Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer encore, II

Wednesday, July 8, 2008
Out of it

(Note: I got inspired to write this after a friend and debated whether younger people call us "sir" because they have good manners, or because they think we're old. Guess what we concluded?)

Maybe . . . just maybe, it was returning home from a weekend in New York City two weeks ago to find an unsolicited invitation from the AARP addressed not to my 247 year-old father-in-law, the man who came for a weekend three months ago, then started having his mail forwarded to my house, then unpacked the four trash bags of clothes he brought for the "a few extra days," then scheduled an elbow-replacement procedure, refused to share his Vicodin and turned the house into a museum of discontinued grooming products, which he alternately used and snorted as part of his "physical therapy."

. . . no, not to the old man, but to me . . . to join the ranks of America's largest advocacy group for the "50+ generation," the "baby-boomers" who have raised their children and begun to turn their attention to their financial, health and leisure "concerns and interests." To make matters worse, the AARP was kind enough to include a membership card that, upon my official decision to join the Gray Panthers of the world, it would activate so that I could enjoy all the benefits that come with -- and there is really no other way to put this -- being old.

"Congress overrides Medicare veto," the AARP website tells me in its "Breaking News" section. Medicare? Now? For me? In the abstract, I was all about Medicare and any health care program that provided coverage to seniors or anyone else for that matter. Then my father-in-law came to town, trash bags of clothing, Sanka, Brylcream and his portable Torah in tow. So I have since changed my mind. Medicare ruined my spring and summer. Yes, thanks to Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, my house smelled like mothballs for three months and my bathrooms are unsafe for human use.

But that's not the real issue. No, no, no. Rather, how did the AARP find me, and how does it know that I am, well, completely out of it, a feeling I've had for sometime now, that its fortuitously timed letter only confirmed?

* * * * * * * * * *

This morning, I did something I rarely ever do: flipped through the "Style" section of the Washington Post to check the TV listings. I wanted to see if anyone was re-broadcasting last night's Major League Baseball All-Star game so that I could watch the parts of the game I missed. No such luck. But I did learn that some show called "Project Runway" is beginning its fifth season, or something like that, today or tomorrow or later this week or at some point. I also learned that some show called "Nip & Tuck" was coming to a "dignified" end after three seasons but that some other show that I have never heard of featuring actors I don't even recognize from "Us Weekly" or "Life & Style" at the grocery check-out line was . . . phew! . . . being renewed.

True confession: I've never heard of "Project Runway," "Nip & Tuck" or the other show that was being renewed. In fact, I've never heard of pretty much any of these shows that seemed to have "captivated" so many viewers. "Captivation," you should understand, is really a polite way of saying that "viewers" have made these fictional characters and the worlds they inhabit real. I refer to this malady as "Cheers Syndrome," named after the popular television show of the 1980s and early 1990s, which was set in a fictional bar in Boston. I was astonished at the number of people who actually believed Cheers existed, and that Sam, Diane, Frasier, Coach, Woody, Carla, Norm and Cliff were all real. Yessiree, I knew people, who were not at all stupid, who would return from a trip to Boston pissed off that Cheers didn't really exist, that they just superimposed a name over a small corner bar in Boston and made it Cheers. Many of these same people later returned from New York pissed off that they had been unable to locate a really cool apartment overlooking Central Park on a coffee shop worker's salary or just hang around all day with impossibly personable and attractive people with no discernible employment or means of income. Sadly, they discovered, fictional places and people are just that . . . fictional.

Outside of a few shows I've watched over the past 10 or 15 years or so, like "The Simpsons," "The Sopranos," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and now, "Madmen," I don't have a clue of what's on television. Occasionally, I'll meet someone who'll say, "You're kidding, you mean you've never seen __________?!?" as if somehow I missed the nuclear alert that went off while I was shaving or waiting for my daughter to emerge from the dressing room at Old Navy. I can say I am familiar with "iCarly," "Hannah Montana," "The Suite Life of Zach and Cody," and much of the other fare from the Disney Channel. I am somewhat familiar with the programming on the channels featuring "Dirty Jobs," "How Things Work," and shows about gangsters going to etiquette school. These are shows my children watch, too often for my taste. I've learned what they're called so I can be a more effective parent. So, rather, than say, "Turn that crap off and come upstairs," or "Turn that crap off NOW! and set the goddamn table," I can yell, "Goddamn it! Unless Hannah Montana is joining us for dinner, turn that thing OFF . . . NOW!" Funny enough, I only have to yell at my almost 14 year-old son, who I catch more often than not sneaking a peek at Hannah and the other adolescent girls because he thinks their hot in the same way I thought Marcia Brady and Lori Partridge were hot.

* * * * * * * * * *

Music is worse. I've begun viewing every Tuesday, when I get my "iTunes Store" update, as sort of a pop culture multiple choice test for AARP candidates like myself. This week was a pretty good week. I know who Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp are because they are older than me, and I spent more time than I care to remember in college defending myself against irate New Jersey-ites, like my sophomore year roommate, who considered my disinterest in "The Boss" as heretical and deserving of a violent mob-connected death. I don't have anything against Springsteen. Quite honestly, I don't understand the fuss and the iconic status accorded to him, but by no stretch do I consider Springsteen untalented and undeserving of his commercial success.

But who the hell are Shwayze, Linkin Park, Manic Street Preachers or any of these people, places, periodic table symbols or whatever on my son's iPod? Why can't contemporary pop/rock bands have normal names, like The Mamas and The Papas, Three Dog Night, Mahogany Rush or Procol Harum? Who decided that every teen-girl Disney Channel star should make an album? What is with all these horrible "boy" bands? Didn't anyone learn from Donny Osmond, Bobby Sherman or Danny Bonaduce's character on "The Partridge Family" that teen-boy stardom, like teen-girl stardom, is a one-way ticket to rehab?

Concert tickets for Hannah Montana? $80 a pop, and that's not even for the good seats. A good seat for Coldplay? That's your first year in college at a private university. Compare that with this: in 1977, I saw Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (twice), Yes, Genesis, Rush, Jethro Tull and the Allman Brothers. The worst seat I had for any of those shows was about 25 rows back and off to the side, around mid-court (or the redline in hockey). And the most expensive ticket?

$9.50 -- the mysterious "fees," whatever they might have been then, included.

What happened?

* * * * * * * * * *

In those days, you went to record stores to buy records. There might have been a band or concert T-shirt or two. But record stores were for records. Even the big ones, like Turtles, Peaches and, later, Tower, seemed like they were operated by people who loved records. You could always tell who worked in what "department" by their looks and dress. The nerdy looking guy with black frame glasses and a white two-tone short sleeve shirt with a fat collar? Classical. A black guy or white guy with a beard and a moth-eaten sweater was the jazz specialist. And the white guys who wore Dingo boots, wide belts with bell bottom jeans and a flannel shirt no matter what the weather was outside were the rock guys. By the end of the 70's, when electronic music was in its infancy, the skinny white guys who looked like they had been locked in a basement for the better part of their adolescence, usually with long, greasy hair with a part slightly off center, were the guys who knew all about Kraftwerk and all that other crazy German shit. In those days, I thought I wanted to work at a record store. Really, what could be better? You spent all day or night listening to music over a great sound system while posing as an expert on this or that recording. I imagined myself saying things like, "That's a great record from Bill Evans's trio with Eddie Gomez, but you really need to start with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. Here, I'll get them for you." And off I'd go, leading some grateful, impressed person to the bin with the words, "BILL EVANS" in black magic marker on a white hardboard. My customer would be appreciative and promise to send his or her friends to see me. I'd be cool -- working in a record store, getting discounts, impressing people and cultivating an image as someone knowledgeable about jazz without being snobby. "Hey, are you the jazz guy," a new customer might ask, having come to the store on the recommendation of a friend. "Can you suggest a Coltrane album to start off with . . . I'm kind of new to jazz." That would be me, dressed casually in jeans and a V-neck sweater with T-shirt underneath, with no need to play any other part than me. "Absolutely," I'd say. "Let's get you started with "Blue Train," and "My Favorite Things," then come back in a week and we'll move up." Within a month, I'd have them listening to post-1965 Trane and loving it.

Now, there are no more record stores. Wal-Mart is the nation's largest retailer of recorded music. Who in their right mind wants to wear that blue vest and spend their days saying, "Yes, the new Justin Timberlake CD is available for $8.99, right next to the $4.99 folding lawn chairs, one aisle over from the automobile accessories, where you can also find NASCAR decals." Not me. Besides, on my one career trip to Wal-Mart, made necessary when I was traveling from Buffalo to Niagra-on-the-Lake three years ago, I browsed through their "music" section (force of habit). Not only did the store not carry a single band or musician that I had in my own collection -- the Beatles excepted -- I'd never heard of most of these bands. I'd never heard of any of what seemed to me the pre-pubescent boys and girls whose cardboard images dominate the Big Box stores I shop in from time to time. "Who the hell are these people?" I ask myself. Am I that out of it?

Yes. Detour here . . . my kids wanted to watch the VH1 Tribute to The Who tonight. Great! What better way to celebrate shabbat. My son told me that The Who would be starting the proceedings and that I "wouldn't want to miss it." So there we were, waiting for one of the 3 or 4 most influential bands in rock history to hit the stage, minus, of course, their original bass player and drummer . . . all the while seeing product placement ads for shampoo and cell phones.

And who did we get? The Who? Not quite . . . we got Incubus, The Flaming Lips, some horrible band that didn't get formally introduced but played to self-parody that made Spinal Tap look like the London Philharmonic and some other clowns whose versions of some of the greatest songs ever were so God-awful bad that I felt embarrassed for them. But not my kids? "Incubus is awesome," insists my son. "Dad, these bands are good," says my nine year-old teen-age daughter. "You're just so out of it you don't know any better."

Out of it. I hear that a lot these days.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I learned, courtesy of People magazine while standing in the checkout line at Giant that Hulk Hogan's once-perfect family is falling apart. I thought about this for a minute and asked myself, "Didn't Hulk Hogan have a couple of glory moments in the 1980s and make a few cutesy children's movies as sort of the big gruff guy who wouldn't hurt a fly . . . or a child?" Then I thought some more. What was his schtick before he became an actor? Was he a celebrity bodyguard or something? I honestly didn't know. I must have been talking out loud and the teen-age cashier must have heard me.

"Are you serious? You don't know who Hulk Hogan is? Even my dad does," he counseled.

"While kind of," I responded. "I just don't know what made him famous."

The cashier gave me one of those exaggerated looks that actors do in movies when they hear piece of shocking news -- eyes pushed out, mouth slightly open, one eyebrow a little bit higher than another.

"Wow," he said, half in awe, half in disbelief. "You're really out of it."

If not knowing Hulk Hogan's biography means I slowly floating out to sea from the rest of society, then I'd better learn to fish and start fires. Just because I am old enough to remember when Andre the Giant was wrestling on local television in Atlanta, and the thousands of times my friends and I stayed up late to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling on Saturday nights until our station "signed off" at 1 a.m., and that I can remember when the local stations would play the Star-Spangled Banner with an American flag flapping in the background before they went dark . . . does not mean I am out of it or old.

Or does it?

* * * * * * * * * *

Is it possible to go anywhere without being made to feel like an idiot for not wanting to save 20% on whatever purchase I make from whatever store that is selling something I need or want. I don't think so.

I was at Target earlier today, my fifth such trip there this week, attempting, with only sporadic success, to get my son ready for sleepaway camp next week. Since he's going to a "Jewish" camp, the list of necessities -- and duplicates and triplicates of those necessities -- is endless. God forbid a Jewish child might encounter something hostile in the outdoors like, say, some tree bark or, worse, dirt. I was returning items deemed unacceptable by the Fresh Prince of Bethesda. After a surprisingly quick return transaction, I decided to buy some mints on the way out. I don't think I've ever gotten out of Target for less than $50, but this time it was to happen. All I wanted was one little, tinsy box of Tic-Tacs.

"That will be 94 cents please," said the bubbly cashier. "Would you like to save 20% by opening an account with us?"

"No," I said. "I'd much rather pay as much as I can as often as I can. I don't want to save 20%. Is there anyway that I can pay 20% more by using my Costco card?"

"You'd be surprised how many people do want to pay more! I believe you!," she said. "But it's your choice and your 20%."

"Let me ask you a question, and answer me honestly," I responded. "Do you really think it makes sense to open a charge account at Target so I can save 20% on an 89 cent box of mints?"

"Well, you could go buy something else and save money that way!"

"How am I going to save money by going and buying stuff I don't need? Isn't not spending any money at all better than saving 20% on a higher amount."

"But what if your 20% saves you so much money that what you bought is free?"

Enough. By this point, I thought I was being set up. Even I know that 20% off any amount will not get you to zero.

"I guess you have a point there." It was time to concede. "But the real issue is that people like me get tired of being asked whether we want to save money and then be treated like the village idiots for not wanting another credit card, or being asked for my zip code when that has absolutely nothing to do with buying a phone recharger, or having a grocery store insist of giving it my phone number so I can get the "Bonus Card" price on items that, in the old days, were on sale that week anyway. It's just really annoying not to be able to buy anything without having to face a door-to-door salesman at the check out line."

She seemed sympathetic. "I can totally understand where you're coming from," she said. "They make us do it." Do they? Who knew? But then came the finisher. "There's no way I would let a door-to-door salesman in my house, even if he was selling cheap mints." She said this very-matter-of-factly, making it clear that no one, least of all some guy selling Tic-Tacs, was getting past her front door.

This lovely young girl could have only one thought while talking to me: are you senile, stupid or just out of it?

Hmmm? I really thought I had a point.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Is it always this loud in here," I asked the 16 year-old "associate" at some mall store the other day, when I was returning items deemed unacceptable by Bethesda's most discerning and demanding nine year-old fashionista.

"Oh, I don't know," he said, smiling. "I guess you kind of get used to it."

"I don't think I could. I mean, this is really loud and distracting. Besides, this band sucks."

"You sound like my dad," he said, laughing. "Every time he comes in here he tells me I'm going to go deaf working here. And I always tell him that I've got a few years to go before I'm old and deaf like him."

"Your dad can't be much older than me," I said. "I doubt he's deaf. He probably just finds it annoying like me."

"Yeah, you're right. But all the stores play music like this. Don't you go to any of the other stores in the mall," he asked.

You know what, I thought. I really don't. I usually sit on a bench while everyone else takes care of their business. Sometimes I'll get coffee. Beyond that, I stay the hell away from mall stores, especially since Brookstone stopped letting people kill time in the massage chairs.

"No, I really don't."

"It's been going on for years," he said. "You sound like my dad. He has no idea what's going on around here either."

"Waddaya gonna do?" I offered, throwing up my hands. "I remember when small, medium and large meant 8, 12 and 16 ounces. Now, most soft drinks start at 16 ounces. In the old days, you could not order a 12 or 16 ounce cup of coffee anywhere, much less in every other storefront in the United States. I guess I'm just out of it."

The kid laughed again. "That's exactly what I tell my dad."

Huh. He must have stolen that line from someone in my house.

* * * * * * * * * *

Back in those days. In the old days. How many times I have caught myself prefacing some stupid story with those words, as if they mean the same thing as when my relatives used them to tell me their tales of woe while I was growing up.

In modern American Jewish folklore, using the phrase, "In those days" denotes some hardship that they endured in the formative years, only to overcome it and become the tremendous success they are today. "In those days," I'd hear, "we didn't have a toilet in our apartment. We'd have to go down the hall to the communal shitter and do our business there. That's just how it was. Now, no one's happy unless there's a toilet in every room, and at least one has to have that little spritzer that tickles your tuchus. Different time."

Yes, it was. We had a minimum of two and sometimes three full bathrooms growing up, so I never got to experience those Brady Bunch moments when the kids start fighting ("How come Marcia gets to go before me? How come Marcia can stay in the bathroom and come her hair and I can't even take a shower before my biggest date ever?" You know the answer to that question, Jan. Marcia was hot and you didn't blossom until the show had jumped the shark with the arrival of that bizarre-looking lost nephew whose name escapes me. That's why Marcia ruled.) over who gets the bathroom next. But I notice I'm using the phrase to describe everything from the hardships of TV watching "back in those days" -- you had to get up to turn the channels, unless you were at a rich friend's house who had a remote, which looked like and weighed as much as a brick -- to the cost of entertainment "in the old days." And I notice now I'm starting to get looks from people, even people I know well, when I use these phrases to explain something about how the world worked in 1978 or 1986 or even 1990. One story I tell that younger people have a hard time believing is how bars, "back in those days," used to keep plastic cups by the doors so that patrons could use as "travelers" for the ride home. Yes, bars used to encourage their customers to drink and drive. True. Can you imagine anything more stupid than that, other than archaic drug laws that can put dope smokers and dime-bag peddlers away for years while turning drunk drivers back on the roads year after year? Proof again that the good old days weren't always so good.

* * * * * * * * * *

Did I ever think it would reach this point, where the music is too loud, the food too spicy, the channels of communication too complicated to keep up with (Got the "you don't have an iPhone!" lecture the other day from my children after hearing a similar one the day before from a neighbor), where I was nostalgic for TV shows I can remember watching, when I can remember going to concerts (and professional sporting events) for less than $10, when not everything for children and their parents was hyper-organized, where you weren't expected to return an email in less than 5 minutes before being brand as rude and inconsiderate, where students actually consulted with you before they decided not to take an exam or turn in assignment, where the news wasn't on 24 hours a day, when you were the one being threatened with haircuts and military school rather than doing the threatening.

As I watch society "move forward" and "progress," I can't help but wonder if being out of it isn't such a bad thing.

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