Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Another view of Buffalo's freaky October storm

Of course there are a few people around who believe that everything has been reported that needs to be reported about the freaky October storm that fractured our trees, downed our wires and bolstered Buffalo’s international reputation as the home office of winter.
How wrong they would be. It may be over but it will be generating copy for years, especially from those who spent time shivering in unheated, darkened homes, fingers iced, toes curling, ears tingling, wondering when their lives would return to normal. People in situations such as that have a tendency toward contemplation. There is little else to do, so soon they are thinking thoughts they would have never bothered thinking, striving for storm related insights.
I emerged from that period of cogitation with thoughts of two men who changed my life and the lives of countless others. I first thought of Joyce Kilmer when I heard that initial loud crack followed by a thud that shook the ground. A huge limb had fallen from that towering maple. Other limbs, some larger, some smaller, would fall, reinforcing my reverie about Joyce Kilmer, who wrote the only poem I can recite without prompting. You probably know it, too, but I am ashamed to say that I reached middle age without memorizing any other poem. Please join me as we recite:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day.
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I must have been pretty young when the class learned that poem because I can remember the giggles and the knowing glances when we came to the words “breast” and “bosom.” But I remembered the lines all these years, and especially thought of the poem as our trees, ill-prepared for winter, so innocent and so vulnerable, were brutalized.
My thoughts turned in another direction when the power was restored. Light! Heat! Action! Deprived for days, one of the obvious questions was: What’s on TV? The answer at our house: nothing. The cable was still not functioning. There was more snow on the screen than in the parking lot at the mall.
That brought to mind the contribution of the other individual who had a remarkable impact. His name may not be as familiar as Joyce Kilmer, but Marvin Middlemark was an extraordinary personality, and I thought of Marvin as I damned Time Warner for its frustrating recorded message and for its exasperatingly slow response.
Marvin invented rabbit ears. He was a tinkerer and previously his prize creation was a water powered potato peeler, which met with limited success. But he hit the big time and made millions with the rabbit ears, which sat on top of the television set and functioned as an antenna. The big houses might have had a rooftop antenna, but, for most viewers, rabbit ears were essential. Before rabbit ears, many TV watchers had a wire connected to an indoor antenna in the attic. Rabbit ears simplified the process, improved reception, and came in various styles and price ranges.
Middlemark sold his rabbit ears properties for millions in the mid-’60s, fiddled with various other concepts, including a method for re-inflating and restoring used tennis balls, and died in 1989. But his memory lives on among those who remember his creative work with the rabbit ears.
I thought of Marvin as I foraged around in the basement and in the dark corners of every closet, trying to find a pair. No luck. How could I have been so shortsighted, so confident in the efficacy of the cable companies, that I years ago tossed my last pair of rabbit ears into the trash? My plan was to locate a pair of rabbit ears and hook them up to the TV until the Time Warner guys got around to servicing their customers.
I finally borrowed a pair from a friend who was perceptive enough to keep them, even as he advanced, first to cable and then to dish. Like you, I have other storm stories I could relate, stories of generators, chain saws and traffic lights, but Joyce Kilmer and Marvin Middlemark provided me with compelling memories in a time of trouble. (end)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Spinach needs a good PR campaign

It has never been easy for spinach. Not ever. Through the years, a large portion of the population rejected spinach as too bitter, too sandy, or too dark and unappetizing when boiled. Spinach has always needed a good public relations campaign, but the only one who ever stepped forward to take on the assignment was Popeye, a cartoon character so muscle-bound he couldn’t type a news release or write a business plan.
Popeye did his best, however, and it wasn’t bad for a sailor man, trying to convince the readers of the comic pages that adding spinach to the diet would make them strong and healthy. At the same time, he was often pictured clenching that corncob pipe in his teeth and hanging out with the gluttonous Wimpy, which cast some doubt on his expertise as an advisor on health and nutrition.
One thing that stands out in my mind about Popeye’s spinach habit was that he ate it out of can. You may remember the scene: confronted with a hostile situation, perhaps the approach of Bluto, the major villain in the strip, Popeye would quickly open a can of spinach, toss it down like a jigger of bourbon, and go on the attack, always vanquishing the opposition.
As I reflect on his many adventures, I never saw Popeye eat spinach raw. It always came out of the can. Maybe he was smarter than your average sailor man, but he wasn't alone. I don’t remember seeing many people eating spinach raw until a relatively few years ago, when the spinach salad established itself as a healthy choice, especially when compared to iceberg lettuce.
Popeye first became a media celebrity in the late 1920s, and whether there was ever any hidden agenda between his syndicators and the spinach growers has never been established. But he was credited by some observers during that period with increasing annual spinach sales by about 30 percent, which is a lot of spinach. It is worth noting that in 1937 the city of Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue to memorialize Popeye for his very positive impact on the spinach market. Crystal City was then in the midst of an agricultural region where spinach was one of the predominant crops, and the farmers recognized what Popeye had accomplished on their behalf. Should you ever stop in Crystal City, you’ll find that the statue still stands.
Spinach has always had its detractors. Many rank it among the least agreeable, most reprehensible vegetables, right down there on the list with three of my own favorites, Brussels sprouts, okra and asparagus. I have never understood how spinach acquired its dreadful---and undeserved---public image, but it certainly wasn’t helped much by that memorable cartoon published years ago in The New Yorker.
The cartoon, which appeared over 50 years ago, showed two determined and intimidating parents hovering over a child at the dinner table. The caption---which still resonates today---belonged to the child, who said: “I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it!”
That about summed it up, but a check of some historical data can carry us back much further, to Colonial times. Then, according to Bert Greene, the famed food scholar, “spinach was so unpopular with the Pilgrims that an early child’s prayer sought the Good Lord’s protection from fire, famine, flood and unclean foreign leaves,” which referred to sandy spinach. Sand has been a consideration since ancient times in Persia (Iran), where spinach was cultivated as food for Persian cats.
With that as background, you can understand my concern about the spinach image, badly tarnished by the recent outbreak of illness blamed on spinach infected by the E. coli bacteria. That can be deadly and it is traced to animal or human waste. That news story will disappear, spinach is again available, but the memory of impure spinach will linger, raising questions about the future. How soon will we be again tossing baby spinach in a salad bowl?
I’d like to lend my support to any PR campaign for spinach. First, I should report that it is very healthy, although not quite as magical as Popeye contended. A single cup of cooked spinach contains 14,580 units of vitamin A, 583 milligrams of potassium, and 167 grams of calcium, but only 40 calories. As for muscles, there are no guarantees, but then I’ve been eating Wheaties for years and I still can’t jump any higher.