Remember When the Trial Subscription Was Really a Trial?

Yes, the rumors are true.  I missed the deadline to cancel a free 7-day trial subscription of a streaming channel for a smart TV.  The particular channel is not important. I assure you, it was something educational.

I was not that late.  The evening of the deadline, I had been busy cleaning the coffee pot, and had become so absorbed in my work that I lost track of time.  And when I was done, I realized, Oh, I had better cancel that streaming channel.  And it was just about ten or at the most fifteen minutes past midnight.

White text on blue background that says "FREE FOR 7 DAYS"

I already had an email from the channel, containing a receipt for my payment.  I called up the channel to request a cancelation and removal of the charge.

“I’m sorry, I cannot remove the charge,” said the billing clerk.

“Surely there is some exception,” I pleaded, “some special procedure, some authority with the power to take off the charge.  Please!  My payment for Misfit Fruit is due this month and I need to make sure I have enough to cover it.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  All sales are final.  Except – “

“Yes….?”

“Except there is this process where you can request a trial.”

“Really?  A trial?”

“Yes, but I have to warn you, we don’t get very many people using the trial procedure.  Are you sure you do not want to simply pay the charge.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but in the warrior’s code, there’s no surrender.”

The trial of Streaming Channel v. Myself took place three days later.  Of course it was via Zoom video chat to maintain social distancing, and once again I had trouble with the background.  Fortunately, under the Zoom Court’s rules, the jury is sequestered until all Zoom background issues are resolved.  

As the first belligerent in the matter, the Streaming Channel put its case on first.  It called the billing clerk as a witness.

“And how are customers billed?” asked the lawyer for the Streaming Channel.

“On the first of every month, the bill goes out.  It is automatic.”  

“And what would have happened if the customer had canceled on time?”

“Then the customer’s name would have been taken off the billing list.”

On cross-examination, I asked the billing clerk if there was any empathy at the Streaming Channel for someone who was only ten or at the most fifteen minutes late with canceling the streaming service.  

“I’m sorry, I don’t have the answer for that,” said the clerk, “but if you visit our website, you’ll find a place where you can chat with one of our customer service representatives.”

The trial was then turned over to me.  First, I put my neighbor on the stand, who testified that in 25 years of living next to me he has never known me to be late in canceling anything, including a streaming television service.  It was brilliant testimony.  It should have ended the case right there.  Unfortunately, on cross-examination my neighbor was compelled to discuss our plum tree dispute from several years back, and the implied conflict of interest undermined his credibility.

Then I called a freelance technician who testified that the time stamp of the channel was not accurate.  Unfortunately, on cross-examination, the channel proved that my witness technician had an unusually high number of returns via Amazon, strongly suggesting that he ordered things just to use them once with no intention of keeping them.  I let myself have a glance at the jury – something they tell you not to do – and on their faces read nothing favorable to my side.

Finally I testified in my own behalf.  I told of my struggles at remembering to cancel free trial versions of things.  How growing up, my parents worked with me late into the night at remembering to cancel free services.  How I had forgotten to cancel a free compact disc service (remember those?) and how the experience had made me rethink my entire approach towards free services – that the service was never really free, that it was the work of thousands of unnamed and unthanked individuals who perform their jobs with diligence and dignity, and all they ask in return is that I notify them of my intent to cancel by the deadline, usually 7 or 14 days from the day you sign up.

The jury was in tears.  Deliberations lasted all of 10 minutes.  They returned a verdict of “no liability” meaning the charge would be removed, and I wouldn’t have to pay anything, and I even got a new trial subscription that I just had to cancel by the deadline.

The channel’s attorney congratulated me on my win; a professional to the end.  I held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps, where I thanked my legal team, expressed gratitude that justice prevailed, and closed on a message of hope. 

“My hope is that one day such efforts – such trials – will be unnecessary and people who are only 10 or at the most 15 minutes late in canceling a streaming channel can avoid a charge without having their lives tossed about.”

My finest memory of that day shall be the faces of the children in the audience, who saw at last that the system can be trusted, but that you should still remember to cancel the free trial by the deadline.

Remember When You Knew Where Your Photos Were Stored?

Where are my photos? The question had never before occurred to me. I just assumed that the thousands of photos I take with my phone remain on my phone forever. But the other day I was searching for a video I took last summer of a squirrel, perched on the edge of a dumpster, eating a french fry, just like a little person, and was told it needed to be downloaded from “the cloud.”

I called customer service. “Where is this cloud?” I demanded to know after choosing the right option from the main menu.

The receptionist took a deep inhale, exhaled slowly, and then said, in soft, measured tones: “You are not ready. It takes many years of training to be able to undertake a journey such as that. Or you could become a premium member.”

So I bought a trial-version of the premium membership and the customer service rep emailed me the instructions on finding my photos. The instructions were not quite what I had expected. Here is the summary: I would have to journey to the Cloud – a long journey through hill and dale, forest and meadow, brook and stream and river, over perilous seas and scorched desert sands, and climb the great mountain at the top of which stood the Cloud. And there I would the king, the King of the Cloud, or Cloud King as he preferred to be called, and ask him to show me where my photos were located.

I left at dawn and journeyed through a forest, and then the hillsides, and then the foothills of a mountains. There I camped, and built a fire, and made S’mores by the fire. Then I curled up under the stars, and dreamed that I was eating at a fancy restaurant with my digital photos.  The digital photos kept ordering food, and I had to keep going into the kitchen to make the food.  In the last scene, I was balancing many plates on a large serving tray, and being very worried that everyone could see me struggling under the weight.

I climbed the mountain the next morning, all the way to the top, and there at the very top, where the air was thin and wisps of cloud surrounded all, was an enormous castle, and inside was an enormous throne room, with an enormous throne upon which sat an enormous king, the King of the Giants.

“Greetings,” he said.  “I understand you are come to Giant Land to discover where your photos are being held.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Wait…how did you know that?”

“The Cloud knows all. If you wish to find your photos, I will show you…but only if you can defeat us in contest. First, you must run a race against Thialfi, my swiftest runner.”

I looked at this Thialfi.  He did not look very fast, and I had been doing 30 minutes on the elliptical a few days a week, so I felt pretty confident. The photos would be mine in no time.

The King clapped his hands, and the race began.  Thialfi ran very fast, and in a moment was far ahead of me.  After a few seconds of intense running, I felt a sharp cramp, and had to slow down, and was walking slowly while clutching my side that I shuffled across the finish line that was marked off by two winged dogs that legend said to hold in their mouths the virtues of Temperance and Truth.

The King watched me gasp and heave for a few minutes, and when I had regained my composure, said, “Well, let’s move on to the second contest.  You must engage in a drinking contest with Thor, the lightening god who is also good at drinking.”

I thought it rather unfair to set me against a god who is known for drinking, but I held my tongue, and hoped if the beer would be cold. I can drink beer only if its really, really cold.

We were brought each a large horn filled with beer.  I am not kidding.  A horn, like that would come from a giant…I don’t know what.  A giant ox?  Do they have those?

Again the king’s assistant clapped – he looked like he enjoyed this part of his job – and we began the drink.  Thor tipped it back and drained the entire horn in one draught.  For a good ten, maybe twelve seconds he was dumping beer down his throat.  I could see the gulps going down his neck as he tipped his head back.  Glug…glug…glug.  

I had put the beer down after a sip – it was very bitter and although I don’t mind a good IPA once in a while, it is usually too hoppy to take down in a large gulp. I was munching on pretzels and getting ready for another good sip when Thor turned his horn over towards the ground and showed all that he had drank the entire horn of beer.

“Well, that was two out of three,” I said, trying to be a good loser.

“One chance remains,” said the King. “For the third and final contest, you must pick up my cat.”

“Your cat?”  How hard could it be to pick up a cat?

They brought in the cat on a wheelbarrow roughly the size of a small car.  The cat, a grayish brown tabby with a white belly, was asleep, curled up in that ring shape, you know where they curl up on the side in a perfect circle, looking like a big furry button.  Very carefully they tipped over the wheelbarrow – it took several men to lift it even that high – and slip the sleeping ring onto the floor.  The cat did not awake.

“Now,” said the King of the Giants, “try to pick up my cat.  If you can do it, I will show you where your photos are kept.”

I took a few cautious steps towards the cat. I have learned from experience that you should not touch a sleeping cat.  And then I had an idea.  I stood a few feet away from the cat, and said, “Psswss, psswss, psswss,” I said.  “Come get your food!  It’s out of the can!”

The enormous cat woke up at an instant and ran over to a corridor on the other side of the throne room, past an arrow labeled “Kitchen” in medieval-looking block lettering.

The king shrugged his shoulders and said, “All right, I guess that counts.  Very well.  I will show you where your photos are being kept.”

One of the king’s servants stepped forward holding a pillow upon which was balanced a laptop.  With the servant supporting the bottom of the pillow, the king flipped up the laptop screen, and began typing on it.  After a few moments of typing, he motioned for me to come over to his side so I could see the screen.

“There,” he said.  “You see that folder down there marked ‘Photos’?”

“Um, yes.”

“That’s where your photos are.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, thank you.”

“But beware!” said the Cloud King.  “Many a traveler has become trapped by the photos.”

I nodded politely at the advice and then went home with my photos. I still haven’t looked at them. Five-thousand photos doesn’t really seem like much until you actually start to look at that many one by one. I did, however, find the video of the squirrel eating the french fry. I know that all my friends would love to see it.

Remember When You Could Eat Inside a Restaurant?

“Curbside pickup only” said the warning at the top of the online menu. It was our favorite restaurant, and I had many cherished memories of enjoying fine meals among fine decor, getting recommendations from the polite staff, and asking my kids to stop standing on the seats and staring at the other diners.  But all that would now have to be packaged up in those plastic containers with the clear tops, stacked up inside of a plastic bag with a yellow smiley face.

I won’t bore you with the travails of online ordering – navigating the different sections, managing the options available with each meal, adding items to the cart only to find the items either doubled or disappeared, trying to create an account and being told that I’d already created one, re-setting the password and having to start all over again while the kids asked if the food was here yet.  Soon I had placed the order and, after a frantic search for my mask, was on my way to the restaurant to pick up our curbside dinner.

I pulled into the parking lot, pulled into one of those spaces labeled “curbside pickup ONLY” and waited.  There were a few other cars there.  I looked over through the windows of one of them and saw the driver wearing a mask.  The driver looked back at me and I quickly put my mask on, too.   

For a few minutes I sat there quietly and reflected on the whimsical nature of life. Then I wondered when they would bring out my food.  Wait a minute, how were they to know I was here?  Didn’t the email confirmation instruct me to call when I arrived?

I felt around for my phone but it was not there.  In my hurried search for my mask I must have left the phone at home. And if dining inside the restaurant was prohibited, then surely they would not want me going into the building. So I found an old receipt on the floor of my car, and on the back of the receipt I wrote “Hi my name is Mark. I forgot my phone. I am here to pick up my order.”

The restaurant had a large window at the front, and through it I could see a few people busy putting containers of food in bags. I went up to the window, held up my sign, and knocked on the glass to get their attention. An employee came over and, through a mask, yelled at me to stop. I pointed to my sign.  The employee pointed towards the parking lot. I was about to write more on the sign when I remembered that the online order form had made me specify the make and hue of my vehicle.  

I got to my car and saw that another restaurant employee was already there, wearing a mask, and holding the plastic bag with the yellow smiley face. If eyes above a mask can look annoyed, this employee’s did. The bag of food was held out for me to take it, but there was no way I could take it from six feet away. So instead I used my remote key fob to open the trunk and pointed to it.

Suddenly, I remembered that a few months before I had finally cleaned out my old bedroom in my childhood home, and the trunk was still full of boxes. I had intended to go through the boxes at some point, but with the pandemic and everything I had just not found the time.

Waiting a polite second for the restaurant employee with my food to step back at least six feet, I stepped forward and started going through the boxes right then and there, grabbing stacks of chemistry notes, and review books, and quizzes marked up with lots of red ink, and shoving the stacks into the back seat of my car, and it was only after the restaurant worker dumped the bag in my trunk – rather abruptly, I thought – that I realized that I could have put the food in the back seat and gone through the boxes when the pandemic was over.  

When I got home I asked for the isopropyl alcohol, but my wife said I’d used it all, and gently took the bag from me and started taking out the food. I was washing my hands when I heard her gasp. 

Instead of our dinners were four ice cream sundaes in four plastic containers.  I checked my email and saw that I had indeed ordered four ice cream sundaes by accident.  In my haste I must have tapped “Get It Again!” on a previous order.  So it was ice cream sundaes for dinner. Well, at least the kids were happy.  

Remember Your First Zoom Meeting?

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything was closed, and everyone sent home and ordered to stay away from each other, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I won’t have to sit through meetings for a while.”  I was wrong.  The video conferencing service that goes by the name of Zoom was there to make sure that even a pandemic would not stop our sacred ritual of wasting each other’s time with meetings.  

What is innovative about Zoom is that you waste time not only with the meeting itself, but in joining the meeting as well.  I learned this on my very first Zoom conference when I spent a half-hour trying to find the link to the meeting, sifting through daily news digests (“Batman Spotted Not Wearing a Mask”) and take-out coupons (“Fight COVID-19 with our baby back ribs!”).

I was sitting in my living room, and as I was just about to join the meeting, I noticed that behind me the kids toys were strewn all about the room.  Having the Shimmer and Shine Palace bedecked with Peppa Pig figurines and piles of Disney princess gowns and magic markers without caps behind me would not look very professional, so I spent several minutes selecting a more suitable background.  

After trying out several different backgrounds to find the one that best showed off my unique mixture of professionalism and panache, I selected a photo of the outer Solar System, and with a few clicks I was snuggled in between Jupiter and Saturn.  Only then did I feel comfortable joining the meeting.  All of my co-workers appeared on my laptop screen like talking heads on a cable news program.  A little rectangle labeled with my name appeared too, but I was not in it.   “We can’t see you, Mark,” someone said.  I employed my usual method of dealing with computer issues and clicked lots of buttons at random while crossing my fingers, and finally my own talking head appeared…without my groovy space background. 

Something must have malfunctioned, and instead of the two ruling planets, my background was the living room with the kids’ toys all about: the Shimmer and Shine Magical Light-Up Genie Palace, bedecked with a melting-pot of Calico Critters and figurines from Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and sparkling Disney princess gowns all over the floor, as if there had been a fire sale at JCPenney, and magic markers without caps, and a tower of Legos that was in violation of several building codes, and about seven thousand puzzle pieces blanketing the coffee table and couch, no two pieces interlocked properly.  Even in their small rectangles I could see my co-workers stifling laughs.  

I started to explain that this was obviously some kind of malware designed to make good hard-working people such as myself look like they have let their kids leave their toys all over the house.  “We can see you, Mark,” someone said with a stifled laugh, “but we can’t hear you.”  There was more laughing, not so stifled. I played with the settings some more, and discovered that I needed to set up a microphone. 

Why didn’t anyone tell me I needed a microphone?  Where was I going to get a microphone?  I searched on Amazon and found one – an Amazon Prime “bestseller” with a 4.8 rating and free returns – but the expected delivery date was in November and this meeting was scheduled to last no more than an hour.

I started to write out my words on paper so that I could hold them up to the camera, kind of like a silent film.  I grabbed the closest writing implement — a glitter-infused red magic marker with a heart-shaped tip — but, alas, it was out of ink.  As was the blue, green, orange, and purple.  Markers, markers everywhere, and not a drop of ink!  

I needed to find a microphone.  They had gone ahead and started the meeting “while Mark sorts out his technical issues.” This was quite frustrating to me since I have always liked offering unhelpful advice on other people’s projects.  I needed to find a microphone!

And then I saw it, in a corner of the room.  The Disney Princess Bluetooth Portable MP3 Karaoke Machine Player.  A white plastic console decorated with a composite of female leads from several Disney animated features of recent vintage, and, best of all, a corded microphone.  I grabbed the microphone like a drowning man grabs a life preserver, and discovered to my glee that the microphone used a USB connection.

I plugged the microphone into my laptop and began to update everyone on the projects that I hadn’t really been working on during the lock down.  But my boss interrupted me.

“Mark, I don’t understand…are you singing…is that a song from Moana?”

I stopped and realized that I had indeed been singing a song from Moana.  Checking the microphone, I saw some fine print that read “Terms of Use: Only Disney songs may be sung on this device.” I shrugged my shoulders, finished the song, and decided that maybe meetings over Zoom weren’t such a waste of time after all.

Remember When You Did Not Have to Wear a Mask?

“Do I really have to wear this?”  I asked aloud, at home, to anyone who was not already sick of my voice after two months.  “You know now they are saying that the mask actually increases the spread of coronavirus.”  I searched on my phone for where I read that, but instead there was a notice that the article had been taken down for violating the site’s terms of use.  They just don’t want us to know the truth.

I searched online for a mask, but the cost was $39.99 and would not arrive until November. So I tried on one of kids’ Halloween masks and went outside. I felt protected from coronavirus, but my face began to sweat and so I was able to trick-or-treat at only a few houses.

Then I tried a scarf that I found stuffed into a corner of the coat closet with assorted winter gloves and hats. I wrapped it around my face, and could not breathe. I searched the internet for the proper way to wrap a scarf around your face. The top result was an article that began telling me about the history of the scarf. The second result began telling me about why wearing a scarf was a good idea. The third also began telling me why wearing a scarf was a good idea. The fourth result showed the different ways that scarves are worn throughout the world. The fifth was another article that began telling me about the history of scarves, but with more typographical errors than the first.

Over a cup of coffee, my ninth of the day, I remembered where I had last seen a mask. Downstairs in the basement was something classified in my brain as “the paint stuff box.” Inside the box were paint rollers, and those plastic rolling pans, and a roll of blue painting tape, and those little squares of paint color samples with names like “forest glen” and “ocean wind” and “scarlet sunset” and…a mask!

Like Heinrich Schliemann after he unearthed the face of Agamemnon, I was overjoyed and considered sharing my discovery with several archaeological journals. The mask was bluish white, made of a hard felt and shaped like a cup, with two thin elastic bands in the back. It was quite uncomfortable to wear, and my glasses kept fogging up, and I had to wipe them repeatedly without touching my face, but otherwise the mask was perfect.

The first place I went with my mask was the supermarket. Every person there, customer and employee alike, was wearing a mask, and every mask had a different pattern. A mask with a flower pattern. A mask with a plaid pattern. A mask with a skull and crossbones pattern. I felt like I was at one of those parties that they call a masque, spelled like with Q-U-E at the end, and the masks are held up not by elastic around the back of the head, but with a little stick affixed to the side, and the mask covers just the area around the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.

And then I thought of something that would cheer up everyone. I could host a masque, covid-style!  Everyone would wear their masks by holding them to their faces with a stick attached to the side of the mask.  And instead of music, I would re-play Governor Cuomo’s daily news conference in an endless loop.  And the dancing would all be individual, with only four people on the dance floor at any one time.  And for food…well, I would tell everyone to eat before the party. 

I wrote the invitation in a broad, flowing script with a calligraphy pen, took a picture of it, and emailed the picture to all of my friends. Almost immediately I got a response. Someone I had never met in my life had posted the invitation on Facebook and added the comment “Nice to see people observing social distancing. Sheesh!” Within an hour my invitation had a million shares and was being attacked in the form of a meme so clever that I shared it myself.

I was subjected to a digital public shaming until I agreed to withdraw the invitation, issue an apology, and attend mandatory social distance training. The training was via Zoom video chat. At least I would not have to wear a mask.

Remember When Kids Went to School at School?

The first thing I told my kids was that, contrary to rumor, this substitute teacher was not taking any abuse. “Things will go on exactly as usual,” I said, and pulled out the lesson plan that I had written in my daily planner. The planner was for the year 2007, and was mostly blank, as I had apparently preferred to live 2007 the seat of my pants. But I always knew I would one day find a use for it, and that day had arrived.

As I began to read aloud from my list of assignments based upon my best recollection of elementary school – “Penmanship…Show-and-Tell…Gluing Things to Other Things” – I was advised that the day’s assignments were in an email from the teacher. I checked my inbox and, lo and behold, there it was, sandwiched between a daily body count briefing and a coupon from TGI Friday’s for 25% off family meal boxes to go.

The email had been composed in comic sans, and the first assignment was to have your child complete level one on a reading website called Do Re Me Like to Read, where you completed sentences by controlling a digital frog avatar that hopped from word to word. But the username and password were in a different email, and I could not find the email. I spent twenty minutes looking for it, and when I finally decided that the reading lesson was over, I saw that the kids had found the iPads hidden in the cabinet with the salad bowls, and were watching those toy reviewing videos that seem to have neither beginning nor end, and it took the promise of something on the order of changing the tides to earn their attention back.

The next assignment on the list was math, and for this we were to visit a website called “Math-teroids” where your child controlled a space ship that flew through an armada of numbers. A math problem would appear at the top, like 5 + 3, and you were supposed to shoot laser beams at the number 8.

But the game required that I run the latest version of my browser, and when I tried to update the browser, I was told that I needed to have administrator privileges. And after I figured out how to activate such privileges and updated the browser, I was told that I needed to install a certain plug-in. And after I downloaded the plug-in and waited for it to install, I noticed that the kids had found the iPads where I’d hid them under a stack of flattened Amazon boxes, and were now transfixed by a video of a family that decided to dress up as unicorn elves for Christmas and share their experience with the world.

The next item on the list was a science project. We were going to simulate the water cycle in our very own homes! Just fill a clear plastic sandwich bag with water, seal it shut, and tape it to the window. The project seemed straightforward, except that we had no clear plastic sandwich bags, having opted months earlier for environmentally responsible bags made of beeswax. So I filled one of these beeswax bags with water, sealed it shut with the natural heat of my hand, and taped it to the window. But tape does not stick well to beeswax, and the bag fell, and we ended up simulating just the flood part of the water cycle.

The last assignment of the day was story time. Now here was something I could do: simply find an age-appropriate story and read it to the children. I knew that kids like fairy tales, so I read them a story that I picked at random from a beautiful book titled “The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales” that had been sitting on our shelf for years. When I was finished reading the story – a riveting tale about a very hungry wolf and some very gullible goats – my kids weren’t looking for the iPads. They were staring at me with eyes wide open, mouths agape, and bodies perfectly still. At last I had their undivided attention, the kind of breakthrough that makes the hard work of teaching all worth it.

Remember When You Didn’t Have to Sanitize Your Cheerios?

My wife and I had been planning the trip for weeks.  The night before the big day, we reviewed the procedure.  “While you are out, I’ll mark off the loading area on the floor with painter’s tape,” I said.  “This is where we put the groceries that have not been sanitized yet.”  

photo of isopropyl alcohol in a cereal bowl

“Okay,” my wife said.  “But are you sure this is all necessary?”

“Yes,” I said. “I read an article about it. The experts say you need a marked-off contamination zone. They also said you could put the tape on the counter if you prefer.”

“No, that’s all right,” she said.  “The floor is fine.” 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go instead?” I asked, reviewing the list again.

“Um, sure, you can go, if you want.  But do you know where to find everything in the store?  Like, do you know where to find the broccoli?”

“Broccoli’s back on the list?”  I started flipping through the pages. “I thought it was deleted from an earlier draft.”  I looked up, but she had already gone to bed.

In the morning, just after my wife left for the supermarket, the kids came downstairs demanding frozen pancakes.  I informed them that we ran out four days ago.  They demanded cereal.  Alas, I replied, no milk.  Bananas?  Oatmeal?  Bread?  All out, I reported.  

While they breakfasted on Triscuits and hummus, I put down blue painter’s tape in the shape of a trapezoid by the door and unlocked the Lysol spray from its bicycle chain by the sink.  I then opened the fireproof safe, moved aside the birth certificates and passports, and took out the roll of paper towels.  

I don’t know how long I was waiting.  Time had started to take on an elastic quality.  When at last we heard the garage door opening, the kids ran to the door, screaming about frozen pancakes.  With a swift, practiced move I handed each child a fully-charged iPad, and thereby neutralized the primary threat to grocery sanitization.  

As my wife brought in the bags, I went to work.  I sprayed each plastic container of perishables with Lysol, covering the entire surface as the experts had directed.  “You know that’s all the Lysol we have,” my wife said, and while she got more bags from the car, I got down on the floor to sop up the precious drops that had fallen.

The next step was to open each box of cereal, and dump out the sealed plastic bag directly into a mixing bowl.  As I attempted this method, a corner of the cardboard flap graced the edge of the bag as it fell into the bowl.  Now both bag and bowl were contaminated.  I put the box down on the counter while I got the Lysol spray, when I remembered that the box was still contaminated, and now I would have to sanitize both the box and the counter.  Did we have enough Lysol for that?

But just then there were some eggs that needed taking.  I took the eggs and paused. Was I supposed to wipe down the carton?  Or wash each egg with soap?  I searched on YouTube for that video where the epidemiologist showed you how to sanitize groceries, but it was so hard to type with one hand, especially after I saw my wife holding out a produce bag with broccoli inside.

I grabbed the colander – I had memorized its location the night before – and held it under the bag as she dumped out the broccoli.  Just then, a news alert from my phone distracted me, and I let the colander drift a few inches to the side.  The broccoli landed on the floor, right inside the taped-off contamination zone.  I read the breaking news on my phone, while my wife questioned my commitment to vegetables.

“It’s all right,” I said.  “The experts now say that we don’t have to sanitize our groceries at all.”

Remember When This Avengers Movie Wasn’t Everywhere?

It was another slow day at the Little Puppet Theater.  The theater director, ringed by hanging puppets waiting to be used, hung up the phone. “Dang!” he said.  “Another cancellation.  Big party too – fourteen cats from the cat shelter, with staff.  The cats wanted to see the new Avengers movie. What is it with this Avengers movie?  Everywhere I go, it’s Avengers this, Avengers that. Did you know it is 3 hours long? Did you know that Thanos destroys half the universe?  Uh oh! Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!” The director waived his hands in the air.

The set designer looked up from his phone.  “Did you say something, sir?”

“What is it with this Avengers movie?”

“Well,” said the set designer, taking a deep breath, “the Avengers: Endgame is the culmination in the epic series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, abbreviated MCU if you really want to sound cool, to rival the last epic series, called…oh I don’t remember what is was called.”

“Aha!” said the director, clapping his hands together.  “So that’s the secret! You need a series.” He rubbed his hands together.  “Well this gives me an idea!”

The first installment of the Little Puppet Theater Theatrical Universe (LPTTU) was “Pinocchio: The Beginning.”  A toymaker makes international sales of wooden puppets to belligerent regimes. While making a pitch one day, the toymaker is captured by partisans, but escapes by turning a pile of firewood into a large wooden puppet body suit and then doing a dance – “I got no strings…to hold me down” – kicking up his legs and twisting his head around – thereby distracting the kidnappers and making a clean getaway.

The performance had a decent run.  There were a few classes of school age children, and a bus from the nearby home for people who refuse to use touchscreens.  Reviews were mostly positive. The role of Pinocchio was praised for its energy, but a few critics found it lacked depth.

The next show – “Howdy Doody” – premiered a few weeks after that.  In this show, Howdy Doody – a puppet introduced in a small role in Pinocchio: The Beginning – is a scientist working for NASA when he discovers a wormhole to a planet 2,000,000 light years away.  On the planet, Howdy Doody finds a neckerchief that, when taken back to Earth, magically turns its wearer into a huge tv star even though the wearer is an extremely creepy-looking marionette.

“Howdy Doody” was both a commercial success and a leap forward for the franchise.  Critics praised the “growth in maturity” that the theater had shown in the sequel of what could only promise to be a series for the ages, something that would one day come in a box set wrapped in shiny cellophane and bearing a gold sticker proclaiming that there was contained therein additional material not in the original run.

For the third installment of the Little Puppet Theater Theatrical Universe, they decided that Kermit the Frog was going to hatch a diabolical plot to destroy the world, assisted by (and some would say, driven by) his partner in crime, Madam Piggy.  The play was produced in the greatest of secrecy, with a few well-placed rumors

circulating, such as the final battle with Pinocchio and Howdy Doody. The marketing started a year in advance. Fast food restaurants sold plastic figurines of the puppets with kids meals.  The puppets appeared on morning talk shows. Large companies ran tv commercials using cheap references to the LPTTU.

By the opening night of “Kermit and Piggy: Apocalypse” the media was saturated with coverage.  This promised to be the biggest opening weekend ever for a puppet show.

“You did it, sir!” the set designer said.  

“No,” said the director.  “We did it.  They said that puppets shows were dead.  We showed them!” It was a proud moment for the theater, and would have been prouder still, but the Estate of Jim Henson sued for copyright infringement, and the Little Puppet Theater Theatrical Universe met an ending that can only be described as epic.

Remember When People Kept Grain in Grain Silos?

Franklin “Frank” Ferple III, president of the Ferple Happy Homes Development Company, was sitting in his large oak-paneled office, behind his large oak desk, underneath a large oil painting of his grandfather, Franklin Ferple I. He had been trying for the last half hour to untangle his ear buds, and was finally starting to make some progress.

There was a knock at the door.

The door opened slowly, and in walked Richards, a senior associate in the sales department. “Mr. Ferple,”” he said, “I am terribly sorry to interrupt you. But there has been a development that I think you should know about.”

“Was there a break in those new water pipes we’ve been using? I knew I should’ve done more research before buying anything made of beeswax.”

“That’s not it, sir. It’s these grain silo homes. Instead of buying regular houses, people are buying these grain silos and converting them into homes.”

“Grain silos?”

“Yes, sir. Grain silos. It is the latest trend. Just google it and you’ll see.”

“But I don’t understand. Why a grain silo? Where do they put all the grain? They must keep in their homes in case they need to bake bread.”

“Yes, sir, that must be it.”

“Okay, so people live in houses made of grain silos. What does that have to do with our core business of houses made of houses?”

“Sir, our sales have already been in decline for years. With this competition from grain silo homes, we’ll be totally out of business before long.”

Frank leaned back in his chair, put his fists together, raised his two index fingers to form a steeple, and then pressed the little hand-made structure to his mouth, and said, “Hmmmm.”” He said it a few times while the associate stood there, not speaking, wondering if this was not the best time to request a sabbatical.

At last Frank said, “”Aha! I’ve got it. We will fight fire with fire. If they are going to convert grain silos into homes, then we will beat them to it.”

“But how, sir? It’s going to be very difficult to break into the grain silo market now.””

“Then we will have to convert something else, something better than a grain silo.”

“But Mr. Ferple, what could be better than a grain silo?”

Frank stood up from his executive chair, and went over to the window overlooking Main Street. In his mind he saw not the pawn shops and vacant store fronts, the drug dealers and the destitute offering to untangle ear buds for cash, but rather the bustling downtown of his youth, the healthy crowds of well dressed people, out to spend money at vibrant shops stocked with the latest in home appliances, clothing, and entertainment. At least what was considered “latest” back then, he thought grimly. He thought of his most cherished memory at his favorite store, and then spoke with the deep authority of a company president.

“Richards, have you ever heard of Blockbuster Video?”

“Um, it sounds familiar, sir. Is it a streaming channel that you can get on a Fire Stick or Roku?”

“No, Richards. Blockbuster Video was a place. An actual place where you could rent videotapes of your favorite movies. At one time the Blockbuster Video was as ubiquitous as traffic lights and telephone poles. There was not a downtown in America without those gold block letters against a field of truest blue. And I’ve recently heard that the last one has shut its doors forever, and no one has stepped in to replace them.”

He turned to face his young associate.

“But Richards, we are going to make those Blockbuster Video locations into homes.”

So the Ferple Happy Homes Development Company began buying abandoned Blockbuster Video locations, and converting them into homes. It was a challenge installing kitchen and bathroom fixtures when shelves of videocassettes covered the walls. But the key to the popularity of these homes was the sign out front. Frank was adamant, against the advice of his lawyers, to keep the Blockbuster Video sign exactly the same. And for once the president’s instinct was correct, for it quickly became the apex of cool, the very embodiment of trendy, to live in a house made out of a converted Blockbuster Video.

In fact, the trend was so popular that Happy Homes expanded into other types of conversions. Soon they had people purchasing homes that were once locations of Borders, Toys R Us, and even Sears. The Sears conversions were especially lucrative because these were made into apartment buildings. Each apartment occupied a different Sears department, so they became known as department buildings. And instead of saying you live in Apartment 3C, you lived in “Housewares” or “Men’s Clothing.”

“You did it, sir!” said Richards after the quarterly stockholder conference call was over. “Our profits are through the roof. The Ferple Happy Homes Development Company is back!”

“I knew we would do it,” Frank said. “You can get us down, but never out. What’s wrong? You look worried all of a sudden.”

“Sir, there is still a lot of unsold inventory of regular houses. No one wants to live in a house that was originally a house anymore. They just want to convert something into a house. What will we do with the regular houses we built. Who is going to live in them?”

Frank smiled and said, “I’ve already thought of this.” And he held up a video tape. Richards peered at the object and furrowed his brow and tried in vain to name it. Frank laughed. “It’s a video tape. We’ve got thousands of them now. And we’re going to put them in the houses we’ve built, and sell them to people out of the houses.”

“Sell them? But, Mr. Ferple, how will people watch the videos? Don’t they need a V-C-Whats it?”

Frank shook his head and smiled again. “Watch them? Richards, haven’t you learned anything?”

Remember When You Weren’t Asked to Rate Every Experience?

Last week I bought a hamburger and fries from a restaurant using its online ordering system. This way I could pick the food up directly at the register without having to stand in line and be around other people. As soon as I was back in my car with an old CD case absorbing the grease from the bag, I received an email asking me to rate my experience in ordering and picking up the food. I was driving so I could not respond until I was stopped at a light, which is both illegal and unsafe in my jurisdiction, but these are the risks you have to take if you want to respond quickly to automated emails.

Then I got home and ate the hamburger and fries, wishing I had taken the ketchup out of the fridge earlier so that it was not so cold. When I was done and trying to digest the meal while watching an award-winning documentary about spoons, I received an email from the same burger joint asking me to rate my eating experience. Yes, the email used the words “eating experience.” The link brought me to a survey that asked me rate a number of attributes about the meal on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 labeled “Great” and 10 labeled “Really Great.”

The questions were expected ones like “Was your meal tasty?” and “Was your meat cooked to your exact specifications?” But there were also questions like “How quickly did the smell of the meal dissipate from your vehicle?” and “Did you experience any bloating?”

I answered the questions as quickly as I could, and when I was done, hoped that this was the end of all the rating surveys I would have to complete based on this one hamburger and one fries that I purchased. But the following morning I received another automated email from the restaurant. “Your survey response indicates that you experienced some bloating after your meal with us. Would you have a few minutes to rate your experience so that we can better serve you in the future?”

And below that were another ten questions about my experience getting sick after eating the hamburger and fries. I won’t get into the details, but the questions were extremely invasive and brought up topics that I did not even know existed. What the heck is “good” bacteria?

I completed the survey, cancelled my weekly juggling lesson, and sat on the couch to wait for the next survey. I did not have to wait long. Within ten minutes there was indeed another email in my inbox requesting that I complete a survey about my experience filling out surveys. I thought I was seeing things but in fact they really were asking me to rate my experience in rating experiences related to my purchase of a hamburger and fries.

I took a deep breath and read the first question. “Did you find our rating surveys easy to complete?” It contained so many contradictions that I was unable to craft an appropriate selection of integer between one and ten, and could only stare at the screen and think about what I wanted for dinner.