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Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Boomers Loved Their Chicken Parm

The idea of an “American cuisine” is as old as the country itself. However, it can be argued that our earliest cuisine was really dishes that immigrants ate in their own countries. Our American journey in flavor and taste needed a few generations to gather steam — and that was during the Boomer Generation.

Around the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, immigrants began opening restaurants for the cross-cultural working class population. They worked dishes they brought with them from the old country, and adapted local ingredients where the items they were used to weren’t available. But very quickly, a concept was injected into the dishes, a desire that in the vastness of the nation and the land of plenty, portions could be larger, and meat, now abundantly available, could take a bigger role on the plate. Regionally, dishes grew, and celebrated local produce, seafood and meat.

By the time two dogs shared a plate of spaghetti in The Lady and the Tramp (1955), boomer-generation America had selected Italian as their favorite “exotic” cuisine. What most boomer parents did not know was that the dishes they thought of as Italian were actually variations. True Italian cuisine stressed vegetables and smaller portions of seafood and meat. However, most Italian immigrants arrived from the southern half of Italy, and the island of Sicily. They brought their love of sausage, pasta and tomatoes with them. This new Italian-American version centered on sauce, cheese and generous portions of beef, chicken, veal or pork. Pepperoni pizza, spaghetti and meatballs and Chicken (or Veal) Parmigiana — all favorites of the era, if not to this day — were American inventions, inspired by Old World recipes, but given a New World twist.

Italian-American Chicken Parmigiana required mounds of melted cheese — usually mozzarella then topped with parmesan — resting on a sea of tomato-based red sauce, which covered a breaded and fried chicken cutlet. One newspaper food critic account from the 1950s recalled being served chicken “…the size of the plate!” No one knows who served the first Chicken Parmigiana, or where or when. But it is agreed upon that the origins of the dish came from a Southern Italy eggplant dish called Melanzana alla Parmigiana. The “Parmigiana” did not refer to parmesan cheese, but rather, meant the dish was prepared in the style of Parma, a region in northern Italy; “Parmigiana” meant the eggplant was twice-cooked. First breaded and fried, the eggplant rings were then lightly topped with tomato sauce and a sprinkle of meltable cheese, then baked.

The Italian-American version substituted chicken or veal for the eggplants, and pumped up the amount of everything else. Eggplants weren’t widely available, though Asian and Arabic cuisines utilized the vegetable in a variety of ways. Americans weren’t going for these types of dishes at the time the same way they latched onto Italian-American. You will recall that the primary dishes for Chinese take-out during the boomer years were chop suey and chow mein (see Boomers Ate Chinese Take-Out). What was available was meat, and lots of it. Boomer parents just won a major war, had good paying jobs, and felt rich when they ate big. They instilled that national appetite into their boomer children.

Throughout his childhood, Mister Boomer was served spaghetti and meatballs weekly, and by the time he was teenager, plenty of pizza. He ate Chicken Parm on occasion, but actually preferred Eggplant Parmigiana. He judges a good Italian lunch take-out to this day by the quality of their Eggplant Parm hero. Mama mia, now that’s American!

Did you enjoy Chicken Parmigiana, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Took V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the Summertime

It’s summertime, and the living is easy … at least for kids home for the summer break. It’s commonly repeated that summer vacation from school was tied into the agrarian economy — that the break was needed so kids could work the family farm. However, that myth is simply not true. Up until the Civil War, there were several school calendars followed across the country. The majority did link directly to the agrarian schedule, and that meant kids would have more time off in the spring (for planting) and fall (for harvesting.) There was a winter term, and a summer term. There were no summer vacations.

The same was true for their parents; summer vacation was not part of the American culture. In fact, work was considered preferable to time off, and the mantra that hard work leads to the reward of financial success remains part of our national psyche to this day.

Naturally, the wealthy always could take time off any time they wanted. Even then, religious leaders vilified leisure time, proclaiming “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Nonetheless, by the mid 19th century, doctors began to speak out on the benefits of time off to relieve fatigue. It was around this time that the railroads crisscrossed the country, facilitating travel and sparking a new hotel industry. The first summer vacations from school were created at the request of this elite class to bring their children away with them. People began to head to the seashore “for the fresh air” or natural springs “to take in the waters,” and therefore, improve their health. Religious communities established resorts as a way of controlling people’s free time, lest they be tempted into drunkenness, idleness, and God forbid, real fun.

By the 1930s, time off from work, even for middle class families, was commonplace — at least in Europe. Britain passed its first paid vacation requirement (one week) in 1939, around the same time France guaranteed a worker two weeks of paid leave and the world labor market was advocating the 40 hour work week. The U.S. went its own way.

After World War II, the economy was booming. In order to compete for the best worker candidates, some American companies offered paid vacation as an incentive, though it almost never exceeded a week. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that the vast majority of U.S. employers offered at least a week of vacation time to all full-time employees.

The U.S. does not guarantee paid vacations, the only rich nation in the world to not require it by law. As a result, a quarter of American employers do not provide paid time off for full-time workers. By contrast, the European Union requires 20 days paid, while France, Brazil and Finland offer 30 days. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that an average employee with ten or more years on the job gets 10 days off per year, including holidays.

Mister Boomer recalls that in the 1950s, since a good number of his uncles worked at union jobs in factories, they received two weeks off. Mister B’s father, however, received one week. The extended family got together for a two-week camping trip every year. For Mister Boomer’s father, however, it meant dropping his family at the campground over the weekend and heading back home to work for a week. The following week he would join the family for his week of vacation.

By the time the Interstate Highway System was well underway in the early sixties, Mister Boomer’s father had earned two weeks off. He was anxious to, as the commercials urged, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” (even if it was a Ford). It was then that Mister B’s family took vacations by car and drove down Route 66, went to the White House in Washington, DC, saw the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, counted bears in Yellowstone National Park and gazed at the Grand Canyon over the course of the decade. None of that would have been possible without two things that occurred during the Boomer Generation: the spread of paid vacation time, and summer vacation from school. Of course, like the railroads had done a century before, the Interstate Highways allowed people of even modest means to travel.

Did you spend part of your summer vacations traveling with your family, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Travel and have Comment (1)

Boomers Went Fourth and Grilled

Another Fourth of July weekend is upon us, and Mister Boomer is reminded that outdoor grilling was massively popular during his early boomer days. As it turns out, the parents of the Boomer Generation were instrumental in the development and promotion of outdoor grilling as we know it today.

Most people use the terms “barbecuing” and “grilling” interchangeably but there is, and always has been, a distinction between the two. This is important to note because as we explore the founding days of our country, “barbecuing” was a popular activity for political campaigns, especially around the Fourth of July. George Washington is said to have loved them, not only for the food but for the chance to meet and greet. Washington, however, did not use the opportunity as the chance to give a speech — he wanted the food and camaraderie to work the room for him. A traditional barbecue cookout for the Founding Fathers was the slow roasting of whole pigs or hogs over an open flame. The affair lasted all day and into the night, and the food was paired with copious amounts of beer and hard liquor. Therein lies the difference between barbecuing and grilling: a barbecue method was a slow roast over lower temperatures, while grilling tends to be quicker and over hot flames.

Outdoor roasting and grilling, of course, did not start in the U.S. In fact, the practice goes back as far as the harnessing of fire itself. Yet its use and popularity skyrocketed in the U.S. after the second World War. One influence the War had on newly-minted Boomer parents was that some servicemen, on returning home, brought Japanese ceramic kamado cookers back with them. These traditional cooking devices smoked or grilled meats, fish or vegetables to the delight of American servicemen. However, the thing most associated with the advancement of the backyard cookout during the boomer years was the move to the suburbs. Houses with backyards provided all the space needed for successful outings with family and friends. The social element that our Founding Fathers found so appealing was felt in boomer neighborhoods from coast to coast. A backyard brazier — a flat device with a bed for fuel and a metal grill over it — was as important a fixture as the car in the driveway. And, in Mister Boomer’s experience, the tradition of combining the cookout with large quantities of adult beverages was one his parents and neighbors felt obliged to keep.

Charcoal and wood were the fuel of choice after the War. The charcoal briquette had been patented by one Ellsworth Zwoyer in 1897, but Henry Ford is often erroneously given the credit. Ford got into the briquette business when he founded the Kingsford Charcoal Company in 1921 as a way to monetize the wood scraps and used sawdust that covered his factory floors. By the early 1950s, Kingsford increased production of charcoal briquettes by 35 percent to meet the increased demand. The company did not advertise for fear that they would not be able to make enough to meet the needs of the marketplace.

In a “which came first” debate, several technological advances in cookery either spurred the dawn of suburban boomer cookouts, or at the very least increased its popularity. For most American suburbanites, outdoor cooking was done on a brazier grill. Having no vents to control the flames, it was known for uneven heat that tended to char food quickly and spew ashes over the cook and guests, especially when a prevailing breeze visited the backyard event. That began to change in 1952, when a man named George Stephen, a welder for the Weber Brothers Metal Spinning Company, cut a metal buoy in half and created a new kind of grill. The top half was used as a lid. In both the lid and base, Stephen fashioned controllable vents. For the first time, cooking temperature was not an either/or situation. The grill quickly spread across the nation, though Mister Boomer’s father didn’t buy his first Weber grill until the early 1970s.

Experimentation in gas grills also continued through the ’50s. The first practical propane gas grills had been introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair. However, gas grilling remained the exclusive domain of commercial cooking until the 1950s. By the mid-fifties, home models were introduced by a variety of companies. The adoption of the gas grill was slow at first due to the price of the early models — they could be priced from $50 to more than $100 — which was approximately double that of a week’s pay for the average American. Ease of use eventually won out and by the late 1970s, the gas grill supplanted charcoal grills as the most popular in the backyards of boomer parents, at the same time that the first boomers were establishing families of their own.

As for the legacy of the Japanese kamado grill, fast forward to 1974 when a Navy vet named Ed Fisher opened the Big Green Egg Company. Ed’s combination grill and smoker was based on traditional Japanese designs. Thirty years after the War, its influence was still being felt in boomer backyards. The company continues operations today, gaining a following in barbecue purist circles. In fact, most if not all of the brands that were household names to boomers are still around, including Kingsford, Lodge, Charmglow, Weber, and others.

Mister Boomer thoroughly enjoyed his neighborhood’s backyard cookouts. However, he was never enamored with the common kid fare of hot dogs and hamburgers, much preferring ribs and chicken, and the occasional steak on the grill. He especially liked grilled corn on the cob. For years, even though his father was grilling, his mother had a pot on the stove in the kitchen boiling corn for the meal. Finally, around the mid-60s, his father and brother convinced his mother that corn could be great on the grill. Then began the endless debates over whether the corn would go directly on the grill, husk and all, soaked beforehand or not, or grill the ears sans husks. One way steamed the corn instead of grilling, while the other dried it out and could make it tough. A happy medium was never reached, but Mister B ate it all, along with baked potatoes. Since the grown-ups were busy downing their adult beverages, it also gave the kids an opportunity to drink cold cans of soda pop all day long — a real treat that did not happen often.

By the time sun was going down, the remaining bits of charcoal glowed a beautiful orange-red in the twilight, beckoning boomer kids to roast marshmallows. Then, sparklers were in order as kids pranced around creating light trails of various shapes. Older kids might have some fireworks, and sometimes an adult — often still gripping a long-neck bottle of beer — held out a Roman Candle to shoot colorful sparks into the sky.

What memories of backyard Fourth of July cookouts do you have, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Holidays,Pop Culture History,Suburbia and have Comment (1)

Of Course Boomers Had Driveways!

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was underway and the country was shifting from an agrarian economy to one based on manufacturing. Populations shifted from farms to cities and as immigrants came in, these cities grew. Housing was quickly built to accommodate the influx of workers that would signal the nation’s progress up until the Great Depression. Since the automobile was a new invention, it was purchased by upper class citizens who could afford it, so working class people in working class houses had no need for driveways. In fact, only about a third of city dwellers owned their own homes at that time. Many boomers — especially early boomers — will recall living in this type of urban housing.

Henry Ford tried to change all that by producing a car he felt everyone could afford. To make sure his workers could afford it themselves, he instituted a $5 a day wage that was unheard of at the time. Of course, that wage was not granted equally among his employees, but that is a matter for another time. The spread of the Model T into the 1920s initiated the first working class houses built in cities, with personal driveways attached.

The wealthy always had driveways, though not in the sense that boomers might recall. For centuries, the driveway up to the manor was an important path, intended to impress and reveal the occupants’ status, education and wealth. The end of the driveway was usually a circle from which visitors and owners could be dropped off at the front door. The carriage and horse were then stowed in the stables away from the main house.

Driveways in rural communities were most often dirt or gravel, and were more for moving farm equipment than the family car — which was most often a pickup truck, as soon as they became available in the 1920s. Barns and sheds housed the equipment necessary for the main job, so any auto or truck was going to reside outside on or near the driveway.

The rise of the driveway slowly continued as new housing was built before World War II; a new status symbol for a generation that grew up riding streetcars and city buses, a driveway indicated a certain level of modernity and upward mobility in a rising middle class. It was in this era where the driveway was treated as part of the house’s landscape; instead of a concrete slab, it was composed of two strips separated at a wide enough distance for a car’s wheels to tread, with a grass median between the concrete.

It was after the War that the driveway really came into its own. Returning soldiers got married and started families, which signaled the dawn of the Boomer Generation. Housing was an immediate concern, but cities were crowded, with little or no land for these new families. New suburbs were the answer, where land was readily available and inexpensive, or at least affordable with GI veteran assistance programs. Since a worker’s commute was now a serious concern, the fathers of boomers making the move to the suburbs had to own a car. Virtually all of the houses built in the late 1940s and into the ’50s featured a place for the family car, as a “standard feature.” Some driveways led to a garage behind the house, but most stopped at the back end of the house. In just two generations, the evolution of the driveway had come from a centuries-old symbol of “to the manor born” to one of middle class, utilitarian car-parking slab.

A typical car parked in a Midwest driveway, circa 1950s

At this point, the vast majority of families owned one car. For boomers growing up in these houses, the driveway was empty all day since their fathers took the car to work, so it became a boomer play space. Girls might draw hopscotch games in chalk on the family driveway, while boys were rolling homemade go-karts up and down. Many boomers (including Mister Boomer) recall flipping hula hoops up and down the driveway, or roller skating — with metal skates — back and forth.

Driveways became personal and an integral part of the house, as was the family car parked on it. In the early days in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, less than a third of homes had garages, where a driveway extended to the garage positioned in the yard behind the house. As the 1960s pushed on, several of his neighbors had single-car garages built, all the more to leave the driveway empty. That space was soon needed as boomers grew and got cars of their own. For Mister Boomer in his mid-boomer era, it was practically a rite of passage to acquire a car shortly after getting a drivers’ license. Driveways would have to serve for parking at least two cars; at one point in Mister Boomers’ house, there were three cars for household members, two of which resided in the driveway. With no garage, it was a constant shuffle to move vehicles so that one or the other could exit.

While we often consider certain television programs, toys, fashions or music as defining symbols of the Boomer Generation, Mister Boomer humbly submits that the driveway was an important part of the culture that molded our generation.

What memories do you have of your families’ driveways, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Cars,Pop Culture History,Suburbia and have Comment (1)

Mister Boomer’s Morning Jukebox Update

Mister Boomer has mentioned in past posts that he is afflicted with a condition he has labeled Morning Jukebox Syndrome. The symptoms are simply that upon waking several days a week, a song is “playing” in his head. These songs most often were in progress, like when you walked into the drug store to get an ice cream sundae and someone had already filled the jukebox with quarters for a long-term set. Sometimes he’d come in at the beginning of a song.

What is fascinating to Mister B is not that an aging boomer would conjure up songs from a half-century ago, but that a good number of them are songs that he hasn’t heard in decades; nor does he own copies of most of them.

Be that as it may, here is another dozen ditties that recently popped into Mister B’s morning brain. Almost all of these were released as singles, which is how Mister B probably remembers them. Most if not all are available where you download or stream music, unless you want to blow the dust off your 45s and give them a spin! Mister B thinks they would make a pretty good playlist on their own — morning, noon or night.

The Beat Goes On — Sony & Cher (1967)
What better song to wake up to? The legendary Wrecking Crew — that super group of studio musicians that appear on dozens of hits in the 1960s — recorded the music with Sonny and Cher. Carol Kaye is credited with coming up with the classic bass line that many music critics say is the reason this song became a hit. Sonny and Cher felt strong enough about the song that “And the beat goes on” was carved into Sonny’s tombstone.

You Can Make It If You Try — Sly & the Family Stone (1969)
If you’re into morning affirmations, Sly & the Family Stone is a good choice. This musical equivalent of the “I think I can” train hit number two on the charts, selling more than one million copies. It appeared on the SFS classic album, Stand! along with the iconic hits Everyday People and the title song.

Good Morning Starshine — Oliver (1969)
Cue the stretch, tossing back the covers, getting out of bed and pulling back the curtains to let the sun shine in. One morning Mister B heard the Oliver version of this song echo through his cranium, though the song first appeared in the Broadway musical, Hair, in 1967.

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! — The Buckinghams (1967)
Another Morning Jukebox cover, this song was a hit for the Buckinghams. A Cannonball Adderley tune, it has gone on to become a classic favorite for jazz musicians and remains one of the most covered tunes of the jazz-blues era.

The Rain, The Park & Other Things — The Cowsills (1967)
Boomers probably recall this song more from the lyrics than the title when they heard, I love the flower girl. It reached number two on the charts for the Cowsills, a family band that was actually playing gigs — minus mom — before the Partridge Family existed. First it was three of the brothers (Bill, Bob and Barry), then later, two more brothers (John and Paul), sister (Susan) and their mother (Barbara) joined in. This song, and the album of the same name, marked the point when their mother joined the band and toured with them.

Your Song — Elton John (1970)
Appearing on Elton John’s second album, this ballad was the B-side of of the single, Take Me to the Pilot. DJs preferred playing Your Song, which propelled it to become a hit. Elton was opening for Three Dog Night when he and Bernie Taupin composed the song. They gave it to Three Dog Night for their album, It Ain’t Easy (March 1970), where it got little attention. Elton’s 45 RPM B-side appeared in October of that same year.

Daydream — Lovin’ Spoonful (1966)
If you hear What a day for a daydream… first thing in the morning, does that say this may not be the most productive of days?

First I Look at the Purse — The Contours (1965)
Written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers (of the Miracles), the song was released on 45 RPM first by Motown artists, The Contours. Smokey later did a fantastic version of his own that Mister B also recalls with deep affection. Boomers may remember the cover version by the J. Geils Band in 1970, too.

Bad to Me — Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas (1964)
Though credited as written by Lennon-McCartney, John Lennon said it was Paul who wrote the song. They gave it to Billy J. Kramer to record, a friend who shared the same manager, Billy Epstein. It became only the second of three songs written though not recorded by Beatles members, that reached the Top 40. (The first was World Without Love recorded by Peter & Gordon (1964) and the third, Goodbye, recorded by Mary Hopkin (1970).

Friday on My Mind — The Easybeats (1966)
This single was this Australian band’s only hit in the U.S., but it has become a classic. It’s been covered many times, notably by David Bowie (1973) and Peter Frampton (1981). Let’s face it, no matter what day of the week we wake up in, Friday is on our minds.

You Got What It Takes — The Dave Clark Five (1967)
This version was a cover of the song Marv Johnson wrote and recorded in 1959. It sounds outright caveman-ish these days, with lyrics including:
You don’t live in a beautiful place
Oh, you don’t dress in the best of taste
And nature didn’t give you such a beautiful face
But baby, you got what it takes
Combined with lyrics from My Funny Valentine (1937) and Joe Tex’s Skinny Legs and All (1967), these songs contain the worst back-handed compliments ever put to music. Can you imagine what social media comments would do to these songs if they were released today? Why it popped into Mister B’s head remains a mystery, but it is a catchy melody.

Silence Is Golden — The Tremeloes (1967)
The song was co-written by Bob Gaudio of The Four Seasons, along with Bob Crewe. It made its recording debut as the B-side to Rag Doll (1964), but it was the Tremeloes version Mister Boomer heard one morning. Maybe that is because the band’s Here Comes My Baby (1967) remains one of Mister B’s favorites from a year brimming with classic hits.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over, boomers; the beat goes on! What songs have been running through your cerebral cortex these days?

Further reading: Music Flashbacks: A Sign of an Aging Boomer?

posted by Mister B in Music,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Holy Schnikies, Batman is Gone!

Our boomer flags were lowered to half staff this week with the passing of Adam West. He was born William West Anderson on September 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington, but for boomers, he was and always will be, Batman.

Anderson’s mother moved him to Seattle after divorcing his father when he was 14, but he went back to Walla Walla after high school to attend Whitman College. After graduating with a degree in literature, he worked a variety of jobs, including as a radio DJ, before doing post-graduate studies at Stanford University.

When he was drafted into the Army, he worked as an announcer for American Forces Network television and was part of a team tasked to create TV studios for the military, first in California, then in New Jersey.

After leaving the army in 1954, an old friend from Walla Walla, Carl Hebenstreit, suggested he move to Hawaii. There, Hebenstreit was hosting a local children’s TV series called The Kini Popo Show with a chimpanzee as his co-host. Anderson got his first acting job when he signed on as a sidekick, and later replaced Hebenstreit as the host. He had never studied acting.

The same year he worked in Hawaii, he appeared in a series of roles on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. His first movie role arrived in 1957’s Voodoo Island, though his role was uncredited. After moving to Los Angeles in 1959 he changed his name to Adam West and quickly landed a contract with Warner Bros. There, he appeared in his first credited film, The Young Philadelphians (1959,) along with Paul Newman, Barbara Rush, Brian Keith and Robert Vaughn. A series of Western roles followed, and a slew of television appearances that reads like a Who’s Who of popular boomer TV shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Perry Mason, Laramie, Gunsmoke, Bewitched, Maverick, The Outer Limits, Petticoat Junction and The Virginian, to name a few.

As a spokesperson for Nestle’s Quik in 1965, he had more than 70 roles to his credit. Casting agents saw him in a commercial and he became Bruce Wayne/Batman on the Batman television series (1966-68). His campy, deadpan delivery as Batman was the perfect nonsense to appear in a cultural landscape that was increasingly chaotic. The Generation Gap was widening between early boomers and their parents’ generation as the Vietnam War escalated to produce the beginning of the protest movement.

Mister Boomer was a teenager when the series began. He enjoyed the pun-filled dialogue, big star appearances and the tongue-in-cheek nod to comic books with OOF! BLAM! and POW! spinning onto the screen during the inevitable fight sequences. It would be a decade later before Mister Boomer saw the show in color, at which time he saw that the brightness of the colorful sets were clearly designed with comic books in mind. His whole family enjoyed watching Batman, but it was his sister who would walk around the house singing, Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da…Batman!

There may not be a boomer anywhere who didn’t enjoy some portion of what was clearly a ridiculous portrayal of the Dark Knight. Right from the start the show brought in big stars as villains; Burgess Meredith was the Penguin, Cesar Romero was the Joker, Frank Gorshin was the Riddler, Vincent Price was Egghead, and Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman. By the second season stars asked to be on the show. The list of stars looking to act alongside Adam West is long and impressive. (See Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da … Guest Star!)

After the show ended in 1968, West was typecast and could not find work. It was two years before he was able to land a role on TV’s The Big Valley. After that he picked up where he left off before becoming Batman, making more than 80 appearances on TV shows and in movies. Boomers recognized his later cartoon voiceover work in SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons and The Family Guy.

Adam West had an accomplished career in movies and television without his role as Batman, but would boomers everywhere remember his name and mourn his passing as they are now if he didn’t don those ill-fitting tights?

What roles do you remember Adam West in, boomers? Were you a fan of the Batman series?

posted by Mister B in Film & Movies,Pop Culture History,TV and have Comments (2)