Ah, the heady days of the early ’90s. Maury Povich strode the globe like a conquering god-king, and all fell at his feet in awestruck worship. Cropped sweaters and high-waisted jeans were all the rage, and, sometimes, even women got in on the action. In pop, C+C Music Factory was up and running three shifts a day, their forges and foundries cranking out unit after unit of high-quality, low-cost dance hits for the grateful masses. (Yes, on occasion the factory line did shut down, as in the famous incident in which workers went on strike when it was discovered that there were some people defying the order that “Everybody dance now!” After some tense negotiations, the union agreed to compromise on its insistence that everybody dance now, allowing the sick and infirm to be given a waiver, provided they promised to dance at some time in the future. With passage of the bipartisan Dance Act, the workers returned and the factory line was soon up and humming again.)
Several months back, I wrote about the shock and shame of encountering a new piece of home theater gear so complex that I was for the first time forced to remove the manual from its plastic bag and, worse, actually read it. Now, in a twist perhaps more ironic than that of Alanis Morissette discovering a black fly in her chardonnay, I find I must actually write a manual.
A recent Internet meme featured a goofy song set to clips from an obscure mid-’70s wilderness “epic” called Buffalo Rider. I watched the whole film and can tell you the title is not a euphemism (thank the heavens); it’s a 19th century period piece about a guy who tames and rides a buffalo (technically the American bison, but American Bison Rider makes for a terrible title). Well, truth is, he kind of tames the buffalo—mostly the poor brute ambles about trying to scrape its rider off on low tree branches, angrily chases after bears, and generally goes about as he wishes and looks decidedly untamed, save for the fact that there’s a guy on his back.
Some people, after purchasing, say, a perfectly serviceable purebred Norfolk terrier feel that on its own, the animal is lacking and needs improvement. So they tinker with it, fashioning a topknot using colorful red bows, or strapping two pairs of elegant spats onto its legs. On Halloween they might wrap up the poor thing in a homemade pumpkin costume and take it out on the town. (The technical term for these people is, I believe, “my Aunt Wilma.”)
The following shocking true story of how my old, forgotten stereo system saved my life contains themes of sex and violence. OK, not sex. And the violence is against birds, but once you get the whole story, I’m sure you’ll come to believe that they deserved even worse.
It used to be such a nice place to live, my house. A modest home in a neat, modest neighborhood with nice, quiet neighbors. And then they moved in. The crows.
In 1943, when Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower received the plans for Operation Overlord from Lieutenant-General Frederick E. Morgan, one thing about this massive, audacious, and immensely complicated scheme must have needled him more than any other. “Damn it, Fred, this thing’s not cordless?!” Alas, no. The invading army of D-Day depended upon tremendous quantities of fuel, and with German U-boats patrolling the Channel, they couldn’t risk shipping it over. Knowing this, the Allies concocted a brilliant solution: an 81-mile cord, or rather a pipeline under the ocean (it was code-named Pluto).
Although I’ve lived a fairly mundane existence, there are several points of mild interest: I was once nearly killed by wasps. I have met Jesse “The Body” Ventura on a number of occasions (I preferred the wasps, for what it’s worth). And I once ate nothing but bacon for 29 straight days. No, I didn’t eat much bacon—didn’t eat much of anything at all—but yes, everything I did eat was bacon. Still, despite these moderately fascinating midlights (highlights is too strong a word), people seem inordinately intrigued by what I consider a biographical detail of little to no importance, something I’ve mentioned in this column before: that is my having had no source of regular TV (i.e., cable, satellite, or over-the-air) for more than a decade. “Why? What happened?!” they say, with the same pitying tone they might ask, “Are you ill? Have you had some sort of brain trauma?” (For the record, I can’t account for every hour I’ve been alive, but no, none that I can remember.)
A few columns ago, I mused on what it must be like for an expert to have to face the staggering amount of misinformation floating around in his or her area of expertise. And yes, all I can do is muse, as the few times I’ve been in the company of experts, the mistake was discovered and I was soon escorted from the premises. Sure, I was acquainted with a woman who made a conscious decision to become the foremost expert on the origin and history of the Cornish pasty (true story). Sadly, throughout my life, this connection has not opened as many doors as you might imagine.
Something huge has recently transpired, something world changing. It happened almost without notice while we were all distracted by other things, but it represents a profound cultural shift. When purchasing a piece of electronic gear, it is now nearly impossible to avoid reading the damned manual.
Back before he started marrying his daughters, Woody Allen used to make funny films. In one of the better of them, 1977’s critically acclaimed Annie Hall, Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is standing in line for a film while the guy behind him pontificates loudly on various things, among them influential scholar Marshall McLuhan. Singer challenges him, and the man pompously reveals that he teaches a class on media at Columbia University. So Allen replies, “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here,” and retrieves him from behind a lobby card. McLuhan retorts, “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.”
Sometimes, despite taking great pains to avoid it, one finds oneself having to go to the Internet for information. An inconvenience, to be sure, especially if one is trying to limit one’s exposure to ads for home mortgages that feature photos of hideously ugly deformed men, the kind you expect to see under freeway overpasses sitting in a shopping cart filled with rags and using a Ralphs Rewards card to eat generic franks and beans from a dented can. But if it’s trivia about Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf you’re after (and I assume that represents more than 80 percent of Internet traffic), then you can be on and off in relatively short order and with a minimum of bother. (Oh, and I’ll spare you the searching. Yes, it’s drug inspired. And no, the Magic Flute was not killed in action in Vietnam.)
The ancient Greek ruler Phalaris wasn’t an easy man to work for. He was known as Phalaris the Tyrant of Agrigentum (and no one ever says of people with Tyrant in their name, “Great guy! I’m always better off for having seen him.”). He wasn’t content with the state of the art of torture and execution, e.g., boiling, flaying, burning, sawing in half—you know, the classics. It was good technology that got the job done, but Phalaris was a man who pushed his employees, constantly asking the question, “What’s next?” Under his firm and visionary leadership, the brass worker Perilaus of Athens developed what would become the next big thing in execution—and entertainment—for a decade or more. Known as the Brazen Bull, it was a large, hollow brass chamber in the form of, as you might guess, a bull (think the Wall Street bull, only without the tourists posing next to its metal genitalia) with a lockable access door. Horrible to be trapped inside, of course. Even more horrible should someone light a fire underneath it, which, this being the rule of Phalaris the Tyrant, they did without fail.
It’s happened to all of us at one time or another: You’ve just popped an action movie into the player, settled back on the couch with a cold one (meaning of course a cold slab of yesterday’s meat loaf) all prepared to crank the sound as high as possible until the subwoofer causes all the closet doors to rattle and buzz, when you suddenly realize, dang it—it’s 3:00 in the morning. Your two-week-old quintuplets just got to sleep after an epic struggle, your great-grandfather who lives in the attic has gout and any noise over a whisper causes him to cry out in agony, and the world-record house of cards you have set up on your dining-room table is scheduled to be examined by the certifying team from the Guinness Book the very next day. You have little choice but to either abandon your movie or go to plan B: headphones.
Not long ago, a Northern Irish filmmaker caused a sensation when he posted a video of a “time traveler”: a woman captured on film at the 1928 premiere of the Chaplin silent movie The Circus walking past the Chinese Theater apparently yammering into a cell phone. Now, on one level, this is entirely plausible, as what sane person among us wouldn’t take the opportunity to travel through time in order to get out of a contract with AT&T? But then again, is this a likely mission for a time traveler? “Hmm, I have the ability to project myself into the past and change the course of history. What should I do, take out Hitler? Poison Stalin’s borscht? Prevent the formation of sports talk radio? Or, even though it’s on DVD—I own it, in fact—should I check out that old Chaplin film while speaking into my cell phone, which will be rendered useless because of the lack of cell phone towers in 1928? Why, the choice practically makes itself—1928 Hollywood, here I come!”
You probably believe, like I used to, that there is literally nothing more boring than listening to someone describe his dream. An understandable belief, but completely false. The truth is, there’s literally nothing more boring than my actual dreams. If through some unfortunate series of events you were in the area while I described one of them, you would die. No matter how artfully told, a description of my typical dream would grip you in iron pincers of tedium and slowly crush the last spark of life from your helpless body. If you somehow managed to live, you would wish for death rather than having to endure the haunting memory of its supernatural torpidity. Let me give you an example.