John's World: Old! Unimproved! Completely Unchanged!

February 11, 2012 09:22 AM

The turn of the year prompts us to ponder, between snacks and reruns, the passage of time. It takes me considerably longer to do a history scan these days. And during this reflective period, I can’t help but notice those artifacts of our culture that seem immune to change.

Consider, for example, cookies. I do. A lot. Some of my earliest memories involve sneaking cookies of the kind that can still be found in every grocery store: the black-and-white vanilla creme sandwich. These tend to come in 10-lb. boxes at a cost that screams, "Made with the cheapest ingredients on earth." I’m pretty sure there is not a single healthy component in them, but why ruin the experience by reading the label?

On the whole, I love them. I even eat them that way. While this used to be a proud (and parent-defying) accomplishment with a 9-year-old mouth, it now neatly insures against incriminating "crummage." The continued existence of these sandwich cookies is reassuring evidence of America’s deeply ingrained pursuit of traditional forms of sucrose (or whatever).

Speaking of cookies, another thing the decades could not improve is the chocolate-chip cookie recipe on the back of the chip package. While it is inexplicably called "Toll House cookies"—which early on led me to believe there were tiny ovens in those highway tollbooths—it defines what a chocolate-chip cookie is supposed to taste like. If I am ever facing the end, with doctors having broken the hopeless news, my plan is to bravely make my exit by consuming raw cookie dough, which we now know poses a mortality threat equivalent to solo rock climbing.

Simple tools. Another survivor is the lowly canvas nail apron. While manufacturers have created multipocket waistline storage packs of every conceivable configuration and material, the simple two- or three-pouch apron somehow remains far better for most tasks.

To be sure, the new tool belts enable professionals, who need to minimize the number of trips back and forth to the truck, to carry enough tools and supplies to finish a task in one climb or crawl. But most amateur semi-handypersons actually benefit from the thinking time that such shuttling provides. Further, a fully loaded tool belt can add more weight than most of our stepladders will tolerate, not to mention our knees.

The comparative lack of capacity in the canvas tool apron also prevents the heartbreak of rummaging for a tool while holding on to the edge of the roof gutter, only to find the crumbling remains of the black-and-white sandwich cookie you were looking for last week. Even worse is discovering the expensive test meter you had given up on finding and replaced yesterday. Of course, being free, or nearly so, might be a key to these aprons’ longevity.

It’s good enough as it is. Another artifact from the dawn of civilization that defies enhancement is aspirin. Even the bottles are untouched by time, with the exception of several different closure schemes to prevent access. The pills that eased headaches, battled hangovers and helped tender muscles go to sleep have remained unchanged throughout my life, even as manufacturers desperately tried to tart them up.

In the past few years, the mundane aspirin has acquired a reputation as a miracle drug, touted for prevention of strokes, heart attacks, cancer and even higher pharmaceutical profits. The 40,000 tons of plain old aspirin that are consumed each year are probably the only thing keeping the drug companies from being able to buy Wall Street.

Finally, ever since Yankee catcher Bill Dickey famously dubbed his protective equipment "the tools of ignorance," I have found that phrase triggered by the sight of an aluminum scoop shovel. Even after the advancement from steel scoops to aluminum ones, the scoop shovel has endured, completely unfazed by GPS or electrohydraulics.

In fact, I would wager that grumbling farmworkers will still be using an identical device to clean up the edges of grain storage areas a hundred years from now. Of course, long before that I will have Bitten the Big Cookie.

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