Monthly Archives: February 2011

Remember Choose Your Own Adventure Books?

Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books?

I do.

Choose Your Own Adventure was a novel series geared towards children and young adolescents.  These books were not like regular books.  First, the reader was the main character, which fancy people call the “second-person.”  An opening sentence would be something like:

“You are a world famous scientist”

“You find a satchel filled with a million dollars”

“You are born to a family of complainers”

A Choose Your Own Adventure book would begin just like a regular novel, but when at the end of the first scene, “you” would be faced with a choice between two options, or between three options if you happened to read the super deluxe version before I took it out of the library and then left it on the table at Fuddruckers.

“Go to the left (turn to page 28)” versus “Go to the right (turn to page 1,139)”

“Follow the strange man” versus “Tell the strange man you’re not allowed to drink soda during the week”

The reader was always a different character. I remember one where I got to be a monster, and another where I was a gunslinger in the Old West. I also recall one where the reader was that furry creature from the Punky Brewster cartoon, but I could just be making that up.

The first choice would lead to another scene with another choice, and on and on, such that each book had numerous endings. Some of the endings were good endings. Others were not so good. There were endings that ended in death. These were a little disturbing. There were also endings that ended ambiguously and open-ended.

“You follow Boink to the planet Cereal, and spend the rest of your harvesting Rice Krispies.”

“You commence a lawsuit in state court.”

They should have “Choose Your Own Adventure” books for adults. The characters would be appropriate for adults:

“You are always cold.”

“You are a tier-three pensioner.”

“You are one of those people who winks at everyone.”

And the choices would be adult choices:

“Arrange to get your tax refund by direct deposit” versus “Wait for the check in the mail!”

“Pay the full balance on your credit card” versus “Ignore the letter and get another credit card!”

“Go gluten-free” versus “Step in front of oncoming traffic.”

I do not think the Choose Your Own Adventure series for adults would sell very well. No adult would want to read them. The characters would be too real, the scenes too close to home, the choices too much a reminder of the difficult choices that all adults must make in life, but without the ability to turn back a single page.

That, and the fact that it would be a series of books.

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Remember Voltron?

Remember the 1980s cartoon Voltron?

I do.

Voltron was a cartoon about five robot lions that combined to form a giant robot humanoid warrior named Voltron. The lions were not self-animating but were each piloted by a human being. I did not really care about the human beings. I don’t profess to know the history of Voltron, the story of Voltron, or even the names of the characters. In this pillar of geek culture I am, at best, a dabbler. Doctoral dissertations have likely been written on this subject and I am humbly aware that there is nothing that I can say that will contribute anything new to the analysis of 1970s anime that evolved into this show and its progeny.

All I can contribute is what Voltron meant to me. And what it meant was five robot lions forming a giant humanoid robot warrior with lion-heads for hands and feet, all to very awesome music.

My entire reason for watching Voltron was to watch them form Voltron. I watched He-Man for the moment when [spoiler alert] Adam turned into He-Man, and I watched Voltron for the moment when the five robot lions formed Voltron. These lions would be fighting some evil force in the universe – a giant alien monster, a giant alien robot, Grendel – and things would not be going well, and all of a sudden one of the lion pilots would suggest forming Voltron.

I never understood why they did not form Voltron the minute they saw the evil-doers coming over the Throgs Neck Bridge. But I will try to describe the experience. The pilot of the leader lion would press some controls, the key to his lion would shift around in the ignition and glow, there would be a collage of all five pilots of the robot lions saying “Voltron Force,” and then the music would start.

Oh that music. All great cartoon moments involve music. Voltron formed to electronic trumpets, guitars, and drums, and my image of the battle between good and evil formed to Voltron forming. The pilots of the robot lions would talk the audience through the formation.

[Trumpets, trumpets]

“Form feet and legs!”

[Guitars, drums]

“Form arms and torso!”

[Trumpets, guitars, drums]

“And I’ll form the head!”

I remember that Voltron was formed in exactly this manner in every single episode. I don’t recall any “express” formation of Voltron where certain steps were truncated. I don’t recall ever seeing Voltron show up to the party already formed, smoking a cigarette and sipping a giant robot martini.

The moment Voltron formed was the most exciting moment of my life for that day. There was nothing more satisfying to my pre-adolescent mind than the combination of electronic fight music and robot lions interlocking to form a giant humanoid robot warrior. But as happened with so many shows for me, the plot of Voltron became too complicated to follow. Something about a love story and zoning regulations. Perhaps I sustained brain damage from eating bowls of Count Chocula. Whatever the reason, I did not care about the story. I just wanted them to play the music and form Voltron, again and again. But alas, my family did not have a VCR at the time, and thus I had no means of recording the show. The forming of Voltron would be just another childhood gem that would live only in my fading memory.

And then along came this thing called YouTube, where an adult can be a kid when he’s supposed to be working. It did not matter that there was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink and a pile of dirty snow in the driveway. I had returned home, at last, rocking back and forth in my chair, heart racing along with the music, watching them form Voltron again and again, and remembering the days when, in between commercials, good battled evil.

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Remember Writing With Pen and Paper?

Remember when people wrote things down on paper instead of typing into a cell phone?

I do.

Throughout much of my life I have carried around a little notebook to record my thoughts, make grocery lists, and calculate how many degrees from Kevin Bacon my family members and I are removed. Sometimes I have used an inexpensive spiral notepad from the drugstore. Other times I have used the fancy schmancy leather-bound notebooks with the attached elastic band, used by great artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and “Wendy” the Snapple Lady. The only criteria for my notebook was that it was easy to carry in my pocket and could double as a wedge to prop up a rickety table.

In my experience, being at a social gathering and taking out a little notebook and writing in it is kind of like setting yourself on fire. It tends to get attention.

“Are you writing about me?” my friend asks.

I assure him that I am not writing about him.

“I don’t believe you,” he says. “I want to know what you are writing. Let me see.”

I assure him, again, that I am not writing about him and that he cannot see my notebook. I say this because my work is private. I say this also because I have written things about him. To be careful, I close the notebook and focus my attention on the South Park rerun we’re all watching.

A few moments later I feel a tugging at my pocket. I turn and it is the same friend trying to pull the notebook out of my pocket. “What are you doing?” I ask.

“I want to see what you’re writing about me.”

“You’ll never see what I’m writing about you. And I’m not writing anything about you.”

I get up and move to another part of the room. Although standing in the closet might be considered a bit strange, I figure that this is the only way I can write unmolested. Unfortunately, there is no light in the closet so I must make my best guess as to how to form the letters on the page. Soon there is a knock at the door.

“Yes?” I reply, scribbling in the dark.

“What are y0u doing in there?” asks my curious friend.

“I’m doing research on coats of North America. There are some interesting specimens in here.” I rattle some coat hangers to support my story.

“Are you writing in there?”

“No. Why would I do that?”

“I want to know what you’re writing about me.”

It suddenly occurs to me that if I had been typing on a cell phone instead of writing with a pen and paper, no one would have said anything. They would have thought I was just being rude by texting instead of being rude by writing. I feel like I’m going to get sent to the Gulag if I don’t change my act. When my friend opens the door I have my notebook pressed against my ear as if it is a cell phone, and I’m talking into it. “Mm hm. Okay. Sounds good. Let’s circle back sometime next week.” My friend looks confused and closes the door. I keep talking for a few more minutes so that my ruse is not exposed.

A month ago I bought one of those cell phones that is basically like a hand-held computer. Now, whenever I want to take notes I can pretend I’m just texting or emailing or searching for videos of street fights between Mets fans and Yankees fans.

“What are you writing?” my friend asks me while I’m writing on my cell phone.

“Nothing,” I say. “I’m just texting or something.”

“You can’t fool me. The screen is lighting up your face. I want to know what you’re writing.”

Alas, the technology change has not worked. There is nothing I can do to hide my compulsion to take note of the world around me. But I will never tell him or anyone else what I’m writing. That is for me and me alone. And whoever reads my blog.

Thanks to Chris Calabrese for the topic.

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Remember When You Could Not Instantly Settle Arguments on the Internet?

Remember when people couldn’t instantly settle arguments on the Internet?

I do.

Sometime during the 90s, when my friends and I had started to resemble adults, I got into a disagreement with a close associate of mine, whom I will call X. The nature of my disagreement with X related to Jambi, a character on the award-winning television program Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Jambi was a disembodied head floating inside a bejeweled box in the corner of the Playhouse. X and I disagreed over the color of Jambi’s skin.

I said, “Jambi is blue.”

X said, “Jambi is green.”

Thus we disagreed, even wagering $5 on the outcome. Had our dispute arisen just five years later we could have resolved it instantly with a search on Google, the same way we would later resolve disputes over song lyrics or whether whales have penises. But at the time we had no way of quickly resolving the issue. Pee Wee’s Playhouse had been canceled a few years earlier, and I had not thought of taping it. Not that I would have known how to work the VCR anyway.

Although X and I remained cordial to each other, the disagreement simmered. Our mutual friends were compelled to take sides. After a while I would get invited to things only after it was assured that X would not be there. Sometimes one of us would be arriving while the other was leaving and it would be awkward. People begged us to reconcile. But I was adamant. I knew Jambi was blue, just as Neo from The Matrix knew he was the One. I just knew.

And then one day X invited me to his house. I figured he wanted to make up and serve up some of his famous iced tea – an old family recipe that called for six times the legal limit of iced tea mix. I walked in his door and he greeted me not with iced tea but with a remote control and a smirk. He pressed a button and Jambi appeared on the TV. And the Jambi on the screen was undisputedly green.

X was triumphant. “See? Jambi is green. Now pay up.”

I handed over a five-spot and began the long walk home. I thought that there was something very unsettling about what I’d seen. The show on the screen was definitely Pee Wee’s Playhouse, but it seemed just a little different from the one on TV that I’d watched every Saturday morning for a year. Perhaps I was just sore from losing money. I would have to accept defeat gracefully.

Years passed. I went to college and forgot about the Jambi wager. Then I graduated and went to work. By this time Google had been invented and I had gotten into the habit of searching for random things on the Internet when no one was looking. Finally it occurred to me to search for Jambi. And lo and behold, the Jambi that Google revealed was blue. Blue! And as I scrolled down to find less common results I discovered why I had lost that bet. The tape that X had showed me was of the HBO special, done live on a stage, where Jambi was green. But on the TV show, Jambi was blue. I was right. Well, maybe we were both right. But I was more right. I wanted to call up X and tell him. I wanted to gloat and feel vindicated. I wanted my five dollars back with interest compounded monthly.

But when I did see X and told him my big news, he just shrugged his shoulders. He would not give me any satisfaction. There would be no gloating, no vindication. Just lost years and a lost five-spot.

All because there had been no Internet to instantly settle our dispute.

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