Monthly Archives: April 2011

Remember When It Was Fun To Go To the Movies?

This was the title of one of my earliest posts, but that post did not express what I truly felt in my heart on this subject. A more proper treatment follows. 

Remember when it was fun to go to the movies?

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

I do.

Going to the movies as a kid was one of my more cherished experiences during the Reagan Administration.  On a Friday night or Saturday afternoon, my father would ask my brother and I, “How would you boys like to see” and he would name a movie that he thought we would want to see and that he felt would be appropriate for children our age. Until I went away to college, this meant it had to be a cartoon or about a talking animal.

I distinctly remember my father handing the ticket cashier a $20 bill for an adult and two children, and getting back enough change to buy us candy. Twizzlers were my go to movie-food. I would make sure to open it before the coming-attractions so that the deafening Twizzler-wrapper noise would not disturb my fellow viewers. Then I would take each Twizzler, bite off both ends, and blow through it like a straw.

One of my earliest movie memories was when my father took my brother and I to see a popular holiday season movie called Gremlins.  The commercials that had probably influenced my father’s choice of film had showed these cute little primate-looking things.  Except at some point the movie became less about cute little primate-looking things and more about old women sent on an electric chair speeding up several flights of stairs and jettisoned through a window to certain death.  My father was more horrified than the characters in the movie.  He asked my brother and I if we wanted to leave, but we shook our heads, eyes never leaving the screen so that we wouldn’t miss any of the mayhem.

My wife and I recently went to the movies for the first time in years.  There were so many teenagers I thought the Garmin had accidentally sent us to the high school.  I said to my wife, “So this is where people go when they are not old enough to go to bars.”  She replied that my social commentary would sound a lot better while waiting on line for tickets.

While I was waiting for tickets I looked up at the prices, and realized I was going to have to hit the ATM that was conveniently located fifteen paces away in the theater lobby. While punching in my PIN I reminisced about the days when a movie ticket cost only $7.50. After we got the tickets I wanted popcorn, and had to hit the ATM again.  Thank goodness it was a week I got paid.

We sprinted to Screen # 47 and did not miss a single moment of the half-hour of coming attractions and commercials.  I looked around for the remote control and finally understood what was meant by the term “captive audience.”

Half the seats the theater were occupied by teenagers, and each teenager’s hands were occupied by a small glowing screen. I thought that perhaps the small screens were a visual aid for a generation so accustomed to viewing small screens that the big screen exceeded the viewing range.  But upon closer inspection of the Justin Bieber seated next to me, I saw that the little screens were just smart phones that were being used in the way that everyone uses them: tune in globally, tune out locally.  If there was ever really a fire in the crowded theater, at least I would be able to see where I was going.

As the movie started, I noticed that the younger members of the audience would get up and leave, and then come back, and then leave, and then come back.  These antsy adolescents were either part of a cult that drank a lot of water before a movie, or were hanging out in groups and treating public space like their den.

About a half-hour into the movie, a latercomer took a seat behind me.  He spent what seemed like ten minutes taking off his very large and crinkly coat, and made so much noise that I missed the framing of the protagonist’s major conflict.

Then someone in the back right corner decided it was time for potato chips or some other snack that comes in a deafening bag.  Two characters in the film started and ended a romance before the character in the back of the theater was done opening the bag, which the good folks at Dolby were nice enough to pipe through in surround sound.

During the final battle scene, two people a few rows back got into an argument over the federal budget.  And then someone shouted into a cell phone, loudly, “Just meet us outside! The movie’s almost over!” I started to get up and say something, but the soles of my shoes were stuck in congealed soda that a fellow film-goer had wanted to share with the floor.

When I got home I called up my father. I told him about my experience at the movies, about the cell phones, the coming in and out, the talking, the eating, the glowing screens. “Dad, it’s just not like it used to be,” I said, and thought that he would feel my pain and join in condemnation.  But he just laughed and said, “At last, my son, you are a man.”

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Filed under Television and Movies

Remember Playing Board Games?

Remember playing board games?

I do.

When I was a child we did not have HBO or video games or a computer, so if I wanted to have fun I had to either set something on fire or play a board game.

Candy Land was where I matched my wits against other members of my family.  The object was to advance your piece along the path until you reached the gum drop castle or you got up and quit in a huff because it looked like your little brother was going to get there first.  There was a stack of cards, each with the picture of another sweet food like a candy cane, peanut brittle, or an ice cream bar, and whichever card you pulled, that was the space on the board you advanced to.  The ice cream bar space was the closest to the end, so one time I fixed the cards so that I would pick the card with the ice cream bar.  My plan was foolproof.  But it was not momproof.  My mother made me go first and I ended up pulling the card for soy chips, automatically losing the game.

When I got a little older my father taught me how to play chess.  I had thought he said “chest” and that the felt on the bottom of the pieces would be used to stick the pieces to our chests.  I was disappointed when the pieces stayed on the board, but my disappointment turned to glee when I beat my father my very first time playing.  I bragged about it for the next twenty years until my father told me in an email that he let me win.

In the late 1980s my family succumbed to a massive TV ad campaign for Mouse Trap.  The point of Mouse Trap was to go around a board collecting pieces of cheese and assembling plastic pieces into a complex mechanism where at the end someone would turn a crank and set the little plastic pieces in motion that culminated in a plastic cage that looked like a small overturned laundry basket falling down on the little mouse-pieces, “trapping” them.  The game would have been great if the mechanism worked.  But it only worked on the commercial.  In real life you had prod each component of the game until it did what it was supposed to do.  Only a mouse that was already dead or had given up on life would have gotten caught in Mouse Trap.

There was Monopoly, where my strategy was to collect the cheap properties and jack up the rents like a slum lord.  And Trivial Pursuit, where I always answered the questions in the form of a question, like Jeopardy, until someone flicked a small plastic wedge at my eye.  And the Game of Life, which required so little strategy that it must have been designed by a Calvinist.

Scrabble was a game changer.  I would comb the dictionary for obscure words that were short and contained the letter “e” to use on my opponents.  The word “en” was my favorite, even though it was a prefix.  Nobody called me out on it, and I was reigning champion until someone told the authorities that I was forming words diagonally.

The board games for adults are very different.  There is a lot more dependence on TV trivia or awkward topics or devices that make noise.  One time I was at a party where I was forced into playing a game that had a digital timer that started beeping loudly if you took too much time to think of movies starring Kevin Bacon.  The noise was so irritating that when everyone else got up to look at a YouTube video of a stranger falling down the stairs, I tossed the device out the fifth-story window into the alley below.  I played dumb when they asked what happened to it, but I don’t think they believed me.

I was visiting my ancestral home last weekend, and during the time of the visit where my mother sends me to the basement to throw out more of my “junk” I came across Candy Land.  I wanted to take out the board, fix the order of the cards, and challenge my brother to a rematch.  But I knew it would not be the same as I remembered.  I was too mature to play games.  So I put the box down, covered it with old issues of Highlights, and told my mother that I’d thrown it out.

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Remember When Video Games Did Not Feature Flying Body Parts?

Remember when video games did not feature flying body parts?

I do.

I grew up in the days before federal law protected a child’s right to play video games, and my parents decreed that it was more important that I learn to read and write and look at people when I talk to them instead of living vicariously through jump-kicking digital characters. So I had to live vicariously through my friends’ vicarious living, pressing my face up against the windows of their basements, bedrooms, and dens.

The earliest games featured geometric shapes.  There was one where a yellow circle moved along straight lines and right angles, gobbling up white dots and flashing ghosts.  Another game involved a triangle that moved along the bottom of a screen and shot white dots straight up at falling squares.  Yet another featured two rectangles that moved vertically along the left and right sides of the screen, bouncing a small circle between them, and for every miss, the rectangle had to chug a beer.

Around the time my braces forced me to take all my pizza with a fork and knife, there was a great leap forward in the detail of video games. Instead of circles and triangles there were mushrooms and shells and plumbers leaping between free-floating platforms.  There was a robot that tucked into a ball and a little green knight that wielded a sword and candle.

Around the time my voice was cracking and I started taking showers everyday without being reminded, there was a popular game with a little blue hedgehog that sprinted through hill and dale in search of rotating gold coins. One time my friend showed me how to break into the games codes or something so that you make coins appear as if my magic, like some magic coin-making machine. I kept asking him to make more coins until he had his parents call my parents to come pick me up.

There were also video games where that featured one person beating up another person.  It was a lot like school, except instead of the victim having his parents call the assistant principal, he just flickered and vanished. The sound effects were another feature. “What are those horrible noises?” my friend’s mother yelled from the kitchen. “What horrible noises?” he answered, swinging a lamppost at a group of digital insurance salesmen.

A few years after I graduated college I went to see my brother, who at 12 had run away from home with a Super Nintendo tucked under his arm.  Now an adult, he was playing a so-called “first-person” video game, where you saw the world through the character’s eyes, felt what the character felt, lived what the character lived, and shot anything that moved.

But when he shot someone they would not just disappear or fall down or be consumed in a cartoonish blaze of fire.  Instead, their bodies disaggregated.  Heads, arms, and legs went flying in different directions.  Blood and brain matter were splattered against the wall.  Later on the stains would still be there. Eventually a team of digital forensic criminologists would show up and take samples of carpet fibers.

I tried to play.  The control pad was not like the two-button or four-button flat ones I was used to.  Instead, the controller was a bulky spaceship with buttons on the face, buttons on the sides and corners, trigger buttons underneath, and two joysticks for your thumbs that doubled as buttons.  And the game was now in three dimensions.  In addition to the traditional up-down-left-right, you could jump, crouch, and do Pilates.

My inexperience showed.  I have a hard enough time dealing with the z-axis in real life; in a video game I was dead meat. “How do you run with your head up?” I asked my brother, who shook his head and looked around to make sure none of his friends were around.  He changed the controller settings to accommodate a left-hander who read short stories, but I was not any better.  I died before I could splatter anyone’s brains or even kick them in the throat.

Too embarrassed to continue, I relinquished the controller, and walked away…head down.  The world of video games had side-scrolled without me.

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Remember When Wishing Someone a Happy Birthday Was Not Done Digitally?

Remember when wishing someone a happy birthday was not done digitally?

I do.

When I was a child, happy birthdays were wished in person, by a group of peers surrounding the birthday boy or girl, wearing cone-shaped hats with an elastic chinstrap stapled to the sides, and singing the song “Happy Birthday” while a parent tried not to drop the blazing cake on anyone’s head. When my closest friend at the time – closest meaning his house was closer than any other kid’s – turned five, I was positive that the instant he blew out the candles he would grow a few inches before my very eyes. I was disappointed to see that he stayed the same size and still refused to let me sign-out his He-Man figurines.

In elementary school the procedure was the same except that it was done during class time. These were the days before peanut allergies, and the procedure was similar except that a parent of the birthday boy or girl had to take time off of work to bring in a cake so that class time could be spent wearing the cone-shaped hats and singing the song. If your birthday fell on the weekend or during the summer you were out of luck.

In high school, though, the male students adopted an odd procedure for wishing other male students a happy birthday. Instead of wearing hats, or singing songs, or eating cake, or even just saying “Happy Birthday,” the birthday wishes came in the form of birthday punches.

My seventeenth birthday is etched in my memory. It was third period math class, and I was trying to decide how many lines of notebook paper I wanted my integral symbol to occupy, when a classmate in the next row said, “Hey Kaplowitz, I heard that today’s your birthday.”

“Oh really? No one told me.”

“Very funny.” And he came over and punched me seventeen times in the upper arm, hard. “And one more for good luck,” and he punched me again. Then another classmate got me. Then another. I tried to turn away but they had no problem going to the other arm. “Happy Birthday,” each would say before laying in. They were all lined up. It was like being mugged.

By fifth period my arms were throbbing and I couldn’t hold them up. I staggered into English class like an old boxer and the words going through my head were, “Please, please no more.” But they were there in the back of the classroom, like a gang, throwing their fists softly into open palms, waiting for me. “Hey guys, it’s Kaplowitz’s birthday today!” said the ringleader, the same one who first got me in math class. I cited an old rule from the Court of Chancery that permits only one series of birthday punches per person per birthday. “Wow, you’d make a good lawyer,” he says, and then starts punching me in the arm. He doesn’t get through them all because I start falling to the floor and our teacher starts passing out copies of A Separate Peace.

My arms eventually healed, which was fortunate because wishing someone a happy birthday today requires typing. But not much more than that. You enter a username and password on a social networking website, and the website reminds you of your friends’ birthdays. Click on their name, type “Happy Birthday” in the field, press return, and you’re done, your birthday wish slotted atop all the birthday wishes that came before. For a while I tried to add variety to my birthday wish by adding “Hope you have an awesome day,” but then one day I did that with two people who had the same birthday, and I got caught and it was awkward. At least I didn’t punch them.

The other day was the birthday of a good friend that I had not seen in a while. I could have posted a “Happy Birthday” on his profile page, but it felt so impersonal. I wanted to do something really special. So I texted him instead.

Happy birthday to my wife, who tolerates all this blogging, and who I think is expecting more than a text.

Thanks to Adam Foley for the topic.

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Remember Y2K?

Remember Y2K?

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

I do.

In the late nineties, as the year 2000 approached and everyone prepared to trade in their cars for flying machines, we started hearing about something called “Y2K.” At first I thought this was a knock-off of the singing group Boyz II Men, but it was in fact a computer bug, and meant that the disk space that computer engineers had saved for pictures of people’s pets was going to be needed to express the year in four digits instead of two.

Yes, the looming end-of-millennium disaster, the moment where humanity would finally face judgment for its wickedness and fanny packs, was not an asteroid, or Godzilla, or aliens, but the inability of computers to express the year in more than two digits. How exciting. Engineering hadn’t failed us – Hollywood had. I had to picture the disaster myself: At the moment the year changed from 1999 to 2000, and people everywhere were trying to pop champagne without breaking any rare vases, computers would think it was the year 1900 and instantly turn into ticker tape machines.

It is hard to exaggerate the hysteria that surrounded the Y2K bug. I will try anyway.

Planes were going to fall out of the sky.  Bank records would be deleted.  Toilets would overflow. My biggest worry was that report cards would be lost, including the 90 I got in English junior year, mainly on the strength of my essay on Lady Macbeth’s shoe collection.

The government and corporations began spending billions of dollars on Y2K compliance, and I started spending my weekends going through all my old homework assignments and adding “19” to every date. There were some who criticized the prevention, saying we were going too far. One critic said that the Y2K bug would cause nothing more than a few blank TV screens. When people heard that they doubled their efforts. We all went around telling everyone that there was no way we were going to be flying when midnight struck. For months I did nothing but make preparations to not be in an airplane at the stroke of midnight.

As New Year’s Eve approached, I decided I would not take any chances by going to some booze fest in a major metropolitan area. So instead I went to a booze fest in the country, at the home of a friend of mine that, he assured me, was not in the way of any flight path. It was a fun party and only a few people threw up – obviously from Y2K jitters. We were all worried about our digital infrastructure as well as our coats, which had no doubt been tossed onto a bed along with many other similar-looking coats.

Soon it was time to prepare for the new year and the awkward election between kissing, shaking hands, or waving. The ball in Times Square began its descent. Dick Clark began the final countdown. The 1980s band Europe sang “The Final Countdown.” In those last seconds I braced against the inevitable, took one last look at the world as I knew it, and took the last brownie, confident that no one would say anything at such a moment.

The ball hit the ground, and…nothing. No planes fell out of the sky. No bank accounts were deleted. One toilet overflowed, but I don’t think that had anything to do with computers. The world’s digital infrastructure was fine, and I was going to have to pay back my student loans after all.  “Auld Lang Syne” was just as depressing as ever.

No major problems were recorded, and the critics said this was proof that Y2K was a hoax all along. “You see?” they said, “We were right. You spent billions on Y2K compliance, and nothing happened.”  And the people who spent those billions said, “Exactly.”

The Y2K bug is thankfully, along with paying for news and music, part of the past. Now we can live in simple peace and harmony and await the “Y10K” bug in 9999. Maybe by then I’ll have found my coat.

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