Category Archives: essays

Do Fifth-Graders Still Learn to Read Newspapers?

Sitting in the terminal at Dulles International last week, I happened to look around me at the passengers waiting for their flights. While there were hundreds of passengers, I saw only a single newspaper among them—the one that I was reading. Later that week, while sitting in our Pittsburgh office, a co-worked passed by, did a double-take, and backtracked. “I had to stop,” he said, “because I never see anyone reading an actual newspaper anymore.” I was reading a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

The most practical lesson I ever received in elementary school came when my fifth-grade math teacher took it upon himself to teach the class how to read a newspaper. As he model, he used our local paper, the Providence Journal. I remember nothing about the contents of the paper on that particular day, but the lessons he taught us have stayed with me. 

He taught us, for instance, how to identify the lead story in the paper. He taught us the basic format of news stories, and how to tell who wrote them. He described the difference between a news story, an editorial, and an opinion piece. He taught us about sources and the basics of factual news reporting. He did all of this at a level that fifth-graders could understand. (He also taught us how to read the stock page, which I think was his original point, since this was, after all, a math class.) 

Since then, I have been a fairly steady newspaper reader, although there have been gaps. When I lived in Los Angeles, I read the Los Angeles Times. My local paper today is the Washington Post, but I still read the L.A. Times, part out of nostalgia, and part because I enjoy the writing. When I travel, I try to sample the local fare in news reporting, and am often surprised by how good the smaller papers are. You can learn a lot about a place by reading an issue or two of its local paper. 

The Little Man recently turned ten, and by chance, I was ten when my fifth-grade math teacher taught our class how to read the paper. It made me wonder: do schools still teach kids how to read a newspaper? Did they ever, or was my experience unique? In the intervening decades between my fifth grade experience and the Little Man’s, the Internet emerged and grew with all of its promise and problems. Still, with kids spending so much time on screens these days, the importance of newspapers can’t be overstated. I thought about how I might explain this to the Little Man. I started by considering the advantages a newspaper provides over social media, blogs, radio, and television news broadcasts. 

  1. Reading is an important skill to develop and a daily newspaper ensures that practical reading material is available every day. Some of that reading may be a stretch, but like any form of exercise, it’s good to aim high. 
  2. At the same time, newspapers provide a means for keeping up with current events. The Little Man grows increasingly curious about the world, asking all kinds of questions. As that continues, the newspaper can help feed that curiosity. 
  3. Newspaper reporting is not instantaneous. The benefit of a day’s delay allows for more accuracy in reporting. Facts can be checked, multiple sources consultant and corroborated, and in-depth analysis by experts can be brought to bear. 
  4. Editorials provide good examples of persuasive writing. They are brief, and focused. This is a skill that is particularly useful in high school and college. Whether or not you agree with the editorial writer, the model used in most papers is a good one. 
  5. Newspapers provide a mechanism for debate and discussion, correction, disagreement, and expression. If you read something that you think is factually wrong, if you disagree with an opinion piece, most papers provide a means of debate and discussion through their Letters to the Editor page. 

There are intangibles to newspapers as well. You might discover a writer you enjoy reading, and looking forward to his or her columns (always with frustration when they are on vacation and the paper puts out a re-run). The first time this happened with me was reading Al Martinez’s column in the L. A. Times. Then, too, many newspapers still have some great sportswriters, among them, Tom Boswell at the Washington Post

Although many newspapers are now available in digital format, I prefer printed editions, if for no other reason than they provide a daily reprieve from reading on a screen. 

I don’t know if fifth-graders are still taught to read a newspaper the way I was. But that single lesson stands out more than any other as one that has had a continually positive impact on my life. In teaching me to read a newspaper, my fifth-grade teacher helped me learn how to think better for myself, using what I read in the paper as both a learning tool, and a sounding board. 

I’d hate for the Little Man to miss out on that. 

4 Years of Field Notes

If you have seen me in the last four years, then you know that I am rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my back pocket. I can no longer recall exactly how I discovered these wonderful notebooks, but they have changed my life. A few days ago, I turned to the first Field Notes notebook I ever used, and saw that I started it on June 24, 2015–just about four years ago. In that time, I have become a subscriber to their quarterly notebook list, collected probably around 100 of their notebooks, and filled nineteen of them. These volumes sit on a shelf by my desk where I keep all of my important reference volumes.

My Field Notes volumes

One volume (not among the nineteen) I used as a simple index of the others. Looking at that one, you can see that it took me a while to fill those volumes at first. I filled five of them in 2016, five in 2017, and five in 2018. I’ve filled three so far in the first half of 2019, but that number is going up more rapidly these days as the way that I used these notebook has evolved.

My Field Notes index

When I started, these notebooks served as a kind of short term memory for me. I’d jot down things so that I wouldn’t forget them later. Flipping through the first volume, for instance, I see ideas for blog posts, scribbles from visits to the dentist, and bumper stickers I found amusing (“Condoms prevent unwanted minivans.”) There are some things that I no longer know what they are for. Numbers like 27.975. I think it was for some code I was writing because there’s a reference to a GitHub repo. There’s a surprising amount of math worked out longhand in the pages.

In those early volumes, I rarely dated anything, other than the date I started and finished the volume. It wasn’t until volume 7 (12/20/2016 – 3/18/2017) that I regularly started dating the pages. By then, I’d become more accustomed to pulling out my notebook without feeling embarrassed. Not only are there restaurant names, there are server names (so that I don’t forget). I even occasionally write down what I plan to order.

There are lists of all kinds, including lists of books that I plan to read so that I don’t forget. I don’t always get to the books right away, but I do eventually. Some pages have notes from meetings (before I started using Composition Books for that purpose), more math being worked out, and fairly detailed notes from historic sites we visit. (I am the one on the guided tours, scribbling in my notebook as we move through the 300 year old house.)

The two most recent notebooks have taken yet another step forward in their evolutionary development. I filled these much faster–within about a month, or a rate of 12 notebooks a year. With these, I start each day scribbling the date on the next blank page. Then, my day gets logged as it happens, and the various random lists, math, memory aids is right there among it all. A typical day now fills 2 pages. This has been a great aid for helping me with more detailed journal entries at the end of the day. Since I have been logging what I eat again, that finds its way into the mix. Here’s what today’s entry looks like, so far:

A page from 6/16/2019

I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, along with two pens, one black, and one blue. On rare occasions when I have set it aside, I feel the way I do when I’ve left my wallet at home. I love the variety of the notebooks, and the themes that the folks at Field Notes come up with. Right now, I’m carrying around one of their Mile Marker editions.

Friends and family have grown used to me pulling out these notebooks to jot things down. They only make fun of me a little. But when they want to know something about what happened a few days earlier, I occasionally here them turn to Kelly and say, “Ask Jamie, he’ll know. He probably wrote it in his notebook.”

And I probably did.

Reading Outdoors

When I lived in L.A. my apartment had a small wraparound porch. One side of the porch faced south, the other faced east. The east side was the shady side and the south side the sunny side. I spent countless hours sitting on that porch, chair propped back, feet up on the railing, and a book in my lap. I read The Three Musketeers sitting on that porch. I read 2001: A Space Odyssey on that porch. I read Carl Sagan, and Isaac Asimov, and Tom Clancy, and Agatha Christie on that porch. One of the things I missed most when I left L.A. was reading on that porch.

In the 17 years since, I still haven’t read outdoors as much as I did when I had access to that porch. The places I have lived just weren’t as conducive to reading outdoors: vagaries of the east coast weather, combined with a lack of a quiet place to read outside made it difficult. We had a small area in the back of our old house that I tried to read from on numerous occasions, but it never lasted long. On that porch in L.A., I could spend the entire day reading.

At the new house, we have the deck. A few days ago, I went out there in the late afternoon when the humidity was low and breeze rustled through the trees. I had a book with me, and my youngest daughter, and we sat out there, she watching the birds, while I read. An hour passed in the blink of an eye. It was delightful.

This afternoon, when all of my meetings were over, and the house was quiet, I went out there again. I took along one of the books I’m reading, Jerome Holtzman’s No Cheering in the Pressbox (#93 on Sports Illustrated top 100 sports books of all time). Once again, the humidity was low. A freshening breeze rustled the trees and kept the bugs away. I sat on a deck chair in the bright sun, and propped my feed up on another chair, and read. It was delightful. It might even be better than the porch in L.A. Time will tell.

Reading on the deck

We need to populate the deck with decent deck furniture, but I realized right away that an umbrella of somekind is critical. I forgot how bright a white page is when reflecting the light of the summer sun. Still, I enjoyed sitting out there. The house is situated far enough from main roads so that there is no traffic noise. With the breeze blowing, all I could hear was the wind in the trees. The sun felt warm, and the book, thus far, was excellent.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of reading done out on that deck. I may even get some writing done out there. Heck, it was so nice out today that I considered taking my laptop out there and doing some work.

I still miss the porch in L.A. But I miss is a little less now, thanks to the new deck.

Who Needs a Scale?

Life goes on, even amidst the chaos of moving. Back in April I gave up caffeine. On May 28, I started a diet in an effort to lose weight again. For this effort, I followed the same plan that worked so well for me the first time I tried to lose weight: I limited myself to 1,600 calories a day. I took lessons I’ve learned from my first (and second) attempts at this and it seemed to be working, but I couldn’t be sure. That’s because of the move.

The fancy digital scale I’d bought a while back was packed away. I had not other means of measuring my weight to see if the diet was, in fact, working. Over the weekend, while unpacking some boxes, I located the scale–and the batteries were dead. The AAA batteries we had were packed away in other box, and I had no idea where that box was located, so off I went to the store for some AAA batteries.

But the batteries (and the scale, for that matter) failed me. Something within the scale’s digital mechanism had given up the ghost. No matter how many fresh AAA batteries I tried, the scale would not work. I decided I had to get another scale. I further decided that this one would be purely mechanical.

In the meantime, life went on. We unpacked. I worked. We attended soccer games, and end-of-year school picnics. Each time I ate or drank something, I diligently wrote it down in one of the Field Notes notebooks I carry around with me. I felt like I was making progress, but I couldn’t know for sure, not without a scale to tell me one way or the other.

Then I had to go into the office for a training session. I mostly work from home these days, but I headed into the office. As I passed through the office toward the desk I’d reserved, someone I hadn’t seen in a while, said hello, and then, tilted their head, raised and eye brow, and said, “Did you lose weight?”

A sample size of one is no indication that the diet is working, not in absence of physical measurement. But when I arrived at the training session, the person leading the training, who I also hadn’t seen in a while also asked me if I’d lost weight.

Two people, in completely separate circumstances, asking me if I lost weight was promising, especially in absence of a scale. I started to hope for three, but didn’t want to press my luck.

This did get me thinking that perhaps I don’t need a scale after all. Perhaps the best way to know if my diet is working is not to worry so much about the daily measurements. Instead, I’ll just occasionally visit with people I don’t see on a regular basis, and wait for some comment. The frequency of such comments are probably just as good as any scale’s measurement might provide. And more rewarding, too.

Sunday Morning, On the New Deck

Among the many little advantages to the new house is the deck. The deck overlooks the backyard, which slopes down into the local park—the same park our kids have been going to for ten years now. A deck wasn’t on our list of must-haves, but ever since putting the offer on the house, I’ve imagined sitting out there on Sunday morning, reading the papers.

This morning, after our youngest woke us up around 6 am, I took advantage of the unexpected wake up call to do just that: I went out onto the deck and spent nearly an hour and a half reading the Washington Post, listing to the birds, and watching the joggers and bikers descend into the park.

A picture from the new deck
A picture form the new deck this morning.

For some reason, it made reading the newspaper that much more enjoyable. I found several new books to read. Among them, Ballpark, Baseball in the American City by Paul Golderberger, and Ten Innings at Wrigley by Kevin Cook—a rare instance in which a review in the paper convinced me to add books to my reading list. Tony Horwitz, who recently died unexpectedly, has a new book out. I enjoyed reading Blue Latitudes when it came out, and have added his new book, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide to my list.

Sitting on the deck and reading the Sunday papers may seem like a small thing. But given how hectic life has been lately, with house-hunting, packing, moving, unpacking, all on top of our normal jobs and chores, the quiet comfort of sitting out there made me feel good.It didn’t go unnoticed. When I came in to make some eggs, the Little Miss, noting my cheerful demeanor, said, “Daddy, you sure seem in a good mood this morning.” (Maybe I haven’t been a good mood lately?) I was, despite being awakened earlier than I would have liked. And I think it was due in large part to that hour out on the new deck.

My New Office

We moved into our new house on Tuesday and one of the first things I did was get as much of my new office setup as possible. I had to be able to work on Wednesday, and I needed my office to do that.

Our new neighbors mentioned that they were impressed with how quickly the books filled my bookshelves. I neglected to mention that, at this point, I put the books on the shelves in the order they came out of the boxes. It would be difficult for me to find a particular volume.

But the office is shaping up, with half of it—the working half—more or less functional, if not a bit messy.

The working part of my office
The “working” part of my office.

The other half of the office is another matter. I still have eighteen boxes of books to unpack, with no place to put the books as of yet. At some point, I’ll get some more bookshelves, but it will be a close call as to whether all the books will actually fit in this room. All of the pictures that hang on the walls throughout the house are also being temporarily housed in the other half of my office. It will be a while for that side to be cleared up.

The other, cluttered part of my office.
The other, cluttered part of my office.

With the new house, comes a new network, and this one is fiber, and I can tell the difference. We had good download speeds at our old house, but nothing like what we have here. We also have good coverage throughout the house, but even so, the two laptops in my office are connected via ethernet when I am in here to give me the fastest possible speeds.

Sitting at my desk, I am surrounded on three sides, which is something I’ve wanted for a long time. Now I have enough surface area for my laptops and notebooks. Nothing matches at this point, but over time I plan to replace my current desk with stuff that matches throughout the office. It is low priority. I need to be functional, and what I have rigged up in here is good enough for now.

My 3-sided desk area.
3-sided desk area

There’s so much to do I don’t even know where to begin:

  1. I need to organize the stuff on my desk to be functional. I want things that I need at arm’s reach.
  2. Organize what I have in the drawers. They are a mess right now. I purged a bunch of stuff last night, but I can do better.
  3. Hide all of the cables. I rushed to get operational, but I really want to hide as much of the cabling as I can manage.
  4. Add French doors to the entrance. It opens into the living room right now, and that has already proved tricky when I am on calls.
  5. Put all my books back into order. I may wait until the rest of the family heads to the beach for a few days later this summer to tackle that project.

All of that aside, I love this office. I love the light I get from all around. I love being able to look into the park that our house backs up to. It is a great place to work. I am hoping it will be an equally great place to write, to think, and to read.

Five Phases of Home Buying

There are five phases to the home-buying process. Having just completed this process I thought I’d share these phases with you. Had I known about these phases in advance, I would have been better prepared for the experience. But in the end it would have made no difference.

Phase 1: Excited!

Anything new has an element of excitement to it. You’ve been living in the same place for ten years, and now you’re going to move to something new. All kinds of good things will come from this move. This is a promise you make to yourself. You’ll quit smoking, start going to gym again, cook instead of eating out. Everything will change with your new house.

Your real estate agent will help generate excitement in this phase. In the “excited” phase, everything is theoretical, so looking at those million-dollar houses will seem practical. You’ll worry about how to pay for it later.

Phase 2: Disillusioned

It turns out that buying a house is not like buying milk at the grocery store, and this is mildly upsetting. You find the perfect house. You can see yourself living in that house. You are mentally arranging the furniture to support your new, healthy lifestyle. You put in the offer.

The offer loses out to 17 other offers, and you learn that yours was the lowest of the batch. No one can actually tell you what the other offers are, for reasons that boggle the imagination, but you ultimately learn that the winning bid was all cash, and no contingencies whatsoever. This is what you are up against.

Now it is difficult to drum up enthusiasm for any house. Why fall in love with a house if you’re certain you’re going to lose it? All of the initial excitement is gone. You wish you hadn’t sold your old house because now you are trapping. You put an offer on two more houses. On the second one, the agents look at your offer and snicker.

Phase 3: Hopeful

Your agent finds a house that is close enough to what you wanted (although still miles from the map of perfection you’ve made in your head). You are desperate, and the house is good enough, so you put in an offer—and it is accepted! Now you are hopeful. All that’s left is the paperwork, and in 45 days, the new house is yours.

Phase 4: Frantic

The lender suddenly needs all kinds of documentation. You have the highest possible credit score, no debt, and some savings, never missed a payment in your life. You provide the papers.

This is followed my more requests for information. Time is ticking. Now it’s a month to closing. Now a week. Just one more clarification need on this PayPal statement. Now two days. Are you going to make it? It’s like a footrace and you are frantic, running flat out just hoping you’ll cross the finish line in time!

Phase 5: Relief

The day before closing you get an email that everything is set. You slide out of the chair and curl up on the carpet. You’ve had at least seven dreams that something has gone wrong. All that’s left is to sign some papers and the new house is yours. Moving will be a breeze compared to this.


The irony is that now that I know what to expect from the process, I’ll never have to go through it again. The information is useless. Nothing will pry me out of this new house. Nothing. Winning ten million dollars in the lottery couldn’t get me to put myself though these roller coaster phases ever again.

If buying groceries was as harrowing as buying a new house, we’d all starve.

The Jamie Todd Rubin Papers

In our increasingly digital age, it is remarkable what still survives. Reading Working by Robert A. Caro a few weeks back, I was impressed by the sheer volume of the Lyndon B. Johnson papers Caro referred to. Of course, Presidents produce lots of paper. Then, too, I’ve read about Isaac Asimov papers collected at Boston University. John and John Quincy Adams papers are collected. And I recently came across a reference to Andy Rooney’s papers collected at a university in Texas.

All of these papers made me wonder about my own papers. So much is digital these days that it gives “papers” a new meaning. I have most of the emails I have ever written or received. I have been working to build a chronological collection of all of the fiction writing I have done since I started to write for publication way back in December 1992. But I lived a good portion of my life before digital. What about all those papers?

Taking boxes down from the attic over the weekend, I came across three Sterilte containers of paper. Back when my parents moved houses a few years ago, my mother sent me boxes of papers. I looked through these papers over the weekend and can officially say that these make a good portion of what I optimistically imagine will one day be the Jamie Todd Rubin Papers.

My mom saved everything. There are papers in there from the day I was born, notes with a doctor’s wretchedly scrawled instructions for how to care for a newborn. I found notes that told me that I took my first solo steps on November 23, 1973 (Thanksgiving Day). There were papers with schoolwork from preschool right up through college. There were drawings I made, and stories I wrote on those old gray newsprint sheets with the dashed lines that helped you form your letters. There were report cards, and test scores.

And then there were the letters I wrote. The earliest of these that I found in my cursory searching over the weekend dates back to the early 1980s. Most of the letters were written to my grandparents, and they are long. Six pages of single-spaced type was not uncommon. I tried to read one and had to stop for fear of dying of extreme embarrassment.

At some point, I will scan in these papers, purely out of habit. I’m not really sure that scanning is necessary, though. After all, the papers have survived this long, and I have trouble locating computer documents from a few years ago. With our kids’ papers, we tend to scan them in and get rid of the originals. I never felt bad about this until I rediscovered the boxes of papers in the attic. Just what are these papers used for, anyway? How often have I needed to refer to a letter I wrote to my grandparents in 1993? How many times have I suddenly needed my 9th grade report card? The truth is that these papers, like photographs, are fun to rummage through from time-to-time. They provide a delightful insight into my youth. Most notable, these papers provide a humbling reminder to myself that I was not nearly as clever a child as I like to think I was.

Digital Pack Rat

I wish clearing up my digital photos was as easy as clearing out the house for moving. There are a lot of things I am unsentimental about. I get rid of old clothes without a second glance. Marie Kondo would be proud. I look at something that’s been stored away for ages and dump it. If I haven’t needed it for the last six years, I’m not going to need it now. Digital photos are different. There are 23,465 digital photos in my photo library as I write this. I don’t think I’ve deleted one.

My logic is always the same: it costs nothing to keep the photo. It doesn’t occupy physical space the way 23,465 Polaroids would. So why get rid of them? They provide an unedited collage of my life for the last twenty years or so.

The problem is that I am not organized about my photos the way I am in other parts of my life. I’ve made reluctant attempts at organization now and then, but my heart was never in it. I’ve had all kinds of great ideas for photo taxonomies that would allow me to put my finger on a photo within seconds. These ideas never pan out. I just don’t have the interest. And yet the photos accrue.

Look at all of these screenshots I’ve captured! I don’t even get rid of these. I think, for some reason, that I’ll need a particular screenshot at some point in the future. This is preposterous, but the screenshots are still part of my photo library.

I must have dozens of pictures of a barn in Maine. The barn doesn’t change much. But I have my phone, so I take the picture, even though I know I already have plenty.

That barn in Maine
That barn in Maine.

Digital photography has created a crisis and turned me into a digital packrat. I find myself wishing that we still had to put film in a camera, or that there was some equivalent cost to a digital photo. I think I’d be more careful about what pictures I decided to snap, and what I chose to keep.

I’ve been taking fewer photos these last two months. Many of the photos I had taken previously were taken spontaneously with the thought, “This would make a good post on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram.” But when I gave up social media and found myself pulling out my phone to snap a photo of the two deer munching away at shrubs alongside the bike path, I made a decision. I slipped my phone back into my pocket and decided to stand there and watch the deer. No photos necessary.

Deer
The deer that I didn’t photograph When I started thinking about this post, I snapped a photo the next time I saw her. Actually, I snapped three.

The 23,465 photos in my library will only continue to grow and continue to be disorganized. Whenever I get the idea to purge and organize the photos, I break out in a cold sweat. The number alone—23,465 (and counting)—terrifies me. If I managed to look at, and make a decision on, 100 photos a day, it would take me nearly 8 months before I finished. And by then, who knows how many more photos will have appeared.

Thinking about how difficult it is to purge all of those photos make it so much easier to get rid of the physical stuff around the house. The more I can get rid of the, the less I have to move to the new house.

Which reminds me: I need to get over there next week and take pictures of all of the rooms so that I know where everything is going to go.

The Mirror in the Bedroom

We spent several weeks clearing out our house to properly stage it for sale.The house sold on the very first day it was on the market, which was great, but it made me feel that all that decluttering was wasted. Now the house is beginning to take on that pre-move cluttered look, and before long I suspect it will be in complete disarray.

For instance, there was a full length mirror behind the door in one of the kids’ bedrooms. We’d taken it down and stuffed it into a closet. It was gone last weekend when I needed to check my tie in the mirror. It reappeared lasted night, leaning in the space between two closet doors in our bedroom.

That mirror has some kind of magical power. No one in the house can walk by it without stopping in front of it and striking a pose of some kind. I was laying in bed reading last night and was distracted by what seemed like a parade passing by that mirror:

  • Kelly would stop in front of it to see how the new Vineyard Vines apparel she got on sale at Target looked. There wasn’t time to do that at Target because there was a line just to get at the stuff.
  • The Little Miss would stroll past and strike a pose, while lip syncing to some song or other.
  • My youngest would walk right up to the mirror, grip both sides of its frame, and start blowing kisses at her reflection.
  • I stopped in front of it to look at my eyebrows. The barber was supposed to trim them the last time I got a haircut and forgot. So I decided to check to see if there were any strands particularly out of control.

I knew the mirror was going to be a problem. I was certain that I wake going to wake up in the middle of the night, catch reflected movement off the mirror, and think that someone was standing by the closet.

A thunderstorm passed through around midnight, and one clap exploded right overhead loud enough to jolt us out of sleep. Still half asleep, heart pounding a little from the abrupt awakened, I climbed out of bed and padded the short distance to the bathroom. I do this more often in the middle of the night than I used to. My doctor assures me that at my age, it would be a problem if I wasn’t doing as often.

I took about three steps, and caught motion off to my right. I startled, jumped back a little, and saw someone else jump back in surprise. It was that damn mirror!

I turned the mirror around so that it wasn’t reflecting everything that was happening in the room. I thought if no one saw their reflections, they’d stop pausing in front of it. When I came back to the room a few hours later and caught sight of myself, I realized that someone had turned it back around again.

I can’t wait until we are in the new house and the mirror is back behind the door where it belongs.

You Say Tomato, I Say Blah

I can no longer remember what a good tomato tastes like. Every tomato I’ve consumed over the last ten years or so has no discernible flavor. This came to a head on Thursday when I ordered my usual sandwich for lunch. I order the same thing for lunch every day. I do this because I like it, but also because I know exactly how many calories the sandwich has, and because it is one less decision I have to make. On Wednesday, the tomatoes on the sandwich were so tasteless that on Thursday, I ordered the sandwich without tomatoes.

I like tomatoes, and I recall a time when they were sweet and juicy. Now, it seems, all of the flavor has been engineered out of them. I’ve tried organic tomatoes from the grocery store: same result. And I’ve tried “farm fresh” tomatoes from the farmers market. No luck there either. It makes me skeptical about just how farm fresh those farmers market veggies really are.

The strange thing is that things made from tomatoes taste the same as they always have. Spaghetti sauce, ketchup, tomato soup: these haven’t changed. Perhaps there was never much tomato in them to begin with, or perhaps the other ingredients have a stronger taste than the tomatoes. I suspect that some tomatoes are grown specifically for these products, and these tomatoes still have their flavor. Those are the tomatoes that I want.

My dad used to drink tomato juice, and I’ve often wanted to like tomato juice, but it tastes just awful to me. I tried it recently, and it still tastes awful, but even that has more flavor than the bland slices on my sandwich, or in a salad.

Other vegetable still taste good to me. At least, they still have flavor. Tomatoes seem to be the big exception. That’s too bad because I love to make the occasional B.L.T. sandwich, and nothing makes the B.L.T. as much as the perfect tomato slice. That means gone are the good B.L.T.’s

There will be people out there, I’m sure, who will attribute the tomatoes loss of flavor to genetic modification. Tomatoes have been tinkered with to the point where they last forever, and the side-effect of this is the lack of flavor. Perhaps that’s so, but I have a different theory. I think the tomatoes just got fed up with us, and decided the best way they could avoid being eaten would be to lose the one thing that made them edible.

Laugh Out Loud

I am prone to laugh out loud at something that amuses me. I’ve lost count of the times Kelly has said to me, “What’s so funny?” because I am laughing. Not chuckling, you understand, but laughing from the gut. I thought I would make a list of things that make me laugh out loud. These are in no particular order.

  • Reading. I often laugh at something I read. This is especially true if it is something written by Andy Rooney or E. B. White. After calming down, I have this terrible habit of reading aloud what made me laugh to whoever is in earshot. I call this a terrible habit because I would hate anyone who inflicted such misery upon me. This is how I know Kelly has a good heart.
  • Bloopers. I could spend a large chunk of my life doing nothing but watching bloopers from classic television shows on YouTube. Whenever I am feeling a bit down, I’ll watch bloopers, and come away with tears in my eyes. Not from sadness, but from laughter. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fallen off my chair laughing at bloopers.
  • Pride before the fall. Although I should be ashamed of this, whenever one of my kids does something stupid and then falls down because of it, my first reaction is to laugh. “Don’t run around in there!” I’ll shout, “the floor is still wet.” Off the kids go, running, until the legs go out from under one of them. I am helpless with laugher at this point.

There are things that should make be laugh out loud but only make me chuckle. Here are a few:

  • Most jokes people tell. I think this is because most people are lousy joke-tellers, or are excellent joke-tellers, but tell lousy jokes.
  • Television sit-coms. I will mostly chuckle, with a rare laugh out loud. The bloopers are usually much funnier than the sitcom. I wonder if it has ever occurred to someone to produce a sitcom, but never air it; instead air only the outtakes.
  • Stand-up routines. I chuckle at these as well. Here the jokes are better, but these days, they are cleverer than they are funny. Clever only gets a chuckle.

There is one thing that made me laugh harder than anything I’ve ever laughed at in my life, but that I will never laugh so hard at again: my grandpa’s laugh. His laugh is indescribable, capable writer though I am. I am not even going to try. But when he got going, it was a phenomenon that would reduce me to jelly. I try now and then to recall the sound of that laugh, but as time passes, it fades more and more.

There is only one joke I have ever heard that produced a similar laugh out loud reaction and reduced me to jelly. No, I’m not going to tell you the joke. Why? Because it is an excellent joke, and I am a lousy joke-teller.