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Weird Science

There’s something in the air at my house. No, really. There literally is. It’s odorless, colorless and, I have to presume, tasteless (not unlike my sense of humor). Let me back up a bit.

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Dramatic reenactment of the scene in our living room last night

For several weeks, there has been a strange cat (by which I mean, unknown cat; technically, all cats are strange) who prowls around our house at night. I’ve never seen him, but often observe his little pawprints in the snow when I leave for work in the morning. While it tears at my heart to think of a kitty outside in the cold, my two inside cats are less sympathetic. The presence of this intruder on the borders of their already restricted domain has made my felines tense and irritable. They’ve been scrapping more often, leaving little tufts of black and white and orange fur around the living room carpet for my mom to vacuum up. Worse, they have stepped up their habit of marking their territory by scratching on any vertical surface their sharp, little toes can reach. Mostly, this is the sofa and recliner.

This does not please my mother.

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CatScram. Cat scam!

Since every cat I’ve ever had scratched the furniture to some extent, I have had occasion to sample all the purported deterrents that clutter up the Internet. I tried CatScram, a device that emits an ultrasonic screech when a cat interrupts an infrared beam. Turns out, my cats enjoy ultrasonic screeches. Into the junk drawer it went.

I’ve tried double-sided tape. I’ve tried little plastic nail caps that have to be super-glued onto the cats’ claws. Trimming their claws only seems to rile them; immediately upon being blunted, they head straight for something upholstery-covered and get to work re-honing their pointy, pointy toes to scalpel-like keenness.

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Pretty. Ineffective.

I’ve affixed sheets of clear vinyl to the patches they tend to assault most avidly; their response is to shift a few inches to left or right and begin again. I suppose I could cover the entire sofa in plastic, like Marie did on Everybody Loves Raymond. Classy.

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Peep, demonstrating the form that made him World Sofa Scratching Champion three years running

What about scratching posts, you are no doubt shouting. Please. There isn’t a sisal-, carpet-, burlap- or corrugated cardboard-covered edifice that hasn’t occupied some corner of the living room – and subsequently, some disused corner of the basement.

Increasingly desperate to curb the cats’ increasingly destructive tendencies, I recently turned to science. I ordered two – count ‘em, TWO – varieties of Feliway products. These plug-in devices emit “a natural substance, odorless to humans, that mimics a cat’s facial pheromones to calm cats in stressful environments.”

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Feli(no)way

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Pheremone perfume: includes magical chemicals designed to attract the lonely and gullible (me)

Ah, pheromones. I am familiar with this concept, having once spent an absurd amount of money on a bottle of pheromone-laced perfume that promised to perk up my love life. How well did it work? I invite you to scroll to the top of this page and read the name of this blog on the banner.

Whether human beings produce and are affected by pheromones is controversial. But it’s pretty well accepted that animals use these chemical signals for all kinds of things, from attracting a mate to declaring their dominance to staking a claim on their favorite scratchin’ sofa.

Since Peep and Remington have been beating up on each other as well as the furniture, I selected two Feliway products: ComfortZone Multicat Diffuser, “proven to help reduce tension + conflict in multicat homes,” and plain, old ComfortZone, which purports to “prevent urine marking and scratching.” The label declares it “clinically proven to be 95% effective!”

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Remington faces his foe

It seems I have the extraordinary luck to share my life with TWO members of that elite 5% who have no respect for science or the dedicated, white-coated technicians who toiled to produce this chemical marvel. I do have to wonder whether this clinical testing was done with real cats, or “simulated” fur friends like those robot cats they’re trying to pawn off on lonely senior citizens.

These are seriously creepy, by the way. I ABSOLUTELY need one.

In any case, since I found the cats tearing each other’s fur out DIRECTLY UNDERNEATH the “tension-reducing” diffuser last night, I don’t hold out much hope that this foray into high-tech deterrents is going to be anything less than “100% ineffective!” Time to try something else. Anybody know a good cat therapist?

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I Feel Like Chicken Tonight

A few decades ago, a stuffing mix company ran a commercial that featured a couple of kids making dinner plans.

Kid 1: You wanna eat over at my place tonight?

Kid 2: Whatcha havin’?

Kid1: Chicken.

Kid 2 (with disgust): Just chicken?

Now, the only appropriate response to this is, “Yes. Just chicken. If you don’t like it, go eat at your own place, jerk.” However, perhaps because her boy is socially awkward and doesn’t make friends easily, Kid 1’s mom intervenes to assure the ill-bred youngster that no, it’s not JUST chicken. It’s chicken with Stovetop Stuffing.

Kid 2: Oh, boy! Stovetop Stuffing. I’m staying!

Now at this point, I would have responded in my best Soup Nazi voice, “But no stuffing for you.” I suppose I wouldn’t go very far in the advertising biz.

Anyway … chicken. I’m not sure there’s really any reason to prepare it any other way than fried. However, in this world that craves novelty and excitement, there is always some innovation in the chicken world.

43417152_sFun fact! Did you know that Gallus gallus domesticus (the ordinary chicken) is a subspecies of the red junglefowl? There were 19 billion chickens on earth in 2011, which is almost three times as many birds as humans walking the planet. Theoretically, if they banded together under one charismatic chicken general, they could take over. See how well you sleep nights thinking about that.

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The Noble Red Junglefowl

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The Wonderful World of Chickens

Occasionally I get the notion that I need a live chicken or two. Not plain old gallus domesticus, mind you. I want one of those fancy chickens that harken back to their fierce jungle heritage. And apparently keeping chickens as housepets is a thing. You diaper them (which seems like it would involve quite a lot of fuss) and let them wander around the living room. Once I was very excited to find a website selling “chicken saddles.” I pictured a sprightly bantam galloping among my coneflowers and hydrangea with a teacup monkey in a tiny cowboy hat riding on its back. Turns out, chicken “saddles” are actually chicken chastity belts, designed to keep roosters from … harassing … the hens. Ugh. Men.

 

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Much like humans with a bladder control issue, chickens prefer stylish, rather than purely utilitarian, diapers.

Even without the monkey (note to self: check Amazon Prime for the availability of teacup monkeys), it’s likely my fantasy world in which frilly-feathered fowl adorn my lawn would prove a disappointment in real life. It’s my understanding that actual chickens are loud and dirty and kinda mean. I suppose I can’t blame them, at least for the meanness. The average chicken’s life – even the lucky ones who live on free range farms – is, in the words of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short.” Chickens and humans are alike in that way. So why can’t we be friends?

 

The point of these musings is to introduce my latest recipe. It originated as a way to finally use that jar of Dried Tomato & Garlic Pesto I’ve had in the cabinet since I started at Tastefully Simple in 2003. Alas, when it came time to get cookin’, that dusty old shaker jar had disappeared. So I had to improvise, using another product that was almost as dated: Sweet Pepper Dip Mix. Here’s my recipe for …

Pesto-less Pesto-Stuffed Chicken Breasts (adapted from this recipe).

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This week’s star players …

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 Tbsp. Dried Tomato & Garlic Pesto Mix (if you have it; I used Sweet Pepper Dip Mix)
1 1/2 Tbsp. Balsamic & Basil Dipping Oil
1 Tbsp. water
4 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese, divided
3 Tbsp. sour cream
2 Tbsp grated or shredded mozzarella cheese
1 egg, beaten
3 Tbsp. Crunchy Sesame Pretzel Breading

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Not exactly pesto. But close enough.

Prepare the Pesto (or, in my case, notPesto), combining the Dried Tomato & Garlic Pesto Mix (in my case, Sweet Pepper Dip Mix), Balsamic & Basil Dipping Oil, and water and microwaving on high for 1 minute. Let stand 5 minutes, then stir in 1 Tbsp. of the Parmesan cheese.

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Spray an 8 x 8 baking pan with vegetable oil.

 

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Chicken breasts rinsed, dried and unmolested.

Rinse chicken breasts and pat dry. Treat them gently, giving them no hint of the brutality to come. It’s kinder that way.

Place each chicken breast in a sturdy plastic bag and place it on a cutting board. Then beat the hell out of it with a hammer, meat tenderizer, brick, bat, or whatever blunt instrument you have to hand. The idea is to flatten these babies out. It’s also a therapeutic way to take out one’s aggression over the many disappointments in this world:

“There are only two more new episodes of X Files left!” (WHACK)

“I’m stuck in a dead-end job until I die!” (POW)

“Amazon doesn’t even sell teacup monkeys!” (SLAM)

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Chicken breasts, after pummeling

Once the breasts are flat, whisper your remorse to them quietly and set them aside.

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Pseudopesto goo, in its natural state

Next, mix the pesto/notpesto, sour cream and mozzarella cheese into a thick goo.

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Goo-besmeared, beaten-up chicken breasts. There is no dignity if you are a chicken.

Spread the goo on the flattened chicken breasts.

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Hey, would YOU look pretty if you’d been treated the way these have?

Roll the chicken breasts as tightly as you can manage and secure them with a toothpick.

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Powdered and pretty for the oven

Mix together the Crunchy Sesame Pretzel Breading and 3 remaining Tbsp. Parmesan cheese together in a shallow dish. Dip each chicken roll first in the beaten egg, then roll it in the breading mix until well coated. Place the rolls seamside-down in the baking pan.

Bake until the chicken is brown and cooked through (around 30 minutes).

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Alas, poor Gallus. I knew him well.

Serve it hot and eat it slowly, reflecting with each succulent bite on the twist of fate that made you a human eating a chicken, and not a chicken eating a human. Evolution is capricious.

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In an episode of “Primeval,” the humans were nearly victimized by giant, prehistoric Terror Birds. So in an alternate universe, the stuffed hunk o’meat could be YOU.

 

 

 

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That Damned? Cat

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Peep, communing with …?

I’m pretty sure there’s a Hell Mouth in my living room. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why my cat Peep has suddenly taken to jumping up on the coffee table and staring intently into the dark rectangle of a turned-off digital photo frame. He crouches, his nose almost touching the screen and the tip of his tail twitching uneasily, for as long as half an hour at a time. Turn the frame on to reveal the photo slideshow and he loses interest immediately; turn it off and he’s up there in an instant, squinting into the depths of who-knows-what strange world only he can see.

Cats can be spooky animals. I think every cat owner has had the experience of watching their animal hiss at an apparently empty patch of wall or suddenly leap into the air, yowling as if something unseen just gave them a good poke.

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Example of spirit orbs

I have a niece who is passionate about “orbs,” those luminous specks that sometimes appear on photos. I’m inclined to attribute them to dust on the lens, but she professes the surprisingly common belief that they are in fact the spirits of the dead hanging around, unseen by all except the unblinking eye of the camera (and, it would seem, the cat). Our house is FULL of orbs, judging by the frequency with which they show up in family pictures. To my knowledge, our house was not built on an old Indian burial ground, nor have any of our family been in the habit of summoning netherworlders through weekly séances as Dan Ackroyd’s folks apparently did. (I know, right? Weird.)

Presumably, then, if Peep is communicating with someone on the Other Side … it must be someone we know.

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Mr. Fuzzy, contemplating his next bit of mischief.

For a while I half-believed my mom’s late cat, Mr. Fuzzy, was my Dad reincarnated. He showed up under the deck not long after Dad passed away. Daddy had lost his adored springer spaniel Ralph a few years before his own death, and I know he longed for another furry companion in the few years that he survived his sweet dog. He was always disappointed when I didn’t bring my own cat, Puddin’, when I came for a weekend visit.

Mr. Fuzzy shared some characteristics of my Pops, in particular making my mom’s life more difficult by being stubborn, ornery and often underfoot. He liked to lay on top of Mom’s dresser, next to the photos of Dad as a young serviceman and an old man, and at night he slept beside mom on dad’s pillow. Sadly, Mr. Fuzzy crossed the Rainbow Bridge a few years ago. Assuming Mr. Fuzzy gave up a ghost (Dad’s) when he gave up the ghost (his own), it may be that the cat who came to take his place, Peep, is attuned to Daddy’s now disembodied presence in the house.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. Unlike a number of other people I know, I’ve never had any experiences that could be considered “paranormal.” And I’m kinda okay with that. Frankly, as much as I love and miss my father, suddenly seeing him sitting in the recliner, like Dana Scully did in that one episode of “The X Files,” or hearing his voice calling me “the little one” as he did in life, would scare the hell out of me. Still, it’s nice to imagine he might be close by, chatting with Peep and chuckling at how creeped out Mom and I are about the whole staring-at-the-photo-frame thing. Dad always did enjoy a good practical joke.

 

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My Funny Valentine

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What planet is this? I want to go to there.

I’m not one of those singles who gets all bitter and surly on Valentine’s Day. Nope, I’m bitter and surly pretty much every day. That said, February 14 can be a bit wearing for those of us without a partner. Once, while doing research for a presentation to a church youth group on being single (I’m the go-to in the parish for an example of being “called to a life of chastity.” Yay me.), I discovered a statistic that 99.4% of all human beings will “form a pair-bond” at some point in their lives.

Well, that’s discouraging. So who are those other five people? Is there a club T-shirt?

Honestly, I’m perfectly content with my solo life at least 99.4% of the time. Yet, despite my mom once telling her lady friends, “Keri just isn’t interested in men” – words that perhaps conveyed a very different impression than she intended – I am in fact a hopeless romantic. Occasionally my heart has yearned toward some actual person: there was the boy I pined for all through high school (I have a he-didn’t-ask-me-to-prom story more anguished and tragic than anything in one of those sparkly vampire movies); a professional pianist who was almost certainly in the closet; my former chiropractor, who I paid for sassy banter, rather than actual treatment; a theatre major from grad school (OMG, he was a dissolute cad); and a few others even more mortifying. All were, of course, unrequited.

Mostly, though, I have always gotten my cheap thrills from ‘shipping fictional couples. Indeed, I can trace the course of my life by the TV lovers I was obsessed with at the time. How many of these do you recognize?

Myloves

  • Anne & Gilbert (young Canadians in love!)
  • Elizabeth & Darcy (young Colin Firth in love!)
  • Laura & Remington (young private investigators in love!)
  • Lee & Amanda (young spies in love!)
  • Jack & Jennifer (young journalists in love!)
  • Rose & Ten (800-year-old Time Lord and age-inappropriate companion in love!)
  • Kid & Lou (young cowboys in love! Note: These were not Brokeback Mountain cowboys; Lou was a girl)
  • Sheridan & Delenn (young-ish cross-species diplomats in love!)
  • Mulder & Scully (young alien hunters in love!)
  • Connor & Abby (young dinosaur-fighters in love!)
  • Bob & Peggy (senior citizen bed-and-breakfast owners in love!)

Based on what I hear from the coupled people around me at work, these vicarious fictional relationships are at least as satisfying as the real thing. So this Sunday, while 99.4% of you will be pretending to be having a good time with your bouquets of roses and boxes of chocolates and candlelit dinners and wild, passionate sex, I will be curled up on the couch with my cats, my DVD collection and these:

Lava-Me-Alone Valentine Heart Cakes (adapted from this recipe)

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Basic ingredients.

Tastefully Simple Truffle Fudge Brownie Mix
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
½ cup TS Creamy Caramel Sauce, Raspberry Divine Sauce, Sea Salt Fudge Sauce or some other gooey sweet stuff. I chose Raspberry Divine Sauce (no longer available) because it has been in the pantry longest)

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There are many tasty sauce options available.

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My mini heart pan. Muffin tins or ramekins would also work, possibly better.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Whisk eggs and egg yolks until foamy. Add brownie mix and melted butter; mix until blended. Fold in sauce. Pour into heart-shaped mini-cake pans (alternately muffin tins or ramekins with paper liners), about ¾ full. Bake 15-17 minutes or until edges are set and centers are slightly dry but still jiggly. Allow to cool in pan 5 minutes, then carefully remove cakes pan. Sift with powdered sugar and drizzle with additional sauce if you desire (and you know you do).

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Yum.

Best served warm, so the gooey “molten” center oozes out when the cake is pierced.

NOTE: The centers of my heart-shaped cakes weren’t as molten as I expected; I think I may have slightly overbaked them. An extra I made in a ramekin “molted” (Moltilized? Moltified?) better. Either way, decadently delicious.

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Molten innards exposed!

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The Mother of All Mothers

“I could never live with my mother.”

That’s the response I usually get when someone learns of my unusual living arrangement. I moved back to my hometown a dozen years ago, not long after the unexpected death of my Dad. Unhappy in my job and hating the Big City (okay, it was St. Paul. But still.), I was happy to return to the nest. It meant starting my career over in an entirely new field (writing and editing for a food company after 15 years in college faculty development). But I was happy to be closer to mom, then in her 70s. And by closer, I mean “practically on top of,” since we co-habit the same modest, three-bedroom home, which I have purchased from her.

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Me and my favorite lady.

The idea that we wouldn’t get along never occurred to me, as I’ve always been close to my mother. I guess I never went through the pivotal “achieving independent adulthood by rebelling” phase. It would not be true to say my roomie and I never butt heads. We are in some ways very different (e.g., she is tidy by nature; I am Oscar Madison in female form. She is sensible and conservative; I squander my time and money on foolishness.)

It makes me sad to hear others say they couldn’t stand so much togetherness with their mothers. My life over the last decade-plus has been immeasurably enriched by spending quality time with my surviving parent. She has taught me, through example and occasionally a sharp word, how to be a better person. The gifts I’ve received add up to a priceless treasure. Thank you, mom, for sharing with me your …

MominBlackHills

Visiting a one-room schoolhouse in the Black Hills, mom demonstrated her no-nonsense teaching technique from when she taught in a similar school.

Humor. Her sense of humor is less off-beat than mine, but my mom is very funny. Her often-ascerbic commentary on the world makes me laugh every day.

Strength. Like everyone, my mom has faced some dark moments in life. She has borne sorrows and worry with extraordinary grace and fortitude. She is a pillar and model for me in dealing with hard times. Her maxim: hold on to your faith and get through one day at a time.

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Mom alternately cusses and dotes on the cats

Compassion. Not one to wear her heart on her sleeve, my Mom is nevertheless a great-hearted woman. She is kind to animals and children and would do anything in the world for her family. Seeing those she loves hurting is perhaps the hardest thing she has to bear.

mom painting

She told the painting teacher to call her Great-grandma Moses.

Creativity. My mom is clever. She is known for writing cute little poems, writing skits and declam pieces, making quilts and embroidering towels and pillowcases and, most recently, little baptismal gowns for babies welcomed into our parish. Though her busy life has not given her time to fully indulge her creative impulse, I don’t know of anything she doesn’t do well.

Service. It’s a characteristic of the Greatest Generation that they give back to the community. Both my parents illustrated this principle in spades. Over the years, mom has been active in church work, the nursing home auxiliary, religious education, the VFW auxiliary, heritage society, Daughters of Isabella, Christian Mothers, the church council and many other organizations and causes. Hers is a generous spirit, and she gives without thought for acknowledgement or praise.

Faith. My mother’s Catholic faith is the core of her being. She actually goes to church several times a week – not out of obligation, like the rest of us (admit it), but because her faith and church community genuinely uplift and strengthen her. Whenever anyone in the family has a problem, the first recourse is, “Ask mom to pray about it.” We all know she carries a lot of weight with the Man upstairs.

MeMom2013 Tea Party

She’s always up for an adventure, like playing “The Dowager” in my murder mystery tea party.

Industry. It’s long been a family joke that we all wish we had our mother’s energy. One of her few complaints about growing older has been that she tires a bit more easily than she used to. But she’ll still rustle up an enormous holiday weekend extravaganza, preparing mountains of food, and be the life of the party to boot. Mom is what people call a good, hard worker. Whether it’s serving fish at the monthly VFW fish fry or laundering linens for the church or making baked goods for some fundraiser, she is always there. During her career as a bank teller, she was extraordinarily diligent and conscientious. I remember her getting my Dad to take her to work on the back of a snowmobile over six-foot snowdrifts during a raging blizzard one Friday evening; frankly, any fool who felt they had to cash a check in that kind of weather deserved to freeze. But mom was expected to work … and she made it.

MyBeautiful Mama

She played (gasp!) the villainess in last summer’s garden party production.

Attitude. Mom loves life. She participates with gusto and is very rarely down. “You’re as happy as you make your mind up to be,” she has often said. She may fret and stew about some things, but her perspective is always forward. She lives life to the fullest, and makes others’ lives fuller by her presence in the world.

Wisdom. Mother knows best. She really, actually does. Over a long life she’s seen a lot of water run under the bridge, and learned the sometimes hard lessons. She has firm opinions of right and wrong, good and bad, what to do and what not to do, and she has been known to express those opinions once or twice. And you know what? On those few occasions when I have gone against her advice … I have regretted it. While her advice may not always be easy to hear, it is always given with love and with wanting what’s best for her family at the heart of it.

ourlittlefamily

My little family: Sis Kathy, bro Kev, myself and our matriarch.

There are so many other things I could say about my mom, who turns 89-years-old today. Let me say only this one thing more: You are my hero, Mom, and my best friend. These past years we’ve had together have been the happiest and richest of my life, and I thank God every day for my adorable, feisty, funny and loving mother.

I love you.

meandmymomma

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AI: Artificial Incompetence

MCPFor decades, science fiction has been warning us that there would come a time when humanity would be vanquished by computers. That time is now. However, it’s not sleek androids brandishing laser cannons that will do us in, or even a suddenly sentient, megalomaniac collection of code like Tron’s Master Control Program.

Nope, civilization is bound to fall – and soon – under the weight of frustration at how much harder our labor-saving devices make life. Let me illustrate.

Example 1:

10355525_10203840385073916_637920995698392683_oI took my newish car (a red Kia Soul; it’s adorable) to be serviced because the “check transmission” light came on. The mechanic looked it over carefully and told me there’s nothing wrong with the transmission.

“But the light is still on,” I persisted.

He shrugged. “Yeah, they just come on sometimes, and there’s really no way to fix that. It might turn off by itself, eventually.”

“So how will I know if something really does go wrong with the transmission?”

“The car will stop running.”

Example 2:

mynamesis

My Nemesis

The high-tech ladies’ room at work had me convinced for a while that I was a vampire. The sinks will only dispense soap* and turn on the faucets if you perform the precise ritual that will convince the sensor that you are human. Yet no matter how I wiggled my digits or – eventually – clenched my fists in rage, the neo-Star Trek plumbing system refused to acknowledge my existence. Ditto on the self-dispensing paper towel dispenser*.

The space-age toilets are even more maddening. In one of the stalls, the damned auto-toidy flushes three times before you even get the door closed. In another, you have to do an exuberant dance (think Michael Flately) in front of the bowl to get it to do its job. There’s one downstairs which requires you to remain absolutely still on the throne, as the slightest deviation from true north will set off the flush … repeatedly.

On one occasion I was obliged to … ahem … extend my visit. Knowing the machine’s foibles, I held myself rigidly, moderating my very breaths like an Olympic marksman who only pulls the trigger between heartbeats. The stool was apparently satisfied with my endurance and held its peace. But I suddenly found myself plunged into complete darkness when the overhead lighting, which is also on a sensor system, decided the place was empty. Cue the Riverdance again to get the lights back on.

Example 3:

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Me? Not according to the vending machine robot

A couple of years ago, the company I work for replaced the onsite coffee shop with a “self-service market.” Instead of the friendly lady behind the till who used to take my money, I am now confronted with a boxy contraption with which I must negotiate to get a bottle of soda. Step one is waving the bar code on the bottle in front of the ubiquitous sensor. Usually, this causes it to beep. Sometimes, if the label is a little crinkled or I’m not holding the bottle at the right angle or the moon is in retrograde, the machine refuses to accept my order.

If it does, I am presented with a screen that lists my tally and prompts me to place my thumb on – you guessed it – a sensor. With laser precision, this device reads my thumbprint and then, in a rather terse, female voice, informs me, “Account not found.”

Thumb the sensor again.

Account not found.” I swear, if I machine could smirk, that’s what it would be doing.

I remonstrate with her. “Look. I fed you $40 in credit just this morning, and you were happy to take it. Now you don’t know who I am?”

Account not found.

24829481_sThere follows the tedious process of rescanning my thumb and saving it to my profile. Finally I am able to secure my prize, a bottle of Diet Pepsi. Alas, it seems my paltry purchase displeases my mechanical mistress, as she dismisses me with a curt, almost frosty, “Thankyouforyourpurchase.” (And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.)

Am I the only person who has to endure these indignities, this cruel subjugation by supposedly mindless machines? Perhaps I will take a stand, get off the Grid, reclaim my humanity. But not until next week. I’m expecting my robot vacuum to come in the mail on Monday.

*These tormentors have since been replaced by manual ones. The faucets and toilets, however, continue their reigns of terror.

 

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Almost as Good as Frozen!

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Second verse, same as the first

Gastronomically speaking, I grew up in a traditional Midwestern American home. My father, who worked long hours, would come home at 6:00 pm and sit down to a supper that my mom, who also worked long hours, had prepared for us. It was almost always some variation on a single theme: a piece of meat, some version of potato, a soupy vegetable (creamed peas, creamed corn, creamed carrots) and a slice of white bread, thickly slathered with butter. My Daddy was all about the butter; don’t even think of trying to pawn off that new-fangled margarine on the man. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, but it was even worse to try to put one over on my Dad. He was a butter purist.

On rare occasions, Dad was willing to branch out a bit. A family friend sometimes had us over for tacos. These made Daddy’s bald head sweat, so he’d wrap a paper towel around his crown like a turban. It always got a big laugh.

Our dearth of culinary diversity wasn’t because of lack of imagination or skill on my mother’s part. It was what my father wanted to eat. For a guy who grew up eating mostly oatmeal during the Depression, he was surprisingly particular about his cuisine. He didn’t much care for hotdish (casserole, for you out-of-staters), and he had no time for that wonder of the modern age, frozen food.

Of course, everyone in our family who WASN’T my Dad knew that frozen pizza, TV dinners and sandwiches wrapped in foil were THE GREATEST THING EVER. So, on those rare occasions when our paterfamilias was absent from home at mealtime (up north deer hunting, or men’s night at the golf course), we got to eat delicious, packaged, highly processed food. Hurrah!

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That corn, tho.

In truth, I was never that crazy about TV dinners, those “full course” meals that came in segmented aluminum trays. They were available in varieties like Salisbury steak, turkey with gravy, unidentifiable chicken parts. And they always had that one little triangle in the corner containing a vegetable – usually corn – that was not steeped in cream sauce. Boo.

A better choice were the sandwiches wrapped in colorful foil, which you heated in the oven. There was the chuckwagon – a large, round bun stuffed with salami and cheese that was a precise representation of what the bold and hardy cowboys didn’t eat on the range. Alternatively, you could choose the torpedo sandwich, which was exactly the same as the chuckwagon sandwich, except it came on an elongated bun. Presumably it reflected the kind of rations that bold and hardy sailors didn’t eat on their submarines.

chuck_wagon

The traditional chuck wagon, where chuck wagon sandwiches were not prepared.

The very, very best pre-packaged delicacy, though, was the frozen pot pie. It came in a trio of flavors: chicken (ambrosia!), turkey (poor man’s chicken) and beef (acceptable, if it was the only kind left). How eagerly I watched my mother remove each little aluminum foil pie tin from its box, stab the frozen top crust with a fork, set it on a cookie sheet and pop it into the oven.

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Before

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After

It went into the fire pallid and solid as stone; it came out golden brown – except on the edges, which always burned – and bubbling with delicious gravy goo.

There is a precise method to eating these things. You stab the top crust with a spoon, releasing the steam, then carefully peel back the crust in sections, like a surgeon cracking open a chest for a bypass. Carefully stir the innards, deftly plucking out the inedible bits (the little square carrot pellets and wrinkly peas). Spoon up and savor the gravy and chicken chunks, frowning a little when you accidentally get a mushy chunk of potato, which is harder to identify in the gelatinous mass and therefore may escape the vegetable culling.

Finally … the best part of all. At the bottom of the now-empty aluminum foil pie tin, one finds a treasure: the cardboardy crust with its sheen of gravy that has soaked into it just a little bit. Peel up the crust in chunks and, if you are particularly bold, eat it with your fingers. These were the greatest moments of my childhood.

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The gift that keeps on giving

You can still get frozen pot pies these days, but they are a sad shadow of their former selves: even smaller, only partly filled with goo and worst of all, packaged in cardboard instead of aluminum foil bowls. Convenient for the microwave, perhaps, but you lose half the value of the meal. For in the old days, the little aluminum tin was carefully washed and saved for many useful purposes. I think we still have a stack of 50 of them in the cupboard above the sink.

It occurred to me that I might attempt a version of my childhood favorite using some of my Tastefully Simple products. And so, I present …

Perfectly Individual Parmesan Biscuit Pot Pies (adapted from this recipe)

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the guts of the stuff

  • Perfectly Potato Cheddar Soup Mix
  • 4 cups water
  • 1½ lbs. cooked, cubed chicken breast
  • 2 (14 oz.) cans mixed vegetables, drained (Hint: Or use only one can – less vegetables to pick out of the finished product!)
  • 2 tsp. Seasoned Salt
  • 2 Tbsp. white cooking wine (can be omitted; I only used because I’ve had a bottle of the stuff sitting in my cupboard for a few years)
  • 1 tsp. onion powder
  • Perfect Parmesan Biscuit Mix
  • 2/3 cup cold water
  • 2/3 cup finely shredded Cheddar Cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. Italian Garlic Seasoning
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goo ingredients

Mix together the soup mix and water and simmer for 20 minutes; add the chicken, canned vegetables, seasoned salt, cooking wine and onion powder. Cook until heated through.

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tasty goo in progress

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Prepare the biscuit dough as directed on package.

Pour the filling into oven-proof bowls, mugs or ramekins, filling them about ¾ full. Place tablespoon-sized chunks of biscuit dough on top of the mixture, enough to cover the whole top of the individual serving dish. Place filled bowls on a cookie sheet and put in the oven. Bake for 15-17 minutes or so, until the biscuit topping is lightly brown. Remove cookie sheet from the oven.

Melt 1 Tbsp. butter and stir in 1 tsp. Italian Garlic Seasoning. Brush melted butter mixture on the biscuit topping.

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Cheesy Biscuit Gooey Yummy

I’m not gonna lie. This isn’t quite as good as those frozen pot pies of yore. And to be honest, the biscuit topping was a little doughy on the bottom. But it was still pretty darned delicious.

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My Secret Identity

There’s an amusing commercial for ancestry.com in which a man who grew up in lederhosen discovers, via his DNA test, that he’s of Scottish, not German ancestry. So he trades in his Teutonic garb for a Celtic kilt. (To be honest, the sight of a grown man in either short pants or a skirt in this part of rural Minnesota would make for an uncomfortable scene, but I understand other parts of the world are more liberal about such things.)

I had a similar experience recently when the top boffins at ancestry.com’s DNA lab analyzed the goo I hocked into their test tube and declared that I am predominantly Scandinavian – 54%, to be exact. My “Western European” ancestry comes up a paltry 16% – presumably that’s the German, but it could just as well be French. Good God! Has the world gone mad?

genetic map

Here’s the thing:

Some Mohrors

Could these people look more Germanic? I don’t think so. 

Family tradition has always dictated that I am Irish on my mother’s side (borne out by ancestry.com at 24%) and predominantly German on my father’s side (with a side of Norwegian from my Grandma Mohror, though her maiden name, Bergley, defiantly comes up Scottish in Google searches).

The fact that I (or at least my sputum) actually derive from more Northern lands creates some awkwardness. You see, we’ve always attributed our least desirable personality traits to our Germanic genes. When my often taciturn father stomped around mad, or lapsed into one of his moody silences, my mother would shake her head and murmur, “That’s the German in him.” Of course, we also claimed the more attractive stereotypes of the Deutsche Volken: industriousness, ingenuity, punctuality, loyalty.

kensingtonrunestone

The Kensington Runestone, which may have been carved by Vikings. Or Knights Templar. Or some local farmer looking to make some dough off the gullible tourists.

I grew up in predominantly Scandinavian rural Minnesota (Alexandria: Birthplace of America! If you believe America was discovered by Vikings, who took the time to chisel their experiences into a hunk of granite). The Norwegians and Swedes around me always seemed a clannish sort with strange customs (A crown of lighted candles on a little girl’s head? That can’t be a good idea.) and even stranger food traditions. I mean, lutefisk is fish soaked in lye, for heaven’s sake. Hello, lye is a deadly poison. Between that and the candle hats, I have to wonder if the Scandihoovians practiced a fairly brutal form of population control back in the day.

UncleOle

Great-Uncle Ole

So what am I to do with this new information? Buy a rosette iron? Start rolling out lefse every Christmas? Add a few more “uff das” and “ja, shure, yew betchas” into my everyday speech? I find myself in kind of an existential crisis here. Who am I, really, in the deepest essence of my being?

And most importantly, what the hell am I supposed to do with this T-shirt? tshirt

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The Power of Cheese, Tho

One of my favorite commercial campaigns was the American Dairy Council’s series on The Power of Cheese. Originally the slogan was “Behold the Power of Cheese!” I personally think this was funnier than its replacement, “Ah, the Power of Cheese,” but I supposed the religious nuts claimed such a Biblical-sounding phrase was deifying cheese or something.

cheesefactsActually, if I weren’t a nice, Catholic girl, I could happily accept cheese as my god. I’m not talking about snooty cheese, which I define as anything that reeks or has a French-sounding name (often these two criteria coincide; have you heard of Casa marzu?). Nope. For me, cheese = Cheddar, mozzarella, Colby Jack. I don’t really consider Parmesan a cheese, as I only consume it ground up into a powder. Cheese dust. I am also perfectly content to accept “cheese food,” which I believe is made of petroleum and asbestos or something. Cheese food, as expressed in such wonders of technology as Cheese Whiz and Easy Cheese easycheese(squirtable cheese in a can! Oh, brave new world!) has the most important characteristic of anything claiming to be cheese(like): it melts.

This is important: Cheese is never to be eaten in its natural state. It must always be melted into an ooey-gooey sludge.

Here are two of my favorite sludgy cheese recipes.

Grilled Cheese Flatbread Paninis

Ingredients

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Easy with TS products

Sun-Dried Tomato Flatbread Mix from Tastefully Simple

Roasted Garlic Infused Oil

Cheddar or American cheese, shredded

Pepperonis (regular or mini)

Method

 

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I go easy on the spices included with the flatbread mix. They’re potent!

Prepare the Sun-Dried Tomato Flatbread Mix as directed on package.

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When baked and cooled, turn a flatbread seasoned-side down. Heap a lot of tasty cheese on the bread and top with pepperonis. Place another flatbread seasoned-side up on top. Cook in a panini press or grill until cheese is ooey-gooey and both sides of the flatbread are nicely browned.

 

Crunchy Sesame Pretzel Baked Cheese Sticks

Ingredients

8 individual mozzarella string cheeses, cut in half

1/3 cup flour (whole wheat or all-purpose)

2 egg whites

1 egg

1 tsp. Garlic GarlicTM Seasoning

½-1 cup Crunchy Sesame Pretzel Breading

1 Tbsp. Pizzeria Seasoning

Olive oil cooking spray

Method:

Place cheese sticks in a resealable plastic bag with flour and shake to coat.

Whisk together egg whites, egg and Garlic Garlic Seasoning.

Mix Crunchy Sesame Pretzel Breading and Pizzeria Seasoning.

In their unbaked state, your coated cheese sticks will look startlingly like something you scooped out of a litterbox. Do not be alarmed by this! All will be well.

Dip each flour-coated cheese stick into the egg mixture, then roll in breading mix until thoroughly coated. Then dip the stick into the egg mixture again, and again into the breading. Repeat with all cheese sticks.

Place cheese sticks in a freezer-safe container and freeze for at least 15 minutes (or overnight).

Preheat oven to 475°F. Coat each frozen cheese stick with olive oil cooking spray and place them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.

Bake 12 minutes or until coating is golden brown and cheese is ooey-gooey inside. Serve with marinara sauce as a dip, if desired.

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I like to eat these tasty cheese foods with tomato soup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Nerd Life


I was 12 years old when the original Star Wars came out. I have a clear memory of sitting on the living room carpet with my then-best-friend Wendy, playing some game, when a commercial preview for it came on TV. “It’s too bad movies like that never get very popular,” I remarked. Shows how much I know about the entertainment industry.

Star Trek Original

The Original Gang in their brightly colored jimmies! I wanted to be Yeoman Janice Rand

I’ve been a sci-fi nerd since earliest childhood, as my brother, 10 years older, generally controlled the TV when my Dad wasn’t home to commandeer it. (Dad had a succinct, definitive opinion of science fiction programming and scary TV shows and anything that seemed a little sexy: “Garbage show.” You didn’t watch garbage shows when Dad was in the room.)

 

The original Star Trek series was my first cult fandom, though I was too young to remember its original run. It used to play in reruns (now called “encore presentations”) every weeknight at 5:00. My bro loved Star Trek, so I became very familiar with it. There was a time when I could answer any trivia question about Trek you might throw at me. Recently, I couldn’t even remember the name of the actor who played Kevin Reilly (Bruce Hyde, BTW). I am ashamed.

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Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor: One Strange Dude

I discovered Doctor Who sometime in the mid-70s. We’re talking Classic Who, of course. I came in on Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor, and Sara Jane Smith was his companion. I remembered loving Sara Jane and wondering how they let somebody with such an obvious drug problem as Tom Baker appear on television. (Of course, I understand now that while Tom has indeed ingested a wide variety of chemicals in his life, in this case he was only playing the part of a very strange alien.) Doctor Who inspired my very first act of protest: when the local affiliate abruptly dropped the series – on a cliffhanger! – I wrote a letter of complaint to the station. When the show came back a few years later, this time on the PBS affiliate, I got into it again. Really, really into it. It used to air at 12:30 am, and I had to stay awake through EastEnders.

FourtoDoomsday

“Four to Doomsday,” featuring Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor (my second-favorite, after Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor – a controversial choice, I know)

This was before we had a VCR, so I used to set my cassette tape recorder next to the TV and record the episodes. Not long ago I found a tape of “Four to Doomsday,” a 5th Doctor episode. Too bad I no longer have a tape recorder to play it on.

TNGCrewSeason2

In college, I was all about Star Trek: The Next Generation. While living in off-campus housing, my niece Amy, who was living in the dorms, would come over on Friday nights for pizza and the week’s ST:TNG episode. Good times.

The 90s’ were the X Files years, of course. I shipped Mulder and Scully hard through nine seasons, only to experience a deep sting of betrayal when it was revealed near the end that they’d been sleeping together for years; it just hadn’t come up as a plot point. I won’t forgive you for that, Chris Carter.

Cheated

Cheated! Cheated!

Maybe that was what turned me off sci-fi in the first decade of the new millennium. I missed Farscape, Stargate (in all its iterations), Heroes, Battlestar Galactica. I skipped the Star Wars prequels, something that would have been unthinkable to my 11-year-old self. I know nothing of the Matrix movies, or the Star Trek reboot movies or anything involving grown men in tights and masks.

primeval

This series also cheated viewers out of a long-awaited consummation between Connor and Abby. What a rip-off.

I did become briefly obsessed with a British series, “Primeval,” (mostly for my unwholesome lust for the nerdy character Connor; actor Andrew-Lee Potts became my Age-Inappropriate British Celebrity Crush for several years).

So now I’m hearing about an X Files revival, and a fantastic new Star Wars movie and a Star Trek series reboot … and I can’t bring myself to get too excited. Does that mean I’m growing up? God, I hope not.

 

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