News of the Week: The End of the World, the Start of School, and the Joys of the TV Dinner

In the news for the week ending September 8, 2017: library fines, a celebration of the ampersand, TV dinners, and the end of the world.

Smoke stacks

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Not with a Bang, But…

How will the world end? Now there’s a happy topic! Don’t worry, I haven’t heard any breaking news on the subject, though if it does happen it will be broadcast live on all the 24-hour news channels (and with a countdown clock in the corner). But 50 Nobel Prize winners are talking about it in this survey conducted by Times Higher Education.

The number-one prediction on how the world will end? Population growth and environmental degradation. Number two on the list is that old standby, nuclear war (which doesn’t seem so outlandish right now). Number three? Taylor Swift videos.

Okay, number three is actually infectious diseases and drug resistance. But I’m more scared by number 10. It’s Facebook.

RIP Shelley Berman, Walter Becker, John Ashbery, Larry Elgart, Louise Hay, and Susan Vreeland

Shelley Berman was an influential comic and actor. He was more of a “sit down” comic than a stand-up, and he won a Grammy for his 1959 comedy album Inside Shelley Berman. After a tirade was caught on camera (he was angry that a phone went off during a performance — sounds like a very contemporary problem), he got a reputation as a troublemaker. He made tons of appearances on variety shows like The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show and acted in tons of movies and TV shows, including a stint as Larry David’s dad on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Berman died last Friday at the age of 92.

Walter Becker was co-founder along with Donald Fagen of the group Steely Dan, known for such songs as “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “Josie.” He died Sunday at the age of 67.

John Ashbery was considered one of the world’s greatest poets. He won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He died Sunday at the age of 90.

You might not know the name Larry Elgart, but you know some of the songs he recorded. With his brother Les he did the theme song to American Bandstand, and later he had an unlikely hit with “Hooked on Swing,” a modern medley of big band songs he played while a member of the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman. Elgart died last week at the age of 95.

Louise Hay was an incredibly popular author of self-help and inspirational books, including You Can Heal Your Life and The Power Is Within You. She died last week at the age of 90.

Susan Vreeland was a popular author too, but of novels, including The Girl in Hyacinth BlueWhat Love Sees, and The Passion of Artemisia. She died August 23 at the age of 71.

You Can’t Pay Library Fines With Chuck E. Cheese Tokens

That may seem like a no-brainer to most people, right up there with “you can’t pay for a trip to England with your Costco card,” but it seems some people aren’t aware of it. At the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers, Massachusetts, people are trying to pay for their library fines with the tokens you can get at Chuck E. Cheese and Bonkers restaurants. The library is showing restraint by not being snarky and simply stating, “Since they are not legal tender, we cannot accept them.”

Oddly enough, you actually can buy dinner at Chuck E. Cheese with your library card.

Celebrating the &

I never use the &. It’s just easier to type the word and than to hit the Shift key & bring my finger up to the 7 key. But today is National Ampersand Day, so maybe I should just retype this entire column & replace every and with an &. Oh, never mind.

Some things I learned from the official site: The ampersand is a joining of the letters e & t (which is where we get etc.); the ampersand used to be part of the English alphabet in the 1800s; & the word itself comes from “and per se and,” the phrase school kids used to say when they came to the end of their recitation of the alphabet.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

There’s an old joke by Dennis Miller that goes something like this: “I developed the pictures from my vacation the other day, and Michael Caine was in most of them. This guy …” He was referring to the high number of films Caine was in at the time. I thought of that joke when I saw the trailer for Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, because Liam Neeson is the star. He seems to be in every other movie these days.

The film tells the All The President’s Men story from the viewpoint of Mark Felt (Neeson), the FBI Associate Director who turned out to be informant Deep Throat, the man who gave information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The info eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The 40th Anniversary of Voyager

Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager I, the interstellar spacecraft launched by NASA to explore the planets. But the mission of Voyager I (and its partner, Voyager II, which was launched two weeks earlier) didn’t stop there. Both spacecraft hurtled farther and farther away from Earth into the unknown regions of space. Voyager I left the solar system in 2013, and Voyager II will follow in a few years.

Both I and II also have something else on them, golden records that contain messages from humans in 55 languages, electronic information from the Earth, as well as samples of Earth sounds and music, including songs from Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Chuck Berry.

NASA has created some fantastic posters to celebrate the anniversary, and you can download them for free.

This Week in History

V-J Day (September 2)

It stands for Victory Over Japan Day, and it’s the day that Japan surrendered in World War II. In some places around the world, V-J Day is August 15, when the announcement of the surrender was made. It is celebrated in the United States on September 2 because that’s when the surrender document was officially signed.

Galveston Hurricane Kills Thousands (September 8, 1900)

The recent devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey reminds one of the even deadlier hurricane that hit Texas 117 years ago. The Galveston storm (they didn’t give them names back then) killed at least 6,000 to maybe even 12,000 people and caused incredible damage to the area.

Speaking of Harvey, CBS Evening News correspondent Steve Hartman focused on how the worst of the storm brought out the best in people in his weekly “On The Road” segment.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: “First Day of School” (September 6, 1958)

First Day of School 
Thornton Utz 
September 6, 1958 


I have a vivid memory of my first day in first grade. My mom dropped me off in the classroom and stood in the doorway as I took my seat. When the teacher came in, my mom left, and my eyes began to get all teary and I my lower lip started to quiver. When the teacher, Mrs. Hinckley, said something to the class, I couldn’t quite hear her, and I leaned over to the kid sitting next to me and asked in a blubbering voice, “What … did … she … say?” I remember it like it was yesterday.

I thought of that day after seeing this cover by Thornton Utz, though the kid is running up the stairs and seems to be pretty happy to be in school. It’s the mom who’s having a hard time accepting it.

National TV Dinner Day

Are TV dinners still a thing? I mean, I know they exist, but whether or not you call them TV dinners or frozen dinners probably depends on your age. I don’t think the terms streaming dinners or Netflix dinners will ever catch on.

Sunday is National TV Dinner Day. The concept was introduced by C.A. Swanson & Sons (with an ampersand) in the early 1950s, and in 1986, the original Swanson’s TV dinner tray was inducted into the Museum of American History. Swanson is now owned by Pinnacle Foods, the company that owns Birdseye, Duncan Hines, Vlasic, Aunt Jemima, and Lenders.

TV dinner ad
This image from a 1954 Post ad touting the benefits of aluminum shows a Swanson TV dinner before the invention of dessert.


Sometimes I wonder how many Swanson dinners I ate as a youth. Probably over 1,000? I think I was fascinated by the design and concept, the meat in the large section, and the veggies and dessert in the smaller sections. And you cooked all of that at once! I used to wonder how that worked. I never liked it when some of the dessert would ooze over into the corn or potatoes section during cooking.

I still eat frozen dinners. I’ll often have three Lean Cuisine meals for dinner, though when you’re eating that many in one sitting, I’m not sure the term lean still applies.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

Grandparents Day (September 10)

Every single member of your family gets a special day, including grandparents. And of course there’s an official site for the day.

Hurricane Harvey Telethon (September 12)

This fundraiser for people devastated by the hurricane — which could turn into a benefit for people affected by Hurricane Irma as well — will be one of those rare TV events that will be telecast simultaneously on all the major networks —ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—along with Country Music Television (CMT). It will be headlined by George Clooney and Beyoncé and will feature guests like Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, Rob Lowe, and Blake Shelton. It starts at 8 p.m. ET.

Uncle Sam Day (September 13)

Unlike Grandparents Day, this isn’t a day to celebrate your uncle, even if he happens to be named Sam (though if you want to do that, no one’s going to stop you). It’s the day to celebrate the iconic symbol of America, the guy who pointed at you on those U.S. Army posters and smiled at you in those hot dog commercials.

He was possibly named after Samuel Wilson, but radio broadcaster Paul Harvey once said that “some of us grew up thinking that Uncle Sam’s real name was Norman Rockwell. I still do.”

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  1. I was sorry to hear about the passing of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker at only 67. Thanks for including the link for ‘Josie’. I LOVE this group and always have. If I had to pick one song that exemplifies their sound best, it would have to be ‘Aja’. The fact is you CAN buy a thrill. I know I did seeing them at the Hollywood Bowl in 1996!

    Bob, I kind of like the ampersand when it fits the situation at hand. I think I’ve used it in some of my POST online comments, right? Hmmm.

    I might go see the Mark Felt Watergate film. It looks compelling and may help me understand this still bizarre, bizarre thing that actually happened that never should have; even if just a little more!

    I don’t remember my first day in the first grade, but bits and pieces of the 1963-’64 school year: a girl looking sick, asking the Nun if she could go to the bathroom, told to sit down, throwing up, having Sister get us out of the room while the janitor was called in to clean it up with sawdust.

    How about the time I took the hot dog out of the bun at the lunch tables, held it in the center up and flew it around like a bird flying. The other kids were laughing, but Sister was not.

    She grabbed my arm, pulled me off of that bench to receive a quick spanking and shaking. My mom was called to pick me up early that day. Fortunately she laughed at the situation even though I was crying and
    just said to watch my p’s & q’s around Sister, and try not to get into any other predicaments.

    I like the ’58 Plymouth Thornton Utz drew on this cover by the way, and it’s definitely not the Fury.


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