#5 A little game called Propaganda

When I was a kid, I was given the opportunity to participate in something called the Academic Games.  How I was tapped for this challenge is a long and complicated tale that would take far too long to explain here.  In fact, I think I have enough material from this time period in my life to develop a lengthy biopic.  The trailer would go something like this:  Watch the coming of age story of a bright young girl, trapped in the middle of farm country where knowledge of livestock and cash crops is valued over book learnin’, as she struggles to realize her full potential.  Will she find academic and personal success or will she cave to the pressure, act dumber than she is, get knocked up, and end up marrying some local bohunk?

SPOILER ALERT:  She did occasionally flaunt bad grades in order to appear cooler.  Who knew that genuinely struggling in algebra could be a one way ticket to populartown?  She also did not get knocked up until much later in life after she was married to a non-local hunk of the non-bo variety.  Finally, she ended up teaching in competitive high schools where being smart was the only way to snag a seat at the lunch table for “IT” kids.  If only she had known of this utopia sooner.  Or maybe not.

My dear students, please do not whine to me about the difficulty of the college admissions process.  Try getting letters of recommendation when your school librarian also happens to be the local blacksmith and most of your farmhands teachers have hundreds of heifers cows to milk immediately after the bell rings!  Their response?  “Uhm miss, first, I’m not sure what a school librarian does.  I think I saw one in a movie once.  Second, why couldn’t your teachers just wait until later to milk their cows?”  Insert lengthy explanation to suburb dwellers about how milk gets from cow to big shiny truck to grocery store carton.  I am certain that at least one of my former pupils was able to weave such a shocking revelation into college essay gold.

Movie making aspirations aside, let’s get back to the original topic of Academic Games.  To those unfamiliar with these games of intellectual judo, an image of teens in blazers participating in a trivia showdown probably comes to mind, but this was not the case.  The Academic Games were a series of different competitions hosted by a local university.  Students would spend hours prepping for these brainy battles in the hopes of bringing glory to their school and qualifying for Nationals that took place somewhere in the middle of Georgia.  Picture a conference room filled from one end to the other with tables, surrounded by the brainiest kids in the county, hunkered over a nerdy kind of board game, making wagers on their ability to access and apply huge amounts of knowledge in record time.  The betting was just as fierce as any bunch of blue hairs on a twenty-four hour bus trip to Atlantic City.  The moderator overseeing it all was a quirky lady named Carol who feared enjoyed  a cult-like following among the competition participants.

A variety of games were offered to appeal to a range of interests.  There was a historical trivia game involving all of the U.S. Presidents which I enjoyed playing and winning and there was a grammar based game that I played occasionally.  There was also a math related game that I avoided like the plague.  Oddly enough, I am still able to rattle off hundreds of bizarre facts about most of our former presidents using mnemonic devices that I created decades ago.  Just to be clear, I am not bragging since this information is probably taking up valuable space in my brain that could be used for bigger and better things.  If I could just delete the President files, I could more easily track down missing cell phones and car keys or remember to take the recycling out to the curb on the appropriate day.  While dominating the presidential questions during a rousing game of bar trivia or chatting with a history nut at a cocktail party who happens to just adore Willam Howard Taft can serve a purpose, the skill set that I walked away with from these particular experiences was not extremely useful in the real world.

Except for one.  A game that stands out among all the rest, whose techniques have a useful application for every person on the planet.  This game tests your ability to recognize and analyze exactly how you are being manipulated and for what purpose.  It’s name?  PROPAGANDA.  While the scenarios for each question relied heavily on texts taken from the advertising industry, they were not limited to TV commercials and radio pitches alone.  In fact, it was quite surprising how many other areas of life are filled with propaganda ripe for the taking, from big government agencies to the sneaky scheming of our own family members.  After more than two decades, I am still able to spot propaganda and when need be I can even use the techniques for my own purposes.  For the most part, I use my powers for good and not evil.  This is a skill set that proves far more useful than being able to rattle off random data about obscure dead presidents.  The techniques were equally fascinating to my older brother, who never actually competed in the Academic Games but acted as a sort of coach to help me train for each upcoming battle of wits.  He is of the personal opinion that studying the techniques of the game PROPAGANDA should be a required first year course at all colleges and universities.  Both of us probably have a copy of the technique list filed away for safe keeping somewhere but blessed be the Interweb, I’ve been able to track down the list here.  Enjoy it for yourself and as always, stay skeptical!

#4 Little Birthday Boozecakes

I have been meaning to share this completely and totally amazing recipe with you since my birthday way back in February.  I made a Pre-St. Paddy’s Day test batch to see if all the fuss about them on the Internet was true.  After all, no one wants to serve up a suck-o dessert to their friends and family come the big day for the wearin’ of the green just because they listened to some joker on the Interweb who falsely claimed that a mediocre recipe was super awesome.  Since I am not just some online schmuck,  but your real life sister, you can actually trust me when I tell you that these cupcakes really do kick some serious hiney in the dessert department.  (Note use of STATUS as my persuasive propaganda technique.)

It has been very hard keeping them a secret because they are freaking fabulous!  And by freaking I mean the f-bomb but I have censored myself because I have a toddler and can no longer use the type of descriptive vocabulary necessary to truly convey how much I love these cupcakes.  So what if he can’t read yet, I can’t allow myself to be tempted into slipping back into my old “I heart cussing like a sailor” ways.  I guarantee you that this dessert will blow your little shamrock embroidered socks off, make you want to dance a wee jig around the kitchen as you suck every last schmear of frosting from your fingers, and bust yer old shillelagh in two when you are done.  By the way, Gaelic spelling is absolutely impossible.

As long as you have the two kinds of alcohol on hand, the recipe is quite simple to whip up.  I did not have any Bailey’s when I made them the first time.  No big deal, I made this homemade version which seriously lengthened the prep time.  While stirring a few ingredients together shouldn’t have taken long, I also didn’t have any chocolate syrup which the pseudo Bailey’s required so I made that from scratch as well.  Don’t go to all that trouble if you can avoid it.  Just buy the dang Bailey’s.  I would have done so myself but we happened to be having a blizzard on the day that I made them.  However, if you need some chocolate syrup and you have the time to make it yourself, this recipe is a winner and it lasts for about a month in the fridge.

I freely admit that I was initially concerned about putting Guinness in cupcake batter.  Fear not as the results are undeniably stupendous.  It makes the most wonderfully moist, deep, dark, chocolatey cupcakes that I have ever had in my entire life.  They keep very well without drying out, but I am warning you that they will not last long enough for you to personally find this out!  Better make sure to tune up your old elliptical as you will need it to stave off the extra pounds with these bad boys in the house.  As for the Bailey’s frosting, I have no words.  The combination is sinfully delicious.  Knowing how you pride yourself on maintaining a well stocked pantry, you probably have both Guinness and Bailey’s in your larder, which means that  you could be stuffing your face with these little gems in less than an hour.  I confess that I have a batch cooling on my counter-top, waiting to be lovingly frosted as soon as I finish typing this post.

Here is the recipe that I used along with a few tweaks that I found made them even better.  I could not find all of my cupcake pans so I had to squeeze all of the batter into the 18 holes that I had available.  This fills them right up to the top and while I was initially afraid that they would puff up and overflow leaving nasty scorched batter all over the bottom of my oven, they did not.  Turns out reducing the number of cupcakes to eighteen makes for a perfectly domed cupcake.  While I do allow the molten Guinness concoction to cool a bit, I couldn’t possibly wait until it was room temperature.  When the pan is still warm but you can place your hand on it without burning the crap out of your fingers, I say get crackin’!  Finally, I did not take the time to sift any of the ingredients and I reduced the amount of powdered sugar in the frosting to 3 1/2 cups.  I highly recommend that you forever incorporate these into your St. Patrick’s Day reveling!  Even if you weren’t already a vegetarian, it sure beats the heck out of corned beef and cabbage!

#3 A snack for your “nervous” stomach

Once upon a time there was a little boy whose pediatrician diagnosed him with a “nervous” stomach. This was especially strange given the fact that this laid-back kid wasn’t the type to get worked up easily.  Being nine, his stress levels were not exactly sky high and he wasn’t prone to tantrums or screaming fits like his bratty little sisters.  His home life was not particularly bizarre or tragic which made it tricky to pinpoint the root of this mysterious condition.  The doctor felt that a recent move to a new state caused this cat to lose his cool.

The little boy thought that this was preposterous and said so because he was a smarty pants that loved to use every new big word that he ever learned. Not to show off mind you. That would make him a jerk which he most definitely was not. He just couldn’t help it that he thought learning new vocabulary was the most awesome thing on the planet, which hello…kind of made him a fan of school.  He tried to explain this to everyone but they all thought he was just putting on a brave face.  Antoine de Saint-Exupery had it right in The Little Prince when he explains that adults forget how to understand what they once knew intuitively as children.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Everyday before school, he would wake up and eat breakfast with his family ready for another day of awesome learning. I was going to say cheerily eat his breakfast but not being much of a morning guy, that would be a gross exaggeration of the truth. I am not however exaggerating about how much he loved to learn new stuff.  Once he actually woke up, he was totally eager to get to school.  However, almost as soon as the big yellow school bus came into view, he would develop a wicked stomach ache and scurry off to the loo. These days, he would have surely been diagnosed as school phobic. He would be in counseling to help him deal with his feelings.  He would be assessed to determine if he was being bullied.  He would be given serious meds to help him “cope”.  But back then he just had to figure it out for himself.

For years he struggled with his wretched nervous stomach. It was constantly out to get him. “I am not nervous!” he would shout to anyone who would listen including his stupid stomach.  And then his unruly intestines would betray him yet again. For the life of him, he could not figure out why this kept happening.  Everyone kept telling him that he just needed to relax and try not to be so anxious but nothing worked.  No breathing exercises or yoga poses were powerful enough to end the ongoing battle he and his stomach were continuously waging.

And to make matters worse, it didn’t just happen before school. His family traveled almost every weekend and he was a terrible car rider, the kind of kid you have to either leave at home or strap to the roof in order to enjoy the journey.  He was constantly getting car sick and needing to find a bathroom stat. You have not truly lived as a parent until you find your spouse propping your slightly green, sick-to-his-stomach child over a guard rail while you root around in the glove compartment for some sort of makeshift TP.  Here you go kiddo: one Wendy’s napkin, an unpaid parking ticket and an expired vehicle registration.  God Speed!

It would take a few more years of serious detective work before anyone would be able to solve this kid’s health conundrum. Turns out our mother had been poisoning my brother for years. The situation was practically one step away from Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy! He really wasn’t nervous after all.  All that wailing and gnashing of teeth about not being nervous?  Turns out he was telling the truth. He was however extremely lactose intolerant unbeknownst to my poor mom who made sure to feed him a steady diet of milk and cereal.  Change that to Munchhausen Syndrome by complete and total accident.

You see in our house besides being a Monday through Saturday breakfast staple, cereal was also a cure for whatever else might be ailing you. Extra Hungry? Bedtime Snack? Feeling queasy? A touch crabby? WHY DON’T YOU HAVE A LITTLE BOWL OF CEREAL? Broken heart? Feeling blue? Can’t find your favorite matchbox car? Hole in your sock? SOME CEREAL WILL MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER.  And for those rare things that could not be patched up with a big ole bowl of crispy crunchies swimming in milk, we relied on Mercurochrome and a little white jar of a secret concoction referred to as the “the black salve”.  I still don’t know what the hell is in that shit!

Obviously, the doc botched the diagnosis, but this was back in olden times, before the Internet, when people actually relied on medical professionals to diagnose them. Unfortunately, the incident predated the rampant suing of healthcare providers for malpractice so no fat payday either. It was also way before food allergy awareness swept the nation and peanuts became the new dirty word on the playground.  While I do feel a bit bad that my brother had to suffer needlessly all that time, I have to say that I am really glad that we do not share this genetic glitch as I can eat ice cream all day and night without barfing.  On the other hand, my ass would probably be much smaller if eating such creamy confections had catastrophic consequences.

To make up for such an insensitive statement, I am sharing directions for all you lactose intolerant folks out there to whip up a delightful dairy free dessert. I was originally going to share the secret to whipping bananas into pseudo ice cream but savvy chef that he is, my brother was already wise to the ways of this frozen frappéed fruit wonder. In case you are wondering, the banana technique really works, it is super yummy, and you don’t need a special, overpriced, fancy appliance to make it unless you consider a food processor to be special, overpriced, and fancy.  In that case, unfortunately  you are out of luck for both desserts.

Option 2 – Faux Chocolate Mousse made with a sneaky secret ingredient…avocado. I must admit the ingredient list sounds a bit weird. In fact, due to a major kitchen disaster involving cucumbers and ice cream which is still laughed about at holiday get-togethers, it took me a really long time to get up the nerve to actually try it.  Besides being quick and easy, the luscious silky texture is truly divine.  My cocoa powder wasn’t raw and I do not dabble in stevia so I used *gasp* good old Hershey’s and a few spoonfuls of honey instead.  I also forgot to add the vanilla on my trial run which may be important because the dish did finish with an extremely faint taste of green, but the texture was so smooth and creamy that I would definitely make it again. If the slight aftertaste remained with the addition of vanilla, I would simply avoid it by scarfing the mousse down faster. As a bonus it is chock full of healthy ingredients especially if you are trying to get past a late-night-post-work Sheetz Shmuffin habit. Here is the recipe from Mind Body Green.  Happy Healthy Milk Free Snacking, Bro!