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!

Robin’s Egg

This holiday season, as inevitably happens at some point during every holiday season for as long as I can remember, I heard the opening notes of Jingle Bells, and immediately thought:

Jingle bells, Batman smells

Robin laid an egg,

The Batmobile lost a wheel

And the Joker got away.

This little ditty — we’ll call it Batman Smells for ease of reference — is probably the most well-known parody of a Christmas song ever created. (The only real competitor, in my mind, involves three kings and a rubber cigar.) Batman Smells was sung by Bart on the first episode of The Simpsons, in 1989, but it’s been around since long before then. Who came up with this sad story of the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder, set to the strains of a holiday favorite?

Some people have tried to uncover the history of Batman Smells and have traced its lineage back to an early version of the song in a 1967 entry in the Lawton (Oklahoma) Constitution, with different lyrics in which Robin doesn’t lay an egg and the Joker doesn’t escape. They theorize that the initial version of the song was created by kids in southern California in the mid-60s, when the campy Batman TV series was a hit, and the song was then spread across the country by military kids who moved from base to base with their families. At some point, obviously, the song morphed, with later kids added the crucial touches about Robin’s egg and the Joker’s getaway that made the parody into a classic.

Whether that theory is true or not, it’s pretty easy to see why the parody became so popular. It’s the kind of irreverance that kids around the age of 10 just love, and who can’t sing Jingle Bells? It’s interesting to think that, at some point in the ’60s, some anonymous kids who were briefly touched by genius had the inspiration that has forever linked Batman and Christmas, long after the TV show ended its run.

Now, if we could only figure out the true story of that rubber cigar . . . .

Back Under Curfew

Starting tomorrow, I will be back under a curfew for the first time since I was in high school. Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine has imposed a three-week, statewide curfew on all Ohioans, requiring us to stay in our homes from from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day in an effort to stop the latest spike in COVID-19 cases. The curfew is being imposed in lieu of an order closing bars and restaurants.

As curfews go, Governor DeWine’s order is pretty tough. Back in high school, I don’t think I ever had to be home before 11, and it might have been midnight. There could have been some super-strict parents (or, more likely, parents who didn’t want to have to stay up waiting for their kid to get home at a later hour) who set a 10 p.m. curfew, but that was the exception. And if you violate Governor DeWine’s order, you aren’t just going to be “grounded” for a week or two — violation of the order is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by 90 days in jail and a $750 fine.

Will this three-week curfew make an appreciable dent in coronovirus cases in the Buckeye State? Since the scientists and public health experts seem to be struggling with figuring out exactly how the virus is transmitted, that’s hard to say. Curfews are notoriously inexact disciplinary measures, because they presume bad things only happen late at night, and any high school kid knows that just isn’t true. We do know one thing for sure: if random drunken encounters at 12:30 a.m. are responsible for the latest spike in cases, the curfew will make a difference. And if that isn’t the reason for the latest surge, we’ve nevertheless shown the coronavirus that we “mean business.”

This will be the easiest governmental order to personally comply with in my lifetime, too. It’s pretty rare for us to be out and about after 10 p.m., and it won’t be a sacrifice to make sure we’re home by the curfew hour. Back in college, of course, we often didn’t even go out until after 10. College students and singles — to say nothing of bar owners who do a lot of business between 10 p.m. and closing time — will be bearing the brunt of this latest public health command.

Our Little ’70s World

When you’re a kid growing up, your little world is necessarily “normal.” The decor in your house, the clothes your Mom buys for you, the breakfast cereal you eat in the morning, the haircuts your friends have — all of those are things that set your standard expectations and define what is customary and conventional. You have no reason to question it, because it is all that you know.

I think this notion explains how many of us lived through and readily accepted the collective insanity that took over the United States in the late ’60s and ’70s — a time of bad fashion, bad haircuts, and dubious home decoration developments like beanbag chairs. How in the world our parents adjusted to the ’70s, after living through World War II and the ’50s, is anybody’s guess. I kind of wish I had asked them about it at the time, but of course the thought would never have occurred to me.

When we moved to Columbus in 1971, our split-level house became a kind of shrine to the ’70s. It was a temple of black, brown, and white shag carpeting, steel, chrome and glass coffee and end tables that could slice your hand open, shiny white brick, and recessed light fixtures that made it virtually impossible to change a light bulb. About all we were missing was a lava lamp and a beanbag chair (which I really hated, anyway, because they provided no back support and left your neck stiff as a board), but we did have one of those annoying “clacker” devices with the five steel balls hanging on strings on the coffee table. I accepted all of that, and more — like leisure suits, maxi dresses, unappealing cars like the Ford Grenada, big bow ties and crushed velvet — because that was just the way things were.

It was only with some perspective, added after living through successive decades, that I came to realize just how weird and kind of hilarious the ’70s actually were. From time to time people talk about a revival of ’70s this, or ’70s that, and they still sell beanbag chairs, but I have no desire whatsoever to go back to that time period in any way, shape, or form. I kind of feel lucky to have escaped the ’70s in the first place.

Back To Kindergarten Rules

We’re all still getting used to video conferencing and Zoom and Teams calls, but I’ve decided there are things I like about them. In a way, they take us back to first principles, and the basic, threshold lessons in interpersonal conduct that we first learned back in kindergarten.

Take the “raise your hand” feature. When was the last time you raised your hand to be called on for anything? But you learned about the importance of raising your hand from your kindergarten teacher — mine was named Mrs. Radick, by the way — who got you to understand that if every kid in the class tried to talk at once it would be chaos, which is why there had to be some mechanism to allow order to prevail. Of course, the same concept applies to a multi-party video call, which would quickly devolve into bedlam and gibberish without a method of organization. That’s why I like the “raise your hand” feature, and the fact that it reminds me of grade school days doesn’t hurt, either.

Other kindergarten concepts apply to video calls, too — like taking your turn, and trying not to interrupt the person who is speaking, which means waiting a decent period after the speaker appears to be done to account for potential technological glitches. These rules are essential to making video technology work, but they also embody core concepts of politeness and civility. I’m sure there are video calls that turn into unfortunate shouting matches, but I’d guess that, on the whole, video calls are more well-mannered and the participants tend to be more deferential and well-behaved than in direct, in-person interaction. The use of the mute button, to make sure that the discussion isn’t interrupted by barking dogs of the garbage truck rolling down the street, is another form of courtesy.

Mrs. Radick would approve of all of this.

The Play-Doh Effect

Last night I participated in a virtual game night. The participants had all received a gift box that included items to use during the event. One of the items was a small jar of Play-Doh, and at the end of the evening the participants were asked to use their Play-Doh to sculpt something that evoked the year 2020.

Let’s just say the people who received a cylinder of brown Play-Doh didn’t have to get too creative to accurately depict 2020.

When I opened my little tub of hot pink Play-Doh, it was the first time I had smelled Play-Doh in years. I took a long, lingering whiff of that heady, almost overpowering scent, and it brought a smile to my face. The fragrance of fresh Play-Doh is unique and immediately recognizable; anyone who has ever played with the stuff will forever be able to easily identify it in a blind smell test. And rolling a soft lump of Play-Doh around in your hands and letting your fingers sink deep into it just adds to the total tactile experience.

We all know by now that one of the symptoms of coronavirus is loss of smell. If you can’t smell Play-Doh, therefore, you probably should head straight to the doctor’s office. So why not go to the nearest toy store, pick up a tub of Play-Doh, and conduct your own personal COVID-19 screening? After you take that first whiff, I think you’ll feel better.

Look for the jars of brown Play-Doh to maximize the 2020 experience, but don’t be surprised if they’re sold out.

Tab Stab

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

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

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

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

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

Shuffle Season

Good news — Shuffle Season is upon us.

Shuffle Season is that rare, all-too-brief time of year when the trees have dropped some — but not all — of their leaves. There is color in the canopy of leaves above and color on the ground and sidewalks below. And when you reach a stretch of leaf-covered sidewalk, the temptation to shuffle your feet through those drying leaves, to hear the rustle and crackle and crunch, and to kick some leaves into the air and let your inner kid loose, is irresistible.

I’m just old enough to remember when people routinely raked their leaves into leaf piles, let their kids play in the piles for a bit, and then raked the pile to the curb and burned the leaves. The authorities ultimately outlawed the burning, but I remember liking the distinctive autumnal smell of those burning leaves. The specific spicy smell is no doubt stored deep in my amygdala.

I’m too old now to play in leaf piles, but I can still enjoy Shuffle Season and those dried sidewalk leaves. You can, too.

Breakfast Mutation

Once, I was a big breakfast person.  Mom was a charter member of the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” cult, and she insisted on our having a “healthy breakfast” before we headed off to school.

In those days, a “health breakfast” meant a big bowl of Frosted Flakes, Captain Crunch, or Quake during the warmer months, and oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, or some other hot cereal — always with brown sugar, of course — and a glass of juice, and a glass of whole milk, and probably some toast with jelly, besides.  Fortified and carboloaded with our “healthy breakfasts” and bundled up against the morning chill, the Webner kids went out to wait for the school bus and take on the world.

But over the years, my tastes and breakfast interests mutated.  Some of it was due to speed; there just doesn’t seem like a lot of time in the morning to make a big breakfast.  Some of it was due to weight; at some point, large mixing bowls of sugary cereal suddenly didn’t seem like such a wise move from a belt size standpoint.  And some of it, frankly, was just a matter of taste.  I got to the point where I didn’t like the feeling of gobbling down a bunch of food first thing in the morning.  Restricting my intake to a cup of coffee and a small glass of orange juice left me feeling a bit lighter and less logy.  And I also figured that if I limited myself to a small breakfast, that would leave plenty of room on the calorie counter for a nice lunch.

Is breakfast “the most important meal of the day,” as Mom’s creed dictated?  Beats me!  Given the ever-changing “science” of human dietary needs and food pyramids, I doubt if anyone really knows.  These days, I pretty much just for go what makes me feel better.  I suppose if I was going out and waiting for the school bus in the chill morning air, then taking a loud, rattling, 45-minute, seat belt-free ride with a bunch of other rambunctious kids headed off to school and charged up by their own intake of sugary cereals I might feel differently.

An Old Guy’s View Of New Technology

There is no doubt that — for some people, at least, including me — there has been an inverse relationship between age and receptivity to new technology.

Once, as a callow youth, I was dazzled by new technology.  Of course, the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo space programs made everyone interested in new advancements in computers and technology as a point of national pride, and that carried over into home life and school.  When our family signed up for a crude early version of premium cable TV called Qube, I wanted to know how it worked and what it offered.  And I was excited when Dad brought him one of the first Atari game systems, so UJ and I could play Pong in our family room.  I even took a computer course in high school and learned some of the basics of FORTRAN programming using punch cards, and thought it was fantastic that the computer did what my carefully arranged stack of punch cards commanded.

This happily open-minded approach to new technology continued through college and into law school.  In college, I learned how to use video display terminals (“VDTs”), one of the first forays into stand alone word processing units, and spent hours in front of a VDT, with its greenish glow.  I believe that is where I first learned the word “cursor.”  And my friends and I happily enjoyed every cool new video game that appeared in our favorite bars, whether it was Tron or Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man or Asteroids or Galaga.  And in law school I learned to use computer legal search engines, and even took on a job where I had to “back up” the hard disks on a computer system that crashed regularly.

angry-old-man-with-computerBut at some point, my receptivity to the new technology changed, and I can’t quite put my finger on when it happened, or exactly why.  Some of it might have been repeated experience with technology that overpromised and underdelivered, or that focused on bells and whistles — “look, you can program your own individualized message to appear as your screen saver!” — without meaningfully improving the basics, like word processing capabilities, that were the meat and potatoes uses of the system.  Some of it no doubt was brutal experience, where one false key stroke, or one ill-timed system crash, caused hours of work to maddeningly vanish and have to be recreated.  And with each glitch and crash, skepticism began to replace receptivity, and fear of disaster began to replace eager interest.

The pace of technological change didn’t help things, either.  With new computers, search engines, phone systems, cell phone systems, remote access fobs, security systems, constant annoying password changes, and other developments being introduced all the time, it seemed like things were never really set — at least, not for long — and there was always some overwhelming new training to take.  And that reality caused another reaction to enter into the mix:  “why can’t things just stay the same for a while?”

I had that kind of jaded reaction to new technology — but then the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, and everything changed again.  For many of us, technology saved our butts and allowed us to keep working remotely in a way that really wouldn’t have been possible even 5 years earlier — much less 20 or 30.  I’ve learned how to use a number of new programs and applications, and have been grateful for the opportunity.  And whenever I talk to one of our IT people these days, I thank them and acknowledge just how crucial this wonderful technology has been.

I wouldn’t say I’ve quite returned to the wide-eyed fascination I had as a kid, but this current experience has definitely moved the needle back by a lot of years.  The next time you hear me fulminating crotchety old man views about technological advancements, just remind me of COVID-19 and 2020, and I’ll shut up.

What Is Missing?

This is an interesting and surprising photograph I took today at Sand Beach Park. It’s surprising because something is clearly missing in this picture of three little kids playing on the rocks at the corner of the beach.

Can you see what is absent?

It’s parents, of course. The parents were about 50 yards away — close enough to keep an eye on the kids and get over there quickly in case of a mishap, but otherwise content to let the kids explore on their own and have some fun. In the current time of helicopter parents, such long-distance, trusting parenting is as rare as a handshake — and as surprising.

Of course, what these parents were doing used to be the norm. My parents let us run free in our neighborhood — and take risks, and skin our knees, and have fun, and hopefully learn something from our experiences in the process. Shockingly, we survived . . . because kids actually are pretty savvy about risks and learn quickly. That’s what childhood used to be about.

Kudos to these parents! I bet these kids thought their trip to Sand Beach Park was great fun. — more fun than if Mom and Dad were holding them tightly by the hand and telling them to stay away from the rocks.

A Class In The Mist

The Class of 2020 hasn’t exactly been the luckiest class in the history of the American high school system. 

Just as they were nearing the end of their senior year, getting ready for prom, and their senior class parties, and their graduation ceremony, the coronavirus pandemic hit, classes in most high schools across the country were abruptly cancelled, social distancing and limitations on congregation were imposed, and everything had to happen remotely — which isn’t exactly the ideal setting for your last hurrah with your high school chums and besties.

In Stonington, as in many U.S. cities and towns, the community has rallied behind the Class of 2020 and tried to give them a memorable graduation notwithstanding all of the limitations.  In the downtown area, small posters of the members of the graduating class have been put up on light posts and telephone poles to recognize their achievement.  Stores are displaying signs to congratulate the seniors, and the town organized a parade in which the seniors rode, individually, in back of open-air cars while they were cheered on along the parade route by members of the community — all of whom maintained appropriate social distancing, of course.

High school wasn’t the favorite time of my life, and I didn’t feel like high school graduation was a particularly big deal.  At the same time, I enjoyed the graduation parties and senior prom and the graduation ceremony itself.  For me, at least, it gave a sense of closure of one chapter in my life and the message that it was time to move on to college, and beyond.  Thinking about it now, with the knowledge of what has happened to the Class of 2020 in mind, I think I probably would have missed the whole process if I hadn’t experienced it.

I’ve written before about doing what we can to help people whose lives have been turned upside-down by COVID-19 to make up for the loss and disruption — by frequenting restaurants, giving very generous tips, and so on.  The same goes for the Class of 2020, and it’s nice to see that communities like Stonington, and other communities across the country, are doing special things to recognize the unique impact the Class of 2020 has sustained.  If you know of a 2020 graduate, give them an especially hearty congratulations, will you?  And when the Class of 2020 gathers for their 10th, or 25th, or 50th reunion, we can hope that they’ll have some positive memories about parades, and signs, and special recognitions to recall.