Death Of A UHF Pitchman

Ron Popeil has died. The inventor/developer/popularizer of countless weird products and the star of ever-playing infomercials, Popeil was 86.

If you got anywhere near a TV during the ’60s and ’70s, you knew the name Ron Popeil. He was the guy who sold many of the products that were featured on commercials on the “UHF” channels on your TV.

(I realize as I write those words that many people alive today have no idea what a “UHF” or “VHF” channel was, or how they were different. Here’s a primer. The VHF channels were numbered 1 through 13, were on the VHF dial on your TV with clearly demarcated slots for the stations, and accordingly were easy to find and came through on your TV much more clearly. The three networks and their local broadcast stations were always on one of those VHF channels. The UHF channels, on the other hand, were on a different dial that didn’t have specific channel indicators, so if you wanted to watch a UHF station you first had to switch to the UHF dial, then carefully turn that dial incrementally, with the precision deftness of a brain surgeon, to find the best signal for channel 43 or channel 61, manipulate your rabbit ears to further enhance signal quality, and put up with some “snow” on the screen and fading in and out. Nevertheless, becoming a master of UHF channel tuning was an essential skill for any kid who wanted to watch Three Stooges shorts, Star Trek reruns, bad horror movies, and the other enticing mainstays of UHF programming. The UHF stations eventually became a lot more accessible when cable TV became widespread.)

The first Ron Popeil/Ronco product I remember was the Veg-o-Matic, which allowed you to put a peeled potato on a kind of wire screen below the top of the device, depress the top, forcing the potato through the screen, and thereby produce french fries that were ready for the fryer. The Veg-o-Matic always seemed to me to be of limited usefulness, but it sure would come in handy if french fries were a staple of your diet. And of course the Veg-o-Matic was only one of a host of odd Ron Popeil products. There was the Ronco Steam-A-Way, a gun-like device that allowed you to steam out the wrinkles that appeared in your clothes while you were traveling. There was the Buttoneer, which appeared to replace thread with plastic stays to keep buttons attached to their fabric forever, and which was known mostly because its commercial the same phrase countless times as frustrated people dealt with lost buttons: “The problem with buttons is . . . they always fall off!” We can’t forget the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, a fold-up fishing product that allowed avid anglers to always be ready to set a hook and drop a line into any brook or pond they happened to pass by (although I don’t think bait was provided). And finally Ron Popeil brought us Mr. Microphone, a cordless microphone that could tie in to the frequency of your car radio and allow you to broadcast annoying comments to passersby. The smooth ’70s character with the bad haircut shown in the photo above uses Mr. Microphone to deliver the deathless line: “Hey good lookin’. Be back to pick you up later!” (That one has become a standard catchphrase in our household.)

It’s strange, and kind of scary, to think of how all of these Ron Popeil items, and their related commercials, have become so firmly lodged in my brain synapses that I can easily recall them, decades later–but that’s what repeated watching of UHF TV will do for you. RIP to the Master Pitchman and his menagerie of products.

Spill-Proof

I’ve complained before about the spillage that inevitably occurs when you try to pour water from a standard coffee pot into the coffee maker to make coffee in the morning. Thanks to the capillary effect, water almost always spills onto the countertop, leaving you to mop things up. It’s a supremely annoying way to start the day.

But there’s good news for those, like me, who are easily irritated by such mishaps. Some profound product engineer has figured out a way to control the capillary effect and prevent spills. We had to buy a new Bunn coffee maker this week–the heating unit on the old one gave out, for no readily apparent reason, which was irritating in and of itself–and the new pot has a tongue that extends from the lid out over the spout, as shown in the photo above. It looks strange, and I initially thought it was one of those extra packing pieces you need to remove. But in fact it’s part of the design, and it works like a charm. The water follows the tongue, and every drop ends up in the coffee maker. Whoo-hoo!

It’s a pleasure to make coffee in the morning without dousing the counters and muttering dark imprecations as I swab up the spilled water. Such small advances make for a happier life. And it’s encouraging to know that, even with a standard device like a coffee pot, some nameless person is still thinking about improvements.

Clam Hoes And Shedders

When you spend times in a different part of the country, often you learn new things.

Consider, for example, the evil-looking items being sold by an antique store in town. With long, sharp tines and short handles, they don’t look at all like innocent gardening tools. To the contrary, they look like the sort of implements Freddie Krueger or Jason would happily use to send witless teenagers to their painful, impaled demise.

So, what are they, exactly? As the hand-lettered sign explains, they are clam hoes—ideal for digging deep into the soft muck in the mudflats when the tide goes out and raking clams to the surface.

“Shedders” are another story—literally. The local newspaper ran a front page article, with photo, announcing that “shedders are in!” That’s big news in Stonington, because many locals contend that “shedders”—lobsters that have just molted their old, hard shell and are growing a new, softer-for-the-time-being shell—have sweeter meat and are the best eating lobsters of all.

We’re going to a lobster boil tonight, and if I draw a shedder—which you can identify because the shell can be easily cracked by hand—I’ll see if I can taste the difference. I am learning about local tools and terms, but my lobster palate may remain uneducated.

Guardians Of The ‘Land

The Cleveland baseball franchise has announced its new team name. After more than 100 years as the Indians, starting next year the team will be called the Cleveland Guardians. The franchise announced the name with a video narrated by Tom Hanks, which you can watch in the article linked above. It’s a pretty generic video for the most part, with lots of standard pictures of Cleveland and people who are proud about that storied city, and a pretty forgettable script, too. But there is one statement in the video that rings true: the most important thing about the team name is the “Cleveland” part. Those of us who have lifelong ties to The Best Location In The Nation and its baseball team are going to root for the city’s baseball team no matter what its nickname might be.

But what about the name “Guardians”? I would have preferred the Spiders, which was the name of a prior Cleveland baseball team, but “Guardians” has its own link to Cleveland and its past. The Guardians are the names for colossal, stolid figures carved into bridges over the Cuyahoga River and featured in a lot of photos you see around Cleveland, so at least the name has that going for it. And it’s a pretty safe, basic choice. Some people have already made fun of it–the Bus-Riding Conservative says Cleveland Guardians “sounds like a prophylactic brand”–but after years of controversy, picking an inoffensive name that isn’t likely to rankle anyone seems prudent.

As for the team’s new logo, below, it looks like something a high school kid would doodle on their notebook during a boring study hall. But there’s still time until next season starts, and perhaps inspiration can strike. I’d like to see those little wings on the bridge guardians helmets put on the sides of the Guardians’ batting helmets, and big close-up photos of the heads of those poker-faced bridge guardian statues put on the outfield fences and elsewhere around the home ballpark. Why not go all in?

So, now I’m a Guardians fan. Who knows? With the team-naming controversy behind us, maybe the franchise can actually start focusing on winning baseball games.

Barefootin’

What article of clothing has fallen into the most disuse over the last, weird 16-month period? Pants? Long pants? Socks?

A friend argues that it is the humble shoe. His theory is that virtually no one on Teams or Zoom or other video calls is wearing shoes. He’s probably right. Since the camera only shows people (at most) from the waist up, and you’re going to be working from home all day, why lace on your shoes? Even if you’ve got the most comfortable shoes in the world, they can’t be as comfortable as bare feet—so why wear them if nobody can see them?

I would have thought ties would fall into the most disuse—have you seen anyone wearing a tie on a video call?—and women probably would think pantyhose, but of course each of those clothing items tends to be gender-specific. Shoes, on the other hand, are universal and gender-neutral, so my friend is probably right.

Time to short the shoe stocks!

Our New Downtown Bench

When civic improvements come to Stonington, sometimes they are on the smaller side. So it is with this new bench, which has been placed below one of the granite outcroppings next to the Dry Dock shop, on the western side of downtown. The new bench is a sturdy one that features some quality craftsmanship and a seat that can handle posteriors of all shapes and sizes.

A new bench might be a small improvement, but it is by no means an insignificant one. In any town that welcomes tourists, having plenty of benches where visitors can have a seat and enjoy the sights is a “must.” And having a bench near some of the shops is smart placement that helps the local merchants. Couples that don’t have equally zealous interests in shopping can split up, and the shopper can take her time and do a thorough canvas of the stores, secure in the knowledge that the non-shopper has a comfortable place to sit, check their messages, and look out at the activity in the harbor. And if two couples are visiting town together, the bench is spacious enough to accommodate two non-shoppers who’d rather sit and talk.

The bench fills a decided need in the western part of town, which had been bench-deprived until now. Previously, all of the seating was at the eastern edge and center of downtown, to accommodate the groups of ice cream eaters and 44 North coffee drinkers, and the folks waiting on a table at the Harbor Cafe. Now the western side has a place where visitors can take a load off, too.

Foiled

The other day I was wrapping some food to put into the freezer. I noticed, as I have noticed before, that the aluminum foil that I was using for that purpose had one side that was decidedly more shiny than the other. But this time, that idle moment of recognition was followed by curiosity, and a question: when I wrap food, am I supposed to be distinguishing between the super shiny and less shiny sides and intentionally making sure that one side, or the other, is the inner side or outer side when the wrapping is done? In short, have I been doing things wrong for all these years by paying absolutely no attention to the sides of the foil and wrapping food randomly?

I checked the Reynolds Wrap box, which I’ve never read before, to see whether it has an instructions area. After all, manufacturers tend not to be shy in telling you the best way to use their products; in fact, you might say that product boxes are often pretty bossy about it. The Reynolds Wrap box says you can use the wrap to cover food and prevent “freezer burn,” use it to line pans before cooking, and cover bowls that are being put into the refrigerator to help keep the contents moist and avoid splatters. The box even offers tips about inventive uses of Reynolds Wrap, such as covering open ice cream with the foil to prevent formation of ice crystals, or shaping the foil into little cups to start seedlings or to hold nuts or candy. But there is nary a word about making sure to keep the shiny side against the food being wrapped.

Nevertheless, a debate rages on the internet. Some people feel strongly that the mirror-like side of the foil must always be on the interior next to the food, reasoning that the shiny side will reflect more of the radiant heat. You can read an exhaustive treatment of the subject here, which concludes that there really isn’t much difference in heat reflection. But the heat reflection analysis doesn’t make much sense to me in any case, in view of the fact that most uses of aluminum foil occur when you are putting something into the fridge or the freezer–in which case you wouldn’t care one whit about reflecting the radiant heat and in fact would want to take steps to cool or freeze the food being wrapped as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you were using the aluminum foil to shape into little cups to hold M&Ms for a kid’s birthday party, you’d want to have the shiny side up to make for a more festive and color-reflective presentation.

In short, my effort to inform and potentially correct my aluminum foil usage came to naught. I’m convinced there is no difference, other than in the M&M cup context, with manufacturer silence on the topic being the deciding factor. So when you’re wrapping food for the freezer, feel free to place either side against the food according to your fancy at the moment.

Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

The Good, The Bad, And The Muggy

I’m a born and bred Midwesterner, and the hardy survivor of dozens and dozens of Ohio summers. And yet, it didn’t take many COVID-caused summer days in Maine for me to forget just how that brutal combination of heat and moisture made the Midwestern air feel—until I came back to Columbus a few days ago and was smacked in the face by July.

In a Stonington summer, the temperature rarely exceeds 70 degrees, and if it touches 80 it’s a heat wave for the ages. It’s always cool at night, and a gentle, crisp breeze is usually blowing. It makes a walk on a summer morning a pleasant and invigorating experience.

But in the Midwest the steamy summer air descends on you as soon as you leave your air-conditioned space and clings to you like a living thing. It makes even a predawn walk a sweaty, sapping experience, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Even a severe thunderstorm won’t cool off the air for more than a few moments.

Some refined Midwesterners say things like “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” when complaining about this kind of broiling summer weather. I always thought the word “muggy” was more apt, though, because the weather is akin to a mugging, where combination of heat and moisture are like a physical assault and rob you of your cool and calm demeanor, leaving you damp and bedraggled.

Midwestern summers are the reason air conditioning was invented.

A Tale Of Three Boats

We visited Bar Harbor yesterday. Unlike Stonington, where virtually every boat in the harbor is a working lobster boat, there are a variety of different types of pleasure crafts docked in Bar Harbor.

I was struck by this scene of three boats docked side by side near the Bar Harbor Inn. The guy in the middle must have been feeling pretty good about himself when he eased his big, bright, gleaming boat into the harbor—until the huge yacht parked itself right next door. And some day, of course, the big yacht will be outdone when an even bigger super yacht shows up, because there’s always someone with a bigger boat, somewhere.

And what about the guy whose Boston Whaler looks like a shrimp in comparison to these two monsters? I bet he’s happy he’s not paying for their upkeep, storage, outfitting, maintenance, and crew. And I’d guess that he has more fun zipping around in his little boat than the other two boats combined.

Failing The Pie Test

The Washington Post recently ran a thought-provoking piece on its opinion pages about pie. That’s right, pie — the warm, flaky, delectable dessert concoction. The writer’s point is that America, which apparently invented pie, is letting its salutary contribution to the dessert realm wither away, because Americans are forgetting how to make a good pie crust.

The piece, while alarmist in tone, has a point. The crust of a pie is as important to the whole pie experience as a crisp, delicately flavored, non-doughy crust is to a fine pizza–which makes sense because it is a pizza pie, after all. As the writer notes, more and more Americans are buying store-bought crusts that aren’t up to snuff, and in her experience even professional artisanal bakeries aren’t producing the light and flaky pie crusts that her mother and grandmother routinely pulled from the oven during her childhood.

The notion that America may be losing its collective pie crust know-how is a very disturbing thought and, for those of us who have personally experienced piece crust artistry, cruel news, indeed. My grandmother made an excellent pie crust, and the Harbor Cafe here in Stonington produces some excellent graham cracker crusts to go with its famous banana cream pie. But there is no doubt that the knack of making a great crust is the kind of thing that could be lost forever if not carefully handed down from generation to generation or, alternatively, reinvigorated by a new generation focused on preserving this important American institution.

I like baking, but I’ve always limited myself to cookies. I have considered baking a good pie crust to be akin to climbing Mount Everest. I’m taking the Post piece as a kind of challenge, however. I like pie–apple pie, like the kind shown in the photo above, is my favorite–and I’m not willing to stand idly by and watch pie die. When the winter rolls around, and it’s prime baking season, I’m going to take a crack at some pie baking, and hope that some of that pie artistry was passed down in the family genes.

An English Teacher’s Lament

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

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

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

Cereal Advances (III)

On this Independence Day, when we celebrate our liberty and freedom, let’s tip our cap to American cereal manufacturers, who clearly have taken the notion of liberty to heart. Here’s a new cereal I saw in the grocery store today that consists of a “crispy shell” filled with real chocolate. Not nuts, not fruit, not even honey — but actual chocolate.

And so cereal moves ever farther from its original conception as a kind of health food and moves closer to invading the candy aisle. When cereal includes actual chocolate, and not just cocoa, we’ve truly reached a new frontier.

Island Names

Stonington’s harbor is filled with islands. Some are little more than rocks jutting out of the water, others are larger and wooded, and the much larger Isle au Haut looms far out in the bay. But all of the islands, even the tiny ones, have names that you see on the maps of the harbor. You wonder: how did they get their names, and why?

There is a significant diversity in the names, which makes the question more interesting. Some of the islands–like McGlathery Island and Farrel Island–clearly were named for people. Others, like Bare Island, Two Bush Island, and Sand Island, evidently got their name from their physical features. Crotch Island, which is almost split in two by a cove, has an outcropping called Thurlow Knob, and probably has been the punch line for smutty jokes told by teenage boys in Stonington for decades, also falls into that category. Still others, like Buckle Island, Round Island, and Potato Island, likely received their monikers because of their shapes and resemblance to other objects.

But the names of other islands seem to come with a real back story that you’d like to know. Was Grog Island a place where sailors stopped to furtively hoist a tankard on their way back to the docks? Why do Green Island and Camp Island have such pleasant, bucolic names, when their immediate next door neighbor goes by the scary Devil Island? What terrible calamity of the past caused yet another island to be officially dubbed Wreck Island? And was there some kind of dispute that caused someone in a position of authority to officially declare that another chunk of rock in the harbor was No Man’s Island, or did the island namers just run out of naming ideas?

Being The Bat City

There is a bridge in Austin that is home to hundreds of thousands of bats, which roost in the rafters of the underpass. During certain times of year, at sunset, the bats emerge as a huge group, execute a kind of collective swirl maneuver, and fly off into the sunset, heading down the Colorado River. The bats then return to their home sometime before sunrise.

It is apparently quite a sight, and large crowds gather to watch the bats take off. (We haven’t witnessed it yet, but we’ll catch the Bat Emergence on a future trip to Austin.) For this reason, Austin is also known as the Bat City, and it has embraced that moniker and become . . . well, a bit batty about it. You see paintings of bats on walls, Bat City t-shirts, bat graffiti, and other bat-related items everywhere around the city. It’s fair to say that Batman would feel right at home in Austin.

My favorite bat-themed feature is these bat-shaped bicycle racks on a downtown street.