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”.

Vicious Circles

When I was ten years old, the progressive rock band “Yes” released an unforgettable song called “Roundabout”. The lyrics included trippy phrases like, “… mountains come out of the sky and they stand there…”, and, “… go closer hold the land feel partly no more than grains of sand…” The words made no sense but the melody hooked me with its driving beat and wandering synthesizer. “Roundabout” and “Stairway to Heaven” – both released in 1971 – are perfect examples of my rock music baptism.

Turns out, “Roundabout” was not a metaphor for the song’s underlying message nor even a made-up word. The lyrics really were spawned from an overdose of traffic circles. Yes was on tour and traveling from Aberdeen to Glasgow when its lead singer Jon Anderson says their van passed through “maybe 40 or so” roundabouts. Anderson promptly teamed up with guitarist Steve Howe to produce one of Yes’s biggest hits.  Wikipedia dedicates an entire article to “Roundabout” here.

A “roundabout” (in the UK, of course)

Fifty years forward, roundabouts are more prevalent than ever on our city streets – and in some setups, as mind-boggling to navigate as a Yessong lyric. In a neighborhood near my house, I pass through three consecutive roundabouts to get to a friend’s house.  Each has two lanes entering and exiting the circle from four directions.  If I’m not conscious of the lane I’m in when I enter a circle, I’ll find myself going round and round before I remember it’s safe to exit from both lanes.  If I lose track of which circle I’m in (all three look entirely alike), I’ll exit onto a street nowhere near my friend’s house.

A “rotary”

You’d think we’d have them figured out by now since roundabouts first appeared in 1966 and have proliferated ever since.  (By definition, we’re talking about circles tight enough to induce centrifugal force, not the more leisurely curves of an urban “rotary”.)  The Wall Street Journal reports traffic authorities still toy with public awareness campaigns, signage, and modified roadway designs in an almost desperate effort to reduce roundabout fender-benders.

Here are two lingering oversights with the rules of roundabouts.  First, drivers entering the circle sometimes assume they have the right-of-way over drivers already in the circle.  Second, drivers approaching a two-lane roundabout don’t check signage to see whether one or both lanes also exit the roundabout.  On the latter problem, I admit to several instances where I had to quickly change lanes while circling, just to exit where I needed to.  Changing lanes in a roundabout ranks among the scariest driving maneuvers of them all.

Not in this lifetime

Roundabouts really do make a lot of sense, even if drivers never, ever figure them out.  They eliminate electronic signal systems or stop signs.  They create a safer environment for pedestrians (who only have to look one direction for oncoming traffic instead of three).  They force vehicles to slow down, and statistics show a dramatic reduction in the number of T-bone and head-on collisions.  Finally, roundabouts require less asphalt to create a new intersection, and are sometimes enhanced with an eye-pleasing landscaped island in the center.

Look closely and you’ll see (all four) Bristol Circles

The first time I ever drove in circles was in West Los Angeles.  A street known as “Bristol Avenue” earned the nickname “Bristol Circles” by teenage drivers in the neighborhood.  That’s because Bristol’s four rotaries allowed for a lively game of “car tag”, where my friends and I would zoom around trying to “tag” each other with the headlights of our cars.  If we were really daring (i.e stupid), we included the topmost of Bristol’s four circles, which is bisected by busy, unpredictable Sunset Blvd.

Cities in the northeastern states of the U.S. have some pretty good-sized rotaries these days but for the really daring, it’s hard to beat the giant urban circles in France or the tighter many-tentacled roundabouts in the UK.  Paris’s Arc de Triomphe rotary may deserve the title “most vicious circle”.  Watch the following video and see if you don’t agree.  This rotary may be the genesis of the term “distracted driving”.  Note to viewer: no lanes.  Note to self: no thanks.

Some content sourced from the 3/14/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Car Crash Mystery: Why Can’t Drivers Figure Out Roundabouts?” and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

St. Brigid’s Cathedral dominates the quaint urban landscape of Kildare Town in central Ireland. The centuries-old stone church beckons the short walk up the hill from the village square, for a tour around Brigid’s domain. And while you’re on the grounds, you’ll be tempted to climb the adjacent tower for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding county. I assure you; the vistas are breathtaking.

A bird’s eye view from my own locale would be just as breathtaking right about now.  In the last ten days, I’ve ventured beyond my driveway once, for a mundane grocery shop at the local market.  For all I know, nearby Colorado Springs has been erased from the map.  For all I know, all my neighbors in the surrounding county traveled to a tropical island where they’re making merry, while I’m left to keep an eye on things back here at home.  Who nominated me for that job?

Proceed with caution!
The tower “stairs”

No kidding, the view from the tower at St. Brigid’s is spectacular.  Not only do you see all of Kildare Town below, but you’ll be mesmerized by the lush green acreage of the adjacent Irish National Stud (and its countless roaming thoroughbred horses).  When my wife and I visited several years ago, targeting Kildare Town to see the cathedral of her namesake saint, I figured light a few candles and say a few prayers; not climb a ten-story tower.  I have a mild fear of heights so you can imagine my trepidation.  And here’s the kicker: there’s no code-sanctioned, easy-to-navigate stairwell within the tower.  Instead, you hand over a couple of Euros for the privilege of climbing a dozen ladders to the top.  I almost called it quits after the first few rungs.

My longing to “rise above it all” today is not just inspired by the pandemic, nor even my acrophobia-be-damned adventure up the tower at St. Brigid’s.  I also think about nearby Pikes Peak, the highest of the Rocky Mountains in this part of Colorado.  “America’s Mountain” tops out at 14,115 feet, and I’ve hiked to the summit several times (the trail begins at 6,000 feet).  You begin the journey on a series of easy switch-backing trails, which then give way to a remarkably gentle incline through a forest of Ponderosa pines.  For several miles under the treetops, you have no orientation to suggest you’re even climbing a majestic mountain.  But once you hit the tree line, everything upwards is a moonscape: rocks and dirt and scrub brush all the way up to the summit.  The view is stunning; as if you’re looking down from space.  You can see clear to Wyoming to the north and Kansas to the east.

Pikes Peak, through Garden of the Gods

I could use a mountain (or a ladder-filled tower) on my property right about now, just to connect with the world around me.  Oh sure, rural living means the stay-at-home rules are a minor inconvenience, but it’d sure be nice to confirm someone else is out there.  The local news shows human interest stories every night on TV, but c’mon, how many of us trust the media these days?

Here’s my very favorite climb-ev’ry-mountain memory.  I grew up in a narrow canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles; so narrow in fact, some stretches could only accommodate a single row of houses on one side of a winding two-lane road.  Biking with the cars was taking your life in your own hands, as was scaling the canyon trails into the domains of rattlesnakes and other wildlife.

Lucky for me, a steeply rising network of paved residential streets branched off the canyon floor less than a mile south of our house.  On foot, those streets became a kid’s adventure up and out of the isolation.  I’d stock a daypack with cheese sandwiches, Pop-Tarts, and anything else I could pilfer from the pantry.  Some days I’d go it alone; others I’d drag my brother with me.  Up, up, up we’d climb, rising breathless until we could peer almost straight back down to the canyon floor below.  The final stretch of the topmost street – with houses perched precariously along on its edges – afforded a view of Los Angeles and the nearby Pacific Ocean like none I’ve seen to this day.  There I’d sit, munching snacks, wondering what all I was missing down there in the big city.

Today it’s the same feeling, only different.  What am I missing out there in the big city?  Is Wyoming still to the north and Kansas to the east?  Are cadets still at the Air Force Academy, anticipating this weekend’s socially-distanced graduation ceremony?  Have the majestic red rocks of Garden of the Gods finally crumbled?  Truthfully, I can’t answer any of these questions, not while I’m stay-at-home.  But at least I can see the summit of Pikes Peak from here.  At least I’m confident St. Brigid’s Cathedral still stands in Kildare Town (Notre Dame in Paris, maybe not so much).  And at least I can revisit fond memories, the kind I never thought I’d yearn for again.  On that note, think I’ll make a cheese sandwich.

Confection Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”.

Creamer Schemers

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

Nespresso

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

Bunn’s coffee-monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Baker’s Half-Dozen

If you’ve ever been to an IKEA home furnishings store, you know the shopping experience is more about navigating a vast warehouse than a cozy “store”.  IKEA retail covers several football fields worth of showrooms and merchandise, with clever navigation arrows projected onto the floor so you don’t lose yourself in the maze.  Before or after your purchases, IKEA offers a spacious sit-down cafeteria, so you can fuel or restore your energy levels as needed.  And it is here – in the IKEA cafeteria – where I can’t help but picture the Swedish Chef from the The Muppet Show.

You remember Swedish Chef, don’t you?  Even if you only occasionally glanced over the shoulders of your children as they watched The Muppet Show, Swedish Chef left an indelible impression.  Chef had those big, bushy brows completely covering his eyes.  He always had a handful of utensils, inevitably launched into the air of his kitchen as his gibberish songs ended with “… BORK, BORK, BORK!”  Chef sported a colorful bow tie, a white apron, and the distinctive toque blanche (white hat) on his head.  Swedish Chef was always my favorite Muppet.

Chef could be working behind the counter of the IKEA cafeteria, because naturally; IKEA serves Swedish food.  My favorite entree (as if I dine at IKEA regularly) is the Swedish meatballs in brown sauce (köttbullar), served with a side of the crepe-like potato pancakes (raggmunkar) and a dollop of lingonberry jam (Sweden’s famous “food freshener”).

There’s another fellow in the States who reminds me of Swedish Chef, and he doesn’t work in the IKEA cafeteria.  Ever heard of Mimal, “the Man in the Middle of the USA”?  Mimal lives in the Midwestern states, and he’s a big boy.  In fact, Mimal’s so big he barely fits between Canada’s border to the north and Mexico’s to the south.

Have a look at the map.  Mimal (sometimes called “the Elf”) is a silhouette of a chef, represented by the outlines of seven American states.  MIMAL is quite literally (M)innesota, (I)owa, (M)issouri, (A)rkansas, and (L)ouisiana.  He holds a pan (Tennessee) of fried chicken (perfectly represented by Kentucky).  Mimal can thank the west bank of the Mississippi River for the shape of his five-state body.  He also looks like he’s about to march his chicken right off the map, over the Atlantic Ocean, and on into Europe.  Maybe he’s headed to Sweden?

Whoever discovered Mimal hiding in America came up with a clever way for children to memorize a handful of states.  Appropriately, Mimal the chef is made up of a baker’s half-dozen of them.  A baker’s dozen (13) began in the 11th century, when an extra loaf was added to the bread basket to guarantee the minimum sales weight.  A baker’s half-dozen then – rounded-up – is seven loaves.  Or seven American states.

Leave it to Americans to deny Mimal his innocence.  Based on one or more unsolved mysteries in the MIMAL states, the elf-chef was once connected with a real-life kidnapper/murderer.  The legend claimed if you drove straight from Minnesota to Louisiana – through each of Mimal’s five “body” states, you’d be abducted (never to be seen again) once you crossed Louisiana’s northern border.  My logical brain asks how said abductor knows you made it through all five states?  But this is legend we’re talking about, much like the monster in Scotland’s Loch Ness.  Tabloid fodder at best.

Educators expanded on Mimal’s seven-state profile, including all fifty American states in a story designed to help students memorize names and locations (would’ve been helpful back in my school days, when I’d confuse Wyoming with Colorado).  Still, I prefer to limit the game to Mimal’s baker’s half-dozen.  I can’t help but see a big chef every time I look at a map of the United States.  I also can’t help hearing him sing, “…BORK, BORK, BORK!”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Laughing Squid blog.

Cruise (out of) Control

Ever since the Ferris wheel debuted (at the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago), there’s been an unofficial competition to design and build a taller version.  The original topped out at 80.4 meters all those years ago, while today’s leader – the “High Roller” in Las Vegas – rotates over twice that high.

The “High Roller” in Las Vegas

To complicate the matter, there’s great debate about what defines a Ferris wheel.  The tallest wheels for example – including the High Roller and the London Eye – are labeled “observation wheels” because they’re more than just an amusement.  Newer designs eliminate the spokes and hub to give the illusion of a free-wheeling ring.  Whatever.  Thanks to my acrophobia, even a kiddy amusement park Ferris wheel is thrill-ride enough for me.

Go figure – I enjoy the highest, fastest roller coasters anywhere, but I wimp out when it comes to a standard Ferris wheel.  Why?  Because Ferris wheel gondolas are neither enclosed nor replete with safety bars.  You’re just sitting up there in the open air, 250 feet off the ground, realizing nothing is preventing you from falling (a peek into the mind of an “acrophobe” – you’re welcome).  Conversely, when the roller coaster safety bar ratchets down to the waist, almost taking your breath away, there’s a sense of being one with the coaster, like you can’t possibly fall out.  Much better.

I will never be this guy

Let’s change the channel and focus on big ships.  If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you should be able to name one or more “amusements” you didn’t expect to find in a floating hotel.  Golf driving ranges.  Skeet-shooting.  Water slides.  Again, it’s an unofficial competition.  But what about a roller-coaster, traveling up to 37 mph, with an elegant sweep out over the ocean?  Yep; coming soon to a Carnival Cruise Line ship near you.

I hereby retract my earlier statement about tolerance for roller coasters.  Riding the rails, plunging down towards the ocean and back up to the sky, two hundred feet above the keel of a moving ship – Carnival’s “Bolt” is too much for me and my acrophobia.  Almost a little too much for the coaster’s engineers, too.  They faced a pile of challenges with the design.  What would be the impact of a moving vessel on the gravitational requirements of a roller coaster?  Will the weight of seven hundred feet of track twenty stories above the water tip the ship?  How will the vessel’s structure tolerate the forces of heavy cars speeding here and there?  And what about all that noise?

Put the cart before the horse – as Carnival did – and things get easier.  First design the coaster; then design the ship.  Make the roller coaster cars self-propelled so they don’t depend on gravity.  Eliminate the chains and sprockets in favor of small booster engines to reduce the noise.  Then design a ship keel three football fields in length.  Reengineer the structural elements – from the water up – to accept the distributed forces of the coaster.  Overweight the whole thing so coaster cars can go almost vertical and still not tip the ship.  Behold Carnival’s Mardi Gras – a virtual floating amusement park – breaking the champagne bottle next winter.

I still think a roller coaster on a ship is nuts, but I seem to be out of touch with the latest amusements.  You can already partake in “Sky Pad” – also on Carnival – a bungee-jumping-trampolining-virtual-reality mash-up.  Or Royal Caribbean’s “RipCord”, a column of air for skydiving simulation.  Or Norwegian’s “Ultimate Abyss”, a four-story sort-of toilet bowl, where you’re flushed in circles and dropped down a 200-foot water slide.

If you’ve ever seen Katy Perry’s music video, “Chained to the Rhythm”, you probably laughed at the outlandish amusement park rides, like the coaster with the heart-shaped loop-the-loop, or the pseudo Ferris wheel catapulting riders out into the air.  But considering Carnival’s “Bolt”, maybe Katy’s got a keen eye on the future after all.  As for me, I’ll stay grounded in my local kiddy amusement park.

The future of amusement?

Some content sourced from the 1/8/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “They’re Putting a Roller Coaster on a Cruise Ship”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.