Tag Archives: humorist

Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor.  Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school.  In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance.  But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”

At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it.  Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients.  Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.

Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”  There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous.  But I don’t think that’s what they mean.

My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home.  The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.

One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter.  The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth.  There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter.  We were impressed.  Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif.  Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.

Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics.  There is controversy about what constitutes “local.”  The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin.  That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.”  Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.

I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card.  Politics is truly the art of compromise.

But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life.  I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass.  The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown.  It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.

Advertisements

26 Comments

Filed under Eating and Drinking

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.

10 Comments

Filed under Technology

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?

28 Comments

Filed under Social Media

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?”

13 Comments

Filed under Current Events

Remember When People Read Only Physical Books?

These are dark days for the physicality of books.  Sales of physical books are falling further and further beneath the sales of the light and snappy e-books.  Brick and mortar bookstores are closing across the nation.  Wood and straw bookstores have been blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.   Depressing news indeed.

The first book I ever remember reading was Make Way for Ducklings.  It was a big, dark green hardcover with a gold seal on the front.  I used to take it to bed with me, and hold it under the covers.  That was my habit with all my favorite books growing up, and it was not until I was sleeping with Introduction to Statistical Mechanics in 11th grade that my parents felt the need to intervene.

I was always very careful about my books.  I had certain rules.  A college classmate once wanted to borrow my copy of Utopia.  I agreed to let her take temporary possession, but only upon her following my rules.

“Don’t open the book any wider than absolutely necessary, so that the spine does not crack.”

“Okay.”

“And try not to hold the book too much.  Unless you are actually reading it, the book should lie flat on a hard surface, not too close to an open window, in case of rain, and not too close to a radiator.  Heat can ruin the laminated cover.”

“Okay.”

“And if you absolutely must carry the book somewhere, hold it in your hand, but only if you can refrain from bending it.  A lot of people have that tendency, I’ve noticed, during periods of stress or excitement.  If you feel like you are entering one of those periods of stress or excitement, put the book inside of a backpack or satchel, but be very careful.  Place it in the bag so that the spine is down and parallel with the ground, so that the corners do not get smushed by the sides of the bag.”

“Um, okay.”

“The best and safest place for a book,” I continued, “is a boofshelf.  But bookshelves have their own pitfalls.  For example, if there are too many books on one shelf, do not try to squeeze the book in between a small space.  Otherwise the friction from the adjacent books as you try to squeeze it in will cause the book’s front and back covers to fold over, and once that happens…” I shuddered.  “Just be careful, all right?”

She gave me the book back the next day.  “I just couldn’t handle all the rules.  I’m going to the bookstore now.”  I caught her reading Utopia at the dining hall the next day, with the cover folded over.  I shielded my eyes and ran out the door, appetite lost for the evening.

I was not a fan of the Kindle when it first came out.  I remember telling my mother how stupid the device sounded.

“I mean, who wants to read a book on an electronic device?  You don’t even get to turn the pages.”

“Oh, I think it sounds really cool.  How much is it?”

“$349.”

“Well,” my mother said, “I’ll split it with you if you want one.”

And that how I ended up with a Kindle for $349.  And I admit, it was pretty cool for a while.  I downloaded hundreds of free books—Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare—and marvelled at the library I held in my hand.

“Look, Dad,” I said to my father, “this Kindle holds hundreds and hundreds of books!”

“How many of them have you read?”

“That’s not the point.”

But in the end he was right.  I found that reading from the Kindle did not yield the same satisfaction as reading from a physical book.  Percentages and locations were sterile metrics compared to page numbers.  And somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that because the book really wasn’t there, but was just a temporary arrangement of electrons, that I was not really reading the book, and that when I shut the Kindle off for the night, and the words disappeared from the screen, the meaning would disappear from my brain as well.

So I’m back to reading physical books.  Sure, they’re heavier, and more expensive, and take up space that certain household members believe would be better spent on vases and bowls of plastic fruit.  But in this crazy and forgetful world, physical books assure that knowledge, meaning, and beauty are eternal.  Just so long as the spine is uncracked.

21 Comments

Filed under Books

Remember Telephone Books?

I was reading The Information, by James Gleick, and came across this passage on page 194:

“[Telephone books] went obsolete, effectively, at the turn of the twenty-first century.  American telephone companies were officially phasing them out by 2010; in New York, the end of automatic delivery of telephone directories was estimated to save 5,000 tons of paper.”

What are small children going to sit on when they are too big for high-chairs, but too small to reach the dinner table by sitting on a regular chair?  Copies of the The Information?  Whatever the effects are, this intelligence reminded me of a story, as told to me by a friend.  This is what he said:

“I always thought it was so nice of the telephone company to distribute free copies of the telephone book to the doorstep of each house.  Every summer these yellow directories would magically appear, as if to say, ‘Your telephone company loves you.’

“On delivery day, I could see the books in front of every home.  But the homeowners, for some reason, were not always that anxious to adopt the books, and often left them out there for a day or two.  I smelled opportunity, and one year I went out and stole every copy of the telephone book that had been delivered in our neighborhood.

“Under cover of night I went door to door, grabbing the yellow tome before the homeowner awoke or dog started barking.  It was tedious work. I could not carry more than two or three under each arm, and so had to make frequent trips back to my house.  I stored the telephone books in my closet, and when I was done there was not much room for my clothes.

“I remember exactly how the telephone books looked in my closet.  Five-foot stacks that shoved my pants and shirts aside.  The pristine spines glowed like bars of gold with advertisements for personal injury lawyers.  I thought about the thousands of names and addresses and telephone numbers of people I would never know.  I thought about all of the pizzerias and locksmiths and hardware stores and roofers and orthodontists that were nestled in next to my old sneakers and a stop sign I stole over spring break.  I thought about all of the trees that had been cut down to make these telephone books, and that by stealing them I was saving the trees, in a way.

“But what I did not think about was how I was going to keep these stacks of books a secret during a time when I still lived with my parents and did not do my own laundry.  I guess I should have thought about that. 

“I would later tell my mother, upon questioning, that I did not know why I stole the telephone books.  Grown-ups always got annoyed when kids said they did not know why they did something bad.  But in my case it was true; I really did not know.  It just seemed like the thing to do.  The phone books were free of charge, in the open, not nailed down, and easy to spot in the dark.  In the summer, when there was nothing to do, this was something to do that did not entail hopping fences.

“With a little less MTV and a little more foresight, I might have told my mother that I was helping train my neighbors for a time when telephone books would no longer be distributed.  I was doing them a favor!  But instead I gave my stock answer: I looked at the ground and said, ‘I don’t know.’  I thought about that answer as I returned the telephone books to each and every neighbor that night.”

Had my friend continued I’m sure he would have concluded his tale by saying that he learned a valuable lesson; that no amount of midnight mischief is worth depriving one’s neighbors of their means of communication.  But at that moment his cell phone rang.  He picked it up and said, “Hello?…Really?  The Verizon guy just left the modem sitting on their stoop?…I’ll be right there,” and then left, pleading a prior engagement.

20 Comments

Filed under Technology

Remember When We Didn’t Have Piles of Chargers and Power Cords?

When I was a kid there was a power outlet next to my bed.  I had no need for power strips or outlet multipliers because I only had two devices to plug in: my alarm clock, and a reading lamp that I used to heat up the thermometer whenever I wanted to play sick, just like Elliot did when he wanted to stay home with E.T.

Today, I can’t take two steps in my house without stepping on a power charger or cord.  A charger for my Kindle, a charger for my laptop, a charger for my digital camera, a charger for my old digital camera (a Canon ELPH that cost me $500 in 2002 and which now gets the cold shoulder from every current operating system), a charger for the portable external hard drive, a charger for the electrical drill I’m forced to use whenever a blind needs hanging or a neighbor needs a root canal, a charger for the digital camcorder, a charger for the digital speakers, a charger for the steam mop, a charger of unknown chargee—so far behind the buffet that reaching it is not worth the health insurance deductible—and, last but by no means least, a charger of the purest white for my beloved iPhone.

These chargers and power cords congregate in a giant knot by the outlet.  My wife dislikes these piles and is always trying to find ways to hide them.

“Mark,” she asks, “what are we doing about that pile of phone chargers in the corner of the living room?”

“What pile? What chargers?”

She pointed to the pile of black wires. If the scene had been out of a movie I probably would have chuckled and then mentally scolded the owner of the house for creating a fire hazard.  But I was not in a movie and I didn’t chuckle.  This was my life and it wasn’t funny.  I explained that we couldn’t just move the wires because they were hooked up to things that could not be moved.

“Now, explain to me again how the modem affects where we can move the phone.  We have cell phones.  What do we even bother with a land line anyway?”

I told her that the only way that would be possible would be to put something in front of it the entire time, because to move the wires was not reasonably practicable.  That would end the discussion.

“Well, smart guy, I guess you’re going to have to stand in front of it the entire time.”

And that’s how I found myself standing in one spot for hours on end, like one of the guards at Buckingham Palace, except instead of a busby on my head there was a bowl of Tostitos in my arms, containing at its center a smaller bowl filled with salsa.  Our guests come by me and dip some chips.  I was amused at how often they succumbed to the pressure to talk to me.  Most of them I did not know me that well, and struggled with the awkwardness.  A few gave up.

Then there was the time that I tried to unplug my cell phone and ended up unplugging the Tivo, ruining my wife’s taping of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.  “That’s my favorite one,” she said.  “I can’t believe I’m going to miss it now.”  I suggested she put an ad on Craig’s List for someone who taped that episode.

“It’s not a tape.  I’ve told you this like a million times.  What are you, stuck in the 80s?”

Eventually, the cords and chargers end up in a closet or in the basement.  Deep down I know that the exiled cords and chargers will never be used again, but I am too scared to throw any one of them out.  To throw out the charger is to throw out the device itself.

I spend at least 12 hours a week untangling the wires for all of the power cords in the living room.  There must be a way to monetize that skill.  People should want to line up and pay $5 a head to watch me untangle power cords and cell phone chargers.

I suppose, though, that I should not complain about the mess of chargers when the devices do so much.  Instant communication, instant information, instant access, instant video, instant gratification—a small unsightly pile of tangled black plastic wires and domestic strife is a small price to pay for such wonders.

Do you have a knotty pile of cords and chargers in your home?  How do you cope?

6 Comments

Filed under Technology