Monthly Archives: August 2011

Remember When Cough Syrup Wasn’t a Controlled Substance?

In my home there is a bottle of cough syrup from a leading brand.  On one side of the box there is a warning:  “PARENTS:  Learn more about teen medicine abuse” with a website that teens can visit just in case they don’t know what they are missing.

When I was a kid my parents had to practically hypnotize me in order to get me to take cough syrup.  To this day, the phrase “down the hatch” makes my stomach churn and heart beat faster.  I could not stand the taste of cough syrup.  It was like the folks at Tylenol or Robitussin went out of their way to make the taste as bad as possible.  Living with a cough was a far, far better alternative than drinking that vile potion.

My father’s technique was to pour the medicine in a spoon without me knowing, and then approach me from the side, and say, “Open up Mark!” and the spoon would be in my mouth before I knew what was happening.  It was a like a sucker punch, but with cough syrup.  The stuff was still gross but I have to admit the technique worked a lot better than my mother’s, which was to try to persuade me about how much better I was going to feel after taking the medicine.

Never in a million years would I have thought that kids would one day be spending their allowances on cough syrup when they didn’t even have a cough.  I lived through Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.  I co-wrote and starred in an anti-drug video in the fifth grade that was filmed in the high school’s A/V room, for which I was awarded a Golden Globe and a bright green t-shirt with the famous slogan on the front.  So I know all about drugs.  At least, I thought I did.

How did they discover that drinking cough syrup got you high?  Someone must have had one wicked cough.  I can just see it now – a boy lays in bed, and coughs.

“Wow, honey,” his mother says from the next room, “it sounds like your cough is much better.  None of that deep chunky coughing you had going on earlier.  A shallow cough, almost as if you were coughing on purpose.  Can you imag—”

“Hey lady, just get me more cough syrup quick!  Gyah!  Uh-huh uh-huh!”

But even if it got you high, the taste is still there.  That horrible, horrible taste.  I suppose you could mix it in with something sweet, like orange soda.  Which was exactly what I did with some friends in college.

Yes, at some point a cappella groups and ultimate frisbee ran out of entertainment value, and we needed to intensify our liberal arts education.  Someone had heard that if you drank a whole bottle of Robitussin, you would hallucinate.  And somehow the promise of hallucinations motivated me as an adult in a way that the promise of no more coughing had failed to do as a child.

We bought our bottles at the local store, with cash, and retreated to the fraternity house, where there was an unlimited quantity of orange soda and an unlimited tolerance for stupidity.  We each took four plastic cups of orange soda, and divided the bottle among those four cups, so that each cup was five parts orange soda and one part disgusting Robitussin cough syrup.

Still I was afraid to try it.  I had caught a whiff of the syrup when making my concoction and my stomach put up its “no vacancy” sign, the product of years of conditioning.  So one of my friends employed the basest kind of peer pressure there is: he picked up one of my cups, approached me from the side, said “Hey Mark open up!” and poured it down my throat before I knew what was happening.

For a second I thought I was going to make it.  But the stomach wasn’t fooled by the orange soda, and I was running for the bathroom like it was a pre-requisite for my major.  The throes of nausea came in waves, and the only hallucinating I did that night was in thinking that I was seeing the toilet for the last time before sunrise.  From that moment on I swore off cough syrup for good; not for medicinal purposes, and not for recreational purposes.  I have been clean ever since.

But apparently there are teenagers who have a greater tolerance for the flavor of cough syrup.  I guess they want to hallucinate so badly that they can will their taste buds and stomachs to cooperate.  No wonder it’s a national epidemic.  With something as readily available and reasonably inexpensive as cough syrup, it’s easy to see how teenagers would be hallucinating a lot more.

On the other hand, I’m sure they cough a lot less.

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Filed under Health and Fitness

Remember Liner Notes?

One might be quick to say that an mp3, mp4, or mp79, or some other digital music file, is the equivalent of an old-time audio cassette (“tape”), or compact disc (“CD”).  And one would be wrong, because the computer file lacks something that tapes and CDs always had—and not just a $17 price tag, or price tag at all.  A purchaser of tapes or CDs got something other than two good songs, maybe one halfway decent song, and a bunch of drek.  Tapes and CDs came with liner notes, and liner notes made the price tag totally worth it.

Liner notes were glossy booklets that contained notes about the artists and the production of the album, photographs of the artists performing live and smoking cigarettes, and sometimes the lyrics to the songs.  Knowing all of the words to a song was like knowing a secret incantation, that when said would release the demons that gave the band members their talent and ability to play with sweaty strings of hair in their faces.  I was never more impressed than when I saw a good friend sing along perfectly to “Back off B*tch [Explicit]” off of Use Your Illusion: Disc 1 from Guns ‘n’ Roses.  He must have studied the liner notes for hours to catch each nuance of the piece.   

But what I remember the most about liner notes—more than the lyrics, more than the photographs, more than the artwork, more than even the music itself—was the smell.  That clean, sterile, plasticky, glossy smell that told my twelve-year-old brain that good times lay ahead.  That smell would hit me the moment I pried open the jewel case, even though I never knew why it was called a jewel case, and that it certainly did not contain any jewels, unless you bought a CD by the artist known as Jewel, which I never did, and even if I did would never admit.  Even now, years after I had to throw out all my jewel cases in the Great Scolding of 2005, I can close my eyes and imagine the smell of liner notes.

One time a friend caught me smelling the liner notes of one of his CDs.  He had gotten up to go to the bathroom and I thought he was going to be gone longer than he was.  When he returned I had my snout in the middle of the booklet to his copy of Metallica’s black album, which we just called Metallica Metallica. 

“Hey man, what are you doing?”

“Um, nothing.”

“Were you…smelling my Metallica Metallica liner notes?”

“What?  Smelling your liner notes?  No, man.  That would be weird.  I was just taking a closer look.  Oh, wow, you know I never knew that Lars Ulrich uses Zildjian cymbals.  The print on these things is so tiny!”

As my nose became accustomed to the smell, my eyes would drink in the images.  And drinking is an apt metaphor.  Because no matter how many assemblies they made sit through in school, where adults used every approach short of mass hypnosis to persuade us that drinking and doing drugs was not cool, the photographs and original artwork of the liner notes told a different story.

The other day I was my parents’ home, cleaning out that week’s “mystery box from high school,” when I came across my collection of liner notes, stripped of their jewel cases but otherwise in perfect working order.  I removed the hardened rubber band and flipped through the liner notes one by one, stopping every now and again to explore a particular booklet, and all the while breathing in the essence of ‘80s, ‘90s, and today.  And I rolled around on the floor, reliving the magic, my mother walked in and said, “Did you know that the original liner notes came with records.”  She paused and smiled.  “Remember those?

Thanks to Patrick Champ for the topic.

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Remember When Life Wasn’t Consumed by Facebook?

Have you ever been working really hard on something, and have someone who sees you working say to you at the peak of your frenzy, “You know, no one ever said on their death-bed that they wished they spent more time at work”?  That may be true, but will anyone ever say on their death-bed, “I wish I had spent more time on Facebook”?

I have a ritual before I sign on to the Big FB.  I say to myself, “Now, we’re just going in for three things:  Wish happy birthday to absolutely anyone whose birthday prompt arises, re-poke any pokers, and RSVP to your brother-in-law’s ‘Second Annual Weekend at the Chicken Farm,’ and that is it.  Got it?  All right, we’re going in…”

But the moment I sign in my plan goes out the Microsoft Windows.  I am grabbed, wrapped up in Facebook’s tentacles, entranced by the songs of its sirens.  There’s no way to stop it.  One moment I’m checking out the birthday quadrant, and the next moment I’m looking at ultrasounds of someone’s deviated septum.  I retrace my steps, and I see how I went astray:

“All right, I signed in, and saw that it was so-and-so’s birthday, but there were those pictures of such-and-such’s new baby, and so I had to look at those pictures, and right underneath that update was an update from so-and-so about how he scored tickets to see Hall & Oates, and then, I saw that 43 of my other friends are fans of Hall & Oates, and one of their profiles I didn’t recognize, so I clicked on it and found that it was a complete stranger, but after looking at her other profile pictures I discovered that she is someone who I went to high school with, but has remarried, and so I check on her husband’s page, even though I don’t know him, and what do you know he likes a certain band, which is cool, even though I’ve never heard of that band.  So I clicked on the link of some dude who commented on a photo of the husband of that girl I went to high school with….”

The recursion is maddening.  I’m not sure if recursion is the correct word to use, but the point is I can’t retrace my steps.  I get disgusted with myself and sign off Facebook in a huff.  And then two minutes later I realized that I forgot to do on Facebook what I had initially meant to do.  So I sign back on, and the cycle of wasted time and self-disgust begins anew.

I’ve heard reports that the average Facebook user spends six hours a day on Facebook.  If you could put time in a bottle, how many bottles would that be, worldwide?  Does it make a difference if you use plastic bottles?  It certainly does if you’re an environmentalist.  But most non-environmentalists only care that the bottle not contain any BPA, whatever that is.

Six hours a day for every person on Facebook.  This cannot be as disheartening as it sounds.  Perhaps many Facebook users live in places where there is not that much to do, and going on Facebook actually increases the productivity of their regional economy.  But for most people, I imagine, Facebook is taking time that could be put to far more productive use, like helping in the community, spending time with family, or writing a blog.

Maybe companies will figure out a way to have employees do their work on Facebook.  I’ve alluded before to the possibility of suing people on Facebook.  Perhaps meetings and projects could be done with fan pages.  Products could be ordered and memos sent.  Even those little office birthday parties…well, we know Facebook has got the birthday thing down.

But what would those people who work on Facebook do to waste time?  They could not very well waste time on Facebook, because Facebook would be their job.  By definition, you can’t waste time at work by working.  The Facebook  workers would have to sign off, and turn off the monitor or shut the laptop, and pick up a stack of paper, and start filing.

And at 5 o’clock, the Facebook workers would put on their coats and hats, and go to a cafe, where they would meet real people, and talk face to face.  They would sip their coffee and nod, and smile, and make all of the tones and gestures that give spoken language its vitality.  And after they drain their cups, and catch-up on each others’ lives, these Facebook workers would sit back and reminisce about the days when people socialized over Facebook.

Do you stick to the grocery list when shopping at Facebook?  Or do you find yourself wandering the aisles as time ceases to exist?

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Remember When You Had Never Heard of a Debt Ceiling?

Two days ago, when I started procrastinating over writing this post, it seemed like everywhere I turned I was hearing about the United States’ debt ceiling, and whether Congress would raise it or subject the country to a lot of letters from collection agents.  For weeks now I’ve been picturing the Representatives and Senators walking around stooped, the ceiling of the Capitol Building pressing down on them like that Floor 7 ½ in Being John Malkovich.

I do not know any stories about the debt ceiling.  But I do know a story about a ceiling.

When I was around ten years old, slime was a popular toy.  Not the kind of slime you find on week-old turkey cold cuts, or the kind that rained on anyone who said “I don’t know” on You Can’t Do That On Television, but the kind that was pliable and sticky for maximum destruction.

The slime would stick to any solid matter it touched.  One morning my mother came downstairs to see me cutting clumps of my own hair out after a particularly educational experiement with the slime’s adhesiveness.  Another time the slime led to a hasty farewell to our family’s cherished VCR.  But the most memorable experience was how my brother discovered the slime’s aerial properties.

My brother and I took an annual trip to Florida to see our paternal grandparents.  They lived near Fort Lauderdale in a senior community that had a swimming pool and a lot of women named Rose.  Of course we loved our grandparents and savored every game of Po-Ke-No and story about the Great Depression.  But the best thing about spending a week with grandma and grandpa was that we went out for ice cream every night.

In that year of the slime, my brother brought a specimen onto the plane.  Had he done that today I am sure the full body scans would have detected the item, and my eight-year-old brother would have been interrogated for hours in a small room.  But in those days the only thing the airlines cared about was that we not kick the seat in front of us.

My grandparents’ house, like most houses in Florida, had a ceiling.  I never noticed it that much until my brother tossed his smuggled slime up in the air hard, so it stuck to the pebbled white ceiling.  We could not reach it, even after stacking the hassocks atop one another, and our 78-year-old grandfather had to get up on a ladder and pry the slime off.  He was not pleased, and asked that my brother not do again.

Not two hours later, the slime was again stuck on the ceiling.  My brother was fully engaged in brinksmanship.  Again our grandfather had get on the ladder, again he had to pry the slime off his white ceiling that now had two greenish stains, and again he scolded my brother.

“If you throw that slime on the ceiling again,” he said, “we’re not taking you out for ice cream for the rest of the week.”  From his face we knew this threat was serious.  My brother loved ice cream even more than mischief, and to even hint that the nightly ritual could be compromised was like threatening to remove one his limbs.

So he was good for the rest of our time there.  Mostly good.  He still splashed the wrinkled octagenarians at the community pool with his cannonballs in defiance of the large sign that said, “No Cannonballs.”  And he still gave my grandmother a near-coronary by getting a little too friendly with the neighborhood lizards.  But the green slime from Long Island remained in its clear plastic egg, and we got our ice cream every night during that vacation.

Finally the time came to take our leave of our grandparents, and fly home to the land of snow and homework.  We packed our suitcases, stuffed our still-damp bathing suits into plastic bags from Publix, strategically placed the porcelain ashtrays with palm trees on them that we’d gotten as souvenirs, even though no one we knew smoked.  And in the deepening afternoon, as we were about to get in the car for the airport, my brother took out his plastic egg of green slime, removed the contents, and tossed the slime up onto the ceiling, where it stuck as faithfully as ever.  And my brother shot my poor old grandfather a look that said, “What do I have to lose now?”

I just read that a tentative deal to raise the debt ceiling has been reached among the great compromisers on Capitol Hill, who say they can save $4 trillion by switching to paperless sex scandals.  Clearly there is some connection between that deal and my story about my brother throwing the slime on my grandparents’ ceiling: the gaming, the line between real and empty threats, the intergenerational battles.  And someone is wearing a smirk that says, “What do I have to lose now?”

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