Picture Colorado as their Motel 6 for the night (just don’t “leave the light on”), feeding on backyard flowers and storing up oxygen for the next day’s flight to altitude.  They seem to be headed towards Utah in particular.  Maybe the flowers are better over there.  Maybe moths are Mormon and the Utah state line feels like the pearly gates of heaven.  Here’s what I say: if Utah really is “The Beehive State”, train those yellow-jacketed armies to take down the miller moths as soon as they arrive.  The massacre would be an event worth pay-per-view prices.

I thought I’d developed a sound battle plan for Mr. & Mrs. Miller this year.  Turn out ALL the lights and live in hermit darkness for several nights (like Halloween, when you don’t want any trick-or-treaters at your door).  Then maybe they’d fly over to my neighbor’s place instead.  Wrong.  They see your glowing phones.  They see the little LED’s you can’t cover up on your electronic devices.  They just park in the dark in discreet places around the house, waiting for you to wake up the next morning so they can announce, “WE’RE HERE!!!”

There was no avoiding battle with this year’s crop of “Army cutworms” (an image even worse than “miller moth”).  At first I was a mercenary, developing a cupping technique with my hands where I could catch-and-release (moths are the devil’s mess if you squash ’em).  But I rapidly tired of saving their little one-inch lives one at a time.  Try getting ready for bed at night brushing your teeth while a half-dozen bombers circle your head.  Or reaching for the water glass only to find a miller has staged a glorious dramatic death at the bottom.

Armed with a fly swatter, I thought to myself time for a little badminton (actually, I just thought “kill”). But here’s the reality: moths have half a brain, wings, ears (or at least a sense of hearing), and endless energy.  They know you’re coming almost before you do.  They hover close to the ceiling, frustratingly out of reach just beckoning you to climb to unsafe heights.

Our bathtub’s too small to accommodate a ladder so I was forced to balance precariously on the porcelain edge while swinging the swatter skyward.  The best analogy I can give you is this: picture King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building, gripping with his feet and flailing with his arms, only in men’s pajamas.  Little buzzing machines dart about him.  He knocks down one or two (with an instant and satisfying plummet back to earth), but most of the time he just swings at the air while trying not to die in a bathtub.  It’s part-cardio, part-yoga (only you’re more stressed when you’re done).

Let’s visit the Army cutworm’s half-brain again. I believe moths are designed by Mom Nature to taunt their predators.  One of mine made it into the refrigerator and probably enjoyed a helping of leftovers.  Another survived a tumble of laundry dryer clothes and still came out intact (though it was hard to tell if he was dizzy or just flitting as normal).  Yet another spent the night in the soaking water of our dirty dishes, popped up the next morning when I approached the sink, and said, “Have a nice day!” as he darted away. Trust me; these mini-monsters don’t die easy.  Even a spirited swipe of the racquet (er, swatter) – picture enough force to explode a shuttlecock – doesn’t always kill a moth.  Bless their pitter-patter hearts – they sometimes need three or four good whacks before raising the white flag.

Enough about Mr. & Mrs. Miller, right?  To swat this topic once and for all, most of you know the movie monster Godzilla but what about his nemesis Mothra?  Back in the 1960’s, (sick) Japanese filmmakers created a “good-girl” winged creature; an awkward-looking mega-insect who defies the laws of physics by flying.  Mothra’s just what you picture in my worst nightmares: a moth the size of a jumbo jet.  She was labeled “the protector of island culture, the Earth, and Japan” and revered among the Japanese film-going public (especially women).  Mothra sold a lot of movie tickets.

Mothra

So, the Japanese think a moth is damn near a heroine, eh?  Well then, they should come to Colorado next summer for a visit.  I’ll leave the light on for ’em.

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

Hex Marks the Spot

In the opening scenes of the 1981 classic, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, intrepid explorer Indiana Jones navigates a deep jungle, a river, the betrayal of his fellow adventurers, and the lethal booby-traps inside a mountainside cave to capture a priceless statue of gold.  Indy’s return to civilization includes more death-defying maneuvers, yet he still completes the entire escapade in the first ten minutes of the film.  That’s far less time than it took another thrill-seeker to find the real-life hidden treasure of Forrest Fenn.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with Forrest Fenn.  Hardly anybody would be, were it not for Fenn’s decision back in 1988 to set aside $2 million of his amassed fortune as a reward for an ambitious treasure hunt through the vast Rocky Mountains.  Gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry, and gemstones; all piled up together inside a twelfth-century bronze box and cached in a region of over 500,000 square miles.  Treasure hunt indeed… but no treasure map!  Instead, Fenn documented clues in the stories and poems contained in his self-published book, The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir.

Remarkably, Fenn’s treasure appears to have been claimed.  The whole story found its way back into national headlines just ten days ago, when Fenn himself declared, “I do not know the person who found it but… the search is over.  Look for more information and photos in the coming days.”  Conveniently, the one snap of the treasure chest in its hidden location does not indicate when it was taken.  Just as convenient, the finder has yet to be identified; only labeled “anonymous searcher from the East Coast”.

Forrest Fenn

Forgive my skepticism, but I’d say Forrest just raised the first red flag on this whole adventure.  It sounds good on paper but the more I read the more I sense fairy tale instead of actual tale.  To repeat, Mr. or Mrs. East Coast has yet to come forward.  The single photo of the treasure could’ve been taken by Fenn himself.  Do the homework and you’ll soon start to wonder, does the treasure really exist?  For that matter, does Forrest Fenn himself exist?  Even his name sounds make-believe.

Body-double aside, Fenn appears to be very much alive, but the case can be made for calling the man eccentric.  Consider, Fenn’s initial intent for the treasure was kind of an “X marks the spot” for his final resting place.  In 1988, diagnosed with cancer (likely terminal) Fenn was motivated to set up the treasure hunt before his demise.  But somewhere in the next 22 years, Fenn recovered from his illness and then penned the memoir, complete with treasure-hunt clues.  This sequence of events alone is suspect.  What was Fenn’s original intent: secret burial in the Rockies and whoever stumbled upon his grave (and thought to dig it up) wins the prize?

courtesy of oldsantafetradingcompany.com

Undeterred, thousands pursued Fenn’s treasure after the memoir was published.  Five died in the search.  Of those five, only one cause of death was confirmed – a fall down a steep slope in Yellowstone National Park.  The bodies of the other four, at first identified as “missing persons”, were found later (at different times and places) along the supposed route to Fenn’s treasure. No cause of death determined with any of them.  Add to that a dozen or more arrests, detainments, citations, and lawsuits with other hunters and you start to get a real mess on your hands.  Sounds more like a “hex marks the spot” doesn’t it? Fenn considered the request of authorities to suspend the hunt, but public opinion swayed him to keep things going.

Ten days ago, Fenn acknowledged the (apparent) hunt winner and he/she possesses the (supposed) treasure.  No doubt this isn’t the last of the eccentric tale of Forrest Fenn.  I hope we tune into the news one of these nights and see our latest Indiana Jones, posing in front of the heaping bronze chest like a lottery winner with a giant check (please also, with fedora and bullwhip).  I hope Forrest Fenn is posing right there alongside him/her, and prepared to detail this crazy adventure from start to finish.  Then we’ll know whether the inevitable production from Hollywood will be fact or fiction.

Some content sourced from the Fenn’s Treasure website, Westword, and  Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Iced Coffee

Place Dauphine

In the airy but over-aired romantic comedy Me Before You (2016), the dashing but damaged Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) laments bygone times when he refers to, “Paris. Place Dauphine, right by the Pont Neuf. Sitting outside the cafe with a strong coffee, a warm croissant with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.” Place Dauphine is not just a scene in Me Before You; it’s a real square in the heart of Paris.  And it probably has Will’s cafe, thanks to the nearby river and central views of the city.  Yet French cafes are growing scarcer every year.  In fact, these quaint little gathering places are disappearing in droves.

Painting by Vickie Wade

If someone asked me to paint a scene from a French country village, I’d surely highlight a charming cafe on a cobbled central space, bursting with patrons.  In the cafe, the proprietor would serve incomparable pastries alongside fine, pressed coffee.  The room would swell with music and chatter; the locals swapping their work-day adventures before heading home to supper.  The evening stopover in the cafe seems to me a staple of French culture.

So it pains me to read about closed doors on France’s rural cafes, according to a recent report of the Wall Street Journal.  Sixty years ago, you would find over 200,000 of them liberally dotting the country.  Today, there are less than 40,000.  “Progress” – in its various forms – has forced the rural worker out of traditional French industries and into the big cities.  Time once spent in the cafe is now given over to the workday commute.  Adds a village mayor, “Without a cafe, a village is pretty much dead”.

A “French cafe” in Ireland

Even though I’ve been to Paris, I can’t claim to have spent time in any of its cafes, not even the famed Les Deux Magots, where writers like Hemingway and Joyce were said to have gathered.  And yet, I’ve still experienced authentic “cafe culture” (and I don’t mean Starbucks).  On a trip to Ireland several years ago, my wife and I concluded our first day of sightseeing by ducking into what we thought was a small pub in downtown Dublin.  Turns out the place was more “French cafe”, complete with black-and-white prints on the walls, candle-lights on the tables, and coffee, tea, and pastries to beat the band.  We were so taken by the place we stopped in every afternoon for the better part of a week.  Perhaps the most showstopping memory of all: we never saw a phone, tablet, or laptop.  Patrons were there to gather and chat, or at least – in the case of a few loners – to lose themselves in a good book.

van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

The French cafe is made all the more romantic thanks to the artist Vincent van Gogh.  In 1888 in the southern town of Arles, van Gogh observed the play of a cafe’s lights against the nighttime sky, which inspired his painting Cafe Terrace at Night, the precursor to his unequaled The Starry Night

“Yellow vest” protestors

Perhaps you recall France’s “yellow vest movement” a year or so ago, when protestors took to the streets to battle aggressive economic policies.  Turns out the French cafes played a part in the melee.  The government sought to impose an increased fuel tax to reduce the number of cars on the road.  The protesters interpreted the tax as an impolite shove, to get more people to move to the big cities.  In other words, less people in French country villages.  And no people in French country cafes.  Remarkably, one of the government’s concessions following the yellow-vest protests was subsidies towards small businesses.  Perhaps the French country cafe is not dead after all.

Had I written this post two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have come up with much positive spin on this topic.  But let’s face it, those of us “sheltered in place” right now yearn for social interaction (not social distancing).  We want face-to-face again, not Facetime.  We want the congregation, not just the church service.  So perhaps there’s a silver lining to the current pandemic after all.  When we return to “new normal”, my hope is we’ll have a newfound appreciation for gathering, instead of hiding behind our electronic devices.  As well, my hope is my next visit to France will find the doors of French country cafes wide open again, just beckoning me inside for “strong coffee and warm croissant”.

Not So Fast, Mr. March!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever Eat a Pine Tree?

If I ask you to recall a catchphrase – a word or statement you heard repeatedly and probably won’t forget – you could come up with several examples. Movie quotes, for instance. (“I’m the king of the world!”)  Song lyrics. (“I get by with a little help from my friends.”)  And television commercials; where the product or “jingle” yields a branded catchphrase. Just this week I learned a new one: bindle stiff, which describes a homeless person through the bag of personal items (bindle) on the end of his/her stick. I’m no hobo, but Euell Gibbons once was. And Gibbons once uttered one of the most famous catchphrases ever.

Who the heck is Euell Gibbons?  Any American kid growing up in the 1970’s would know.  Gibbons was the spokesperson for Post Grape-Nuts cereal, made instantly famous by a single television commercial where he uttered, “Ever eat a pine tree?  Many parts are edible.”  That statement was so bizarre – and laugh-out-loud to us kids – it spread like wildfire (and sold a ton of Grape-Nuts cereal). But it was only recently I learned Gibbons wasn’t just a hired bindle stiff, but a man ahead of his time.  He had a lifelong interest in foods foraged from “nutritious-but-oft-neglected plants” (surely learned from an impoverished and transient childhood).  He wrote several successful whole-foods cookbooks, including “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” (1964) and “A Wild Way to Eat” (1967).  In his later years, Gibbons and his wife joined a community of Quakers in Philadelphia, where he cooked the daily shared breakfast (of course he did).

“Many parts are edible.”

I love Grape-Nuts cereal, back to when I was a kid.  I’m not sure if Gibbons gets the credit, or because Grape-Nuts just tastes good (“…reminds me of wild hickory nuts…”, as Gibbons also said).  Admittedly, Grape-Nuts was a little off the beaten path of children’s cereals.  Very low in fat and sugar, Grape-Nuts looked and crunched like a bowl of light brown gravel.  Add in milk as a softener and sugar as a sweetener however, and something about the cereal just clicked with me.  After college I forced myself to give up Grape-Nuts, because I developed jaw pain from too many hard foods.  Maybe that’s why Post developed Grape-Nuts “Flakes” cereal, or Grape-Nuts “Trail Mix Crunch Cranberry Vanilla”.

GORP

Speaking of trail mix (convenient segue), Euell Gibbons comes back to the conversation.  Trail mix was introduced about the time Gibbons was born (1910), as a combination of dried fruit and nuts.  Trail mix was lightweight and therefore easy to carry on long hikes.  The carbs and fat created a quick energy source and an ideal snack food, and the mix became immensely popular to outdoors-people, especially sugared up with a few M&M’s or yogurt coverings (which Gibbons never would’ve approved of).  Yet it wasn’t always called “trail mix”.  In another word familiar to 1970’s kids, Gibbons coined the acronym GORP, which either meant “good ol’-fashioned raisins and peanuts”, or “granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts”.  Yep, I ate a lot of GORP in my childhood.  Might’ve even had my first taste at Hadley Fruit Orchards, a place in the California desert my parents like to frequent.  Hadley – alongside others – claims to be the “inventor” of trail mix.

Euell T. Gibbons

As if “Euell Gibbons” is not unique enough for an American, his middle name was “Theophilus”.  The only Theophilus I’m aware of lived in biblical times, when Luke wrote his Gospel (and the book of Acts) as letters to an individual by the same name.  Perhaps Gibbons should’ve lived in biblical times.  As God’s people sought the Holy Land he could’ve helped them with his foraging skills.  Or at least introduced them to Grape-Nuts.

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

Ribbons and Bows

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

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

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

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

Do you prefer “mushroom” or “butterfly”?

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

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

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

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

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