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When Did That Happen?

25 February 2016

When were bench seats in cars abandoned to prevent dangerous sliding in and out?  The last sedan with a front bench seat was the 2012 Impala, designed before most people drove their offices instead of commuting to them. Bucket seats are now compulsory even though one third of Americans have outgrown them. The injured, the very young and old all need to be pulled up and out, as if their bottoms were trapped in actual buckets. Spare tires are another endangered species; threatened by drive flat replacements, limited to a 50 mile radius. The cute mini-tires adopted by other models shouldn’t be driven beyond the nearest service station. New side mirrors tend to be bloated with electronics, making cars on the left invisible. Unlike seat belts, these innovations don’t save lives.   

When did three million Americans become so allergic to peanuts they couldn’t be in a Boeing 777 with a single peanut? Was that before or after peanut butter and jelly sandwiches couldn’t be taken to school in a lunchbox, because peanut fumes conceivably could leak out of a lunchbox placed in a hall locker? Are peanuts still sold in stadiums at ball games?  Probably not. Anaphylactic shock can be fatal, even if the person with the peanut is way up on top and the allergic person is down on the fifty yard line.

When did dysfunctional family reunions become the favorite subject for novels? If all the fictional siblings in current books dislike each other, why do they plan reunions?   Obviously, functional families, with agreeable parents and contented children, are too dull and ordinary to attract novelists. In fact, functional families have become rare and exotic, and deserve a chance in literature. There have been drastic changes in family life since Tolstoy wrote that Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Now he’d need to reverse that statement.

When did supermarkets begin to have three categories for produce: Conventional, organic, and NO GMO? Though the NO GMO departments are mainly limited to misshapen tomatoes, they’re gradually enlarging to include equally curious examples of fruit and green vegetables, few of which are visibly alluring. Organic produce tends to be smaller than conventional; spottier but more flavorful; just not meant to look beautiful in a fruit bowl. The more photogenic aisles are shrinking, attracting fewer people to the healthful plant-based diet recommended by the NIH.

The classic French Baguette is made of flour, water, yeast and salt. Will sixty-six million French people switch to baguettes concocted from rice, corn or soy? Is a soy flour croissant even thinkable? Will the citizens revolt  for the next ten years as they did in 1789? What about Italy?  Pasta can be had in 2500 different shapes, none of them corn, rice, or soy-friendly. The Chinese perfected rice noodles, but those were just an idea brought home by Marco Polo, soon supplanted by a flour that wouldn’t dissolve in tomato sauce. That flour is durum wheat, the name derived from the Latin for long lasting; something pasta should be.

(A trick question. France and Italy haven’t yet become gluten-free)

When did US Navy sailor hats replace screw-on tops for toothpaste tubes? True, people sometimes neglect to put-screw tops back on the tube. Without the screw-top, the toothpaste could dry out, but because the sailor hats can’t be closed after the first two uses, the toothpaste is guaranteed to dry out, cementing itself around the open top of the tube by the user’s bedtime.  Meant for a weekend, travel size tubes still have tiny screw caps, but longer trips need a dozen.   Even checking the taste of toothpaste  has  become challenging, ever since  mint gave way to a wide range of colors and flavors, many inconceivable. Licorice, coffee, cinnamon and chocolate are gaining an expanding public. Pine appears to be an Asian favorite. (The bacon-flavored brand must be a hoax.) Striped toothpaste is popular in the US, but so far, that’s the only pattern available.

When did subscribers to The Economist first find embarrassing, free copies of Cosmopolitan magazine stuffed into their mailboxes along with The Robb Report, which displays the most expensive watches, cars, and yachts in the world?

When did emojis replace the Roman alphabet? During the Tertiary Period, when wooly mammoths roamed the earth? Before hieroglyphics? After the iPhone 6S?  

Was that the same year the Presidency of the United States became an entry-level job?


An author, journalist and playwright, Elaine Kendall reviewed books weekly for the LA Times from 1980 to 1997. Her books of American cultural history are The Upper Hand; (changing roles of men & women) The Happy Mediocrity; (architecture, clothing, food) Peculiar Institutions; (the beginning of women’s colleges) & Seeing Europe Again (an anthology of travel pieces). The first three were published by Little, Brown & Putnam; the fourth by Capra Press. Her articles have appeared in many national magazines & newspapers, particularly the NY Times & LA Times.