Goodbye to 2020

Bidding a properly heartfelt farewell to 2020 requires the use of language that isn’t suitable for a family blog. This sign on one of the Greenhead Lobster Company buildings in Stonington, Maine admirably captures the sentiment, however.

Trying to usher 2020 out the door without adding a choice obscenity (or 20) is like trying to take a snapshot of an invisible object, or sneeze with your eyes open. So go ahead and give your potty mouth free rein for a few minutes, and let those epithets fly. You’ll feel better — and really, 2020 deserves it.

At Year’s End

Well, at certain points we thought it would never get here, but it did. The end of 2020 is staring us in the face. I’m fairly confident that, during my lifetime at least, no end of the year has ever been as eagerly anticipated as the end of 2020.

And, along the same lines, it’s safe to say that no new year is ever going to look better by comparison to the year just ended, and get more of the benefit of the doubt, than 2021. 2021 is like the proverbial second-string quarterback who suddenly becomes the fan favorite as the starting quarterback struggles and finally gets benched.

I’m a firm believer in using the end of the year period, when things typically slow down for everyone and holiday time arrives, to do some reflection on the year gone by and some thinking about the year ahead. Just because 2020 has been dismal doesn’t mean it should be promptly thrown down the memory hole, never to be thought of again. Those of us who made it through the year have reason to feel that our mere survival, with health and sanity intact, is a meaningful achievement. And many people used the shutdown periods to develop new hobbies or interests, to read more, to focus on cooking, or to volunteer to help out front-line health care workers. And even those of us who didn’t become fluent in a new language probably acquired a useful perspective on what is really important in our lives.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as glad as anyone to turn the page on the calendar and see luckless 2020 in the rearview mirror, and I’m obviously hoping that 2021 will be the year that sees things return to what we used to call normal. But as I consider 2020, there are some things that I will want to remember, and hopefully build upon. It’s been a year that we all won’t soon forget, but it’s important to remember the positives as well as the negatives.

2,000 Years Of Fast Food

Pompeii — the Roman town that was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — continues to tell us some interesting stuff about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans. Excavations have uncovered apparent brothels, bars, homes — and now, a fast food stand, pictured above, that was operating on a busy street corner.

The fast food stand evidently was closed in a hurry as the volcano spewed the ash that buried the town. Archaeologists found the remains of that fateful day’s offerings in some of the pots embedded in the brightly colored food stand. The menu when the volcano blew included duck, pig, goat, snails, fish, fava beans, and a paella-like combo dish. And from that chicken that is painted on the front of the stand, I’m guessing that everybody’s favorite poultry was in one of those pots from time to time, too.

The excavation also uncovered a scenario that might be familiar to modern fast-food stand operators. The remains of a person who was lifting the lid on one of the pots of food were also uncovered — leading archaeologists to speculate that somebody fleeing the eruption couldn’t resist stopping to grab some free food when they should have kept running.

The ancient Romans seem like they were a lot like us, suggesting that the basic motivations of people — and the key concepts of point of purchase advertising that attracts them — haven’t changed that much over thousands of years. The brilliantly decorated food stand, obviously calculated to catch the eye of passersby, with the no doubt delectable smell of simmering food, looks like a modern food truck or an open-air food stand on the street of New York City. The pork, chicken, and fish that was served would be at home in any modern fast-food outlet, too. The only thing that appears to be missing from the Roman stand is a dirty water hot dog.

The View From Above

I’ve written frequently about how much I enjoy Schiller Park, the great neighborhood park in German Village that has been around since the 1860s and reminds me of the kinds of older, established parks you see in places like New York and Philadelphia.

I’ve walked around and through Schiller so many times I didn’t think anything about the park could surprise me, but then I saw this great overhead image of the park posted on Facebook by VividColumbus. To orient those who use the park, that white square in the circle at the bottom center of the photo is the statue of Herr Schiller.

The photo really gives you a sense of the geometric elements of the design of the park and a different perspective on how the different parts of the park, and its many pathways, fit together. I particularly like the overhead view of formal gardens, walkways, and lines of trees that lead up to the Schiller statue. It makes me think that the designers of the gardens keep an overhead view in mind when they arrange their plantings.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again — I wish more city planners and urban renewal designs included parks as essential elements of their projects. Parks like Schiller Park make a huge contribution to their surrounding communities.

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.

Lincoln On The Verge

I’ve had a chance to do some real leisure reading over the holidays, which is a wonderful way to spend a few days away from work. The first book I tackled was terrific: Lincoln On The Verge: Thirteen Days To Washington, by Ted Widmer. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history generally, and Abraham Lincoln specifically. (And a hat tip to JV, who recommended it to me in the first place.)

You might call Lincoln On The Verge a microhistory. It focuses specifically on the thirteen-day train trip Lincoln took from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. They were thirteen momentous days, as the South was moving from secession to a full-blown Confederacy, with a government, a President of its own, and ongoing seizures of federal facilities as the do-nothing Buchanan Administration sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs and utterly failing to uphold, preserve, and protect the Union or the Constitution. It’s hard to read this book and not come away with the distinct view that James Buchanan was the most worthless holder of the Presidency ever: corrupt, inept, helpless, and presiding over an Administration thoroughly infused with southerners who were actively undermining the Union they were supposed to be serving.

For Lincoln, it was a dangerous time on a personal level. As the country was coming apart, he was the subject of countless assassination threats — and, on the trip itself, actual assassination attempts and other dangers as he went out among the people. He also faced a different kind of risk. As was traditional during that time period, Lincoln had remained silent during the campaign for the Presidency, letting his surrogates and many campaign biographies work for his election. But as the train trip began, Lincoln began to speak, and ended up giving dozens of speeches as his special train followed a zig-zag course through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio (including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus), Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of his speeches were clinkers, but others were brilliant reflections on the American experience. Lincoln’s speeches to the masses that came out to greet him on his winding journey set a marked contrast with President Buchanan, who never spoke in public, and helped to build essential public support for the Union cause and for the Civil War that lay just over the horizon. The journey was capped by a run though the dangerous slave state of Maryland, where the threat of an assassination attempt loomed large, to finally reach Washington, D.C., the capital city nestled between two slave states.

Along the way, the formerly clean-shaven Lincoln continued to grow the beard that we now associate with him, and was seen and distinctly remembered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — including some who went on to become famed poets, sculptors, advocates for the abolitionist movement, and future Presidents. As the journey progresses, the reader also gets glimpses of a very different, rapidly growing America on the cusp of earth-shaking conflict and change.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that strongly resonates today. The subtext of the entire book is pretty clear — good leaders can make a profound difference and bring people together in a common cause even in the face of incredible divisiveness And the ultimate message is clear, too: where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not been there to accept the greatest challenge in American history?

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!

The Abolitionists’ Carol

The other day I was listening to the essential Sirius XM Holiday Pops channel when a version of O Holy Night was played. It’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it was one of Mom’s favorites, too. She loved the Mario Lanza version, with the tenor using his great voice to hit some of the high notes that make the tune so stirring and powerful.

But the message of the song is powerful and stirring, too. Particularly the third verse that goes:

Truly he taught us to love one another:

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

For Christmas carols, that’s about as political a message as you are going to get — but of course the notion of ending human bondage and instilling brotherhood for all fits neatly with the entire redemptive thrust of the Christmas story. The verse got me to wondering, though: when was O Holy Night written, and was its author an abolitionist?

In fact, the song does have a significant abolitionist history. O Holy Night began as a French poem, called Midnight, Christians, that was written in the 1840s by an atheist to commemorate the dedication of a new church organ. The poem was later set to music and became the French carol Cantique de Noel. It became popular even though French church authorities criticized its message as not being sufficiently reverential. The song crossed the Atlantic and, in the 1850s, as tensions between the North and South reached the boiling point, an American abolitionist minister named John Sullivan Dwight translated the song into English and no doubt applauded the resulting anti-slavery message. As the Civil War neared and then burst over America, the song became extremely popular in the Union states — and probably was never played, or sung, in the short-lived Confederacy.

It’s not hard to imagine church congregations of the North belting out the song with relish during the holiday seasons in an era when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted and adopted by the states, and the horrors of slavery in America finally ended, once and for all. And who knows? Music can have a powerful influence, and the song may have helped to create the political climate that allowed those momentous events to happen. For that reason alone, O Holy Night might be the most historically significant Christmas carol in the holiday playlist.

The Ceiling Perspective

I’ve seen more of ceilings this year than I’ve probably seen in my entire life. In fact, it seems like every day, somebody’s office ceiling, or home office ceiling, or family room or dining room ceiling, is there in front of me, begging to be studied and analyzed.

It’s because of video conferencing, of course. It seems like there are three common video conference perspectives. There’s the straight-ahead perspective, where the camera is roughly on the same level as the person’s face, and the big issue is head size in the frame. Then there’s the setting where the camera is above the participant, looking down, and the person ends up looking sort of small and pathetic and overwhelmed by it all. (Not a good look if you’re interested in power dynamics during the call, obviously.) And then there is the ceiling perspective, where the camera is below the person, looking up, and you end up seeing the top half of their head and a whole lot of ceiling.

I’d never really paid much attention to ceilings before this year, finding them intrainsically uninteresting. I mean, after you determine whether or not the ceiling has crown moldings, what is there of interest? But I was wrong. On a boring video call, you can learn a lot from thoughtful ceiling examination. If you can see more than one smoke detector up there, for example, that tells you something meaningful about the person — or perhaps the fire trap status of their place. Is there a dream catcher or anything else hanging from the ceiling? Do they have a fan? Any spider webs up there? Are their light fixtures simple or elaborate, and what kind of lighting do they provide?

And if somebody is dancing on the ceiling, you’ve inadvertently called Lionel Ritchie.

2020 has changed my perspective on ceilings, as on so many things.

The Zillopraxin Bowl

Last night Kish and I were watching TV. When the show went to break, the first commercial to be aired was for a specific drug to treat a specific ailment. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As the American population has aged and drug manufacturers have developed drugs targeting virtually every condition, large and small, drug commercials have assumed an ever-greater prominence on TV broadcasts.

Here’s a leading indicator of how our society is drenched in drugs: we’re seeing more and more drug commercials, even during football game broadcasts. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in some markets, drug commercials have knocked beer commercials off their long-time perch as the dominant football game ad time buyer. It’s to the point that I expect that, in the very near future, we’ll see college football bowl games sponsored by specific drugs: “Good afternoon, and welcome to the Zillopraxin Bowl, from beautiful East Adobe Springs, Texas! And remember–if you’ve got scabies, be sure to ask your doctor about Zillopraxin!”

And here’s another thing about the drug commercials. Every person who is featured in the commercial is portrayed as leading the richest, most active life imaginable. They’re shooting rockets into the air, taking samba dance classes in public parks, riding cool convertibles to exotic open-air markets to try on jewelry, getting together with hilarious friends at great bars, jogging, swimming, hiking, and doing just about everything other than being sick and sad and homebound. And nobody in the commercial seems to be suffering from the endless roster of side effects that the announcer intones while you’re watching the drug-takers have the time of their lives–especially the one “rare but potentially fatal” condition that apparently has befallen a tiny minority of people who tried the new drug during clinical trials.

I’m sure there’s a lot of message-testing that goes into making these drug commercials, and the results indicate that these commercials are appealing and compelling to the sick people who are the intended audience. It’s weird to think that drug prescriptions for serious health conditions are being driven by the patients, rather than their doctors, raising potential treatments. It also seems kind of cruel to play on the emotions of people who are sick, but maybe the commercials give them hope that, if they just ask their doctors about enough drugs, they’ll eventually find the right one that will allow them to get out to the park for those samba dancing lessons.

In any case, the constantly increasing stream of drug commercials tells us that they are an effective way of selling drugs. That’s why it will be just a matter of time before we’re all watching the Zillopraxin Bowl.

Once More Unto The Breach

Yesterday the College Football Playoff Selection Committee announced that Ohio State will be playing Clemson in one of the semifinal games. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The two teams played last year in the semifinals, too, and in the semifinals in 2016 as well.

Those games haven’t ended well for the Buckeyes. In fact, Ohio State has never beaten Clemson, in four tries. And that record includes two immense black eyes for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray: the 1978 meeting that ended with OSU Coach Woody Hayes slugging a Clemson player who made an interception that sealed Clemson’s victory and brought the Ohio State legend’s coaching career to an end, and a 2016 CFB meeting in which the Tigers embarrassed the Buckeyes with a crushing 31-0 win. And last year’s game left the members of Buckeye Nation shaking their heads at what might have been if a few head-scratching officiating calls had gone the other way — a view, incidentally, that Clemson fans say that Clemson coaches will use to give Clemson motivation to win again this year. Some Ohio State fans view the upcoming game with Clemson with trepidation; others (including me) think if you want to be the best you need to beat the best. Clemson is up there with Alabama, and Ohio State needs to knock the Tigers off that perch.

But the fact that Ohio State will be playing Clemson in the playoffs — again — raises a larger issue for the sport of college football. The same teams seem to make it to the playoffs, year after year. This is the fourth time the Buckeyes will be in the playoffs, but they are pikers compared to Clemson and Alabama, which seem to make it pretty much every year. In fact, if Clemson and Alabama both win their semifinal matchups this year, they’ll play each other in the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons — which is why one ESPN writer called the CFP the “Alabama-Clemson Invitational.”

This isn’t good for college football, in my view — and I think that view is shared by a growing number of people. The answer isn’t to arbitrarily exclude teams like Clemson and Alabama, which routinely dominate their conferences and put up impressive records year after year. Their performance shows that they deserve to be in the mix. Instead, the solution is to open up the playoffs to more teams, so that other worthy teams — like Cincinnati and Texas A&M this year — get a chance to play on the big stage and show that they belong.

When it comes to college football, 2020 has demonstrated that the sport can be flexible. The COVID-19 pandemic threw old ways of scheduling and operating out the window, with different conferences starting at different times and playing different numbers of games. Doesn’t that show that the college football powers-that-be could manage things to accommodate a larger eight-team playoff? Maybe a new approach to crowning a national champion could be something good that comes from this strange and star-crossed year.

Out Of Practice

Practice makes perfect—and when you’re out of practice you tend to forget the little things. Here’s how you know it’s been a while since you’re done any traveling by airplane.

• You don’t automatically establish a mental calendar entry to get your boarding pass precisely 24 hours before the established boarding time.

• You kind of forgot about the whole TSA precheck line and confirming that you are shown as TSA precheck on your boarding pass until you’re already at the airport.

• You don’t think about following any of the streamlining and expediting and weight-minimizing travel tips that you’ve developed over the years and you end up bringing three or more otherwise identical cell phone chargers.

• You need to think for a minute about how to put your cellphone into “airplane mode.”

• Kids crying and dogs barking in the gate waiting area seem like a novel experience.

The Mystery Of Handedness

This morning I woke up and, as I do first thing every morning, I reached over to the end table to retrieve my glasses. Of course, I used my right hand to pick them up and put them on — just as I use my right hand to do just about everything, without a conscious thought.

Like the vast majority of humans, I’ve got a dominant hand. A pen goes naturally into my right hand, and I can produce somewhat legible handwriting with it. Trying to pick up and use a pen with my left hand feels incredibly weird, and I can’t write anything with it. The same holds true for throwing a ball, or using a towel to wipe down the kitchen counter. The right hand does the lion’s share of the work; the left hand helps from time to time by, say, doing its share of keyboarding and holding an object the right hand is working on.

Somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of humans are right-handed, between 10 and 15 are left-handed, and a tiny fraction are ambidextrous (able to use either hand with equal ease) or mixed-handed (preferring to use the right hand for some tasks and the left hand for others). Why is that so, as opposed to a world where every human can use either hand at their whim? What causes “handedness”?

Scientists and researchers don’t really know for sure. The current thinking is that handedness is the product of both genetics and environment, and maybe some other factors, too. Scientists believe that at least part of hand preference can be traced to brain activity, with the right half of the brain controlling the left half of the body and the left half of the brain controlling the right half of the body. Hand dominance is related in some way to our brain hemispheres. But nobody has determined conclusively whether the brain set-up of different people causes their handedness, or whether an innate hand preference, expressed from the earliest days of life, causes the brain to become wired and developed in a certain way. There also appears to be a genetic cause for hand preference, which is why left-handedness is more common in some families than others. (In my family, Grandpa Neal, UJ, and Richard are all lefties.) And it’s also clear that training and practice can play a role in developing more “even-handedness”; long-time baseball fans are familiar with the story of Mickey Mantle’s father drilling him on using both hands because he believed switch-hitters were more valuable than batters who could only swing from one side of home plate.

I find it fascinating that something as basic to the human condition as handedness remains shrouded in mystery, resisting the best efforts of scientists, geneticists, and behavioral psychologists to figure out why it happens. It reaffirms that we’re all pretty complex organisms, and there’s still a lot about homo sapiens that remains to be discovered.

Gift Box Goodies

Yesterday as I was working at home I heard a rustling outside and a kind of thump on the doorstep. Those sounds, coupled with Betty’s frantic barking, told me there had been a delivery. I went outside and found a package, and when we opened it, we discovered a “made in Oregon” gift box from our friends who live in the Portland area. The box included cheeses, nuts, summer sausage, salmon, marionberry fruit spread, and chocolates — all with an Oregon provenance.

It’s a great way to showcase a state’s products, and it made me wonder if there is a similar collection of Ohio products that is available to ship for the holidays. We enjoyed getting a taste of Oregon, which we hit pretty hard last night and which made our holidays more merry. Thanks, Ben and Rebecca!