Monthly Archives: March 2012

Remember When There Weren’t All These Mediums?

The other night I caught a show on TLC called “Long Island Medium.”  Being from Long Island myself, I thought that this might be a show about the first Long Islander to pass on the largest size of food or drink offered at a restaurant.  But no, it was about the life and work of a woman named Theresa Caputo, who goes around speaking to the deceased and asking them if the parking situation is any better in the afterlife.

Mediumship has been around as long as there have been human beings willing to connect with their departed loved ones and pay a medium’s hourly rate plus expenses.  I’m sure that if we had a video of Ancient Athens, we could see a medium walking into a fish market, and saying, “I’m feeling something…some here recently lost someone…who was into togas.  Am I right?  What can I say?  It’s a gift.”

Communicating with the dead reached a peak in the 19th Century, especially in the English-speaking countries, where spirits were found hiding in Ulysses S. Grant’s beard and books by Charles Dickens.  Although there were some high-profile hoaxes—most notably one where a medium went several months without bathing and convinced clients that the arresting body odor was their deceased relative reeking from the Other Side—a large group of believers remained.

Perhaps it is because of the popularity of medium John Edward, who is also from Long Island and is particularly adept at channeling television ratings, that it seems like mediums have staged a comeback in recent years.  Reality television has certainly facilitated the growth, and I’m waiting for a show where spirits compete in a series of physical trials and then vote each other out of the afterlife.

My own experience with mediums is rather limited.  As I once traversed the grounds at a local fair after a harrowing experience with cotton candy, I was called to by a woman standing in a tent.

“Sir, have you recently lost someone?”

I told her that I wasn’t interested in any coupons, but she was insistent that I had recently lost someone.  I told her that I had not.

“Really?  Are you sure?”

I again answered that I hadn’t lost anyone.  She bit her lip and furrowed her brow for a few seconds.

“Are you absolutely sure you haven’t lost anyone recently?”

“All right, all right,” I said.  “You got me.  Yes, I recently lost someone.”

“I knew it,” she said.  “Now tell me, was this person into…uh…eating food?”

“It wasn’t a person.  It was a squirrel.  And yes, the squirrel liked to eat food.”

“See?  I knew I was feeling something.  Now, did your squirrel pass after a very long illness?”

“He was flattened by a Civic.”

“Ah yes, that was going to be my next guess.  Well, the squirrel wants me to tell you that it’s okay to let go, that it wasn’t your fault.”

I thanked the medium for her time and didn’t tell her that the reason the squirrel was in the way of the car was because I had thrown a handful of Honey Bunches of Oats into the street.  I thanked her for her time and gave her a handful of Honey Bunches of Oats.

Despite all of the evidence that spirits are all around us and giving the endings of movies that we haven’t seen, I remain a skeptic.  If there is an afterlife, where you can float around to wherever you want, see and hear anything without having to look around for a bathroom…why on Earth would you want to talk to the living?

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Remember the Etch A Sketch?

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about the Etch A Sketch lately.  What a fantastic toy.  A plastic rectangle and knobs for kids who couldn’t deal with crayons and paint.  I loved how the advertisements for the Etch A Sketch always showed works of art that could hang in the Louvre next to the Caravaggios.  All I ever drew were clusters of curved lines that looked like something prison psychologists ask serial killers to look at and interpret.

My parents arms’ came directly out of their heads in the family portraits I drew as a child, and my hand at the Etch A Sketch was not any more deft.  So I had to resort to drawings that could be made by repeating a few simple maneuvers with the magnetic stylus.  The best sketch I etched I named, simply, “The Spiral.”  I created it by taking the stylus around the perimeter of the screen, and when I reached the starting point, I moved it towards the center just a tad and repeated the perimeter, going around and around, getting closer to the center until I had a rectangular spiral just perfect for making adults seasick.  It was Thanksgiving Day that I finished “The Spiral,” and I staged an impromptu showing for my captive relatives.

“Oh, uh, that’s really wonderful, Mark,” said one uncle.  “Wow, I think I’m getting a headache.”

So proud was I of my gritty lithograph that I couldn’t bear to shake it up and lose it forever.  So I placed it on a table and announced that no one could touch it for the rest of eternity.  About ten seconds later my mother started to move it to make room for the stuffing.

“My work!” I shouted.  “What are you doing?”

“Honey, your work is in dinner’s way,” she said.

I took the Etch A Sketch up to my room where it could be cloistered in a corner.  The cretins to whom I was related just didn’t appreciate great art.  Perhaps I would have better luck amongst my peers at school.

“What are you doing?” I shouted to a “friend” of mine who was trying to pry the Etch A Sketch from my hands as we waited for the bus on Cyber Monday before it got the Cyber.  “You’re going to shake it up!”

“Isn’t that the point?” he asked.

“I just wanted to show you my work.”

“It’s stupid,” he said.  “My six year old sister could have done that.”

I kept the Etch A Sketch in my school bag, which I carried flat, in my arms, so as not to disturb the delicate arrangement of aluminum filings.  While the teacher tortured us with sums or yet another project involving construction paper and glue, I would periodically peek at the plastic mural in my bag.

“Mark, I don’t see enough glitter on your Santa,” the teacher said.  “I think you need to focus.”

At lunch time I had to be extra vigilant.  By now everyone knew I was guarding a secret in my bag, and I couldn’t just leave it in the classroom.  I would be so nervous that my magnum opus would be defaced by some juice-box-drinking bandit.  So I took the bag with me, and set it on the cafeteria table, and balanced the Styrofoam tray on top of it with my square pizza, pretzel rod, and milk.

“Mark, why are you eating your lunch on top of your school bag?” everyone asked me.

“Um, the Surgeon General says it prevents rickets,” I said.  “Didn’t you hear?”

Like any kid who walks around school guarding something in a bag, I became a minor celebrity.  As we lined up for the buses at the end of the day, some classmates encircled me, their intentions not completely benign.

“All right,” the ringleader said.  “What do you have in that bag?”

Perhaps I had misjudged them.  Perhaps they would be as entranced by the beauty of “The Spiral” as I was.  So I took it out and showed them.

“That’s it?” they said.  “An Etch A Sketch?”

“Not just any Etch A Sketch,” I said.  “I call it ‘The Spiral.’  Isn’t it grand?”

“I could do better than that,” he said.  And before I could stop him he snatched the Etch A Sketch from my hands and shook it up.  Before I knew what I was doing I was at his throat.  A teacher had to separate us, and of course the thug who ruined my work said that I started the whole thing.  Then I had a chance to explain what happened.  At last, someone would understand what I had gone through the whole day.

“And then he just shook it up, erasing my drawing,” I said.  “It’s like the drawing never happened.”

The teacher looked at me, and looked at the Etch A Sketch, its red plastic chassis glowing in the afternoon sun, and said, “But isn’t that the point?”

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Remember When You Didn’t Hunger For The Hunger Games?

Yesterday’s “Today” show featured Jennifer Lawrence, the star of “The Hunger Games,” the movie version of the latest series of books for adults who like to read kids’ books.  I was all set to scoff until they started showing clips of the film, where kids have to do battle on television in a dystopian future.  The story seemed so compelling that I wanted to read the book and be that guy who tells everyone that the book was better than the movie.

My library had no copies on the shelf, and when I tried to put myself on the wait list the librarian led me into a room in the back, where, she said, I would “have an opportunity to borrow the book.”

In this room were 11 other library patrons.   We were told that there was one copy of “The Hunger Games” and that we were going to have to compete for it in a series of events.  I wanted to ask why they had jettisoned the usual wait list procedure, but a bell rang and each of the other contestants picked up a bow and arrow.  I picked up mine, and was a little worried because the last arrow I shot had been four inches thick and had “Nerf” printed along its side.  But when everyone started running into the main part of the library, my animal nature took over.

Like every time I go into the library, even the times when I’m not doing battle, I headed to the fiction section.  I always like to look at the classic novels that I haven’t read, and imagine that I’ve read them.  An arrow came flying at me, but I blocked it with a copy of “Ulysses.”  Then I fell and rolled over to some Cormac McCarthy books, and was so entranced by the lyrical descriptions of the west that I forgot about the people trying to kill me.  I guess they forgot about me too, because a little later I was told to return to the room in the back.  Now there were only six of us, all trying not to look at the pile of bloodied library cards in the corner.

The next event involved a pool of raging water in the east wing of the building.  I never noticed this before, but now I understood why the budget vote had been so close.  We were told that the first three people to swim to the other side would be lifted out of the pool, while the remaining three…the librarian held her nose and pantomimed sinking.  That bell rang again and we all jumped in the water.  Luckily for me, my wife doesn’t let me wear shoes in the house, and so I wear loafers for convenient de-shoeing.  These loafers I easily kicked off before getting in the pool, and was the first to reach the other side while the others were delayed untying their laces.

For the final event I was placed at a round table with the other two remaining contestants.  We were each handed a copy of “Ivanhoe,” and told that the first one to finish reading it would be the victor.  The previous trials had been nothing.  “I don’t think I can do it,” said one of the others, a middle-aged man.  The woman to his right kept shaking her head, tears coming to her eyes.  I, too, thought I would die before I got through this book again.  And then I remembered how my English teacher schooled me on it after I proved to have not read it very closely.  I could just pretend to read it.  This I did, and passed the quiz at the end with flying colors.  The other two contestants barely even tried.

I came home with my copy of “The Hunger Games.”  As I kicked off my shoes in the doorway, my wife asked me if she could read it after I was done.  I told her that I was probably just going to see the movie.

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Remember When You Didn’t See Those “26.2” Stickers On Cars?

I was on my way to Lowe’s to complain that I couldn’t push the walls of my house like the people in that “Never Stop Improving” commercial, when I saw a sticker on the back of a car that read “26.2” in bold black print against a white background.  I’ve nearly gotten into accidents trying to decipher these cryptic stickers.

One time it was “ADK” that challenged my intellect on the New York State Thruway.

“All Dieting Kangaroos?  Ankles Do Kink?” I said aloud.  “Albert David Kaufman?”  It wasn’t until I arrived home and checked the Internet that I learned that “ADK” was short for “Adirondack,” something I should have figured out from the frame packs and scruffy beards.

A few weeks later I was on the Long Island Expressway, gripping the steering wheel in one hand and rosary beads in the other, when I saw a sticker that read “OBI” in the same black print on white background.  After I accelerated a bit to confirm that Alec Guinness wasn’t driving the car, I decided that I needed to know what this “OBI” meant.  At the time I was conducting a one-man boycott of the Internet for giving me too much information about the Olsen twins.  Determined to solve the mystery, I put on my Scooby Doo hat and followed the car.

Although I did not score well on the “spying” section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, I managed to tail the car pretty well by pretending that it was driving from a wedding ceremony to a reception, and that I’d left the directions in the yarmulke basket.  Eventually the car came to rest in the parking lot of a strip mall.  The driver went into a burrito joint adjacent to a nail salon and one of those stores that charges no more than a dollar for items worth 99 cents.

I got in line behind him, and pretended to study the different combinations of beans, rice, and guacamole that the establishment offered.  But I was really listening for any clues as to what this “OBI” might mean.

“I’d like a chicken burrito, please,” the man said.  Maybe this was an attempt to throw me off the trail.

“Black or pinto beans, sir?”

“Um, pinto.  Wait, no, black.”

So this guy wants to play games, I said to myself.  He moved towards the register and out of earshot.  I would have stayed closer but I was in the midst of a crisis in choosing between mild and medium salsa.

I was, however, able to get a seat next to him at a long high table against the storefront window.  Unfortunately, all I could make out was chewing, and when he left I couldn’t follow him out, owing to complications that arise when one loses focus while eating something wrapped in tinfoil.  When I returned home from the Emergency Room, I called an end to the Internet boycott and discovered that “OBI” stood either for the Oak Beach Inn, an infamous Long Island beach club, or for Ordnugsgemässes Beschaffungs-Institut.

With this history, I tried to ignore the 26.2 sticker staring at me as we inched along in Saturday afternoon traffic.  I knew that guessing would make my brain hurt, and I couldn’t take out my iPhone and check because not surfing the Internet while driving was one of the conditions of my re-admission into the International Brotherhood of Men Who Can Do Only One Thing At A Time.

But the number kept gnawing at me, and with the stop and go traffic I felt like I was running a mara—

That’s it! I said aloud.  A marathon is exactly 26.2 miles.  I was impressed with myself, but the feeling didn’t last.  I wondered why this person needed to show off to the rest of the doughnut-inhaling nation that he can run 26.2 miles without the aid of a car or helicopter.  Perhaps it was time to do some showing off of my own.

The next day I slapped on my own “26.2” sticker, circled the decimal point, and drew an arrow running from the decimal to the space two digits to the left.

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Remember Renting Movies At the Video Store?

The video rental store near my home had a room in the back that you entered through a pair of saloon-style swinging half-doors.  The room was low-lit with a reddish tint and greeted customers with a sign, set at eye-level for the average 11-year-old boy, that read, “Must Be 18 or Older to Enter This Room.”  My under-18 friends and I would pretend to be really interested in the titles adjacent to this room.

“Oh, wow, I didn’t know that this, uh, French film was available already,” I would say, studying the cover of the movie and glancing sideways every few seconds like I’d been electrocuted.

My friend would mosey on over to me.  “Ah,” he would say, touching the side of a different movie while he looked over the swinging doors to our neighborhood’s slice of Bourbon Street.  “This is supposed to be really…uh…interesting.  Isn’t it starring someone famous?”

“Yes,” I would answer, pointing to yet a different movie while I peered through the slats in the swinging doors.  “I think this is supposed to be John Candy’s best work.”

But physical video stores started to die long before Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy.  When Netflix hit the market, I was one of the first to sign up.  I remember creating a spreadsheet that would show me how to maximize the number of movies I could see in a month.  After a well-spent hour of my employer’s time setting up the queue of movies I wanted to see, the only step left to execute was to watch the movie the moment I saw that red envelope in my mailbox.  It was perfect.

Perfect, that is, until a movie arrived that I did not want to watch at that particular moment.  When I was choosing the movies, I always had very high standards, and chose movies that close friends had informed me that I absolutely had to see if we were going to continue being friends.  But sometimes, after a hard day in the cubicles, I did not feel like digging in to “Breaking the Waves” or “Mulholland Drive,” but instead wanted to watch a few hours of people on television yelling at each other.

So I would go one day without watching the Netflix movies, and then another day, and another, until I was so depressed about not watching it the moment it came in that I couldn’t even think about the movie without getting sick.  Why, you ask, did I not just return the movie without watching it?  Because that would have been a waste of money.

All that Netflix dysfunctionality is behind me, however.  These days I use Redbox.  Just go to my local supermarket, approach the giant red box, select my movie, and swipe my card.  The movies cost between $1 and $2, and even if I’m late I’m charged only another dollar per day.  I get the instant gratification of Blockbuster, with the low prices of Netflix.  It’s so ideal that I’m wondering how long it will last.

Because history teaches us that convenient and inexpensive sources of movies don’t last.  The price of a Redbox movie will start to climb, or the selection will get worse, or there will be stories of people being swallowed alive by the giant red boxes, and I’ll have to go off in search of another source of movies.

And as I drive around the neighborhood, maybe I’ll come to stop in front of my local movie theater.  As if under a spell, I’ll get out of my car and walk in and pay the exorbitant sum for an adult ticket.  And I’ll sit in the theater, and let the movie envelop me, and I’ll forget all my worries about where to get movies.

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Remember the President’s Fitness Test?

When I was in elementary school and completing my gym fellowship, after the square dancing seminar but before I had to defend my thesis on crab soccer, we were advised that we would all be participating in something called the President’s Test on Fitness.  The President’s Test, as we called it, was a series of five events by which we’d all be embarrassed in front of our peers: the shuttle run, pull-ups, sit-ups, the sit-and-reach, and the mile.

The shuttle run sounded interesting at first because it contained the word “shuttle.”  This was a more innocent and simpler time in America, and shuttle launches had yet to become boring.  I and my cohorts all had being an astronaut on our “when I grow up lists,” usually just behind baseball player, football player, and He-Man.

The shuttle run, however, was nothing like going into outer space.  A pair of erasers was placed at one end of the gym, and a starting line at the other end.  One by one we would sprint from behind the line, grab one eraser, run back to the starting line, deposit the eraser in hand behind the starting line, sprint back to the other eraser, grab it, and run back to the starting line before you could hear the other students making fun of how slow you ran.

Pull-ups involved taking an overhand grip on a horizontal bar set higher than you, letting your feet dangle for a few moments, and making it look like you were making a diligent effort at doing a pull-up without making so many funny faces that you became known as the kid who makes funny faces when he is trying to do a pull-up.  Today the pull-ups are probably done in a private room so that only the gym teacher gets to laugh at the funny faces.  But in those days public humiliation was one of the five food groups.

Sit-ups were easy.  You just had a partner hold on to your feet while you did as many sit-ups in a minute as possible.  I used to gain a competitive edge by playing with my partners Velcro sneakers, unfastening and re-fastening the noisy fibers over and over to disrupt his rhythm.  Or if he came from that sect who wore KangaROOS, I would search for the little hiding place in the footwear that held the student’s milk or drug money.

The sit-and-reach was something that if on television today would say “Do Not Attempt” at the bottom of the screen.  The subject sat on a mat with legs straight out, and a wooden box with scored measurements was placed at the end of the feet.  The student would then be asked to bend forward and stretch his or her arms as far as possible past the feet.  The performance in this event would be measured by the farthest measurement the student’s fingertips could reach on the wooden box, divided by the number of screams emitted as the gym teacher pushed on the student’s shoulders, shouting “Come now, you can reach farther than that!  Don’t let those European kids beat us!  You owe it to your country!”

Because that was the original purpose behind the President’s Test.  The council that eventually created this wonderful opportunity for American children was established in 1956 by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower after he saw a study that showed European children to be more fit than American children.  I, however, did not know or care about the patriotic origins of the requirement that I trip along a dusty track, heaving and wheezing and flailing my arms like a whirligig, taking enough staggered steps in my Velcro sneakers to hopefully add up to a mile.

The President’s Test has probably been redesigned to include meditation and yoga and an exercise where you try to name as many vegetables as you can in under a minute.  The tests are all done in private rooms, and everyone passes.  And most of all, true to the origins of the test, the mile is only a kilometer.

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Remember When Television Programs Didn’t Have Animated Promos For Other Programs?

When I was a young whippersnapper and could eat at McDonald’s three times a week without a health care proxy, there was a separation between television programs, the commercials that funded the television programs, and the advertisements for upcoming television programs that would attract more sponsors, who would fund more televisions etc.  I could watch an entire episode of Growing Pains without being distracted by a tiny Tony Danza plugging Who’s the Boss in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, berating Samantha for buying a $300 pair of boots with her modeling money.  I watched shows to be distracted from my life.  I did not need a distraction from the distraction.

The only superfluous animation on television then was the channel with the stock-ticker, and I was subjected to that only on days when school was closed and my grandfather came over to watch me while my parents worked.  I guess he never got the memo that the kids were supposed to choose the show.

But no channel these days leaves the house without distracting animation at the bottom of the screen.  It would be like walking around without pants.  During a show about an elite fighting force that infiltrates terrorist cells by offering discounted driveway sealing, there’s a little bride-to-be trying on a wedding dress in the bottom-right corner.  During a show about how to make zucchini casserole in a coffee cup, there’s a tiny cupcake wearing an even tinier smiley face.  During a sit-com about teenagers mouthing-off to their parents, there is a two-inch promo of a sit-com about teenagers mouthing-off to their parents.

I’m sure that when the networks decided to add the moving miniatures at the bottom of the screen, it was after careful market research that showed the average viewer’s brain could handle this level of multi-tasking.  For to absorb the full meaning of the television program and the promo, the nervous system has some work to do.

In the same amount of time that Derek Jeter has to decide whether to swing at a pitch, the average television viewer has to decide whether the promo is worth the transfer of primary focus from the airing program.  In the time that Derek Jeter has to move his arms, legs, and torso simultaneously to connect the bat squarely with the ball, the average viewer at home has to make note of the name, date, and time of the upcoming show without missing any of the witty dialogue or dramatic irony of the current show in which the viewer has so heavily invested.  That so many millions of people can do this for four to six hours a day without going crazy is a testament to the nobility of the human mind.

I, however, have never been able to do that.  Yes, I am one of those poor souls who was born with a brain incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time.  I cannot even go through the preliminary decision-making stage without shifting my mono-focus.  If I watch a program, and a tiny video or animated graphic appears at the bottom of the screen, I am compelled to convey my full attention to the promo, whether I am interested or not.

And when the brief interlude is over and I just as automatically return my focus to the program I was watching, the program is not the same as it was.  The show is duller in comparison to the new and shiny show that was being advertised at the bottom of the screen.  Sometimes I even forget what I was watching, and can’t remember until I see a promo for the current show during the airing of the promo-ed show.

And then a commercial comes on and I forget about both shows, and focus only on buying something.

N.B. This is a digitally remastered version of an earlier post on the same topic. MK

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