Saturday, February 27, 2010

Madmen, the reality show

Back where I grew up in Flushing—if I can be said to have grown up—we had our share of special types in and around the projects. A woman my sister Kathy dubbed “Dimey” dressed like a bag lady and begged for dimes although she lived, we learned, in a bigger house than anyone we knew. Another, who invariably wore a white T-shirt and walked without moving his arms, became “Guy-Who-Means-Trouble” for the vague warning my mother once gave us about him. The frightening one, as I recall, was a fellow from our block who’d talk incessantly to himself while walking briskly up the street.

Today, I’d feel only sorry for the man, who my brother Vinnie said was as normal as anyone before a head injury. But back then, his constant conversation with himself was all the giveaway a kid needed to give a wide berth, even to cross the street. It’s an impulse that hits me, in fact, nearly every day.

Since those Bluetooth cell-phone remotes began showing up on people’s ears.

You’d think I’d have learned by now that along the sidewalk, there’s a big difference between hearing one side of a two-way conversation, with all the requisite pauses, and hearing DIY dialogue. Nevertheless, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some voice hollering down the street in our direction and tensed up. Here he comes, I’ve thought: the lunatic who would change life as we know it. But then I’d turn around to realize that, to the guy thus engaged in the all-out screaming argument with who knows who, we might as well not even be there.

I suppose it was inevitable. First came email, which started people keeping in touch with their friends without talking. Cell phones meant people started talking to their friends once again but mostly during dinner dates with other people. Smart phones mean we can now communicate with total strangers on Twitter while sitting among friends and family.

Who’s left to talk to? The crazies, I guess.

If only I could spot one.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The only way to travel…stuck in your seat

Some people are prone to all sorts of aberrant behavior when they’re away from home. There’s a reason, after all, for the slogan, “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” (It works for Washington, too.) But there are secrets and there are secrets. Beyond those, there’s a mode of straying with which my family is all too familiar: When we take off from home, particularly to the South, I will have scouted out breakfast buffets long before we get there. With the fervent hope of stuffing myself silly at the first of multiple opportunities.

You might not know it to look at me, for I control my diet and exercise well during the day-to-day at home. I also was blessed with my father’s metabolic genes and as a kid, the saying goes, could stand under a clothesline during a rainstorm and not get wet. And it’s not like I don’t watch my weight while I’m away. I just watch it, oh, either direction it chooses to go.

Many know my buffet of choice, a chain called Golden Corral. Like other such restaurants, you pay one price for breakfast, lunch or dinner and can go back up for more—I know from experience—as many times as you want. With breakfast, my favorite, one station has a guy making omelets to order; at dinner, it’s steaks. Every meal has a fruit bar and, appropriately at the opposite end, a dessert bar. It can get very crowded.

I just returned from Fort Myers, Florida, where my boss’s boss, Robert, and I visited my magazine’s mower and tractor test site for a story I’m writing for spring publication. Robert typically has much to say about every restaurant he’s visited. And I wondered whether he’d appreciate coming along to where I make at least one stop for dinner during this annual trip. (Tragically, it isn’t open for breakfast on weekdays.) We got on the cashier line, from which I gestured toward the various stations and described the various stops of our destiny. “It looks like a supermarket of gluttony,” he commented. That’s the spirit.

A minute later we were seated, and I made a point of mentioning the steak bar to ensure he knew what was there. The first plate he brought back included a modestly sized, inch-thick steak that, he soon told me, was among the most tender he’d ever eaten—not bad for 14 bucks. And three or four platefuls later, including the banana pudding I knew would be there without checking, he was hooked. “It’s an overeater’s mecca,” he said on our way out the door.

“Over” is indeed the key word. I’d be in a real quandary if a good buffet restaurant opened up in the New York metropolitan area, for I know that buffets are attractive merely because I travel but a few times a year. And while we’re on vacation, I really do appreciate that we wouldn’t want to spend the first third of every day eating. (Having coffee needs some time, too!) So we tend to hit such establishments once or twice in a weeklong trip and eat those little boxes of cereal plus fruit on other days.

But when I’m traveling on business? I admit that I don’t race each morning toward the nearest buffet breakfast, shouting something that sounds vaguely like “Banzai!” I walk, like a true gentleman, and hold my tongue.

You’d best not be in the way.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Do as I say, as I say you’re doo

Every now and then, someone asks about my military service. I’m glad I was able to serve. My four-plus years in the Coast Guard, during the post-Vietnam Cold-War, saw nothing you’d call “action.” Yet they made me the man I am today. Even boot camp alone, at 17, taught me a lesson you can’t get just anywhere.

The lesson of those first nine weeks in Cape May? It’s a simple one: There’s no limit to what can happen in a job when you can’t easily quit or be fired.

Most of us quickly learned that whatever we were told to do, to do it precisely each and every time. This meant we learned how to swap a deck, clean a bathroom (called a “head” even off ship) till it was spotless, make a bed wrinkle-free (the kids love that one to this day) and groom ourselves impeccably. Okay, so maybe I forgot one.

When our “company” of about fifty men and women screwed up, the usual way Chief Smith, our company commander, punished us was to make us run laps or do endless push-ups—you know, things I like to do for fun today. But what I remember most vividly was how guys were punished for their individual transgressions. I chuckle now when I look back on them. But at the time? I chuckled then, too. None of the best stuff happened to me, after all.

Take the fellow who, when told to remove off all “jewelry” before leaving the locker room for the gym, decided to leave on his watch. Heck, I’ve never considered any watch I’ve owned to be jewelry. But I, like most others, took it off just in case. So as we did our calisthenics in the gym for the next half-hour, the guy with the watch had to run round and round the gym’s perimeter with the arm in the watch held high. “I’ve got my watch on!” he chanted over and over the whole time. “I’ve got my watch on!”

Another fellow recruit decided he’d get in Chief Smith’s good graces, presuming they existed, by sticking as close to him as possible and being the quickest and loudest at replying, “Sir, yes, sir!” to every command. (Yes, the word “Sir” or “Ma’am” had to begin and end every sentence spoken to anyone but a fellow recruit.) His reward for sucking up? Being ordered to circle for a half-hour around the Chief, his arms extended outward, shouting “I’m a satellite—beep beep!”

Two guys from a different company (new victims arrived every week) apparently had gotten into a fistfight, which had occurred another day before we arrived at the track. The part I saw, while we practiced our drills on the quad, was their penalty. For several laps the two jogged side-by-side on the track, shadow-boxing into the air as they went along and having one repetitive dialogue. “I like you,” one recited as commanded. “I like you, too,” came the reply.

Not that it was all marching and exercises in those weeks before we graduated boot camp and my enlistment became, with exceptions, more like a regular job. Sometimes, in fact, recruits got to lie down in the middle of the day. Only you wouldn’t call it leisure. We saw it often, with one particular company whose barracks we marched past on our way to class. In response to some act of disrespect—maybe something as simple as dust found during an inspection—it was a form of discipline company commanders liked to call the “dying cockroach.” Supine position, arms and legs in the air and flailing, the whole bit…everything but the giant shoe that steps down from above.

Of course, there was a point: the notion of tearing people down to build them back stronger. Such merciless antics united us against a common enemy, the company commander, even as we came to form a team. Some of us, within weeks, might be boarding boats of drug runners off the Florida coast. Would you want someone unvetted at your side with a loaded gun?

Once, as we neared graduation, we even could hear the pride in Chief Smith’s voice when he spoke with us about what to expect after basic training. We learned something else: He wasn’t a bad guy.

But it took effort to arrive at such perspective. What it took was a little imagination, of somehow picturing Chief Smith as a young, misbehaving Seaman Recruit Smith. Who’d, for instance, left the covers a bit rumpled on his bed.

On his back. His arms and legs flailing in the noonday sun.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Physical therapy is my current event

You’ve probably heard the George Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When it comes to working around the yard, that’s me in a nutshell. For the past few months, I’ve been getting physical therapy from hurting the same shoulder by misusing the same hedge trimmer on the same bushes. With all that sameness, I’m foolishly expecting the same quick results—though I’m five years older.

To be different, this time I have a complication: My opposite elbow now needs therapeutic work as well thanks to the extra duty it’s had in covering for the shoulder. The result? I can’t lift with my right arm and grip anything tightly with the left hand. It’s a development, I have to say, that I’ve taken rather poorly. How would you like, after all, to hear from your orthopedist that for the next six months, you can’t pick up someone by the collar with one hand and punch his face with the other?

So I go twice a week for physical therapy. First comes the STIM, shorthand for electrical stimulation of the muscles needing attention. For 15 minutes at a time, electricity pulses through probes into my shoulder and elbow while I lie on a mat and dwell on the news of the day. Picture someone digging long nails rhythmically into your muscle—yet it feels good—and you have the idea. The therapist, very nice and capable guy, sets the machine’s voltage before leaving the room but waits till I tell him the level feels right. What if I’ve misjudged? I did only once…all I remember is that the lights were flickering.

Next the therapist does some ultrasound to the muscles using a wand coated with a gel. Woman readers who’ve had children, sorry if the very word “ultrasound” invokes memories of having to drink a quart of water before the imaging procedure during pregnancy. And just when you feel ready to burst, the radiologist begins his scan. Nothing like that happens here. In fact, it feels good. After that comes a half-hour or so doing various exercises, concluding with a few minutes of icepack before I go home to resume the usual snowblowing and shoveling.

I like my therapist and his assistants very much; they’re real pros. Which made it all the more upsetting the other day when, during a day off from work, I actually forgot to go to therapy. (I guess my arms felt good that day.) An hour after the appointment should have started, I called to apologize knowing someone would still be at the desk. I got the machine.

In all the years before I married Elena, I never once stood up anyone. So I don’t quite know what to expect tomorrow when I go for my next appointment. My guess? It’s probably not a good idea to stand up someone who, when he first sees you next time, will be saying it’s okay while fondling a voltage switch.

Monday, February 15, 2010

It's what's not on the menu

Some people eat take-out Chinese food on a regular basis and never give it a second thought. For our family, however, opting for Chinese as a break from cooking and cleanup has often been, let’s say, an adventure.

Maybe it’s something about our surroundings in Westchester County, New York. We live in what you might call a pricey area, and many couples both work. This means, for us lowlifes without paid help, that take-out restaurants get plenty of business. They fill countless orders in very little time, and some mistakes are bound to happen. You can’t disagree that getting Chinese right is more complicated than, say, making a pizza.

But that’s all the excuses they’re going to get, for after one slip-up in the quality of the food, to us they’re history. The worst was that two different restaurants made my wife sick. (After the second incident, Elena’s doctor inquired, “Have you considered not eating Chinese food?”) While both restaurants are long gone, others remain as a testament to our current no-tolerance policy.

My own personal issue, with food in general, concerns cutting off the inedible. No, I’m hardly the helpless male who needs his steak cut into itty-bitty bites. What I mean is that for ready-to-eat foods such as casseroles, soups and rice dishes, I shouldn’t have to pick up a knife to, say, trim gobs of fat off the meat. (I’ll save the story of the whole crab I was served in a bowl of soup in New Orleans for another time.) With one restaurant we were frequenting at the time, this happened a few times before I mentioned it to the owner. “They have a lot to do…they can’t do everything,” he said with a shrug. I suppose it’s my fault that fat feels like rubber when chewed.

Still, it’s one thing for food to feel like rubber. It’s quite another when it is, like when my daughter, Katie, found a rubber band in her lo mein. We didn’t complain—any excuse would’ve been, ahem, a stretch. The unfortunate reality, for any Chinese restaurant around here, is that there’s always another we haven’t tried.

Our current favorite, across the street from the train station, is a frantic blur of people, spoons and bags. It seems the busiest restaurant we’ve seen, along with the friendliest. And the food has been great so far. They even like to throw in free egg rolls and won-ton soup.

Plus all the rubber bands we can eat.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Notes from the family

Yep, ours is a musical family. My daughter, Katie, is studying music business in college, but what she wants most is a spotlight as she tears through a blues solo she’s making up that very moment. She’s quite a guitarist, the hundred or so musicians she’s played alongside are quick to tell her. And in case that’s not enough, she’s also learning bass, banjo, keyboard and drums.

Andrew, in high school, isn’t after a music career—he wants to be a writer. (He’s a very good one already.) You wouldn’t know of his plans, though, from the sound upstairs, where he routinely practices keyboard, guitar and drums. Elena plays violin and was pretty good when I met her, though she doesn’t get to play nearly as often as she wants. Still, her playing was part of how I fell in love.

Me? I’ll let you guess. My dad played violin; his dad, violin, guitar and banjo. My brother Stephen played drums. Genes to the left of me, genes to the right of me, into the valley of tunes goes…my kazoo.

I don’t actually play the thing as accompaniment. For the most part, it went into the nightstand drawer as a condition of entering adulthood. What I mean to say is that I tried several instruments on my way to becoming, arguably, the most accomplished listener of music in the family. I simply achieved the greatest heights on—hold your applause till I’m finished—a tapered tube into which one hums.

Not that I didn’t try. I banged away dissonant notes on an acoustic guitar someone had thrown away. Its strings, I recall, were a half-inch above the fingerboard. Or so it seemed once I started trying to learn seriously. What stopped me in my tracks was my first attempt (on up to the tenth or so) to play a bar chord, in which you hold down some or all strings with one finger while forming notes with others. Even the pinky. What, I thought, are they crazy? My son plays bar chords like they’re nothing; I like the notion of one generation advancing on the one before. Never mind that musically I retreated.

Neither was I unimaginative. At 14, I went down to West Virginia with my family when my grandmother died. My Uncle Orville stopped into a bar, with me in tow, and the owner played better banjo than I’d heard even on The Beverly Hillbillies. So I asked for a banjo. I later got to liking the Zorba the Greek soundtrack and asked for a bouzouki. Then came the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack; I asked for a balalaika. Fortunately for the family budget, my parents remembered the football uniform too well. They wisely declined.

So I listen. My opinion somehow matters when I’m asked how something sounds, and I enjoy watching Katie play publicly whenever I can. And sometime, somehow, one of them will need someone on a tenor sax. But there’ll be no sax available. Nor a sax player. What’s the next best thing?

While they scratch their heads, I’ll head back to the bedroom. To the nightstand drawer. And blow their minds.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What station do they put on in jail?

You don’t have to be in the news business to want to know more from a story than it delivers. Case in point: The fellow who walked into the Walmart Supercenter in Lilburn, Georgia, shortly after noon today. He walked to the sporting-goods department, picked out a nice metal bat (safer than today’s
wood ones
, after all) and toted it to the electronics department. He proceeded to smash 29 flat-screen TVs costing more than $22,000. Lilburn police want to know why.

By now, hours later, he might well have talked. But coverage of the event—it even hit the Associated Press wire service—missed one point that would have made the piece infinitely more interesting. I want to know what was playing on all those TVs. The way I see it, after, there’s no saying he hadn’t passed the electronics department on the way to the bats.

Had he been a disgruntled employee, that fact would likely have made it into the story. (Nobody, I mean nobody, takes it well to be relieved of his gruntles.) At age 23, he’s too young to be a career repairman of traditional CRT TVs who couldn’t make the transition to flat-panel sets. If he’s an Atlanta Braves fan, there are worse things than finishing seven games out of first place—just look at the my team, the Mets. And with spring training days away, the 2010 season’s not far behind.

No, given the state of television today, I think the answer could lie in what was playing on all those TVs. Sure, it could have been an action-packed movie on DVD. But what fun is that? I prefer to ponder, from a Wednesday program guide for Lilburn, what could have pushed him over the edge shortly after noontime. Was it a verdict on Judge Hatchett? Did he see his own wife, sans him, on Wife Swap? Did he, like Everybody, Hate Chris, too? Was it about what isn’t airing on C-SPAN?

I also want to know whether he intended to hit just one TV and—from the same concept governing Christmas lights—thought that if he smashed the first one, they’d all go out.

There’s one possibility left, and it’s one that every man alive comes to understand at some time in his life. It’s the fun, the sheer delight, of smashing things. Hmmmm….

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Computer, give us a break

Before the current iteration of my career, I wrote and edited reviews of computer hardware and software. I say this not to brag; I’m sure I know less than most people in, say, a company’s IT department. I say it to explain that working for those years as a critic of computer-related products has basically ruined my hopes of ever being a satisfied computer user.

On the bright side, I tend to understand common error messages or odd behavior. What I don’t understand doesn’t usually intimidate me, and I enjoy the challenge of trying to answer computer-related questions. All but one…which brings me to the problem: Don’t ask me what computer brand is best, for I can’t recommend a single one. I don’t like any.

Take this Windows-based laptop. It has a power-management utility in which there’s a simple checkbox: “Always show icon on the taskbar.” I don’t know about you, but I see no room for interpretation in the word “always.” (I suppose I had the same problem with the word “is” during the Clinton years.) Sometimes the icon is there; sometimes it’s not. If you can’t guarantee you’ll remember to put the little icon in the taskbar when you promise, so I can cursor over it to check the battery-charge level, don’t offer the choice in the first place.

I had another complaint recently about a product I downloaded to help me while I’m cruising websites. I’m not fond of web pages (not counting video sites like youtube that automatically start playing videos. To me, it’s the equivalent of shoving your product in my face and yelling how good it is. So the utility I bought says it disables the Flash software that lets the video play uninvited. An icon it puts in the taskbar—yes, that taskbar—lets me right-click to, say, re-enable the Flash software when I really, really do want to see the video. The problem? You guessed: The icon took frequent vacations. (It probably booked them through a video ad it blocked from me.) So until I uninstalled the utility, wasting the money I’d spent, I couldn’t use my 21st-century computer to watch a video on Facebook. Or, for that matter, anywhere else.

You could say both are problems with the Windows taskbar, that the secrets of access are kept in a lockbox in Redmond, Washington. You could also advise me to get a Mac, though I’d just respond with nightmare stories about the Macs I’ve used at the office. I’d rather say, though that computers and the software that run on them, Windows or Mac, have gotten too complex for their own good. Along with ours.

One last point. I suppose I’m dating myself (don’t tell Elena) to admit that my earliest computer experiences were on IBM PCs running DOS, which stood for Disk Operating System. This was before the earliest version of Windows. No graphical interface, no wireless networking, no USB anything you could plug in. They offered very little. What they did have was the Ctrl-Break key combination.

You’ll see the Break key, now muted, if you’re reading this on a Windows-based PC. But holding down the Ctrl key and pressing Break was beauty in itself. Imagine yourself on the Internet. You click on a page, maybe a search-engine result, and realize that no, you didn’t mean to go there. And it’s taking forever to load. Somehow, in such situations, you’ll click on the Back button, or Home, anything that takes you out of that limbo. Nothing works—probably because the page is loading a video. But in the DOS days, anytime you tried to do something and then changed your mind, you simply hit Ctrl-Break. And the process stopped dead.

Life itself could sometimes use a Ctrl-Break, no? But that’s for another blog.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Who’s playing again?

From all appearances, it’s a Super Bowl party we’re having. We’ve got the chicken wings, pigs in blankets, assorted chips and dips, and the drinks. Soda and beer, too. We sit in front of the TV and watch the game, this time the Indianapolis Colts versus the New Orleans Saints.

What lies beneath the surface of our annual fĂȘte is that it’s a complete fabrication. The closest to a football fan in this house is my teenaged son. Andrew somehow knows the basics of football and can explain them. He seems to understand so much, in fact, that you might never know the Super Bowl is the only football game he watches all year. Elena, my wife and best friend, prepared the wings and pigs. (I’m no slouch—I shopped.) She’ll even watch the game. But in her heart, she’d rather it were baseball.

My relationship with football is far more complicated. While I suppose it’s fashionable to blame one’s parents for every character flaw that surfaces, I can’t blame my father for not especially caring about sports. At age 12, he watched his own father take off—to land elsewhere with a new family. Not only did he have little example to follow, but my father also had six kids over 12 years and for years worked two jobs. The big football fan of the house? My mom. That would have to do.

So sometime in the year after the Jets won Super Bowl III, I decided that as a boy I was supposed to like football. Stephen, one of two older brothers, taught me how to throw a football properly. When Christmas came around, however, I suppose I went too far. In retrospect, I have to admit I probably should not have asked for a football uniform.

My mom, bless her heart, had to know what would happen if she said yes to this, one of several preposterous and expensive items of the type that invariably populated my Christmas list. My father had to know, if he had time to offer any input at all. But somehow, on Christmas morning, I unwrapped a football uniform. The helmet, shoulder pads, a jersey of a blue resembling the blue of the Indianapolis Colts, white pants and knee pads—it was all there. On the first warmish day of late Winter, I suited up, donned my helmet…and realized what was wrong.

Among a gang of kids striking up a game, there’s not a uniform in sight. Never will be. The word "dork" had perhaps not yet been coined. Still, at age ten I understood what one was. Ultimately, I recall walking out to the neighborhood holding the helmet and a football. I might even have rolled up the jersey and carried it under my arm. (You never know!) After a while of asking first one kid, then another, about throwing around the football and getting shrugs in return, I gave up and went home. The uniform ended up in the closet, where it stayed. And during freshman year of high school, this scrawny kid finally had his epiphany: A boy didn’t have to like football.

I admit I’ve advanced since then. As each Super Bowl draws nigh, I know who’ll be playing whom. I need less explanation of the basics from Andrew than I needed the year before. I might even know a few names of players, though even bushmen of the Kalahari have probably heard the name Peyton Manning. And for the second straight year (which makes it annual), we have the trappings of a Super Bowl. I’ll enjoy the single bottle I’d started chilling before the game.

But in my heart? I’m with Elena: It’s just not baseball.