Tab Stab

Coca-Cola recently announced that it will stop making Tab diet soda. Coke also announced that it will stop making “ZICO Coconut Water,” “Coca-Cola Life,” and “Odwalla,” none of which I’d ever heard of, much less tasted. But Tab? Tab hits home.

Hearing that Tab is being discontinued is kind of like hearing news of the death of an Hollywood star from long ago who you assumed had died long ago. You feel sad but also somewhat surprised that the person was still around. Not having had a Tab in decades, I assumed that it had gone to the great soft drink graveyard in the sky long ago.

Tab was a staple of the Webner household when I was growing up. Tab was the first diet drink introduced by Coca-Cola, and the first food item of any kind that I remember seeing advertised as a “diet” option. Mom fought a long, desperate twilight struggle to keep her weight down, so Tab was a natural item to add to the family refrigerator. With its kicky, quasi-psychedelic logo and flourescent can, Tab was very much a product of the ’60s. It was made the saccharine as the sugar substitute and became enormously popular in the ’70s, when dieting really took off, but then faded away find after Coke introduced Diet Coke and began pushing that beverage in lieu of Tab.

I’ve quaffed a Tab or two in my lifetime, the most recent time probably being while playing Pong on the Atari system we had in the family room of our split-level house, and I recall it as having a distinctive, almost peculiar taste. Not bad, necessarily, or good, either, for that matter, just . . . distinctive. You got used to it, and some people got almost addicted to it. Tab had its devoted fans who kept the brand alive when most people had forgotten it and it accounted for a tiny fraction of Coke’s total beverage sales. I knew one person who kept cases of Tab in his office and drank one with every lunch, which incidentally consisted of the same sandwich from Subway.

People who crave that unique Tab flavor are very sad these days, and are probably scrambling to use the internet to buy up as much of the product as they can in order to build up a lifetime supply. For the rest of us who lived with Tab long ago, we give a wistful salute to another childhood product that we will see no more.

Capturing The Moment — Good And Bad

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much cell phone cameras have changed our lives — and the world — for good, and for bad, too.

The good is pretty obvious. Cell phone cameras are easy to carry around with you, so you’ve always got a camera at hand if you want to capture a moment in space and time — like this picture of boats at Burnt Cove, silhouetted against the dying glow of the sun just after it had plunged below the horizon, as we were returning from a boat trip to North Haven with Dr. Science and the GV Jogger in early August.

I like having a camera at hand because you never know when those special moments might occur. (I like it so much, in fact, that UJ calls me “Snappy” whenever I haul out the phone to take a picture.) Taking these kinds of photos helps me to really lock those special moments into my memory bank. And, of course, there have been instances where people have used their cell phones to capture real news — natural disasters, police misconduct, public officials behaving badly — that wouldn’t have been preserved or come to light otherwise.

But there’s obviously a dark side, too. Selfie obsession — to the point where people are injuring and even killing themselves walking backward to get the perfect framing of their face — is an obvious issue. But there is more to it than that. If you go to your news feed page, how many “news” stories are really nothing other than one person’s bad day captured by a cell phone camera?

So much of what is presented as “news” these days consists of random private people misbehaving in their own worlds, in ways that would not be “news” at all if there weren’t a camera at hand to capture it. The exhausted mother lashing out at a misbehaving toddler, the delivery driver who wouldn’t stop to help a senior citizen who had fallen, the pilot who asked a woman wearing a revealing outfit to cover up — all of these are examples of stories that wouldn’t be stories at all without the salacious picture or video footage. People look at these kinds of stories because it’s always interesting to take a peek at other people’s lives, but they really aren’t “news” in any meaningful sense. And I wonder if, in this way, the cell phone camera has helped to knock real news off the public radar screen and contribute to the trivialization of public discourse.

Cell phone cameras truly are a double-edged sword.

It’s All In Your Perspective

I’m guessing that most of us have loved The Wizard Of Oz since we were kids. Like the Cowardly Lion, we might have been scared by the flying monkeys and the evil Wicked Witch of the West or the loud Wizard of Oz face and flames and smoke and sound effects, but we enjoyed the innocent story of Dorothy and her faithful dog who were transported by a cyclone to a magical land — and then brought back home just because she wished it.

But what if you took an alternative perspective of the story, as the writer did above? Suddenly The Wizard Of Oz goes from being a delightful children’s film to a dark movie in the film noir genre. And the best thing about the alternative description posted above is that it is factually accurate in every detail. It just goes to show you that perspective is everything — and if you look at things from a different perspective you might see a different side, even of something as familiar as The Wizard Of Oz.

I’m late to the game on this; the description of The Wizard Of Oz above was written for the TCM channel by a writer named Rick Polito in 1998, was noted by people at that time, and then “went viral” again in 2012 or so. Being out of it, I missed it both times, but I got a good laugh out of it when I saw it recently — and a good laugh in 2020 is definitely something to share.

Thank You, Mr. Phillips

The toolbox at our house has a motley collection of tools — some inherited, some abandoned, and some picked up here and there. We’ve got a lot of screwdrivers, but almost all of them are flat head screwdrivers. We’ve only got one Phillips head screwdriver — the short, orange and black tool shown above — which is too bad because most of the screws that are used these days are Phillips screws.

I had to use the Phillips screwdriver the other day, and once again gave inner thanks to Mr. Phillips for his invention. The screws I was trying to remove were really in tight, and anyone who remembers trying to remove flat head screws and stripping out the slot (which apparently is technically called “camming”) — thereby ensuring that the screw cannot be removed by any normal human effort — should always be grateful for the Phillips head design. Sure enough, in this instance the screws were successfully removed with only modest effort and without a single swear word being uttered. I’d guess that Mr. Phillips single-handedly has materially reduced the amount of angry, explosive cussing that would have otherwise occurred but for his salutary invention.

In case you’re interested, here’s an article about the history of the screw and screwdriver — which, surprisingly, didn’t really become common until the 1800s — the tale of Mr. Phillips, and a curious backstory about why Canadians use a different type of screw and screwdriver that some believe is an even better design. As is the case with so many stories about early industrial developments, Henry Ford figures prominently, and helped to bring about the fact that Americans use the Phillips head rather than the Robertson head used in Canada.

I don’t know whether the Robertson screw is better than the Phillips — but I do know that the Phillips is a huge improvement over the simple slotted screw that is so easy to strip. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Phillips for minimizing my blood pressure and my contributions to the swear jar.

Suits And Ties

When we got back to Columbus for the first time in months, I went through the house, checking to make sure everything was OK. When I got to the closet where my suits and ties are kept, it was kind of weird to see them. They weren’t quite dust-covered, fortunately, but they looked kind of strange after four and a half months of cold turkey suit-and-tielessness.

I’d be surprised if anyone who has been working remotely over the last four months has donned a suit or other form of pre-COVID professional business attire. On the video conferences I’ve participated in, it’s been business casual, tops — and in some instances a cut or two below business casual, all the way down into the casual skirting grungy category. Nobody seems to care about it, either. There clearly are events where a suit and tie will still be required — some of my colleagues have been in trial recently, and for court appearances of course suits, ties, and other professional garb are a lawyer’s standard issue uniform — but so long as working remotely via videoconference and computer is the norm, I think business casual is going to be as high-level as the clothing expectations will get.

What I think is more interesting is whether anyone will go back to regular workday wearing of suits and ties when — some blessed day — the COVID-19 pandemic is over. There was a strong trend away from suits and ties before the coronavirus hit, and that may well continue and accelerate. But among some people I sense a strong yearning to get back to “the way things were” before the world turned upside down. Wearing a suit and tie and other professional attire would be one tangible way of signalling that we’ve returned to business as usual. For some people, at least, you’d have the weird scenario of putting on a suit and tie — a pretty uncomfortable combination — as a way of achieving comfort that things are “back to normal.”

I’ll be putting on a suit and tie for the first time in months in the near future when I’ve got a presentation, but I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll go back to regular suit-wearing when, at some point in the future, our office opens up at full capacity again. One thing is for sure — my suits are going to last a lot longer than their original life span.

The Scenic Route

We decided to take two days to make our way from Stonington back to Columbus. Since we weren’t trying to make great time on the roads, we avoided the I-95 raceway and took the two-lane roads through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont instead, including lots of time on U.S. 202. My grandmother would have called it the “scenic route.”

It was a lot of fun, and gave us a glimpse of small town America, New England-style, and lots of pretty fall scenery. The towns were charming, and a drive on the “blue highways” shows you how many Americans work at their own businesses from their homes — doing hairdressing, nails, child care, dog grooming, carpentry, and other self-employed work. There were lots of political signs out, and a few roadside demonstrations where the participants were soliciting honks for their candidates. And the fall foliage was beautiful.

We ended up with a drive up the Taconic Parkway and this room at the Beekman Arms Inn in Rhinebeck, New York, which is supposed to be the oldest continuously operated hotel in America, dating back to colonial times. It’s one of those places that says “George Washington slept here.” We had a great meal at the Beekman, donned our masks for a twilight walk around downtown Rhinebeck, and enjoyed a fine end to a day that showed that taking your time is a good way to go.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XL

This summer we have been trying to support all of the local businesses around Stonington — especially restaurants, which really need the traffic to stay in business and which face unique challenges in achieving appropriate social distancing and sanitation in the coronavirus era. Every week, we’ve tried to go to at least one local-area restaurant for a hearty meal and a very generous tip for our server. This week, as our stay in Stonington is coming to a close, we’re looking to complete a final circuit of all of our summer options.

Last night we went to the Fin & Fern, which has become a mainstay this summer. It’s located next to the mailboat dock and features a really good and diverse menu. It also made the decision to open when a lot of restaurants were still debating their options and resolutely stayed the course all summer, offering fine, and safely served, meals. I’ve become very fond indeed of the F&F short rib and mashed potatoes, and Kish swears they have an amazing Caesar salad. (I wouldn’t know, because when it comes to salads, I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.)

Last night, though, I went for the lobster stew, shown above, and a bacon cheeseburger with fries. The lobster stew was a creamy treat, served piping hot with lots of big chunks of lobster and accompanied (of course!) by oyster crackers. And the cheeseburger was a grilled-to-perfection medium rare, with thick pieces of smoked bacon and just the right amount of fries. It was a fine way to bid the Fin & Fern adieu until next year.

We’re all going to try to forget 2020, and for good reason. But there are some parts of the year that I will remember, and the restaurants that opened up and offered patrons a dash of normalcy amidst the craziness will be one of them. Thanks to the Fin & Fern for some great food and a friendly atmosphere when we really needed it the most.

The 2020 Garage And Yard Sale Report

2020 has been a bad year in more ways than we can count, but it’s been a pretty productive year for us in terms of garage and yard sale acquisitions.  After an early slack period in deference to the coronavirus, the ads for sales started to appear in the local paper, and by the end of the summer the Stonington-Deer Isle area was back to its normal complement of Saturday sales.

I’m not the big garage sale expert in our household — Kish and Russell are the true aficionados — but in my limited experience there are two types of people who put on garage or yard sales.  In the first category are people who are really hoping to make a lot of money on their unwanted items.  The people in this category tend to overprice their stuff, not fully realizing that it is, after all, unwanted stuff of dubious provenance that doesn’t carry any special memories or value for the potential buyer who is just looking for a bargain on a used item.  The people in this category tend to be kind of stiff and rigid.  The other category features people who just want to get rid of stuff, have put an ad in the paper in hopes that people will stop by and take stuff away, and have priced everything to sell.  I like garage sales put on by people in the second category better.  Last weekend, we went to a sale put on by some people who were leaving to move to a different state, and after chatting with them for a while they were basically trying to give us stuff just so they could get rid of it and not have to cart it to their new house.  

Garage and yard sales are interesting for a lot of reasons.  One reason is that they show you, in tangible form, just how much stuff people tend to accumulate over the years — stuff that, at some point, has moved from useful to unwanted, from prized possession to clutter, from key parts of a new hobby to nagging reminders of past failures, from potential treasured heirloom to junk.  Another reason is that garage sales tend not to be organized in any meaningful way.  Normally, when I am going to buy something, I know exactly what I want, go directly to get it, and then end the shopping excursion.  That doesn’t work with garage sales.  Even if you go to one with a specific thing in mind, it might not be there, and even if it is what you’re looking for is going to be mixed in with a bunch of stuff that is totally unrelated.  And, of course, in looking over tables of household debris you might just find something that you hadn’t thought of but really could use.  Once in a while, the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” really turns out to be true.

This year we’ve used yard sales to buy a nifty circular painting of a ship that is now hanging in our main room, acquire a sturdy used wheebarrow and some useful yard and gardening tools, get the cream pitcher and sugar bowl pictured above, and fill in some of the gaps in the household.  It’s all stuff we like and can use–for now, at least.

Of course, at some point in the future it all could end up in a yard sale of our own, on a table filled with other bric-a-brac.    

Hand-Lettered

One of the many cool things about Stonington is the presence of handmade signs—like these two carefully carved signs identifying Ocean Drive.

Why are there two virtually identical road signs, right on top of each other? Beats me! It’s just part of the charm of the place.

Many of the signs around town are hand-lettered and often involve artwork for some added panache. Lobsters are popular accents for signs, for example. I think some of the business owners feel that hand-lettered signs are a personal touch that says more about their business than a commercially produced sign. And the signs around town aren’t limited to commercial establishments, either. Some houses have joined in the hand-lettering parade and put up their own signs. Sometimes the yard signs are political, sometimes they are more personal — like asking dog walkers to please not let their dogs off the leash.

I find the personal signs to be affirming. You wouldn’t make a sign unless you believed it will have an impact. In a town where people do a lot of walking, it’s nice to know that neighbors believe that passersby will read their signs and at least acknowledge — if not agree with — them.

A Summer Like No Other

Today is, officially, the last full day of summer.  Tomorrow morning at 9:30 or so the autumnal equinox arrives.  In Stonington, it feels like the northern hemisphere has been moving speedily away from the sun for some time now.  As I write this the temperature outside is a bracing 39 degrees, and you can definitely get a heady whiff of winter in the sharp breeze.

It’s been a unique summer in Stonington, as it has been across the country.  The statue of the stonecutter downtown has been masked up for months, and so were most of the people around town.  Here, like everywhere else, things that used to be strange and different have become second nature — like donning a mask before entering a building, working remotely with your office in a laptop, or automatically veering off to the other side of the street to keep that social distance from approaching pedestrians.   

Some businesses opened, some didn’t, and some found new ways to operate while scrupulously obeying the coronavirus rules.  The restaurants that opened seemed to start slow but gather momentum, and our guess is that grateful patrons will feel a long-term loyalty to the places that figured out a way to safely serve food to customers who just had to get out of their houses during a pandemic.  The shops in town all stayed open through the season and seemed to do a reasonably good trade, and while the Opera House was closed in 2020 it decided to offer drive-in movies on a big screen set up at the old ballfield and experienced a string of sell-outs.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the summer drive-ins become a permanent part of the Stonington arts calendar.

Of course, it wasn’t like a normal summer, and a lot of the things that we enjoyed in the past — like live musical performances at some of the venues around town, and the end of summer Labor Day party in our neighborhood — just didn’t happen this year, for totally understandable reasons.  But with summer now ending, the key point seems to be that the town and its businesses made it through, and will still be here next year.  That’s not true elsewhere, as thousands of American restaurants and shops and other small businesses closed their doors for good.  We’re grateful that our favorite places dodged that bullet.

The summer of 2020 truly has been a summer like no other.  We’re not sorry to see it ending, but it’s safe to say we won’t forget it.

Tale Of The Scale

Our place in Stonington, like many American households, has a bathroom scale.  It’s a small, square scale — which is a good thing, because the bathroom itself is not spacious and the scale has to be wedged into a pretty tiny space.

And this particular scale, like all bathroom scales I’ve ever owned, seems to chronically overstate weight.  Does anyone else have that experience?  Are bathroom scale manufacturers part of some shadowy conspiracy with junk food producers to disappoint Americans who are trying diligently to shed a few pounds and cause them to give up hope, forget the diet, and dive once again into that bag of pork rinds?

To be honest, I don’t really use bathroom scales.  If I’m feeling especially trim, I’ll step on one in hopes that the scale will confirm my optimism, but then I see that I weigh pretty much the same as I have for the past 15 years, shrug, and decide not to worry about the scale going forward.  When I made my one use of this particular scale this summer, I noticed that it goes up to 320 pounds.  320 pounds!  It’s hard for me to imagine a 300-pounder teetering on this puny scale, or the protests the scale might make if a 300-pounder actually tried.  But it turns out that the a 320-pound limit is on the low side for modern bathroom scales.  Amazon offers a number of scales that have a 440-pound capacity.  It’s hard for me to imagine that many people who might test that limit would be using a bathroom scale, but apparently that is the case.  

Bathroom scales have an interesting history.  They first came into popular culture in the early 1900s, when life insurance companies decided that heavier people tended to kick the bucket sooner, and began publishing tables that showed ideal weights for people of certain heights and then factoring that data into coverage decisions and calculating the premiums for policies.  Setting an “ideal” weight helped to fuel a broader focus on personal weight as a measure of both healthiness and attractiveness, and that meant people needed to start weighing themselves more regularly.  Because people worried about their weight weren’t all that keen about stepping onto the penny scales at the local emporium, in full view of the public at large and neighborhood busybodies, a market for a private means of weighing yourself was created, and the bathroom scale was invented to meet the demand. 

People who obsess about their weight have rued that day ever since.

My Interview With RBG

I was very saddened to read yesterday of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after a long and hard-fought battle with cancer.  She was one of those rare Supreme Court justices who was not only a towering legal figure, but also a titanic cultural figure as well.

As the second woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was a role model and iconic figure for generations of women entering the legal profession and, more broadly, women breaking boundaries in formerly male-dominated professions of all kinds.  Her jurisprudence shows that she was a tireless, and relentless, advocate for women’s rights, but also a brilliant and careful legal analyst and deft writer whose considerable brainpower was well applied to every case that came before the Supreme Court.

And in my view, at least, Justice Ginsburg was an important cultural figure in another way as well.  She was great friends with former Justice Antonin Scalia, even though their views on the law and its purpose could not have been farther apart.  They shared a love of opera, enjoyed socializing, and actually performed on stage in a 1994 Washington National Opera production.  It says something about the character and temperament of both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia that they could put aside their political and legal disagreements and still enjoy each other’s company.  It’s a quality that we could use a bit more of in these bitterly divided, hyperpartisan times.

I had the privilege of actually interviewing for a clerkship position with Judge Ginsburg in 1984, when she was serving as one of the leading, up-and-coming judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and I was beginning my third year of law school.  I had sent resumes and letters to all of the court of appeals judges and was thrilled to get a callback interview with Judge Ginsburg.  (I suspect that her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a Georgetown Law professor who had taught two tax classes I had taken, may have put in a good word for me.)  Alas, when I arrived for the interview Judge Ginsburg told me, with characteristic gentle forthrightness, that she had just offered the position to another candidate, who had accepted, and she said that under the circumstances if I wanted to skip the interview she would understand and be fine with that.

I was disappointed at the news, but figured what the heck — how often am I going to get a chance to talk for a while with one of the world’s leading legal minds? — so I said if it was okay with her I’d like to stay and chat, anyway.  We spent a very enjoyable hour talking about her husband and his great teaching style and a law review article I was working on about the intersession pocket veto, an issue that had arisen before the D.C. Circuit.  Judge Ginsburg asked some incisive questions about the issues and had some interesting observations about them, and then flattered me by asking for a copy of my draft article, which I promptly sent.  I may not have gotten a clerkship out of our brief encounter, but I did get a good story and some insights into an important historical figure from the experience.

When President Clinton appointed Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, I knew she would be an important Justice, and of course she was.  Today I remember not only the leading jurist and influential role model, but also the funny, dynamic person I met more than 35 years ago.  The world is a little poorer today with her passing.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXXIX)

I can’t even remember the last time I had lunch at a food truck.  It’s been at least the six months of COVIDmania, for certain, and given that winter isn’t prime food truck territory, it was probably a good six months before that.  So when we saw that a food truck was going to be parking at Billings Marine, the boatyard in our neighborhood, going there to have a food truck lunch was an easy call.  I didn’t even care what kind of food the truck was offering–just the chance to get something hot and eat it outside, in a different setting, was irresistible.

So yesterday we hoofed it over to Billings during the lunch hour and took stock of Gott Lunch?, a truck that serves breakfast and lunch and is going to be camped at the boatyard from 9-4 every day.  Gott Lunch? offers a delectable array of hot sandwiches, all of which are served on toasted bread.  Everything on the menu looked good, so choosing a sandwich was tough, but after careful deliberation lasting about three milliseconds I went for a Philly steak melt with some mac ‘n cheese on the side.  The sandwich was great, and what really put it into awesome territory was the bread–a dense, crunchy multigrain that was loaded with flavor.  Put some grilled steak, melted cheese, and grilled onions on that toasted bread, let the melted cheese and grilled steak juice sink into the nooks and crannies of the toasted slices, add a few forkfuls of mac and swigs of cold water, and gobble it all down outdoors, and you’ve got a lunch to savor.   

We’ve all been good about accepting the reality of the coronavirus and modifying our behavior to responsibly account for the risks posed by a global pandemic, and our family has been no exception.  And that was one of the things that made our visit to Gott Lunch? so special.  Having lunch at a food truck was a highlight, because even though the food was terrific, what we really got to taste was a tiny bite of normalcy.

Rutting Season

The other day we were talking to one of the locals.  Russell mentioned that on his recent hikes he’s seen more deer activity, and has had to be careful driving in the wooded areas of Deer Isle to avoid collisions with deer charging out of the underbrush.  The local nodded sagely and said, simply:  “rutting season.”

(Whenever somebody says anything involving a “season,” my mind automatically cycles to a classic Looney Tunes where Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny are ripping hunting posters off a telephone poll, arguing “Rabbit Season!” and “Duck Season!” with increasing vehemence, only to finally expose an “Elmer Season” poster.  But, I digress.)

In this part of Maine, “rutting season” is serious business, and as much a time of year as winter, spring, or summer.  It’s the period where hormones are surging in the whitetail deer population and the cervidae are feeling the overpowering urge to mate.  During the height of “the rut,” Mainers will see antlered male deer “sparring” in fields and clearing, fighting for the right to court a choice female deer.  And when the rutting season arrives in full force, you’ve really got to watch it in the woods or on the roads, to keep an eye out for crazed, wild-eyed deer crashing out of the trees, in the grip of raw biological forces that are totally beyond their control.  Licensed hunters–especially bow hunters, apparently–think rutting season is the best season of the year.

Interestingly, nobody is quite sure when the rutting season truly begins, and some of the more scientific sorts divide the period into “pre-rut,” “rut,” and “post-rut” subperiods, characterized by different deer activity like males leaving scrapes on trees and then “seeking,” “chasing,” and “tending.”  Apparently the onset of the rut is affected by the shorter days, and colder temperatures . . . and it has gotten a lot cooler up here lately.  I’ve noticed increased deer activity even in our neighborhood, with a lot more signs of deer messing with the plants–and changes in eating patterns evidently are another sign of the onset of rutting season.  If we’re not in the “pre-rut” phase, we’re getting close.

So, brace yourself!  “Rutting season” may be near upon us.  And now that we’re going to be dealing with it, I’ll never describe myself as “being in a rut” again.