A Million Little Leaks

Several years ago, I worked out with a personal trainer in a bunch of one-hour sessions at my gym.  She was all about proper lifting and careful stretching – and nasty core exercises I’ve patently avoided to this day.  But she did give me one time-proven piece of advice: after working out, go relax 10-15 minutes in the dry sauna. You’ve already revved up your metabolism with the workout, so the sauna helps extract toxins from the body. Yes, and the sauna also helps imitate the heat and humidity of South Carolina in the summertime.

My wife & I are heading to the Palmetto State for a long-overdue getaway at the end of May.  We’ll be spending a few days in the western counties before catching up with our daughter and her boyfriend in coastal Charleston.  We’ve taken this trip before.  The difference?  Last time we were there in early April when the heat and humidity sort of caressed your cheek with a soft kiss.  This time we’ll be there to kick off summer and it’ll feel like standing under a hot shower.  Outdoors.  Fully dressed.

I’ve always been a sweater (no, I don’t mean the extra layer you pull over your head in the winter months).  After a long jog, my t-shirt and shorts are so wet they could double as sponges.  My hair falls wet-stringy straight down my forehead and the perspiration runs in rivers here and streams there.  Yep, I’m one handsome dude.  But where most people say ick, I recognize sweating for the healthy cooling/cleansing process it is. A sign my metabolism is alive and kicking.  Turn on the faucets, baby.

Speaking of moisture, isn’t moist one of the most atrocious-sounding words in the English language?  I’ve never made peace with those five letters and I know I haven’t used moist in a sentence in years (no matter how good my baked goods taste).  The English language has such beautiful words, like chimes and delicacy and silhouette.  Why disrupt the sweet-sounding party with a word like moist?

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not gonna pretend a good sweat is ever comfortable (maybe it’s because I feel moist) but I’ve certainly gotten used to the sensation over the years.  And now that I live in Colorado?  Zero humidity.  Well, okay, there’s a little humidity here at 7,500 feet above sea level.  But most of the time it’s so dry, the needle on your tank seems to be perpetually on “E”.  This pathetic little voice deep inside your body pleads for, “water… water…” (think Tin Man asking for his oil can – that kind of voice).

A dry sauna room (aka a “hot box”)

Let’s go back to my dry sauna sessions.  Since you’re already asking the question, I don’t mean “wet sauna” (where steam is introduced into a room as tiled as a Chinese kitchen). I’m talking about that other room, with nothing but wooden benches and a nasty little blast furnace in the corner (wood-burning, electric, hot rocks – whatever heats like hell).  You sit there draped in a small towel in 200º F and for a few minutes, all is quiet and comfortable.  But then, almost imperceptibly, your skin develops a sheen.  You begin to glisten.  Suddenly droplets of perspiration pop out all over the place and it’s “open the floodgates, Poseidon”.  A million little leaks.

I won’t speak for the ladies’ locker room (that mysterious country club adjacent to our locker room), but sometimes the men’s dry sauna can get a little awkward.  When you approach the glass door, it’s so steamed you can’t tell how many guys are already in there.  Once you enter, choose a place on the bench without hesitation or you’ll be judged.  Good chance you’ll end up next to a heavy breather, which in some schools of thought is therapeutic.  Other times you’ll end up next to someone with headphones, which somehow don’t block the four-letter words of his rap music.  One time I was subjected to the wellness preachings of a huge Samoan-looking guy, where I thought it best not to argue with his musings.  All of which is to say, you never really know what you’re gonna get with the dry sauna.  It’s an intimate little sweatbox filled with semi-naked strangers.  Good times, huh?

South Carolina’s “Holy City”

When I’m in Charleston I won’t miss the dry sauna because Mom Nature will provide her own version round-the-clock.  The heat and humidity will promote enough of my perspiration to – as the family says – “make my face rain”.  I’m like one of those mysterious underground springs, where the water keeps bubbling up from the ground and you wonder if it’s ever gonna stop.  Every gonna stop?  Not with my metabolism.  For sheer entertainment value, if you’re in Charleston later this month, keep an eye out for me.  I’m the one with the million little leaks.

Whirlybird Wonder

“Ginny”

If you haven’t been following the dog-and-pony pony-and-dog show taking place on Mars the last couple of months, you might want to break out the telescope. Not that you’ll be able to see a car-sized rover or a toy-sized helicopter from millions of miles away. But you can see Mars itself, and then you can imagine “Percy” and “Ginny” sniffing around the red dirt and rocks up there. They’re just sampling things to see if Mars can roll out the welcome mat to humans someday.

The rover “Perseverance” is the pony in this show; “Ingenuity” the dog. I want to talk about the dog. Last July Percy hitched a nine-month ride to Mars, launching from Florida’s Cape Canaveral aboard a massive Atlas V rocket. Little Ginny hitched a ride on Percy; she the steadfast little soldier clinging to the rover’s underbelly. Considering Ginny measures only a few feet in all dimensions, it must’ve been a hang-on-for-dear-life E-ticket kind of adventure.

I’d love to make this a children’s story, but Ginny is anything but soft and cuddly. Have a look. She’s about as cute as a wasp. Consider Martian atmosphere is only 1/100th as dense as that of Earth, which means Ginny has virtually nothing to grab onto to sustain flight. But she whirls at five times the rate of a regular helicopter (2,400 rpm!), and then she rises.  Product safety warning: don’t go anywhere near Ginny’s rotor blades.

Ten days ago Ginny lifted off Mars to a skyscraping height of ten feet.  Then she hovered briefly before rotating about ninety degrees, kind of just observing the Mars-scape.  Finally, she landed.  The whole exercise lasted less than forty seconds.  Big deal, right?  Well, that little maneuver qualified Ginny as “the first powered controlled flight by an aircraft on a planet besides Earth”. Way to go, little wasp.  You just reserved a spot in the Smithsonian after you return home.

Will Ginny end up here?

When I picture Ginny clinging to the rover Percy, then hurtling through outer space for months on end, my middle-aged mind recalled the old Thunderbirds television show.  Thunderbirds featured the Tracy family (marionettes!) and their fleet of wicked-cool space vehicles.  The five Thunderbirds included a giant green supersonic carrier (“Thunderbird Two”), whose massive belly carried a yellow utility submersible (“Thunderbird Four”).  Kind of like Percy carried Ginny.  Trust me young(er) readers, Thunderbirds was awesome television in the 1960s… even if it was just puppets getting their strings pulled.

I’ve ridden in a helicopter exactly once in my life, on our honeymoon over the Napali Coast on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.  I turned to my bride mid-flight and probably uttered some not-so-nice words as I remembered how much I dislike heights.  The glass of champagne beforehand certainly helped.  For me, the fear has always been a toss-up between vertigo (physical) or the idea that terra firma is far, far below me (mental).  No matter the reason, heights just aren’t my cup of tea.

My acrophobia probably goes back to my first ride on a Ferris Wheel, with adolescent nightmares of slipping through the metal lap bar and taking an unplanned skydive.  Or ski lifts, where a little bit of fiddling with the lap bar latch could mean the end of everything.  Parasailing? (No).  Hang-gliding? (Never).  Hot-air balloons? (Why even ask?).  Sorry – airplanes aside, and only the bigger ones mind you – I prefer my thrills securely grounded.

For all the recent broadcast news on Percy and Ginny, I can’t seem to find the part of the story where Ginny returns to Percy, who then returns to the Atlas V rocket, who then returns to Earth.  I’m looking for the part about splashdowns and photo ops and ticker-tape parades – the happy-ending kind of stuff.  My earlier comment about a spot in the Smithsonian may have been a little premature (can you say, “Ginny replica”?).  Note to reader: if you do decide to make this a children’s story you might want to edit things a bit.  Just say our little pony and dog are now asleep on Mars, waiting for their human friends to get there someday.  It sounds much better than, “we just left them there”.

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

O-Love

I like a lot of foods people seem to hate. My favorite Thanksgiving pie is mincemeat, not pumpkin. My favorite licorice color is black (red is just a licorice imposter). You can heap any kind of shellfish you want on my plate except oysters. You’ll find blue cheese in my salad and Brussel sprouts cozying up to my steak. But what about “America’s Most Hated Food”? Was I born in the wrong country? Sorry fellow citizens, I must respectfully disagree with the winner of a recent survey on hated foods.  Black or green, stuffed or plain, sliced or diced, there’s nothing quite like the taste of an olive.

Zippia is a job-search engine I’d never heard of, until I came across their just-released survey called The Food Each State Hates the Most.  Zippia’s road to its results is rather unscientific.  First, come up with a list of forty-odd foods where people tend to say, “gross”.  Then, use Google Search Trends to determine which of these foods people look up the least.  Finally, group the search results by state.  After that meandering highway, here’s what you get:

    (Click image to enlarge)

I think Zippia produces these surveys as a clever way to attract customers.  Didn’t work for me – they just insulted my taste buds!  Thirteen of fifty states claim the olive as their most hated food?  Two of those states are California and Georgia, where the lion’s share of America’s olives is grown.  I’m already suspicious.

Not a pile of tires

I’ll grant Zippia’s survey this.  Most people I know don’t care for olives.  They don’t like the look or the smell, and even though they’ll admit to olive oil in their salads and heart-healthy recipes, they’ll still deny any affection for the fruit.  Yes, I said fruit, not vegetable.  Doesn’t that make those little sodium balls a bit more palatable?

The rest of the survey, I can buy.  Anchovies shouldn’t swim anywhere near a pizza (good call, America’s Heartland).  Washington and Oregon residents probably sat next to me in elementary school, overdosing on bologna sandwiches.  Eggplant, ick.  And beets… beets… I’m almost sixty years into this world and have yet to acquire the taste.  Check back with me in the next life.

If the Zippia survey is to be believed, I live in a state where turkey bacon is our most hated food.  Really?  We just bought several pounds of the stuff last weekend at Costco.  It’s not so bad.  On the other hand, olive oil and vinegar stores are trendy around here.  Most markets have an olive bar adjacent to the cheeses.  Meats and breads have been enhanced with bits of olives for years.  And for the really fancy, serve a tapenade with your crackers; a French spread made of finely chopped olives, capers, and anchovies.  Okay, so tapenade’s probably not for everyone.  But I like it.

I developed a taste for olives as a kid because my mother kept tossing them into her casseroles.  Before I knew it I was eating olives as a snack (and what kid hasn’t done the “wave” with one on each finger?)  One regrettable afternoon I downed a whole can of the large black ones before discovering my mother intended them for one of her recipes.  Believe I went to bed with no dinner that night.  At least my belly was full of olives.

[Side note: The only member of my family who likes olives is my daughter.  Maybe I should’ve named her Olivia? I did have a childhood crush on Olivia Newton-John.]

Not “monster eyeballs”

As if you need more proof of my love of olives, you’ll always find several cans in my pantry.  The sliced ones go into my pizzas, salads, and tacos.  The diced ones go into my omelets.  The whole ones sneak onto vegetable trays next to the carrots and celery (when my wife isn’t looking) or I just down ’em by the can.  And their green siblings with the red pimentos jammed down the middle?  They go perfectly with chips ‘n’ dip in front of the TV.

Step aside, America.  Spain produces more olives than any other country.  Italy and Greece aren’t far behind.  It would be appealing enough to live on the sands of the Mediterranean, growing old on their uber-healthy diet.  But also having trees of “America’s Most Hated Food” everywhere you look?  That clinches the deal.  I just might take my O-Love overseas one of these days.

Some content sourced from the Zippia.com article, “The Food Each State Hates The Most”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Dots ‘n’ Dashes

Back in my days in the Boy Scouts, they had a merit badge called “Signaling”. To earn the badge you had to build a basic communication device (buzzer, blinker) and demonstrate a knowledge of Semaphore – visual signaling by flags – and Morse – audible signaling by “dots” and “dashes”. Today most people wouldn’t have a clue about Semaphore, and their only familiarity with Morse might be from the frantic telegraph typing in the movie Titanic.  Dots ‘n’ dashes have stepped down, more associated with the mundane pavement markings of the streets we drive.  Well hey, at least they’re still signaling devices.

“Dashing through the… street…”

Let’s talk about street dashes first.  The highway to our rural neighborhood was recently restriped, mostly dashes but occasionally a solid for safety’s sake.  Some lanes were shifted, and they just covered up the old stripes with blackish paint similar to the asphalt below.  But my car was not fooled, no sir.  It still sees the old striping.  Anytime I pass over those areas my car’s “lane-keeping assist” emits an audible warning and tries to bump me back onto the road, when in fact I’m just passing over covered-up stripes.  That’s annoying.  Either car tech needs to improve or road striping needs to come up with a better cover.  Until one or the other happens I’m all over the road.

Here’s an even better story about dashes.  Long ago, my parents were driving my brothers and me back from my grandparents’ house.  We were cruising along a paved winding road late at night when all of a sudden my dad gets to wondering about those highway dashes.  He starts to guess – if you measured one, how long would a dash be?  Talk about useless information, right?  But then, right in the middle of a darkened highway, no cars in the rear-view mirror, my father stops the car, gets out, and starts measuring a dash, foot-in-front-of-foot like he’s taking a sobriety test.  Then he gets back into the car and announces proudly, “six feet”.  Think about that the next time you pass those stripes at forty miles an hour.  (But please, don’t get out and actually measure one).

California highways are usually dotted, not dashed.

Now let’s talk about street dots.  You know, those round, non-reflective raised pavement markers used to designate lanes and borders and such?  They’re actually called Botts’ dots.  It’s a name I’ve known since childhood because I grew up in California where they were invented.  California has over 25 million of the little guys marking its endless streets.  And if you must know, Botts’ dots were named for their inventor, Elbert Dysart Botts (and how’s that for a mouthful?)

Kinda cute, right?

Botts’ dots might’ve never been a thing were it not for their total makeover.  At first they were glass discs attached to the road with nails. (How’d you like to have that job?  Whack, whack, whack!).  But then they started popping loose, and people got flat tires from the nails and the broken glass.  So Botts (or a coworker) devised a hard plastic to replace the glass and an asphalt-friendly epoxy to replace the nails.  Now the dots – and the speeding cars above them – stay where they’re supposed to.

But now Botts’ dots have a whole new challenge.  We face a future with self-driving cars.  Turns out, Botts’ dots mess with that technology.  The car may or may not recognize a dot as the border of a lane.  That’s not good when you put your steering wheel in the hands of a robo-chauffeur.  But can you imagine the task of removing 25 million Botts’ dots?  That’s worse than hammering them in one by one!

Botts’ dots may go the way of the telegraph.

Over here in rural Colorado, I got pretty excited about the prospect of California surrendering all of its Botts’ dots.  We can use ’em.  You see, out here we have mostly two-lane highways divided by dashes, or occasionally solid lines instead of the dashes (don’t pass!), or very occasionally the luxury of a defined left-turn lane.  But “dash-it-all” when it snows.  You not only lose the striping, you lose the road.  At least a Bott’s dot would make noise and give you a jolt to let you know you’re not about to cruise into somebody’s cow pasture.

Alas, my dream of millions of Botts’ dots flying over the Rocky Mountains died before it was born.  Turns out the asphalt epoxy of a Botts’ dot cannot compete with the combined weight and speed of a snowplow.  The dots’d go flying every which way from the snowplow blade, like hundreds of tiny shuffleboard discs.  Ping! Ping! Ping!

Signaling merit badge was retired by the Boy Scouts in 1992 (yet another reminder of my advancing age).  Looks like the Botts’ dot is headed for a similar scrap heap, at least if self-driving cars become more mainstream.  Meanwhile, you’ll find me out in my neighborhood navigating the painted dashes.  Even if I do prefer the dots.

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

Chocolate Cremè de la Cremè

Godiva, the incomparable Belgian chocolate maker, is closing every one of its retail shops in North America.  Maybe you’re blaming the pandemic but Godiva claims foot traffic at shopping malls – where most of its boutiques are located – “plummeted” over the last few years.  I’m sorry to see Godiva go.  Mind you, it’s not that I make a habit of buying $3 truffles.  It’s more the idea that I could if I wanted to.

Godiva is the cremè de la cremè of chocolate.  Their products are born of a family business dating back to 1926.  Their Truffe Originale, “an intense dark chocolate mousse in fine dark chocolate, rolled in pure cocoa powder”, is the standard by which most Belgian truffles are measured.  Godiva’s three chefs are profiled on its website (I discuss one of them in my post Confection Perfection), and endeavor to maintain the very high standards of Godiva while churning out new and different creations.  It’s no wonder Godiva isn’t considered a “candy store” or a “chocolate shop” but rather a chocolatier.  Only the very best get a label like that.

Godiva’s handcrafted “gold box” assortment

To me, Godiva chocolate is a taste of heaven on earth.  But it’s also a taste of a lifestyle – one most of us will never afford.  Godiva has me picturing mansions (not houses), yachts (not boats), private planes (not the middle seat in coach).  Godiva is a brief, delicious dip into the behind-the-gates world of the uber-wealthy.

I’ve stepped into a Godiva chocolatier exactly twice in my life.  The first was in college, after a visit to the Rizzoli bookstore at exclusive Water Tower Place in downtown Chicago.  After spending too much money at Rizzoli I was in the perfect mindset for Godiva (which was right next door).  I still remember selecting a single truffle from the glass display case.  The petit woman behind the counter wrapped up my tiny purchase in box, bow, and bag, as if I’d just purchased a fine piece of jewelry. She bid me a fond farewell.  I walked out of there feeling, well, special.

Would you pay $20 for six truffles?

My only other visit to Godiva was more recently with my wife and daughter, on a Saturday at one of Denver’s nicer shopping malls.  We’d just come out of Starbucks, coffees in hand, and there beckoned Godiva.  After much deliberation, we spent the better part of $10 and walked away with three truffles.  I’m sure they were elegantly wrapped.  I’m also sure they were delicious.  But with Godiva, it’s more about the taste of something beyond your means.  That taste may be more satisfying than Godiva chocolate itself.

Tiffany & Co, NYC

Tiffany is a comparable experience (as I wrote about in my post All That Glitters).  Walk past the front-door security guard into their multi-level department store in downtown Manhattan.  Your first thought will be either, “I don’t belong here”, or, “I’m underdressed”.  Ooh and ahh at their lavish necklaces, bracelets and rings, but don’t expect to see price tags.  Like Godiva, Tiffany’s best is behind glass and you have to ask a staff member about the cost.  My wife and I made it to Tiffany’s fifth floor before we found something we could afford – a pair of ceramic coffee mugs.  At least we also walked away with their signature blue gift boxes.

Think twice before entering!

Then there’s Prada, the Italian fashion house famous for its luxurious leather handbags and shoes.  My twelve-year-old daughter dragged me into their Madison Avenue boutique once (past the requisite security guard) but I realized our mistake as soon as we entered.  Prada displays maybe a dozen items in a single museum-like showroom, each carefully positioned on an individually lit shelf.  You are invited to sit on the central couch and offered a choice of beverage.  Then a person brings you items of your choosing (but don’t touch!).  Once I realized Prada purses start at $1,000, I asked my very disappointed daughter if maybe she’d like to go for ice cream instead.

Godiva’s tiny “biscuits”… $0.75 ea.

Godiva’s North America retail shops will be gone by March, but you’ll still have other options to purchase.  You can find small displays of their products at the cash registers of upscale department stores.  You can order most of their delicacies online (including “Gold Box” assortments, which cost more than you can afford).  You’ll even find Godiva’s “Signature Mini Bars” at lowly retailers like Target and Walgreen’s.  But let’s face it, Godiva is as much about the experience as it is the chocolate, and I’m just not gonna feel uber-rich when I’m at Target.

Some content sourced from the 1/24/2021 CNN.com article, “Godiva is closing or selling all of its stores in the United States”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

It’s Raining DONUTS!

Pikes Peak, the majestic 14,000′ mountain nestled in the Colorado Rockies west of Colorado Springs, is getting a major makeover.  Okay, maybe not the mountain itself.  Her nine-mile Cog Railway reopens in 2021 with new train cars and tracks to carry visitors to the summit.  Her Manitou Incline, the one-mile ladder-like hiking trail up her eastern flank, has been improved for safer climbing.  Finally, her Summit House visitor center is being replaced – sixty years after the original – with a state-of-the-art glass jewel.

“America’s Mountain” in the Colorado Rockies

Local folks like me only have one concern with all this Pikes Peak activity: the donuts.  What’re they gonna do about the donuts?

You can drive, hike, or take the Cog Railway to the top of Pikes Peak, but you’ll always stop in at the visitor center once you get there.  It’s the only thing you’ll find on the tiny summit beside the stunning views of the world below.  Maybe you’ll purchase a supremely tacky, overpriced souvenir while you’re there.  Maybe you’ll need a bathroom break.  Whatever you do, you will buy a donut.  Pikes Peak’s “World Famous” treats are sort of a reward for making it to 14,000 feet.  Okay, so they’re not Krispy Kreme but they’re not terrible either.  Just eat them at altitude.  Once you begin your trek down the mountain they collapse into a mushy mess and they’re awful.

When I first realized the Summit House was getting demolished instead of remodeled my thoughts went straight to the donut machine.  What are they gonna do with the donut machine?  The “Belshaw Mark VI Donut Robot” delivered its final batch last week before someone pulled its plug.  The Mark VI is a mechanical marvel.  It can produce 700 donuts an hour (the summertime demand for Pikes Peak).  The Mark VI endlessly dispenses the raw dough, four rings in a row, and creates donuts through a conveyer system of automated frying, rotating, and dispensing.  Leave it on for twenty-four hours and it’ll pile up 17,000 of the little buggers.

Meanwhile, the new visitor center is getting a new donut machine.  Maybe it’s the latest model of Belshaw’s Donut Robot and makes 1,000 donuts an hour.  Maybe the donuts taste more like Krispy Kreme.  Whatever it can do, this machine is a beast.  It’s so big they had to use a crane to lift it into the building before they even closed up the walls.

If I’m the old Mark VI Donut Robot I’m not happy about being replaced, not at all.  I mean, c’mon! I faithfully produced thousands of donuts day in and day out for decades!  I’m not yesterday’s news just yet!  Why not let me keep my job instead of giving all the love to a newer model? No siree Bob, I’m not gonna take it.  I need to make some sort of statementY’know, demonstrate the extent of my discontent.

OH MAN, can’t you just picture it?  Standing down on the streets of Colorado Springs one morning you suddenly hear this massive BAH-BOOM from the direction of Pikes Peak.  Sidewalks start shaking and people start pointing.  You look up to the mountain and there’s a freaking volcano blowing its top.  A huge column of fire rises to the heavens.  The sky is instantly air-brushed with white smoke.  There’s ash raining down in every direction.  Except, wait, it’s not ash it’s…. it’s…. it’s donuts.

The rain of donuts, of course, is the Mark VI Donut Robot run amok.  In its desperate attempt not to be overlooked it starts making donuts like crazy.  Four at a time, plop-plop-plop-plop, fry, rotate, dispense.  Faster and faster and faster, until its conveyor builds up a big head of steam and starts to break apart.  Then the whole thing just blows up.  Boom

Down and further down come the donuts.  Rolling by the hundreds along the hiking trails.  Bobbing down the rivers and creeks like mini inner tubes.  Ricocheting off the pine trees as they come back to earth until they just go poof! in a cloud of powdered-sugar smithereens.  Decorating the rocks and trees with a cream-filling look of snow.  Piling up in the low spots like generous helpings of oversized Cheerios.  Clogging up the cog railway so the only way the train gets to the summit is for the riders to get off the train and start eating.

The Mark VI may have imploded but man what a way to get noticed, right?

Truth be told, there’s an aftermarket for Belshaw’s Mark VI Donut Robot.  Do the Google search if you don’t believe me.  A used one runs $15,899 plus $600 for shipping, and don’t look now; they take credit cards and toss in a limited warranty!  Just think what you could do with 700 donuts an hour. All you have to do is click the “Buy It Now” button on the website.  But one more thing before you do.  Ask the seller if their Mark VI has given them attitude lately.  Like it used to be on a majestic mountaintop or something wacky like that.

Note: This post would not even be a whisper of a thought were it not for Robert McCloskey and his wonderful children’s book, Homer Price.  In Homer’s short story “The Doughnuts”, a restaurant donut machine goes bonkers and starts dispensing hundreds upon hundreds.  How the town resolves this donut deluge makes for a great story.  Thanks, Robert.

Some content sourced from the KKTV 11 News story, “Final Batch of Pikes Peak Donuts…”, and the Thrillist.com article, “You Can Only Get These Incredible Donuts at the Top of a Mountain in Colorado”.

Halloween’s Element of Surprise

Same ol’, same ol’… sigh…

Our grocer dedicates an entire aisle to Halloween this time of year.  It’s a pile-on of kid costumes, yard decor, plastic jack-o’-lanterns, and party supplies.  You’ll also find massive bags of assorted small candies, enough to load up your front door bowl with a single pour.  These treats are individually wrapped and brand-familiar to carefully conform to the holiday’s “safe standards”.  In other words, there’s no element of surprise in all that sugar.

When was the last time you were treated to a little something you didn’t expect?  Here’s a good example.  My wife and I traveled to Texas last weekend to visit our son.  As we settled into the hotel room we noticed a tray on the table with two bottles of water and a couple of wrapped candies.  Not so unusual.  But then we read the little card next to the tray.  Not only was the water free of charge (hotels typically stick it to you with bottled water) but the candies were handmade salted caramels from a local culinary kitchen.  Suddenly I’m thinking, “What a nice hotel!”

Perhaps you know a few other hotels with the same gesture, as Doubletree does with its chocolate-chip cookies (see Calories of Contentment for more on that).  But unlike our Texas hotel, Doubletree always goes with the chocolate-chip cookies.  Stay there enough and you come to expect them.  No surprise.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Halloween today.  You still get the occasional trick (TP in the trees?  Shaving cream in the pumpkins?) but the “or-treat” routine has been reduced to just that – routine.  Think about a child’s anticipation for the big night.  Hours spent making sure their costume stands out in a crowd.  Miles spent covering sidewalks and front walks.  Fingers spent on doorbells and knockers, all so they can get, what… another fun-size Hershey bar?  Where-oh-where is the element of surprise?

Mom’s Halloween treats

Back in the “ol’ days” (because I’m feeling old today) a lot of front-door Halloween treats were homemade.  People handed out family-recipe popcorn balls and caramel apples.  My mother made the frosted ginger pumpkin cookies you see here.  A guy down the street dressed as Dracula and manned a little round grill in his driveway, handing out barbecued hot dog bites on toothpicks.  You never knew what you’d walk away with until you made it to the next house.

A mini pumpkin has zero HTV

Creative treats only boosted the night’s excitement back then.  I remember catching up with friends in the darkened streets to compare the collective efforts in our bags.  More importantly, the wide variety of treats upped the ante on what one candy-ranking opinion piece referred to as “HTV” or Halloween Trade Value.  After all, the most important event of the night was the post trick-or-treat trade, right?  You’d spill the contents of your pillowcase into a big pile on the floor and the back-n-forth would begin.  “I’ll give you three rolls of Smarties and a Baby Ruth for your Charleston Chew”.  Yes, friends, those were the days.

Everything changed when Halloween lost its young-and-innocent status.  Parents inspected treat bags to filter out anything remotely suspicious.  Homemade items only made it as far as the next-door neighbor’s kids or backyard Halloween parties.  Suddenly a treat didn’t pass muster if it wasn’t recognizable and wrapped.  The creative license of trick-or-treating has expired.

But hold on now.  What about the other 364 days of the year?  Can’t the element of surprise show up on one or more of those?  Can’t we still be caught off guard… in a good way?

Here’s an attempt.  At least two companies offer monthly treats by subscription and you have no idea what’s coming.  SnackCrate describes its product as “a world of snack surprises – monthly”.  TryTreats advertises “each month’s box will feature snacks from a different country in the world.  The country you’ll receive is a secret until you receive the box!”  Kind of a spin on my ol’-days Halloween nights, don’t you think?

Speaking of treats I think the dog got wind of this topic.  The other night I prepped his dinner with the usual two cups of kibble topped with a few bits of lunch meat.  He ate the bits but left the kibble.  He’s never done that before.  Maybe he’s bored with it?  I need to shake things up.  Throw in a few doggie treats.  Add the ol’ Halloween element of surprise and get his tail wagging again.

Flying Furballs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boo!”

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

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

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

This is wrong on so many levels…

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

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

“I’ll get you, my pretty…”

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

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

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

The Ghost of Saint Francis

“Saint Francis” (Digital Art by Randy Wollenmann)

I’ve long been a fan of the Google Calendar app, even after switching my mobile from Android to Apple. Google Calendar allows the option to add “Christian Holidays” so I promptly checked the box. We’re talking Christmas and Easter of course, but how about the Feast Day of Saint Francis (last Sunday), Saint David (3/1), and Saint Patrick (3/17)? Saint Patrick sure, but why also Francis and David? There are hundreds of saints yet Google chose just three. My curiosity was piqued.

So begins my beyond-the-grave story, perfect with Halloween on the horizon. Google’s choice of saint days got me wondering if there’s a spectral connection between me (David) and Francis. So I dove into the details. Now all I can say is, be careful what you wonder about.

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy

The quick history of Francis. He’s the patron saint of animals. He was an Italian living in the 1200s from the central hill town of Assisi. Francis grew up wealthy but abandoned his riches to serve the Church and the poor. But it’s the animals that make him so popular among today’s saints. He (supposedly) communicated with wolves. He often preached to flocks of birds. He built the very first Christmas crèche, including live animals alongside the manger.

Now then, my Francis ghost story. Let’s cover this spookiness from present to past. I’ve discovered a pattern of events that has me convinced Saint Francis is trying to reach out. As a matter of fact, he’s been in touch every ten years back to when I was a baby. If you agree you can see why I’m expecting another “call” in 2023.

  • 2013: I’ve told you Francis is the patron saint of animals but guess what? He’s also the patron saint of avoiding fires. In June 2013, my family and I evacuated our Colorado house for a week (horses and dogs in tow) to escape one of the worst fires in our state’s history. When we returned, our house was not only intact but had no smoke damage. Meanwhile, over 500 properties within a five-mile radius were completely destroyed.

  • (Also in) 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope. He promptly changed his name to Francis. There have been 266 Popes in history, but Cardinal Bergoglio is the very first to select the name “Francis”.

  • 2003: The Front Range of the Colorado Rockies experienced one of the worst blizzards in our state’s history. In a matter of hours a single storm dropped over thirty inches of snow, with drifts of five feet or more. My family and I were snow-locked in our house for over a week. 100,000 residents lost power while 4,000 travelers were stuck at the international airport in Denver. Saint Francis is also the patron saint of the environment. Was he making his presence felt with unprecedented weather?
    Assisi’s sister city

  • 1993: My family and I moved from San Francisco to Colorado. San Francisco (named for Francis) is the sister city of his birth town of Assisi. But here’s where I really paused. Francis is also the patron saint of… Colorado. And how many other U.S. states chose Francis as their patron saint? Zero.

  • 1983: I’m in my junior year in college, studying abroad in Italy. The patron saint of Italy is… Francis, of course. I also traveled to Assisi while I was there, including a visit to the church where Francis is buried. This is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy.

  • 1973: Acclaimed biographer Ira Peck writes, The Life and Words of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a short read, with easy language intended for middle-schoolers. Where was I in 1973? Starting my first year of middle school.

  • 1963: On March 21st, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed for good after thirty years. Alcatraz is the famous island prison in the San Francisco Bay. What does Alcatraz have to do with my ghost?  Back in 1202, a young Francis was thrown in prison for a year, captured while serving a military effort. His spiritual conversion from wealthy patron to humble priest, it is said, took place during this time in prison.

Our Saint Francis statue

And there you have it. Every ten years – starting the year after I was born – Saint Francis seems to have reached out to me. Oh, one more thing.  My wife and I have a statue of Saint Francis in our garden. “Of course you do”, says Francis.  He’s been standing quietly there for years, facing the house, just keeping his eye on us.

Francis will reach out to me again in 2023, I’m sure of it now. He’ll find another way to make his presence felt. When I read up on him I noted he’s also the patron saint against dying alone and the patron saint of needleworkers. Against dying alone? Am I destined to perish alongside several others in 2023? That’s not very nice of you, Francis.  I’d better take up knitting.

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

Calories of Contentment

The other night – too late for a grocery store run but with few options in the pantry – my wife and I split a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. No spicing things up, no healthy side of vegetables to lessen the guilt – just a heaping bowl of the little pasta elbows with powdered cheese. MAN did that taste good. I promptly considered a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert but caught myself just in time. Whoa, boy. Who says there’s no traveling during the pandemic?  I’ve made the journey to the land of comfort foods!

A little context before we explore the calories of contentment.  After the kids moved out of the house several years ago, our diet moved decidedly to the more healthy.  We upped our fruit and vegetable count.  We focused on meals with whole foods and fewer ingredients.  We started shopping in boutique grocery stores, discovering foods and brands we never knew existed.  Dairy and starchy carbs took the back shelf to pure proteins and Mother Nature’s bounty.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this good intention, a box of Kellogg’s Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts dropped casually into my grocery basket.  I’d heard they were pretty good and I’d never tried them before, so… why not?  Then the kids came to town for a long weekend, so we just had to load up on old family favorites like Cap’n Crunch, Good Humor Creamsicles, and Red Baron frozen pizzas.

But here’s the thing.  Our kids eat so responsibly these days, sugary cereals and snack foods no longer appeal to them.  They make flourless banana pancakes and organic food “bowls”.  They nosh on healthy proteins and Boba teas.  They spend most of their time in the kitchen instead of the drive-thru.  Those comfort foods we purchased got no love, so naturally we purchased a couple more (the Kraft Mac & Cheese and Hostess Ding Dongs).  Heck, we even embellished those choices with a countertop bowl of Brach’s caramel “Royals”, and a huge container of Peanut M&M’s in a nearby cupboard.  There’s now a junk-food roadblock in front of every attempt to eat healthy.

What is going on here?  I blame the coronavirus.  Most of our processed-food pals moved into our pantry in the last six months.  All of them were impulse buys (or “moments of weakness”, or whatever else you want to call them).  No surprise though; we’re contributing to a nationwide, if not worldwide trend during this pandemic.  The world’s biggest packaged-foods manufacturers reported sales growth of 4.3% in the first three months of the year (vs. forecasts of 3%).  Canned soup purchases rose 37%, canned meat 60%, and frozen pizza 51%.  Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs flew off the shelves.

Is one of these YOUR comfort food?

In all seriousness, a turn to comfort foods is a sign of something more complicated below the surface of our psyches.  I wish I could credit nostalgia: the sentimentality for past happier times and places, or emotional eating: the propensity to consume comfort foods in response to positive/negative stimuli.  Instead, I think we’re dealing with declinism – the belief our society is heading towards a prolonged downturn or deterioration.  We’ve been here before America, as in the Depression of the 1930s, the spread of Communism in the 1950s, or the rise of Japan’s economic powerhouse in the 1970s.  In each instance our country soldiered on better than before, but that’s not to say the short-term endurance is any fun.  And that, boys and girls, is why comfort foods maintain a “healthy” presence in grocery stores and in your pantry.

Hilton Hotels rivaled the pandemic headlines when they revealed their Doubletree chocolate-chip cookie recipe to the world last April.  Talk about your classic comfort food.  Doubletree cookies have nestled on hotel pillows since the mid-1980s; a whopping 25,000,000 in less than forty years.  “We know this is an anxious time for everyone”, was Hilton’s excuse for sharing their secret.  I baked a batch as soon as I came across the headline and now I can’t seem to stop.  A heaping bag of Doubletrees now sits in our refrigerator more often than it does not.  I could probably recite the recipe from memory, and I dream about them in my sleep.  Hilton’s got me hooked.

I still haven’t tried those Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts, the preservative-filled pastries responsible for this whole mess.  All are still paired neatly in their foil packets, sitting quietly on the shelf.  The box may even be getting a little dusty.  I figure my willpower remains intact if I leave the tarts alone until their expiration date.  Er, wait – now that I think about it – Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts never expire.  Dang it; that’s a little depressing.  I’d better have a Ding Dong to cheer myself up.

Some content sourced from the 4/24/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Comfort Foods Make a Comeback in the Coronavirus Age”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.