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Bits and Pieces


When I first revived this column a number of years ago, I told readers that it would not have any theme, that it would depend on what had caught my attention, be that politics, something I had pondered upon, perhaps something that amused me … it didn’t matter what.

Well, there has been plenty of politics to think about this month but, frankly, I am exhausted and depressed by it. Like 72 percent of other Americans (according to a CBS poll), I am worried about the future of our democracy and frustrated that so little can be done to promote constructive discourse. But, that said, I just don’t want to go there.

Avian Antics
Compared to the national discord, it may seem banal to have wondered about birds. But that is exactly what happened in early August while I was waiting for a cup of coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts. I noted that birds seemed to be congregating in a bush nearby, hopping in and out of the foliage in a highly animated manner.

It was too early for them to be contemplating a journey south, I thought. So, what do you do when you notice something like that—you pull out your phone and ask it what prompts birds to migrate and when.

It seems that even birds are not immune to anxiety in this fraught world. There is something called “Zugunruhe,” a German term—wouldn’t you just trust a German to have a word for everything! — that combines the two words zug (move/migration) and unruhe (anxiety/restlessness). Migrant birds, it seems, have a biological instinct that creates a feeling of anxiety. It tells them to get a move on, that the season is going to change and, responding to this feeling of tension, they change their behavior.

Thus, the little birds I saw flitting around the bush were apparently mulling over a momentous decision. I can hear their communal conversation now:

“So, when were you guys planning to leave?” asked one.

“I dunno—seems a bit early, but I feel so restless. We probably should get started, but I don’t know if the kids are up to flying that far yet,” said another.

“Well, I vote for leaving early,” chimed in a female. “I hate getting caught in traffic around the Triboro Bridge.”

“Oh, Martha, we go through this every year …” remonstrated her mate. “Traffic is never bad until September.”

I hope the discussion remained reasonable—travel arrangements and flight delays can create such rancor.

Inflation’s Silver Lining
A good deal of the news coverage this summer has surrounded soaring prices and the stress it imposes on American families. Inflation, stagflation, a looming recession: everyone seems to have an opinion but no real answers. Somewhere along the line, people began to take note of another kind of “flation,” shrinkflation. This is when producers put less in your grocery bag while charging the same amount or more.

Now, that is manifestly unfair—you should pay less for less—but, in my mind, there is a silver lining here. Since the 1970s, Americans have been systematically accustomed to larger and larger portions on their plates, in their treats and in the bottled drinks they consume.

There are, of course, many reasons for this but a primary one is the perception of value for dollar spent. In recent decades we have become more accustomed to eating out and advertising emphasis is almost invariably on how large the portions served will be. For a restaurant, food and drink are the least expensive portion of their business when compared to rent, labor, insurance and the like so it makes good sense to serve too much. Boil up a $1 box of pasta, throw on some tomato sauce, cheese and a meat ball or two, and voila! You can charge $20 for a dish that’s ingredients purchased separately add up to less than $6.

To ease the sticker shock for the customer, what do you do? Why, put that pasta in a bowl the size of a trough and the customer feels mollified, believing he or she is getting greater value. Unfortunately, if you put too much food in front of most people the chances are they will eat more than then they need.

Current estimates are that Americans consume 25 percent more calories every day than they did in 1970. Obesity rates have more than doubled. So, I see a silver lining in manufacturers giving us less. They still want to maintain their profit margins but recognize rightly that there will be sticker shock if they boost prices for current portion sizes. The solution: keep prices up while delivering less and hope people don’t notice.

Irritating, but if it means that Americans can become reaccustomed to more appropriate serving sizes there may be a silver lining to the black economic cloud.

Ringo Starr
I was 16 when the Beatles burst onto the scene in America and, like most of my classmates, I watched with curiosity as they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I liked them well enough but didn’t particularly succumb to Beatlemania. I preferred to make pocket change by drawing sketches of them for my besotted classmates. I even got pretty good at forging their signatures.

In an unusually reflective mood one day back then, I wondered what would become of the rock stars when they reached their 40s and no one screamed at their every appearance. Forty seemed an impossibly advanced age to me then—after all my parents were in their 40s! What, I wondered, would the former teenage idols do for an encore? Even Paul McCartney seemed to acknowledge the point, singing, “Will you still feed me, will you still need me, when I’m 64.”

Well, I got my answer this week when my son (who was born well after the Beatles broke up) invited me to go to Tanglewood to see Ringo Starr. Ringo is 82 years old now, still touring and still packing them in. The rain was sheeting down and yet the lawn at Tanglewood was filled with the faithful, most huddled under umbrellas and tarpaulins but a significant number up and dancing. Ringo, a smooth and energetic octogenarian if ever there was one, played and sang up a storm for two hours.

So, you see—if you live long enough you might get answers to some of your questions, even without consulting your phone.