Larry McMurtry

I was very saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Larry McMurtry, the prolific Texan who wrote many great books, as well as screenplays. His works were a favorite of Hollywood and were turned into a number of great films, like Hud, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment.

In my view, McMurtry’s greatest work was Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. I think Lonesome Dove is one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, ever. It is a huge, sprawling novel that was later made into the masterpiece television TV mini-series of the same name, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The book follows those two legendary former Texas Rangers who lead their band of ranch hands and a herd of stolen cattle on a long drive up to Montana and encounter adventure, death, and a host of memorable and often terrifying characters along the way. Every character in that book, from Call to McCrae to Newt, Deets, Lorena, Pea Eye, Jake Spoon, Clara, Blue Duck, and many others, was so finely drawn that you felt as if their personalities were etched into the pages of the novel.

I remember reading Lonesome Dove on a beach vacation shortly after it was published in paperback. Reading that book defined the vacation, because I could not put it down and, when I did, I looked forward to picking it up again and reading on to find out what happened next. As I continued with my reading, I remember feeling horribly conflicted, I desperately wanted to know what happened to all of these extraordinary people moving through this extraordinary landscape, but I also didn’t want the book to end, ever. Of course, it did, and the ending had an enormous impact. I’ve reread it at least once since then, and also have read many of the McMurtry books that looked at the Lonesome Dove characters at different times in their lives.

Reading Lonesome Dove made me chase down the meaning of the motto Gus McCrae adopted for the Hat Creek Cattle Company: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” It was pretty clear in the book that Gus didn’t know precisely what it meant, but he liked the classy association of their dusty Texas ranch with Latin. Finding out the meaning of a Latin phrase was a challenge back in those days, before the internet allowed us to discover stuff like that with a few taps of the keyboard. It turned out that the phrase is bastardized Latin–which seems about right for old Gus–and it means something like “a grape changes color and ripens when it is around another grape.”

In other words, we affect the lives of those around us. That seems like a pretty good epitaph for Larry McMurtry, who managed to affect the lives of grapes like me that he didn’t even know.

The Arc Of A Year

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of our office and the beginning of the remote work period. I’ve been reflecting on that year and our ever-changing, shifting, constantly morphing reaction to it. We’ve all gone through our own stages during the past 12 months, in a way comparable to the classic notion of the seven successive stages of grief: at first shock and denial, followed by pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, and finally acceptance and hope.

The first stage, for me at least, involved feelings of newness and trepidation; I’d never worked from home before, so the technological and behavioral challenges of doing so were interesting and a bit daunting. And there was a certain giddiness to the idea of not going to the office; I remember sharing photos with colleagues of what we had made for lunch during that first week of remote work, and doing a lot of texting.

Then that constant texting stopped, the interest in making different lunches ended, and there was a creeping realization that what was initially presented as a brief interlude was going to last a lot longer than people thought. Weddings, vacations, sporting events, and other things on the calendar got cancelled or delayed indefinitely, and those developments packed a punch. And we wondered, with an element of deep concern, about what a prolonged shutdown would all mean for the economy, our families, and our friends.

This was followed by a settling-in period, where people accepted that remote working was going to be the rule and the work needed to get done, so we would just have to deal with it. New routines were established and adopted, home working spaces were identified, defined, upgraded and reconfigured, and Amazon got a workout.

Then the sameness or staying inside and working in the same setting, day after day, set in, and people began to think more creatively about the situation and whether they could combine working remotely with a much-needed change of scenery. People moved around to change things up. Some people started going back to the office more frequently, while others changed their base of operations to lake houses, second homes, or rentals just to break up the monotony.

As working remotely went on and on, ultimately we hit the trough. I think it began in later autumn, as the pandemic continued to rage and we were heading into winter with no apparent end in sight. That was followed by a grim realization that we would just have to put our heads down, take it one day at a time, and just soldier on through the bleak winter months.

The current stage seems to be one of vaccine-fueled hope that the true end of the shutdown is coming someday soon, coupled with an uneasy wariness. I think the wariness recognizes that there could be more disappointments and case spikes and the discovery of new coronavirus variations ahead, but also involves an acknowledgement that there might be a different “new normal” lurking ahead that we’ll also have to adjust to, somehow.

Dare we say it? We want this to be the last stage, but this year has trained us not to get our hopes up too high.

Breaking In The Hikers

We did a fair amount of hiking last summer and really enjoyed it, and this summer we plan to do even more. But this time, we decided to go out and actually buy some legitimate hiking footwear to better deal with the rooty and rocky trails of Maine.

We visited the L.L. Bean store at Easton and were helped by a very knowledgeable staffer who is a hiker himself. (That’s a good reason to go to L.L. Bean for hiking and outdoor gear, in my view — you are helped by someone who knows what they are talking about from firsthand experience.) After assessing the various options and important qualities like weight, tread, and heat retention, I decided on the Oboz Sawtooth II low summerweight hikers. I also bought two pairs of the excellent, well-padded LL Bean socks.

Since then, I’ve been wearing the hikers around the neighborhood in order to break them in before using them on the trail, in hopes of avoiding unwanted blisters when we start hiking in earnest. The Oboz are heavier than my sneakers, obviously, but they are very comfortable and really hug your foot when you get them fully laced up. And the difference in the sole and tread, and the kind of grip you feel, is quite noticeable. So far, though, I’ve resisted the temptation to step in puddles just to test the waterproofing and have limited myself to tromping around on the sidewalks and streets, and the only climbing I’ve done is stepping up on curbs. Still, I think the breaking-in process is working pretty well.

Kish had to prod me a bit to buy the hikers, because I am a notorious cheapskate by nature. But I’m glad she prevailed on me to do it, because I think they will make the hikes more enjoyable, and having the shoes makes me think with pleasure of the approaching summer and the hiking to come.

The Weirdness Of Sleep

After more than 60 years of direct, personal experience, I’ve decided that sleep is weird.

Some nights I’ll go to bed and sleep as deeply as the dog shown in the picture above. I’ll be out for hours without any periods of wakefulness, and so far as I can tell during that time I’ve had one long, continuous dream that is like an extended feature film. I wake up and feel refreshed, but the sleep state lingers and it takes me a while to sharpen up and get going.

Other nights I’ll start off with a good period of rest, but then hit the sleep wall at about 3 a.m. I’ll wake up and struggle a bit to get back to sleep, and from then on until I get up for good, sleep will come in hour-long snatches, with lots of tossing and turning in between and dreams like sitcom episodes. When I finally give up trying to sleep any longer, I don’t feel particularly well rested, but I’m immediately alert.

And then there are nights when I hit that same sleep wall, wake up long enough to realize that I’m awake and need to try to get back to sleep, and then shift immediately into vignette mode, where I have brief, strange dreams interrupted by a minute or two of awareness before plunging back to get the next dream snippet. It’s as if my brain is shuffling the deck to sift through the day’s events and needs to lurch back to consciousness briefly before moving to the next selected short on the dream roster. And when I have one of those nights I finally wake up abruptly and get up immediately, wondering just how much strange stuff is lodged up there in my hippocampus.

I’m sure there are a lot of things that affect sleep patterns — what you’ve had to eat and drink that day, things that are going on in your life that cause concern, stress, physical fatigue, and so forth — but I suspect that much of it depends on subconscious stuff that just needs to be expressed for some reason. Sleep is intrinsically weird, and there’s not much we can do about it. Every night when you go to bed you just need to get ready for the show.

That Outdoor Urge

Yesterday the temperatures were still cold, but it was bright and sunny. It’s clear that we are on the cusp of spring, and I felt this irrepressible urge to go outside and do something. Not just take a walk — actually do something that would fall into the “outdoor chore” category.

So I gave in to the impulse, bundled up against the cold breeze, put on my sunglasses, and went outside ready to do just about anything. I swept out the back porch to remove all of the leaves and dirt and dust that had gathered there over the winter, swept the patio stones and the brick walkway, surveyed the trees and shrubs, and picked up leaves and twigs so that the backyard and patio would be free of debris and our little pod of grass would have the best possible spring growth conditions.

Then I moved to the front of the house, swept the front steps and the brickwork, swept the front sidewalk, and collected and disposed of the flotsam and jetsam that had emerged from underneath the accumulated pile of snow in our front beds. I even retrieved a plastic grocery bag that was blowing down the street like a tumbleweed, and then used it as I walked up and down the street to pick up some of the inevitable post-snowmelt litter, so that our neighborhood would be ready for spring, too. At the end of the process I surveyed my efforts and internally pronounced them as good.

I’m a big believer in the notion of human beings reacting, instinctively, to seasonal changes. I certainly feel that I do. The days grow longer, the sun shines, the world grows greener bit by bit, and you can feel a surge of energy after the winter doldrums. It’s a good feeling.

“Advanced Toast Technology”

Yesterday morning our old toaster gave up the ghost. It had been a good toaster, faithfully performing every toasting service we required of it for years and delivering delightfully golden brown slices at our command, but yesterday morning the heating elements failed. I tried banging it around and plugging it into different electrical connections–in short, the standard actions of someone who has no earthly idea how to repair a toaster but figures it’s worth a shot–but neither of those pointless exercises had the desired effect. As a result, it was clear that we needed a new toaster.

This had a thrilling benefit: it gave us a reasonable excuse to get out of the house and buy a new toaster. Sure, we could have ordered one from Amazon and had it delivered to our doorstep within minutes, but as the shutdown period nears its one-year anniversary we’re looking for any reason to get out and about. So, we seized the opportunity presented by the dead toaster development to don our masks and head to the local Target and support the brick-and-mortar merchants who provide local jobs.

When we arrived at the Target, we were surprised to find an extensive toaster selection, shown below. Target not only featured the expected two-slice and four-slice options, but also toasters that offered significant and unexpected complexity in exchange for added cost. After careful deliberation befitting the significance of the decision, we grabbed the cheapest two-slice toaster–which even so promised “Advanced Toast Technology.”

The promise of “Advanced Toast Technology” concerned me, frankly. If you think about it, toasters have been a rock of reassuring stability in an ever-changing changing sea of technological advancements that has affected even the straightforward world of kitchen appliances. The toasters of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s would perform perfectly well in a modern kitchen. Decades later, toasters still feature slots for the toast, heating coils, and a knob to be depressed to start the toasting process. No one needs a instruction manual to operate a toaster.

So when I opened our toaster and saw that it had a multi-page manual, it sent a chill down my spine. What unnecessary complexity has been injected into the tried-and-true toaster design? What new parts or elements have been added that might break down and interfere with the core toasting function? Fortunately, “advanced toast technology” turns out to be pretty basic stuff, befitting the timeless toaster functions: extra wide slots “to accommodate a variety of foods,” a removable crumb tray, “bagel & frozen options,” and seven (7!) toasting settings. I was grateful to find that there were no “smart appliance” features that require you to give your detailed personal information to toast a slice of bread. And our new toaster does a pretty good job of toasting, too.

All hail the timeless toaster, ever-immune to the confusing tides of pointless technological advancement!

Vax-O-Matic

Yesterday we went to get the first of our two-part COVID vaccinations at OSU East Hospital, just off Broad Street between downtown and Bexley. We signed up for an appointment as soon as we became eligible under the Ohio vaccination distribution protocols — age hath its (few) privileges — and when we arrived at the site we immediately became part of a impressively well-oiled machine.

As soon as we entered the building — masked, of course — our temperatures were taken, the results showed that we were clear to proceed, we applied hand sanitizer, and we followed a marked trail to the vaccination room. We got there early, and there was no line, although the vaccination room itself was full. Outside the room we showed our drivers’ licenses, confirmed our identities by answering questions, signed some forms, and then were guided into an open spot for two at one of the tables in the vaccination room itself. Every station was identified by a circular sign, depending on its status: “clean,” for open spots, “on deck,” for people who were waiting to get their shots, “COVID-19 warrior in training,” for people who were getting the shots, and “antibodies in training,” for people who had received the injection and were in the midst of the 15-minute post-vaccination waiting period to see if they had a bad reaction to the shot. As soon as the 15-minute period ended, the newly vaccinated left their spots, their areas were promptly and thoroughly disinfected, the signs were changed, and a new person came in as the process started all over again.

The person who guided us to our vaccination station changed the sign for our station, gave us an overview, and advised us to hold on to our vaccination confirmation card for dear life and “treat it like a passport.” Then we were met by a cheerful woman who asked us additional medical history questions, retrieved some forms that we had signed, gave us our timers, and then scanned some stickers that were placed on our vaccination cards to show which lot and dose we were receiving, distributed the vaccinations themselves, and changed our sign. Next up was our vaccinator, who entered more data, started the 15-minute period on the timers, and deftly gave us our shots after we rolled up our sleeves and bared our upper arms. The needle is long, but the shot was totally painless. After the vaccinator left, yet another staffer came by to change the sign, fill out our vaccination cards, and schedule us for our second shot in three weeks — which helped to fill up the 15-minute waiting period. We had no reaction tto the shots, so after our 15-minute periods ended we left our seats, which were then immediately sanitized for the next patient.

Kudos to the friendly folks at OSU East Hospital, who handled the entire process without a hitch and in very impressive fashion. All told, we were there for less than an hour, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. And we’re going to take very good care of our vaccination cards, too.

One other point to make about the vaccination room: everyone involved in the process was cheerful to the point of giddiness. I asked our vaccinator how she was dealing with the steady stream of arms to be injected, and she said that she believed what she was doing was the single more rewarding thing she had ever done in her entire medical career. All of the other OSU East people were seemingly thrilled to be playing a key role in the fight against the pandemic and the process of getting the country back to normal — and we were too, and so was everyone else who was there to receive their jab.

I don’t remember being this happy about getting my booster shots as a kid, but a pandemic has a way of changing your perspective.

Toothpaste Dilemmas

We’re coming to the end of one tube of toothpaste, and we’ve got another one in queue. So this morning, as I prepared to brush my teeth, I faced a difficult decision: should I go for Colgate “sparkling white” with “mint zing” flavor, which promises to whiten and help protect teeth from stains, or for Colgate “optic white stain fighter” with “fresh mint gel,” which purports to remove “6x more surface stains” with “micropolishing action”?

After careful deliberation and consideration about whether I should simply protect my teeth from stains, or actively fight them, I decided that, even though I wasn’t feeling particularly “sparkling” at the moment, I could use some “mint zing” in my life and I may as well use up the old tube of toothpaste before going all “optic” on my teeth. I brushed and flossed but, alas, my teeth — having sustained the onslaught of countless cups of coffee over the course of decades — did not reach the “sparkling white” level, and instead remained firmly stuck in the “dingy” zone.

I don’t think going with the “optic white stain fighter” would have made a difference, either. You’d need a product that removes “600x more surface stains” — basically, toothpaste akin to forced sandblasting — and offers awesome “macropolishing action,” rather than wussy “micropolishing action,” to make a discernible difference in the drab color of my aged choppers. In reality, I’m mostly just grateful that they all are still firmly rooted in my gums.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the aspirational element of toothpaste whitening options. Whether it’s “sparkling,” or “optic,” or “3D,” or “radiant,” they set a lofty goal–and also remind us of the importance of adjectives.

The Why Of Spillage

Every morning, my first task is to make a pot of fresh coffee. And on the vast majority of mornings, after I fill the pot with water from the faucet, as I am pouring the water from the pot into the coffee maker some water drips from the spout and runs down the side of the pot to the counter. There might be a rare day, once in a great while, when my combination of morning alertness and careful pouring technique prevents any spillage, but 99.9% of the time I’ll need a dish towel to mop up the water.

What causes this annoying event? Your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you it is the so-called “capillary effect” of water, which involves elements of cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension. Basically, water molecules like to stick together, and like to stick to almost anything — including the sides of coffee pots. Once the first water molecule decides to tumble over the spout of the coffee pot and stick to the side — rather than obediently falling into the coffee maker, like a good water molecule should — other water molecules will follow.

This is a common problem, and you’ll see all kinds of tips about how to address it. As for me, I think the best approach is to try to pour the water into the coffee maker very slowly, so there is no chance that the first rogue water molecule will make its break for freedom over the spout and down the side of the pot. But normally the urge to drink some hot coffee is too strong, the pour passes the tipping point, the first bad boy molecule leads the way, more inevitably follow, and it’s time to get the dish towel off the rack again.

This can be annoying, to be sure, but as the U.S. Department of Interior “water science school” website teaches us, capillary action is essential to the health of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants — because capillary action is a big part of how they get water from their roots up to their branches, leaves, and flowers. Capillary action also has been a real boon for paper towel makers, because that’s why water creeps up a paper towel that touches a water spill, thereby ensuring that Rosie the lunch counter lady can demonstrate that Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.

So that’s the capillary effect for you — helping trees and Rosie, while adding an inevitable extra step to the morning coffee making process. The morning spill might be irritating, but if that’s the price to pay for flowers and green leaves, I’ll gladly pay it.

A Ramen Story

I’ve been eating a lot of ramen noodle lunches during this COVID shutdown period. I cook up the noodles, toss the unopened, too-salty-for-my-tastes flavor packet into the trash, and then add various items to the noodles and water, like chopped hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, tuna fish, chopped onion, or other leftovers from the refrigerator, and always some sriracha sauce, mustard, and horseradish to give the concoction an extra spicy kick. It makes for a hot, satisfying lunch that’s a nice break from sandwiches.

The other day I was waiting for the water to boil and noticed that the back of the noodle packet included a short tribute to the founder of the Nissin Top Ramen brand that is shown in the above photograph. You don’t see tributes to founders on food packets much anymore — in fact, you really don’t see them at all. This one says that the founder, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen in Japan and brought it to America in 1970, includes a sketch of his head, and describes him as a “legendary inventor and humanitarian.” The packet also directs you to the Nissin Foods website for more information.

Well, why not learn more about a legendary figure? You can find the referenced website here. It says that Mr. Ando invented instant ramen to deal with food shortages in post-WWII Japan and also invented instant noodles in a cup after noticing Americans eating noodles from cups. It includes photographs of Mr. Ando, including one with him in a lab coat posing with a microscope that sure makes him look like an inventor. The photos indicate that the sketch on the packet is a pretty good likeness, by the way. As for his humanitarian status, the website includes some of Mr. Ando’s sayings that are claimed to still inspire the company, like “be meticulous, yet bold.” Some of Mr. Ando’s other quotes are “always look around you with a great deal of curiosity,” “food is a peace industry,” and “when you cast away greed in adversity, you can find unexpected strength.”

It’s nice to know a little bit more about this person who came up with the idea of instant noodles, which have helped to make my personal shutdown period a bit more tolerable. And, in his honor, I will strive to always “be meticulous, yet bold” in chopping up leftovers and adding inventive combinations to my ramen creations.

Jack Frost’s Beard

Today is one of those days where it is just warm enough for snow to melt, but still cold enough that that melted snow isn’t going to get far before turning into ice. It’s ideal icicle weather, and we’ve got some impressive ones around German Village, including this specimen that formed on a bush on City Park.

My grandmother called these multi-icicle creations “Jack Frost’s beard,” in recognition of that wintry sprite. According to Grandma, the impish Mr. Frost not only nipped at your nose on cold mornings, he also was responsible for the icy etchings on windows that formed on super-cold days.

Driving Reflexes

Last night Kish and I went out for dinner for Valentine’s Day. Our restaurant destination was within walking distance, but given that many of the sidewalks along the way are still snow- and ice-covered, and the fact that it would be dark by the time we walked home, we decided driving was the safer approach.

As I got into the car, I realized with a start that it was the first time I’ve been behind the wheel of the car for . . . well, I don’t know exactly how long. Weeks, for sure, and maybe a full month. There has been no period in my adult life where I have gone for such a long period without driving. And the reason is: there’s just been no reason to drive anywhere. Kish has been out, but I’ve limited my movement to walking around our neighborhood, walking to work on a few occasions, walking to get a haircut, and walking to restaurants. It actually felt weird to slide into the driver’s seat.

We use the car so infrequently, and for such short trips, that we couldn’t even remember the last time we filled the tank. When was the last time you ever wondered about that? Gas prices are going up, apparently, but we certainly aren’t contributing any pressure to the demand side of the pricing equation.

Although it felt strange to drive, the deeply ingrained driving reflexes and motor memory came back with a rush. Driving again was like riding the proverbial bicycle. Still, the experience did make me think that I should take the car out every once in a while, just to keep the reflexes sharp. Put me down for a Drivers’ Ed refresher course.

One Of These Days . . . .

We’ve heard some really good things about Sicily. Richard went there a few years ago and raved about it — including Palermo, shown above. It looks scenic and interesting, doesn’t it? So we planned a trip there last May, with friends who have some family history and relatives in the area, to see Sicily for ourselves.

Alas, COVID hit, and our trip was postponed to the fall. Things weren’t better then, so the trip got postponed again, to this coming May. Then we got a call from the airline a few days ago, telling us that the flights on our journey to Italy were designated some kind of special “COVID flights.” We would need to bring evidence that we had taken a particular kind of test (that we would pay for ourselves, incidentally) within 72 hours of the flight and received negative results before we could board the first leg of the flight. And we would have to get tested again at airports as we made our way to Rome, and apparently need to follow a similar process before coming home after our tour of southern Italy and Sicily ended. The implication, of course, was that if any positive test results showed up along the way we’d be stuck where we were, unable to board a flight. And the idea of arranging for COVID testing in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language didn’t seem like much fun.

The process was obviously prudent, safe, and certainly understandable for the airline. And we’ve paid attention to State Department warnings and gotten shots to prevent various local diseases before traveling to other overseas locations in the past. Still, this process seemed different, because we would constantly be reminded of the brooding, ever-present threat of infection and the consequences if it happened to us. It’s not exactly the best way to enjoy a carefree trip to an exotic destination.

Then the other shoe dropped, and our trip was formally cancelled and deferred again — this time for a full year. Everyone hopes that, by 2022, the vaccine will have been fully distributed, the lurking COVID threat will have been resolved, and people will be able to travel again without all of the rigamarole of constant testing and ever-present masks and worry about potential exposure. I’m sure the people of Italy, where tourism is such an important part of the economy, are more eager for that than anyone.

We’re not alone in this; COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with spring travel plans for people throughout the world. I’m not complaining, really — it is what it is, we’ve had to cancel trips before for various reasons, and a masked, tested tour is not how you would ideally want to see a place like Sicily, anyway. But I do think about the recent retirees who made travel abroad an important part of their retirement plans. They’re sitting at home, watching the clock tick, wondering when they will actually be able to take the trips that they envisioned, and hoping that those trips will actually happen . . . one of these days.

Galileo And Me

Scientific legend has it that a young Galileo Galilei conducted an experiment that helped to define some of the properties of gravity. In order to test Aristotle’s notion that objects fall at different rates according to their weight, Galileo is reputed to have taken two balls with materially different weights to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped them simultaneously. According to the story, the balls fell to the ground below at the same rate of acceleration and landed at the same time — thereby showing that Aristotle was wrong and the invisible force of gravity acts equally on objects with different masses. Galileo’s findings still hold up — even when modern-day scientists test the effects of gravitational acceleration at the atomic level.

I conducted my own impromptu experiment with gravity yesterday morning, and can attest that gravity is still out there, working the same way it always has.

I was just starting my morning walk. We had been subjected to the dreaded “wintry mix” overnight, and the footing was treacherous. The parking lot at the corner had been cleared of snow and looked to be dry and safe, so I decided to take a short cut through the parking lot. As I proceeded with a jaunty step across the lot, my right foot hit a patch of black ice, my feet shot out to the left, and I landed hard on the asphalt surface on my right side. I gingerly picked myself up, checked to make sure that I was in one piece, then carefully made my way back to our house, figuring that the wise course would be to skip any further icy adventures that day. Fortunately, I had on several layers as well as my own more than ample personal padding, no bones were broken, and I’m sore, but not badly bruised.

It’s the first time I’ve fallen to the ground in a while, and it got me to thinking how amazing gravity is. I probably fell no more than a few feet, but I struck the pavement with breathtaking (literally) force, as if one of the Ohio State linebackers had hit me at full speed and laid a crushing blow on my right side. The experience made me think that I need to be a lot more judicious about walking during the winter, because gravity is always out there, brooding and ready to yank you down.

I’m just grateful I wasn’t falling from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Answering The “Kid Questions”

Every parent has had to field their fair share of “kid questions”: those innocent, wide-eyed inquiries that presuppose that Mom and Dad know everything there is to know in the world and can explain it, besides. The classic “kid question,” of course, is “why is the sky blue”?

“Why does food stick to what is supposed to be a no-stick pan?” is another good example of a kid question. And depending upon a parent’s mood at the time, and whether the parent is trying to use a spatula to lift a stuck egg from a frying pan without splitting the yolk, answers might range from some quasi-scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo that you figure will satisfy the kid and cause him or her to stop asking those infernal questions to an honest answer that will give the kid more information than they bargained for, like: “Well, Tommy, sometimes in life things don’t work like they are supposed to, and you’re just going to have to get used to it, okay?”

It’s nice when science lends beleaguered parents a hand and provides information that will allow them to answer those tough questions. Researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences have done just that by carefully examining the no-stick pan issue and publishing their research in the Physics of Fluids journal. The scientists found that dry spots can form even on oiled, “no-stick” pans, and that’s where the food sticks. The dry spots are created by a process called thermocapillary convection, in which oil moves from the hot center of the pan to the cooler edges, and the thin coating of oil in the center of the pan becomes destabilized and eventually ruptures — leaving that dreaded dry spot that threatens to ruin your otherwise perfectly cooked egg. (And if you don’t want thermocapillary convection in your kitchen, the scientists helpfully note: “To avoid unwanted dry spots, the following set of measures should be applied: increasing the oil film thickness, moderate heating, completely wetting the surface of the pan with oil, using a pan with a thick bottom or stirring food regularly during cooking.”).

So there you have it: thermocapillary convection is the right answer. And the great thing about that answer is that once you start talking about thermocapillary convection, capillary length, and oil destabilization, your kid will probably lose interest and stop asking those questions. It turns out they probably didn’t really want an actual answer, they just wanted to reassure themselves that Mom and Dad do know everything there is to know.

Feel free to use “thermocapillary convection” to answer other kid questions, including the “why is the sky blue” head-scratcher. It will serve until your children reach the teenage years, when the questions stop and parents suddenly become far less knowledgeable than friends.