Thursday, December 23, 2010

How to Make New Years Resolutions

I'm tired of failing.

From now on my primary New Years Resolution is to find activities (or to stop activities) that I actually have a very good chance of doing (or not doing). And there is one major criterion I used in choosing my goals:

I've whittled my vices down to my three or four favorites and I'm not even going to touch those. The world and I will just have to learn to deal with those together.

I suggest we confront my precious remaining character flaws the way politicians confront the politically perilous problems related to entitlement programs like Social Security or Medicare:

“Yes, they undoubtedly need to be fixed, but meanwhile look over there, doesn't that gay marriage just make your blood boil?”

That is to say we should ignore them.

With that provision, here are some of the things I'm going to do my best to accomplish in 2011:

I resolve to use more obscenities.
It seems that while I wasn't paying attention the world became a much rougher and coarser place. Some people say it started over 30 years ago when HBO brought George Carlin's “Seven Words You Can't Say on Television” to … that's right … television. Others believe it's a more modern Internet phenomenon. Either way, I've noticed that no one seems to pay attention to my anger any more. The “I am SO mad at you” face that had served me so well for decades has lost its mojo. My theory is that tossing in a few canine-related slurs, attacks on motherhood and F-bombs just might be enough to get my fits of temper the attention they deserve. I'll let you know how that goes.

I resolve to patronize more all-you-can-eat buffets.
My informal study has found that nearly 90 percent of waiters and waitresses hate their job. Not only is the self-serve buffet the perfect way to eliminate an unpopular task (in much the same way that the automobile eliminated the job of horse-droppings-collector), but given recent reports that terrorists may be targeting these gardens of gluttony, frequenting them is really the best way the average citizen can fight the forces that would see America fall.

Now, let me be very clear on one seemingly related point -- bartenders are a vital part of our society and we need as many of them as we can possibly get.

I resolve not to learn to play a musical instrument.
They're really hard, but more importantly the neighbors shouldn't have to go through all those horrible noises as I learn, only to be charged exorbitant prices to hear me play once I master the instrument.

I resolve to get no more than four haircuts this year and zero manicures.
In all honesty I'm doing that now, but these end-of-year articles require a certain amount of padding.

I resolve to wait until the last minute whenever possible.
People who wait get such a bad rap. “Procrastination” is treated as if it were the eighth deadly sin in just about every culture in the world. What few of us seem to realize is that very often jobs that you put off doing wind up not being necessary to do at all. For example, I once put off asking a girl I liked out on a date, and by the time I got all my ducks in order she was married with two children. See what I mean? Basically, people who jump on their every assignment immediately, end up doing a lot of work that isn't needed. And isn't that the textbook definition of “inefficiency”?

I resolve to watch an entire soccer game.
I know what you're thinking. “Jack, you said that these resolutions would be easily achievable. Why are you forsaking us now?” That's a valid question, and it's why I saved this one for last. The fact of the matter is that although I firmly believe in the overriding principle of painless resolutions, self improvement that comes too easily tends to be devalued over time. I've found that the utter anguish experienced in just the two-to-three hours it takes to watch one of these let's-pretend-we-have-no-arms “games” provides just the right amount of difficulty to validate this entire list.

Well, those are the issues I aim to tackle this year. I'm sure yours will be different, but in compiling your own New Years Resolutions just keep your eye on the main theme:

Real change comes when change is real easy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Favorite Santa

When I was about 6 years old, my 4-year-old brother and I were stunned, shocked, flabbergasted, dumbfounded and I might even go as far as to say our breath was literally taken away. What could cause these reactions in two so young?

Santa Claus came to visit us at home on Christmas Eve.

I can still remember very clearly watching him walk through our front door on Reedland Street in Southwest Philadelphia. And, thankfully, just in case that memory starts to fade we have home movies of the whole event – Danny and I agog in our pajamas (I think Danny even had a nightcap on, in the style of Ebeneezer Scrooge.)

He explained that he wanted to come by to congratulate us personally on being such good boys all year, but couldn't stay long because he was about to go out on his rounds. We totally understood. He had small gifts for mom and dad and a whole bunch of aunts and uncles who just happened to be visiting when Santa did. It was truly thrilling to see him, and even more so when he came through with everything we'd hoped for on Christmas day.

Now, that's definitely a hard act to follow, but oddly enough, he's not my favorite Santa.

That honor goes to my good friend Wayne.

He and I went to school together and we both worked at Gino's in Collingdale when we were 16. Now, I think that Wayne was born looking 15 and just aged normally from there. And that's really at the heart of how he got chosen to play Santa at Gino's – he fit the suit.

We were making around $1.25 per hour under some sort of 1970s federal program called “sub-minimum wage.” Work at Gino's could be fairly strenuous, whether sweating over the hot grill or (especially) cleaning the Kentucky Fried Chicken pots. So when Wayne was offered three times sub-minimum to sit in a chair and pretend to like children, well – he agreed faster than you can say “Ho, ho, ho.” (Which it turned out he was really great at saying. One of the best I've heard til this day.)

His first few days were uneventful. He was a little self-conscious to start, but he found his rhythm pretty quickly. Aside from getting peed on twice, Wayne considered this the best job he'd ever had. (We should note for the record that his low-pay/hard work regular Gino's gig was the only other job he'd ever had.)

Then one foggy Christmas Eve …

I got a phone call from Wayne. He sounded kind of funny. He said he needed a ride from Gino's, or more accurately from the bar a few doors down from Gino's. Uh-oh.

Here's his story, and I'll leave it to you to decide on its plausibility:

He's leaving Gino's around 5 p.m., as innocent as the day he was born. Just as he's about to get into his car (to go to church in his original version, a detail he later dropped) a gentleman about to enter the tavern yelled to him, “Hey, Santa, come on in and let me buy you a beer!”

Of course, no one ever expects Santa to be 16. And no 16-year-old could ever resist sneaking into the adult world in such a perfect disguise. What was he to do other than have a beer?

Maybe it's out of guilt for being there, but it seems that buying Santa a beer (and shots) is a very popular idea among Christmas Eve bar patrons. The drinks were lined up before him like liquid frankincense and myrrh.

Wayne had the good sense to call for a ride and I had a great Santa story to tell over and over.

He went on to buy his own suit (or permanently borrow Gino's, I never found out which), and play Santa for many years to come. Once he was even helicoptered into the King of Prussia Mall.

One day he was running late and forgot his white gloves, which sort of led to him forgetting to remove one other thing. This resulted in my second favorite Wayne as Santa story.

No one near the main entrance of the MacDade Mall knew quite what to say when one observant little boy looked at the ring on Santa's right hand and shouted out, “Look, mom, Santa Claus went to Monsignor Bonner High School just like daddy!”

After that, Wayne pinned the white gloves to the Santa suit sleeves.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween: The Oddest Holiday

“I was amazed to think that you would take the candy with you, too.”
- A Halloween break-up, described in Richard Shindell's Are You Happy Now?

Of all the holidays or semi-holidays or special days on the calendar, Halloween is by far most bizarre. I know, that's not really breaking news.

But have you ever sat down and thought through this celebration of the unwell, the unloved and the undead? It's a particularly unique festivity when you compare it to the happy, sunshiny ones like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Its origins may go back as far as the Roman Empire, but it's more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which acknowledged the end of the “lighter half” of the year and marked the beginning of the “darker half.”

Not to bum you out but that darker half is starting … oh ... right about now.

Western Christianity loads up early on the side of holy with back-to-back holidays in November. Between the fairly exclusive club honored each All Saints Day on November 1, and the much more inclusive All Souls Day on November 2, you would think that just about every human being who ever lived is covered.

But not so.

For every action there is a reaction, and so evil must have its day. And as evil has been known to do, it launches a pre-emptive strike on October 31. Many communities experience some form of “Mischief Night” on the 30th, too, but so far that's not an official event. (Still, you may want to mentally prepare yourself to deal with soaped windows, toilet papered shrubbery and/or egged houses.)

The pull of the dark side is strong. Only the holiest of holy parents prevent their children from trick-or-treating entirely. This usually results in years or even decades of intense therapy in later life attempting to answer the question “Why couldn't I at least be a bunny or a princess?”

Personally, I have gone out as a scarecrow, a cowboy and Dr. Zorba from the TV show Dr. Kildare, among others. I have it on good authority that even a big star like Frank Sinatra loved Halloween, and apparently went out for many years as different characters, including a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.

Still, no matter how dark the origins of Halloween are, most kids are in it for the candy. (I have a theory on the connection between the dental industry and Satan that involves Halloween candy but that is for another day.)

For now, let me ask you this: Might Halloween candy be a gateway food leading to a society of brain-munching zombies?

Hmmm … Stephen King, eat your heart out.

* I'm very proud of the fact that I've completed this short piece on Halloween without once mentioning Christine O'Donnell and witchcraft … oh, damn … there goes THAT resolution! Well … be sure to vote this week.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Importance of Lying

“Everything I tell you is a lie. I am lying now.”
- The conundrum of logic that caused a 23rd century computer to explode in confusion in an episode of the original Star Trek

It starts with the Tooth Fairy and it doesn't end until they tell you how good you look in your casket.

After food, clothing and shelter, I believe that lying is the most important human need.

Most of us don't realize just how much we depend on “inoperative statements,” which is the ingenious way that lies were described during the Watergate scandal. I recently saw the movie The Invention of Lying (as a big Ricky Gervais fan, I'll give three stars) and it got me thinking. (This is always a dangerous situation.)

It seems that a world filled with nothing but the truth would be a very scary place. What we're talking about here goes far beyond the well known “Does this make me look fat” question. We have all come to know that the answer to that must be something leaning very strongly toward “no.” The closest answer to “yes” that you can get away with is “Don't be silly,” and that only works about half the time.

To see just how much we depend on non-truths, think of your response to questions like these:

“Got any spare change?”

“How old are you?”

“How much do you weigh?”

“Is this seat taken?”

“Did you enjoy the yogurt hoagie I spent all afternoon making for you, honey?”

It may be that the best lies are the ones we tell ourselves:

“If I comb my side hair just right no one will notice that I'm bald.”

“The tighter the jeans the better I look.”

“Of course I'm an excellent driver.”

“People find my sarcasm very endearing.”

“These N&Ns are just as good as the more expensive candy.”

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the lies we tell ourselves. Sometimes these self-deceptions are the main motivators that help us get out of bed every morning.

Lying is so much a part of our lives that we have developed countless ways to say it, including: fabricate, misinform, stretch the truth, mislead, bear false witness, fudge, distort, deceive … and my favorite way of confessing without really confessing, “I misspoke.”

On the Mount Olympus of Lying we have politicians. We've all been excited by the amazing new ideas on which they campaign, only to be disappointed by the same old methods by which they govern.

But when you think about it, the incredibly consistent dishonesty of politicians is really the fault of voters like you and me.

We don't like to hear bad news, no matter how true it is.

Just ask Jimmy Carter how gloom and doom plays with the voting public. His famous “malaise” speech led to what Wikipedia describes as “one of the least successful” presidential re-election campaigns in American history.

That's mainly because, right there in the other corner we had … Ronald Reagan!

Ron was there to tell us that we were the shining light we always knew we were. Hostages in Iran? Freed! Economic morass? Trickle-down prosperity is right around the corner. So, what else can I do for you, America?

And just as would-be band leader Harold Hill fooled River City into self confidence in The Music Man, President Reagan made Americans feel better about themselves. And that felt great.

So who can blame politicians for telling us what we want to hear?

There are honest politicians. They're the bankers and salesmen and mechanics who never quite made it into office.

Just to be clear, I'm not in favor of all lies. Providing false alibis for murderers is not a good idea. And swearing that, in spite of record cost-cutting measures, you've taken all the safety precautions in your offshore drilling project is a definite no-no.

But the next time you catch someone in a small prevarication (how's that for a fancy way of saying “lie”?), cut that person a little slack. For the next lie that's told may just be your own.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Hear It's Your Birthday!

“If it weren't for the honor of the thing ... I'd just as soon pass.”
Abraham Lincoln's favorite joke, about a man who had been tarred, feathered and ridden out of town.

Few things in life change more radically than our attitude toward birthdays.

The single-digit years are all about acquiring age. You're six, then six and a quarter (although you have no concept of what a quarter year is), then six and a half, six and three-quarters and finally seven ...

Whew! That seemed to take forever.

There is not a day in the long, long year when you don't know exactly how far away your next birthday is. Depending on the time and season it happens to fall, you contemplate how it compares to Christmas, gift-wise. It's probably a one-gift event, as opposed to the multiple gifts that Santa will bring, but might it be combined into one giant birthday/Christmas mega gift? Maybe a pony? Or a little sister? Or a go-cart?

As you hit double digits there's a three-year limbo land where you are really just waiting to become a teenager. Teens have a reputation: sullen, moody, rebellious, complicated. You can't convincingly pull off any of those qualities at ages 10, 11 or 12. (Unless you're ridiculously, bizarrely, prematurely mature like LeBron James or Ellen Page.) So you impatiently await each birthday, while getting the last bits of fun from your still-age-appropriate toy soldiers or dolls.

Ahhh, the teen years. The first few months of teenhood are for testing boundaries, but the urge to get older is still very strong. After all, although 13 and 14 are technically teen years, the real fun doesn't start until 16 or 17, right?

So every birthday is a step up.

As a late teen you have life pretty well figured out. Of course, adults never listen to you or let you do anything cool or have a clue how difficult it is to be you. That's okay though. Soon, as the birthdays accumulate, you and your gang will be running things. Then they'll see.

But here it comes … age 20 … your first tiny speed bump in life. Twenty! Two-oh. Two decades. A fifth of a century. A cause for pause. It's a little startling, but you've always wanted to be at an age where people take you seriously.

Except they don't, do they?

Sure, you keep climbing into your 20s, but now the whole environment has changed. You're not the mature student anymore, the grizzled senior. Now you're the kid at work. The real world is not here to accommodate you. And about that work … no one ever really explained how looking down the barrel of 50 years of 40-hour weeks can make you want to pull the covers over your head, stick your thumb in your mouth and spend a week in bed.

With great effort, you resist that urge and jump into the work force like a good citizen. But it's your first inkling that somehow life seems to be speeding up on you.

So you keep having birthdays (which is the good news, as they say, considering the alternative), but they almost imperceptibly become less and less fun. Yeah, 32 … you're getting up there. Yeah, 37 … somebody gives you a walking cane as a gag gift. Uh oh, 39 … the next one's a biggie!

And then you get one more five star birthday! Sometimes it's 40, sometimes it's 50 … one of those zero years is deemed significant by those closest to you and they make a big deal out of it. Anything from an expensive dinner out, to a surprise party, to a Caribbean cruise, just to let you know that your friends and family will really miss you when you die.


Yep, people are thinking about your mortality. (Don't worry, they're mostly against it.) When did that happen? There you were, the promising future of youth ... and before you can turn around ... you're the approaching specter of death? Where was your window of opportunity? When was your time for being in charge of things? There was so much you meant to do. Where did the time go? When did a year get so short?

But there are no answers forthcoming. You vaguely remember hearing these questions somewhere before … oh, yeah … it was from the old-timers, many years ago. Oh, crap.

Your age seems to be climbing faster than the tote board on a Jerry Lewis telethon. (Somebody turn off those phones!)

And so now each birthday is both an accomplishment (it's too late for you to die young now) and a reminder that there are a finite number of birthdays left. Those sounds you hear as you get in and out of a chair are the grunts of the elderly, and they're coming from you.

You don't remember when you started, but you read the obituaries every day now, and you're seeing some of the same people from your past that you saw in the wedding announcements decades ago. (Sometimes it's even the same picture since, for some inexplicable reason, survivors of the deceased often choose a 30-year-old picture to serve as our last look.)

It can all be a little scary, this accumulating of birthdays. I try to stay positive with this thought:

Even though this is the oldest you've ever been, it's the youngest you'll ever be again.

(It didn't really help all that much, did it?)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Naysayers

It seems that since the very dawn of time (and I have no doubt until the dusk of time) there have been those people who can't see anything but the downside.

I've always wondered how those people motivate themselves to get up in the morning, given their negative outlook on the world.

But then I figured it out.

It occurred to me that some of us actually enjoy being the voice of doom. It gives those people a sort of purpose in life. Also, it's true that when things go well most of us are too happy to assign blame to the naysayers for not believing. And when the worst happens they get to tell us they knew it all along.

I have a feeling that the first human who invented skunk soup or tried to milk a chicken heard the caveman version of that sentence people just love to say: “I told you so.”

So what if some ideas aren't exactly genius quality?

As long as we keep trying to think of new things some of them are bound to turn out right. But we have to learn to ignore the negativity, or we won't even try.

Which brings me to my completely speculative account of History's Great Naysayers:

On fire:
“Are you kidding? That stuff killed my best pig! (I'll admit that it did smell oddly delicious though.)”

On the wheel:
“Mark my words. I just know that thing is gonna roll over somebody one day.”

On the written word:
“So let me get this straight. These marks you carve in stone are a way of talking to people who aren't here yet? I see. And will they be bringing the sun god for dinner, too?”

On indoor plumbing:
“I'm pretty sure that people are gonna want to keep that stuff as far away from where they bathe as possible, sport."

On the printing press:
“You have to put each letter in separately and backwards? I don't know, that seems like a lot of trouble, especially since hardly anyone can read.”

On electricity:
“It's like lightning. And you want it to come into my house. And it will give me light just like what I already have with my gas lamps. Hmmm. Sorry, maybe that idiot Edison next door would be interested.”

On the computer:
“Why in the world would anyone want a computer in his home? To calculate the weekly grocery bill in 1.6 seconds? Really. I'll just kick the kids out of their room and put a giant Univac in there.”

On the Internet:
“It's not a real place, right? And people type to one other? And tell us all about their day? And frustrated writers publish things they call blogs? And you have to pay to be there? Well, good luck. I'm sure it'll catch on like that New Coke or trout-flavored toothpaste.”

I will admit that it's tempting to be skeptical about new ideas. Many (maybe most) do turn out to be less than spectacular. (There was actually a man named Edsel Ford who could attest to that.) But just about every advance that humans have made was the result of one or just a few who believed there was a better way.

And even if most of use don't have great ideas that will change the world, isn't optimistic just a more pleasant way to live our lives?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Protest Songs for the 21st Century

It occurred to me just the other day that I miss the protest song.

As far back as the minstrels who followed inept knights around the forest, criticizing their failures (if we can believe Monty Python's version of medieval history, and I see no reason not to) there have been voices in the darkness railing against the establishment.

Beethoven's Ode to Joy was a protest song. I didn't really know that. Wikipedia told me.

The 20th century saw (or I suppose, more correctly, heard) musical howlings on behalf of causes ranging from unionization to women's suffrage to the end of the Vietnam War. Troubadours with names like Guthrie, Seeger, Cisco, Leadbelly, Dylan, Baez, Ochs and even Dion sang out against what they saw as injustice and tyranny.

Just three weeks after the Kent State shootings in May of 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's song protesting that tragic event, where four college students died, was on the Billboard charts. Ohio peaked at number 14. It's hard to imagine a song like that being popular in these times.

Today's problems are surely different from those of the past. But we can use the intense spirit of outrage so associated with the great movements of those times to express our dissatisfaction with our own troubles. That's my rationalization, anyway. In fact, since I have no musical ability I thought I'd respectfully steal the music of people who do, and update the words, thereby adding my own very small part to revive the genre.

Not every protest song has to be about world-changing events. Sometimes it's the small troubles that wear us down day by day. Why not a protest song for those problems? Problems like the constant road construction we see every single day:

To the Tune of Blowin' in the Wind by Bob Dylan
How many roads will the state shut down
Before they publish a plan?
How many times will a detour fail
Before I sleep in my van?
Yes, and how many times must I look at that guy
“Slow Down” sign in his hand?
The answer, my friend, is drivers never win,
The answer is drivers never win.

Naturally, the environment is always a cause that draws a wide, motivated group of followers. So whether you believe in global warming or not, I think we all like trees, don't we? Maybe you're not the hugging type, but they are nice to have around. So here's something Pink or that Ga Ga lady might want to try out. (I'm no John Lennon scholar, but I think the main goal here is not so much to make sense, as to keep saying those last lines for several hours until you get what you want.)

To the Tune of Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon
Everybody's talkin' 'bout
Scarlet oak, up in smoke, goin' broke, it's a joke
Redwood, Deadwood, Ed Wood, Ken would ...
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.

(Come on!)
Everybody's talkin' 'bout
Sugar maple, forest staple, hardly papal, Tower Babel
Baptize, chastise, black eyes, wise guys, bye bye, bye byes
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.
All we are saying … is give trees a chance.

Protest singers don't always have to be right, either. I'm sure they existed, but I suppose the pro-slavery and anti-women's suffrage ditties have faded into historical oblivion.

Just because you're wrong, it doesn't mean you don't get a song.

Today, about one out of five Americans is under the mistaken impression that their president is a Muslim. Given the intense campaign controversy over Pastor Jeremiah Wright, from the Christian church that Mr. Obama attended, that's kind of surprising … but true just the same.

A similar percentage of the citizenry is convinced that the president should not even be allowed to be the president since he was not born in these United States. This in spite of a verified birth certificate shown to the public over and over and over. And over some more. And then over again. Their philosophy seems to be, in the words of that great thinker, Larry Fine: “I can't see! I can't see! … I've got my eyes closed!!”

So for those misguided souls, I offer this wail against reality:

To the Tune of Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen
Born down in a mystery town
The first breath he took there were no Yanks around
Liberal JFK was an easy touch
So he's spent half his life just covering up

Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, born in the USA

Got in a little hometown jam
So he thought up his Hawaiian scam
We all realize that's a foreign land
Poi sure ain't apple pie, my man

Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, born in the USA

Dressed up in his best finery
When a man said “Son, we'll fool 'em all, you'll see.”
Went down to see the ID man
He said, “Son, now you're Ameri-CAN!

He had a brother, now withdrawn
Ditched him like a rancid prawn
Was he al-Qaeda? Where's he gone?

There's a woman he called “mom”
Paid to photoshop him in her arms

Down in the shadows where the gays marry
And the stem cells let them have their gay babies
In ten years they'll call us Mosque-Go
Tell the Death Squads you're not sick no mo'

Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, He's no long gone daddy in the USA
Born in the USA, he's not born in the USA
He's not born in the USA, He's a fool mocking daddy in the USA

Well, I'm not sure that I've done the protest song any good here. But maybe there's an angry young man or a ferocious woman or maybe even another old coot out there who can revitalize the music that really didn't ask too much of its listeners ...

Just to change the world.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

You Can't Say That!

All words are not created equal.

There are words which, through no fault of their own, are basically unusable without distracting from the overall meaning of any communication to which they are a part.

I'm not talking about George Carlin's “seven words you can't say on television” (which has evolved into “seven words you can't help but hear on cable television.”) Those are for a more avant-garde, if you'll pardon my French, publication than this one.

The poor, unfortunate words here got obsoleted (that's actually a word … I looked it up) because they sound funny, or a famous joke was made about them, or new words took their place or for any number of reasons.

So what the heck am I talking about?

I'll start with an easy one: Assume. For centuries we had a perfectly good word that served us all very well. We could assume the worst. We could assume we knew best. We could assume the position. We could assume and assume to our heart's content, until …

Some wise guy came up with that fatal joke. You know it. Say it along with me if you like: “You know, when you assume ... you make an ass out of 'u' and me.”

And that was the end for that word. If you don't believe me, just try using it in a conversation. Worse yet, try using it in an important report for your school or business. See? So get out your thesaurus and look for words that aren't exactly right, but are less distracting. (I wouldn't recommend one of the even more distracting alternative suggestions: “presuppose.”)

Next, unless you're talking about a rug, it's a good idea to avoid the word Oriental. Unlike most ethnic words that we very obviously should no longer use, I'm really not exactly clear on why this one would be offensive. However, I take the same approach I do when it comes to offending women: Since I'm not one I'll take their word that I shouldn't say that any more. And “Asian” does seem like a perfectly good substitute.

One of the original word switcheroos, of course, is Gay. Almost unbelievably, still lists “homosexual” as the fifth definition for gay, behind “having or showing a merry, lively mood” and “bright or showy.” You have to wonder about a dictionary that makes you feel smarter than it is.

Many, many words are the innocent victims of their own sound. Use these at your own peril since giggles and muffled, simulated coughing are bound to break out. To point out that Dolly Parton is the titular head of Dollywood is not at all to comment on the attributes that I have no doubt just crossed your mind.

A word can't help it if it sounds like something more inappropriate than it is. For similar reasons that I won't point out specifically, this category also includes Uranus, Masticate, Coccyx, Drizzle, Shih Tzu and Bangkok among hundreds of others

Some words just get beaten out or naturally outdated. There was a time when aeroplane almost made it into everyday English, but the simpler “airplane” won out in the end. Your car's accelerator was almost called a velocitator and your helicopter started out as an auto gyro. In fact, here's a good criterion to use: You can count on almost anything that comes out of the mouth of Mr. Burns, the ancient miser on The Simpsons as words that didn't quite make the mainstream.

In the 1920s, a Bimbo was a tough guy and what we would call a bimbo today was a Dumb Dora. This is just one more reason that time travel would be a very dangerous proposition.

Even something as new as the Internet has outdated words. Today we “Google it” to find what we want on the Net, but 15 years ago we would “go to the Gopher,” using the University of Minnesota's top-flight search engine. Unfortunately, even a cute mascot like Goldie the Gopher was no match for the approaching tsunami that was Google, and the poor critter was run to ground.

And while we're on the subject, whatever happened to the cities of Bombay and Peking, anyway?

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that this is an ongoing process. Like the circle of life, words and names seem to have their day in the sun and then slowly fade into oblivion.

If you don't believe me, the next time you go into a men's clothing store, ask if that sport coat comes with two pairs of pantaloons.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Product Slogans You'll Never See

I recently took an online quiz that asked me to identify corporate logos without any text around them. There was the Mercedes circle with three-pointed star, the Nike swoosh, the McDonald's arches and 17 more along those lines.

I was surprised to find that I knew 19 out of 20. (I missed on BMW. Without the letters it looked like an Edy's Ice Cream logo to me. In fairness, I had skipped dessert.)

That's how deeply advertising has gotten into my psyche. Naturally, all of the images coming from the companies and their agencies are positive. That's to be expected. But it got me to thinking about what these business enterprises really think of us, deep down in their corporate hearts (if such things exist), and how their slogans could reflect those feelings.

Of course, there is no way for me to know that, short of being inside the inner sanctum of each company. Since that seems unlikely, here are a few of my best guesses as to what they would really like to tell us:

McDonald's: “Nothing shuts up your kid like a Happy Meal!”

Jaguar: “Nearly a century of cool, sleek over-compensating.”

Budweiser: “Drink responsibly … every day.”

U.S. Airways: “Of course it's expensive, you're flying in the air, for god's sake!”

Iams Organic PreBiotic Dog Food: “Let's pretend your dog can tell the difference.”

Geico Insurance: “Help us pay for all those commercials.”

Lowe's: “It's so cute that you think you can build that.”

Pampers: “Because you'll clean up enough of their s*** when they're teenagers.”

Oil of Olay: “Not associated with the Gulf oil spill.”

Charmin: “We call it 'facial quality,' but you know where it goes, right?”

St. Joseph Aspirin: “Would Jesus' stepdad steer you wrong?”

Vegemite: “Go ahead. Taste it. We dare you.”

Miracle Whip: “It's not mayonnaise! Don't make us pound that into your head.”

Velveeta: “When real cheese is too good to melt.”

Kool-Aid: “How many times can we say it? We had nothing to do with that crazy preacher!”

Walmart: “Resistance is futile.”

Tylenol: “Untainted for over two decades.”

Honda: “The Japanese car that won't kill you.”

Clorox: “We don't make it to clean up crime scenes, but nothing does it better!”

ExtenZe: “When you can't afford a Jaguar.”

Sony: “Buy our electronics now, before the prices go down dramatically!”

Lipton: “Did somebody say 'Tea Party!?'”

Aciphex: “We know it sounds like 'ass effects' but now we're stuck with it.”

Lean Cuisine: “Because there is no such thing as 'big-boned.'”

Hot Pockets: “If you are over 18, and eating Hot Pockets on a regular basis, you are not a loser. No matter what your ex-girlfriends say.”

Verizon: “Can you pay me now? … Can you pay me now? ...”

Pepsi: “Very nearly the world's most popular cola!”

Rolex: “We can't think of any reason other than vanity.”

Marlboro: “Reducing nursing home stays by 40 percent.”

BP: “Other than that we're having a great year!”

Again, I should stress that these are just my impressions and not necessarily the real attitudes of these companies. I have no ill feelings toward any of them. In fact, any of these organizations that would like to hire me for an obscenely high-paid executive position is welcome to contact me.

I know. I shouldn't hold my breath.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Theories of Babysitting

When I was 19 years old I thought I had mastered a skill usually reserved for 16-year-old girls.

I thought I was the state-of-the-art babysitter.

Now, I didn't do it for a living, or even for money. I did it out of the kindness of my heart and as a mandatory part of the bargain for continued residence in my parents' house. My three youngest siblings were still in need of adult-ish supervision whenever mom and dad couldn't be around, and I was as close as they could get in my price range ... that being free.

Eddie was nine, and kind of a quiet dude, but with a little mischief in his eyes. Two things to know about Eddie: He didn't care to be told what to do, and he could probably drive a car better at nine than I can today.

Jayne was eight, a non-stop talker and already a person to be taken seriously. Two things to know about Jayne: She could convince you that she was the victim in almost any situation, and she was the instigator of almost every situation.

Patti was six, and the sweetest, most innocent-looking little girl you have ever seen. Two things to know about Patti: She always appeared to want to be the peacemaker in any conflict, and no one could be as innocent as she looked.

Even though I was more or less thrust into the position, I had a definite, well thought through philosophy on the art of babysitting. That philosophy consisted mainly of the idea that my three charges should sit perfectly quiet in their assigned chairs the entire time, while I lay on the floor eating peanut M&Ms and watching TV.

The longest that scenario ever lasted in actual practice was four minutes.

First there would be muffled giggles. I'd grunt a threat, my eyes never leaving the TV screen. Next, just as I was already annoyed (having gotten one of those sour peanuts in my M&M) I'd hear “Stop it!” or “I'm telling” from one of them. They're testing me. So according to my babysitting philosophy, I need to show that there will be consequences to their misbehavior. I should mention here that I lacked the authority to hit the little angels, a fact of which they were all well aware.

Years later police forces around the world would confront this dilemma and come up with humane solutions like bean-bag guns, pepper spray or Tasers, but I was on my own here.

So I put Eddie and Jayne in separate rooms (keeping Patti with me in the TV room since she was obviously never to blame). This just turned the muffled giggling into louder chuckling and requests to leave their assigned places to go to the bathroom, get a cookie they need for their homework (really?) or go to the emergency room because someone is almost positive they have a tumor. Patti looked at me with an “I deal with these two every day of my life, so good luck” expression.

I should have realized then that I was in over my head.

The civil disobedience escalated to debates on the extent of my parent-given authority, threats to “tell daddy” on me and blatant non-compliance with my clearly stated orders. I felt like the Nixon Administration dealing with Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez. And like that poor, put-upon, soon-to-be-ex-president I was prepared to resign my duties. But no such luck. At least I knew when I was beaten.

If you have never been out-argued, with calm, sensible logic by a 8-year-old, I'm here to tell you it's an experience you never forget.

However, there is more to the story than the failure of the Jack Doctrine of Babysitting.

It seems there was a rival philosophy at work.

When I was unavailable for duty, the task fell to my 17-year-old brother, Dan. Whether it was because he was a little closer in age to the troublesome trio, because of his naturally playful nature or because he was just an overall nicer person than me, Dan's idea was to engage the youngsters.

And engage them he did.

There were little quizzes, made-up games, heart-felt questions about their likes and dislikes … and most famously, pillow fights. Dan put a lot of thought into his obligation, and I think the kids preferred his supervision to mine with very little debate about the subject … at first. But as time went on, and Dan's babysitting sessions became more frequent, the interactions tended to be less and less talk and more and more contests.

Keeping these contests fair (at least in theory) meant that Dan would stay on his knees and, for instance, pillow fight one, two, or sometimes all three at once. Anyone who has ever been in a pillow fight knows that in certain types of pillows (mainly those containing feathers), the weight of the pillow tends to gravitate into one end. Grabbing the lighter end and smacking with the heavy end increases the impact by … oh, approximately fifty times.

And so down they went. Over and over. Individually and in well planned but doomed alliances. No matter what you may have heard, the truth is that Goliath almost always wins. I believe that Dan has retired undefeated in the pillow fighting portion of the Dan Games.

Today, Eddie, Jayne and Patti are in their forties. They have all turned out to be amazing individuals, great friends as well as brother and sisters to each other and ... against all odds ... to Dan and me, too.

I can never get a definitive answer from any of them when I ask which turned out in the end to be the better babysitting philosophy. I have a feeling that probably means they're waiting for me to offer a “none of the above” option.

One last thing. Over the years Eddie and Jayne each have told me that Patti was absolutely responsible for her share of the chaos of my babysitting career, using that innocent reputation to her best advantage.

For some reason, knowing that makes me feel better about the whole thing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Transistor Radio Days

Just like me, transistor radios came into being in 1954.

Unlike me, they took the world by storm. Soon they were the most popular electronic communication device in history. Billions were manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. And as much as Elvis or the Beatles or even Eminem, transistor radios changed the way we listen to popular music.

Think of them as iPods with training wheels.

We got to hear our favorite songs, but with the guidance of “boss jocks” (a term completely unrelated to executive male support) and “hip cats,” who not only told us what the best songs were, but played them all day and night. (Or at least 23 hours a day … there was usually a sunrise religious service of some kind between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.)

Sure, we had to listen to a whole bunch of our non-favorite songs, too. Also, it's true that some of those songs were later found to have caused loss of brain cells due to their sheer dumbness. And yes, there were endless commercial interruptions and station identifications and constant reminders of what time it was and bubbly jingles about contests for loyal listeners and DJs' personal appearance announcements, usually at a local movie theater or dance hall …

But it was FREE music!

Once we got our transistor radios the whole world opened up. No longer were we captive audiences to the Al Martino, Nat King Cole and Four Aces hits that streamed from our parents' large-as-a-china-cabinet “hi-fi stereophonic” sound systems. Today I can admit that those artists hold a fond place in my heart, but back then I wanted to hear the new stuff. And so did all of my friends.

The first phase after transistor acquisition, itself, was getting a compatible ear plug. Note that I don't use the word “headphones” here, since the ear plug was a one-eared monophonic wonder of its time. Finally … a little privacy! It gave birth to the closed-eyed, goofy look on the face of millions of teens that we can all recognize to this very day, as well as the seemingly silent hipster be-bop stroll down the street.

The next step was attempting to record your favorite songs on the small reel-to-reel tape recorders that were available then. This would (theoretically) free you from the whims of what the radio station wanted you to (or allegedly was paid to have you) hear. One problem with that proposition was the intrusion of peripheral sound. It was not uncommon to get the first two minutes of a two-and-a-half minute song (using the superior acoustics of the bathroom), and then suddenly hear “Do you see my hair brush in there?” or “I really need to get in there, and I mean right now!”

If we'd known the expression at the time, these would have been perfect Homer Simpson “D'oh!” moments. I think I probably said “Shoot!”

Another, even more frustrating problem with the home recording project was the intrusion of the DJ. In fact, the whole process was a study in anticipation, reflexes and timing.

First there was FSR (Favorite Song Recognition). We all learned to identify our prey in three notes or less. Press record. Pray that our radio host is not explaining that “Manny's Records (parking in the rear) is sponsoring the next half hour of million dollar music here on WFIL, Famous 56” over the song intro. If not, you're safe until about 30 seconds before the end.

Assuming that you got through the start cleanly, the finish was doomed, so it was important to hit “stop” at the first breath that didn't sound like music. (This could prove difficult for one of those talking songs, like “Big, Bad John” or “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”)

Some of us mastered this skill, while others were destined to include the radio station promo as part of the song in their memories forever.

Sadly, in the minds of those poor souls, The Beatles might have sung, “Eleanor Rigby, it's nine minutes before the hour, picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been, and you're listening to Long John Wade at drive time, lives in a dream.”

As I look back, I find that I don't actually remember carrying my transistor radio everywhere I went, but I know that I must have. Why? Because my mind is absolutely stuffed beyond capacity with fragments of songs that I never bought, but could only have heard on the free airways.

For instance, I know that Brandy was a fine girl, and what a good wife she would be. Unfortunately, his life, his lover, his lady … was the sea.

I will always remember that Buttercup would build you up just to let you down (and worst of all, never call, baby, when she says she will … but he loves her still).

Also, grazing in the grass is a gas (can you dig it?), in the year 2525 man may or may not be still alive and since you've been gone, all that's left is a band of gold.

I believe that we have the transistor radio to thank for all of this useless information that's trapped inside the heads of my generation. It's a mixed bag situation. Twenty years ago it made us virtually unbeatable in the “Pop Culture” category of Trivial Pursuit. Today it prevents us from remembering the name of our niece's boyfriend who just introduced himself to us.

Oh, well. As transistor radio superstar Bobby Sherman once sang … “Easy Come, Easy Go.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Most Mangled Song Lyrics Ever

“So that's what they were singing all along?”

When last we gathered, the topic was rock-n-roll lyrics that were just too bizarre to be understood by the average, narcotic-free human being. Those were in their own category ... never really meant to be fathomed.

Well, brothers and sisters, thanks to suggestions from Brian and Abigail and a few other very entertaining readers, today we will touch on a related area of study ... the most accidentally misunderstood rock lyrics ever.

That's misunderstood in the sense of misheard. Like getting the words wrong. Like … just fill in whatever words seem make sense to you.

I'm sure you'll recognize some of these, and I'll even post a small wager that you've mentally rewritten one or two yourself.

Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix
Actual lyric: 'scuse me while I kiss the sky.
Misheard lyric: 'scuse me while I kiss this guy.

If there were a Misheard Musical Hall of Fame, this would be Babe Ruth.

Ever since those four mop-topped lads from Liverpool took over Ed Sullivan's stage and stormed the beach to kick off the British Invasion, buttoned-down, pearl-necklaced parents across America had their suspicions: Rock music in the 1960s was out to redefine their Eisenhower-born, upstanding young men ... long-haired, drug-addled and gay.

Finally, here was the evidence.

The beauty of this particular lyric is that even after you've read the words on the liner notes, and even after you've written the music label's parent company and received a certified, notarized letter confirming that Mr. Hendrix is indeed saying “kiss the sky” … you can still hear it.

“Darn it, Martha, they don't even spell Jimmy right.”

Here are a few more candidates for our mythical Hall of Fame:

You May Be Right, Billy Joel
Actual lyric: You may be right, I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you're lookin' for
Misheard lyric: You made the rice, I made the gravy,
But it just may be some tuna fish you're lookin' for

Why this almost makes sense:

As a calorically challenged American, there are times when every television show, movie, newspaper article, song and Shakespearean death scene reminds me of food. I not only understand this particular misinterpretation, I celebrate it. It illustrates the plight of all of those who look at a nutritious apple and see apple pie. Who look at a healthy salad, take out the roll they always keep in their pocket and turn it into a hoagie. So I stand tall (actually more wide than tall) and say “Make buns, not war!” Sorry, I get a little emotional on this topic.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
Actual lyric: Where the dogs of society howl.
Misheard lyric: Where the dachshund society howls.

Why this almost makes sense:

With apologies to Elton's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, I think we'll have to conclude that the misheard words are actually a little better than the original ones this time. The image of an entire society of howling wiener dogs is Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz cool and exactly the kind of thing that could be haunting our nighttime hours just as creepily as giant mushrooms or flying monkeys do. So that's one missed opportunity for Bernie, but on the positive side, he got the next one right.

Tiny Dancer, Elton John
Actual lyric: Count the headlights on the highway.
Misheard lyric: Count the head lice on the hiney.

Why this almost makes sense:

This one is tough to defend. Although the sound is extremely close, the refrain “Hold me close up, Tiny Dancer” more or less rules out any perceived danger of infestation. Then there is the decidedly unrocker-like term “hiney,” which no self-respecting cool dude would use. And finally, in all fairness, head lice generally don't go there.

Africa, Toto
Actual lyric: I bless the rains down in Africa.
Misheard lyric: I left Lorraine's down in Africa.

Why this almost makes sense:

This is basically just a variation on the intended theme. Blessing the rains in Africa is a statement on how dry it can get there, right? I like to think that maybe Lorraine's is what we sometimes call a watering hole (but which is actually a tavern); and Africa is a place where you can still find many real-life, functioning watering holes, what with all the hippos and giraffes and such. So this interpretation works on several levels.

Stayin' Alive, The Bee Gees
Actual lyric: Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I'm a woman's man, no time to talk.
Misheard lyric: Well you can tell by the way I lose my watch
I'm a woman's man, no time to talk.

Why this almost makes sense:

There's a certain vulnerability to a guy who is always losing things. That fits in well with the Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever, the movie that this song opens. He's a tough guy from the streets, but with a burning desire to dance, dance, dance! Also, the lost watch explains why there's no time to talk in spite of his being a woman's man.

Space Oddity, David Bowie
Actual lyric: Ground control to Major Tom.
(Multiple) Misheard lyrics: Clown control to Mao Tse Tung.
Ground control to Major Tongue.
Ground control, Tomato Tom.

Why this almost makes sense:

I have my suspicions that combining clowns and Chairman Mao was a CIA initiative to discredit the communist Chinese leader at the height of the Cold War. If so, bravo, CIA! But I think my favorite is the “Tomato Tom” misinterpretation. To me, that is taking an already eccentric little song, turning it even more obtuse and saying “Take that, Mr. Bowie.”

Help!, The Beatles
Actual lyric: When I was younger, so much younger than today
Misheard lyric: When I was young the sun was younger than today

Why this almost makes sense:

It's hard to argue with the logic that the sun ages just as we all do. Why that would influence one to never need help in any way is a little harder to explain. But the Beatles were nothing if not, shall we say … experimental in their lyrics. After all, is bringing up the aging of the sun in a plea for help any stranger than picturing oneself “in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies”? I think not.

Like a Virgin, Madonna
Actual lyric: Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.
Misheard lyric: Like a virgin, touched for the thirty-first time.

Why this almost makes sense:

This would seem to make no sense at all until you consider the reputation of Madonna back in the day. She was the very definition of what used to be known as a “party girl” ... Spears and Lohan and Hilton rolled into one (having said this, Madonna did manage to have the grace to exit a limo properly pantied). Even so, thirty-one times does seem like a lot of touches to maintain that particular classification. It brings to mind a statement often attributed to Groucho Marx: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival
Actual lyric: There's a bad moon on the rise.
Misheard lyric: There's a bathroom on the right.

Why this almost makes sense:

If you listen to enough Creedence, it becomes very clear that lead singer John Fogerty is begging listeners to get the words wrong. There is the song “Sweet Hitchhiker,” which sounds more like “Sweet Itchy-Yike-Her,” and John claims (in a perfect Curly Howard accent) to have “hoid it through the grapevine” that not much longer would she be his. On another level, since he is warning us not to go out at night because it's bound to take our life … at some point, we'll most definitely need to know where the bathroom is located.

In conclusion ...

Most of us are vaguely aware that we may not have gotten these words exactly right, and as a result seldom sing them out loud. But there are few experiences in life as fun as watching someone so confident in his misunderstanding that he blissfully belts out the song, complete with his own personalized words.

Cherish those moments when you come across them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Those Crazy, Crazy Lyrics

Mares eat oats, and does eat oats
And little lambs eat ivy.
A kid'll eat ivy, too. Wouldn't you?

I loved that song when I was a kid.

Little did I know that it would create a pathway in my brain that would allow me to appreciate the utter nonsense that would permeate my favorite songs in the years to come.

The rock generation took nonsense to a level never before attempted or achieved.

Maybe it was the drugs, or maybe it was the times, but it's hard to imagine Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer coming up with anything vaguely resembling Bob Dylan's “... and she just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette.”

Ira Gershwin surely scratched his head along with the rest of us to Jim Webb's “MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing flowing down. Someone left the cake out in the rain …”

Sammy Cahn probably didn't tap his toe to the Beatles' tune proclaiming “I am the walrus, you are the egg man,” or to the ever more baffling:

Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

Steve Allen, who was a songwriter as well as a host/comedian, caught on quickly ... as evidenced by his dramatic reading of Gene Vincent's “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”

I suppose the idea behind early rock was that it was “the beat, the beat, the beat,” as one surprisingly rhythmic guardian of morality put it in the 1950s. Who cares what they're saying as long as we can move our feet to it?

The kids on American Bandstand reserved their highest ratings for new tunes only if “We can dance to it, Dick.” (Just to avoid any misunderstanding here for the younger audience, they were addressing host Dick Clark.)

And so if you weren't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time, so what? No tears were shed for you. Too bad if Maybellene couldn't be true, and done started back doing those things she used to do. That's your problem, buddy.

Only geeks (known then as “weirdos” or “poindexters”) knew all the words, any way.

Then, some time during the mid-1960s, that changed.

Largely due to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, a whole generation took off its dancing shoes and put on its headphones. Songs with a message, like “Lady Madonna” or “Blowin' in the Wind” took the pop culture main stage and rock found itself in the unenviable position of being thought of as important.

When Donovan sang “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain … then there is,” the media clamored for the deeper meaning behind the imagery. Even Elvis went social commentary on us with his biggest 60s hit: “'Cause if there's one thing she don't need, it's another little baby's mouth to feed … in the ghetto.”

But rock-n-roll wasn't meant to be important.

The Animals, with Eric Burton singing lead, tried to warn us that there was no use interpreting the words of rock music toward some greater meaning: “I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.”

And the Moody Blues couldn't have been any clearer:

And if you want the wind of change
To blow about you
And you're the only other person to know, don't tell me
I'm just a singer in a rock and roll band

Finally, the singer/songwriters got together and decided to bring the music back to its gibberish roots.

In 1969, Tommy James & the Shondells had two top hits, one more difficult to fathom than the other. First, Tommy and the boys shared with us the key to peace and brotherhood. Unfortunately for the world in which we actually live, it was a not-yet-on-the-market product called Crystal Blue Persuasion. Then they told us that they had discovered a beautiful feeling by repeating the words “crimson and clover” over and over. (And over and over and over. Don't bother, it doesn't work.)

As noted in the beginning of this article, Dylan and the Beatles gladly abandoned their “songs with meaning” concept and joined in. So the blarney and balderdash were back in full swing:

Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven:
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow
Don't be alarmed now
It's just a spring clean
For the May queen

America, A Horse With No Name:
The first thing I met, was a fly with a buzz
And the sky, with no clouds
The heat was hot, and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I imagine that you could add dozens of your own favorites to this list.

If nothing else then, rock music has contributed to our culture by teaching us that you really don't need to have a clue to what the lyrics of a song are saying to enjoy it. Come to think of it though, the classical masters like Bach and Beethoven didn't even bother with lyrics, did they?

Okay, so maybe there is no great contribution to society, but I'll sum up my feelings on the subject with a few words from Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones:

I know it's only rock and roll, but I like it!

Monday, July 12, 2010

They Don't Make That Any More

“I'll have a Crystal Pepsi. Or, wait ... let me try that New Coke.”

It may be hard to imagine, but the time may come when today's young people lament the passing of some of the brands they have gotten so accustomed to seeing as they grew up. (“Remember Twitter? What were we thinking?)

Of course, many of us have already experienced that feeling. Advertisers bombard us with perfectly good reasons why we just can't live without a particular product, but sometimes we collectively say, “No, thanks.” That doesn't mean they were bad. It just wasn't their time.

Here are a few ill-timed products that had such high hopes, only to be tossed onto the scrap heap of American consumerism:

Simca Cars
My family had a 1962 powder blue Simca, which was the sort of “economy car” that made the Volkswagen Beetle look like a Ferrari 250 GTO. We did have quite a few adventures in that car, though. Some were performance-related … it climbed hills like the last kid to finish the mile run at fat camp. Some were the result of pilot error … we once found ourselves driving the wrong way on the Schuylkill Expressway. So, to be honest, I have a soft spot in my heart for Simcas. Just the same, the last car bearing the Simca name was unleashed on a disinterested public in 1980. Simca was also the name of Latka's girlfriend/wife on the classic sitcom Taxi, but that's probably just a coincidence.

Tareyton Cigarettes
This brand took a physically harmful product, combined it with a grammatically incorrect slogan (“Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch”) and added a politically incorrect image (women sporting a black eye). Naturally it was a huge success. English teachers across America cringed as they could find no sanctuary from the paraphrased slogan that was on everyone's lips ... “Us [Yankees fans, Catholics, homosexuals, fill in your group here] would rather fight than switch.” Technically, you can still find the brand around, but the market share has dwindled to the point of near extinction. It could be that Tareyton smokers lost most of those fights.

Salvo Concentrated Detergent Tablets
There was a definite military theme to this first detergent to dispense with the bother of measuring out the proper amount of soap for your laundry load. Besides the name itself (defined as the simultaneous discharge of artillery or firearms), the commercials showed a woman in a World War II vintage airplane dropping these tiny, white “dirt bombs” into her washing machine. Maybe the women-in-the-military theme was ahead of its time. Or maybe preventing customers from using too much detergent proved to be a revenue-losing proposition. For whatever reason, Salvo disappeared from the detergent shelves after just a few years on the market.

Ortlieb's Beer
An elderly couple lived across the street from us when I was a kid. (And by “elderly” I mean somewhere between 40 and 80 years old. You can't really get more specific than that when you're under ten yourself.) The man was called “Whitey” and his wife was “Petey.” I remember two things about them: They had two parakeets, also named Whitey and Petey, and Whitey drank Ortlieb's beer. A lot of people drank Ortlieb's then, but I remember being impressed by his refusal to drink any other brand. Sadly, there must not have been many like him because the last of the true Ortlieb's beer was produced in the late 1980s (the name was bought by Schmidts and then Heileman, but the formula was changed) and they demolished the brewery building itself in 2002. I'm kind of glad that Whitey (probably) didn't live to see that.

The Polaroid Black-and-White Camera
Today is sounds a little like a painful medical condition, but at one time a Polaroid was a downright marvel of scientific achievement. You could take a picture and it would very slowly develop itself in the camera in a slimy, larva-like condition of not-fully-doneness. There was a sort of chemical smell that added to the experience, too. In the early 60s, we took this state-of-the-art device to Hershey, PA to watch the Philadelphia Eagles train and got a picture of my brother Dan and me with the great Sonny Jurgensen! This is still one of my favorite captured moments.

But it's not only products that fall by the wayside. Sometimes it's perfectly useful jobs like these that get “progressed” out of existence:

Elevator Operator
Now you can see them only in old movies. But there was a time when “elevator operator” was an actual job. In fact, my grandfather had this job at a General Electric building after he retired as a Philadelphia police officer. I'm not sure whether people back then were just too technologically inexperienced to push the correct floor on the wall panel, or it was just a way to keep more people employed after The Great Depression. If it was that last thing maybe we ought to think about bringing this career back into the workforce.

The disappearance of these professions (except the iceman, for obvious reasons) baffles me. We're all about convenience these days. And you can still get a pizza or a cheese steak delivered in most areas of this great country. So why not the bread or donuts or cakes and pies that the breadman brought us? Why not the plain, chocolate or strawberry milk that the milkman so gently left on our doorsteps each morning? I may contact Google to see if there's something they can do about bringing these services back. After all, they already know where we live, what we buy and how often we move our bowels.

Gas Station Attendant
Oh, there are still people working in gas stations … usually behind a bullet-proof piece of plexiglass … but they don't attend to anything except scowling and making change. Real gas station attendants were always very concerned (perhaps even obsessed) with the state of our cars. They asked to check the oil, the radiator and our tire pressure, all while wiping the windshield clean and giving us free maps and/or perfect directions. And one more thing ... they pumped the gas, too.

So as new jobs are created, and new can't-do-without products introduced, you might want to save a small place in your memory for the poor unfortunates who don't quite make the cut. And can anybody tell me where I can get some Fizzies drink tablets or some Bonomo Turkish Taffy?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Warning Labels We Really Need

Oh, you've seen them.

You take home your brand new purchase and, like any responsible consumer, you read the instructions and warnings before using. But that one warning is just so incredibly bizarre that you lose all focus and wonder what incident could possibly have caused the manufacturer to add that.

Apparently, there are human beings walking the Earth (and voting and parenting) who don't realize that coffee is too hot to splash on the crotch; that Odor Eaters are not to be eaten; or that ironing clothes that are on still on your body will only make you the most kempt patient in the Emergency Room.

But these labels got me thinking.

Wouldn't it be great if life came with little warnings along the way? Just a few hints that we could actually use to help us navigate around the rapids that we encounter as we paddle down the river of life.

Warnings like these (seen here in chronological order):

WARNING: Do not judge all edible items by this jar of strained peas. Food will get better as you get older. There are excellent reasons that there are no 5-star restaurants named Gerber's or Beech-Nut.

CAUTION: Potty-training is strongly recommended. Although it may seem simpler now, the changing of your diaper puts you in what you will soon discover is a very embarrassing position.

DANGER: Candy bars found in the sandbox may not be candy bars.

WARNING: “Because I said so” is adult talk for “I don't know why, but you'd just better do it.”

CAUTION: When pole is frozen, avoid contact with tongue. (See A Christmas Story for details.)

DANGER: People will only stand for a limited amount of “I know you are, but what am I?” before smacking occurs.

WARNING: Knowledge of math will be a necessity throughout your life; the capital of New Hampshire and the dates of Napoleon's reign, not so much.

CAUTION: “Puppy love” heartbreak can hurt just as much as big dog heartbreak.

DANGER: Jumping from high places to impress friends may result in nicknames with words like “crazy,” “stumpy” or “special” in them.

WARNING: Parents can devise punishments that your still-forming mind cannot begin to fathom.

CAUTION: No one will believe that the big kids made you drink beer and stay out past curfew.

DANGER: Stories that seem to be funny in the locker room may not seem to be funny at grandmom's birthday party.

WARNING: Objects of your affection may appear sweeter, smarter and more loving than they actually are.

CAUTION: The phrase “Give me your honest opinion” seldom calls for your honest opinion.

WARNING: Believing something does not make it true.

WARNING: Bad kids come from somewhere. Please check yours for shenanigans on a regular basis.

CAUTION: The job interview is not the preferred forum for airing your views on religion, politics or alien encounters.

WARNING: People can see you while you're driving. Eating, make-up application and nose-picking should be avoided during this activity.

WARNING: 96 percent of all toupees are noticeable.

CAUTION: Your stories of the old days may induce sluggishness in others.

DANGER: Demonstrations of former athletic prowess may result in humiliation, lost wagers and/or painful and expensive bone breaks.

And finally, this one is my father's favorite:

WARNING: Remember to be good to your children, because they will choose your nursing home.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kiddie TV, The Classics

The world is a little scary and a lot of fun when you're 8 years old.

When I was 8, the fun part was filled with characters whose only job was to entertain me. Some were funny, some were magical and all came armed with just the right combination of old movies, games or cartoons guaranteed to mesmerize the pre-pubescent mind.

Some were seen nationally ...

The king of nationally televised kiddie characters was Captain Kangaroo. Every morning he would open his door and let us inside the little piece of our imaginations in which he had apparently attained the rank of captain. I later found out that the kangaroo part came from the deep pockets in his jacket, but I didn't ask those kinds of questions back then. Here we met Mr. Moose, Grandfather Clock, Dancing Bear and most especially the Captain's wing man, Mr. Green Jeans. Mr. Jeans wore green overalls (although that was an article of faith on our black-and-white TVs), often brought exotic animals and, contrary to an urban legend from later years, was not the father of Frank Zappa.

Today it's said that adults watched Kukla, Fran & Ollie almost as much as their kids did. (Orson Welles and Adlai Stevenson were reportedly big fans.) It was basically a comedy show done every morning. Kukla was the ringleader, Fran was the only human seen on most shows and Ollie was a one-toothed dragon. I have to admit that this show was a little (actually, a lot) above my head. But now I'm not feeling so bad about that since I defy any 8-year-old to hang in there with the director of Citizen Kane and a three-time almost president.

So after the morning shows had brushed away the cobwebs from our tiny brains there was Lunch With Soupy Sales. Soupy was a whole different breed of cat when it came to kiddie show hosts. Watching this show gave a person (even a little kid person) the feeling that there was something a little naughty going on. There were comic sketches; there was slapstick (pies in the face in every episode); there were recurring characters, White Fang (“the world's meanest dog”) and Black Tooth (“the world's sweetest dog”) seen only as giant paws; and there were an unending series of puns, many of which were not really meant for the kiddies to understand. And today we have evidence that Soupy's most famous ad-lib moment really did happen!

Of course we had no shortage of Philadelphia-area host/babysitters, too ...

The queen, my first love and “our gal Sal” was Sally Starr. Not only was she pretty, sweet and a cowgirl, but she had the Popeye cartoons and the best movie stars ever (my considered opinion at the time), The Three Stooges. I can still hear Sally begging us not to try the Stooges' stunts at home because they used “trick photography” to accomplish them. (I resolved right then that I had to get me some of that trick photography, whatever it was). Years later Sally hosted a “Western Theater” movie of the week with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and a lot of her “old friends” from the cowboy days. It never occurred to me to question how old my gal Sal would have to be to have known some of the old cowboys, but I guess that's just the wanting-to-believe of youth.

Usually right before Sally came on (or sometimes right after) there was a Native American “other side of the old West” show with the great Chief Halftown. The chief's name really was Halftown, and he was 100 percent Seneca Indian (it's said he preferred the term “Indian” to the more politically correct one I just felt compelled to use). Never seen in public without full feathered bonnet, buckskin and beads, he was the epitome of dignity and authenticity before any of us knew what those things were. He liked to point out that in the old movies you never saw an Indian laughing. Well, Chief Halftown laughed a lot and so did his “tribal members.”

At Cartoon Corners General Store (where you could get “anything that you're hankering for) we met the amazing Gene London. He told the best stories on television, and illustrated them right before your eyes as he was telling them (our first exposure to “multitasking”). His boss was Mr. Dibley, or “Old Dibble-Puss,” who paid Gene eight-and-a-half cents per week (our first exposure to “The Man” keeping us down). The cartoons Gene showed were mostly Disney, which fit right in with the kind of atmosphere at Cartoon Corners … classy but fun!

One of my very earliest memories is watching Happy the Clown and his “marching sticks,” the exact purpose of which escapes me to this day. If I remember correctly, the idea was to bang the sticks together while marching along to music. One end of the sticks was red and the other blue and kiddies only got to use one particular color (I forget which) when it was their birthday. Although I can't attest to this personally, there have been multiple reports that “Happy” was anything but happy in real life. Rumor of his surprising dislike for children may or may not be an urban legend, but I do know that he provided me with the first lifetime goal that I ever failed to accomplish ... banging a marching stick on TV for my birthday. So I guess that's a valuable life lesson.

I think it's safe for me to admit today that occasionally I cheated on my first love, Sally Starr, with the delightfully sprightly Pixanne. To be fair, the fact that she could fly was a big attraction, and she lived in the “Magic Forest” with creatures that looked a lot like Muppets before I'd ever seen a Muppet. She sang and danced and spread “pixie dust” wherever she went, which are top-shelf qualities in a girlfriend when you're 8. There was also a witch named Windy who occasionally appeared in the forest. She looked a lot like Pixanne, but was very, very nasty. Political correctness and a healthy instinct for survival prevent me from pointing out that this split-personality quality may have been an invaluable lesson in dealing with women in the years to come … so I won't do that.

At the very tail end of my kiddie show years, I was introduced to Lorenzo, a very unusual clown/hobo. At the beginning of each show Gerry Wheeler, who played Lorenzo, came on without make-up and would slowly transform himself into Lorenzo while we watched. That seemed odd (or maybe I was just growing out of the genre). But Lorenzo did serve as a kind of conduit to teen years by highlighting a special dance known far and wide as The Lorenzo Stomp. I never did become much of a dancer, but the guy tried, at least.

I would be negligent if I failed to mention two shows that I barely recall but which probably were the very first things I saw on television.

When I was very young there was Pete's Gang, hosted by the very grandfatherly Pete Boyle. My two favorite things about Pete are that he introduced me to Our Gang movies (or Little Rascals movies, if you prefer), and that his son went on to do a monstrously funny “Puttin' on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein.

Around that same time, Bertie the Bunyip was a puppet show with quite a few puppet and people characters, the most important of which (to me) was a puppet called “Sir Guy de Guy.” Why was he so important? Well, it seems that my grandmother Reilly had this great talent for giving people nicknames. There was “Markie Down the Street,” who I believe was actually named Margie but who did live down the street, and an aunt called “While You're Up” who would die of thirst rather than get off the sofa for her own drink. But when grandmom Reilly named a man on her street Sir Guy de Guy (I'm guessing because either he looked like the puppet or his name was Guy) I finally got the genius of her talent!

A little after my time there came more kiddie shows. They seemed to be more educational than my generation of shows, which I suppose is a good idea. There was Captain Noah for one (who I saw only in passing and mainly remember as a man in a sea captain's uniform who spoke very slowly). But I have to say that I'm very happy to have been a kid when we learned our life lessons very slyly sneaked in between Popeye and the Stooges.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Toys Will Be Toys

A few days ago I saw that a yo-yo, exactly like the one that I was foolish enough to take out of its wrapper and use when I was 10, sold on eBay for over $2,000. Naturally, I've mentally added that to my share of the untold millions in old baseball cards that every guy of my generation believes his mom threw away. (It's okay, mom, you were just a scapegoat. I lost most of my collection flipping cards with the Kramer brothers.)

But mainly it got me thinking about some of the toys that I loved as a kid.

A lot of us have observed how simple those toys were compared to the video and Wii and Internet diversions that the kids have today. But that's not really a bad thing. I have a feeling that our creative minds were engaged by those less sophisticated playthings.

When I fought the Civil War with my army set, called The Blue and the Gray, I did it with a certain dramatic license. I did it straight up according to history; I did it with Grant and Lee switching armies; I did it with Roman gladiators from another set joining the Confederacy (they didn't help); I did it with the North having World War I bi-planes and the South having Thompson machine guns (pretty much a stand-off). The possibilities were unlimited. And the dead guys just fell over, unlike the video war games today, which are nearly as bloody as the real thing.

So, with a nostalgic smile, here's the scoop on a few of my favorite childhood companions:

Electric Football: So you start with a two-feet by four-feet football field that plugs into an outlet. Add 22 players in various football-like poses, each player with four antenna-like pieces of plastic that just barely touch the “field.” Turn on the switch and the field vibrates (and buzzes like an army of bees) moving the players in every direction, sometimes including forward. The football was either a small piece of cotton or a magnet that attached to a player's metal base (depending on which brand you bought). There was allegedly a way to throw passes, although I have never met a person who successfully did so. My brother Dan and I soon realized that there was almost no football involved in electric football, but we did find a way to have fun just the same. We painted the players before each game in the colors of the NFL team we were pretending to be that day. The painting took much longer than the actual games and since we failed to recognize the value of stripping paint between coats, the players eventually became too heavy to move on the vibrating field. But by that time we had graduated to the incredibly advanced Strat-o-Matic Football game, but that's a long story for another day.

Silly Putty: The mystery that is Silly Putty starts with its description in a TV commercial as “a solid liquid.” What? I wonder if that idea boggled the still-forming brain cells of other kids as much as it did mine. For a Catholic youngster that was right up there with the conundrum of the Holy Trinity. And seeing it in person just made me more mystified. It bounced higher than a rubber ball. Left unattended it formed a strange, not-quite-liquid-puddle. But the oddest characteristic was that it could replicate any image that you pressed it against in a newspaper. What sort of magical substance was this? Was it of this world? It pains me to report that after hundreds of hours of testing, I have never been able to satisfactorily answer those questions.

Easy Bake Oven: This was quite understandably marketed to little girls, gender stereotypes being what they were back then. But you'll find today that a remarkable number of little boys not only admit to having one, but are proud of it. I'll bet many of the great chefs of today started out with this wonder of light bulb cooking technology. Brother Dan was one who flew in the face of conventional thinking and asked for one for Christmas. Against all odds (Santa being the very definition of old-school) he got it! And we developed the perfect symbiotic relationship. As fast as he could cook the pizzas, brownies and cakes … I would scarf them down. Each of us performing the task he did best. Oh, just in passing, I'm sure that many little girls enjoyed the Easy Bake Oven, too.

Slinky: This one was actually not one of my favorites, but it was everywhere so I thought I'd mention it. I've always thought of the Slinky as not so much a toy as something that fell off a truck on the way to a construction site. Riding the wave of a jingle that bounces around in your head at the most inopportune times (like while reciting your wedding vows or answering that “where do you see yourself in five years” question in a job interview), the Slinky was basically smoothed-over barbed wire. It did deliver on one promise though … it rolled down steps. However, even with that promise fulfilled, I'll have to take issue with the claim made in the jingle that “for fun it's the best of the toys.”

The Mini Gas Station: It was all metal, about two feet long and a foot deep, with working lifts in the service bays, two gas pumps (non-working … they weren't completely unaware of child safety back then) and a bright red Coke machine out front. I believe we flew the “Flying A” brand. I know I spent hours and hours playing with this toy but for the life of me I can't remember why. Today it seems kind of limited as to entertainment value. I do remember combining another toy with this one though. I had a toy car that was spring-loaded to explode apart when the front bumper was pushed in. Now that was entertainment! It took about 10 minutes to put it back together (in my mini gas station, of course) and then … BOOM!

Mr. Potato Head: What could be more fun than putting different facial characteristics on a potato? Well, okay, probably a lot of things. But there were minutes of good, clean fun before the novelty wore off. I always wondered why they provided a plastic potato though. Anyone who couldn't afford a potato was being irresponsible, to say the least, in buying a Mr. Potato Head Kit.

Formex 7 Military Casting Set: What is the major problem facing every kid when staging an important battle with his toy soldiers (or as we called them “army men”)? There are never enough to deploy in the numbers needed to carry out one's brilliant strategies. Enter Formex 7. This was a set of molds of soldiers, jeeps and cannons that you could pour melted wax into, creating … reinforcements! (It's possible that this toy was inspired by Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam strategy, but that has never been sufficiently proven.) There were also monster molds like Frankenstein or Dracula for anyone who cared to inject a bit of the macabre into the battle.

Tiger Joe Army Tank: I'll round out the military portion of my toy collection with an absolute favorite. This tank was about two feet long, could roll over almost any obstacle, shot actual projectiles and was remote-controlled! The perfect toy for any boy, and perfectly annoying for anyone in that boy's vicinity. Who could resist shooting the little plastic rockets at moms, little brothers and sisters, pets, the milkman, the mailman and anyone within range? Also, I happened to have a pet box turtle at the time and so there was a whole “World War II tank crew meets prehistoric monster” angle that played out, too.

Etch-a-Sketch: This was an amazing piece of technology that I have to admit I never quite mastered. There were people who could more or less reproduce Da Vinci paintings or Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on this apparatus, whereas I was especially good at making squares and clearing the screen entirely to see the inner workings. In spite of this I did spend hours and hours twisting those little white knobs. Almost everyone I know wound up taking his or her Etch-a-Sketch apart at some point when the curiosity became too much to resist. So this was probably the first toy with a replacement sale market.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There were spinning tops, marbles, jacks, board games, a Superman costume (that's another long story) and more. Feel free to chime in with your stories of the toys that got you through the simple years before that puberty monster struck!