Children’s Books And Lasting Lessons

At the southeast corner of Schiller Park, a pedestrian can take two routes. One can use the access driveways in and out of the parking lot to cut the corner and save a few steps. Or, one can go through the driveways to the actual corner beyond before turning the corner and continuing the walk. I always walk through to the corner beyond the driveway before turning, and when I do I think “neat and square.”

“Neat and square” is a line from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a book I read as a kid. It’s just one of the things that has stuck with me from that book Mom first read to me so long ago.

You may know the story. Mike Mulligan has a steam shovel named Mary Anne. Mike was proud of her and the work they could do together, and boasted of Mary Anne’s capabilities. And Mike and Mary Anne did the job right, always finishing the corners of what they dug “neat and square.” But it was hard for an old-fashioned steam shovel to compete with newfangled diesel-powered digging machines. In one troubling scene in the book, Mike and Mary Anne view a junk heap of other sad, discarded steam shovels that have been abandoned by their owners. But Mike is loyal to Mary Anne and would never dream of doing that.

Mike goes out to a small town that is digging a cellar for a new town hall and gets the job on the condition that he and Mary Anne can dig the basement in just one day. When the day comes, Mike and Mary Anne continue to do the job right, and finish the corners neat and square, even though the clock is against them. A crowd gathers, which causes Mike and Mary Anne to work faster than ever before—and just as the sun is setting they finish the job. But there’s a problem: in their frenzied rush to complete the digging in just one day, Mike and Mary Anne have forgotten to leave a ramp for Mary Anne to exit the cellar, and she is trapped. Fortunately, a boy in the crowd suggests that Mary Anne use her steam to become the new furnace, the town builds the town hall around her, and the story happily ends with Mary Anne heating the hall and Mike serving as its janitor.

It’s a good book, with some powerful messages that resonated with me. Do the job right, and be proud of your work. Be loyal to those you work with. And recognize that sometimes difficult problems can be solved with creative thinking.

Those lessons have stuck with me for decades. It just shows that reading to your children can really have a lifelong impact.

An English Teacher’s Lament

My seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Richards, was an interesting character. He has a great sense of humor, and was a bit of a ham in front of the class, but he was also passionate about using, and writing, proper English. The tendency of people to use apostrophes erroneously especially bugged him.

The apostrophe, Mr. Richards explained, has two uses: to indicate possession, or to show that a letter or number is missing. “You don’t use ‘apostrophe s’ to make a plural!” he exclaimed. “Why can’t people get it right?” Then he put his forehead down on the desk to illustrate his frustration. The kids in the class laughed, of course, but I’m sure they remembered that lesson, as I still do.

So I naturally thought of Mr. Richards when I saw this sign warning drivers about runners on the road for the Stonington 6K race. I suppose the sign maker could have been indicating that a single runner is ahead, but we all know it’s another example of an all-too-common apostrophe fail. I can see Mr. Richards’ forehead falling to the desk, and hear his plaintive “Why can’t they get it right?” even now.

Relishing The Cool Of The Morning

Like much of the rest of the country, Maine generally, and Stonington specifically, is experiencing a heat wave, with temperatures in the 80s in the coastal areas and 90s inland. But unlike the rest of the country, Maine isn’t really equipped to deal with high heat. None of the houses in our area are equipped with central air conditioning, for example, because there is absolutely no need for it during a typical summer, when you expect highs in the 70s during the day and lows in the 50s at night.

That means Mainers deal with the heat using the techniques many of us remember from our pre-air conditioning childhood. A heat wave is a time for wide open windows and ceiling fans, and wishful hopes for a hint of a cool breeze to sweep through the room. It’s a time to stay outside a bit later as the sun goes down, until the mosquitoes drive you indoors. It’s also a time to savor the early morning moments of cooler air before the sun rises and the heat is cranked up again. And the views just before 5 a.m. aren’t bad, either.

Heat waves are a challenge up here, but eventually they end. In the meantime, the ice cream shop downtown is making a killing.

Balsa Wood Lessons

Yesterday on my walk through town I passed one of the local gift shops and saw this classically designed balsa wood plane in the window. The store’s proprietor knew what she was doing, putting that pretty little plane in the window for old guys and young kids alike to see. If the store had been open, and I’d been carrying my wallet, I might have been tempted to make an impulse purchase–because, for those of us of a certain age, a balsa wood plane brings back a lot of memories, and life lessons, too.

When I was a kid, I got a balsa wood plane as a gift. I don’t remember who was the giver, but I do remember being fascinated with the notion that the plane was made with a kind of wood. This was wood? It wasn’t the kind of wood I was used to in, say, a baseball bat or the trunk of a neighborhood tree. This wood was ultra-light and brittle, the better to glide through the air like the Wright Brothers’ plane at Kitty Hawk. Balsa wood planes were the definition of “flimsy.” That didn’t mean they were any less fun and weren’t cool, either. After all, this little plane could fly! UJ and I spent many happy hours playing with our balsa wood planes, trying to see whose plane could glide the farthest on a warm summer day.

But there were important lessons attached to the little balsa wood plane. The balsa wood plane may have been the first toy that I actually had to consciously take care of. It couldn’t take a beating like, say, a little rubber football. You had to be gentle in putting it together, or one of the wings would break in half or thin strips of balsa wood would chip off, interfering with performance. You couldn’t just leave the plane outside in the rain or on a chair where the plane could be crushed into smithereens by Uncle Tony’s descending posterior. And you had to be mindful of where and when you took the plane out for a glide, too. Really windy days were bad, because the wind inevitably sent the plane cartwheeling into the concrete patio or a neighboring house, and launching it anywhere near a tree was certain to result in your plane being firmly lodged in the crook of a branch or amidst the leaves and limbs, with no way to knock it down that wouldn’t bust the plane into sad little balsa wood shards.

I’m sure I went through countless balsa wood planes before these lessons really sank in–but I’m also sure that, if I bought a balsa wood plane now, all of the old careful handling reflexes and experiential knowledge would come back in a rush. The lessons that come from the disappointment and loss of a favorite toy that you could have avoided if you’d just listened to Dad and Mom and been more careful are lessons well learned.

Rising Floods

More and more, you see young, evidently fashionable men intentionally wearing long pants that expose not only ankle and sock, but even an expanse of the leg itself. In the vernacular of my youth, such pants were known as “floods,” and you could commit no greater fashion sin—or more readily expose yourself to ridicule—than wearing them. Can it really be that they are fashionable now?

I first learned about floods when I was about 10 years old or so, at the age when you first become dimly —and then pointedly—aware that there apparently is a prevailing approach to the world and if you vary from the acceptable norm you are exposing yourself to uncomfortable mockery. It was about the same time you realized that you might want to plead that your Dad stop giving you a buzz cut with the home barbershop kit he bought and let you go to a licensed professional so you could get a haircut that looked somewhat like what other guys had. But whenever the precise epiphany occurred, at some point the jeering comments and derisive laughter at the fact that your long pants weren’t quite long enough powerfully drove home the point that flood pants are an unforgivable fashion transgression. And ever since I’ve been acutely focused on making sure that any pants I’m wearing brush my shoe tops, if not (in the ‘70s) engulf my shoes altogether in monster bell bottoms.

But fashions change, obviously, and now it is abundantly clear that floods are not the anathema they once were. Maybe male ankle-displaying pant length will capture the culture and be seen everywhere—or maybe they will be as short-lived as past brief fads like Nehru jackets or Earth shoes. But even if floods become the norm, I think my indoctrination has been too strong and too ingrained. I’ll just keep my ankles to myself.

The Art Of Presentation

When I first started going out to eat, and for most of my dining career, restaurants didn’t seem to pay much attention to the presentation of the food on the plate, or the design or decoration of the table, or the decor of the restaurant itself. You might get a sprig of parsley on your plate next to the baked potato as you sat in a dim room, but that’s about it.

The American foodie scene has changed all that—and how. In addition to offering fresh, local food that is packed with flavor, modern restaurants pay much more attention to the whole eating experience, from the point of entry to the end of the meal. The holistic approach makes for a far more enjoyable, and interesting, dining experience, where you can’t help but admire and appreciate the effort that has gone into making sure that your meal is a wonderful time.

Aragosta, where we went for a fantastic meal last night, is at the top of the line when it comes to attention to detail. From the bright interior and huge windows that leave the dining room bathed in light and present a terrific view of Goose Cove, to the little touches like the delicate fresh flowers on the table, to the presentation of the excellent food on the plate, the chef and proprietors have thoughtfully considered every detail. And the plates themselves—shown here by photographs of two of our courses from our meal last night—are like individual works of art, featuring beautifully arranged rocks, mosses, shells, ferns, pine cones, white birch bark, and other accent pieces—all of it local. I’ve never been to Japan, but I expect that the experience of dining at Aragosta is a lot like eating in a fine Japanese restaurant.

I’m an old codger who has to resist reflexively thinking that things were better way back when. But I have no hesitation in saying that the experience of dining out in America has improved tremendously during my lifetime, and is light years better now than it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s. Aragosta is exhibit A in support of that conclusion.

Sunday School

This morning’s walk took us past the intersection of Church and School Streets— two more examples of the factually literal street-naming conventions followed by the Stonington town founders. The sign reminded me of the other confluence of church and school from my childhood: Sunday school.

Right about now we’d be washing our faces, donning our “Sunday best” clothes, and heading off to church and our Sunday school class. There we would get brightly colored pamphlets, squirm uncomfortably in our clothes, and try to learn about the Old Testament. And, frankly, in some respects the Old Testament wasn’t too bad from a kid interest standpoint, with lots of fire and brimstone, golden calves, pillars of salt, burning bushes, general human wickedness, world-ending floods, wars, treachery, and David versus Goliath battles. You never knew when God was going to pop up and test somebody or punish the evil in some cool way. In fact, it’s almost as if the Old Testament was written in a desperate effort to hold the attention of an easily distracted ten-year-old boy. Alas, the interesting stuff was inevitably buried by rote lessons that required you to remember the names of Abraham’s kids or who Ezekiel was.

My favorite Sunday school moment is found in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Indy tells the two bureaucrats from Washington about the powers of the Ark of the Covenant. When they look surprised to learn about it, Indy says something like: “Didn’t you guys pay attention in Sunday school?” The two bureaucrats exchange guilty glances in response. Every kid who went to Sunday school knows exactly how they felt.

Camp Maskedalot

The CDC has been hard at work. It has developed extensive COVID-related guidelines for virtually every activity or gathering Americans might conceivably participate in these days. There is specific CDC guidance for workplaces and businesses, schools, retirement communities, church functions–even something super-specific, like what to do if you are operating a community garden or outdoor learning garden. You can take a look at the roster of guidance here.

A lot of people are wondering what the CDC is doing to come up with its extensive guidance, and precisely what the scientific basis–if any–is for some of the ultra-cautious rules the CDC has laid down. One set of CDC recommendations in particular has been target of special criticism: the guidance for summer camps. In fact, a recent article in New York magazine called the CDC summer camp guidance “cruel” and “irrational.”

It’s fair to say that the CDC rules would produce a summer camp experience that would bear no resemblance to the summer camps many of us attended as kids. Let’s just say that the kids who were unlucky enough to go to a CDC-compliant camp wouldn’t be spending carefree hours around a campfire, playing capture the flag with their newfound camp friends, or sitting at long tables and making bad ashtrays for Mom and Dad during the “craft period.” The New York article summarizes some of the guidance as follows:

“Masks must be worn at all times, even outdoors, by everyone, including vaccinated adults and children as young as 2 years old. The exceptions are for eating and swimming. (The guidance helpfully notes that if a person is having trouble breathing or is unconscious, no mask need be worn.) Campers must remain three feet apart from each other at all times including, again, outdoors. Six feet of distance must be maintained during meals and between campers and staff. If you need to sneeze and you don’t have a tissue, do it into your mask. (Children presumably are expected to carry a cache of spares.) Campers and staff should be cohorted, and any interaction with a person outside the cohort must be conducted at a distance of six feet. Art supplies, toys, books, and games are not to be shared.”

(Other than that, kids, have a blast!)

The New York article notes that the science and statistics have shown that kids are at “exceedingly low” risk of any kind of serious illness from COVID–and that’s from statistics gathered before most of the adults around them, including, presumably, camp counselors, have been vaccinated. And there is very little evidence that there is a serious risk of COVID transmission from outdoor activity like hiking (or running around with fellow campers), either. As a result, the New York article observes: “The notion that children should wear masks outdoors all day in the heat of July, or that they can’t play any sport that involves physical contact, or put an arm around a friend strikes many experts in infectious diseases, pediatrics, epidemiology, and psychiatry as impractical, of dubious benefit, and punishing in its effects on children.”

Has anyone at the CDC even experienced a broiling Midwestern summer day? Anybody who masks up on a 90-degree day with the sun beating down on them is asking for a truly miserable time–and maybe heat stroke, besides. It’s hard to believe that any rational person reviewed this guidance, or ran it past others for comment and evaluation. It’s as if the CDC is so focused on the COVID boogeyman that it has forgotten all of the other health risks involved in life.

Our public health authorities haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory during this COVID period. They’ve sent out a lot of mixed messages, and in my view their hyper-cautious recommendations about what fully vaccinated people should be able to do is quashing enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. The absurd CDC guidance for summer camps is just another hard-scratcher that further undercuts the credibility of a once-esteemed institution. The CDC would benefit by taking a hard look at what it is doing.

“You Owe Me A Coke”

The other day a much younger colleague and I were discussing something. We each sent the other an email expressing the same thought that crossed in the internet ether.

Her reaction was to say “jinx.” Mine was to say “you owe me a Coke,” which I’m sure baffled her. And as I thought about my reflexive response, I realized that “you owe me a Coke” even baffled me. That’s been my standard response to two people saying the same thing at the same time for as long as I can remember, but I have no idea why that’s the correct phrase to say at that moment, or even when I learned to say “you owe me a Coke” under those circumstances. I’m guessing it happened when I was a kid and some older and more worldly kid used that phrase and explained that it was what you do when that happens, and you need to say it before the other person does. I promptly incorporated that notion into my understanding of how the world works, as kids do, and there it remains. I’ve forgotten the incident, but definitely remember the phrase.

Internet searches don’t really shed any light on why anyone–me included–would say “you owe me a Coke” in this scenario. It’s recognized as one of the things you do when people say the same thing at the same time. (According to some websites, another thing that you can do is punch the other person in the arm, and now that I think of it, I seem to remember getting slugged in the arm a few times, too.) But the origins of “you owe me a Coke” seem to be lost in the mists of time. Who came up with that notion? Why would one person need to buy the other a soda, and why a Coke, specifically? And for that matter, has anyone ever really lived up to the obligation and actually bought the person who said it first a Coke?

It’s just destined to be one of life’s enduring mysteries, I suppose.

My Old School

Upper Arlington High School, my alma mater, was dedicated in 1956. By the time I started attending in the fall of 1972, the school has been pretty well broken in and was bursting at the seams with students, and the standing golden bear in the glass case near the gym had seen more than his fair share of proms, pranks, and shenanigans.

Now, 46 years after my graduation, my old school is being torn down. (And, because I went to high school during the early years of Steely Dan, I think of the song “My Old School” as I write those words.) The Upper Arlington Alumni Association has come up with a novel way to commemorate that fact. As the notice above indicates, it’s giving UAHS grads a chance to go to the school, walk through the halls one more time, and leave their handprint somewhere within those hallowed halls. On your last visit, you could check out the student center, where we used to play euchre on off periods, visit the library where masked students once “streaked,” and marvel at the fact that for students of my generation there used to be a student smoking area, too.

Based on the notice above, there will be one big difference between my student days and a last visit: social distancing. My graduating class was the largest class in history, with more than 800 grads. When the bells rang for class changes, the hallways were so crammed with kids clutching notebooks and textbooks rushing to their next class or their locker that you could scarcely breathe. I guess I prefer to leave those unmasked memories undisturbed.

Saturday Morning, Revisited

Here’s some good news to brighten your Monday morning: classic cartoons, long gone from the Saturday morning schedules on network TV, are now being broadcast on Saturday mornings on a network called MeTV.

The MeTV schedule for this coming Saturday morning, for example, starts at 7 a.m. with an hour of Popeye and Pals — featuring a classic in which Olive Oyl runs for President — followed by The Tom and Jerry Show and then the pinnacle of Saturday morning cartoons of days gone by, an hour of Bugs Bunny and Friends. The Bugs hour for this next Saturday includes the cartoon where Bugs plays baseball and a Roadrunner cartoon featuring Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius.

It warms the heart to know that kids can once again camp in front of their TV sets, eat sugared cereal, and watch wide-eyed as cartoon characters get blown up, crushed, blasted by shotgun shells, conked with hammers, fall off cliffs, and experience the failures of Acme Products. That, and learn that eating spinach gave you super strength.

Watching these cartoons in my PJs and eating cereal on Saturday morning was a key part of how I grew up. Now, if only MeTV could expand the programming to include The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, their Saturday morning schedule would be just about perfect.

I’m not sure if kids of the modern era will watch the MeTV schedule — they would probably need a violence warning in any event — but I’m guessing that the true target audience is the grown-ups like me who want to relive a few of the Saturday mornings of their youth.

Cold Day Brunch

I associate wet, sloppy days with . . . pancakes. Back in the day, on Sundays in the winter, the Webners would eat pancakes by the dozen, and I was responsible for preparing the stacks of flapjacks on an electric grill. It was an awesome responsibility for a callow youth, but I enjoyed flicking water onto the grill and hearing it sizzle to make sure the surface was the right temperature, carefully spooning the pancake mixture out to maximize the number of pancakes that could be cooked at one time, watching the pancake batter bubble, and then using the spatula to deftly flip the pancakes over without having one pancake fall onto another. The electric grill is long gone, but I still enjoy the whole pancake process.

Today’s pancakes were served with sausage and scrambled eggs, and they really hit the spot. Now, it’s time to work off those calories by sinking onto the couch and binge-watching TV for the rest of the day.

The Winter Warmer

The weather took a foul turn yesterday, even by the dismal, gray standards of a Columbus winter. We got freezing rain in the morning that turned the brick sidewalks of German Village into a treacherous skating rink, and then more freezing rain mixed with sleet as the day progressed.

When one must endure such a cold, dreary day, it helps to turn to old favorites in the hot nourishment category. So, last night I prepared grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup made with whole milk for us. I grilled the sandwiches on our big skillet, lightly buttering some flax bread to get a good crust and using Kraft American cheese for maximum meltiness. (Technically, the classic version of grilled cheese sandwiches requires Wonder Bread, but I haven’t consumed a slice of Wonder Bread since, like, 1974.)

The soup was piping hot and deliciously creamy, the grilled cheese had a good crunch and great gooiness, and I cut the sandwich diagonally to facilitate the required dipping of the sandwich halves into the soup — because even though the soup and sandwich were each tasty on their own, they only achieve maximum home cooking greatness when the soup directly infuses the crunchy bread and melted cheese. The combination was washed down with a glass of milk, and it definitely hit the spot on a gray winter’s day.

After eating my soup and sandwich and thinking about the countless grilled cheese and tomato soup family meals we enjoyed at our kitchen table when I was a kid, I felt better. Warmer, too.

Let Your Fingers Do The Tapping

The other day I saw a plumbing truck drive by with a company name that started with “AA.” “There’s a Yellow Pages” name, I thought.

Then I wondered: are there even “Yellow Pages” any more? I can’t remember the last time I saw that thick softcover book with the flimsy yellow pages.

For those of you who are too young to remember the Yellow Pages, it was the household sources that you used to consult whenever you needed a plumber or electrician. The Yellow Pages came to you every year, along with your regular White Pages phone book. Both were made with the cheapest, thinnest paper you can imagine, but the Yellow Pages tended to be a lot bulkier than the White Pages. The White Pages listed the phone numbers of people and businesses, listed in alphabetical order, while the Yellow Pages was reserved solely for businesses, and was organized functionally, by type of business or service offered. If you wanted a plumber, you turned to the plumber entries of the Yellow Pages and all of the local plumbers were listed there, in alphabetical order — which is why the Yellow Pages caused a lot of plumbers, roofers, and electricians to come up with company names that started with “AA” so they would be among the first entries in the listing. They figured, correctly, that people would start at the top of the list and wouldn’t go much beyond the first few names.

The idea was that you were supposed to let “your fingers do the walking” through the Yellow Pages, rather than roaming around town yourself to find the right trademan for the work you needed to have done. Of course, nobody does that anymore. We’ll do a Google search for a plumber, or post a Facebook message to friends to get a recommendation for a painter, and therefore nobody really needs to start their business name with “AA” these days.

But the Yellow Pages, cheap and ponderous as it was, was a kind of precursor to the modern way of shopping for goods and services. Our fingers may not do much walking, but they still are the way we get information.

Yes, Virginia

The editorial pages of newspapers are often dull, uninspired affairs, but every once in a while genius strikes. So it was in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun, when a veteran newsman named Francis Pharcellus Church was asked to respond to a little girl’s innocent inquiry about whether Santa Claus really existed. He produced a classic that became one of the most reprinted editorials of all time — with a simple and timeless message that continues to resonate down through the years, and seems especially apt today, as we come to the end of a very difficult year:

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!