Tag Archives: memoir

Remember High Top Sneakers?

When I was in fifth grade it was decided by a committee of my teacher and my parents that I could graduate from Velcro sneakers to footwear with laces.  At the time these canvas sneakers that went high up on the ankle were very popular.  It was like all the kids wanted to pretend they were in the 1950s and helping Marty McFly get back to the future.

The canvas sneakers that I bought were turquoise in color, and after the newness of the sneakers wore off I indulged in the custom of writing on your sneakers.  Along with laced sneakers, I had also graduated to pens instead of pencils, which was good because it is hard to write on canvas sneakers in pencil.

Most other boys my age who wore the same style of sneaker had written on their sneakers “I love” and then the name of their girlfriend, or “I” and then the shape of a heart and then the name of their girlfriend.  I, being far too absorbed in my quest for the lowest common denominator, had no time for girlfriends, and so wrote on my sneakers “I love toxic waste.”  Somehow my parents, who had paid for the sneakers, did not appreciate my use of irony.

The following year ushered in the reign of the Nike Air.  This was a sneaker made of leather but with a little plastic bubble in the side that was allegedly filled with air.  I was sure that the sneakers would make me float and deliver me from the clutches of the gangs that roamed the hallways of the middle school kicking the backs of students’ feet while they walked.  Oh how I was disappointed to find that the Nike Airs respected the law of gravity, although the gang members were impressed by my insecure obsession with fitting in.

And then came the Reebok Pump.

Yes, my first understanding of the word “pumps” in relation to footwear was not high-heeled women’s shoes, but rather sneakers that had an inflatable pouch inside the tongue.  There was a bright orange rubber button at the end of the tongue that one would push repeatedly, particularly during class, to inflate the tongue, giving a more snug fit and greater basketball dunking capability.

The price of the sneakers was even more impressive than the inflatable tongue.  At well over $100 a pair, perhaps even as much as $200, the Pumps were as unattainable for me as Z Cavaricci pants.  I remember writing my Bar Mitzvah speech on the Exodus from Egypt, while fantasizing that I would receive enough money to buy a pair of Reebok Pumps and Z Cavariccis, and then stroll the hallways at my school and earn the kind of superficial respect of my peers that you see only in B-movies from the 1980s.

But the Reebok Pumps were not all fun and games.  There were reports of people who pumped the Reebok Pumps so much that they cut off the circulation to their feet, which then had to be amputated, and replaced with Prosthetic Pumps.

And there were reports of people being mugged for their Pumps.  How difficult it must have been to deflate and untie one’s sneakers at gun point, and then have to hold the gun while the mugger put on the sneakers and pumped them.
For me, however, the Reebok Pumps remained a fantasy.  At first I told myself that the price was too high, and that I was much better of selling my family’s cow for beanstalk beans than a pair of sneakers.  But I think the real reason was that I did not see myself as a pumper of sneakers.  In fact, it turns that I am not even a fan of high-top sneakers at all.  Today I walk the Earth in a pair of low-top loafers that can be removed easily at the threshold of my home lest the freshly swiffered floor be smudged.  The shoes are dark brown and non-descript, and say absolutely nothing about their wearer except that he loves toxic waste.

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Filed under Fashion

Remember When Playgrounds Were Dangerous?

The playgrounds of today do not look like the playgrounds that I played on, when I ran around with my jacket unzipped and in blissful ignorance of the fact that I would one day have more conversations with Time Warner Cable than with my parents.  Gone are the monkey bars, the jungle gyms, the pieces of metal welded together in the shape of something that was at the same time a slide and a medieval torture device.  No longer can children test their courage and their parents’ coronary strength by climbing to the summit of iron structures, where one slip would send a child pinballing down to an unforgiving concrete surface in an indifferent universe.

Playgrounds today are made of single pieces of plastic, their summits so low that children can eat on them without having to sit on telephone books—not that there are any telephone books left to sit on.  The concrete ground has been supplanted by rubber foam, and the swings are allowed a maximum swing of five degrees in either direction, and even that much requires clearance from air traffic control.

Look hard and you will see the city of wood and metal that once was there.  See the tiered wooden maze with splinters and exposed nails.  Run your hand over the rubber ground, and you will feel the sea of pebbles that once washed over Velcro sneakers, and drove little rocks into the soles of little feet as those feet dropped from the monkey bars.  Sniff the air, and you will smell the charred pieces of wood that littered the playground, with which the children would draw pictures of bison and of teachers they despised, just like their ancestors did on cave walls some 40,000 years ago.

And along the perimeter of the southeastern quadrant lay a line of giant rubber tires, each one the width of three children, or one and a half of the children we have today.  The tires had been implanted into the pebbled earth on their sides, forming a tunnel that the children could crawl through, and catch their Champion sweatshirts and scratch their rosy cheeks on the wires that protruded from the tires as a testament to the thousands of miles that those tires had traveled before being retired to the playground where they could bring joy to all children.

Crawl through that tunnel of tires.  You are led to a three-story rusty metal cylinder in the shape of  rocket.  Children climb up to the top of it with only cold metal rungs to keep them from falling to death or paralysis.  At the top of the rocket there is the opening to another tunnel.  This tunnel is horizontal and is made of the same wooden planks as the charred and splintery maze.  In that tunnel three stories above the world, a boy can meditate on what it means to be young, and dream of one day having a television in his room.

Listen!  Hear the cries of a child who slipped off a giant metal sea horse placed on a spring.  The child split his lip when he hit the pebbles, and he leaves a trail of blood as he is led to the nurse’s office.  The other children observe a moment of silence out of respect for their fallen comrade, and after that moment go back to their wanton cruelty.

Here, in this playground whose spirit will not leave, is where blood was spilled and teeth were lost, knees scraped and ankles sprained, skin pierced and lockjaw contracted.  And where heroes were born.

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Filed under Safety, School

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.

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Filed under Eating and Drinking

Remember How You Used to Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

My first Valentine’s Day  involved a second-grade class and a sheet of perforated Valentines.  We had to give them out to every other kid in the class, and I’m pretty sure I gave them out to the boys as well as the girls, and signed “Love, Mark” at the bottom of each one.  Even in the midst of Freud’s latency period I felt a vague uneasiness, but did not see how I could discriminate.

My phrase of choice that year was “Holy Baloney,” which I said every time the teacher told me I answered something wrong, or assigned another project involving construction paper and paste.  One girl in my class laughed out loud every time I said it, and on her Valentine to me wrote “Holy Bologna” just above the salutation.  I was touched by the thought, and figured that I could accept her even if she did not know how to spell.

Valentine’s Day was so simple in the second grade.  No flowers, no dinner reservations.  I even think my mother bought the sheet of perforated Valentines, and instead of chocolates we snacked on those little hard and powdery candy hearts that said “Be Mine,”  “I Luv You,” and  “We Need to Talk About Your Choice of School Bag.”

But Valentine’s Day was not always this romantic.  There were many a year where Valentine’s Day was spent seeing how many beers I could drink before the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of my bedroom looked like a work of modern art.  If was lucky, there would be a friend who was also single, and we would go to the local dive and watch ESPN with the sound off, hoping that with each round we’d forget our loneliness and be able to read Mike Krzyzewski’s lips as he yelled at his players and, sometimes, the referees.

And then one Valentine’s Day I proposed to my now-wife, and my perception of this day of flowers and chocolate changed forever.  I don’t see Valentine’s Day as an obligation.  I see it as an opportunity.  For 364 days of the year (or 365 days in a leap year, like this one), I sit in my house and look at my wife and think to myself, “She’s so beautiful and wonderful.  I’m such a lucky man.  I wonder what she’s annoyed at me for this time.”

I wish there were answers in the back of the book, or a teacher’s edition, but there are not.  I have to make educated guesses of how to make my soul mate view me as less of a parasite who watches football.  Could it be the glass I left on the kitchen counter instead of putting it in the dishwasher?  Could it be that bowl with four floating Cheerios that I left in the sink instead of washing out and putting in the dishwasher?  Could it be that pair of dirty socks that I left on her laptop instead of washing them out and putting them in the dishwasher?  The greatest fear in any relationship is the fear of the unknown, and for a marriage that fear is codified in statute.

But for one day a year I am relieved of that fear, and handed a game plan with three simple steps: bouquet of roses, reservations at a nice restaurant, and then…you know…HGTV.  It is as simple as snap, crackle and pop.  My grandfather used to say that problems that can be solved with money alone are the kind of problems you want to have.  I’m sure that he had Valentine’s Day in mind when he said that.

So fellow husbands and boyfriends, my brethren in arms and credit cards, do not fear Valentine’s Day, but embrace it and its obligations with gusto, and be thankful that for one day you get to enjoy the greatest pleasure you can enjoy in a relationship: not having to think.

And to the ranks of the single who complain that there is no single person’s day, I respond: every day is single person’s day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, especially to the students of Mrs. P’s second grade class.  I meant what I wrote on those perforated cards.

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Filed under Holidays

Remember Whitney Houston? (A Tribute)

The book that I have been writing opens with a scene where the protagonist is attending a live performance of his favorite artist, when a nearby person’s cell phone rings with a digital snippet of “How Will I Know,” one of the many hits by Whitney Houston during her great career as superstar singer, a career that despite its accomplishments was still too short.  I had picked that song because I always liked it.

My favorite “How Will I Know” memory takes place at Lowe’s on a Saturday morning.   The song was playing over the loudspeaker, and I was trying to sing along.  But Whitney’s powerful yet playful voice kept getting interrupted by the same monotoned request for someone from plumbing to report to customer service.  I was on my way to complain to the disc jockey until I remembered that a very special woman in my life was waiting at home for a working shower head.

It seems like just yesterday I was riding the bus home from elementary school while “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” played on the radio.  And when Whitney sang the line “I wanna feel the heat with somebody,” I thought she was singing, “I wanna compete with somebody.”  Why would you want to dance with someone (who loves you) just to compete with them?  Was this a dance competition?  That I could not reconcile these lyrics only raised my assessment of Whitney Houston’s and her songwriters’ art.

And I will never forget the scene in “American Psycho” when the title character plays “The Greatest Love of All” for two lady friends, and one of them says, while laughing on ecstasy-laced chardonnay, “You actually listen to Whitney Houston?”  Of all the gruesome deaths in that movie, I was the least horrified by hers.

The real horrors, however, were saved for the real Whitney Houston.  For all her success, and all her failures, she should have listened to the American Psycho’s interpretation of her song:

“The Greatest Love of All” is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it’s not too late to better ourselves.  

When I came home last night and heard the shocking news, I couldn’t help but think about what this did to the beginning of my book, which I had not shown to anyone except my wife.  Whether I keep the song reference in or not, I know that I will never be able to think about it the same way again.  Whitney’s music and talent will outlive the tragedy of her death, but will always remind me of the sadness of a life cut short.

Rest in peace, Whitney Houston.  You will be missed.

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Filed under Current Events

Remember When Television Screens Weren’t Measured in Acres?

This weekend I am attending the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York.  It is my first conference, so I’m a little nervous about what to do and whether I’ll like the lunch that the conference agenda has promised me.  Is it okay to take notes at a writers conference?  At most times it is considered weird to take notes around other people.  But maybe this will be a conference where everyone will be taking notes…taking notes on people taking notes.

Remember when TV screens weren’t all flat and measured in acres, and people didn’t throw terms like “refresh rate” and “1080p” and “contrast ratio”?

I do.

One day, a long, long time ago, I was in an electronics store, staring at a 32-inch Magnovox TV, with screen-in-screen, sleep timer, and a remote control.  It looked enormous.  The TV’s screen was like a movie screen.  Whatever was being shown on it enveloped me, wrapped me up in it its arms.  I wondered how I, suburban peasant, could ever hope to possess something so magnificent.  I looked at the price tag.  It said $750.  I sighed, lowered my head, and walked away to whichever parent had pulled the shorter straw that morning.

Twenty years later I’m standing in my friend’s backyard.  It is summer, and he is hosting a barbecue to celebrate the day the Americans defeated the British by tossing M-80s and shooting bottle rockets at them.  Katy Perry has decided not to dye her hair avocado, and so there is nothing to talk about except televisions.

“Yeah, just got one myself,” my friend says, straightening his stance and expanding his chest.  He turns aside and gazes through the double glass sliding doors, into his den, to the television that doesn’t so much hang on the wall as be the wall itself.  He gets choked up and looks like he’s about to cry tears of happiness.  He shakes his head and smiles.

“How big is yours?” he asks me when he’s recollected himself.

“What?”

“How big is your TV?”

“Oh, my TV.  Uh, 32 inches, I think.”

“Really?”  He looks embarrassed for me. He pats me on the shoulder and walks away.  I decide that maybe it is time for me to get a new tube.

Except televisions aren’t made with tubes anymore.  I learned this during the six months of studying televisions and television technology, a mandatory course for all television purchases in my state (exemptions for veterans and celebrities).

This past weekend, my moment arrived.  The local electronics behemoth was running a special on TVs for $750, the lowest price I’d ever seen for something that still distorted the space-time continuum.  I ran to the store and announced to the first salesperson I found, “I want to buy a television!”  I thought these were magic words.  I thought I was going to be welcomed with open arms and champagne.  But instead he pointed to a long line of humans—a line of disappointed humans—and said I had to wait on that line if I wanted to ask any questions before making a purchase.

As I waited on the line I had a lot of time to look at the televisions on display.  All the TVs looked the same to me.  Only some were bigger than others, or came with a family living inside.

A salesperson caught me looking at a 46-inch LCD.  “That’s a nice picture,” he said.  “Yes,” I agreed, “it is a nice picture.”  I didn’t really care about the picture.  I was transfixed by a school of fluorescent fish that was airing on this fish channel, which apparently broadcast to this TV alone.

“It’s nothing compared to the LED,” he said.

I replied that I did not know there was a difference.

“Oh yeah, man, there’s like a HUGE difference.  I mean, I don’t want to talk you out of something if you’ve made up your mind.  But just check out those two TVs side-by-side.  The one on the left is an LED.  The one on the right is an LCD.  Now look, see that that cat there?”  We were watching a commercial for cat litter on both TVs simultaneously.  “See the black splotches in that cat’s fur when she scratches in the box?  See the difference?”

Not wishing to fight, I squinted like I was squishing around a glass of fine wine, and said that I did see the difference.  But then, I really did start to see the difference.  The LED had brighter colors, sharper images, darker darks, wrinklier wrinkles.  My mind was made up.  I would get an LED.  There was just one last thing I wanted to know.

“How come the LED is $100 more than the LCD?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but I’m not allowed to answer questions.  If you have questions, you’ll have to wait on that line over there.”

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Filed under Television and Movies

Remember When You Could Buy Things Without Being Asked to Write a Review?

The other day I used a smart phone to buy movie tickets through Fandango.  I have never found it so convenient to buy the tickets and pick them up in plenty of time to sit through the half-hour of coming attractions, commercials, celebrity pleas for charity, and animated robot warning moviegoers to turn off their cell phones or trade them in for a small popcorn from the lobby.  And the movie I saw, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Special Effects and Marketing, was really quite good, and I thought I might even see it again once my ears stopped ringing.

But upon arriving home and sitting down to a hearty meal of cookies in the shape of Christmas trees, and sprinkled with coarse green sugar granules, a text message appeared on my smart phone, which occupied the other place setting at the table.  It was a message from the Fandango application:

“How did you like Sherlock Holmes?  Click here to go to Fandango and be your own reviewer!”

I politely declined the invitation to write a review for this Fandango, feigning a prior commitment to review movies on another website.  But the following morning, I was greeted with yet another text message from Fandango:

“It has been 12 hours since you saw Sherlock Holmes.  Surely by now you’ve formed an opinion.  Click here to write your own review!”

Again, I opted not to write a review, and figured that Fandango would get the hint.  But I figured wrong, for two days later there was yet another text message from Fandango, reminding me that it had been three days since I saw Sherlock Holmes, and that if I did not write a review soon the movie would no longer be fresh in my mind and I would risk being influenced by the review of others.

Since when did it become customary to ask someone to review something they just bought?  Fandango is not the only one.  It seems like every time I buy something online I am immediately asked to rate it, participate in a survey, or post my own review.  Not only do I have to pay money for the product and transmit my credit card information into the ether, but I have homework on top.  Isn’t the fact that I bought the darn thing enough to show that I liked it?  And if I really like the product, I will buy from the same vendor again.  That is, if I’m not too busy taking a survey.

I know what the answer will be: to obtain marketing research.  But why do the evil corporations need me to participate in a survey to obtain marketing research?  Isn’t that why they implanted that chip in my brain while I was getting my wisdom teeth pulled?

Before long, all purchases will be followed by offers to rate, survey, and review.  We will buy milk and be asked to rate the milk on the milk-producer’s website, or to like the milk’s Facebook page.  “Follow your 1% Non-Homogenized Milk on Twitter, and don’t miss any news!”

One might be able to support the reviewability of products if the reviews were helpful.  But the reviews leave me more confused than I was in the beginning.  I’ll look at the Amazon reviews for a digital camera.  One review will give the camera five out of five stars, and proclaim that it is “the best camera for pictures of people holding drinks in their hands.”  And another review, of the same camera, will give it only one star, and state that it is “the worst camera I’ve ever used; my family looks just as ugly as before.”  One reviewer will hate the camera because the viewfinder shakes too much.  Another will say, “Love that shaking!”

I suppose that some people like the reviews and surveys and ratings.  They like being a part of the collective consciousness of a Blu-Ray player or restaurant or toilet plunger.  Perhaps it is more than just market research.  Perhaps this new source of information—the consumer—is a new branch of literature, and will give us the same insight into the human condition as novels, poetry, and that song where you take someone’s name and add those “bo-banana-rama” lyrics to it.  Perhaps I’ve gotten this all wrong.

But this discussion will have to be tabled for another day.  For there is a man at my door, wearing a Fandango shirt, and holding a baseball bat.  And he does not look happy.

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Filed under Technology