Simple Things I Miss

On this rainy Tuesday following Memorial Day, I’m remembering simple things I miss. Isolated in our houses, many of us have relied on simple pleasures to make the past year palatable. Others have reexamined priorities, feeling free to let our minds wander outside the normal bounds. There’s a certain freedom of connection that comes with the necessity of adjustment. I feel like my mind has been playing free association with memories in a more pronounced way.   

So here are a few things that keep floating through my mind:

Merthiolate & Mercurochrome– I miss the orange color and the glass rod applicator with a bulbous bottom. I’m not saying that applying mercury containing substances to the skin is a great idea, but was it really that bad used in small amounts?

Banana Fudgsicle®- I miss these on a regular basis. They rose above chocolate Fudgsicles and made Popsicles intolerable. The texture was perfect. The flavor was rich and delicious without the grossness of other banana flavored products.

Prell® shampoo in a glass jar with a pearl in the bottle- To me, this is what clean smells like. I didn’t like it as well from a tube and I just couldn’t make the transition to a plastic bottle.

Metal Band-Aid® boxes with hinged lids- Those things were great for holding little toys!

Luden’s® Cherry Throat Drops- We called them cough drops, but I ate them like candy! I really need them to be in wax paper and a cardboard box though. I never buy them anymore.

Noxema® in a blue glass bottle- I like the blue glass a lot, but my favorite thing is the smell. It must take the combination for me to buy it. I can’t remember the last time I made a purchase.

Old Spice® in a milk glass jar- I still like these jars. Both the shape and the glass please me.

I’m not sure what my thing is about glass jars. A big part of the appeal of Hendrick’s Gin® is the thick, squatty brown glass bottle. Oh, maybe I’m inherently “green.” I’ll go with that.

Now that I’m Green, I’m missing Beechnut Chlorophyll Gum. I rarely chewed it, but I remember thinking it was better for my teeth than regular gum. I don’t know if that’s true, but I thought it was.

Original Doritos– These were golden and had an almost buttery richness. I’ve always wondered why the other flavors won out. They may be bolder, but I don’t think they’re better.

Blacklights– I miss having a blacklight in the house. I had one that was a bulb screwed into the top of a 7UP can.

It’s funny what you miss and when. I find myself thinking about great aunts and uncles when I clean house. I miss my grandmother’s beef and noodles and lemon pie on my birthday. Right now, I miss her ginger snap cookies. I’d like one topped with cream cheese. I’d also love to have a cellar full of her homemade tomato juice and bright green sweet pickles.

It can be fun to walk down memory lane. I suppose there will always be things I miss. But memories also remind me who I am, what I’ve learned, and what I value. And that is always worth the trip.

What are you missing these days?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Safety First & Forever

No matter what activities we undertake, it’s good to focus on safety first, a focus that can last forever. In the kitchen, I’m always mindful of washing my hands, cleaning vegetables and fruit, and disinfecting any surface that comes into contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. And of course, I’m careful to avoid cross-contact with gluten. I also make sure I cook ingredients to a safe internal temperature.

I grew up on a farm. Most of our meat was home grown. We fattened cows and sometimes pigs, then took them to a butcher. A 12 cu ft deep freeze in the shed held a variety of packages wrapped in white butcher paper and stamped with the name of the cut enclosed. Once the meat came out of the freezer, we were meticulous about food safety.

By that, I mean meticulous to the point that our meat was overcooked pretty much every meal. This was deliberate…for safety. As an adult, I’ve enjoyed sushi and prepared sushi-grade tuna to be eaten raw at home. I’ve occasionally gobbled up steak tartare.

But when I’m cooking, I continually have to fight the urge to cook meat, poultry, and seafood to the stage of leather. I’m not as obsessive about eggs. I love a warm, runny yolk. To resist my early training, I keep multiple meat thermometers on hand. And I use them regularly.

In spite of that, I feel an internal struggle when the thermometer registers a safe temperature, but my eyes see pink. And don’t even think about serving me a rare hamburger in a restaurant. I will send it back in a heartbeat.

My mind understands that the romaine salad on which my steak is sometimes perched could pose an equal danger of E. coli. But my visceral response is to recoil from any and all red steak. Light pink feels like a much safer option and no pink, just right – until I take a bite.d

I can’t say I regret this struggle. Erring on the safe side isn’t bad for my health, it’s just bad for the aesthetics of the food. That’s why I make a conscious effort to balance my instincts with reason and use the tools I have to determine safety first, but not instead of, quality.

If you’re uncertain of the safe minimum internal temperature for meat, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service provides a chart on its website. The temperatures vary by type and cut of meat. The charts were updated a few years ago, so don’t be alarmed if you find some of the numbers lower than you’d expect. And don’t forget to include the recommended rest times. The temperature of the meat will continue to rise as it rests.

Reviewing these charts is a way for me to relearn old habits and retrain my brain. This is a great reminder of my I like cooking. It offers so many opportunities to learn, and I love learning. But no matter how much my knowledge expands, I’ll always default to safety first!

Themed Gardens

When choosing garden plants, a theme can help. I’m in the planning stages of a backyard redo. I’ve enjoyed my pandemic vegetable garden so much I’ve decided to make it permanent. But before I get a quote on fencing, I need to determine how large the garden should be. Making sure I get the most out of that space will require several levels of decisions.

Gardening is a learning process. Last summer, I researched plants for my growing zone, compared that to food I like to eat, and planted a row of summer squash and one of zucchini. Between fights with mildew and squash bugs, my harvest was good, but not great. And they limited the space I had for beans, lettuce, and carrots. This year, I’ve opted for more leafy greens, peas, and green beans. I know they’ll grow well and have a high volume of output for the space they require.

No matter what size your garden, choosing plants to fit the climate and space can be difficult. When dealing with small spaces, one way to narrow your choices is to consider a themed garden.

Pizza Garden

If you love pizza, meatballs, and moussaka, fill your garden with tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, basil, and arugula.

Latin Garden

If your preferences run to salsa, tacos, fajitas, and enchiladas, consider a Latin Garden with some combination of tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, jalapeños, sweet chili peppers, green bell peppers, cilantro, oregano, black beans, and lettuce. If you have a large garden space, you can also consider heirloom corn.

Berry Garden

I love berries and it’s so hard to get fresh ones. Planting a berry garden makes perfect sense for me. Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries all grow well in my growing zone and I have plenty of fencelines to support trailing vines.

Salad Garden

Red lettuce, green lettuce, arugula, endive, escarole, frisée, spinach, kale, and chard are all great in salads. You can also include my favorite salad green – mâche aka corn salad. Yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, carrot tops, radishes, and bell peppers make great toppers. And no salad garden would be complete without green onions.

I only managed to grow one onion in my winter garden, but when I put it in a salad earlier this spring it shone! It was my favorite thing about the salad.

Herb Garden

If all you have is inside window or outside balcony space, consider an herb garden. Herbs will thrive in pots making them easy to move around and perfect for small spaces. Before I started the vegetable garden, I grew herbs in pots. I choose a combination of my most frequently used herbs plus a novelty or two that changes each year.

My standards are basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, and mint. Some years, I grow dill or chocolate mint, and every year, I try cilantro. This year, I’ve moved the cilantro to the vegetable garden to see if I can keep it alive. For some reason, I’ve never been successful with it in pots.

Once I get past all the decisions and the prep, I love the early days of a garden when the weeds are at a minimum and I feel the anticipation of waiting for the seeds to germinate. That soon gives way to the excitement of watching tiny seedlings grow into mature plants. Then comes the sheer pleasure of plucking a sugar snap pea and popping it directly into my mouth to enjoy its sweet crunchiness!

With a harvest carefully chosen to fit both my space and my taste, the pleasure continues for months. Pleasure may be the best theme of all!

Artificial Intelligence is a Limited Tool

Spend a week in my family, and you’d never know artificial intelligence is a limited tool. Every time I swear at Siri or complain about a search engine, of my sons delivers the dire warning that I have now insulted the AI and it will make me pay! Even though I know he’s kidding, there’s a part of me that feels there’s a kernel of truth in that message. Our lives are hugely influenced by algorithms that may or may not capture us correctly. And as our lives move more online, artificial intelligence controls more than we may realize.

I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I am concerned that we’re approaching an inflection point at which we may no longer recognize the line between real and contrived. And we’ve already reached the point at which keyword searches have become less accurate and less useful. Even broad Google searches no longer give me broad responses. It has become harder to find scientific research on a general topic without knowing the title or author of a study.

Since AI makes our lives easier, why don’t I just shut up and enjoy it? It’s a valid question.

I do enjoy the ways in which artificial intelligence works well and saves me time. But that pleasure is tempered by the bias AI learns through natural language processing. For example, if the word doctor is grouped with male pronouns more often and nurse is grouped with female pronouns more often in natural language, then AI learns this pattern and determines doctors are usually men and women are usually nurses. From that point forward, the information that is aggregated and sent to you will be influenced by that bias. Over time, this creates an environment in which AI bias can become predictive by the manner in which it filters the information you receive.

There are ways for programmers to address such bias, but companies may not be motivated to do so if no one is paying attention, especially if the bias is feeding their bottom line. I know this may seem trivial on the surface, but it can affect our medical care, food choices, dating options, job opportunities, business success, and whether or not we receive our phone calls.

Research has shown that AI is more accurate than a majority of radiologists in reading mammograms but less accurate than the most accurate humans. That means your best chance for an accurate diagnosis would be the most accurate humans.

As a practical matter, there’s no way to know who those are. That’s where AI can be a useful tool. What if all mammograms were read by both a radiologist and AI? Essentially, the technology would work as a second opinion. If the two diagnoses differed, then a second human opinion could be consulted.

But as medical AI expands into more areas of medicine, the possibility grows that it could carry undetected bias as well. Studies that identify possible substance use disorder patients based on the language in their tweets can be affected by the algorithms Twitter uses. Not to mention, I believe there are people who can have drug using friends and not participate. But they still may use the language of those around them and risk being improperly identified and stigmatized.

Data is important and useful, but it often presents an incomplete or flawed profile. Think of the sheer number of fake profiles on dating sites or the number of polyurethane handbags that show up in a search for genuine leather handbags.

Last year, I received numerous job listings for epidemiologist positions in Los Angeles. I am not remotely qualified to be an epidemiologist and I live 1500 miles from LA, but something in my online history made search engines think those jobs were appropriate. While AI seems like a great tool for matching people with jobs, it may not bring the candidates you need.

So I say all of this mostly to raise awareness of what is happening behind our screens and to remind you that artificial intelligence is a limited tool. It cannot be trusted to replace human intelligence. We must provide the checks and balances it needs.

Believe it or not, that will soon be critical to thriving.