Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, November 26, 2021

Classic Toys, Part 1: Mr. Potato Head

Mr. Potato Head in a Macy's Parade

If you’re alive to read this column, chances are you’ve had a Mr. Potato Head in your home at some point—if not, you’re at least familiar with the toy. Did you know the original Mr. Potato Head came with no head? In 1949, inventor George Lerner conceived a toy children could design themselves. Each set consisted of plastic body parts and accessories attached to pins. Children could transform a simple potato or other vegetable into a colorful, unique character all their own by arranging eyes, noses, mouths, glasses, hats, and pipes.

Coming out of the shortages of the Great Depression, followed by food rations during World War II, Lerner’s idea initially met with resistance. Why would anyone sacrifice a perfectly good potato by turning it into a plaything? According to a 2019 article by Mary Bellis on, a cereal company eventually bought Lerner’s concept for $55,000 and placed the plastic parts into cereal as free prizes for kids to collect.

By 1951, the world reveled in its post-war abundance. The Rhode Island Hassenfeld Brothers toy manufacturing company paid the cereal company to stop production and purchased the rights to Mr. Potato Head for $7,000. Later, the company changed its name to Hasbro.

Those first sets provided hands, feet, ears, two mouths, two pairs of eyes, and four noses. Accessories included three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight pieces of felt suitable for beards and mustaches. The move turned into a great investment for Hasbro, who earned more than $1 million their first year.

In 1953, Hasbro added Mrs. Potato Head, their children Yam and Spud, and the children’s friends Kate the Carrot, Pete the Pepper, Oscar the Orange, and Cookie Cucumber. Children could even ask Santa for a Mr. Potato Head car, boat, or kitchen.

In 1969, the United States passed its Child Protection and Toy Safety Act, enabling the Federal Drug and Safety Administration to ban toys it deemed unsafe. Mr. Potato Head’s small pieces of plastic with sharp pins fell into that category. Parents had also complained about discovering rotten potatoes under their kids’ beds. Rather than simply discontinuing the toy, Hasbro innovated once again. In 1964, they began making hard plastic potato-shaped bodies and larger body parts. Another twenty-two years would pass before Mr. Potato Head surrendered his pipe-smoking habit in the interest of better health.

With the release of the first Toy Story movie in 1995, Mr. Potato Head again stepped into the spotlight, his character voiced by Don Rickles. He’s appeared in every Toy Story movie since. This year, he landed a minor role in my newly released novel, The Last Piece, when a boy receives a much-longed-for Mr. Potato Head kit for Christmas in 1957. Of course, he needs to ask his mom for a potato in order to play with the creative toy. You can watch a vintage TV commercial for it HERE.

Friday, November 19, 2021

A Love Lesson from a Zucchini

I purchased a massive zucchini for a dollar recently.

Let me ask you something. If I invited you into my home, and we sat down for tea and a chat, and then I excused myself to the kitchen and returned with a platter of goodies in my hands to share with you, which “goody” would make you feel more loved: fresh zucchini slices arranged in a pretty spiral, or sliced zucchini bread still warm from the oven and laden with half-melted chocolate chips?

On the surface, it seems obvious. “You baked this for me? How wonderful! Yum!”

But another person might find it cruel of me to put such a temptation in front of them.

“You know I’m diabetic. This contains as much sugar as zucchini—not even counting the sugar in the chocolate chips.”

“You know I can’t eat gluten.”

“I’m allergic to chocolate.”

“You know I’m trying to lose weight. How much oil is in this?”

“Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

And so on.

In this light, I have not performed a loving deed at all. Have I?

I ask this because it’s what I pondered while I used only a third of that zucchini to create four loaves of zucchini bread. Adding sugar, flour, oil, chocolate chips and more turned something cheap and nutritious into something expensive and unhealthy. Why do we do this to ourselves and to each other?

If I truly loved you, wouldn’t I care enough about your health to want you eating something packed with nutrition but easy on calories? Then again, if I truly loved you, wouldn’t I want to offer the joy, comfort, and surge of endorphins that come with home-baked treats?

Who’s to say what is loving? What one person might call tough love, another sees as controlling and manipulative. Do my actions enable another to continue in unhealthy behaviors or do they demonstrate patient support? Am I practicing healthy boundaries or exclusion? What one sees as standing up for their own human rights, another sees as self-centered. Yet God calls us to love, first and foremost.

While it may not always be crystal clear what genuine love looks like, I know what it doesn’t look like. Love doesn’t look like fear or the spreading of fear. Name-calling. Gossip. Quarreling. Worry. Hatred. Resentment. Coercion. Arrogance. Distrust. Pretending to know stuff I don’t.

I think we’ve all seen a whole lot of the above lately, haven’t we? Sometimes the best prayer we can pray is, “God, make me teachable. Give me eyes to see. Ears to hear. Wisdom. Patience. Humility.”

Philippians 4 admonishes us to think about what is true, honest, just, pure, virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy. Whatever’s troubling you today, God has already figured out. One day, in his perfect timing (how we wish we knew when!), you’ll look back and say, “see what my good and faithful God did there?” And just maybe, you’ll see where you grew in strength, compassion, goodness, and faithfulness because you chose love.

Now, what do I do with the rest of this zucchini?

Friday, November 12, 2021

To Any Length

In his 1976 collection, Six War Years, 1939-1945: Memories of Canadians at Home and Abroad, author Barry Broadfoot shares hundreds of stories from those years that you won’t hear in novels or movies. He recorded, verbatim, anonymous interviews with every-day Canadians after asking them one simple question: “What did you do in the war?”

Their admittedly one-sided stories, told with language far more colorful than I’m accustomed to, are as varied as they are interesting—from fellows who enlisted just for the free boots to women who signed up in order to follow their soldier boyfriends overseas, to men who married only to avoid the draft. Such is the story of one Manitoban named Tom.

Tom’s farmer father needed Tom’s help to keep the farm afloat. Often in this case, a young man would receive a deferment from service because growing food was vital to the country’s defense. But if a family had two sons, one was sure to be marched off to do his duty, at least on the home front.

Tom’s father had three sons, all single. The youngest was intellectually disabled, although they wouldn’t have used that term then. His biggest contribution was helping his mother gather eggs. The middle son showed no interest in farming and leaned toward the lazy side, according to the anonymous storyteller. The eldest at 28, Tom would surely be wanted by his country’s military no matter how much his parents might need him on the farm.

One evening while the family sat around after dinner listening to the news on the radio, they heard the announcement that all single men would be called up the next day. Tom’s only chance of avoiding conscription would be to get hitched by midnight.

Well, Tom had been taking a friend named Gwendolyn to dances—a nice girl, but, in the storyteller’s words, “plain as a mud fence.” Tom’s sister called Gwendolyn and told her to be standing by the gate when Tom arrived. Then Tom, along with his brother and sister, picked up Gwendolyn and headed down the road to Shoal Lake. It was nine p.m. by the time they discovered the preacher out for the evening. They drove to Hamiota. The minister there, knowing what game they were playing, refused to marry them.

Time was running out. Backtracking to Binscarth, they woke up a policeman to find out where the preacher lived. The ruckus at their door awakened the preacher and his wife. Tom yanked out a ten-dollar bill and told the minister, “You get this business over with in ten minutes, before midnight, and I’ll double this.”

The preacher grabbed his book, tore through the ceremony, and completed the paperwork. All parties signed it with ten minutes to spare. The minister, twenty bucks richer, saved Tom’s hide.

I have no idea how Tom and Gwendolyn’s marriage turned out, but folks in the community allegedly saw Tom as a bit of a hero for racing around those country roads late at night and outsmarting the government by evading the draft.

Canadian historian Jack Granatstein (author of Who Killed Canadian History?)
wrote, “no single issue has divided Canadians so sharply” as the military draft. Given the current issues dividing our citizens, I can’t help wondering if Granatstein, now 82, still feels the same.

Lest we forget.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Life's a Puzzle

The puzzle that sat unfinished on our dining table for a year before being boxed up again will be up for grabs at my book signing on November 27. (My sister did successfully complete this puzzle during the pandemic.)

An antique jigsaw puzzle determined to remain unsolved for 80 years plays a pivotal role in my upcoming novel, The Last Piece, releasing November 16. Ironically, I’ve never been a fan of jigsaw puzzles. In a wild moment of reckless abandon in 2016, I opened a thousand-piece puzzle on our dining table. I thought Hubby and I could complete it over the Christmas break and share a little bonding time in the process. A year later, the unfinished puzzle still sat on our table. We’d covered it with a tablecloth on several occasions when we needed the space. Finally, in defeat, I returned the pieces to their box. That incident, along with a fascination for seemingly random stories which all converge in the end, provided my inspiration for The Last Piece. Of course, writing the book required some digging into the history of puzzles.

John Spilsbury, a British engraver and mapmaker, is credited with inventing the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767 when he pasted a map onto wood and cut it into small pieces to be used as an educational toy. To this day, “dissected maps” continue to provide a wonderful way for children and adults to learn their geography.

In the early 1900’s, puzzles for adults emerged and became both a craze and an addiction. Pieces were cut exactly on the color lines, making them more challenging. Because the pieces did not interlock, puzzlers could wipe out an evening’s work with one false move or jostle. Nor did they provide a picture on the box, so you may not know what the subject of your masterpiece looked like until the last pieces were in place. Those early wooden puzzles proved expensive to make, too, which meant only high society folk purchased them at up to five dollars for a 500-piece puzzle (about one tenth of the monthly salary of an average worker).

Well-known game makers, the Parker Brothers, introduced interlocking puzzles that included unique “figure pieces,” where an individual piece might be shaped like an animal or other recognizable object. This added so much appeal that in 1909, Parker Brothers stopped making games and devoted their factory exclusively to puzzle production that year.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s brought even more reasons to buy and sell jigsaw puzzles. By this time, the less expensive cardboard puzzles had emerged. They offered an affordable means of entertainment and escape from difficult times. They gave strugglers something at which to succeed. Folks could rent puzzles from libraries or drugstores for pennies a day. They could pass puzzles around a community until every family had assembled it. Puzzles were also given out free with the purchase of various products. The picture would be of the product itself, doubling as advertising for the company.

Other businesses jumped on the bandwagon and began producing weekly puzzles that people rushed out to buy every Wednesday, much like a newspaper, hoping to be the first to solve that week’s jigsaw.

Once colored photography became common, jigsaw puzzles displayed more photos than artwork. With the advent of television, puzzles quickly declined in popularity. But even today, as jigsaws continue to grow in sophistication with unique challenges like 3D or double-sided, many puzzlers remain devoted to the hobby.

LOCAL FRIENDS: I’m giving away gently used jigsaw puzzles as door prizes at my come-and-go book signing at the Portage regional Library on Saturday, November 27, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Along with all my previously released books, The Last Piece will be available for purchase. Come finish your Christmas shopping. Or, if you already own one of my books not already signed by the author, feel free to bring it along. You may go home with a new-to-you jigsaw puzzle!