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Lessons in a ketchup bottle

This is for everybody who began this new year frustrated with the way things are. You know, our friends are still getting COVID, a Republican-led House (dysfunctional as it may be) is expected to block any important legislation this year, and we are still only feebly battling climate change and economic injustice.

Well, here’s a bit of advice for coping in 2023: Take heart, comrades, from our experience muddling through the dark days when ketchup came only in glass bottles.

Yes, young ’uns, there was a time before squeeze ketchup bottles. That’s back before 1983, when Heinz finally pulled its iconic octagonal glass containers off the supermarket shelves. I remember those days: You had to be patient if you wanted ketchup on your burger or fries. Of course, you could shake the bottle or beat on its bottom – if you wanted to risk a juicy red belch on your bib. But mostly you had to wait. Good ketchup is thick, you know, so it moves slowly through a narrow bottle neck. The ketchup makers seemed to be telling us to, you know, just deal with it.

In fact, Heinz brilliantly turned our annoyance into a marketing campaign. In 1979, it licensed Carly Simon’s hit “Anticipation,” and tagged a commercial showing the sauce slowly sliding from a bottle, with a mellow voiceover saying, “The taste that’s worth the wait.”

But we were different people back during the Carter Administration, which is to say that we weren’t such hotheads. We waited 444 days for Iran to release 52 American hostages from our embassy in Tehran. We stood in long supermarket checkout lines because there were no scanners, and we queued quietly in bank lobbies until a teller was available to process our deposits. We idled at red lights, because right turns on red didn’t become widespread until after 1975, when Congress mandated it in most places as a fuel-saving idea. 2:00

Back then, it’s worth remembering, Joe Biden was already a United States senator. Voters in Delaware sent him to the Senate in 1972, and re-elected him six times. It’s not that he lacked ambition: He ran for president twice and lost, then went back to the Senate until his eight years as second banana in the Obama White House — after which he got elbowed aside by Hillary Clinton’s White House bid. When he finally ran for president again in 2020, he finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses, fifth in the New Hampshire primary, and 21 points behind Bernie Sanders in Nevada.

And then he became President of the United States. Joe Biden clearly knows how to wait for the ketchup, so to speak. He got to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, finally, by being more turtle than hare. And that’s in part why his presidency is succeeding.

A year ago everybody was pronouncing his legislative agenda dead, but Joe Biden pushed on. So on the day that Kevin McCarthy was going through his fourth, fifth and sixth humiliations in trying to become House Speaker, Joe Biden was celebrating the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law in Kentucky, with Mitch McConnell beside him. Biden got it done – and a lot more. He was patient. The president kept his head down and did his job.

This idea of patience as a virtue isn’t just about politics. Impatience breeds unhealthy anxiety in all of us, in extreme cases even leading to heart attacks and strokes. In fact, scientists say that impatience can affect our DNA, by changing our telomeres — the protective tips of our chromosomes. People with longer telomeres have lower incidence of cancer and other diseases. Long-term stress, on the other hand, can shorten the telomeres. That’s unhealthy.

Okay, got it: patience is good for us. And it’s good for the country, as Joe Biden is showing us. So what does that mean?

I’d say it’s this: If you think it’s time for the United States to, say, fund universal pre-kindergarten, or to help middle class families with child care costs, or to reduce prescription drug prices and deal meaningfully with climate change – all of them useful and quite overdue changes – well, then, don’t give up hope. It’s quite unlikely that the president has. Keep working for change.

One more thing: Any coach will tell you that a lack of confidence is self-reinforcing — that failure is more likely when we expect it to come. That’s no less true for a society than for its individual citizens. If we’re patient, not to mention realistic, we might realize that we shouldn’t be quite so negative about our future.

It’s the lesson of the ketchup bottle: Good things come to those who wait. So, still, we must. Patience, friends.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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