Thankful Thursday XXIV – People Dashing Food To Doors

The pandemic has hurt almost every business it would seem except for one up-and-coming one : delivery services. Those guys and gals who pick up your food at a restaurant or supermarket and bring it to you are doing a booming business in the past year, and this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for them.

With the advent of smart phones, many entrepreneurs had similar ideas in the past decade. Namely that they could get things and deliver them quickly and efficiently to time-strapped consumers. Door Dash began in 2013 (in techy Palo Alto) , Uber Eats, the food deliver division of the company that almost singly destroyed the “taxi” business, in 2014 (in Toronto, according to Forbes because there was less competition than New York City), Shipt, which deals more with store deliveries, also in 2014, in Birmingham, Alabama. And of course there are a variety of others – Grubhub, Favr and on and on. What they had in common besides similar services was that through 2019, business experts said they all lost money hand over fist. That began to change last year, in a big way. People couldn’t go and sit in a restaurant, were afraid to walk up to the counter to order and likewise weren’t crazy about the idea of going into a crowded grocery store or Walmart to shop for an hour no matter how many “social distancing” footprint stickers were placed on the floors. Covid made people a lot more content to stay home and have someone else bring take-out or grocery orders to them. The services tended to quickly tailor their services to the crisis, offering things like delivery to the door without having contact between the driver and purchaser, all the better to prevent spread of viruses.

I used to think them utter wastes of money, and assuredly some people use them rather indiscriminately to the detriment of their budgets. But more and more, I like the concept. We all have times when we’re pressed for time and buying a week’s groceries isn’t convenient… but neither is having no bread, milk or dinner makings in the house. Or the times we really don’t want to cook, but are hungry and too tired, tipsy or otherwise occupied to head out the door. Times like these were made for the new delivery companies.

In our city, the dominant supermarket delivery company charges about $15 to bring an order to you. Obviously not a smart choice if you only want a box of Pop Tarts…but not a bad option if you’re shopping for a family for days. I tend to still don a mask and go in to get our stuff myself, but we used it a couple of times last year and were impressed enough. They got the order right and by and large picked well. I had wondered if anyone was going to be able to pick good tomatoes, peppers or cuts of meat. Turns out, they can. Last night we ordered in a big meal of burgers, fries and those sorts of tasty but not ideally nutritious dinners we – admit it – all like to treat ourselves to once in awhile. True enough, we could have gone out to get it, but the car has been acting a bit wonky, it was feeling like a 100 degrees outside and the idea of four miles in evening rush hour traffic to wait in a drive-through lineup wasn’t quite as appealing as staying in, cracking open a cold one and having it brought to us – quicker, as it turned out, in my estimation than if we’d gone out ourselves. And in the process, we were helping some ordinary guy make a few bucks.

Yes, I know that these type of “New Economy” service jobs have their problems – no job security, usually no guaranteed wages or holiday pay, all of which is truly a shame and should be rectified – but they still offer people a way to make some money on their own schedule. This is indeed the Age of the “Side Hustle” after all…and I’m thankful for those out there “hustling” to make life a bit easier for us from time to time.

Thankful Thursday XXIII – Finer Forecasting

The weather around here seemed to have settled into a typical mid-summer routine this week, with sunny, hot, humid days, muggy nights, line-ups at frozen treat stands and the ever-present hum of air conditioners providing the outdoor soundtrack. The forecast early yesterday gave us a 0% chance of rain until early next week.

You guessed it, didn’t you? As the afternoon wore on, clouds built and darkened and by about 7 PM, the house was shaking from the thunder and rain was being blown nearly horizontally. Oops! Local meteorologists were a bit red-faced about that one I imagine. But the thing that struck me was, despite that being a total miss, forecast-wise, these days that type of occurrence is a rarity. So this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for the vast improvements in forecasting that have taken place even in the past three decades or so.

When I was a kid, jokes abounded about how inaccurate the “weatherman” was. It sometimes seemed your best bet to know what to wear would be sticking your head out the door in the morning and using your own “gut feeling”; planning outdoor weekend activities based on the forecast on a Wednesday was essentially as reliable as throwing darts at a board blind-folded. When I was a kid, I was very much a nerd and by age 12 or so had a little weather station at home, looked at weather maps and kept some records. For months I made up my own forecasts for the following day and found my accuracy was at least as good as the official government-produced ones. A lot has changed since then.

While satellite pictures were available back then, they have been greatly improved upon. Old ones were merely photos which showed where clouds were; now they can also collect info on the amount of moisture in the clouds, temperatures and all sorts of other things. When we began going to Florida on holiday, I became familiar with weather radars, shown endlessly on TV news there. Back then, the radar showed where it was raining… and that was it. If the area of the map was white, it was raining. If it was dark, it wasn’t. That was the extent of the data. Fast forward about 40 years and as most people who watch news, let alone specialty weather channels know, Doppler radars with their multi-colored displays can tell you just about everything except what type of bird is flying over your house. They’re likely working on that upgrade as we speak. The radar can show not only if there’s precipitation, but how hard it is falling and whether it’s rain, snow, sleet or a combination thereof. Other settings on them can show wind speed and direction, or if there’s debris at a certain altitude. Needless to say, that kind of information can make picking up a tornado before it starts a trail of destruction much easier than it ever has been. All the data is put into powerful computers which do what computers do, analyze billions of bits of information from decades of study and spin out surprisingly accurate forecasts days in advance.

Weather forecasting. It’s an area where science has made huge strides to improve our lives in a matter of a few decades. But, as last night shows, sometimes still nothing beats using your eyes and ears and a bit of common sense. Which is not bad advice when it comes to just about anything in life really.

Thankful Thursday XXII – Freakonomics And Thinkers

I just finished reading a book with the provocative title When to Rob a Bank. It was written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the pair who became famous with the book Freakonomics. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for the Freakonomics pair… and by extension, any books that make people actually think about things and why they are they way they are.

Freakonomics was a 2005 book which became a surprise smash hit, with over four million copies selling in quick time. It looked at a range of social issues and problems, and in some cases turned them on their heads. For instance, it looked at the problem of cheating on school tests and focused on how to catch teachers who helped their kids cheat (which in itself is quite a concept) in order to make their own performance seem better. Among the things they looked for was rooms where children suddenly jumped ahead in their marks one year then reverted back to previous low grades after moving to another class. Most controversially, they put forth the idea that the biggest reason for a sharp drop in violent crime rates in the ’90s wasn’t cities hiring more police, getting them involved more in community events nor tougher jail sentences for criminals but the Roe vs Wade decision in the ’70s which made abortion legal and comparatively easy to access. They hypothesize that many abortions, if not performed, would have led to babies being born to women who already knew they wouldn’t be good parents… drug addicts, ones who hate kids, ones living risky lifestyles etc. In turn these kids wouldn’t be given good supervision or role models and would be likelier to turn to crime at a young age.

Whether you agree with their assumptions or not, they were thought-provoking and interesting, and a great way to start a lively debate at a dull dinner party. When to Rob a Bank is similar but was essentially a compilation of short blogs and articles the pair had written, resulting in a book with far more stories but less in-depth looks at the topics. They tackle things like are doctors over-stating the risks of being overweight, if gun bans actually work, why the U.S. keeps making pennies that cost more than a cent to produce, how the Endangered Species act might work against the interests of the rare animals it’s supposed to protect, and improving your odds in poker. Apparently both writers are avid poker players and they devote an entire chapter to posts on improving your game by logic and math. I think, I must admit I, being a person who plays cards very rarely, got a bit bored with those stories and skipped over many of them. Now, I will say that I didn’t agree with all their assertions or premises, but I did find myself questioning conventional wisdom and at times, my own beliefs. Which is never a bad thing. Questioning those will lead to one of two likely outcomes – finding you were probably wrong, and thus being a bit wiser , or reinforcing one’s existing beliefs. Seems like either is a desirable occurrence and something encouraged by the best teachers, clergymen and even politicians. Beware those who claim to have all the answers and not to question them is my philosophy.

Levitt and Dubner are similar in their writing to another author I like and respect, Malcolm Gladwell. They take problems and dull studies and find ways to make them interesting and relevant to the masses. They also seemed to create a new niche in the publishing industry, books about intellectual topics geared to ordinary people. People who make us think and keep our interest in doing so. I’m thankful for them!

By the way, their book title, When to Rob a Bank? They say “never”. The risk of a person being caught is great and the “haul” most get far smaller than most people imagine.

Thankful Thursday XXI – Canada Day

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for Canada. Appropriately enough since today is Canada Day, the national holiday celebrating the country’s origins and independence from England 154 years ago. To many, it will be an extra-special one since last year’s was a total washout due to the pandemic. Although initially Canada had done well in keeping the virus at bay, last summer having infection and death rates much lower than their neighbors in the U.S. or in Europe, a growing disinterest in following the “rules” – social distancing, masks etc. – and problems obtaining the vaccines when they became available led to a spike in numbers this spring which led to widespread lockdowns once again. But things are looking up, with illness rates dropping and numbers of people vaccinated increasing by the day. As of last weekend, 66% of Canadian adults had received Covid vaccinations, compared to less than half of Americans. So, Canadians may not be crowding together into bars to drink Molsons tonight nor heading to the Rogers Centre in Toronto to watch a Blue Jays game, but they should be able to at least get together with a few friends and bbq a burger and perhaps sing along to the Tragically Hip before taking in some fireworks. I hope they do and enjoy it!

Of course there will be some protesting the people having fun because they object to the day itself. The killjoy contingent of Cancel Culture enthusiasts have taken to Canada like flies to a dungheap, which is conveniently pretty much what they compare the country to. They propose eliminating the holiday and erasing its name from history, because they object to parts of the country’s history. The whole thing has gained traction since news of the bodies of long-deceased children at long-closed Native boarding schools has come to light, suggesting possible widespread abuse of the students.

There is absolutely no justification for the abuse of the children, and indeed, it is reasonable to investigate it further to see how widespread that might have been, who the victims were and prosecute the violators should they still be alive. That in itself is unlikely, as the very last of the schools was shut for good in 1996; they were most active and in all likelihood most abusive during the first half of the 20th Century. Prime Minister Trudeau has apologized – several times – on behalf of the country and its forefathers, and created a list of 94 recommendations to right the wrong. Many Native Canadians are already receiving cash payments in return for being displaced from their land generations ago. That seems to me like a reasonable resolution. Let’s not forget the past, but recognize it is the past and move along together from there.

I’m a Canadian and I’m proud of the country. It is by no means perfect. No country that I know of is, or comes very close to that mark. But it is a good land with a history of great individuals and great deeds. Liberating Holland from the Nazis in WWII. Developing insulin. Gas masks. Hockey masks. An ebola vaccine. Lacrosse and basketball. Hawaiian pizza… well, I said Canada wasn’t perfect!  Add in more great artists, musicians, actors, athletes and comedians than you can shake a Zamboni at and you’ve got reason to feel good about the Great White North. And let’s not forget that magnificent scenery from the mountain lakes at Banff to the glowing fall colors in Algonquin Park, all saved for posterity in the parks.

My dad and his dad as well were struggling in post-war Europe when they came to Canada. They learned the language and soon found good jobs and built lives for themselves in the new land. My mom went through many an air raid and bombing as a child in Britain during the War and didn’t take to the climate there, so she too found her way to Canada (why she didn’t pick Australia for a better climate while still being able to see the queen on the money, I never fully understood) and soon was teaching classrooms of kids from a smorgasbord of different backgrounds. I went to school with kids whose parents had come from Germany and England, Jamaica and Japan. One of my best buddies in high school had escaped the Philippines not long before with his family. He missed his country but not the secret police busting down their door in the middle of the night and taking family members away for unknown reasons. His dad, sleeping safely at night for once, started a very successful electric company in town. After all sorts of asthma and other medical problems as a small child, I was probably only alive to meet him because of Canada’s fine health care system, funded by taxes but making world-class hospitals as accessible to a factory-worker’s kid, or an unemployed person for that matter as they were for the CEOs of the companies employing those workers.

Actress Jennifer Garner recently quipped that people often assume she is Canadian. She’s not, being from California in fact. But, she says it makes her feel great because if people think she’s Canadian, that must mean she is pretty nice. That’s a great compliment to all of us who are from there!

I’ll never say Canada is perfect and probably will never like the climate – I really hate cold weather. But I will always say I am proud to be Canadian, and glad that is where I began my life. Happy Thursday, and Happy Canada Day no matter where you hale from.

Yetis And Life’s Other Little Mysteries

About a decade back, I briefly wrote a few blogs entitled “Things I Don’t Get.” Life’s little mysteries. Things like people’s fascination with zombies. Or their fascination with the Kardashians. “One day last month,” I wrote about the latter, “while in line I counted (Kim Kardashian’s) pouty mug on seven magazines (by the cashier)…the one proclaiming ‘Kardashian World!’ did make me think the retailer genius for also putting Tylenol at the check-out for subsequent impulse buys.” I was a bit snarky ten years ago apparently. Little mysteries. Of course, big mysteries always interested me too. UFOs. That missing Malaysian jet. And Bigfoot.

On the one hand, it would seem like if there were giant ape-man sasquatches out there in our dense forests, some gun-loving settler would have shot one and had it in their den by now, or a tractor trailer doing 80 would have hit one. I mean, dozens of people get run down by cars, can Bigfoots be that much smarter than us? But on the other hand, there are so many convincing reports of them, most from the pre-internet era. One doesn’t imagine Natives of coastal B.C. would have had much chance to talk to and share oral stories with the ones in the Appalachians, yet both have similar Bigfoot-like creatures in their histories.

I thought of those pieces not long ago when driving behind a big pick-up. Of course, in the decade since, there’ve been no shortage of things I don’t get. People falling off cliffs playing “Pokemon”. About half the politicians elected across the globe. Ice coffee. The Simpsons still being made about fifteen years after anybody I know stopped watching. And Yeti stickers.

This Dodge truck was shiny and of behemoth proportions, looking more or less straight from the factory…except for the Yeti sticker in its back window. Now as odd as this was, what is odder is that I see all kinds of vehicles around with those stickers. At first when I encountered one I was hoping it might signify the car was being driven by a Bigfoot. You know, some people put Italian flags on their window to signify their origin, maybe this driver was doing the same. Certainly his fast acceleration and lane-changes without benefit of turn signals suggested that could be the case. Humans on the road should be able to drive better than that. But sadly as they turned off, I could see an ordinary driver of adult human proportions and child-like lack of motor skills. Subsequent encounters with Yeti-stickered cars, trucks and vans alike have shown similar lack of content that would interest crypto-zoologists.

I’ve never been one to want to decorate a vehicle with lots of “bumper stickers”, be they on the bumper, window or any other part. I’ve seen too many people working too hard on scraping off “Wassup” stickers that didn’t seem quite as hilarious anymore or “I HEART Bill Cosby” ones which unintentionally did. Besides, I figure if someone wants to know me, let them talk to me. But I usually can understand the rationale for most stickers. A car with Texas plates but Acadia National Park and Everglades stickers; probably a person who likes to travel and nature. “My kid is a honor student at Washington Pre-school and Kindergarten”; proud and possibly delusional parent. A brother-in-law served in the military and has small but proud Marine logo stickers on his. I get that. And of course, I might assume quite different things about someone in a Prius with a “Bernie!” sticker than someone in a Ford F-150 with “Trump 2020” proudly emblazoned on the window. They at least tell us something about the people in that auto. But a Yeti?

This I don’t get. For those unfamiliar, Yeti, besides being the Asian name for a Bigfoot which may or may not exist, is the brand name of a popular line of travel mugs. They are usually metal, and by all reports very good. A cold drink stays cold in them, a hot one, hot. But why advertise them on your car?

The logo itself isn’t interesting. There’s no clever little sasquatch worked in, nor any bright colors. Just the word in big, bold white font. At least, Apple, say by comparison has a colorful interesting, almost decorative logo. And saying you’re an Apple fan perhaps exudes an air of “cooldom” or “superiority”. Hard to imagine the same is true of someone based on their choice of what to put their morning commute coffee in. After all, the cups and mugs start at about $20…expensive for a travel mug but well within almost anybody’s budget. It’s fair to say that if you can afford a car and the gas for it, you can put together the cash for a Yeti mug should you want to. So that can’t be it. If prestige is what they’re going for, one might as well put a Coca-cola logo on there instead to signify you will pay that extra dollar a case for what’s inside your Yeti. No Walmart-brand cola for me, it would scream to the masses!

Maybe one day people will yawn and ask “Who?” when somebody starts talking about a Kardashian. Maybe someday those TV explorers will actually find a bigfoot out for a stroll instead of just hearing mysterious growls in the forest or seeing bark oddly ripped off tall trees. Maybe one day we’ll know where those other socks go in the washing machine. And maybe one day someone will explain why they want to put a $4 sticker for a $20 item on their car. Then again, maybe some things we just were never meant to know.

Thankful Thursday XX – Lovin’ The Time Of No Cholera

The trying last year or so has done one thing for most of us – made us a lot more aware of cleanliness, the need for handwashing and so on. It puts me in mind of something I covered in my book Thank Goodness – 101 Things To Be Grateful For Today. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for living in an age of good hygiene.

It’s such an obvious one it sometimes slips our minds. One doesn’t have to look far to find stories of Medieval times or the early Industrial Age that make it all too clear what life was like without indoor plumbing. No toilets, no hot water to wash with, sewage running down the streets…besides the stink, which must’ve been horrendous, it’s easy to see how this lack of basic hygiene could cause mass die-offs from now largely-forgotten illnesses.

Clean streets and no worries of dysentery or cholera – something to give thanks for every time we visit the restroom!

Thankful Thursday XIX – Timmies

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for one of my fonder memories of Canada – Tim Horton’s. Only a few Americans know what that is, and fewer people still from other countries. But to Canadians… they’re a way of life and as much a cultural keystone as maple leafs and geese.

Tim Horton’s, or simply “Timmies” to many Canucks, is a chain of coffee shops. Diners perhaps would be a better word since they offer an array of foods as well. But they are a great deal more than that up north; not only do they define the national obsession with coffee and the “down to earth” mentality, in many communities they have become the de facto “town square” – the meeting place, the place to hang out when you don’t want to be by yourself. Quite an achievement for something begun in the ’60s by a second-string hockey star as a single little coffee shop in the factory city of Hamilton.

Today there are over 4000 of them, the vast majority of them in Canada, although Americans close to the border – those in Western New York, Washington State and the like – have some of their own, perhaps as much for the Canadians driving south as the locals. Although they started out as simple purveyors of cheap coffee and a range of donuts (another Canadian obsession, and something Tim’s does very well) they have through the years expanded the menu to have a number of lunch options from sandwiches to soups and chili, and even brought in cold soft drinks for those who for some difficult-to-understand reason don’t always want a hot coffee! As such they’ve become a viable competitor to the various sub and burger places in the fast food market.

Through the years, I consumed many a cup of that java. Many a thousand cups, actually. When I was going somewhere in winter, there’d always be a Tim Horton’s along the way to stop and get a coffee at and quite probably, get rid of the last coffee, if you catch my meaning. Many a work lunch break was spent sitting in one, a cup of coffee and a bagel with cheese (their poppy seed bagels are pretty extraordinary too) as I read the newspaper and forgot about the job for half an hour. I’ve taken dates to Tim’s, sat and chatted with my dad for many an afternoon, packed my laptop and sat in one late at night when the wi-fi at home gave out. I might add that I wasn’t convinced they offered the best coffee of any chain in Canada; but they were the one that was always there for me. And the 33 million others in that land.

And therein was the appeal. Tim’s are a unifier there, a totally democratic sort of institution. The prices were reasonable, the décor comfortable but very basic. It’s the place the grubby street people go and sit in when they’ve panhandled up enough for a drink and a donut just as much as they’re the place the office execs from the shiny city towers stop at to get their cruller and double-double at on their way to work. If Ryan Gosling or Bryan Adams are back in their hometown, chances are if you wait long enough, they’ll be at Tim’s. The local cops are likely to be there between calls, just as are the teens coming home from school, the socialites heading out for a night on the town and the retirees who don’t have a lot to do during the afternoon hours. So they find the Tim’s and each other and then have something to do in the afternoon. So engrained into the culture are they that they’ve even added to the lexicon. “Timbits” anybody? “Roll up the Rim?” The Canadian in the crowd will know.

That sort of thing doesn’t really exist in the States, or at least not in my part of them. Coffee isn’t king down here (mind you, I guess it takes a special breed of crazy to be like me and want hot coffee day in, day out, in a place where half the year days top 90 degrees) and of course, there is a Dunkin’ here and there if you search them out, and a few Starbucks but it’s not quite the same. Dunkins seem a place to get in and get of quickly; Starbucks are pricy and have a sort of elitist air to them. They’re all places where you can get a hot drink, but not a place to go.

While there isn’t a Tim’s shop for about a thousand miles from here, at least we can get the coffee in imported bags at the supermarket. So sipping one in my own room isn’t like being in a busy restaurant watching the world go by, it is pretty good “jo”. And a nice reminder of where I came from.

Thankful Thursday XVIII – Bob Ross

If “zen” was a movie, he’d probably be on the poster for it. Perhaps then, between insurrections, contested elections, deadly pandemics and weekly mass shootings, there’s good reason he’s more popular than ever. Indeed, last year at the height of the pandemic, reruns of his show were the top-rated shows on the BBC in Britain. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for Bob Ross.

Ross might just be the most famous American painter. And the most critically panned one as well. But the dude with the big afro is a lot more than that. He’s a source of quiet relaxation for many and inspiration for millions more.

Ross, for the few uninitiated, was a painter from Florida who rose to fame in the 1980s with a half-hour TV show on PBS. In the 11-year run of The Joy of Painting (sometimes renamed things like “Bob Ross Painting” in re-runs) he became something of a cult figure, a stature only heightened since his unfortunate death from cancer in 1995. These days one can find Bob Ross bobbleheads, Bob Ross coffee mugs, Bob Ross calendars, Bob Ross coloring books, books of Bob Ross sayings…there’s even a Bob Ross chia pet for those who want their very own ugly clay Ross-head with a green afro!

The magic of Bob was two-fold. One was that he did a surprisingly good painting, generally landscapes, from start to finish in each half-hour show. Two, and perhaps more importantly, he did it while chatting away in a friendly and low-key way that defined “laid back”. Compared to Ross, the crowd at a Jimmy Buffett show would seem wound-up and out of control. Ross loved wildlife and from time to time would interrupt his show to bring in a little squirrel he’d rescued from a busted tree or film of some animal he’d seen outside. He painted serene settings, more often than not containing some mountains, a little lake and some trees… needed a place for the happy little squirrels to live, after all. Viewers began to love – and perhaps make drinking games out of – his regular little quotes like “happy little trees” and “we don’t make mistakes, just have happy little accidents.”

Surprisingly for such an incredibly laid-back guy, Bob was largely shaped by the Air Force. He signed up young and rose to the ranks of seargent. For several years he was assigned to a base in Alaska. He loved the scenery there and decided to try and capture that and share it for others. But he hated the job, per se. He had to be “the guy who makes you scrub the latrines, the guy who screams at you for being late.” He decided once done with the military he wasn’t going to be “that” guy again.

Ross had a real flair for painting, and a well-trained artist’s eye for lighting. He also had a gift for teaching simple techniques to the masses…and for irritating critics. He took some art courses and found instructors were big into minimalism and abstract – not his brand of folksy realism. “If I paint something, I don’t want to have to explain what it is,” he said. Over the years, he painted an estimated 30 000 canvases. What they lacked in diversity (there were an awful lot of paintings of mountain lakes, forest trails, cabins in the woods and the like) he made up for in charm, and broad appeal.

The magic of Bob Ross though, was that he showed us it was OK to do something we enjoy, even if we aren’t very good at it. It’s OK to have pictures on the wall that you like and tell a story no matter what art critics might think of them. You could be a surgeon or air traffic controller, but when you got home, you could “chillax” and do something where your screw up was soon rectified and turned into a “happy little accident.” I can guess that thousands upon thousands of people have taken up painting, or other arts because of his influence and his reassurance that you don’t have to be great at something to make it worthwhile. And certainly thousands upon thousands more get reprieves from the daily stresses of the world by laying back, watching his little trees and cabins take shape and wondering if this will be one of the extra-lucky weeks where he has a baby squirrel on his shoulder.

So if you’re bored, or stressed out this weekend, why not think of Bob? Pick up a canvas and a brush. Or maybe a sketchbook and some pencils. Or even just head out to the garage with an old guitar. Have some fun, be a little creative and be content in the moment.

The More Things Change…

Things have changed a lot in my lifetime, so imagine how much things have changed in the last hundred years. Turns out, for all the computers, internet, rap music, women’s lib and online porn of our time, the answer just might be “not as much as you’d expect.” Or at least that was my takeaway from my most recent read, Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells. It was a book I picked up at a dollar store recently, a compilation of articles from Vanity Fair magazine in the early-20th Century.

Vanity Fair at the time seemed to be one of several eclectic magazines which published serious articles, short stories, poetry and I believe photography, though that aspect was missing from the paperback. The book presents a selection of all of the above that were published between 1914 – 1936. As such it gives an interesting time capsule look back from the time of my grandparents. It features some big names, before they were big names – the first published works by Dorothy Parker, essays from Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. Cocteau can be found in the pages within as well as DH Lawrence, pondering “Do Women Change?”. Of course the current events dictate a fair bit of the content – Leacock ponders somberly on the human cost of World War I (to them, just “the Great War”) ; several stories chronicle the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression.

Now, I will say that humorous senses were a little different back then. Some of the articles clearly meant to be laugh-enducing satires like Pooh-creator AA Milne’s “Autobiography” left me bored and a bit weary rather than rolling on the floor guffawing. Likewise Dorothy Parker’s series of poems (“Actresses – A Hate Song”, “Our Office – A Hate Song”) and her short story about why she chose to remain single left me thinking she was a great * cranky self-centered person who might possibly rhyme with ‘witch’ * rather than a tremendous wit. But for all that, the one thing which stood out to me was how seemingly current some of the topics were a hundred years later.

In our age of the War on Drugs, British poet Arthur Symons ruminated on the effects of hash and opium on one’s senses. Several stories looked at how to get around prohibition when alcohol was taboo. Those who figure that “Women’s Lib” started with the Pill and burning bras in the ’60s might be surprised to read the Anne O’Hagan story from 1915 entitled “New York Women Who Earn $50 000 A Year”, a description of the many women she knew making that amount or more annually (in excess of half a million dollars in our money) stressing how women don’t have to rely upon men for their keep. And of course, there’s fashion. Sure, women in 1920 didn’t dress precisely like today’s gal-on-the-go, but the changing fashions and in particular the length of skirts was an issue as far back as 1923 – the writer liked the short skirts (which one might guess would be quite modest by today’s standards) – “what the feller in the streets wants is legs” he comments, but he noted how the industry seemed to change the in vogue style from year to year forcing ladies to buy more clothes. Sound familiar?

Likewise, the Wall Street crash led several of their writers to question the wisdom of the “system”, noting among other things bankers always make themselves rich even when their firms bankrupt the masses and how those playing the stock market who get rich point to their acumen and intelligence while those who went broke blame “bad luck.” Not unlike columns we would have read only a dozen years back. Another man tells the story of being an Afghan fitting into American society, something he accomplished but with a stumbling block or two along the way.

Of course a few things are different. There are articles about the wonder of the new form of entertainment known as “moving pictures” and a long essay on that new kids fad, Jazz music, “the only distinct and original idiom (Americans) have”. Even there though, one imagines a twenty-something kid from the city today might write a similar piece about Rap.

I didn’t find the book to be all that entertaining, yet I did read through it though with interest. It presented a good look at life a century back and left me thinking “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In today’s climate, I can’t make up my mind as to whether that is comforting or terrifying.

Thankful Thursday XVII – Friends…Part I

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for something my sweetie was thankful for on Thursdays in years gone by – Friends. That is of the TV variety. It occurred to me as we watched the much ballyhooed “reunion” a few nights back how much it, and similar shows, meant to so many people.

Friends was, of course in case you’ve lived under a rock for a few decades, the NBC sitcom about six twenty-something friends, making their way in life. It made Jennifer Aniston into one of the most familiar faces in the world and her character, briefly, the most famous haircut. It made the other five then-unknowns into famous stars as well, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox (who at the time was mostly recognized for being a teen dancing with Bruce Springsteen in a video a decade prior), Matthew Perry and Matt Leblanc. All six have gone on to have moderately successful acting careers since, but all six are equally still universally best known as their characters from the sitcom.

The show ran from 1994-2004, 236 episodes in all. It was a time period when I was about the age of the characters in the show, and didn’t watch all that much TV outside of baseball games and perhaps The Simpsons... I was too busy working or hanging out with my own friends to a large degree. Or listening to music; it was a passion and radio was cheaper than cable TV! But I would watch Friends from time to time and quite enjoy it, and of course, needed to see it at times because it was all my co-workers would be talking about around the “water cooler” on Friday morning. What about Rachel’s new hairdo? Is Chandler ever gonna dump that Janis? Were they on a break!?

My sweetie, whom I didn’t know back then, watched it routinely and tells of how she’d tell her own friends and family not to call her Thursday evening between 7 and 7:30 (the Central time zone slot it ran in, strange to me coming from the East where 8PM kicks off primetime) because she was busy with those six “friends.” It was her only “must see” TV.

For many others too. It typically drew well over 25 million viewers week-in, week out, for its whole ten year run. By comparison, NCIS is the only show on TV anymore that averages even 15 million; a show that can draw four million with regularity is a hit these days. The finale of Friends was tuned in by over 52 million TVs in the States and perhaps 80 million people and is the most-watched scripted TV show of the 2000s. Although it was always a “top 10” hit, the only year it was the most-watched was 2001-02 – right after 9/11. Odd in that it is set only miles away from Ground Zero in that horrible event. But really, not so odd. The creators had a tough decision about what to do and made the decision to double down on entertaining. People were well aware enough of what had happened, why not give them a half hour reprieve and some laughter each week? It was a brilliant decision.

As was ending when it did. It doubtless could have gone on a few more years and continued to be watched, but they realized it was better to go out on a high. After the ten years, the struggling but somewhat carefree young ones had matured. They had kids. They were getting married. The beauty of the show was the friendship between the group of pals who did everything together, something many of us Gen X-ers could relate to, and in all likelihood most older watchers looked back on fondly. Having Monica and Chandler taking kids to school and living in a bungalow 30 miles from the others wouldn’t have worked. Anything Ross and Rachel did would be anti-climatic after ten years of seeing the tension between them and not knowing if they would eventually pair up. It went out on a high note, something many shows, and entertainers for that matter fail to know how to do.

Since it ended, I paired up and have spent many late nights chilling with my love, watching reruns of the show with her, laughing and recalling what it was like to be 25 and single. But I’m thankful for it for other reasons beyond that.

As the reunion pointed out, Friends was a global phenomenon. Some say it helped them learn English watching it. Others say Phoebe’s oddball behavior and artsy endeavors made them feel OK about being a bit different themselves. It celebrated friends, the people you could rely on even as “relationships” came and went or families caused more stress than they took away. It created characters we cared about (in direct contrast to the other runaway hit of the decade, Seinfeld) and could probably see a bit our ourselves in. They were a bit nerdy and awkward, unsure of just what they wanted from life. (They drank lots of coffee. Hey, Chandler even had a Blue Jays baseball cap on his desk at work in New York… could he BE more Canadian?)

Mostly though I’m thankful for how it was such a “universal.” It was perhaps the last TV show that everyone seemed to watch. Everyone knew who Rachel and Ross were. It gave us a common language, no matter how small. When I was growing up, there were three main networks and shows like MASH and Carol Burnett were seemingly watched by everyone. The population was smaller, but viewerships were bigger – it wasn’t uncommon to have shows watched by 30 million people a week in the ’70s. It gave us something in common, something to talk about. Now we have hundreds of channels, shows custom-tailored to every taste… but little common currency in our entertainment. I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe we’d not be such a divided nation, so quick to judge others and rush to quick, negative assumptions of “them” if we had a few more shows like Friends that “they” watched just like us. And perhaps a few more “friends”…

How about you, dear readers? Any TV shows or movies you’re particularly thankful for?