Monthly Archives: February 2012

Remember What Made You Fall in Love With the Movies?

Last night I swallowed my cynicism and watched the entire airing of the 2012 Academy Awards.  There ought to be an award for watching the whole thing.  I think I would at least get a nomination for Best Academy Awards Watcher in a Supporting Role, but would probably have had to read my prepared acceptance speech to only my mother, during my after-party at Applebee’s, after I lost to someone who did not throw up in his mouth a little bit every time an Oscar-winner used the word “incredible” to describe someone they worked with on the film.

My favorite part of this year’s Oscars, other than that commercial for Hulu where the streaming television service melts someone’s brain, were these little montages, sprinkled about the broadcast like tarragon, of famous actors like Reese Witherspoon, Brad Pitt, and Barbra Streisand, fawning about how they fell in love with the movies.  I was grateful that these busy celebrities took the time to remind me of the power of movies to take me someplace far, far away from $15 and three hours of my life.

The montages got me thinking about the movies that I saw as a child that made me fall in love with the movies.  If I had been sitting in front of the camera and shown a cue card with “SAPPY GUSHING” written on it, I would have had to say something about “Gremlins,” a 1984 Christmas movie about these little cute furry mammals that turn into medium-sized menacing reptilian monsters with homicidal tendencies and depraved indifference to human life.

“When Mrs. Peltzer shoved that Gremlin into the microwave and hit the power button,” I would say, looking slightly off-center, eyes tearing just enough to glisten but not quite filling to the brim, “I knew that these movies…these films…these…moving pictures on moving film had a way of bringing imagination to life and then exploding it all over the inside of a microwave oven.  From that point on, I was hooked.”

Or perhaps I would talk about “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” a partially animated movie about a cartoon rabbit, the eponymous Roger, who is framed with a murder and has to go on the lam with a human detective named Eddie Valiant.

“That scene where Roger Rabbit and Eddie are handcuffed together,” I would say, leaning in towards the camera and shaking my hands, “and Eddie is trying to saw the handcuffs off with a hacksaw, and the box he’s leaning on keeps wobbling, so Roger Rabbit takes his hand out of the handcuffs to hold the box steady, so that now Eddie is sawing off handcuffs that are attached to only his hand, and Roger Rabbit sees that Eddie notices this and that Eddie looks mad, so Roger Rabbit quickly slips his hand back in the cuffs, and smiles, and Eddie yells at him, ‘You mean you could’ve taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?’  And Roger Rabbit replies, ‘No, not at any time.  Only when it was funny.’

“Now,” I’ll say as I nod my head and point with my index finger at nothing, “that cartoon rabbit’s honesty in that scene is, to me, the essence of what it means to be an actor.  That and sunglasses.”

But if I had to pick just one movie that hooked me onto cinema that I can watch in my home for free years after the theater release, it would have to be “The Wizard of Oz.”  I am told that I saw that movie for the first time when I was three years old, and that when Dorothy wakes up at the end, in her home in Kansas, surrounded by loved ones she feared she would never see again, and says, “Oh, Auntie Em—there’s no place like home!” that I started crying, crying the tears of innocent joy that could be brought forth only from that perfect union of human truth and human emotion that is the hallmark of the movies.

Or maybe I knew I was being watched and wanted to give my parents a cute story.

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Filed under Television and Movies

Remember When Mr. Coffee Was the Only Coffee Maker?

The mustachioed man in the center of the room took a drag of his electric cigarette and began his story.

“Beatrice bought me a Mr. Coffee when we had first started dating.  This was before we were married.  Up until that time I had to get my coffee by crashing the lobbies of Holiday Inns and taking advantage of the complimentary coffee they serve to people they believe are guests.  The Mr. Coffee changed my life.  Just put in the filter, scoop a few scoops of coffee, and pour in the water.  So easy a caveman could do it.

“But an easy life has a way of becoming more complicated, and married people have a way of become less married.  One day Beatrice was gone, and it was Janice in my life with pouty lips and Cuisinart coffee brewer that grinded coffee beans and kept track of appointments.  I thought that this was the one, the coffee brewer that would make coffee that when I drank it, I could taste it, just like Quentin Tarantino’s character in ‘Pulp Fiction.’

“Yet it was not to be.

“When the thrill of assembling the seventeen-pieces of the grinder/feeder/cannon at 6:00 a.m. had worn off, I realized that the Cuisinart grinder was too high-maintenance.  Time to say toodle-oo.”

He took another drag of his cigarette and adjusted his scarf, and I remembered that I was supposed to be taking notes.  I had a notebook but nothing to write with except a pink highlighter.  I wrote with it anyway.  Beggars cannot be choosers.

The mustachioed man continued.

“I brought Mr. Coffee back from the basement and used it instead of the Cuisinart.  When Janice asked me what I was doing, I told her that the Cuisinart was too complicated and poured in a dollop of my Silk soy creamer.  The next day there was a Dear John next to the filters, and Mr. Coffee and I were alone again.  But not for long.

“Noreen moved in with a French Press.  It had been a gift from her mother for learning how to reply to the sender of group emails without replying to all.  The French Press may have made excellent coffee.  I would not know because I never figured out how to use it.  I did not get any coffee, and succeeded only in proving Boyle’s Law with respect to Medium Roasts.

“Grimka—oh, Grimka!  I remember your big eyes.  Your graceful, slender back and tendency to give answers in the tone of a question.  But mainly I remember your percolator.  One of the two tenets by which I lived my life was that the more cups of coffee you made at once, the better the coffee tasted.  The other tenet was that the the Powell family episodes of “Charles in Charge” better than the Pembroke family episodes.

“The percolator was so easy to use and made delicious coffee.  But when I dumped the grinds down the garbage disposal, for two nights running the garbage disposal could not get to sleep, and had to keep getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

“This time,” said the mustachioed man, unfolding, smoothing out, and then refolding his monogrammed pocket handkerchief, “I skipped that phase where there’s two coffee machines on the counter at once.  One day it was the percolator, and the next it was Mr. Coffee.  Grimka saw it, glared at me once, and then walked out of my life, sending her cat back for her clothes and Playstation 3.

“I knew then that I would never switch from Mr. Coffee to another coffee-making device.  Even if the device cleaned itself.  Even if the coffee tasted good.  Nothing would pry me from grips of my friend, my Mr. Coffee.

“Until I met Penelope.  We spent many weekends and holidays together.  I’ve never felt so close to anyone in my life.  True, Penelope was just a peel-off hologram that came with a bottle of Metamucil Fiber Caplets.  But she told me about the Keurig single-serve coffee.  I tried it and I have to admit, I love it.  You just pop in a cartidge, push a button, and drink.  The only thing to clean up is the little single-serve cartridge.  No filters.  No grinds.  No required data plans.  That coffee machine is the best thing that has ever happened to my morning.

“Of course, I could not say this to Mr. Coffee.  After all our years together, I did not want to break his heart.  So at first I put the Keurig on the counter next to Mr. Coffee, but a little ways back.  And I would use the Keurig only two days a week, and sometimes on the weekend.  Then I stopped using Mr. Coffee but kept using the Keurig the same amount.  Then I kind of turned Mr. Coffee away, towards the commemorative plate collection, so that he wouldn’t see that I was using the Keurig five to seven times a week.

“And then one day, I had company coming over, and needed to make room on the counter for someone’s apricot trifle.  I had to prioritize my kitchen appliances, and it was clear that Mr. Coffee was not going to make the cut.  I covered his brew basket with a paper towel, took him in my arms, and carried him down to the basement where he would live out its days on a plastic shelf next to the newspaper-fueled mixing bowl my entomologist got me for Christmas.

“I don’t regret my decision.  But sometimes, just sometimes, when I’m asleep, I think I hear something in the kitchen, like the sound of a plastic brew basket cutting a black electric cord.  I run downstairs but see nothing but the Keurig, safe and sound.  And I walk up to it, and put my arms around it, and whisper into its blue LCD screen that as long as we’re together, everything’s going to be all right.”

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Filed under Eating and Drinking

Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor.  Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school.  In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance.  But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”

At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it.  Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients.  Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.

Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”  There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous.  But I don’t think that’s what they mean.

My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home.  The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.

One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter.  The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth.  There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter.  We were impressed.  Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif.  Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.

Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics.  There is controversy about what constitutes “local.”  The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin.  That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.”  Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.

I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card.  Politics is truly the art of compromise.

But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life.  I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass.  The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown.  It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.

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Remember How You Used to Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remember Whitney Houston? (A Tribute)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remember When People Didn’t Have Cameras in Their Cell Phones?

Gisele Bündchen’s classy retort to an even classier heckle as she left Lucas Oil Stadium last Sunday night, and Rob Gronkowski’s NKOTB impersonation at the Patriots’ post-Super Bowl non-party, are, by now, news as ancient as Julius Caesar’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-one when he was trailing the Teutons by only a field goal.  But if I may add to the over-analysis of these off-the-field distractions, I’d say that the question should not be whether they should have done what they did, or not.  Instead, the question should be: If people did not have cameras on their cell phones, are we even having this conversation?

I remember the days when you could fight with someone eating spaghetti on the subway without worrying that someone might be taking a video for posterity.   One day, in second grade, spaghetti was on the menu.  I wasn’t feeling the Italian cuisine that afternoon, and opted for a piece of pink construction paper instead.  I told a story while we dined and accidentally shot out a morsel of paper onto a classmate’s spaghetti, piled in the corner section of the divided Styrofoam plate.  I tried to buy her silence with some crayons, but she stood on principle and reported me to the closest member of that enigmatic sorority known as the lunch ladies.  Exiled to the front of the cafeteria, a punishment neither cruel nor unusual in those days, I wondered if anyone would ever forget what had happened.

How different would my life have been if someone had captured my shame on a cell phone?  I picture myself at a job interview, and the interviewer says to me, “Well, Mark, you’ve got impeccable credentials, the skills we need, and everyone on the hiring committee was impressed by your work with Shrinky Dinks.”  I smile and say, “Oh, thanks,” as if I was not expecting this praise.  “All that’s left is a quick check,” the interviewer says as he punches the keyboard, “to see there are any comprising videos of you.  Company policy, you understand, and I’m sure a mere formality for a candidate of your caliber.  We really can’t wait to welcome you aboar—”

He frowns at something on the screen.  “What’s this about a spaghetti incident?” he asks, and the next thing I know I’m back on Monster.com, looking for something that requires primate insurance.

But who cares about the person whose gaffe is captured for all time?  What really matters is the audience.  I can’t remember how I spent my time before I could spend sunny afternoons watching a slow loris holding an umbrella, or a report on the phenomenon known as planking, something I wish my grandparents were alive to see, so they would know that fighting World War II was worth it.

In the introduction to the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library 1985 edition of The  Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes, “In the place where the storyteller was the coming of night was marked as it was not in towns nor in modern houses….There had been a rhythm of the day and now there was a rhythm of the night….He was a storyteller because he was attuned to this rhythm and had in his memory the often repeated incidents that would fit it.”

Even in modern times, people used to be attuned to this rhythm of the day and rhythm of the night (especially after DeBarge released their 1985 hit “Rhythm of the Night”).  People would have to use their language skills to recreate, for example, a drunk wedding speech, or a clawing fight over the last copy of Soap Opera Digest at the supermarket checkout.

And all too often their storytelling abilities would come up short.  They would see the bored faces of their audience, the eyes scanning the background for celebrities, even celebrities washed up from reality shows of washed up celebrities, and would see that their language skills could not compete with video.  And they would resort to that phrase, that phrase we used to hear all time but not anymore, a phrase no longer needed in a world where story-worthy human shame can be captured by hand-held telephones, and history-changing retorts by supermodels and subway skirmishes can be relived again and again by anyone with an Internet connection and a cushy job; in short, a phrase that even I resorted to when mere words were not enough:  Guess you had to be there.

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Remember Life Before Super Bowl XLVI (46)?

It is half-past five on the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday.  The house smells like chili and I’ve seen more of Bob Costas today than I have of my wife.  Every five minutes NBC airs another player’s amazing story of how he got to Indianapolis, and I’m starting to wonder whether wearing both a Giants t-shirt and a Giants hat will cause a double-jockwear explosion in my living room like crossing the streams of the Ghostbusters’ proton packs.

I have been so immersed in the coverage for the last two weeks that I’ve forgotten what life was like before the conference championships.  It seems like I was just born into a world where the Giants and the Patriots are the only two teams in existence, and are set to play each other in a championship game on a day that is very close but somehow never arrives.

How did I get out of bed each morning without an update on Rob Gronkowski’s ankle to look forward to?  How did I get through the day without the trash-talking tweets from the Giants’ defense?  How did I get to sleep each night without yet another round-table discussion of whether Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time despite his never appearing in a Pepsi commercial?

In about an hour the big game is going to start, and a few hours later the big game is going to end, barring a major disruption in the space-time continuum that extends the game infinitely, which I think Roger Goodell tried to push at the last round of labor talks.  And tomorrow morning I will have to face a world without a Super Bowl, a world without 24-hour injury updates, a world without an econometric comparison of Buffalo wings with Doritos.

But if there’s one thing that watching professional sports teaches you, is that somehow you have to to find the strength to go on.  And that Ford trucks are built Ford tough.

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Remember When Pitches Were Just For Movies: Digesting the Writer’s Digest Conference (Part 3)

After Donald Maass spoke about how to intensify novels and convinced everyone that the novels they came to New York to pitch needed to be rewritten from scratch, we were treated to the last speaker of the evening, Chuck Sambuchino, who gave us a crash course in pitching a novel.

Chuck summed up the novel pitch like this: It is the back of a DVD box.

You start with a logline.  This is a one-sentence hook to draw in your readers to checking out your title instead of that book of 101 pranks that can be performed with fruit.  Can love survive tragedy?  What do you do when the world’s most wanted terrorist is also your mother?

Then you move on to the pitch itself.  A pitch, Chuck explained, is a three to ten sentence description of your manuscript.  Three to ten sentences to get the attention of an agent.  Three to ten sentences that determine whether you are going to become a published author or spend the rest of your life working customer service at Harvey’s House of Milk.

The pitch is supposed to take between 60 and 90 seconds to deliver, or between 5 and 8 seconds if you talk like that guy who did the commercials for Micro Machines.  It begins with a sentence that introduces your main character, preferably by name, that sums up the status quo:

Frank thought he had found the perfect job as a taste tester for Lucky Charms.

Next, a sentence or two that sum up how that status quo is disrupted:

But one day he sees a marshmallow that he has never seen before.  It is black and in the shape of a PlayStation controller.

Then, a few sentences about how the main character confronts that disruption to the status quo:

At first, Frank thinks it is just an accident.  But as these black PlayStation controller marshmallows keep showing up in his assignments, he starts to ask questions, and finds that these new additions are more than just a test.  Rebuffed by his superiors, Frank digs deeper and finds himself embroiled in the middle of a worldwide conspiracy to enslave the eaters of sugary cereals.

Finally, close with a sentence that shows how the main character grows as a consequence of confronting the disruption to his status quo, but that does not give away the ending.  It helps if you can throw in a sidekick and a romantic interest:

Aided by an animated leprechaun—and motivated by his newly found love for the mysterious Wanda Slapjankles—Frank learns that breakfast cereal is more than just for breakfast.

 And that’s it!  Now you try.

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