We’re in the land of the big cactus, in the Oro Valley near Tucson, Arizona, for a short visit to get a change of scenery. And there’s no doubt about the change of scenery here; there are lots of Saguaro cacti in our immediate vicinity, including this big guy just outside the back door. You wouldn’t see this scene in Columbus.
No one knows precisely how old Saguaro cacti are, but the best guess is that adult plants are more than 100 years old, and perhaps even older. It’s interesting to think that this big fella probably was around to witness the last big pandemic to hit the U.S.
With great advances being made in space flight technology, rocketry, electric cars, and communications devices, it’s nice to see that the cereal companies are keeping up their end of the bargain.
Kellogg’s has introduced Peeps cereal, which looks like it consists of Froot Loop-type rings and small marshmallow chicks and bunnies—just in time for Easter. It seems as though that combination would be sweet enough to curl your teeth, but perhaps that’s the point. And judging from the number of boxes that were absent, it looks like Peeps will be a hit.
When will the cereal companies finally drop the pretense and just start putting chocolate bunnies and malted milk eggs into cereal boxes?
If you’re a Beatles fan, Amazon Prime offers a lot of ways to scratch that Fab Four itch. Over the weekend we watched an interesting two-part documentary called Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney. The film, made in 2008, traces the greatest rock music songwriting partnership in history from the beginning to the end, using archival clips from shows and Beatles appearances mixed in with interviews with journalists, writers, musicians, and friends of Lennon and McCartney who talk about the development of the duo’s songwriting abilities and the significance of some of the musical innovations, chord structures, and lyrical devices in the songs themselves. The first part of the film takes us from 1957 to 1965, after the issuance of Rubber Soul and the Beatles’ decision to stop touring, and the second part goes from 1966 to the end in 1970.
Here’s the thing about the Beatles: you don’t need to be an expert in songwriting, or even know how to play an instrument or read music, to know that their songs are great. In effect, every Beatles fan is an expert in their own right, so when the people interviewed on the film start to critique a specific song or debate which Beatles album was the greatest–this group settles on Rubber Soul, by the way–the viewer is just as engaged as the participants in the debate. I may defer to the experts on the technical stuff about key changes and other musical arcana, but I’m perfectly capable of questioning their judgments about the worth of songs and albums, because the whole point of music is to appeal to the listener. I also can remember when the prevailing consensus was that the greatest Beatles album was Revolver . . . then Sgt. Pepper . . . then A Hard Day’s Night, and there are always people like me who think Abbey Road has to be right up there, too. The fact that people are still debating this question, decades later, just shows how extraordinary the Beatles output really was. And any documentary about the Lennon-McCartney songs inevitably is going to skip over incredibly great songs, as this one does with Ticket To Ride, Let It Be, I Feel Fine and many others.
Two observations made on the film stuck with me. One was the constant theme sounded by Klaus Voorman, who knew the Beatles well in the early Hamburg days. He pointed out that the Beatles always were different personalities, and it is perfectly natural that a time came when they wanted to pursue their own lives and go their own ways. Who can doubt the truth of that observation about the human condition–or question that the normal arc of development and change in people’s lives is only going to be exaggerated when you are at the absolute center of the cultural universe, as the Beatles were? It makes you understand that it isn’t surprising that the group ended, but that it’s wonderful that it stayed together for as long as it did.
The other observation was about the Beatles’ willingness to do countless takes of a difficult song–I think the particular song being discussed was Happiness Is A Warm Gun–and what that must have necessarily meant for the dynamics within the group. The point was that the group wouldn’t do more than 80 takes to get a song just right if they really couldn’t stand each other and were being pulled apart by internal dissension. That’s a compelling thought to keep in mind as you listen to the Beatles’ later songs, all the way up through Abbey Road, the last album that they recorded, which has some of the most memorable music of all, with Paul, for example, singing his heart out in the background vocals on Something and the great, tight rhythm section work on side two. Even at the end, the Beatles were pros who cared about each others’ songs and worked hard to produce the best music they could. That’s not a bad legacy.
On this April Fool’s Day, here is some heartfelt advice for those who are scheming about practical jokes: tread lightly today.
Any capable prankster has to consider the setting, the nature of the prank, and the prankee. Any kid old enough to attempt an April Fool’s Day gag during his formative years intuitively understood this. You might try the “put salt in the sugar bowl” trick on your brother, but you were risking an explosion if you pulled it on your Dad as he was taking his first, wake-up sip of morning coffee. And doing anything permanently destructive, like sawing through the legs of a chair so your sister would crash to the ground when she sat down for her cereal, was clearly out of bounds.
This year, any practical jokers need to understand their audience and some reasonable boundaries, too. We’ve been pretty battered by the past year, and we’re more brittle than normal. So slipping somebody one of those dripping cups, or putting an obscene hat on the statue in Schiller Park, or sticking a “kick me” sign on Captain Kirk’s back might be funny, but nobody’s going to get much of a belly laugh out of a COVID-oriented gag. Let’s not mess around with vaccination needles, for example, or cut up vaccination cards. And I’m not sure how those who have been involuntarily housebound for more than a year now would react to a flaming bag on their doorstep, either.
The best April Fool’s Day jokes have a certain silly, timeless quality, anyway–like the 1957 BBC broadcast that convinced some gullible Brits that pasta was harvested from trees in Switzerland. If you’re interested in reading about legendary pranks of the past, take a look here and here. But if you’re going to actually try a prank, please–go easy on us!
The combination of COVID-19 vaccination sweeping the nation and social media being a primary form of communication in modern America has produced an unusual situation. We’re seeing a lot more of people’s bared upper arms these days–either displaying the Band-Aid signifying that they’ve got their shot or actually getting stuck by a needle.
This is unusual because the upper arm is a part of the body that normally is blissfully covered by clothing. In pre-COVID times, it would be rare indeed to encounter a friend and have them expose their upper arm in greeting you. There’s a reason for this. Unless you’re a bodybuilder who is working on getting ready for next year’s Arnold Classic, you’re not really paying much attention to that triceps area.
Oh, you may have noticed, with a sad realization of the regrettable realities of aging, that as you’ve gotten older that upper arm area has become saggy, with a flap of loose skin and jelly-like flab that hangs down and sways in the breeze when you hold your arm out. But you thought that, in the priority list of body parts that demand attention in your personal fitness regimen, the upper arms fall well below, say, the waistline, because they are simply not as visible and obvious to the casual observer. That is, they weren’t as visible and obvious until posting vaccination photos suddenly became de rigueur.
We weren’t prepared for this new reality, which is just another way in which COVID-19 has upset our well-ordered, pre-pandemic world. And now I wonder: will the increased visibility of the upper arm cause a surge in people hitting the gym and performing push-ups or other exercises designed specifically to tone those triceps areas, to make for more attractive vaccination photos when the COVID booster shots inevitably hit the market in the future?
In the meantime, we can all be grateful that vaccination shots are given in the upper arm, and not in the belly.
We’re at a weird time in America. At the same time many of us are completing our COVID-19 vaccinations, getting our vaccination cards, and feeling like we are on the cusp of returning to some reasonable measure of personal freedom, and some states are beginning to loosen their restrictions, we’re getting dire warnings from national leaders and public health officials about a potential “fourth surge” of the pandemic in the United States.
(Would it really be only a “fourth surge”? I’ve lost count, frankly.)
The statement made yesterday by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, is pretty jarring for those Americans who hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just ahead. After reporting on increases in the number of COVID cases (now topping more than 30 million Americans) and hospitalizations, Dr. Walensky went off script to confess, in emotional terms, to feeling a sense of “impending doom” and said she was “scared” that the country could be on the verge of a new surge as COVID variants infect the unvaccinated parts of the population. President Biden also said that “now is not the time” to remove masking and social distancing requirements.
The statements by Dr. Wallensky and President Biden have to rattle the confidence of people who believe a return to “normal” is not far away. The average citizen is getting pretty mixed messages right now. We’re feeling good that vaccinations are being made available to most age groups and seeing lots of social media posts with pictures of bared arms getting jabbed and vaccination cards, and we know that restrictions are being loosened in many places–but at the same time we are getting alarming warnings and, for many of us, we know people who are continuing to come down with COVID even now.
And part of the problem with this confusing mix of data and messages is that it is occurring against the backdrop of obvious pandemic fatigue and, in some quarters, a growing distrust of the pronouncements of our public health officials and concern that they are never going to let the world get back to 2019 normality. The CNN analysis piece linked above describes the unsettled situation this way: “The nation is caught on a ledge between triumph and a late game disaster in a fight against a pathogen ideally engineered to exploit lapses in public health, resistance to mask wearing mandates and the frayed patience of a country disorientated after a year when normal life went into hibernation.“
These different perspectives necessarily inform how people react to the messages we are getting. When the doctor who is the head of the CDC admits to being “scared” and feeling a sense of “impending doom,” is she conveying a legitimate, albeit emotional, reaction to the latest data, or is her message part of the newest effort to keep people frightened, masked up, and in their houses indefinitely?
Now that we are vaccinated, we’re going to try to get about our lives–but prudently. I’m still going to engage in social distancing, and I’ll gladly continue to mask up in enclosed spaces. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 just yet.
We got the second part of our two-part vaccination a few days ago, and we’re pretty happy about it. Now, we are not only fully vaccinated, we are also the proud owners of completed, bar-coded, scannable CDC COVID-19 vaccination cards.
The folks who gave us our shots recommended that the treat those vaccination cards like other super-important documents in our lives, such as passports and birth certificates. This advice makes sense, because we don’t know exactly what the post-pandemic world is going to look like. It may well be that we will need to show a completed vaccination card to get on an airplane flight or attend a football game or for some other purpose, so we’ll have to get into the habit of carrying those cards around as a matter of course. And although the vaccination cards are made of light cardboard, we all know that such objects can easily become bent, creased, and dog-eared. So if we want our vaccination cards to have long-term functionality, the solution is clear: get them laminated while they are still in their pristine, newborn state, before pockets and purses and interaction with keychains, coins, pens, and clumsy fingers have a go at them.
Lamination isn’t a service that I’ve ever had to look for before. The only thing I’ve had to have laminated in recent memory is my driver’s license, and in Ohio the BMV does that automatically when you get a new one. There’s no nearby lamination store, to my knowledge. And, surprisingly to me, a Google search reveals that “lamination” is used to describe a variety of services, including industrial lamination, laminated flooring, and eyebrow lamination. Which of those providers would be best suited to take care of our vaccination cards?
Fortunately, we learned that two of the office supply chains in our area–Staples and Office Depot–are offering to laminate COVID vaccination cards for free, so that’s where we’re going. That’s a smart move by those businesses that is bound to establish some loyalty on the part of grateful vaccinated people like us, and we’ll remember their generosity the next time we need lamination or office supplies. It also, fortunately, will keep me from going into a flooring contractor or eyebrow salon to ask if their lamination services can be repurposed.
Yesterday was another ideal day for a hike in central Ohio, with clear skies and temperatures that started in the 50s and eventually touched 70. We decided to stay a little closer to home this time, and ventured just a few miles north of I-270, to the very conveniently located Highbanks Metro Park, to try out the Dripping Rock Trail. The Dripping Rock Trail is one of a series of interconnected trails in the park, which also features a designated dog trail, picnic areas, and open meadows where kids can run around and work off some of that inexhaustible kid energy.
The Dripping Rock Trail is so named, I suspect, because part of the trail follows a small stream that has cut through rock, as shown in the two photographs above, and groundwater leaks from the rock formations into the stream. The trail follows a loop that is a little over two miles, but if you want a longer hike you can link to adjoining trails that will take you to an Adena Mound, some ancient earthworks, and an overlook area The flexibility offered by the intersecting trails is a nice feature, because you can design your hike to suit your interest in exactly how much exercise you want to get.
The trails are natural earth and well-marked, and wide enough to allow for comfortable social distancing from passing hikers if everyone move to the edge and goes single file. Because the Highbanks park is so close to Columbus, the Dripping Rock Trail and other trails are very popular–or at least they were on our visit. Yesterday we got there at about 10:30 and had no problem finding a parking space next to the nature center, but when we left in early afternoon the parking lots were full and people were waiting for departures to find a parking space. If it’s a pretty day you’ll want to get there early if you want to be sure of getting a spot.
One section of the Dripping Rock Trail will give you a glimpse of a sluggish and muddy segment of the Olentangy River through the trees, but for the most part the trail is just your basic walk in the Ohio woods, winding through and around the trees with the small creek for company. There are some easy inclines and declines, but most of the trail is level. So long as you stay away from gangs of chatty hikers, it is blissfully quiet and makes for a very pleasant stroll. And if you are a big forestry fan, the Metroparks people have labeled some of the different kinds of trees that you will see along the hike.
We liked the Dripping Rock Trail, and think it would be worth visiting again in the fall when the leaves start to turn.
In my view, McMurtry’s greatest work was Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. I think Lonesome Dove is one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, ever. It is a huge, sprawling novel that was later made into the masterpiece television TV mini-series of the same name, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The book follows those two legendary former Texas Rangers who lead their band of ranch hands and a herd of stolen cattle on a long drive up to Montana and encounter adventure, death, and a host of memorable and often terrifying characters along the way. Every character in that book, from Call to McCrae to Newt, Deets, Lorena, Pea Eye, Jake Spoon, Clara, Blue Duck, and many others, was so finely drawn that you felt as if their personalities were etched into the pages of the novel.
I remember reading Lonesome Dove on a beach vacation shortly after it was published in paperback. Reading that book defined the vacation, because I could not put it down and, when I did, I looked forward to picking it up again and reading on to find out what happened next. As I continued with my reading, I remember feeling horribly conflicted, I desperately wanted to know what happened to all of these extraordinary people moving through this extraordinary landscape, but I also didn’t want the book to end, ever. Of course, it did, and the ending had an enormous impact. I’ve reread it at least once since then, and also have read many of the McMurtry books that looked at the Lonesome Dove characters at different times in their lives.
Reading Lonesome Dove made me chase down the meaning of the motto Gus McCrae adopted for the Hat Creek Cattle Company: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” It was pretty clear in the book that Gus didn’t know precisely what it meant, but he liked the classy association of their dusty Texas ranch with Latin. Finding out the meaning of a Latin phrase was a challenge back in those days, before the internet allowed us to discover stuff like that with a few taps of the keyboard. It turned out that the phrase is bastardized Latin–which seems about right for old Gus–and it means something like “a grape changes color and ripens when it is around another grape.”
In other words, we affect the lives of those around us. That seems like a pretty good epitaph for Larry McMurtry, who managed to affect the lives of grapes like me that he didn’t even know.
We’ve been enjoying The Sinner, a drama series now available on Netflix, and have just finished season three of the show — which offers an interesting twist on detective shows.
The Sinner focuses on detective Harry Ambrose, played by Bill Pullman, who works at a police department in a small town in New York. Each season focuses on a crime (or crimes) committed by an apparently normal person. There’s no doubt about who committed the crime; the show is more about figuring out why they did it. That’s why some people describe the series as a “whydunnit.”
Harry’s methods are unconventional, to say the least, and he becomes more invested in the people who he is investigating than a dispassionate police officer should. As Harry peels back the layers of their characters and learns more about their back stories, he begins to understand their true motives for their actions. And in the process, we learn more about Harry himself, who has a history that is just as brutal and jarring as the other characters and who has been scarred by it, too.
This is an interesting, extremely dark show that will appeal to people, like us, who like the psychoanalysis of characters. Bill Pullman is great as Harry, and there’s lots of good acting by the other cast members who populate each of the three seasons. Don’t watch The Sinner if you want to see good mothering–the show features some pretty awful Moms who will make you appreciate that your childhood wasn’t filled with routine, everyday emotional torture and trauma–or if you can’t bear disturbing scenes or imagery. And don’t watch it if you are looking for by-the-book detective work, either, because you’ll find yourself yelling at the screen as Harry takes another novel and reckless approach to figuring out the “why” of an otherwise inexplicable crime.
The Sinner has been renewed for a fourth season, which is supposed to come out this year. We’re eager to see the new direction Harry will take and to learn more about his tough life–and get in some more yelling at the TV, besides.
This is the time of year when the ducks in Schiller Park are out and about. Instead of hanging out at the pond, as they typically do, at this time of year they clearly feel a certain wanderlust and could be anywhere–crossing the street, emerging from underneath bushes, or strolling across the lawns.
It can be a bit unnerving as you walk in the pre-dawn darkness. You’ll suddenly detect movement near your feet in the gloom and feel a surge of adrenalin in response to the unknown, and the next thing you know there are a pair of ducks waddling past, murmuring in apparent indignation at your presence. With the DuckShock over, you breathe a sigh of relief and continue on your way.
The roaming ducks always seem to be in female and male pairs, which makes me think the wandering is intended to secure a little privacy, away from the rest of the flock at the pond, for some springtime mating. I always feel a little bad for interrupting the roving of my waterfowl chums–whatever they are doing.
The study involved adult participants from 37 states and the District of Columbia who were monitored between February 1 and June 1 last year. The study indicates that, once shutdown orders were implemented in their locations, the adults began gaining weight at a rate of 0.6 pound every 10 days, or roughly a pound and a half of body weight a month. Researchers attribute the weight gain to the effect of shelter-in-place and office shutdown orders that curtailed everyday activities like walking from an office desk to a conference room or walking to the subway and standing to wait for a train. Those little snippets of exercise during the day add up, and people working from home and sitting on their behinds all day don’t get them. Add in the fact that people reported eating and drinking more during the shutdown, and you’ve got the recipe for weight gain.
Gaining a pound and a half a month may not sound like much, but multiply 1.5 pounds by the number of months the various shutdowns were imposed in different states, or authorities were encouraging people to stay at home to curb spikes and hot spots, and you’ve got more than the “freshman 10” weight gain that people talked about back in college. That’s a lot of weight for people to add in a country where obesity had already become one of the largest public health challenges. And, as any adult knows, once you’ve put on that extra weight, trying to take it off isn’t easy–particularly if you’ve fallen into bad habits.
Once the pandemic period finally ends, we’ll start to get some perspective and meaningful data on whether the prolonged shutdown orders, including the current recommendations that even fully vaccinated people should stay at home if they can, were sound public policy decisions. That involves balancing the impact of those orders on the incidence of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations against a number of other factors, like depression, suicide, economic disruption and job loss, child development . . . and basic public health issues, like daily exercise, alcohol consumption, and weight gain. We should reserve judgment until all of the meaningful data comes in, but the study noted above shows that there are negative public health consequences to shutdown orders that need to be carefully balanced against the positive effects. It’s pretty clear that the analysis is not going to show a simple, one-sided story.
Most of the TV shows and movies I write about get positive reviews. When I watch a show and like it, I enjoy working through exactly why I have that reaction and then writing about it. This has caused some faithful readers to wonder whether I’m so shallow and accepting of TV fare that I like all TV shows I watch.
I don’t. Take Weeds, the show that was broadcast for a number of years on Showtime. We read an on-line review that noted that the Weeds run on Netflix was coming to an end on March 31 and recommended the show as some bingeworthy viewing, so we gave it a chance. In fact, we gave it more than a chance — we watched all of season 1, and halfway through season 2, before we just gave up and decided life was too short to waste it watching Weeds.
Why did we say “Weeds begone”? Because there basically wasn’t a single character on the show that we liked, or frankly even found mildly interesting. In fact, the contrary was true: we thought Weeds featured some of the most cliched, poorly drawn, and intensely annoying characters we’d ever seen on television. From the wide-eyed, coquettish lead character and would-be dope lord Nancy Botwin, played by Mary-Louise Parker, to her weird and unlikeable kids, to her irritating loser brother-in-law, to the other brainless and self-absorbed characters populating the vapid town of Agrestic, California, we disliked pretty much everyone. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to like a TV show when you have no connection to the characters and hate seeing them on screen.
And there wasn’t much that was original in the show’s plotting or the writing. Although Weeds is described as a “comedy-drama,” we didn’t find much of either. I’m not sure I ever actually laughed out loud at anything that happened in the show, and I certainly didn’t find it very dramatic, either. Good comedy involves creativity and an element of surprise, both of which were sorely lacking in Weeds. And drama requires some characters you actually care about, which Weeds didn’t have, either. The only character who even came close to that standard was Isabelle, the poor daughter of Nancy’s appalling friend Celia Hodes, who we hoped could get away from her ridiculous, domineering, body-shaming mother. But our passing interest in that minor plot line couldn’t carry the day in the face of the onslaught of other irksome characters and groan-provoking plot devices.
It amazes us that Weeds ran for multiple seasons, which just shows you that one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure. In our view, though, there are a lot of good TV shows out there to watch–and Weeds isn’t one of them. We think Netflix did the right thing in pulling Weeds.
Yesterday was another beautiful day in central Ohio, with cloudless skies and rising temperatures, so we decided to give our hiking shoes another breaking-in session. This time, we headed north to Mount Vernon, Ohio–about an hour’s drive away–to walk along the Kokosing Gap Trail, which winds its way from Mount Vernon to Gambier, then Howard, and finally to Danville.
The Kokosing Gap Trail is one of a number of Ohio trails that have been converted from old railroad lines to hiking and biking trails through the “rails to trails” program. And the clues to the railroad history of the path are apparent everywhere along the trail: from the width of the paved trails, to the gradual inclines and declines, as shown in the photo just above, to the railroad trestle over the Kokosing River that you cross about a mile and a half from the Mount Vernon trail head. The fact that the trail is paved and largely flat makes it a favorite route for cyclists–including families with little kids on their bikes–who are looking for a Sunday ride. I would point out, on behalf of my biker friends, that most of the cyclists who whizzed past us gave us notice with “on your left” calls as they approached, so we could move over and they could pass with plenty of room.
The first part of the trail runs along farm fields and a creek that is a tributary of the Kokosing River. Once you hit the first railroad bridge and cross the Kokosing (which apparently means “where there are owls” in the language of the Delaware tribe) the river becomes your travel companion, just to the north of the trail and visible through the trees. Unlike the Little Miami River that we hiked along yesterday, the Kokosing has no whitewater and is apparently quite shallow. We did see some fishermen out on the river as we loped along.
We walked along the river for several miles and shared the trail with lots of cyclists and some other walkers, until we were getting close to Gambier, then turned around and walked back to our car parked at the Mount Vernon trail head. It’s interesting how turning around and walking back over the same path nevertheless gives you a different perspective on the landscape. In this case, it gave us a chance to check out the river in more detail.
The entire Kokosing Gap Trail is about 14 miles long, so we only did one part of it. Our plan is to return in the future to walk the entire route in segments, but first we’ve got some other trails to explore.
After our hike through the Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, we drove over to nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio for lunch. And on our way back to Columbus we decided to treat ourselves to a classic Ohio privilege: getting some homemade ice cream from Young’s Jersey Dairy, a legendary spot located on the short stretch of Route 68 between Yellow Springs and I-70. We weren’t the only ones who had that brilliant idea, either; the parking lot was packed with people who were enjoying a beautiful day.
We went through the drive-through and were delighted to learn that mint chocolate chip — my favorite — was the ice cream flavor of the day, which meant we got two enormous scoops for the price of one. I got mine in one of their colossal waffle cones, which admirably holds the ice cream and prevents the drippy, melty spillage that often occurs when you are eating a cone in the car. The ice cream was great — and very reasonably priced, I might add — and the cones lasted until we were more than halfway back to Columbus.
It’s amazing what a day trip outside of Columbus on a bright early spring day after weeks of crappy winter weather can do for your mood. Topping things off with some homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream doesn’t hurt, either.