Monday, December 31, 2018

Dinner for 18

It all started a few days ago when Angie informed me that Simone and Flo would be coming over on New Year's Eve. The next day, Angie was on the phone with Katherina.

'Sure, you guys can come over. Lauri can also spend the night.'

The next night was quiz night, and Kristina spontaneously needed an alternative plan for New Year's Eve. Angie came to her rescue. 

The day after that, we went to dinner with Tobi and Erica, who are visiting from the States. On the way to the restaurant, Tobi asked a question disguised as another question.

'So, Steve, are you guys making chili again this year?'

'Yes, Tobi, we would love if you and Erica could join us on New Year's Eve.'

And that's the funny story about how I voluntarily ended up making chili for 18 humans on New Year's Eve. The recipe I use is one that my dad handed down years ago. It actually won 1st place in a Virginia chili contest in 1981. My dad even named it - 'SHIT HOT CHILI'. Over the years, I have scaled up and adapted the recipe to accommodate nine people, which is our normal guest quota. I included the recipe for 9 people at the end of this blog. If you ever find yourself needing to make it for 18 people, just double everything and your 'before' picture should look something like this.

Despite fully justified assumptions, the beer and Tequila are not for the cook - they are the secret ingredients. Ok, full disclosure - the recipe was conceived when my dad was still drinking like the sailor he was at the time so it may not be needed at all. I wouldn't know - I've never been brave enough to stray from the original recipe. I photocopied this original recipe many years ago. It was covered in grease stains, sweat and comments written by my dad in all caps, his go-to writing style. One of them stood out for me.

October 4th, 1981

I think about that every year that I make this recipe. Angie and I often get caught up in the chaos of raising kids. Every now and then we get a moment to ourselves and I'd like to think that we cherish those kid-less moments together like my parents did so many decades ago. None of that shit happened on New Year's Day, though. I was busy kicking Angie's ass out of the kitchen so I could make 3 pots of SHIT HOT CHILI.

It's not a party at the Johnson's Zoo until the police show up or someone breaks something. While I was adding the SHIT to SHIT HOT CHILI, Peter decided to try breaking his foot by launching a Kung Fu Panda move in the hallway. The good news is, he did not break his ankle as we initially thought. The bad news is that his overly muscular dad snapped a few shots of him being carried to the sofa by his mamma, who is now shorter than him. When the hell did that happen?   

Peter tends to over-nurse his injuries, but when Tobi and Erica showed up with bags of sweets from the U.S. of A., Hop-along Pete rose to the occasion and secured his place as the primary gift-receiver.

At first, I was fully on board with Tobi's plan to bribe our kids into loving him. That was before the sugar snacks were distributed to the greedy masses. Talk about your all-time backfires. 

Being the wise parents that we sometimes are, we timed the sugar high perfectly so that the low came crashing down just before it was time for our yearly 'Dinner for One' showing. For those of you that have not heard of it, it is a comedy skit making fun of the Brits that has somehow become a standard New Year's Eve show that every self-respecting German family must watch. No British person that I know has ever admitted to hearing about or seeing the show, but that's besides the point. Roll the film!

A weird coincidence - 'Dinner for One' has a run-time of, you guessed it, 18 minutes. After almost twenty minutes of border-line silence, it was time to prep for blowing shit up. I assigned the work package of filling refillable lighters to two of the few remaining sober adults.

After another twenty minutes of border-line contemplation, we were ready to get our crackers on. We loudly made our way down to the park in front of the City Hall building at the end of our street. Shortly before midnight, I looked over and caught Peter stuffing his face with rockets. I of course whipped out my camera but I was too late.

'Ah, come on, Peter. One shot'

'Ok, but don't get my teeth.'

'Um,...Weird, but ok.'

Feel free to zoom in on the picture and let me know in the comments if you see any teeth. I won't tell Peter though - he seems to be a tad self-conscious about his grill.  

A few minutes later, the clock struck twelve and all hell broke loose. It was Matti's first New Year's with the Zoo and I don't think he was prepared for just how loud it gets downtown. He raced across the street and took shelter under the City Hall awning until it was all over.

The rest of the fireworks blowout went as it normally does with one exception. Peter and David discovered that if you drop fireworks in the sewer, it make a very loud explosion. Matti was not impressed. 

To anyone that lives across the street from City Hall that had their water pipes inexplicably burst on New Year's Eve: 'um, ... sorry 'bout that.'

As soon as the smoke cleared, it was clear that Matti was having no part of joining us for the after fireworks party. We also lost Kristina who was off to celebrate Johannes' birthday at Vater Rhein's, the best place downtown to get a mean bowl of spaghetti at 2 o'clock in the morning (so I've heard). And then there was thirteen.  

The hour after fireworks is typically wasted trying to explain to adrenaline-pumped post-generation Z types why they need to go to bed. I give Peter points for trying a new approach this year.

'But I'm taller than Mom!'

'You're right. Angie - time for bed!'

Angie laughed a little too loudly. Peter sighed defiantly and raised his hands in the air. I then reminded Peter of the family rule that children cannot ignore their parents even if said parents occasionally ignore each other. Okay, it's more than just occasional and that exception only tends to work in one direction, but that's not the point. GO TO BED!!

The whole 'veins popping' trick always worked with my dad and I thank him each year for teaching me that trick at an early age.

After an involuntary rendition of 'So Long, Farewell', the von Trapp kids retired to their sleeping quarters to continue on with rather loud activities that bore no resemblance whatsoever to anything remotely related to sleeping. But, hey! Their door was shut.

I'm sure that in one of Sebastian's previous lives he was a high-ranking official of the Star Trek Fleet Command, but in another life, I'm quite confident that he was a bartender specialized in making gin and tonic's for ladies who had already consumed copious amounts of Champagne. Move over, Brian Flanagan.   

Two and half gin tonics later, someone asked Simone to get half naked so that we could check out one of her tattoos. She found this funny.     

Three gin and tonics later, Angie yanked on one of the left-over Christmas crackers and proudly displayed what she started calling a dog-horse.

After grinning like the village Trump for almost a minute, Angie started making what I can only hope she thought were dog-horse noises. I've never heard a dog-horse but I can state confidently that they do not sound anything like what was coming out of Angie's mouth. 

Needless to write, the night was involuntarily winding down. Even Simba knew it was time to find his human warm bottle, also known as Simonelina. 

Simone was the domino piece. She toppled, followed by Angie. Sarah went home. Sebastian and I stayed up and took pictures of marquee signs made by wild animals that only make sense to the inner circle of The Johnson's Zoo. Frono!

3 Kg Ground Beef
4 Steaks (cooked)
2 green pepper
2 red pepper
3 medium onions
6 celery stalks
6 cloves garlic
3 cans peeled tomatoes (400 g)
5 boxes tomato sauce (500 g)
2 tube tomato paste
3 bay leaves
1 TBSP garlic salt
2 TBSP parsley
3 TBSP Oregano
1/2 jar jalapeno peppers
2 Habanero peppers (diced)
1 TBSP Tabasco sauce
1 TBSP Cumin
1 TBSP Cayenne Pepper
2 TBSP Chili Powder
1/2 Beer
8 cl Tequila (4 shots)
3 cans kidney beans

Cook steaks - 4 minutes per side on medium-high heat. Cut into tiny pieces. Brown and drain ground beef. Add to a pot. All other ingredients go into a blender. Throw everything into a big-ass pot and let simmer for 3 hours, uncovered. After 3 hours, add the kidney beans (with juice) - cook for one more hour. Enjoy!
Ladder Talk: [We were lucky enough to get the animals locked in their room - there was no way in hell I was going in to try and do Ladder Talk]
1) What was the best part of your day?
Peter: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....
David: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....
Tom: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....

2) What was the worst part of your day?
Peter: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....
David: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....
Tom: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....

3) What would you like to do tomorrow?
Peter: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....
David: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....
Tom: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ....

Monday, December 25, 2017

Every day has a sunset

Christmas morning always comes earlier than I'd like, but the boys were actually somewhat civil this year. The first wake-up call was from, surprise, surprise - David. He tried convincing Angie and me that he should be allowed to open his gifts while his brothers slept because removing all of his gifts would only make it easier for his brothers to find theirs. I tried to explain to David how life really works, but he disappeared in mid-sentence.

A few seconds later, I heard David singing opera as loud as he could just outside Peter's room.

'Peter's up!'

Next, I heard the home phone ringing. David answered and then ran into Tom's room screaming.

'Tom, wake up! Telephone for you!'

Tom then crawled out of bed and grumpily grabbed the home phone from David.


David then pulled his cell phone from behind his back.

'Hi Tom. Merry Christmas! Bwhahahahahaha!'

Before Tom could complain, David had raced into our room.

'You said we need to wait until Peter and Tom are up. They're up. Can we open the gifts now?'

I gave David eight points for creativity, ten points for persistence and twenty-five points for being a pain in the ass.

I then went to the the kitchen for pot. Unfortunately, I could only find the kind that you pour coffee into. Angie and I then proceeded to guzzle liquid energy as the gift frenzy kicked into full gear.

Peter was the first one to strike a pose with his prize gift. Oddly enough, he ignored all rules regarding teenagers receiving gifts and actually liked getting clothing.

In his defense, he also got into knitting with his Oma on our last trip stateside. Okay, this doesn't really help his defense, but I'm sure this outing will score points with my mom.

David took a different approach. He got mega excited about a bell for his bike.

Kids get excited for different reasons, so this might even be normal if it weren't for the fact that David's bike was stolen several months ago and we had already explained to him that he would not be getting a new bike until spring. But hey, have fun with that bell!

Tom took a Mr. T approach.

'I pity the fool that takes pictures of me!'

Let's ignore the fact that the Santa Claus beard-hat was actually Peter's gift from Santa. Peter didn't mind, though, and I'm guessing that you can guess Santa's interest in the matter.
There were many other gifts that were victims of the present-frenzy, but the next one was the one that brought all the gift receivers to a frenzy.

At first, my parents' surprise gift remained a surprise. It wasn't until we explained to them that Oma and Pop-pop had paid for a hotel plus tickets to the Mary Poppins musical in Stuttgart that they started to huddle with joy.

After this year's present frenzy, we made our way to Frankfurt. Today is Sonja's birthday so we decided to surprise her by crashing her pre-planned museum visit with her parents. On the way, we stopped by to pick up Barbara.

A few years ago, we, as a family, handed over the 'late torch' to Barbara and she has never disappointed us. I'm pleased to announce that today was no exception. We were on time and Barbara had just gotten out of the shower. Angie was pissed, I was indifferent and my imagination was cracking up as it envisioned Barbara, snickering away as she blow-dried her hair, muttering over and over again 'yeah, take that for stealing my childhood sticker collection'.

When we got to the museum, we tried not to stand out. As I mentioned, we were there to surprise Sonja on her birthday. I won't say how old she was turning - that would just be embarrassing.

After waiting outside for ten minutes, we called them and asked them where they were. They explained that they had been there for almost an hour and were waiting in the restaurant which, oddly enough, is exactly where we had agreed to meet them. I thought about rethinking my thoughts on whether Angie's brain should be allowed to organize anything, but I looked up and got distracted by a flashy photographer.

The museum exhibition was called 'Diorama' and focused on optical illusions and three-dimensional miniature models. Outside the museum was a an open-air rotunda that boasted a mirrored ceiling. Every ten seconds, the lighting would dim, revealing a second mirror that created the illusion of an endless tunnel of mirrors, which is just what the world needs. One BILLION mini-me's!

With detective-like skills, we eventually found the birthday girl hiding in plain sight in the exact place where we had arranged to meet. Ha, ha - gotcha!

After brunch, we dumped our coats and bags in the lockers by the front entrance and made our way up the elaborate staircase to the exhibit entrance. Heidi had invited all of us so she had the tickets. She handed them to the uniformed lady at the entrance. She had a hand-held bar-code scanner and began to scan each ticket with a level of complete disinterest that I had not thought possible. Each scan registered a BEEP! which was the only sound echoing off the walls. Even the boys seemed to be quietly mesmerized by the robotic movements of the woman scanning our tickets.

As the woman scanned the second to last ticket, Heidi realized that she had reserved a ticket for Leif, who had opted for studying the optical illusion that his pillow makes when his face is planted in it.

'Sorry, sorry! I gave you ten tickets, but there's only nine of us - one person couldn't make it.'

Robot-lady gave Heidi a blank stare and replied without emotion.

'I'm sorry, I'm not the cashier. There's nothing I can do. I've already scanned the tickets.'

The woman then slowly moved the last ticket to her hand-held scanner.


She handed the tickets back to a rather flabbergasted Heidi and Barbara tried to make the best out of a bizarre situation.

'Oh well! There are worst things that could happen.'

Most normal people would have taken Barbara's statement as rhetorical, but Robot-lady apparently felt compelled to chime in.

'Yeah, there are worst things. I just read an article about a pregnant woman in her seventh month that just found out that the baby has a tumor and they could both die.'

Trust me, I have initiated my fair share of awkward silences, but this is probably the first one where I was the one to break it.

'Ok, boys, how about you go catch up with Mama and don't make any eye contact with the lady scanning tickets.'

Like Mama, the boys are crap at following orders. They did run away from Robot-lady, but instead of catching up to Angie, they chose to plop down on some white blocks and pose for an upcoming GAP ad.

The museum itself was a let down for several of us - just for different reasons. For me, it was simple - I thought we were going to be looking at a lot of optical illusions, but there were none. There were just a bunch of miniature models and most of them looked like some of the science projects that Angie and I have made for the kids over the years because they had forgotten about them until bedtime on the night before they were due.

Angie and Barbara got super interested in the exhibition boasting an Axolotl.

If you're a normal human like me, you probably don't know what an Axolotl is. Unlike me, you might actually care, so I'll tell you - it's a Mexican salamander. They then spent about an hour searching for it before Google informed them that the Axolotl is nocturnal. I found it funny that a museum that is only open during the day would have an exhibit of a creature that, by nature, hides all day long. Angie and Barbara were not equally as amused.

Klaus was not amused by any of the exhibits, but it was this one that put him over the top. At first glance, it looked like a Native American riding a Harley.

Klaus and I approached together, both of us wondering what the hell this had to do with optical illusions or three-dimensional miniatures. On closer examination, it was a transvestite Indian sporting neon nail polish and fishnet lingerie riding a Suzuki.

'Oh, this is just ridiculous!'

With that, Klaus exited stage left. On his way out he caught a glimpse of Tommy and David's review of the 'Diorama' adventure. 

Tommy was so happy to leave that he started doing cartwheels on the way out.

David also did a cartwheel. Kinda. Okay, it didn't resemble anything like a cartwheel. He basically threw his body at the ground and damn near broke his wrist.

Angie was glad to leave the museum without any broken bones. I was just glad to leave the museum. I think Klaus was on my side of the camp.

Outside, we herded everyone together for a group photo. Just before taking the shot, Angie suggested that we all go for a coffee.

Like Garth Brooks, Klaus is not big on social graces, so I initially assumed that his glance to the heavens was a call to be saved. Turns out he was just admiring the only interesting attraction that you could see, which, by the way, you could do without even purchasing a ticket.

We then thanked Heidi again. We don't get to see each other often enough, so it was nice to visit with them. In the end, though, we skipped the social caffeine rush, which meant that we were actually on time for turkey time.

The meal was, as always, great. By great, I of course mean that it made us all a bit fatter, but isn't that what Christmas is really all about? I mean come on - just take a look at Santa.

After dinner, the boys tried forcing everyone to join in a new role-playing game that involved werewolves. Horst was the only one that managed to escape that fun. Halfway through the game, as I had my head down on the table and was being tapped on the shoulder to indicate that I was a victim, I reflected on how Opa had actually managed to get out of it.

'Hey, Opa - do you want to play a new game with us where village people use clues to find out who is the werewolf?'


I've learned a lot from Opa over the years, but today confirmed for me that the fountain of wisdom is far from drying up.

After revealing and subsequently killing the pesky werewolf, the younger generation moved into the living room. Peter, David and Tom have been fine-tuning their lady skills and Sonja indulged them for hours as they played games and swapped jokes.

After a nice visit, we made our way home. On the ride back, the boys giddily talked about all the cool stuff they had gotten and how awesome this Christmas was. By the time we got back to the ranch, the cattle had worked themselves into a stampede of happiness.

Every day has a sunset, but it doesn't always end with your children power-hugging you and loudly whispering in your ear how much they love you. Unfortunately. 

Ladder Talk:  [No creatures were stirring, not even a mouse - so I could not get to Ladder Talk]
1) What was the best part of your day?
Peter: ZZZZZzzzzz....
David: ZZZZZzzzzz....
Tom: ZZZZZzzzzz....

2) What was the worst part of your day?
Peter: ZZZZZzzzzz....
David: ZZZZZzzzzz....
Tom: ZZZZZzzzzz....

3) What would you like to do tomorrow?
Peter: ZZZZZzzzzz....
David: ZZZZZzzzzz....
Tom: ZZZZZzzzzz....

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Every year, I take one of the boys with me to pick out the family Christmas tree. Like Trump's cabinet, it's on a rotational basis and this year it was Peter's turn.

The problem was that two weeks ago, I pinched a nerve and managed to throw out my back. I was watching Peter totally rocking the bench at one of his basketball games. After three hours I tried to stand up and the emphasis is most definitely on 'tried'. I couldn't stand up, walk, or sit down without piercing pains, so it's been a fun two weeks.

On Monday, I had an MRI done and at least it is not a slipped disc and no surgery is needed. I know this has nothing to do with this story, but MRI's suck. Big time. Angie and I recently watched an episode of CSI Las Vegas where a horse with a broken leg was given an MRI. What a load of horseshit! If there is an MRI machine big enough for a horse, then why the hell do they make super-humans like me cram myself into a custom-fit coffin for 20 minutes?

The bright side of my being immobilized is that Angie finally got to fully embrace the tree hunting experience. Even brighter is that she was not saddled with David or Tom, who generally pick the first tree they see. No, no - she hit pay dirt with Peter, who takes his responsibility of picking the family tree extremely serious. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Angie and Peter left to get the tree and David and Tom spent the next four hours asking the same question.

'Why are they taking so long?'

'Because it's Peter.'

'Oh, right.'

Don't get me wrong, I love the tradition. It's just that Peter can drive you nuttier than fruit cake when it comes to picking out THE perfect tree. Our last adventure involved going to three different lots and inspecting every single tree on all three lots at least twice. He does not waver or cave into pressure like 'I'm freakin' cold! Would you just pick one already? How about this one? This one looks great, doesn't it? Come on, Peter. PLEEEEAAASE!!!'. Oh, yeah - he also has an undersized bladder and Christmas tree lots, at least the ones in Germany, do not have toilets. They also do not accept anything other than cash, but there is no point in bringing up old shit that really happened to me and pissed me off beyond belief at the time.

I thought at first I might be overdramatizing my memory of Peter's last hunt, but the excerpt above matched Angie's recount of events almost word for word. Unless you ask Peter.

The only point where I can take pride is that out of all of the trees that I helped to hunt over the years ALL of them fit in our car. Angie had to pay the guy an extra five Euros because the tree did not fit and he had to secure the trunk with string. Ha! Who the hell goes hunting without the ability to transport the trophy back to the cabin? Angie. 

Anyone that has been to our place can confirm that Simba is a crazy cat. His look, though, when we turned our living room into a forest, confirmed that our feelings for each other are mutual.

I call it the 'WTFAYHDN?' look. The last five letters stand for 'Are You Humans Doing Now?' and I trust in your creative cryptic skills to decipher the rest.
Ladder Talk: 
1) What was the best part of your day?
Peter: That it was the last day of school, that I went to Jonas' house and started on the project for religion, that I'm going to Arman's house to spend the night, and that I got to pick the tree.
David: That finally it is the break and I could meet with Cyril.
Tom: That I didn't have training and that we got the tree.

2) What was the worst part of your day?
Peter: That David was bugging me. 
David: That after playing with Cyril, I remembered that I still had training.
Tom: I didn't have a worst part.

3) What would you like to do tomorrow?
Peter: Decorate the tree with Arman. 
David: I want to have fun on my first day of the break.
Tom: I want to have fun decorating the tree and play with Lilly and Max.