An Old Crab

From time to time–typically after I’ve made a curmudgeonly comment about some regrettable modern development–I’ve been accused of being an “old crab.” A recently announced scientific discovery allows me to respond that if such naysayers want to see a really old crab, they need look no farther than the ancient crab, pictured above, that was discovered trapped in amber.

It’s an old crab, for sure. In fact, it’s 100 million years old, which means that this little guy was scuttling around during the Cretaceous period, while dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, when he had the misfortune of becoming trapped in tree resin that later became amber. The crab, called Cretapsara athanata, is the oldest modern-looking crab and the most complete fossil crab ever discovered.

The remarkable specimen is so complete that scientists could examine the crab’s entire body, including delicate tissues, like the antennae and mouthparts lined with fine hairs. And when they examined the crab, researchers got a surprise: they discovered the animal also had gills, but no lungs. That indicates that Cretapsara athanata lived an aquatic or semi-aquatic life, which makes the specimen even rarer, because most fossilized crabs are land or tree-dwelling crabs.

And if you are ever called an “old crab,” bear in mind that there are many things to admire about crabs as a species. As the article linked above points out: “True crabs, or Brachyura, are an iconic group of crustaceans whose remarkable diversity of forms, species richness, and economic importance have inspired celebrations and festivals worldwide. They’ve even earned a special role in the pantheon of social media. True crabs are found all around the world, from the depths of the oceans, to coral reefs, beaches, rivers, caves, and even in trees as true crabs are among the few animal groups that have conquered land and freshwater multiple times.”

So there!

Beer And Cheese

I enjoy a meal of beer and cheese every now and then. And in that regard, I’m part of a long line of human beer-and-cheese fanciers–a line that, as a recent discovery shows, dates back thousands of years.

A study published in Modern Biology focused on well-preserved human droppings found in salt mines near Hallstatt, Austria–salt mines that have been existed for thousands of years. People who worked deep in the salt mines over the millennia took their food to work, and they weren’t shy about answering the call of nature in the mines rather than journeying back to the surface. The dehydrating salt in the soil had the effect of turning the solid human waste deposits from days of yore into desiccated samples (non-smelly, the article linked above daintily points out) that have their biomolecules still intact. That means scientists can analyze the dried-out dung to see what the humans were eating over the years.

Ah, the romance of science!

The study of the fecal remains from the Iron Age, 2,700 years ago, showed traces of brewers’ yeast–the kind that produces traditional beers like pale ales. The paleofeces also showed lots of whole grains and fibers, as well as traces of blue cheese. And the study’s authors note that the ancient working man’s diet produced healthier, and more biodiverse, gut microbes for the ancient salt miners than are seen in most modern humans because none of the food was processed.

So there you have it: beer, bread, and cheese have a long history and are healthy, to boot. And those of us who still enjoy those long-term human dietary staples, 2,700 years later, get to use modern amenities like bathrooms, too.

Truth, Justice, And A Better Tomorrow

Some people on the conservative end of the political spectrum are pretty upset at DC Comics, which publishes the Superman comic books. They’re miffed that The Man of Steel is changing his motto.

For years, Superman has professed to stand for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Many of us know this because we watched reruns of the ’50s Adventures of Superman TV show on UHF channels when we were growing up. We remember the introduction to the series, shown above, where a serious sounding narrator, after noting that Supes was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, informed us that he fought for truth, justice, and the American Way while the actor playing Superman sucked in his gut and the American flag waved in the background.

DC Comics says it is changing Superman’s motto to “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow” to reflect a broader, more global vision for Supes’ world. You can tell it’s a conscious effort to update the comic book hero to modern norms, because the article linked above quotes DC Comics’ “chief creative officer” as saying, without evident concern for exaggeration: “Superman has long been a symbol of hope who inspires people, and it is that optimism and hope that powers him forward with this new mission statement.”

That’s right: Superman now has a “mission statement.”

The kerfuffle about The Man of Steel’s motto is another great contrived point of contention for “commentators” to argue about, but even as manufactured media controversies go it’s pretty thin gruel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with punching out bad guys or reversing the rotation of the Earth to try to bring about “a better tomorrow,” and it’s not like standing for “the American Way” has any well-defined, specific meaning these days. Does it mean supporting the freedoms enumerated in Bill of Rights, or the ability to eat snack foods while sitting on your couch and binge-watching the latest hot Netflix series, or something else?

I’m perfectly content to let comic book characters change with the times. And if Superman wants to update the part about being faster than a speeding bullet, because that image is too triggering for the current generation, and more powerful than a locomotive, because nobody thinks of locomotives as especially powerful these days, I’m fine with that, too.

Unexpected Consequences Of Remote Work

The prevalence of remote work has changed a lot of things in our world. From traffic patterns during rush hour to restaurant usage in downtown areas to what people are regularly wearing from the waist down that can’t be seen on Zoom or Teams calls, the reality of many people working from home has reordered our lives in more ways than we can list.

Here’s another change that you might not have considered yet: what are you going to do with that inevitable cache of leftover Halloween candy? You know, the excess that was created because you don’t want to be caught in the dreaded predicament of being the only house on the block to run out of candy while Beggars’ Night is still going strong, so you bought an extra bag or two of “snack size” candy bars and little boxes of Milk Duds?

In the pre-pandemic world, the solution to disposition of the excess Halloween candy was easy and obvious: because you didn’t want to keep the tempting little goodies in the house for fear that you would fall into a chocolate consumption frenzy, you took the leftovers to the office. Once your supply of candy was placed in a bowl next to the coffee machine, you could be confident that the candy would be fully and happily consumed by anonymous officemates within hours, if not minutes.

But with remote work, those rapacious hordes aren’t at the office every day anymore, and the office coffee station isn’t the hub of frantic consumption that it was in days of yore. You’re not going to be able to rely on “taking it to the office” to get rid of that leftover candy, unless the federal government declares an emergency and orders everyone to return to their offices for National Candy Consumption Day on the Monday after the Halloween weekend, to assist in the Snickers and Reese’s and SweeTarts disposition effort.

Give it some thought before you go out to buy your trick or treat candy this year and come up with your preferred approach. Do you buy less, to avoid any excess? Or do you follow your standard “avoid a shortfall” overbuying approach, and figure out an alternative method of getting rid of the leftover trove? Or do you head in an entirely different direction, disavow candy altogether, and offer trick-or-treaters those unappealing “healthy snacks” that nagging health authorities have been trying to get us to hand out for years, on the theory that while the kids clearly won’t like them, at least they won’t tempt you, either?

Welcome to the remote work world.

Rabbits Underfoot

A few months ago, on one of my morning walks, a rabbit hopped across the sidewalk as I was approaching and disappeared into the shrubbery surrounding a flower garden. “Good morning, Mr. Bun,” I said, drawing upon Calvin and Hobbes terminology. I saw another rabbit, or perhaps the same one, on a walk about a month later, and occasionally spotted Mr. Bun on later walks, too.

But on a recent walk when I saw what appeared to be Mr. Bun, I noticed another Mr. Bun, and another, and another, and another. There were a total of five rabbits in close proximity, and I realized that one of them probably had to be Ms. Bun. A single rabbit might be cute, but when you see five rabbits hopping along together you realize that the rabbits are probably starting to breed . . . well, like rabbits. And when rabbits put their minds to it, they can be pretty prolific.

It’s the kind of concern that caused Australia to build its famous “rabbit-proof fence” to try to keep rabbits that had spread across the eastern part of the country from devastating the farms of western Australia. We’ve got a rabbit-proof fence of sorts, in the form of a sturdy, solid wooden barrier, around our backyard, and I don’t grow any vegetables, anyway. But I’m going to keep my eye on the rabbit population, and tell-tale signs of rabbit munching on the gardens and plants in the neighborhood. With no natural predators in the vicinity, except passing cars, it’s not hard to see the rabbit population growing exponentially, until German Village is hip deep in cute furry creatures.

Official Numerology

My mother was a prim person. She didn’t like foul language, never cursed, and did not countenance her children using slang language for bodily functions that were not to be discussed in polite company. But if we had to discuss such things–say, to advise that we absolutely had to pull over at the next rest stop or risk disaster and humiliation–we knew to use Mom’s preferred euphemisms: “number 1” and “number 2.”

I had forgotten “number 1” and “number 2” until I used the county courthouse men’s room today and saw that Mom’s polite terminology has been adopted by an official sign in an official establishment. Mom would have applauded their discretion.

Sheep And Goats

On our trip to Charleston we visited a former plantation that keeps some animals on the grounds, including sheep, goats, horses, cattle, chickens, and peacocks.

The sheep are allowed to roam the extensive lawn, and they earn their keep by neatly clipping the grass. Thanks to their diligent grazing, the lawn looks freshly mown.

As for the goats? Well, they are kept in a pen. When we walked by the enclosure, the goats were standing stock-still on some elevated boards. We asked one of the hands why the elevated boards were in the goat pen. He shrugged and said he didn’t know why, but the goats seemed to like standing there, balanced on the boards.

Goats clearly are the eccentrics of the barnyard.

Stuck In The Middle

When you’re in the middle seat of an early morning Southwest flight, seated at the back of the plane, it’s impossible not to think of the line from a ‘70s classic by Stealers Wheel, Stuck In The Middle With You:

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right

Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”

Stealers Wheel was a Scottish rock band with really bad ‘70s haircuts, in case you’re interested.

Losing Clockwisdom

The other day someone asked me about my morning walks around Schiller Park and I explained that, being a creature of habit, I inevitably walk up Third Street and, when I reach the park, I head counterclockwise for my laps around the park. My friend understood exactly what I meant and no doubt visualized the hands of a clock in the process.

It made me wonder whether, if I was using the same expression with a teenager, they would be mystified by the expression, or would understand that “counterclockwise” means to turn right as you begin your laps from the twelve o’clock position. Do they even have clocks with hour and minute hands in schools these days, and how many homes have old-style clocks around–rather than digital contraptions on their microwaves, ovens, refrigerators, and TVs? We’ve got the nifty art deco-style clock shown above on the end table next to our bed, but it was a consciously retro purchase to go with our retro house. Otherwise, our timekeeping would all be of the digital variety.

And “clockwise” and “counterclockwise” aren’t the only concepts or phrases that are at risk in the digital era. Will people still say that something that went well came off like clockwork? Will people still say that they worked (or rocked) around the clock? And will taunting people boast that they will clean your clock?

I’m afraid that the clock is ticking on clock-related phrases, and it’s a shame.

Tiki Corner

Every morning on my walk I turn the corner past a small commercial space before heading down Third Street to Schiller Park. The space used to be a Starbucks, but a few months ago the Starbucks closed and a local store called Tiki Botanicals moved in. The story of “Tiki corner” is a good example of how neighborhoods are ever-changing. This particular change has affected my walk in two noticeable ways.

The first difference is smell. Normally you don’t smell much of anything along Third Street, and I don’t remember the Starbucks having much of an external ground coffee smell. But the air around Tiki corner is rich with the scent of different soaps and shampoos and other products sold by the store. It’s a heady fragrance that definitely gives the nostrils a wake-up call first thing in the morning, and these days it also serves as a basic COVID indicator. If you can’t smell Tiki corner, it’s clearly time to go get tested.

The second difference is morning traffic. The Starbucks attracted early morning coffee zealots who drove in at high speeds, often flouting traffic laws and parking illegally before rushing in to get their pumpkin spice latte. The traffic required careful defensive walking from pedestrians who were at risk of getting caught between distracted drivers and their morning caffeine fix. That risk is now gone, and the corner has gone back to being a quiet and sleepy—if smelly—part of the neighborhood at 6 a.m.

I’ll definitely take the super-soap smell in exchange for the improvement in traffic.

Suitable

Yesterday I had occasion to wear a suit and tie for the first time in . . . well, I don’t know how long, exactly. Months, at least. And as I ventured into my now-unfamiliar work clothes closet to pick out suitable attire, my mind was filled with questions that simply would not have arisen pre-pandemic:

1. Would my suits still fit after not being worn during the months of remote work?

2. How do you tie a tie?

3. Could I get away with not wearing “work shoes”?

4. How uncomfortable would it be to wear a shirt that buttons up to the neck and then cinch a knotted piece of colorful fabric around the neck, just to add insult to injury?

Ultimately I went for the full “suit up” approach and even donned some work shoes for good measure. My selected suit fit, to my relief, my muscle memory kicked in and I tied the tie reflexively, and the outfit wasn’t too uncomfortable. In fact, it felt pretty good to break from the remote work garb and wear a suit. Who would have thought wearing a suit, button-down shirt, and tie would be a welcome change of pace? But it was—so much so that I might put on a suit from time to time, just for the hell of it.

I guess wearing a suit suits me.

Waiting For The Montauk

Of the garden of late bloomers, the Montauk daisy is the most frustrating. Two years after we replanted a portion of the plant that was gifted by a generous neighbor, I still have not personally seen its blooms. As flowers go, it’s a tantalizing tease.

The plant seems to thrive in the Stonington climate. Last year it took firm root after our replanting, grew considerably, and produced lots of buds that were just getting ready to bloom when they were neatly clipped off and consumed by the local rampaging deer horde. This year the Montauk daisy grew like crazy—so much so that it has overwhelmed its bed, and I’ll have to split it up and replant parts of it elsewhere in the down yard next spring—and the deer have blessedly stayed away, but I had to head back to Columbus before the blossoming started. The buds were out and getting ready, but stubbornly refused to comply with my travel schedule.

The flowers have now begun to open, and Russell graciously sent along this photo, but of course it’s just not the same as checking out the flowers, in the sunshine, with your own two eyes. Seeing the Montauk daisies in full bloom will have to remain an aspirational goal until next year.

“Fair Style” As An Adjective

A restaurant located near our firm, OH Pizza + Brew, features this sign about its dessert options in the restaurant’s front window. To some, no doubt, the phrasing seems odd. But to anyone who has been to the Ohio State Fair, and has eaten “fair food” along the midway, a reference to “fair style” desserts conveys a powerful message indeed.

What is a “fair style” dessert, exactly? Typically, it has multiple characteristics. First, of course, it must involve food stuffs that are bad for you, prepared in a way that accentuates their unhealthy impact. That means desserts that are fried, that are high in sugar, and that include components from Dr. Nick’s “neglected food groups” pyramid shown on a classic Simpsons episode.

Second, the dessert must be excessive. That means the portions must be huge—think of a piece of fried dough as big as a dinner plate—and the dessert must features unholy combinations that push the caloric content off the charts. Fried Snickers bars on top of ice cream in fried dough might be one element, for example, but you’re going to want to add, say, pieces of candied bacon dipped in chocolate, whipped cream, drizzled caramel, and then drop M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces on top, just to give the concoction a real fair flair.

And finally, a true “fair style” dessert must be plausibly, if messily, portable, and capable of being consumed by someone walking on a dusty path between ancient rides like the Tilt-a-Wheel. That means handheld options, like red hot elephant ears doused in powdered sugar and the covered with other goodies that will leave your hands gross and sticky for hours, or desserts that can be wedged into a cheap cone or flimsy paper bowl that will immediately begin to dissolve as the dessert quickly melts in the summer sun.

That’s what a “fair style” dessert means to me, at least. I haven’t been into OH Pizza + Brew to see what they offer. Frankly, I’m kind of afraid to check it out.

Memories By Maude

My maternal grandmother, Maude Neal, had a remarkable memory. Locked in her brain were hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, sayings, and song lyrics that she could summon and quote at will on any occasion. Her repertoire ranged from silly ditties she learned as a kid (“Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”) to sayings about hard work, fortitude, love, family, death, and just about any other topic.

Back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s Mom decided to sit down with Grandma, have her deliver some of her sayings, and make careful note of them. Mom then carefully typed the poems and sayings (with a few typos and strike-throughs) and assembled the pages in a handmade booklet, decorated with stick-on flowers and held together by yarn. All of us kids got a copy. We still have my copy, decades later, and keep it on a table in our upstairs study. It’s a cool piece of family memorabilia that reminds me of Grandma Neal and Mom whenever I see it.

And while I lack Grandma’s facility with remembering and quoting poems, I remember her reciting some of the poems in this little booklet. Like this one, which I first heard as a little kid when I came home and made some complaint about something trivial:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Or bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock-strewn road.

Give me such courage and I can scale

The hardest peak alone.

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone.

Grandma’s poetic message was clear: suck it up, kid! It’s still good advice.