Monthly Archives: May 2011

My Happy Meal Addiction

Remember Happy Meals?

I do.

All meals have the potential to be happy, at least the ones that do not contain kale or anything else that belongs on a tree.  But a Happy Meal can come only from McDonald’s.

Image courtesy of Cosmic Kitty via Flickr

A Happy Meal was designed for children.  The food of the Happy Meal, to the extent it could be called food, was no more or less happy than a regular meal at McDonald’s.  If you counted the effects of age on the alimentary canal, the food was probably much happier for children.

The Happy Meal’s happiness was in the packaging.  The burger and fries came in a little cardboard box with artwork and puzzles on the sides, and closed up at the top with a handle in the shape of double arches.  Inside the box, alongside the meal, was a toy, a small plastic piece of junk that would spend ten minutes in my hands, and 10,000 years in my parents’ basement.

I insisted upon Happy Meals every time.  The design and theme of the box and toy would change every few weeks or months, and I had to have the new one.  Sometimes the theme was based upon a movie that McDonald’s thought would increase the desire for sugar, salt, and fat.  Other times it was seasonal, like a Halloween themed box with witches riding french fries against a full moon.

The boxes were shaped so that one could be fit inside another, and stacked as high as the laws of physics would permit.  After a few months I had stack of Happy Meals taller than I was.  It was my monument to life.  Sometimes I would sit in my room and look at my tower, and imagine it reaching to the sky, with a spiral staircase leading up to an observation deck and souvenir shop with snow globes containing miniature versions of my Happy Meal tower.

When the tower reached the ceiling of my bedroom, I started another one.  Before long I had a city, Hamburglars and Grimaces watching over me like cathedral gargoyles.  I was re-zoning the downtown when my parents finally said something.

“Mark, we need to talk about your Happy Meal boxes,” they said.  “We think they are a fire hazard and your grades are suffering.”

I was having a little trouble seeing them around the towers of Happy Meals.  One of the boxes was decorated like a house, and had a perforated window that I opened to watch my parents leaving my room, shaking their heads.

Unable to reach my family, I invited my friends to see my work.  “Thanks for coming over, Clarence.  Please sit over here by the East Tower.  Oh wait.  I had to remove the chair to make room for the pavilion and carousel.  I guess you’ll have to stand.”

After a while my parents stopped coming in my room.  They would leave my dinner outside my door and knock three times, so that I knew it was not other kids trying to steal my Happy Meal boxes.  Although the only dinner that held any interest for me was a Happy Meal.

My parents had stopped taking me to McDonald’s, though, forcing me to rely on other parents.  I would tutor their dim children in math or social studies in exchange for rides.  Even when my parents cut off my allowance, I managed to scrape enough change together by recycling soda cans that I found in the garbage bins at school.  My teachers thought I was setting a great example, and gave me an “Enviro-Kid” award that I taped to my bedroom wall, facing the Ronald McDonald Senior Living Center that I had erected next to my hamper.

I came home late one night with my latest acquisition—a Roman Empire themed Happy Meal, decorated like the Coliseum, with lions dipping gladiators in sweet and sour sauce—to find my whole family sitting in a brightly lit living room.

My father stood up, walked over to me, and gently took my Happy Meal from my hands.  My mother gave me hug and directed me to the sofa next to her.  My brother, a good four inches taller than the last time I’d seen him, looked worried.  The cardiganed man on my other side, who introduced himself as Dr. Burger, said that he was there to help.

I looked at the ground and saw a suitcase.  This was actually happening.  I asked if I go up to my room and get something.  Dr. Burger said that I could not, and my family nodded in agreement.  They wouldn’t even let me see my boxes one last time.

I was taken to the Ronald McDonald Home for Wayward Teens, and shared a room with a young man who was battling addictions to methadone and the little animal figurines that came in boxes of Red Rose tea.  For weeks I was under constant surveillance, and if I tried to stack something on top of something else, I was given a shot of electricity and placed on the “no dessert” list for that night.

I was so happy when it was time to go home that I did not notice the back roads route we took to avoid the strip of fast food restaurants.  There was a “Welcome Home” banner above our television, and a wide open space on my bedroom floor.  It was like being in another kid’s room.

The other day I saw a boy carrying a Happy Meal, probably made from recycled Chicken McNuggets.  The boy looked happy.  I hope I did too.

Thanks to Jay Kaplowitz for the topic.

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Filed under Eating and Drinking

Mash-Up, May 28: David Bouchier, Clay Morgan, Leanne Shirtliffe

This week we review an essay from humorist David Bouchier, a blog post from Clay Morgan at eduClaytion.com, and a column from Leanne Shirtliffe that was published in the Calgary Herald.

David Bouchier is an award-winning essayist for National Public Radio and author.  Originally from England, he relocated to New York’s Long Island, in search of, I imagine, more traffic.  His humor column “Out of Order” appeared in the regional Sunday edition of the New York Times for ten years until 2003.  The Song of Suburbia, a collection of humorous vignettes about trying to make it in the suburbs, is ever at my side.

David Bouchier’s writing is polished, lively, and funny, and he regularly treats the public to a featured essay on his website.  His most recent such piece, The Anxious Traveler (May 27), highlights the comic irony of our oppression by the very means of travel that were designed to empower us, a topic near and dear to my heart.

Our next piece comes from Clay Morgan via his website, eduClaytion.  Clay is a writer, professor, and speaker from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He has a particular interest in using pop culture references to reach a generation of students that are often considered unreachable, as Clay explains in this guest post that appeared on Lessons From Teachers and Twits.  His ebullience is part and parcel of his work, and every visit to eduClaytion puts me in a good mood.

This week, Clay writes a touching and funny memoir of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, a professional wrestler who brought life to the World Wrestling Federation from 1985 to 1994, and whose own life ended on May 20th when he suffered a heart attack while driving his truck and crashed into a tree.  Clay’s prose resurrects those gladiators in colorful briefs, sparring with metal folding chairs, and catapulting off the ropes onto their supine adversaries’ glistening chests and faces.

I saw the moves all over again: the body slam, the pile driver, the back body drop, the airplane spin, the gorilla press gutbuster.  Was it honest athletic competition, or staged entertainment?  Either way, I was glad it happening on the television instead of in my living room.

And last, but not least, comes a piece from Leanne Shirtliffe, who blogs at IronicMom.com about her misadventures raising twins.  Her work will bring a laugh if you have children, or even if you don’t have children but have seen examples of them on television.  Her article titled “Water, kids, and failed experiments” (Calgary Herald, May 26) is about keeping your cool when your child discovers the garden hose.

What is it with kids and hoses?  Sigmund Freud had an explanation, but this blog is geared towards a general audience.  Leanne wisely ignores the psychology, and takes her child’s fascination with aplomb and humor; a lesson in parenting, and a lesson in writing.

And that’s a wrap.  Enjoy the weekend.

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Why the iPhone is Perfect for Writers

Last year I submitted a piece by email to my local newspaper for Op-Ed consideration, and then left for a four-day bachelor party in Florida.  When I was able to see straight again at the close of the trip, and got to an Internet connection, I saw that I had received three emails from the newspaper’s Op-Ed editor.  She had wanted to run my piece in the Sunday edition but needed to talk to me about it, and all she had was my email address.  I frantically called her Monday morning, but it was too late.

Missing a publishing opportunity because of missed email was a bitter pill to swallow.  I swore it would never happen again.  You might be thinking that I could have avoided the problem by including my cell phone number with the submission.  But then I wouldn’t have this little story.

Getting an iPhone solved the problem of the missed email.  But I’ve discovered two other advantages that have improved my life as a writer.  It allows me to take notes without looking like I’m taking notes, and it allows to me read without looking like I’m reading.

For years I carried around a little notebook.  If I thought of something, I would write it down.  The problem was that people sometimes acted funny when they saw me taking notes.  “What are you writing?” they would ask, or “Are you writing about me?” or “Can I read what you wrote?” or “I’m going to take that notebook when you are sleeping and read it!”  That kind of attention affected my prose.

With the iPhone, however, they don’t know I’m taking notes.  They think I’m just texting or, better yet, playing a video game.  Sometimes I angle the device this way and that to make it look like I’m racing a car.  And as soon as I’m done recording my thoughts, with one tap I can email the notes to myself for later use, with no crumpled up receipts to clutter the coffee table and spark an argument.

Reading books in public used to be a problem, too.  Bringing War and Peace to the dinner table was generally interpreted as rude, no matter which translation.  One evening as I dined with family, I noticed that someone was holding his iPhone under the table to watch a YouTube video of washed-up celebrity chefs falling down flights of stairs.  I asked my fellow diners why he was allowed to watch a video, while I was not allowed to read.  Everyone stared into their mashed potatoes.

The message was clear.  There was a double standard for new technology and old.

The iPhone has made it possible to read at the dinner table again.  I read books on my iPhone and everyone thinks I’m on Facebook looking at wedding pictures of people I don’t really know.  Attending parties with a book, even a book that had received good reviews, always met with stares.  Now people just stare at their devices, as I stare at mine.  Just like with the notes, an unacceptable rudeness masquerades as an acceptable one.

And sometimes when the party’s over, and the potato salad scraped off the plates, and I’m back in my room, alone, I pick up a notepad and a book…and find them both a little heavy.

What’s your experience been?  How has an iPhone (or similar device) changed your life as a writer?  Or are you still carrying around a notebook and getting weird looks?

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How I Started Blogging

My first blog was created in the fall of 2008.  America was in the midst of a Presidential election, and debate was fierce.  While showering I came up with a few ideas on how to solve the financial crisis and the exploding cost of healthcare.  I published a few posts sharing my views, and dreamed of appearing on television news programs with the words “Freelance Public Policy Expert” floating under my talking head.

When I clicked on “publish” it was as if a jolt of electricity had gone through my body.  I imagined that my post would instantly show up on everyone’s screen like that persistent prompt to download the latest version of Abode Flash Player.  Now our leaders would know what to do.  But none of my posts got any comments, or any views, and every Sunday morning it was the same group of politicians, journalists, and well-established experts on the Meet the Press instead of me.

My second blog was daily vignettes and flash fiction.  I wrote about annoying cell phone conversations and chronic snifflers and people who carried large pieces of luggage onto commuter trains during rush hour.  I wrote a story about a device called the Descriptionizer Functioner, even though I did not know what it did, and another story about a man who can’t find parking in Manhattan until a UFO vaporizes a parked car right before his eyes.  I had a great sense of accomplishment with each story, but still no one was reading.  I figured it was because my characters had no depth.

At no point did it occur to me to tell anyone what I was doing.

Then it was early summer and getting hot, and I was taking another stab at the collected works of William Shakespeare.  I try this every summer.  I was supposed to have read Hamlet in the 12th grade, but I was busy slacking off at the time.  Better late than never, I decided a great way to learn the play was to write a humorous parody of it and post my work to a blog.  I wrote it up, and then I moved onto Macbeth, which I liked because it had lots of rhyming and is very short.  At last I had found my blog concept.  I would write a blog making a parody of each Shakespeare play.  But I hit the wall at King Lear.  At first I thought my problem was that I did not understand the text.  Then I saw the movie – the recent one with Sir Ian McKellen – and realized that the play is just really disturbing.

Then I was blogging journal entries about my daily life.  I wrote about coffee and cat food.  I wrote about looking for a copy of a video I made when I was running for class president.  I wrote about my office mate who seemed to do nothing but sip soda and chew gum.  And then I got bored and stopped.

The blogging thing just didn’t seem to be working.  I was glad I hadn’t told anyone about it.

Then I was home for Columbus Day and considered loitering in front of a convenience store to pass the time.  Suddenly I remembered a cartoon show called Beavis and Butthead that had aired on MTV in 1993.  I remembered how fond I had been of that show, and how the base and tasteless humor had spoken to me at a time when I was fairly base and tasteless myself.  And I saw how I could write a post about it.  The short post occurred to me all at once, and after I wrote it I thought of other things that had changed in the last few decades.

The topics seemed inexhaustible.  I blogged for a few weeks, and mustered up the courage to tell my mother about it.  I got decent feedback from my mother, and then I told my wife.  My wife gave me decent feedback, too, especially after I shoveled the driveway and took out the garbage.  Then I told my dearest, closest friends.  Then I told my Facebook friends.  And I saw that the feedback was good.  I kept blogging for them, and then one day I was Freshly Pressed and had the greatest experience I know as a writer – being read by thousands of strangers.

And now I can’t stop blogging.  I think about it when I’m supposed to be paying attention to people who are talking to me.  At least I have an inexhaustible concept for posts.  “Remember when…”  There’s no end to that!  No way would I ever break with such a concept.

So what’s your story?  How did you start blogging?

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Remember Using Paper Maps?

Remember using paper maps to get places?

Map Reproduction Courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

I do.

Today people have talking computers suctioned to their car windshields to guide them to places they’ve never been.  But when I was a kid we had only paper maps to scream at when we got lost.  And each other.

The maps were a sagging bulge in the pouch at the back of the passenger seat of my father’s Renault, and covered our general traveling region: upstate New York, New England, and other places that put ketchup and mustard on hamburgers unless you asked otherwise.

I don’t think a single map, once unfolded, has ever been folded back again.  It is the law of entropy.  No matter how many diagrams and colored tags I used, I could never get the map folded up sharp and neat like it had been on the rack at the rest area store by the Roy Rodgers and the machine that flattened pennies.  The best I could do was crumple the map into something approaching a rectangle, and squeeze like I had to nail a sforzando on an accordion.

And that was just putting the map away.  Reaching for the map was even more dangerous.  It often ripped.  Once we were negotiating around the Boston Museum of Science, and my father needed me to navigate instead of watching my breath condense on the window.  But the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had become a stack of paper that I flipped through like I was counting money.  Then a pigeon flew away with one of the sheets, and we could not find our motel again.

Before long trips I would spread the map or map pieces before me, and trace our intended path, imagining our car following the same red-lined trajectory as the plane in the Indiana Jones movies.  Sometimes my father would whistle the Indiana Jones music while I did this.  When we got lost, the whistling ceased.

“But where is the dang exit?” he would ask rhetorically on the shoulder of Interstate 95, the skies darkening, and motel vacancies vanishing by the second.  “The number is right next to the highway on this page, but all I see is another sign for corn.”  I wanted to help him at these times, but the only things I knew how to do with a map was trace my finger along it.

The best was the time my grandparents took my brother and I to Disney World.  My grandfather was following a set of directions that he’d written down on a piece of paper, and my grandmother was reading them back to him as he drove.  “It says take Exit 16 A-B,” my grandmother said.

“What’s A-B?  I never heard of an exit that ended in A-B.”

“Well you wrote it.  Don’t blame me.”

We passed Exit 16 A, and then we passed Exit 16 B.  But no Exit “A-B.”  The next exit was Exit 17.  So we had to get turned around in a swamp, asking an alligator for directions that were not remembered because we all thought someone else was listening.  I thought I could hear the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom over the Yiddish being screamed two feet away from my ear.  Eventually we pulled over, and after more careful examination my grandfather concluded that the directions were supposed to say Exit 16 A or B.  “Exit A or B,” he kept saying as we pulled into our lodgings, dreams of long lines and expensive souvenirs already dancing in my head.

Today these dramas are played out with sterile soft-spoken machines that says things like, “Turn right,” and “Recalculating; Drive…three…blocks…then…turn left.”  The computer should say, “Recalculating; Pull over…and…bang your head against the…driver’s side…window.”  That would add some of the old excitement that made family trips memorable.  Screaming at a machine is just not the same.

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Remember Action Figures?

Remember action figures?

Image by Kup-is-dion via Wikia

I do.

Like all my childhood desires for material things, my yearning for action figures began at another kid’s house.  One Sunday afternoon, my parents consulted the magic directory of boys my age who lived nearby, and conveyed me to a house I’d never before seen.  And as I entered the boy’s den, it was as if I had discovered an underground city of gold.

In this room were these little plastic figures.  Properly known as “Masters of the Universe,” I referred to them by the name of their fearless leader, He-Man.

The display was intoxicating.  It seemed like there were hundreds of figures standing up to greet me.  My new best friend let me touch them, pick them up, and pretend that they were mine for a few seconds before he took them away, wiping each one down with a sanitized cloth.

As I held He-Man aloft and gazed into his noble face, the first thing I learned was that the figure made me feel powerful and special and convinced that I had to own one.  The second thing I learned about action figures was that it was very dangerous to get the web of skin between thumb and forefinger near He-Man’s rotator cuff or hip.

For the rest of that school year, the only thing that I believed would brighten my little world was to own a He-Man figure.  “He wants these things called Masters of the Universe,” my mother told my grandmother as my birthday approached.  “Just ask for those at the store.”

But instead of the He-Man figure I wanted, my grandmother got me a button shirt that my mother made me wear whenever we went to my grandmother’s house.  “I looked all over,” my grandmother said, “going from store to store, but no one had ever heard of the ‘Masters of the Human Race.’  Where are you supposed to find these things?”

Eventually my prayers were answered, and He-Man and a few of his friends had taken the place of my real friends and family.  But He-Man needed a place to hang out.  The hero of Eternia could not very well lie around on my bedroom floor like in some flophouse.  Fortunately, the Mattel company had conveniently solved He-Man’s housing problem by producing a replica of Castle Grayskull, where He-Man went to see the Sorceress, usually after a long wait in the reception area and a $25 co-pay.

All I wanted was that Castle Grayskull.  As the holiday season approached I told my parents and everyone I knew that I wanted Castle Grayskull.  I pined away at school, my coloring uncolored before me, imagining how Castle Grayskull would look in my room.  I pictured how I would wake up every morning, and open its gates, and greet He-Man and his entourage.  When I frolicked on the splintered and nail-exposed wood of the playground, I pretended that I was He-Man patrolling the ramparts of the Castle Grayskull that would no doubt soon be mine.  And as I laid my weary mop-head to sleep at night, I could see the outline of the great toy sanctuary in the shadows that danced on my cartoon wallpaper.

But my Castle Grayskull never came.  I received other toys, toys that time forgot, but my He-Man figures remained nomads on my bedroom floor, and eventually had to opt for a Velcro-sneaker shoebox with a sign out front that said “Interdimensional War Vet – Please Help.”  Years later, as I was concluding my therapy, I found out what happened.

“I spoke to the mother of that boy you used to see,” my mother said.  “You know, the one with all those He-Man things.  And she said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t buy that stupid Castle Grayskull.  It’s $30 for a plastic piece of junk.’  So I got you something else instead.  I hope that was all right.”

Sometimes I wonder if my life would be any different if I had gotten Castle Grayskull instead of the corduroy shirt with the cat face on the pocket.  I found a semi-used Castle Grayskull on eBay, and the small product image sent a shimmer of the power down my spine.  But I couldn’t bring myself to enter a bid.  For He-Man, and for me, you can’t go home again.

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Remember Lunchboxes?

Remember lunchboxes?

I do.

My first lunch box had a Pac-Man theme and was made of metal.  Inside I carried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a thermos, and little power pellets that I’d chew on when I wanted to eat the bullies at school instead of running away from them.  Then the edges of the lunchbox rusted and would cut gashes in classmates who brushed up against me.

The following year I tapped He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe, to represent my lunch. If I needed the edge for a coloring assignment, or a group of other kids who were hogging the swings, I would hold the lunchbox up to the sky and a lightning bolt would strike me, and I would shout “I have the power” and get sent to the nurse’s office.

In second grade I had a Transformers lunchbox.  A few twists and turns of the lunchbox would transform it into a robot that would sit on my desk and do absolutely nothing.

In third grade I bought a lunchbox based on The Wuzzles, a Disney cartoon named after creatures that were a cross of two different animals. One was a cross between a lion and a bumblebee, another a cross between a bear and a butterfly. Yet another was a cross between a cow and a pig, and caused dietary problems for many viewers. On the way home from the store, I stole frequent glances at the face of my Wuzzles lunchbox, and could not wait to show it off at school.

The night before the first day of school, however, it occurred to me that, unlike He-Man and Transformers, The Wuzzles was not considered exclusively a “boy’s show,” and that some classmates might feel entitled to argue that a Wuzzles lunchbox was a “girl’s” lunchbox. I prepared a brief arguing that the lunchbox was gender-neutral, and placed in my lunchbox, sandwiched in between my sandwich and cookies shaped like Keebler Elves.

The next morning I sat on the school bus with my lunchbox face down on my lap. A few times I peeked at the face of my lunchbox to see if it had changed to G.I. Joe, but the Wuzzles just peeked right back at me. And for a moment their vibrant cheery blended-species faces filled my heart with gladness.

My teacher made us put our lunchboxes in the back of the classroom.  Lined up from the left were the Thundercats and Go Bots luncboxes, and from the right were the Barbie and My Little Pony lunchboxes. And front and center was my Wuzzles lunchbox, colorful and proud.

I kept looking around the classroom at the other students, to see if anyone had figured out that the Wuzzles lunchbox belonged to me.  A group of boys seated together pointed at the lunchboxes, whispered, and laughed.  Convinced they were talking about my Wuzzles lunchbox, I leaned out of my chair to get a better listen, so far that I fell out onto the floor, and said “I meant to do that” as I stood up and brushed off my new jeans.

At lunchtime I grabbed my lunchbox in the melee of students, tucked it under my arm with the face against my body, and shuffled along in the boys line to the cafetorium, a cross between a cafeteria and an auditorium.

I ate with my lunchbox face down.  I was sure that everyone was looking at me, and with envy I saw how freely they displayed their lunchboxes to the world.

When lunch was over I picked up my lunchbox and pressed the face against my torso as I had done walking in.  And that was my routine.

I wish there was some kind of dramatic denouement to this story, a moment where my lunchbox was revealed and I realized that it did not matter what was on my lunchbox, and some kid wearing a Voltron shirt started a slow clap, and everyone learned a valuable lesson that I would later write about in a college application.  But there wasn’t.  I don’t know if anyone cared or even noticed.  They never asked, and I never told.

In the fourth grade I started brown bagging my lunch. The Wuzzles lunchbox was thrown in the basement with my other lunchboxes, and eventually became part of the Earth’s crust.

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