Back To Borax

Yesterday I had a very juicy burger for lunch. When I went to the restroom to wash my hands after I was finished, I found this soap dispenser offering “Boraxo” powdered hand soap to help with the wash-up process.

Boraxo? As in 20 Mule Team Borax, the long-time laundry soap sponsor of Death Valley Days, the old TV western that Dad used to watch?

Borax is a sodium compound that is found in places like Death Valley–hence the logic of the old TV show sponsorship–where water evaporated and left behind dried mineral deposits. Boraxo soap is a white granular powder. You use the plunger at the bottom of the dispenser to apply Boraxo while your hands are wet. The water dissolves the powder into a gritty, soapy substance that, in my view, does a very effective job of giving your hands a thorough cleansing scrub.

Borax used to be a popular cleaning ingredient, but it fell out of favor with some people because its grittiness and alkaline component can irritate your skin. But the Boraxo dispenser in the bathroom suggests that it is being rebranded as “naturally sourced,” “non-toxic,” and “eco-friendly.” In short, they’ve apparently got the 20-mule teams at work again and headed out to the Death Valley deposits to gather the borax.

The return of borax soap in the name of eco-friendly cleaning makes me wonder if we might see the resurgence of Lava soap, which was made with actual pieces of pumice–volcanic rock that also could accurately be described as “naturally sourced.” Lava commercials featured large male hands covered with axle grease that were quickly scoured to a pristine state after a rough encounter with the Lava soap, and mothers everywhere thought that if Lava soap could defeat axle grease, it might actually get the layers of dirt and grime off the hands and faces of 9-year-old boys before they say down to the family dinner.

With the emphasis on eco-friendly products, we might be moving back to the era when cleaning products were a little bit tougher than the fragrant soaps and foams that dominate modern bathrooms, but aren’t found in nature. You might want to give Boraxo a try–and keep an eye out for Lava at your neighborhood supermarket.

20 Quadrillion Ants

How many ants are there in the world? It’s the kind of dreamy question you might have briefly asked yourself as a kid on a lazy summer day as you were checking out an anthill that was teeming with the busy little creatures, just in one corner of your backyard. Sometimes, though, the subject of a child’s idle wonder becomes a scientist’s challenge–and Nature has published an article that tries to answer that question.

The first step in the challenge is trying to come up with a mechanism that would allow you to approximate the number of ants on Earth, because you obviously couldn’t count them, one by one, even if all of those notoriously active insects would oblige you by holding still. To give you a sense of scale, there are 15,700 named species and subspecies of ants. They are found in and on virtually every piece of dry land in the world and in the widest possible range of habitats, including cities, deserts, woodlands, grasslands, and especially rain forests. The National Wildlife Federation website states that the only land areas that don’t have ants are Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, and a handful of islands.

So how can the Nature researchers hope to count them? By piecing together the findings of 489 independent studies that have attempted to count ant populations on every continent and in every habitats where they are found, using standard ant-counting methods. By extrapolating from this direct data, the researchers estimate that there are 20 quadrillion–that’s 20,000,000,000,000,000–ants in the world. That’s a lot of ants. But that finding admittedly doesn’t give a complete picture, because there are no studies of how many ants live underground or in trees. 20 quadrillion therefore could easily be an undercount.

But the Nature researchers didn’t stop there. They wondered how much all of those ants would weigh, did the math, and concluded that the 20 quadrillion ants would have a biomass of 12 million tons of carbon, which is more than all of the world’s birds and animals combined. (Carbon accounts for about half the weight of ants.) And, as the researchers point out, we should be glad there are so many ants around, because they play a crucial role in the ecosystem in multiple ways, including serving as food for many species.

Ants are also kind of fascinating to watch on a lazy summer afternoon, too.

Understanding Mr. Green Jeans

When I was a kid, I enjoyed watching Captain Kangaroo. I liked the Captain, of course, and Dancing Bear and Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit, but my real favorite was Mr. Green Jeans. He would come on the show, wearing his trademark green jeans and usually a straw hat and flannel shirt, perhaps play a guitar or sing a song with the Captain, and maybe show you a plant or animal and talk about it. But Mr. Green Jeans was at his best in helping Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit play a gentle prank on the Captain–one that usually involved the Captain getting showered with dropped ping pong balls. It was a gentle prank for a gentle show.

I was thinking about Mr. Green Jeans the other day in connection with the gradually dawning concept of people having jobs. As adults, we’ve lived with the concept of work for so long that we’ve forgotten that the notion of people getting paid to do something isn’t necessarily intuitive, and has to be learned like other lessons of the world. For me, at least, Mr. Green Jeans and Captain Kangaroo were part of that process.

At first, a very young watcher would take a show like Captain Kangaroo at face value, as if the broadcast somehow gave you a brief peek into the actual life of the Captain, Mr. Green Jeans, and their friends. At some later point, you come to understand, perhaps because your Mom patiently explained it to you, that the show wasn’t “real,” in the same way life in your home was real, and that Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit were just puppets, and that Captain Kangaroo was a show put on for kids like you to watch and enjoy.

Later still came the realization that Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans were actors, that being on the show was their job–hey, just like your Dad left every day to go to his job!–and that the Captain and Mr. Green Jeans were getting paid to be on the show. That last step in the understanding process was a big one, because it required you to get the concept of money, too, and why people needed to work, so they could eat and have a house and clothes and a car–and the fact that you would undoubtedly need to work, too, at some point. It was part of a bigger realization that the world was a complicated place, and there was a lot more to it than the Captain reading stories and pranks involving ping pong balls.

By then, as you watched Captain Kangaroo with your younger siblings, you thought that being Mr. Green Jeans would be fun. But by then your sights had changed a bit, and your friends were talking about being firemen or astronauts when they grew up.

Simple Toys

One of the stores in downtown Stonington always seems to have some classic, vintage toys in its front display window. Last year the front window featured a balsa wood plane; this summer it is a glass jar of wooden tops. The tops drew me to the front window just as the Jetfire plane did, but I found myself wondering how many kids walking by even know what those wooden objects are.

The tops harken back to a day when many kids’ toys were made of wood–tops, Lincoln logs, train sets, and toy cars among them. (There weren’t many toys that required electricity in those days, save for E-Z Bake ovens and electric football; if you needed a power source for your robot or talking doll, then it was almost certainly those big D batteries.) Wooden toys were preferable, for both kid and parent, because they were solid and durable and pretty much unbreakable–unlike the flimsy plastic toys, which could crack or splinter easily, leaving a kid sad on Christmas Day.

I liked tops, because there was a certain learned skill involved in wrapping the string around the stem in the right way so that it didn’t get snarled and then giving the string just the right amount of pull. Too much of a yank,and the top went flying, not enough, and the top flopped over, but with the right tug the top would spin beautifully and stay upright for a while. A careful kid received an immediate reward for his/her patient attention to detail. That’s not a bad life lesson to be learned from a simple toy.

It’s nice to see that they still make wooden toys, like tops. From the look of that jar, I’d say customers have maybe bought a few, giving kids a chance to experience the simple pleasures of a top. Whether a kid will appreciate those pleasures in this era of video games and cell phones is anybody’s guess.

Earliest Memories

The other day I was thinking about what I believe is my earliest memory. It’s a difficult thing to do, because typically human memories don’t quite work that way; it’s not as if they are kept in a chronological filing cabinet. Instead, memories seem to be stored in the brain in a way that causes them to be triggered by external phenomena: a song, perhaps, or a situation, or a physical setting might provoke an avalanche of recollection. It’s therefore possible that I have an earliest memory that just hasn’t been triggered yet.

That said, the earliest recollection I can muster involved sitting in a big leather swivel chair, next to my brother Jim, at our Dad’s office when he worked as a bookkeeper for a construction company. I remember sitting on the chair as we swiveled around, looking at a safe with a big combination lock and a handle that was kept in Dad’s office to store the cash receipts. We liked rotating the chair like a merry-go-round and messing with the big lock on the safe. I’m not quite sure why I have this memory–perhaps it was because we had never been to Dad’s office before, and it was interesting to see it–but it is definitely an old one. I’m not sure exactly when Dad worked at the construction company, but the time period would have been in the pre-kindergarten years, perhaps when I was three or four.

A recent study suggests that many people can identify memories dating back to the age of two-and-a-half, and that people also tend to misdate their earliest memories and assign them to later points in their lives. It isn’t clear why two-and-a-half seems to be the cutoff point–perhaps the brain just isn’t ready to begin significant storage before then, or perhaps the things that are happening before that age aren’t specifically memorable–but the authors of the study suggest that if you want to try to remember your earliest memories, you just need to work at it, because summoning up early memories often has a kind of cascading effect. But be careful: studies also suggest that what many people think is their earliest memory is fictional, particularly if it goes back beyond the age of two or so. Those “memories” often aren’t true memories, but instead are descriptions of family photographs or ingrained family stories that have been implanted in the brain over the years.

I’m pretty sure my swivel chair memory is a true memory, and not a later implant, but of course there is no way to know for sure. The “earliest memory” issue does make you realize that your brain is kind of like your grandmother’s attic, with all kind of weird stuff stored up there, and you’re not quite sure why some memories got stashed and others didn’t.

Web Season

It’s spiderweb season in Stonington, and our decks–with their posts, and fencing, and many corners, and other nooks and crannies–are prime web-building grounds for our spidery friends. On damp mornings, like yesterday, the water molecules cling to the webs and create some outdoor art that has a delicate beauty and also the impressive tensile strength to bear many times its weight in water.

My attitude about spiderwebs has changed since my childhood. I used to take sticks and pull them down whenever I encountered one. Reading Charlotte’s Web helped to change that attitude, and I also realized that it didn’t make much sense for someone who, from time to time over the years, has been called “Webbie” by some friends. I’ve come to understand that spiders and their webs perform a valuable service for us, in ridding our neck of the world of the annoying, buzzing housefly. And you can’t help but admire the industriousness of spiders as they build and repair their elaborate webs and then wait patiently for their prey.

On misty mornings I’ll make the rounds, taking a look to see what the spiders have been up to and admire their handiwork, like the effort above on our upper deck. Care must be taken, however, to avoid inadvertently getting a face full of webbing.

Learning To Read

Reading is one of the most basic capabilities that humans can learn. It forms the foundation for virtually all forms of higher learning, provides a gateway into a range of knowledge as diverse as the thoughts of great minds of the past, modern technology, sports scores, and cooking recipes, and touches just about every facet of our lives. And yet, how much do we remember about how we learned this crucial skill? Learning the alphabet, associating letter combinations with different sounds until something clicked and the basic words became ingrained in brain synapses to the point where reading because easy–for me, at least, it all is lost in the mists of time that occurred before we got to the books about Dick, Jane, and their dog Spot, which I do dimly remember reading. (“See Spot run! ‘Run, Spot, run!’)

Those of us who are beyond the kids in school phase of our lives might be interested in learning that the educational community is struggling with the issue of teaching kids to read. Time magazine has an interesting article about the ongoing effort, which is precipitated by some truly dismal statistics. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, only 35 percent of fourth-graders met reading proficiency standards, and the numbers were even worse for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. Of course, the pandemic didn’t help matters.

The current dispute is about whether reading should be taught with a focus on phonics–that is, by drilling kids on how to sound out words, with all of the weirdnesses and exceptions you find in the English language (like way/weigh)–or whether kids who are introduced to reading will eventually figure out those rules on their own. The latter school of thought considers phonics to be boring. If I could remember this phase in learning to read, I’d probably agree that it was boring–but it worked for me, and for generations of kids.

Now the troubling test scores are causing educators, and politicians, to again urge the old school, phonics approach to learning to read. It might be boring for both teacher and student, they concede, but it evidently works–and that should be the acid test. And educators really shouldn’t be worrying about whether the methods they are using are boring, in my view. Much of learning math, science, and history involves rote memorization and repetition. It’s not thrilling, but it becomes assimilated in the brain, and when you are talking about the basics, that is what you are aiming for.

It will be interesting to see how the reading debate progresses–but if our schools aren’t taking the best, most likely to succeed approach to teaching kids how to read, we are failing to achieve the most basic goal of education, and leaving those kids unprepared to succeed in the modern world. That is just not fair, or right.

Real People, Real Politeness

For the past month or so, I’ve been getting very persistent emails in the same person’s name. The emails say they desperately want to help me to be better at my job. “Please,” they implore, “can’t we just schedule a short call to discuss our fantastic capabilities?” And then, when I delete those emails, I’ll get follow-up emails saying I must have missed the earlier emails, and asking to set up a call all over again. And when I delete those emails, yet another round will hit my inbox. It’s maddening that the putative person just won’t give up.

I’m fairly confident that I’m dealing with a robot here. There’s no way that a real person would be reaching out to some stranger, getting no response, and continuing to beat their head into the proverbial email wall. And yet, all of my upbringing teaches that when I see a person’s name, there’s a real person attached to that name, and the proper thing to do is to treat them with appropriate politeness. In this case, since sending any acknowledgement email is just going to provoke yet another totally unwanted email–and confirm that my email address leads to a real person, besides–“appropriate” politeness means just deleting the repeated emails without sending a fire-breathing response saying that I don’t need or want his help and please, for the love of God, leave me alone and stop clogging up my inbox!

I wonder if this reaction and assumption of a real person who deserves real politeness is due entirely to coming of age before the era of email and the internet. In those days, human beings were, in fact, on the other end of phone calls or mailed solicitations, and there weren’t bots blasting out millions of emails in hopes of getting one or two responses. But if you grew up instead when spam and bots were just part of the landscape, you wouldn’t hear that Mom’s voice in your head reminding you to mind your manners and could respond to unwanted emails as you saw fit, without worry or guilt.

It’s just another way in which Millennials and Generation Z have a leg up on the codgers these days.

A Death-Defying Childhood

I’ve read articles about the extreme heat they’ve been experiencing in Great Britain, Europe, and parts of the U.S. and was thinking about a time-honored way to beat the heat from my childhood: taking hearty drinks of water from a garden hose (and, most likely, putting my thumb over the water flow and spraying my brother and sisters and some of the other kids lined up for refreshment). For some reason, garden hose water always seemed to be cooler than water from the faucet, and of course it was messier, which was part of the fun.

But then I learned that drinking from the garden hose is no longer seen as a viable way to cool off. Indeed, to read some evaluations of the practice, you would conclude that a simple gulp or two from the hose is courting certain disaster. For example, one website article emphasizes “Do not drink water from the hose” and states that garden hose water contains bacteria and mold and also “typically contains” toxic chemicals like lead, antimony, bromine, organotin, phthalates, and bisphenol A, some of which come from the material used to manufacture the hose. These substances, the article explains, can disrupt the endocrine system and are linked to liver, kidney and organ damage.

Perhaps most significantly, the article notes that the substances can “lower intelligence” and “cause behavioral changes.” That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

It’s hard to imagine that those of us who routinely guzzled water from garden hoses on hot summer days in the ’60s and ’70s survived such risky behavior–but then, it was part of a pattern. Kids in our neighborhood back then did things during the process of what the adults called “playing outside” that would probably be viewed as death-defying now, like climbing trees, playing “demolition derby” on our bikes, damming up dirty creeks and looking for snakes, salamanders, and tadpoles, using hammers and rusty nails to create poorly constructed clubhouses, hurling water balloons at each other’s heads, jumping off rocks, and riding bikes down steep hills at top speeds without a helmet, to name just a few. And yet, somehow we survived them all, and drinking from the garden hose, besides.

It’s sad to think that some kids these days don’t get to experience the simple pleasure of drinking cool water from a garden hose, and the frivolity that inevitably accompanied it.

Do You Recall What Was Revealed?

In January 1972, as I approached my 15th birthday, Don McLean’s American Pie stood at number 1 on the Billboard charts. A long song, even by the extended play standards that prevailed on FM radio at the time, American Pie was the kind of song that you talked about with your friends at school. We all wanted to know what, exactly, the song meant.

Because, if you are not familiar with the song, you need to understand that American Pie was written in a kind of cryptic code, Even by the standards of the time, in the wake of the late Beatles efforts when many songs were dense and mysterious and opaque (like, for example, Procol Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale), American Pie set new standards in the enigmatic category. The tune was great, and the refrain–“bye, bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, and good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die”–was killer, but you desperately wanted the key to unlock the true meaning of the lyrics. I remember listening to a program on WCOL-FM, the cool FM station in Columbus at the time) that tried to deconstruct the song. McLean himself didn’t give us much help.

Now, 50 years later, Don McLean is apparently going to share the truth about the meaning of American Pie, in a new documentary called The Day The Music Died. As the accepted views at the time taught, “the day the music died” was the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a tragic plane crash , , , but the rest of the prevailing wisdom evidently was misguided. According to the linked story in The Guardian, a lot of what people pontificated about (including the know-it-alls on the WCOL program way back when) may turn out to be wrong. Elvis Presley wasn’t “the King,” and Bob Dylan wasn’t “the Jester,” and Janis Joplin wasn’t the girl who sang the blues. Were the Beatles “the marching band that refused to yield”? And what did “fire is the devil’s only friend” mean? I guess we’ll have to watch the documentary find out.

It’s interesting to think that, 50 years later, the lyrics for American Pie remain tantalizing. That says something about the staying power of the song, doesn’t it?

A View Master’s Impact

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in traveling, and recently I’ve been thinking about why that is so. I’ve concluded that a toy that we had at our house–the View Master–is at least partly responsible for my travel itch.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the View Master was a plastic, goggle-like device that you put up to your eyes. You inserted a round photo circle into a designated slot, then toggled down a lever to advance the photos, one by one. The cool thing about the View Master was that it allowed you to look at the photos in a three-dimensional way, giving some depth to the pictures.

Of course, the View Master didn’t produce photos of your family, your house, or your friends. Instead, its photo circles inevitably were of faraway destinations or the natural wonders of the world, richly colored and exotic and much different from daily life in Akron, Ohio. The View Master world was one of men in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats and women in dirndls dancing in a square in some quaint medieval town, the Arc de Triomphe surrounded by headlights at night, or scenes from Yosemite National Park.

The View Master’s core message was that there was a big, amazingly interesting world out there, just waiting to be seen by you with your own two eyes. I got that message. My favorite View Master circle was one on American national parks, and when our family decided to take a driving trip west in 1967 or 1968, I wanted to see in person some of what the View Master had shown me–and once I saw the Grand Canyon and Old Faithful, I was hooked, and ever since I’ve wanted to see more.

Like many toys of that era, the View Master was simple, but it definitely had an impact.

The Pincushion Perspective

When I was a kid, it seemed like every visit to the doctor’s office was an occasion for getting some kind of shot. Mom was a fiend for making sure that her kids had every form of inoculation and immunization known to medical science, and she kept careful track of each one on individualized cards that she took to our appointments.

Smallpox, polio, MMR — all were reason enough for a Webner kid to have to drop drawers and Fruit of the Looms and get stuck in the butt by the needle-wielding family doctor. Often, the shots were accompanied by the kind of brook-no-argument statement that only mothers can plausibly deliver. My favorite bit of motherly injection-rationalizing wisdom came when I got my first tetanus shot: “You don’t want to get bitten by a rabid dog and get lockjaw, do you?” It was phrased as a question, but it clearly wasn’t an honest inquiry that you could answer in the negative. I didn’t know exactly what “lockjaw” was, but it sure sounded bad–and if Mom thought I needed to get the shot to prevent it, that was good enough for me.

Then I reached adulthood, and the frequency of shots abated. I’m sure I received some stabs, but for the most part my 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s seemed to be largely needle-free. But when the calendar told the doctor I had hit 60, the syringe impalements resumed with a childhood-like frequency. Flu shots, multiple COVID shots, and pneumonia shots have all come my way in recent years, and today my doctor–who uses reason rather than the flat assertions of a decisive mother–strongly suggested that I should get another COVID booster, scheduled me for a shingles shot, and told me that when the autumn appointment rolls around it will be time for another tetanus shot, just in case I encounter a rabid coyote or scrape my hand on a rusty nail and need that protection against the dreaded lockjaw.

Somewhere, I am sure that my mother nodded approvingly.

So, I’m back to assuming the pincushion perspective on medical appointments. The only difference, for which I am supremely grateful, is that i have enough muscle tissue in my upper arm to allow the shots to be administered to a less embarrassing location.

Great Albums Turn 50

1972 was a banner year for rock albums. It also happened to be the year that I started my sophomore year in high school and, not coincidentally, really began to seriously focus on music. Armed with the generous, slightly above minimum wage proceeds of my bag boy job at Big Bear, I began buying albums rather than 45s and played them on the crappy turntable in my room. The fact that great musicians produced great albums on the year of my musical album awakening was a very happy coincidence.

To be sure, 1972 was an exceptional musical year. Consider, for example, Deep Purple’s Machine Head. I bought it and played it endlessly, enjoying songs like Lazy, Space Truckin’, Highway Star, and of course Smoke On The Water, which is one of the greatest driving songs ever recorded. Then there was Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, with fantastic songs like You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever), and Superstition, which became a kind of funky anthem for my sophomore year. And David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, one of the greatest concept albums ever recorded and chock full of great music from beginning to end. And Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill, which marked the band’s emergence into the dominant creative force that it would be for the rest of the ’70s, and included classic tunes like Do It Again, Dirty Work, Midnite Cruiser, and the epic Reelin’ In The Years. And we mustn’t forget the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, or Close To The Edge by Yes, or Elton John’s Honky Chateau (which features my favorite Elton John song, Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters), or Rod Stewart’s Never A Dull Moment, or Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. And finally, arguably the finest album of all of 1972’s offerings: Neil Young’s awesome Harvest, which seamlessly blended folk rock and electric rock and put Young at the forefront of the American music scene, where he would stay for years to come.

There were other great albums released that year, of course, because it was just an extraordinary year for music. I owned all of these records, played all of them, and loved all of them, and I listen to them still. But what really strikes me about these superb albums is two things. First, the variety of musical styles they captured, and how correspondingly broad the listening habits and musical tastes of kids of the ’70s were; in those days, radio stations played all of the songs from these albums, and we listeners weren’t confined to a single genre.

Second, can these albums really be 50? They sure don’t feel like it when you listen to them today.

Henry IV, Part I

I’m pretty sure that Henry IV, Part I is the first Shakespeare play I read from cover to cover. Mr. Will, the enthusiastic teacher who presided over our Shakespeare Seminar class at Upper Arlington High School, wisely picked it to be the first play we read in that course. I suspect he knew that the insult humor and abusive banter between Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff would appeal to the simple minds of teenaged boys—and it did. 

For a time the lads of Shakespeare Seminar reveled in calling each other “whoreson knaves” and “vile standing tucks” and “fat kidneyed rascals.” We loved Falstaff and Hal just as patrons of the Globe Theater did in Shakespeare’s time, and as did English audiences for years thereafter–which is why Falstaff is generally regarded as the single most popular character ever to emerge from the Bard of Avon’s prolific pen. Thus introduced to the humor and “bawdy” side of Shakespeare, we high schoolers were willing to put up with romance, and tragedy, and Hamlet’s angst as we went on to read other plays.

Of course, age brings a different perspective. As I read Henry IV, Part I now, I still enjoy the sallies between Hal and Falstaff at Eastcheap taverns (although I realize, given the changed eddies and currents of slang that have occurred in the centuries since, that I will never understand or appreciate the humor as an Elizabethan audience did)–but I see a lot more in Falstaff than I did nearly 50 years ago.

Shakespeare’s construction of the play may be a sly exercise in misdirection. He explicitly raises the contrast between the wastrel Prince Hal and the rebellious Harry Hotspur in the very first scene, as Henry IV laments how his ne’er-do-well, tavern-haunting son measures up against the victorious warrior Hotspur:

Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

But this contrast proves to be a bit of a false lead. To be sure, we see the irresponsible Hal at the outset, but ultimately Hal is not so different from Hotspur. Hal rallies to his father’s side, fights to defeat the rebellion, and ultimately kills Hotspur in the climactic battle that brings the play to a close. No, the real contrast is between Hotspur and Falstaff–and not simply because Hotspur is a hothead and Falstaff is perfectly content in playing the clown. Hotspur is unable to curb his own vanity and sense of honor, and it ends up costing him dearly, both in causing him to rebuff the King and bring on the conflict and in needlessly insulting Owen Glendower and losing a much-needed ally. Hotspur’s pride and self-regard prevent him from looking out for his own best interests. Falstaff, on the other hand, is able to swallow jibes and ridicule in the service of his ultimate goal of wine, women, and survival–which means maintaining his relationship with Prince Hal at all costs.

Falstaff’s character leaves a lot of room for interpretation by a skilled actor. He could be played as a buffoon, to be sure, but there is a certain genius in him, and a conniving nature, with ugliness and deviousness lurking just below the surface. He’s not harmless. For all of his surface jolliness, Falstaff is not above robbing innocent travelers, or trying to cheat an honest hostess out of what he owes–but he does it with a roguish charm and shrewdness. A classic example of Falstaff’s quick wit comes when he learns that Prince Hal and Poins set him up to take the money Falstaff had stolen from travelers and are well aware that he has been lying about facing an ever-growing number of brigands. Falstaff abruptly pivots to a different approach, claiming that he was well aware that it was Hal who pilfered the booty:

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.
Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the
heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince?
why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but
beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true
prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a
coward on instinct. I shall think the better of
myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant
lion, and thou for a true prince. But, by the Lord,
lads, I am glad you have the money.

Falstaff and Prince Hal then act out a scene where Hal returns to talk to his father the king, with Falstaff initially playing Henry IV before he and the prince switch roles, so that Falstaff plays Hal and Hal the king. After Hal, as the king, describes Falstaff as the devil who has led Hal astray, Falstaff, as Hal, rises to his own defense:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Prince Hal’s chilling response–“I do, I will”–presages the coming pivot in their relationship.

What did Shakespeare think of Falstaff? For all of the Bard’s ability to portray the heights of British pride and patriotism, his treatment of Falstaff shows he well understood the underside of war and the cost of valor. Falstaff recruits a ragged band of soldiers, most of whom don’t survive the final battle. After presenting Hotspur as relentlessly driven by pursuit of “honor,” Shakespeare has Falstaff, in the king’s camp before the battle, give his jaded view of the concept of “honor”:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

Still later, when Falstaff feigns death to avoid being killed, and responds to Hal’s expression of sadness at Falstaff’s apparent death, the portly knight makes a further point:

I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and
perfect image of life indeed. The better part of
valour is discretion; in the which better part I
have saved my life.

Is cowardice defensible? Of course, Shakespeare doesn’t say so–but Hotspur dies while Falstaff lives, and indeed goes on to claim that it was he, and not Prince Hal, who finally killed Hotspur, in hopes of gaining a rich reward. But while Falstaff lives on, his special relationship with Hal has not survived. The prince has become a prince and, as the play ends, he looks forward to a further, final battle that will help to quash the rebellion.

Ranking Easter Basket Candy

Happy Easter to those who follow the Christian faith, and Chag Pesach Sameach to my Jewish friends who are celebrating Passover.

For many of us whose families celebrated Easter, there are happy childhood memories associated with finding Easter baskets and getting a chance to dig into a treasure trove of candy, at just about the time that the Halloween and Christmas sugar rush had fully worn off. In our house, the Easter basket routine involved the thrill of the hunt for your basket and then the enjoyment of the candy. But of course, not all candies are created equal. The other day the B.A. Jersey Girl and I discussed Easter candy and our personal favorites as we returned from lunch–which caused me to compile this ranking, in inverse order, of the candy I would find in my Easter basket.

11. Circus peanut chicks and bunnies — One year the Easter bunny put chick- and bunny-shaped candies in our baskets that were made of the same mysterious substance as circus peanuts, and just like circus peanuts, they were disgusting–stiff, chewy, with that weird circus peanut shell and gummy, slightly stale-tasting interior. This revolting development simply demonstrated that the Easter bunny was fallible. Fortunately, the Easter bunny noticed our collective negative reaction to this ill-fated experiment, and the circus peanut candies were never again to find their way into our baskets.

10. Large jelly bean eggs — As this list will demonstrate, I was not a fan of jelly beans in the Easter basket, but the worst jelly bean-related candy was large jelly bean eggs. These had a kind of thick, coarse, granular shell of sugar and then a gluey, stick-to-your-teeth interior. I would try one of these to see if they had improved from the year before–which never happened, incidentally–and then would try to work out a trade of the remaining large jelly bean eggs with one of my younger, credulous sisters.

9. Regular jelly beans — I ranked regular jelly beans ahead of the large jelly bean eggs because at least they were smaller. In our baskets, the jelly beans would get snarled in the fake plastic grass, and it took time to find all of them and put them into the trading pile. The jelly beans were a throw in, designed to entice my younger sisters with visions of quantity over quality. Some years they actually fell for it.

8. Plastic eggs with jelly beans — Our baskets usually featured a few brightly colored plastic eggs. You suspected they were filled with jelly beans, but you were never quite sure, and could hold out hope for some other form of candy until you had wrestled the eggs open and sent the jelly beans inside flying everywhere. Then you knew, of course, but I rate the plastic eggs with jelly beans higher than other jelly bean offerings because of that faint glimmer of hope that existed before the eggs were opened.

7. Fancy decorated chocolate eggs — On some Easters, our baskets would include a fancy hollow chocolate egg that was decorated with little flowers and ribbons. The flowers and ribbons were made of the same impenetrable, tooth-breaking candy that you could buy at the grocery store in number form to put on a birthday cakes. The problem with these eggs is that they were impossible to eat without creating a mess. If you bit into the egg, all structural integrity was lost and the egg broke into pieces, and then you’d have to pick up and eat the pieces, with the hard candy attached, and end up smeared with chocolate and a mouthful of chocolate and that unchewable hard candy. These often were trade fodder, too, in hopes that my younger sisters would be tempted by the gay decorations without thinking through the inevitable ramifications.

6. Foil-wrapped chocolate eggs — Finally, we’re starting to get to the good stuff. These little chocolate eggs provided a nice little wad of chocolate and a pleasant sugar rush, but the foil wrapping was the big problem. Foil wrapping simply is not designed for chubby fingers eager to get to the chocolate inside. Every year, you would bite into one of the little eggs only to realize that a shard of foil remained on the surface, and when the foil made contact with your teeth an extreme jolt of pain shot through your mouth. The foil-wrapped eggs were an effective way of forcing frantic kids to take their time and pay careful attention to detail, lest they suffer the excruciating consequences.

5. Chocolate bunny — No Easter basket would be complete without a chocolate bunny. Some years, our bunnies would be solid, and some years they were hollow. I preferred the hollow version, because it was easier to take off the ears with one large chomp, but either form was eagerly consumed. I didn’t even mind the small hard candy eye.

4. Peeps — Our baskets always included the bright yellow chick peeps, and occasionally would have pink rabbit peeps. Usually, we would get one peep. Peeps were great because you only got them at Easter. Unlike chocolate candies, you didn’t eat peeps at the movie theater or at Halloween or Christmas, so when you found them in your Easter basket you’d kind of forgotten about them and how they tasted. And then when you bit through the stiff outer shell into the softness beneath, you remembered. Few things taste as good as a bright yellow peep on a clear spring morning.

3. Chocolate covered cream or peanut butter egg — These came in an easy to open wrapper, like a regular candy bar, and had a flat appearance with a ridged chocolate covering. The cream version had a runny, sugary interior that looked like an egg yolk, and the peanut butter version had a stiffer, more granular peanut butter than was found in the household Skippy jar. It was a good Easter indeed if you could trade dozens of jelly beans and the jelly bean eggs with one of your sisters in exchange for one of these delicious treats.

2. Chocolate marshmallow egg — We’re now getting to the point pf true favorites, where it’s almost impossible to rank one above another–but difficult decisions must be made. The chocolate marshmallow eggs were like the cream or peanut butter eggs, but what nudged them into second place on the list is the quality of the marshmallow–which wasn’t like the marshmallow cylinder you’d put on a stick to roast in a campfire. No, this marshmallow was creamier, and sweeter, and delectable. When you got one of these chocolate marshmallow eggs, you knew intuitively you were enjoying some very high-end stuff.

And, number 1 is:

Speckled robin-sized malted milk eggs — These were my all-time favorite. The brittle shell outer shell, the thin coating of chocolate just underneath, and the crunchy malted milk interior that would melt in your mouth if you could resist chewing it up–this candy was the stuff of which childhood dreams were made. Back in the day, I probably could have eaten my weight in these little egg-shaped goodies. Much as I liked the marshmallow eggs, it is impossible not to put the malted milk eggs at the top of the Easter candy list.

I haven’t had any of these candies for decades, and it wouldn’t be good for my waistline to have any of them now, but it is fun to think about them and remember the simple pleasures of an Easter basket.