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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Today At The Ballfield ...

I was on my way home from work and my phone kept vibrating. I think it had buzzed three times in about 20 minutes. I wasn't expecting any "important" calls but, of course, I was curious as to who was trying to contact me for doggedly. I'm a firm believer that operating a cell phone while driving is a sure-fire recipe for disaster and higher insurance premiums, so I jumped off the main roads and pulled into a small public park to check my cell log.

The weather was lovely so I shut off my trusty Chevy and rolled down the windows to enjoy the strong-yet-pleasant breeze. While I was absorbed in operating the so-tiny screen on my dinosaur of a cellular device, my concentration was shattered as a strong, slightly metallic "THUNK" rolled through the air immediately followed by a round of muddled hoots and hollers.

My head jerked up to see if I could visualize the source of the sound, but it only took my mind a millisecond to process the fact that it could be nothing else but a softball making contact with an aluminum bat. And in the following few beats of my heart I was swallowed by just about every memory of playing Little League, going to Indians games in Cleveland, weekend softball games at cookouts, and watching my oldest niece knock the snot out of just about any pitch thrown at her during her award-winning high school softball career. It was really a powerful little mental jolt.

And then to my delight, my nostrils flared at the smell of popcorn coming from the concessions area just behind the bleachers. Which triggered more mnemonic gems ranging from movie experiences and college all-nighters to street fairs and Die Hard marathons with my action-junkie nephew!!

We talk of iconic images so much ... things like the American flag ... and we go gaga for Gaga and other high-status celebrities ... but is there such a thing as "iconic sounds" or "iconic smells?" To me, an icon is something that has nearly universal recognition. The smell of lilacs, for instance, brings up intense feelings and memories for me since it was my mother's favorite scent and flower. But to millions of others, it represents nothing more than a familiar fragrance.

I would love to hear readers' thoughts ... give me some examples of iconic sensory items.

POINT OF RANT: I'm just happy that my quick stop at the ballpark didn't injure me or my vehicle ... in the past six weeks both the hood of my Malibu and the side of my noggin have took serious hits from a softball!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today Behind A Camera ...

Over the Memorial Day weekend, my nephew and I visited the cemetery plots of our immediate relatives. Like millions of Americans, we utilizing a portion of the holiday to "spruce up" the resting places of friends and family who have died. I'm fascinated by cemeteries ... the majestic monuments and the odd quiet make my senses tingle. There is also an artistic quality to observing how people can make a gravesite truly beautiful with mulch, small planters, river rock, etc.

I happened to have my camera with me and decided to take a few respectful pics. What I focused on were the small iconic momentos left to keep watch over the grave markers. There were lambs, dolphins, train locomotives, mushrooms, pinwheels, gargoyles, frogs, suncatchers, butterflies, and more made of an assortment of materials. But what caught my attention most were the cement angels that sat like stoic sentinels to protect the dead.

Angels have been a part of our collective mythos for millennia, appearing in religions across the planet. These beings are believed to be basic extensions of God ... spectral entities that have been depicted as divine messengers, glorified menials, and protectors of humanity. The term angel is a fusion of the Old English word "engel" and the Old French word "angele," both of which are hand-me-downs from the ancient Greek "angelos" ... "messenger."

Both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles speak of angels as semi-divine beings possessing powers and perceptions above those of "mere" mortals. Scholars and theologians have studied angels for centuries through writings, art, and testimonials from individuals who claim to have interacted with these ethereal personas. Popular culture has characterized angels as winged beings whom are often surrounded by an aura of light. Most "sightings" describe asexual beings with mild, handsome male features often accompanied by flowing robes, head-adorning halos, and even pleasant sounds and smells. But this is certainly not the cased in all cultures ... Hinduism, for example, characterizes angels as "devas," the embodiment of natural elements. And devas are often destructive in their roles as "mediators of God."

In some religions, certain angels have taken on strong personalities and distinct roles. Structured hierarchies have been developed to chart these entities' abilities and duties ... kind of like a scorecard for one of today's popular role-playing games. Several main-stage angels have allegories in multiple religions and are often referred to as "archangels." From the book of Daniel we have Gabriel (God's primary messenger) and Michael (the warrior and protector). Other key characters include Raphael (the healer), Uriel (the fulfiller), Azrael (the death-bringer), and, of course, Lucifer ... the fallen angel who became the "Satan figure."

In the mainstream, people that believe in angels see them as guardians, harbingers of danger, and agents of positive change. Belief in angels has been a topic of organized cultural-anthropological study for nearly half a century. In 2007, a study showed that 68 percent of those Americans polled believe that angels and demons are active in the physical world. In 2008, a Baylor University poll found that 55 percent of respondents believe that they have been protected by "guardian angels" during their lifetime. And multiple 2009 surveys showed that more Americans believe in angels than the concept of global warming!! Similar studies have been conducted in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Personally, I even know two individuals who have vivid recollections of being visited by angels. One friend believes the "visitation" was what prevented her from being involved in a terrible accident on a commuter train. The other acquaintance was going through a tough emotional period and feels that the "bright lights" that spoke to him on three occasions is what gave him the strength to power through both a divorce and a dependence on alcohol.

POINT OF RANT: I was just thrilled that my photos turned out so damn good!!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Today After Work ...

After work today, I did what every American does on May 5 … stopped by a local tavern to drink a few cold Dos Equis (with lime) in honor of Cinco de Mayo and to consume my body weight in chips and salsa. Ah, the festive twinkle of jalapeno lights and dusted-off sombreros does my heart proud. But what does it all mean? I mean, do we Americans really need another excuse to drink?

Apparently, we here in the U.S. make a much bigger deal of the holiday than do our southern neighbors. Cinco de Mayo … literally Spanish for “fifth of May” … is observed in regions of Mexico to commemorate the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In a nutshell, Mexico was broke. After fighting both a war with the U.S. and repercussions of its own civil conflicts, the country was in financial despair. So in 1861, then president Benito Juarez announced the suspension of payment of foreign debts so the Mexican treasury would have the opportunity to rebuild. Well, France, England, and Spain didn’t care for that notion. England and Spain sent naval forces to “express their displeasure,” but Mexico negotiated a peace and the forces withdrew. But apparently France, who at the time had considerable occupation forces in Mexico, was pissed! Napolean III sent additional troops and went after Juarez with a vengence. The French army was renowned in the world for its superior training and resources and, with a force of more than 8,000 French troops on Juarez’s trail, the outcome seemed set in stone.

The French forces initially won some skirmishes but were stopped … actually crushed … in the state of Puebla by a poorly-equipped Mexican army of barely 4,000 soldiers. 2 to 1 odds, and the French were effectively stopped. It was more than a year before the rearmed French returned and established a French “emperor” in Mexico. But, according to most historians, the Battle of Puebla was significant for two reasons. First off, the thrashing of a superior force provided a sense of momentum and excitement and unity among the Mexican army. Yes, more battles came but this impetus had the effect of forcing events to proceed at an accelerated rate. Secondly, during that year that the French were regrouping, France was unable to supply and augment the Confederate army which was fighting in the U.S. Civil War. Scholars believe that this lost support was a definite factor in victory for the North.

Additionally, once the U.S. Civil War was concluded, aid was reinitiated to Mexican troops and French rule and occupation was ended only three years later. Some experts claim that if the French had stayed put, the U.S. may have never risen to the “world power” status it now enjoys. Hmmmmmmm.

So I was surfing the Internet … with a slight buzz from my Mexican beer infusion … and found a few great things to pass along. A bar owner in the Chicago area explained that he went all out for Cinco de Mayo “to celebrate the heritage and accomplishments of many of my Mexican-American patrons.” I liked that.

A Washington Post article discussed how the holiday was actually celebrated in Mexico. While many areas do not do much in the way of partying, the state of Puebla and the capital of Mexico City commemorate the date with parades, jet flyovers, and even a reenactment of the battle at a military base near Puebla complete with cavalry charges, cannon fire, and machete fights. How cool ... I loved that.

Then I glimpsed a mention of more than 150 “official” Cinco de Mayo celebrations involving special school exhibits and art projects, musical and dance performances, and, of course, festivals celebrating the foods of Mexican and all Latin cultures. This made me hungry.

Then I read four separate items that made me happy, then sad, then embarrassed, and then forced me to giggle out loud. First, in 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a concurrent request to the President asking the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate respect to Mexican culture (happy and proud). Then I read a United Press International mention where Cinco de Mayo was decried as nothing more than a marketing tool for beer companies (sad, and mostly true). Then I saw a comment where a company CEO made a speech to his day shift about how he was proud to be acknowledging “Cinco de Mayo … Mexico’s Fourth of July!!” Well, Mr. CEO, Mexico celebrates a national independence day on September 16 … I wanted to find this man (or his assistant) and smack them with a maraca (embarrassed and angry)! And then I got a message from a FB buddy … he wished me a happy “Cinco de Drunk on Mayo Ass Day,” but added that he was taking three of his Hispanic co-workers out after work and picking up the tab. My friend doesn’t have a clue to the history of today, but he was refreshingly honest and reminded me that he has a big heart!

POINT OF RANT: Happy “heritage day," Mexico!! … whatever you choose to call it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Today Talking With A Friendly German ...

I did notice that today was the first day of the month of May. For me, it’s really just a reminder that the birthday of a niece is close at hand. Oh, and my stomach gets excited because it knows we will be enjoying some good Mexican food and too much beer on Cinco de Mayo. But earlier tonight, a friend on Facebook from Germany asked me how I celebrated “May Day.” I wasn’t sure how to answer so I gave my description of a typical Sunday in my life. When I asked him how his day had been, I got a VERY DIFFERENT answer.

In Europe, “May Day” is related to any number of ancient pagan festivals celebrated around early May. Many of these celebrations marked the end of winter weather and the start of the farming cycle and provided popular incentives for drinking, dancing, and “displays of fertility.” YIKES!! A few examples include the festival of Flora (celebrating the Roman goddess of flowers), the Celtic festival of Beltane (with loud feasts and the lighting of bonfires to banish the long nights of winter), and the Germanic festival of Walpurgisnacht (with the wrapping of maypoles and lots of dancing).

But what my German friend was talking about was a more politically-motivated “May Day” … one I guess I knew a bit about but not much. It seems in many countries … and in the U.S., to a point … “May Day” is synonymous with International Workers’ Day. So in countries across the globe, May 1 is marked with political demonstrations organized by various groups to focus attention on employee rights and other workforce issues, as well as an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement.

One source explained that the roots for International Workers' Day can be found in a public Australian holiday known as “Eight-Hour Day.” Apparently in 1856, a group of stonemason’s negotiated an improvement in working conditions and a “workers’ holiday” was established. The notion of this April 22 holiday began to spread to neighboring countries and eventually the holiday was moved to May 1 to commemorate the Haymarket Square demonstrations of 1886. Known as one of the world’s most grievous labor-related tragedies, this event began when a three-day labor strike of employees of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., of Chicago, got out of hand and four employee were killed by police attempted to break the strike. The next day, a rally was held in Haymarket Square to protest the workers’ deaths. Again, police arrived to disperse the crowds and during the process opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. A dozen more people were killed , including one law enforcement officer. Eventually, eight people were put on trial … all individuals known for having strong worker party political beliefs but almost no connection to the actual demonstration. Four of these men were publically executed and the affair is still cited by political activists as a total travesty of the American justice system and an example of people put on trial purely for their political convictions.

So while the United States may have provided some inspiration for International Workers' Day, it is a true international day with rallies and demonstrations allowing citizens of the world to protest unfair labor laws and practices. In 1958, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as “Loyalty Day.” It is also sometimes referred to as “Law Day.”

Several countries such as Bangladesh, Italy, China, Syria, Hong Kong, Poland, Taiwan, Portugal, Argentina, Finland, Ireland, Bulgaria, Greece, and Brazil have a long and “tense” histories of celebrating May 1. Whether it is “May Day” or International Workers' Day or “Labor Day,” these nations support this public holiday as an opportunity for workers to unite and speak with one voice.

Which, again, leads me back to my friend ... for him, “May Day” was drinking and dancing in the streets and watching families picnicking together. It was also numerous political demonstrations, some nasty name calling, and even bricks and stones thrown through several storefront windows. He also told me about regions in Germany where the traditions of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night) are very much alive … where people still wrap maypoles and where young men in love secretly deliver trees decorated with streamers to the women they love. Women, though, sneak to the homes of the males they pine for and place heart-shaped offerings crafted from rose petals or rice grains. And often times, if the culprit is apprehended while delivering the “May Day” tribute, a kiss is required from the “offending” party. Romantic stuff, indeed!!

In many European countries and parts of the U.S., “May Day” antics still exist as a diluted form of the “green root” (pagan) and “red root” (labor) traditions of the past. In the UK, for example, some communities still celebrate with traditional dancing around the maypole, madrigal choirs, and the crowning of the Queen of May. Because of the Roman Catholic observance of May as a celebration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, May flowers are often placed on the heads of statues and figurines of Mary.

In some parts of the United States, “May Day” parades are still held. In more rural areas, the tradition of anonymously giving May Baskets … small collections of flowers and treats … to neighbors is still going strong. I love the idea of brightening someone’s day by leaving a basket of goodies on their doorstep, ringing the bell, and then running away. My Mom used to do that for some of the people in our neighborhood at Christmas who were alone or facing particular hard times. Guess she had the “May Day” spirit in December!

In Sweden, the country celebrates “May Day” as Vappu with crazy carnival-style street festivals. In France, there us a centuries-old tradition of men giving a sprig of lily of the valley to women in return for a kiss. In Hawaii, May 1 is “Lei Day” … not what you think!! … and since the ‘20s islanders have used this day to celebrate native Hawaiian culture.

And in other spots, contemporary “May Day” revelers have created 10K runs, vegan feasts, motorcycle and bicycle tours, streaking events, and organized skinnydipping to commemorate the day.

POINT OF RANT: Where the hell were my kisses on May 1? … I am waiting!!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Today In The Primetime Aftermath ...

While everyone was getting their Union Jack panties in a bunch over the pending Royal Nuptials, I had Milk Duds and Diet Pepsi (they calorically cancel each other out) at hand for the final appearance of the bumbling "Michael Scott" on The Office.

For those of you who live in caves and/or don't appreciate great writing and the power of hilarious ensemble comedy, The Office is an NBC sitcom based on a similar BBC series created by acerbic comedian Ricky Gervais (remember how he tore up the Golden Globes???) and Stephen Merchant. Now in its seventh season, The Office is a "mockumentary" that follows the employees and business dealings of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company branch in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

To simulate the look and feel of an actual documentary, The Office is filmed utilizing a single-camera set-up as well as harsher lighting, intricate editing, and even technical difficulties. The show does not employ a studio audience or laugh track. From the very first episode which aired March 24, 2005, employees of the paper-pushing company have been equipped with lavalier microphones and battery packs and been tirelessly pursued by a mostly-unseen film crew to capture every detail of their office interactions. Some employees take their role in the production more seriously than others. But no one at Dunder Mifflin sees his "acting duties" as more sacrosanct than "Michael Scott," regional manager of the Scranton branch for the past 19 years.

Michael is a buffoon on the highest order. He spends each work day playing practical jokes and attempting to befriend his subordinates while shying away from all major decisions. He constantly interjects his personal dilemmas into the day-to-day office routine (i.e. burning his foot on his George Foreman grill), yet he remains lovable as he offends employees and clients with equal vigor. Michael butchers the English language on a daily basis and inflicts great anguish on his co-workers via practical jokes, tasteless e-mails, and a stream of his famous "That's What She Said" asides. In today's economy, the employees of Dunder Mifflin are scrambling to sell paper and make ends meet, which isn't easy with Michael calling "emergency meetings" all the time in the conference room only to discuss the most trivial matters. As a manager, Dunder Mifflin employees look to Michael for guidance but usually end up incensed by his time-consuming antics which often involve his fondness of using costumes and fictional personas (i.e. "Prison Mike") to share his overblown business acumen. Michael Scott has dedicated his life to bringing fun into the workplace ... efficiency and productivity seldom make his list of concerns.

Some of Michael's most memorable exploits include hiss poor supervision of power-hungry salesman Dwight Schrute; his poorly-timed intrusions into the romance between sales associate Jim Halpert and receptionist Pam Beesly; his outing of homosexual accountant Oscar Martinez; his heart attack-inducing annoyance of salesman Stanley Hudson; his over-the-top macho posturing with outside sales specialist Todd Packer; his outlandish racial remarks to American-Indian customer service representative Kelly Kapoor; his overt and unreciprocated "bromance" with office temp Ryan Howard; his vehicular assault on alcoholic supply relations rep Meredith Palmer; and his unrelenting taunting and hatred of human resources specialist Toby Flenderson.

Michael is also a failure at love, and when his relationships go south the entire staff pay the price in his odd behavior and the ensuing emotional turmoil. For example, Michael drove his real estate agent Carol Stills away in a panic when he publicly proposed to her after only dating for a few short weeks. Then there was the time that Michael fell in love with a picture of a model in an office furniture catalog, only to become despondent when he discovered that the model had died in a bizarre accident. Michael broke a few corporate rules with his incredibly destructive, borderline S&M affair with his supervisor Jan Levenson-Gould. And he broke a few ethical rules when he embarked on disastrous relationships with Helene Beesly (Pam's mother) and Donna, a married woman who managed a bar frequented by Dunder Mifflin personnel.

Michael's most serious battle with cupid was when he fell hard for H.R. professional Holly Flax, but a long-distance transfer seemed to doom their deep romance. But over time and a few awkward meetings, Michael and Holly were reunited and Michael elected to leave Dunder Mifflin to begin a new life with Holly in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado.

The character of "Michael Scott" is portrayed by American comedic actor Steve Carell. Hailing from the Concord, Massachusetts area, Carell earned a degree in history from Denison University in Ohio (only about 35 minutes from where I'm sitting writing this post) with aspirations of becoming a radio broadcaster or even attending law school. After college, Carell wandered through a number of careers including a short stint as a postal carrier. Eventually bitten by the "performance bug," he embarked on the usual odd jobs of a struggling actor including work in TV and radio commercials, a member of a touring children's theatre company, and comedy training with the notorious "Second City" troupe in Chicago. Carell's big break came in 1996 when he became a cast member of "The Dana Carvey Show," a prime-time sketch comedy vehicle on ABC. From this, Carell progressed into reoccurring sitcom work and a prominent roll on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" from 1999 to 2005.

While Steve Carell will always be known to millions of fans as "Michael Scott," millions more acknowledge him as an accomplished motion picture star with such hits as "Curly Sue" (1991), "Bruce Almighty" (2003), "Anchorman" (2004), "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005), "Bewitched" (2005), "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006), "Evan Almighty" (2007), "Get Smart" (2008), "Date Night" (2010), "Dinner for Schmucks" (2010), and the upcoming "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Carell has also showcased his unique voice talents in blockbuster animated films like "Over the Hedge" (2006), "Horton Hears a Who!" (2008), and "Despicable Me" (21010).

But it isn't only his fans that applaud the work of Steve Carell ... numerous critics and entertainment organizations have bestowed him with professional honors including a Golden Globe for "Best Actor in a Television Comedy Series;" five Emmy nominations for his work on "The Office;" a Television Critics Association award for "Individual Achievement in Comedy;" a Writers Guild of America award for an episode of "The Office" which he penned; and MTV Movie Award; and an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Likewise, in part due to Carell's talents, "The Office" has garnered critical acclaim in the form of an Emmy for "Outstanding Comedy Series;" a Screen Actors Guild award for "Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series;" various honors for writing, editing, and direction; and even awards for "Best Television Website" and the spinoff "Webisodes" which aired on the Internet between several of the regular television seasons.

So as of March 28, 2011, Steve Carell and "Michael Scott" have left the Dunder Mifflin building ... so what happens now??! Well, in my opinion, the executives at NBC have been handling the departure beautifully. "The Office" has been picked up for an eighth season and the show has been building tension between possible internal candidates for the regional manager position and outside hires. In a recent story arc, Will Ferrell of film and SNL fame has joined the cast as a possibly-permanent supervisor named Deangelo Vickers. And media spots are leading viewers to believe that other television and film actors are being considered for the cast void including Will Arnett, James Spader, Ray Romano, Ricky Gervais, and even film megastar and funnyman Jim Carrey. NBC is keeping this announcement top secret and fans are loving it!! Only time will tell.

POINT OF RANT: No one ... NO ONE ... will ever fill the business wingtips of "Michael Scott." And That's What I Said!!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Today in the Throes of Defeat ...

The NBA playoffs are moving ahead full force with many of the "usual suspects" such as the L.A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls ... unfortunately my Nuggets are no longer deep in the competition. Last night ... April 27 ... the Denver Nuggets lost the Round 1 series to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 97-100 defeat. The series went four games to one (4-1).

Regardless of this unfortunate turn of events, I will be a Denver fan until the day I die even though I live more than 1,300 miles away. The "Nuggets" got their start in 1967 when an American Basketball Association (ABA) charter franchise intended for Kansas City was rerouted to Denver because the "Paris of the Plains" could not provide a suitable basketball arena. The team was initially dubbed the Denver "Rockets," which was kind of confusing because the very same year the NBA expansion team called the San Diego "Rockets" began playing. The Denver team had a slow start and failed to play in any championship series. However, the roster was strong and fan support built steadily. In 1974, the team was beginning negotiations to join the National Basketball Association (NBA) and team execs opened a contest to rename the team. The winning entry ... "Nuggets" ... was submitted as a tribute to both the 19th century gold and silver mining boom in the Colorado area and a former "Denver Nuggets" basketball that played in the '40s and '50s. The new "Denver Nuggets" officially joined the NBA in 1976.

Initially, the new Nuggets were represented by Maxie miner, a weathered miner who "discovered" an ABA basketball while panning for treasure. In 1990, Maxie was retired and replaced with Rocky the Mountain Lion, an energetic feline who became the seventh official NBA team mascot. Over the years, Rocky has performed his incredible somersault slam dunks and backwards half-court shots at more than 800 Nuggets games. And because of his ferocious loyalty to the game and his unparalleled community involvement, Rock was inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame in 2008.

But back to the topic at hand ... the playoffs. In regular season play, the Nuggets performed well against most adversaries, ending the 2010-2011 season 50-32 in the overall standings. The team's 50 victories placed it fifth in the Western Conference behind the notable L.A. Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Dallas Mavericks, and second in the Northwest Division just behind the Oklahoma City Thunder.

For roughly seven months this season, fans on hand at the Pepsi Center (where home Nuggets games are played), at host city venues, and ... like me ... in front of their television sets were treated to the incredible athleticism and on-court poetry of Arron Afflalo, the power and often-untamed maneuvers of Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith, and the consistency and resilience of Nene and Danilo Gallinari. But in the end it just wasn't enough.

During the first round of play against the Thunder, any number of problems occurred that the stats bear out. Poor free-throwing for one thing ... in one game, the Nuggets gave up 15 points in bad shots from the foul line. Hell, I could have made at least half of those ... maybe more. There were also just some poor matchups between Denver and Oklahoma City ballers. I think what frustrated fans the most was that in every playoff game the Nuggets had the lead ... sometimes a sizable advantage ... only to flounder and lose momentum.

What I won't concede is the point that some critics and analysts made ... that Denver performed poorly because of "the lack of a clear superstar." It would be too easy to blame the losses on the pre-playoff trade of Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Yes, his 20+ points per game average would have been an asset, but players like Gallinari and Afflalo quickly stepped it up and provided the team with the leadership and motivation it needed.

In my humble opinion, the Nuggets had too many outstanding players. When Gallinari is on, he is ON!! And when Andersen and Smith have built up a head of steam, get the $&*# out of their way or suffer the consequences!! During playoffs, the team simply didn't mesh well with the basics and the energetic styles of Thunder players like the amazing Kevin Durant, the cunning Eric Maynor, and the nimble Russell Westbrook took full advantage of each and every Nugget weakness.

POINT OF RANT: There's always next year ... so watch out Spurs!! It will be raining "Nuggets" in 2011-2012!!!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Today In The Easter Candy Section ...

Last year, I wrote a blog post on the difficulties of locating the ideal sized, solid chocolate bunny for filling Easter baskets. Now I’m embarking on a campaign to get people to turn their backs on another Easter-time staple … the dreaded PEEPS!!

PEEPS are to marshmallow as Taco Bell is to Mexican cuisine. Marshmallow as a candy finds its roots in ancient Egypt and also in the field of medicine. More than 5,000 years ago, Egyptian physicians used the root of the marshmallow plant … Althaea officinalis … to create a confection that was both tasty and a remedy for sore throats. Using either the pithy root or sap, the plant material was mixed with nuts and honey to create a widely-consumed chewy treat.

Many years later … the early 19th century to be exact … French candy makers augmented the recipe by whipping the marshmallow sap and sweetening it, often with rose water. Known as pate de guimauve, the new marshmallow included an egg white meringue to lighten the candy and provide a unique texture. These French confections closely resembled what we today call “marshmallows” … most often a combination of corn syrup, water, softened gelatin, dextrose, flavor extracts, and sometimes coloring agents whipped into fluffy goodness. Further modernization was applied to marshmallow candy in 1948 when Alex Doumak, an American inventor, created an extrusion process that pushed the various ingredients through tubes, cut them into small cylindrical shapes, and finished each piece with a mixture of finely-powdered cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar. Contemporary marshmallows contain ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from the marshmallow plant. Puffed up treats, indeed!!

Now I love marshmallow crème on top of a nice bowl of chocolate ice cream! And I have very happy memories of toasting marshmallows during childhood camping trips. But the perversion of the “white stuff” that PEEPS represent just makes me quiver … I get that feeling like someone is walking on my grave.

The often-overlooked sign of the Apocalypse that we call marshmallow PEEPS truly began in Russia. Sam Born, A Russian-born candy maker, immigrated to the U.S. from France in 1910. Born was an incredibly hardworking and determined man. He worked at his craft and soon gained a reputation for introducing French chocolates to New York City. Born also received great acclaim for inventing a machine that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops, a procedure previously requiring human workers. In 1923, Born opened a small retail candy shop in Brooklyn. The business promoted that its candies were made daily and passersby were thrilled with the elaborate displays in the storefront’s windows. One marketing slogan prominently displayed was a simple window sign that reminded people that the fresh treats inside were “Just Born.” Soon the Just Born Corporation was created. In fact, the company’s original logo featured a baby resting in a candy measuring scale.

Despite the challenges of being a small business and the economic devastation of the Depression Era, the Just Born Corporation thrived in the Greater New York area. In 1932, the company moved its operations to an empty printing factory in the bustling steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Born’s expanded enterprise soon began tapping into new markets. As Just Born grew in popularity and business strength, the company acquired smaller candy companies and their various resources. The first significant acquisition occurred in 1935 with the Maillard Corporation, well known for its hand-decorated chocolates, crystalized fruits (YUM!!), and bridge mix. Sam Born and his organization continued on an upward spiral, launching the fruity, jaw working “Mike and Ike” candies in 1940 and the spicy, cinnamon-flavored “Hot Tamales” in 1950.

But the road to “true evil” was embarked upon by Just Born in 1953 when the company absorbed the Rodda Candy Company in nearby Lancaster, PA. Rodda was well known for its “jelly bean technology,” but Sam Born was more intrigued by the company’s small line of marshmallow products … including chicks. These sticky confections … hand-formed from a yellow-tinted marshmallow recipe … were very popular but labor-intensive to create. In early 1954, Sam’s son, Bob (who had joined the company in 1946), developed special manufacturing equipment that mechanized the “chick forming process” and allowed for mass production of the spongy, bird-shaped confections. And with the flip of a switch on an upgraded conveyor belt, the Just Born Corporation became the largest marshmallow candy company in the world. And its key product was branded as PEEPS Brand Marshmallow Candies. I wonder if people remember where they were the day this tragedy occurred?

PEEPS literally swept the land. And over the next few decades, these creatures of chewiness changed form and further insinuated themselves into American culture. Typically associated with the Easter season, PEEPS assaulted other holidays. In 1958, pumpkin PEEPS attacked the Halloween candy market. Christmas was also a victim … Just Born introduced snowmen and Christmas tree PEEPS in 1960. The ‘60s and early ‘70s seemed to be a time where Just Born and the Born family regrouped, marshaling their forces. Oh, the company marketed some chewy candy variations to keep us interested … like “Root-T-Toots” (root beer-flavored chewy candies) and “Cool Kids” (spearmint chews) and “Jack and Jill” (licorice chews) … but it was just a front, a way of lulling us into lowering our defenses. And then BLAM!! … Just Born attacks an American institution. In 1975, the company introduces football PEEPS just prior to the start of the NFL season. Insidious, I say! Then the attack of 1977. Teddy bear PEEPS … is nothing sacred?! Over the next few decades, Just Born renewed its onslaught on Easter. In 1980, cute little bunny PEEPS were added to the company’s product assortment. In 1995, lavender chick PEEPS were created to provide contrast to the original yellow devil-birds. Blue chicks and green chicks followed respectively in 1998 and 2007. Just before the start of the new millennium, Just Born fired a salvo of multi-targeted ventures. In 1999, the public was tempted with the first-ever flavored PEEPS. The new product promised vanilla crème goodness and many unsuspecting people were swayed. The same year the company decided to use the power of the media on the masses, launching its first-ever national TV advertising campaign and www.marshmallowpeeps.com. The media also helped Just Born that year by reporting on an Emory University study on the “indestructible nature” of PEEPS. And just to confuse us, Just Born entered the sour candy market the same year with “Zours,” a truly delicious combination of blue raspberry, green apple, tangerine, and watermelon flavors. This concentrated effort, I believe, laid the groundwork for what I call the “Devious Decade.” Starting in 2000, the Just Born Corporation systematically enthralled the public with various introductions and product developments disguised as “doing business.” In 2000, Valentine’s Day was subsumed by the introduction of heart-shaped strawberry crème PEEPS. In 2002, the very patriotic nature of our nation and its citizens was trampled with star-shaped PEEPS. In 2003, the company launched a media blitzkrieg for its 50th anniversary. This was followed by PEEPS decorating kits (2004), sexy chick PEEPS enclosed in a chocolate “egg” (2005), sugar-free PEEPS (2007), and letter-shaped PEEPS for writing tasty little messages (2008). Toward the end of this decade, Just Born developed a secondary headquarters for spreading its confectionary ill-will by opening its first retail store … PEEPS & Company … in National Harbor, Maryland. Now the public had access to a plethora of PEEPS products and additional promotional items like T-shirts and other apparel, lunchboxes, sports items, toys, candy dispensers, cosmetics, and much more. And in 2010, PEEPS collided and conquered one of the most sacred elements in the universe … chocolate. This year marked the introduction of chocolate-covered PEEPS! Today I feel like the only soldier fighting against millions of enemy agents. The public is not in my corner, helping in the fight against these overly-chewy, carnauba wax-filled beasts. Every year, the colorful Just Born creations fly off the shelves. “PEEP OFF” events across the country attempt to break records for PEEPS consumption. Artists and photographers … some quite famous … utilize PEEPS in new work. And prominent media outlets like the Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and St. Paul Pioneer Press fan the flames with contests to promote PEEPS-loving activities like photo contests and diorama displays. There is some good news ... a friend just told me of an annual "Kill The PEEPS" contest where people attempt to develop more diabolical ways for destroying these Tartarus-tainted treats!

So I’m going to keep fighting, but the odds are definitely against me. The Just Born Corporation has more than 500 dedicated associates in facilities in both Bethlehem and Philadelphia, including three generations of the irascible Born family. Just Born candies are sold in more than 35 countries. And every single day, 4.2 million friggin’ PEEPS march off the assembly line!

POINT OF RANT: When I drop my mini-marshmallows in my cocoa, my eyes see the enemy burning. BURNING!!