Condensed Books

One of the local shops in Stonington, The Dry Dock, always has a bookshelf in front of the store that offers free books.  It’s impossible not to stop and take a gander at what’s available, and yesterday I noticed a book that brought back memories — a volume of  Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

I’m not sure whether Reader’s Digest still comes up with “condensed books” — or, for that matter, whether Reader’s Digest itself is still published — but there was a time in the ’60s and early ’70s when our family subscribed to the magazine and got the condensed books, too.  I remember Mom reading the condensed books and remarking that you wouldn’t even have known that the books were condensed.  Of course, unless you had done a side-by-side comparison of the actual novel and the condensed book, you wouldn’t know what had hit the cutting room floor in the “condensation” process.  Significant subplots, back stories, ancillary characters, scenes that helped to fully flesh out the contours and personalities of the main characters — they all could be lopped out by the Reader’s Digest editors who wanted to shrink novels and non-fiction works down to a manageable size for the busy person who just didn’t have the time to read a full-blown book.

I don’t recall ever reading one of the condensed books that were delivered to our house, although I occasionally wished that Reader‘s Digest had done condensed versions of some of the ponderous tomes we had to read in high school.  (This was before I discovered Cliff’s Notes.)  I always wondered, though, how the authors involved reacted to the finished, condensed product.  I’m sure they liked the payment they received for allowing their work to be condensed, but how did they feel about the liberal editing that occurred as part of the process?  Did the authors actually read the condensed versions to see how their work was affected?  Did they think that the condensation cut the heart out of their books, or changed their focus, or did they feel deep down that the editing process had actually improved their work?  Given the amount of time and effort writers put into a novel, it would be tough to come to the conclusion that the book you labored over was better without some of the subplots and character-building scenes.

 

Apollo’s Lasting Legacy

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon — which happened on July 20, 1969 — we’ve seen a lot of interesting articles about the space program, the Apollo program, and NASA’s lunar missions, including a fascinating Smithsonian article about Apollo 11 specifically.  Popular Mechanics also has reprinted an interview with Buzz Aldrin from 25 years ago about why he went to the Moon, and why he thinks we should go back.

as16-113-18339hrsmOne of the most intriguing pieces I’ve seen was a UPI article that sought to identify products and technologies that can be attributed to the Apollo program and that still are in use today.  (That means that “Space Food Sticks,” an awful-tasting product from my youth that quickly went out of production, doesn’t qualify.)  The UPI writer found that Apollo’s legacy goes beyond Tang, velcro, and computer chips.  Products such as the “Dustbuster” hand-held vacuum cleaner, high-performance athletic shoes, communications headsets, credit card swiping machines, and even the “memory foam” in your mattress all trace their roots back to developments that occurred during the Apollo program.

These technological advances are important, of course, and show what can happen when you hire a bunch of really smart, creative, highly motivated engineers and problem-solvers, give them a mission and adequate funding, and establish a meaningful deadline to achieve the goal.  Technological developments are a pretty predictable result of such an effort, which is one reason why I think the United States should end the 50-year drought and get back into the manned space arena in a significant way — whether through government programs, or through partnership with the private companies that are focused on space, or through some other creative means.

But new technology and techniques are not, perhaps, the best reason to go back into space.  For those of us who grew up during the ’60s space program days, and dreamed about being an astronaut like the courageous adventurers of our youth, there will always be a part of our make-up that is interested in space, and science, and the stars.  Perhaps it would be impossible to fully recreate the conditions that made the early astronauts celebrity-heroes in those innocent days, but wouldn’t it nevertheless be valuable to give the current generation of young people role models who are smart, well-educated, selfless, and brave, and encourage those young people to dream about discovery and scientific advancement?

The technological legacy of the Apollo program is impressive, but I think the real legacy is aspirational — something that touched us deeply and leaves even 60-somethings like me still keenly interested in space and hoping that one day, perhaps, I’ll follow in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps and be able to visit the Moon.  The real legacy tells you something about the power of a dream.  We should give the children of today, and tomorrow, the chance to experience such dreams again.

Where Would We Be Without Willis?

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As we deal with another day of sweltering heat in the Midwest, let’s all acknowledge the huge debt we owe to Willis Carrier — the guy who invented air conditioning.  Where would we be without Willis and his life-changing invention?

Interestingly, Willis Carrier did not invent air conditioning to increase human comfort on scorching summer days.  Instead, he came up with his invention, in 1902, to try to deal with the problems heat and humidity were causing for a Brooklyn printing business.  It was so hot and humid during the summer months in the printing plant that the ink would not adhere to the paper, so Willis came up with the idea of moving air over cooled coils to lower the temperature and the humidity so the printers could function.  The decreased temperature in the no-doubt sweltering area near the printing presses was just a pleasant by-product of the invention.

Willis’ invention caught on and air conditioning was implemented in many businesses, but it would be decades before air conditioning became common in American homes.   The first two houses I remember living in didn’t have central air conditioning.  But now, 117 years after Willis Carrier was touched by a stroke of genius, central air conditioning is commonplace, and it’s really hard to imagine life without it.

Thank you, Willis Carrier!

The Last Beetle

This week Volkswagen will make its last Beetle.  At a plant in Mexico, the last few newly manufactured vehicles will roll off the assembly line, and one of the most iconic car designs in the history of the automotive industry will end.

c7853e1d42303ca7b0e084c948a284e6The VW Beetle probably has the weirdest back story of any popular car brand, ever.  It was originally conceptualized by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a people’s car, although mass production never began under the Nazi regime.  Its production began in earnest after World War II, when it helped to lead the post-war economic revitalization of what was then West Germany.  Volkswagen sold huge numbers of its “Type 1” — known to pretty much everyone as “the Beetle” because of its familiar rounded, humped design — and then made serious inroads in America, where the VW Beetle was a cheap, small, efficient, easy to repair and customize alternative to the gigantic gas-guzzlers Detroit was cranking out in those days.

The Beetle — and especially the chronically underpowered VW van — became associated with the hippie movement in the United States, and when I was a kid it wasn’t unusual to see VW cars and vans decorated with peace symbols, bright flowers, and other signs of the tie-dyed set.  It’s no coincidence that 1968, when the hippie culture was at its zenith, was the year the most Beetles were sold in America.  In that year, Americans bought more than 560,000 of the cars.  But Japan and Detroit started to be more competitive in the small car market and their efforts made inroads into Beetle sales, and then Volkswagen started to focus on other designs.  A more high-powered Beetle was introduced that was specifically intended to target retro buyers.  Now, Volkswagen is placing its corporate bets on a newly designed compact, battery-powered car.

With the car now being retired, eight decades after the Nazis first thought of it, are there any other cars currently being sold in America that have an iconic image and design even close to the Beetle?  I can’t think of any.  Peace, love, Beetle!

Bug Bites And Sunburns

While we were up in Maine I spent a lot of time outside working in the yard.  As a result, I became a feast for the neighborhood mosquito and biting fly squadrons, and also got a good coating from the sun.

bright-sun-in-blue-skyBy the end of my visit, I was covered in bug bites and was a bit sunburned to boot.  As I debated whether to scratch the hell out of the itchy bug bites (and, of course, ultimately doing so because I just couldn’t help it) and felt the warm tingle from the sunburned areas, I found myself thinking that the combination of sensations felt distantly familiar — and then I realized that I was re-experiencing conditions from my childhood summers.  In those days, Mom would kick us out of the house after breakfast and we would pretty much be outside all day until dinner — and then again after dinner, to play freeze tag or catch lightning bugs until it was full dark.  When you’re outside all day, a good slathering of Off! can only do so much — so my summers inevitably were accompanied by bug bites, mild sunburns, and the colossal itchiness that that combination brings.

When I realized that my condition was recreating a common experience from childhood, I felt a certain wistfulness that it had been so long since I’d felt that unique combination of bug bites and sun.  You don’t fully realize how much of an indoor, office-bound person you’ve become until you spend a good chunk of time outdoors on summer days and then deal with the consequences.  So, even though I’m still working away at a few of the especially itchy spots, I was glad for the bites and the burn and their reminder of the sunny days of yore when spending hours outside was just how the world worked.

Want to feel like a kid again?  Spend a lot of time outside, and the bugs and sunshine will help to remind you.

Fat Tire Bikes

Today is a perfect day for cycling; it’s bright, not too hot, with a few clouds in the sky to break up the sunshine. No high-speed travel for us today. We’re just going to enjoy a leisurely journey around town, exploring the surroundings.

For our rides we’ve selected vintage-looking, single-speed, “fat tire” bikes — the kind where you brake by moving the pedals backward and can stand on the pedals when you’re going up a hill. They’re a Schwinn and a Huffy, the brands many of us had for our first bikes as kids.

No baseball cards in the spokes, though — at least, not yet.

Focus On The Farmers

It’s pouring in Columbus right now, and the weather forecast is for more of the same — all day, and for that matter all week.

As I sat on my back porch listening to the rain pound the roof this morning, the phrase that popped into my head was: “It’s good for the farmers.” When we were kids, that was Mom’s inevitable response to a rainy summer day. Forlorn kids would be staring out the window, saddened by the fact that a precious day of summer vacation would be lost to thunderstorms, but Mom would try to put a happy spin on the showers. She was a master of the power of positive thinking In the days before spin even had a name.

Here’s to you, Ohio farmers! Let’s hope the rains produce a bumper crop this year.

Legalizing Lemonade

This week Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law making it legal for Texas kids to run a lemonade stand without first getting a license.  In a rarity in these politically acrimonious times, the bill passed both houses of the Texas legislature unanimously.  It prohibits local health codes or neighborhood rules that try to bar or otherwise regulate children who want to sell non-alcoholic drinks, such as lemonade, on private property.

gettyimages-115703269-58ad82445f9b58a3c979537cThe Texas legislation was a reaction to an incident in an east Texas town where police shut down a lemonade stand run by two kids who were trying to raise money to buy a Father’s Day present.  That incident is part of a national trend of neighbors calling the police to report kids who operate lemonade stands, which has led to news stories about lemonade stand shutdowns in Colorado, California, Rhode Island, and other states.  The lemonade stand crackdown reached the point that Country Time lemonade offered legal assistance to the kids running the stands who faced penalties and fines for engaging in unpermitted activity.

Speaking as someone who set up a number of lemonade stands as a kid — and who probably sold some pretty sour, watery, and sickly sweet lemonade to innocent buyers in the process — it’s hard for me to imagine that police, regulators, and busybody neighbors don’t have something better to do than oversee harmless childhood money-making ventures.  Have we really reached the point that you actually have to pass a law to safeguard an activity that has been part of Americana for decades?

But the world has changed.  Apparently we do have to enact laws to make sure that regulators don’t target little kids in their zeal to exercise overprotective nanny-state control over our daily activities.  But because the world has changed, I also wonder if the Texas law is really going to have much of an impact in these days of equally overprotective parents.  How many helicopter Moms and Dads are going to allow their young kids to interact with complete strangers who might pass by and want to wet their whistle with a glass of homemade lemonade?

That ’70s Party

Later this month, Kish and I are going to a conference for work.  The organization sponsoring the conference is celebrating its 40th anniversary and decided to mark the occasion by having a party where everyone dresses up like people did in the year the organization was founded.

what-did-people-wear-in-the-70sIt’s a clever idea, but for those of you who are mathematically challenged, that means we’re supposed to party like it’s 1979.

This will be a tough challenge, because I don’t have any ’70s-style clothing.  In fact, it’s fair to say that I have tried to get as far away from ’70s garb, and ’70s hairstyles, as is humanly possible.  Having gone to high school and college in the ’70s, I enjoyed ’70s rock music then and still do, and I can definitely wax nostalgic about the shows and skits put on by the first cast of Saturday Night Live.  But the clothes and haircuts of that decade are another thing entirely.  Loud “leisure” suits, platform shoes, brightly colored, patterned polyester shirts that were manufactured without any breathing, natural fibers, monster bell bottoms with huge cuffs, enormous sideburns, and carefully combed hair helmets only begin to scratch the surface.

So don’t talk to me about “’70s style” — in reality, that’s a self-contradictory phrase.   From a physical appearance standpoint, the ’70s is undoubtedly the ugliest decade in American history, when the clothing and grooming industries pulled a fast one on the gullible citizens of this great nation, and I’ve consciously tried to put it out of my mind since the calendar page turned to January 1, 1980.

Kish and I have talked about where we might go to find ’70s clothes, but I’m afraid if we bought such items at a thrift store they might end up infecting the rest of the clothing in our closets.

A New Take On An Old Favorite

One of the great things about the current American foodie culture is the willingness of young chefs to reimagine classic dishes in new ways with new ingredients. Hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs, chili, and macaroni and cheese — among countless other staples of the American diet — have been recreated in inventive and delicious ways.

So when we visited Ambrose and Eve for dinner last night and I saw Beefaroni on the menu — that’s right . . . Beefaroni! I to try it. Beefaroni, plopped out of the can with the smiling face of Chef Boy-ar-dee on the front, warmed on a saucepan on the stove, and served in a bowl with perhaps a sprinkling of Kraft grated Parmesan cheese on top, was a favorite food of my youth. With tiny, chewy logs of pasta, a curiously sweet tomato sauce, and miniscule shards of some kind of meat, all served piping hot, Beefaroni was a perfect, simple “stick to your ribs” meal. Plus, it had a great commercial featuring throngs of excited kids sprinting home for dinner while singing “we’re having Beefaroni, beef with macaroni. . . . ”

Our waiter described the Ambrose and Eve version as what Chef Boy-ar-dee might have come up with if he had gone to culinary school. After I got over the jarring concept that Chef Boy-ar-dee might not have gone to culinary school, notwithstanding the fact that he sported a chef’s hat and called himself a chef, I found the Ambrose and Eve version to be an excellent successor to this favorite of my youth. It featured excellent rigatoni rather than doughy pasta logs, a very delicate sauce that was chock full of finely minced beef, and a generous topping of Parmesan cheese that promptly melted into the sauce. My only complaint was that it was served with a fork rather than a spoon, which I could have used to more effectively scrape the sides of the bowl in order to consume every scrap.

When we left the restaurant, I half expected to see the kids from the ’60s commercial running toward the restaurant, and I found myself wondering when a brave foodie chef is going to tackle coming up with a modern version of Whip ‘n Chill.

A Taste of Grilling History

Memorial Day is probably more identified with outdoor grilling than any other day on the modern American calendar.  So . . . exactly when and how did Americans become so enamored with outdoor cooking, anyway?

weber1aOf course, humans have been cooking outdoors since the discovery of fire by our primitive ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, before the dawn of recorded history.  But in the ensuing millennia, outdoor cooking didn’t advance much beyond the basics of skewering a piece of meat on a metal spit and turning it over flames or coals until the fat dripped off — which wasn’t exactly well-suited to people cooking for their families.

Charcoal has been made since the early days of human civilization, and had been used for smelting, blacksmithing, and other industrial processes.  After the individual charcoal briquet was invented in the 1890s, people tried cooking outside on various flimsy devices, but the traditional problems that are familiar to any outdoor cook — food that is burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside, thanks to poor temperature control — was a constant problem, and as a result outdoor cooking remained unpopular.

In 1952, George Stephen, a welder at the Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago, came up with the idea for the first modern outdoor grille.  Apparently inspired by marine buoys, he devised a sturdy, stand-alone kettle grille with a lid for temperature control.  Later, the Weber grille design with the familiar dome was introduced, and the gas grill was invented in 1954.  Those inventions coincided with the development of the American suburb, the Baby Boom, and the rapidly growing American economy in the years after World War II and the Korean War, and soon every American household had its own outdoor grill on the patio of their suburban home.  It was just natural that the first big grilling weekend would be the Memorial Day weekend, when the improving weather marked the start of the outdoor grilling months.

Any kid who grew up in the ‘burbs in the ’50s or ’60s remembers sitting at a picnic table eating cheeseburgers and hot dogs cooked by the Dads in the neighborhood who were clustered around their grills — typically while they wore embarrassing cooking outfits and swigged Budweisers — while the Moms brought out the potato salad and buns and condiments and sported brightly colored cat-eye sunglasses.  There’s a reason why the Monkees sang about “charcoal burning everywhere” in their ode to the generic American suburb, Pleasant Valley Sunday.

Of course, grilling has advanced since then, but the association of Memorial Day with outdoor cooking remains strong.  On this Memorial Day, grill on, America!

Potato Peril

A constant of my daily shower routine is using the washcloth to scrub behind my ears.  Why?  It’s not like the behind-the-ear area of a 60-something guy working at a desk in a white-collar job is constantly exposed to dirt and therefore requires a vigorous daily scouring.

g-fruitandveg-potatoes-mainNo, it’s because I remember my mother inspecting that particular area and then saying, with a tone of terrible shock and deep regret, that my postauricular regions had become “so filthy” — not just dirty, mind you, but filthy, which was much, much worse — that “you could grow potatoes back there.”  And then I would be marched off to the bathroom to wash my face and neck and the unseemly behind the ear areas, preferably with rough Lava brand soap that was made with pumice and seemed like it was taking off a layer of skin in the face-washing process.

Interestingly, it was always potatoes that could be grown in the heavy layer of dirt and grime that somehow had accumulated while I was out playing with UJ and our friends.  Not carrots, or corn, or even flowers, but inevitably potatoes.  Because, at that age, mothers seem to know everything, my natural assumption was, and still is, that potatoes must require an especially deep, dark, heavy soil if they are to grow properly.

Mom used to have a sign hanging in the house that said “my house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy,” but that just meant the house was treated differently from the kids in the family.  The house may have gotten the benefit of the doubt, but Mom was extraordinarily sensitive to any sign of human grubbiness or — God forbid! — “B.O.”  (And “B.O.” was pronounced by my mother, who never uttered a profanity of any kind in her entire life, as if it were the queen mother of curses.)

And yet, when we were doing chores around the house, Mom inevitably would tell us kids to “put a little elbow grease into it.”  How we were to do that and still maintain the expected level of spotlessness was left unexplained.

Old Shots

Measles has been in the news a lot lately, from a recent New York City public health order requiring mandatory vaccinations in an attempt to stop a measles outbreak in Brooklyn that is (inevitably) being challenged in court, to reports of cases of measles in various places in the U.S., to scary outbreaks in other parts of the world like Europe and the Philippines.

measles-vaccine-gettyimages-544419442Although measles is typically viewed as a childhood disease, getting it as an adult can be serious business.   And, because measles is a highly contagious condition that can be readily communicated from one person to another through airborne droplets sneezed and coughed out by random strangers in public places — like airport terminals — it’s a concern for people who do a lot of traveling.   Health care officials uniformly identify vaccination as the best defense against contracting a case of measles.  But what should you do if, like me, you got that painful measles shot in the arm or the butt when you were a kid long ago, and your childhood vaccination and immunization records are God knows where?  Do we all need to get another shot?

Here’s some good news:  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if you received the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) shot that every kid of my generation got as a matter of course, you’re in good shape.  The CDC says that the measles component of the vaccine provides lifelong protection at 93 percent efficiency even if, like me, you got your shot more than 50 years ago.  And if you were born before 1957, you don’t need to worry about the measles, either, because the vast majority of people living in the pre-1957 world were exposed to measles as kids and have natural immunity to the disease as a result.

It’s weird to think that, in the 21st century, Americans should be worrying about diseases like measles that can be readily controlled by vaccination, but that’s what happens when parents start getting lax about vaccinating their kids — or believing quacks who raise unproven claims about side effects of vaccination.  If you’re not sure about whether you’ve been vaccinated, you really should talk to your doctor.  When it comes to communicable diseases, we’re all in this together.

Colorful Kegling

Russell was in town for the weekend, and at his request on Sunday we went bowling at the HP (for “high performance”) Lanes Bowling Center off Cleveland Avenue.  Knocking down the pins was fun, as always, but our little taste of modern bowling made me realize how dramatically the bowling experience has changed since I was a kid.

Our bowling alley in those days in the ’60s was the legendary Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio. It was a place for people who were serious about bowling.  The bowling balls were all black — the only nod to color appeared on the 6-pound balls for little kids, which had red and blue triangles on them — and the only noise was the balls rolling down the alley and scattering the pins.  To complete the somewhat somber, focused atmosphere, against one wall there was a huge photograph of President Nixon, with an intense look on his face as he began his approach to the foul line, bearing the title “Our Bowling President.”  It helped to lock in the belief of most of the keglers that bowling was the all-American sport.

HP Lanes is . . . different.  For one thing, the “house balls” are as colorful as Easter eggs.  The area above the pins is a riotous, Mardi Gras-like study in pastels, and there was rock music playing at a pretty healthy volume.  There wasn’t any photo of a bowling president around, either.  The only link to the bowling days of yore was the color of the lanes, the ball delivery system, and the American flag.

Your High School Music

The other day I thumbed through my iPod music playlist and stopped at the playlist “UAHS Rock.”  (UAHS stands for Upper Arlington High School, from which I graduated in June, 1975.)  It’s a list of about 200 songs I remember listening to during my three years attending high school as a Golden Bear.  (In those days, classes were so huge that the freshman year was spent in junior high.  I think my graduating class had about 890 people in it.)

upper_arlington_oh_sign-307x192I wrote about the playlist some years ago, but it had been years since I’d listened to it.  My musical tastes have broadened quite a bit since my high school days, and lately I’ve been enjoying classical music from the baroque era.  But I got the sad news that one of my high school classmates had passed on, and it made me think about those days and the music I associate with it.  Once I started playing the music on the playlist, I felt the stirrings of my 17-year-old self, sitting in my room at our split-level family home in “new Arlington” and listening to records on a cheap Panasonic turntable or on WCOL-FM, the “album rock” station in town.  Boy, there was some great music being recorded during those days!

All of the songs on the playlist now form a core part of the playlist on any modern “classic rock” station, and they all came out during the days when I was a kid trying to find my locker and then make it to my next class in the sprawling corridors of UAHS.  The songs are terrific, and because they came out at that weird, awkward, scary, fun time, they pluck some of those special musical heartstrings we all have.  I’m guessing that pretty much everyone has a special corner of their psyche reserved for that high school time in their life and especially the music that is so incredibly closely associated with it — whether you graduated from high school in the ’60s, ’80s, post-2000, or are in high school right now.  You listen, and you feel yourself beginning to do the same lame dance moves you first tried as a fumbling teenager.

I’m not arguing that the rock music of the early ’70s is the best rock music ever — who would argue with that irrefutable proposition? — but only observing that if it’s been a while since you’ve listened to your high school music, you’d be doing yourself a favor by doing so.  You’ll feel younger!