The smartest cows study all night to give Grade A milk

As I was serving up some vanilla ice cream for dessert tonight, I noted that Breyer’s is very proud of using only “Grade A” milk, which made me wonder for the first time if there is “Grade B” milk or even milk that fails completely (even if graded on a curve).

It turns out there is, and it comes down to how the milk is handled after it’s collected from cows. “Grade A” milk requires the strictest sanitary conditions and is immediately stored in refrigerated bulk containers that cool the milk down to around 40 degree Fahrenheit within 30 minutes. This milk is known as “fluid grade milk” because it’s able to be packaged for liquid consumption. Lower milk grades (there are at least “Grade B” and “Grade C” and possibly others) are used for daily products such as cheese, though many daily products also use Grade A milk (such as my Breyer’s ice cream).

Another common misconception about milk is due to the common “2%” and “1%” variants available at most grocery stores. I assumed for a long time that “whole milk” was therefore 100% milk, but the percentage is actually the amount of milk fat since the containers of milk we buy are actually mostly water. So 100% milk fat would be pretty solid and wouldn’t work as well on your morning cereal or in your macaroni and cheese. “Whole milk” actually contains 3.25% milk fat, “2%” has (you guessed it) 2% milk fat, and “1%” has (interestingly) between 0.5 and 1.5% milk fat. Even “skim milk” has some milk fat, not more than 0.5% (otherwise it would be 1% milk!).

Our milk door was like this one.

I’m old enough to remember when the Twin Pines truck would pull up to our house in Pontiac and leave our milk order in an insulated cooler outside our back door. We also had a “milk door” located next to the back door which had a shelf above it on the inside where you could put cubed or block ice to keep the milk cold if you weren’t going to be home when the milkman arrived, but my dad bolted the inside milk door shut because you could reach in and unlock our back door through it. I assume milk doors were common when you could leave your house unlocked and not worry about thieves (or nosy neighbors). We used the old milk door space to store gardening tools instead.

Vintage dairy truck
Twin Pines Farm Dairy truck in the collection of the Knowlton Ice Museum. (Source: Facebook)

The Knowlton Ice Museum in Port Huron has a great collection of ice and milk delivery memorabilia, including a Twin Pines truck! And here’s a company in Kansas City that brought home delivery of milk and milk products back a few years ago:

Twin Pines also had Milky the Clown, who was in all of their advertising and even had his own kids’ show on WJBK-TV Channel 2 in Detroit. Here’s Milky in a special appearance on the 1963 United Foundation Torch Drive television show:

It’s funny to think that we used to have all kinds of things delivered directly to our homes, including milk, bread, and other groceries, but that was largely phased out as supermarkets and malls put the burden of transporting goods more on the shopper. But now we have Amazon Prime, UPS, FedEx, and the Postal Service dropping off things on our porches a few times per week, and I’ve even seen some oversized insulated and lockable boxes that you can buy to have keep your packages fresh and secure. What goes around, etc.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Stanza 6 of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

This is one of my favorite Christmas hymns. The lyric is from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863 during the American Civil War. When he wrote it, he was still mourning the loss of his beloved wife Fanny Appleton, who died in 1861 after her dress caught fire and she was seriously burned. For some time after that, Longfellow was unable to write poetry and instead worked as a translator.

As the war wore on, Longfellow’s son Charles decided to join the Union Army but only told his father through a letter he left for him.

I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.

From a letter from Charles Appleton Longfellow to his father, dated March 14, 1863

Charles was severely wounded at the Battle of Mine Run in Virginia in late November, 1863, and while he did recover, the concern over his son’s health weighed heavily on Longfellow. A few weeks later on Christmas Day, he heard church bells ringing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived, and the words to the poem that was originally titled “Christmas Bells” came to him, with the repeated phrase at the end of each stanza borrowed from the King James Bible’s phrasing of the angel’s words in Luke 2:14.

The poem contains seven stanzas, though only the first, second, sixth, and seventh are commonly sung, and some variations and additions to Longfellow’s words also exist in some versions. The most familiar music for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Johnny Marks in 1956, and his composition was recorded by Bing Crosby the same year; it was a big Christmas hit and has remained popular for over sixty years.

“Christmas, 1863” by Thomas Nast

Longfellow’s anger and frustration come through strongly throughout the poem, which contains specific references to the war in some of the verses that aren’t usually sung. But it’s the sixth stanza, the one I included above, that has always affected me the most. “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Over a century and half after the horrors of our own civil war, those words are still true. I feel Longfellow’s despair and understand his hopelessness, even though I haven’t shared his personal tragedies and loss.

He finishes his poem on a hopeful note, though:

The pealed the bells more loud and deep
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

I like to think that, on balance, wrong does fail and right does prevail. (In an odd aside, this verse always reminds me of the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” where before a duel between Captain Kirk and former Starfleet officer Tracey, Dr. McCoy says to Mr. Spock: “I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”)

I also like to hope that we might eventually establish peace on earth and witness good-will among all people. I’m 57 years old and I’m still waiting, and over the past year I feel like we’re farther from that goal than ever.

Nevertheless, it is my wish for anyone who reads this tonight, tomorrow, or anytime in the future. Longfellow’s wish ought to be our collective mission statement. I wish you “Peace on Earth and goodwill to all.”

And now, some good news

As we stumble through the last weeks of 2020, there’s some good news:

  • The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed in the U.K., will start to be distributed next week in the U.S., and other countries will soon follow. Other vaccines are also close to approval, either full or emergency authorizations, and should continue to expand the vaccination of humanity against the cause of the biggest social upheaval in the last century. The vaccines are highly effective, have few side effects, and while there will be significant challenges ahead in the logistics of getting people vaccinated, there’s definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. One of the biggest remaining hurdles is getting people who are skeptical or who have bought into disinformation about the vaccines to actually get the shots. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who say they will refuse to get vaccinated are the same ones who won’t wear masks and won’t follow social distancing guidelines.
  • In the long run, the “miracle” development of the various COVID-19 vaccines bodes well for the future. As this article in New York magazine explains, the Moderna vaccine actually only took a weekend to develop back in January, even before we started to see how disruptive COVID-19 would be. This is the product of incredible advances in the understanding of how viruses work, but it’s as much a result of sheer computing power. Scientists can now model, in three dimensions and in real time, the structure and behavior of viruses, and can try out theories and hypotheses in days instead of months or years. The vaccines against COVID-19 have their basis in work that was done on other coronavirus infections, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. This has positive implications for our ability to combat future viruses and also other diseases and illnesses, including cancer.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court refused – twice – to play ball with the Trump campaign’s ongoing attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election with nuisance lawsuits. On the 8th, the court refused to stop Pennsylvania from certifying the results of the election, issuing a single sentence response to the request from Republicans in that state. And late Friday, they also refused to consider the ridiculous lawsuit brought by the state of Texas that sought to invalidate the results in four key battleground states that went to Biden, based on alleged irregularities in the voting, including mail-in balloting. (Of course, similar “irregularities” happened in a number of states that went for Trump, but apparently those are okay.) The justices, in a 7-2 decision that included Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett voting with the majority, determined that Texas didn’t have standing to bring the case in the first place, so they didn’t actually make any judgment on the merits of the case, but it seems to bring to a conclusion any legal recourse the Trump campaign has.
  • Finally, the Lions have a new leader in coaching winning percentage, at least until tomorrow’s game with Green Bay. Darrell Bevell won his first game as a head coach last Sunday when his squad came back from behind to beat the Bears, 34-30. That gives Bevell a perfect 1.000 winning percentage. If the Lions somehow beat the Packers tomorrow, he might be on his way to taking the “interim” tag off his title, though I’d prefer that the team come up a with a long-term plan before rushing into that decision.

Enjoy the good news, and have a great week!

Five things I miss

  1. Going to work. While the adjustment to working from home wasn’t as great for me since I’ve done it for years when I was self-employed, it was strange not to be getting ready for work and driving in to the college each morning. For months I had the strong feeling that I was playing hooky and that everyone else was going to judge me for skipping work. Of course, everyone else is at home most of the time, too. When we started going back this summer, I was in the office two or three times a week. Now we’re back to “stay at home unless it’s something that can’t be done from there.” Mostly, I miss my co-workers. We’ve gotten the hang of online meetings, but they’re really not the same.
  2. Friends. For the same reason, I was resistant to replacing real-life social events with Zoom or GoToMeeting. Early on, some of my friends were meeting online just to keep in touch, and I was kind of a jerk and didn’t participate. It was my way of coping, which is my excuse. Now, I’ve relaxed my feelings about that – though I’m still not fond of virtual get-togethers, as I noted above – but I’m not sure if anyone’s still meeting that way. I’m sure they gave up on inviting me considering my earlier response. I’m also not on Facebook much, so I’ve lost touch that way, too. Hopefully, if we can move back toward face-to-face gathering in the late spring or summer, they’ll still be interested in talking to me, though I’d understand if they didn’t.
  3. The Brass Rail in Port Huron. There are several restaurants that I miss, including Lynch’s, Casey’s, and the Vintage Tavern (all in Port Huron) and Gar’s Lounge in Marine City, along with a few others. But the Rail is my bar, a great place to meet friends or just stop in an shoot the bull with whoever’s sitting at the bar. It’s not a fancy place; someone (maybe me) called it the nicest dive bar in America. But it has tradition, and I miss it and all of the people who work and hang out there. This time of year they’d be serving their classic Tom and Jerry holiday drinks, with the blenders going non-stop to make the egg cream that’s the key ingredient. But instead the bar is closed and dark; they’re hoping to re-open after the new year and maybe even have an abbreviated Tom and Jerry season, but who knows at this point?
  4. Beer. It’s been 272 days since I had any alcohol. I’m mostly a social drinker, I rarely drink beer or liquor at home. I mostly have a beer or two a couple nights a week at the Brass Rail or another bar or restaurant. On March 8, right before COVID shut things down in Michigan in March, I had my last beer before pausing for about a week before Port Huron’s big St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl, one of the major social events of the year on my calendar. The pub crawl wasn’t canceled but it might as well have been, with only a few folks participating – and I wasn’t one of them. Since I couldn’t go out for a beer, I just stopped. Two weeks became 50 days, which became 100, then 200. It’s now been 272 days and counting. I’ve decided I’ll have my next beer when the Canadian border re-opens to tourist travel and I can go to Montreal again, where I’ll grab a stool at Chez Baptiste in the Plateau-Mont-Royal and have a St-Ambroise Cream Ale. If all goes well, maybe that happens next summer. Until then, I’ll keep the streak going.
  5. Traveling. See above. Montreal has become one of my favorite places on the planet in the last few years, and I miss not being able to go to Canada in general. But I did a lot of traveling in 2019, both for work and for pleasure. I probably spent over 50 nights in hotels, and I kind of enjoyed it. This year, I’ve spent one night in a hotel when my wife and I went to a wedding in October, and I’ve had more pleasant experiences being admitted to a hospital. Not the management’s fault at all, but when you have no navigate plexiglas panels and a table set up to keep you six feet from the counter just to check in, it kind of takes the fun out of the whole experience. No thanks, I’ll wait until I can do things in a way that’s at least someone like “normal.”

Overall, that’s the way I’m thinking right now. I’m not interested in eating at a restaurant or drinking at a bar if I have to keep putting my mask back on after each bite or sip. I’m not anti-mask at all, let me be very clear: WEAR A DAMN MASK. Frankly, we could get back to “normal” much sooner if we’d just be more disciplined about that one thing, though I do understand pandemic fatigue. But I am anti-doing-things-I-like-doing-while-wearing-a-mask. I’ve made it this long; I can keep waiting. But it doesn’t mean I don’t miss a lot of the things I could do before COVID-19 arrived.

Faith and begorrah

Quick… name something you believe in. Don’t tell me! (I know you can’t, this is a blog.)

Now, this thing you believe in, whether it’s a person, a being, a concept, an object, or whatever, how strongly do you believe in it? Are you certain it exists? Is there any way someone could convince you to stop believing in it?

Depending on how seriously you’re taking this little quiz, your answers could range from “my lucky socks” to “God.” We all have lots of things we believe in, some of them critical to our personality and philosophy and some that are more trivial.

Most of us have at least one sports team we don’t just root for, but believe in. For many Detroiters, it’s the Lions. Despite the fact that they’ve let us down nearly constantly for over fifty years, we still somehow believe in them. Our continued devotion to this inept football team, who defy the odds year after year to remain at best mediocre and at worst miserable, goes well beyond just being a casual fan. The Lions are part of us, they’re in our blood. We can criticize them (and we do, endlessly) but outsiders aren’t allowed to. An insult from a Bears or Packers fan is justification for a fight.

Some of our beliefs are in brands. Advertising has a lot to do with that, but we also tend to find things we like and stick with them. That’s a form of belief, too. I’ve bought nothing but Fords for at least twenty-five years (with one exception – a Saturn – that I blame my wife for, though it wasn’t a bad little car, really). Why would I do that? My mom’s family all worked for Oldsmobile and I grew up in Pontiac so I should be a GM guy, right? But I bought a used Taurus in 1997 and it was the best car I’d ever owned, and kept on buying Fords because I honestly never had any problems with any of them. I’m sure GM, FiatChrysler, and other automakers make good vehicles, but I believe in Ford. My belief is more of a habit, though, and less devotional. Some people, like the ones who have the little pictures of Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) peeing on another truck maker’s logo, are a bit more intense. Like the Lions, you’d best not disparage their truck brand or you might be taking it outside.

I wonder, pretty much daily, how anyone could stick with Trump after the past four years. It’s obvious to me that he’s been conning people, that he suffers from an inability to care about anyone but himself, that he’s a compulsive liar, especially when the truth puts him in a bad light. I’m not even sure that he knows what’s real, or that it matters to him at all. Trump’s reality is that he’s a winner, he always wins, bigger than anyone else that’s even tried to do what he’s done, and anything that contradicts that is fake news, fraud, rigged, a conspiracy against The Donald.

For many reasons, people bought into that – hard. They’ve devoted time and money, they set up sign and flag shrines, they became… believers. Trumpism has moved beyond mere fandom to religious-level faith. And like other deeply-held beliefs, it’s damn hard – if not impossible – to get disciples to see that the object of their belief isn’t what he seemed to be. Logic and facts mean nothing. There is no appeal to reason, because faith isn’t reasonable or rational. It just is.

A set of strongly held and shared beliefs is the basis of a cult, not just in the pejorative sense of that word (Merriam-Webster’s first definition, like the Branch Davidians or the Manson Family) but also in the mainstream sense (the third definition, “a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also its body of adherents”). By that definition, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and every other conventional religion are cults. There’s very little factual proof; it just is. And it really depends on your point of view. One person’s cult is another’s religion, and vice versa.

If we’re waiting for Trump’s supporters to come to their senses, I have bad news: They’re not going to, at least not any time soon. And trying to convince them with facts isn’t helpful, either. They have too much invested in him and the things they think he stands for: some of it motivated by racism and xenophobia, certainly, but also by a more simple fear that people like them are under siege by outsiders, marauding invaders, who are going to dilute their authority and their rightful power. There’s too much at stake for them, politically, financially, and, frankly, spiritually, for them to easily change their minds.

Over time, their fervor may start to fade. But as you can see from the history of Detroit Lions fans, it may take generations to happen.