One of my least favorite words has always been “obvious” and its adverbial form “obviously.” Perhaps my dislike stems from its pejorative use as someone being obviously gay, as opposed to being undetectably gay. Or maybe it’s because of the tendency to label things as obvious in hindsight which were anything but apparent in real time—think any murder mystery by Agatha Christie or the Nixon resignation. My personal favorite for obvious in hindsight is the ketchup example.
Heinz Ketchup (and is there really any other kind?) was first sold in glass bottles in 1876. Several decades, my lifelong addiction to it began as a child, using it on everything from French fries to sausage to corn bread. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who ate corn bread with ketchup.)
Unlike lesser brands, Heinz was slow to pour, and there was hardly a meal at home that didn’t include shaking and thumping to get the narcotic condiment out of the bottle. In fact, the Mad Men of the 1970’s touted this inconvenience as a virtue, crafting an advertising campaign built around Carly Simon singing “Anticipation.”
Of course, those New York types obviously(!) overlooked the reality in virtually every café in East Texas, and probably across the country, that folks were pouring the ketchup into red plastic bottles with a jaunty waitress in yellow stenciled onto the side. (Similarly, mustard was moved to a yellow container with the same waitress in red.)
So after Carly got all that money she didn’t need, Heinz in its infinite wisdom did the obvious and introduced the first squeezable ketchup bottle in 1983. American ingenuity is a beautiful, if slow thing.
But the ketchup story doesn’t quite end there. It took until 2001 for the power of innovation to come up with the idea of the upside-down bottle.
So when I heard that the first ever spacewalk by two female astronauts was shelved because there weren’t two spacesuits ready in the right size on the International Space Station, I just shook my head, rolled my eyes, and wondered out loud who the hell was in charge. It had to be a man, obviously. No woman I know goes out of town overnight—much less to space!—without a thing to wear.
But just like ketchup, this story gets just a little bit better. It seems there were two spacesuits on the ISS in the right size. It’s just that only one of them was “prepped” to do the walk. Isn’t it obvious that when a spacesuit is sent into space it needs to be, I don’t know, space-worthy? Isn’t that like packing dirty underwear on a trip because you might do laundry while you’re gone?
But this demonstrated lack of imagination by Heinz and NASA isn’t where this narrative stops. Two years from now, we are most likely to be in either the early days of the second Trump administration or the beginning of the new Democratic administration under President Fill in the Blank. And knowing some people, there will be those who will assert, “Well, obviously, that was bound to happen.”
Whatever 2021 looks like, it isn’t preordained. After all, if it took 125 years for Heinz to sell its ketchup in upside-down squeezable bottles, it seems like a safe bet that what’s going to happen in the next couple of years is pretty uncertain.