Remember Wearing Fanny Packs?

Remember wearing fanny packs?

I do.

Fanny packs were manufactured pouches of canvas or leather that buckled around the waist and let people live out their fantasy of being marsupials. My fanny pack was turquoise and yellow, and it ensured that my wallet was accessible and that girls were not.  My mother wrote my name in it with black magic marker so that it would not get mixed up with some other kid’s turquoise and yellow fanny pack.

My fanny pack’s greatest journey was on a three-day class trip to Washington, D.C. For months I sold candy bars, saved my allowance, and begged my parents to write a check just so that I could wear my fanny pack to the top of the Washington Monument. I remember being more excited about having my Go-Bots camera and Bronx Zoo wallet at my fingertips than I was about visiting America’s greatest souvenir shops.

I think I will describe fanny packs to my children the way my parents described bell bottom pants to me: everyone wore them. All the kids on that class trip had fanny packs. I won’t go so far as to say that you were not cool without a fanny pack, but it certainly took you a lot longer to get your $10 out for an “authentic” copy of the Declaration of Independence without one.

We were at the Air and Space Museum, looking at the “Spirit of ’76” and wondering whether they served peanuts on it, when a friend of mine tapped me on the shoulder. “Look, Mark,” he said, pointing, “that’s kid’s wearing your fanny pack.” And, lo and behold, there was another kid with a turquoise and yellow fanny pack. He was walking away and I followed him into one of the simulators in the Flight Simulator Zone, where you could say “Folks, this is your captain speaking,” into a microphone and then see how creatively you could explain that the plane was not going to take off for eleven hours. It was dark in the simulator and I could not tell turquoise from other shades of blue. And when I emerged, he was gone. For the rest of that trip I kept an eye out for my fanny pack doppelgänger. I thought I saw him by the Lincoln Memorial, but it was just my own reflection in the Reflecting Pool. I never saw him again, and when I returned from the trip I retired my fanny pack.

I hear that fanny packs are back. They’ve added features like cup holders and USB ports, and it is rumored that Lady Gaga wears a fanny pack made of pastrami. I’ve even considered getting a new fanny pack just to hold all my rewards cards.  I saw the perfect fanny pack in a catalog and got very excited. It was black, and leather, and had a designer’s insignia emblazoned on the front. I took the picture to show my wife what I wanted for my birthday. But when she looked at it, she looked at me, and, without a word, slowly shook her head.

Remember Napster?

Remember Napster?

I do.

Napster was a peer-to-peer file sharing program that was popular around the turn of the millennium, and enabled people to download music that would otherwise have to be purchased with their parents’ hard-earned money. To get around the troublesome copyright laws, Napster employed the ancient legal doctrine of “they can’t catch you all.”

I used Napster solely to share my own recordings of myself playing the spoons. I never even searched for copyrighted music. One of the greatest pleasures in my life at that time was working for hours as a bumper cars operator so that I would have the $20 to buy a CD and finding the one song that wasn’t terrible.

But not everyone shared my work ethic. At college, I had this friend who downloaded thousands of songs through Napster. He would go through genres – classic rock, 80s pop, the songs by the “Zack Attack” band from Saved by the Bell – and play the songs for his friends when they congregated in his room to buy Tupperware and sip fine wine from red plastic cups.

Using Napster was not without its challenges.  My friend lived in a fraternity house, and the House Computer Nerd, an elected position at the time, told my friend that his downloading used up so much bandwidth that the rest of the brotherhood was having trouble playing Half-Life in real time. At the next meeting the brotherhood voted to excommunicate my friend from the router. Unable to find other housing with sufficient bandwidth, he dropped out of school and moved back home to his parents’ T-1 connection.

For a while my friend was able to live in download heaven. He was making his way through theme songs to cartoon programs when his parents got fed up with him leaving near-empty cartons of milk in the refrigerator, and turned him in to Metallica, a heavy metal band that specialized in intellectual property. At his subsequent trial my friend tried to mount a vigorous defense, but his lawyer spent the whole time downloading music instead of making objections, and my friend was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in Siberia. I heard that he was later implicated in a snow-swapping scheme, and murdered by the people who owned the rights to the snow.

As for Napster, it was replaced by a competitor called Gnutella, which boasted faster transfer rates and could be spread on pizza dough.

Thanks to Jennifer Albright for the topic.

Remember When Containers Were Easy To Open?

Remember when containers were easy to open?

I do.

Sometime in the 1980s it was decided that the biggest threat to human existence was not disease or environmental disaster or crime or drugs or famine or political instability, but that a stranger would go into supermarkets, unscrew the tops of containers of juice and medicine, add harmful substances, screw the top back on, and walk away, leaving the tainted beverage or elixir for the unwitting consumer. I guess this actually happened a few times, because one day every container had an aluminum seal over the opening.

These aluminum seals are almost impossible to remove. There is usually a little flap that says “pull here” but this is just a joke at the consumer’s expense. The joke is particularly funny when the consumer is a coffee drinker trying to remove the seal to hazelnut creamer at 5 a.m., huffing and puffing, straining his deltoids, swearing loudly, pleading to deities,  and finally reaching for the closest fork to poke a hole through the seal.

The aluminum seals are not the only part of the joke. The plastic pull-tops on cartons are great fun when the plastic ring comes off without the top. And sometimes there is not so much an added barrier as just a top that is more or less welded to the container.

One night my wife and I were getting ready to go out for the evening. She was taking longer than her usual three hours and I started getting worried.

“Honey,” I said through the door to the bathroom, “are you all right?”

She opened the door, apparently ready to go out, holding up to me a small green and pink container cylinder that I recognized from television as mascara. “I can’t get the top to this off. Can you try?”

Removing tops to containers is one of the few remaining ways to be a man in the modern world. I cherished the opportunity to slay the dragon. “Sure thing, honey.” I grabbed the container and pulled. And pulled and pulled. The top would not budge.

“Um, hang on a second,” I said, and went downstairs to my tool box. I grabbed the pliers and succeeded only in scratching up the shiny top to the mascara.

“What’s going on down there?” my wife shouted.

“Um, almost…got…it,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t give myself a hernia and have to forgo dessert. But my efforts were futile.

I left the basement, taking the pliers with me, and went next door to my neighbor. I showed him the scratched-up mascara container, the red marks on my hands, and the pliers. He took the mascara from me, and led me into his garage where he had a vise. He tightened the body of the mascara container in the vise, affixed a wrench to the top of the mascara, and pulled while I stood behind him and pulled on his shoulders. We heard a crack . “Almost,” my neighbor said. “We’re…almost…there…keep…pulling.”

And then the body of the mascara shattered under all the pressure. Black stuff spilled onto the garage floor. The mascara top was still screwed on to the broken top half of the mascara body, with the little brush poking through. I picked up the pieces, thanked my neighbor for his help, and walked home awashed in shame.

“Where have you been?” my wife asked. “We have to go. Did you get the top to the mascara off?”

“Oh, honey,” I said, “don’t I always say you don’t need makeup to look great?”

Remember When Drinking Was a Novelty?

Remember when drinking was a novelty?

I do.

For every person who has decided to let alcohol be a part of their lives, there was that magical time when drinking was a new experience. Maybe it was when they chugged a beer in twenty seconds at a New Year’s Eve party and basked in the accolades until upstaged by a Naval recruit who did it in eight.  Maybe it was when they pilfered wine coolers at a family event and drank them behind a tree while their parents had the police looking for them.  Maybe it was when they went out on their 21st birthday and drank so much they had to do their senior year of college from the couch. No matter what the specific details were, those early bouts with drink are usually swathed in a combination of wonder, adventure, and projectile vomiting.

As the years pass and the empty cans and bottles form a larger and larger share of the recycling bin, the novelty of drinking wears off. It goes from being something to celebrate special occasions to something to cope with the stress of putting the dishes away. But once in a while we are reminded of what those early days were like. I was so reminded this past weekend while riding the Long Island Rail Road.

The Long Island Rail Road is a commuter train that during the week shuttles people between their jobs in New York and their homes on Long Island, and during the weekend shuttles their young adult children between the bars in New York and their parents’ homes on Long Island. It runs fairly regularly during waking hours, but its late-night schedule can be stroke-inducing. For the line that I take when I’m visiting the Big Apple, there is a gap between 1:16 a.m. and 2:53 a.m. And if you do not make that 1:16, you are in for a very, very long night.

I failed to make the 1:16 this past weekend. The 2:53 train is occupied almost entirely by people who are college-aged or just beyond it, dressed to the nines and doing figure-eights in the narrow aisle. Among a single-file of four people walking by, the third person is not so much walking as being shuffled along like a scene from Weekend at Bernie’s. People are shouting to each other about how “wasted” they are and are discussing economic policy without supporting data. Young women show little compunction about walking barefoot while still inside the borough of Manhattan.

Early on in our trek east someone warns of a low wave of water flowing along the floor and I pick up my feet just in time. Evidently something in the rest room had overflowed. The waves keep coming during the ride. When the train stops at a station, the water flows east. When the train leaves a station, the water flows west. It is like the tide coming in and going out. I’m about to take out my fishing pole. But the fish do not look appetizing.

I am getting a good workout from keeping my feet elevated. The next exercise gadget should be a device that sends commuter train toilet water rushing under your feet for an hour. Not even squats yield that kind of burn. I start to wonder what could make this ride any worse. And then I get my answer.

Two stops before my destination, we hear on the intercom that “a passenger needs medical assistance” and that our train is “being held until emergency personnel can arrive.” I wonder what the EMS code is for “screaming they are going to die when they are really just drunk.” It takes half an hour for the emergency personnel to arrive, and during that half an hour I hear “FML” – in both short and long form – being said into cell phones and across the aisle.

It is well past 4 a.m. when I disembark at my stop, and I know that even brunch is out of the question. As I swing from the luggage racks like monkey bars to avoid the river of dreams, I take one last look around me. I see the red eyes, the bloated food-smeared faces, the stained jackets, the chia pets, the bare feet…and I marvel at the modern world’s only rite of passage.

Thanks to the merry passengers of car no. 7163 for the topic.

Remember When People Passed Notes in Class?

Remember when people passed notes in class?

I do.

In third grade I conspired with some classmates to make another classmate believe he was being stalked by a ghost. I wrote notes in a squiggly lettering that said things like “Your parents don’t love you” and “Courdoroy pants are in your future.” We would leave the notes on his chair when he got up to sharpen his pencil. He was looking worried by the second note. I was pleased at how smoothly the plan was going. When lunchtime approached and we were forming two gender-based lines, a classmate and co-conspirator put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s over.  He knows.”

“He knows? Who told him?” I was ready to kill this person who had the temerity to ruin my plan.  But it turned out to be a kid who was much larger than I, and I decided that for the sake of everyone’s education I would not press the matter further.

When I was fourth grade I passed a note to a nearby classmate named Charles, saying “Charles is a big oaf.” Señora Goldfarb, our Spanish teacher, caught me and made me write it in Spanish a thousand times. After a few hundred I started getting tired and making mistakes, and as punishment I was not permitted to participate in the Cinco de Mayo celebration, where every student was responsible for making his parents buy an authentic Spanish dish for the class.

In high school there was a girl named Gretchen who passed notes by folding them into the little triangle, which everyone called a football.  She would flick the football in the direction of her intended audience. Gretchen had bad aim and a few times the note landed near Mr. Mauser, our math teacher.  Whenever this happened Mr. Mauser would pick up the football and ask who it belonged to, and when Gretchen confessed he would ask her whether the football formed an isoceles or equilateral triangle.  If she was right she got the football flicked back to her.  If she was wrong he opened the note and read it. Gretchen soon became the go-to sophomore on triangles.

I don’t know whether today’s students still pass notes, but I’m sure many are electing to text their cruel missives.  No teachers to avoid, and no fellow students to recruit.  No one would know if you were passing a note or checking your stock portfolio.  Until someone accidentally texted the teacher.

Thanks to Toni Calabrese for the topic.

Remember When You Could Go To the Supermarket Without Being Offered Something You Didn’t Want?

Remember when you could go to the supermarket without being offered to enter a contest, or asked to make a donation, or join a mailing list, or solicited with anything other than the items you went there to buy?

I do.

My childhood memories of going to the supermarket are sepia-toned.  Mostly I remember buying a lot of cereal, and begging for cookies and soda to no avail. One time I found a $20 bill on the floor in the produce section and did not tell anyone.

But today it seems like every time I walk through those automatic doors I’m bombarded by people trying to get me to enter a contest or make a donation when all I really want to do is get my Mojito Mix and Vanilla Wafers and get out of there.

The other day I went to the supermarket and as the automatic doors opened a man in a shirt and tie greeted me. I assumed he was the greeter – perhaps placed through some community outreach program – and greeted him back. Then he held out a stack of green slips and a pen and asked me if I wanted to enter to win a shopping spree. I entertained a short mental film of myself running through the aisles, like a contestant on that game show Supermarket Sweep, going for the whole roast turkeys and then the medicine aisle. I shook my head and walked on, and felt bad about rebuffing him until I got to the free samples of cheese.

Another time I was greeted by a pair of high schoolers selling candy bars to fund a class on the causes of obesity. I told them that I’d sold my collection of Garbage Pail Kids to pay my property taxes and teenagers still did not seem to know anything beyond a bunch of acronyms.  And they were like, “OMG!”  And I was like, “TTYL.”

But the most memorable supermarket solicitor was a woman taking donations to pay her Verizon bill. No clipboard, no costume, no gimmick.  Just standing there with a sign that said, “I can’t make any cell phone calls. Please help. God bless.” Somehow that one touched my heart. I handed over the few dollars I had on me, and instead of snacking on Vanilla Wafers I spent the evening appreciating what I had.

Remember When URLs Did Not Change?

Remember when a website’s URL never changed?

I do.

Actually, I don’t.  URLs change all the time, and this one is going to change to “” later tonight, March 17, 2011, just as soon as I finish scrubbing the chicken burger grease off the grill pan.  If you need to reprogram your reader or something, just drop the “wordpress” and one of the dots that flank it. You will still be able to go to “” and be automatically directed to the new address.  And if you’ve decided to stop reading this blog altogether, the address change will furnish you with a tidy excuse in case we run into each other at the supermarket.

So keep your fingers crossed that I don’t screw anything up!  And, as always, thanks for reading.


Remember When You Weren’t Offered A Rewards Card at Every Store?

Remember when you weren’t offered a rewards card at every store you went to?

I do.

In the beginning supermarkets offered discounts through coupons, which required clipping and a fair amount of chutzpah at the check out line.  Then one day, a supermarket executive says, “Hey, if we’re going to offer discounts, we may as well track our customers’ purchases so we know exactly how many Tombstone pizzas or Cottonelle moist wipes they consume in a week.”

And an intern asks, “But how will you accomplish that?”

And the executive replies, “Don’t they teach you anything at that fancy Ivy League school?  We will track their purchases with plastic.  Plastic is the answer to all our problems.”

And the intern, stinging, asks, “But what will you call this piece of plastic?”

And the executive leans back in his chair, and laces his hands behind his head, and looks out the large window of his corner office at a brilliant Manhattan sunset, and exhales through his nose.  “We will call it a ‘rewards card,’” he says, “so that the customers think they are being rewarded.”

I remember that supermarkets were the first to offer rewards cards.  Then electronic stores climbed aboard.  Then liquor stores.  Then Panera.  Funeral homes will probably be next, offering a rewards card that can be affixed to a toe.

My wallet is thick enough to give me back problems solely because of rewards cards.  And most of my rewards cards are in my sock drawer.  I keep them there so that no one will steal them and get discounts under my name.  Unfortunately, this arrangement carries the risk that I will go to a store without its rewards card.

There is nothing more devastating than shopping at a store and waiting on the check out line and getting to the cashier and getting excited because the next time you walk through the doors of your home will be with a 36-pack of Coors Light and two boxes of Yodels, and then realizing you left your rewards card next to the argyles.  I was involved in one such incident.

“Sir, do you have a rewards card?” asks the cashier, who looks like the guitarist from Phish.

“Oh, uh, yes,” I say, making a show of looking for the card.  “Yes, I think it’s here somewhere.  I know I’ve got one…” I’m expecting him to say, “Oh that’s all right,” and just swipe the “cashier’s” rewards card that should be attached to the scanner by a piece of twine.  But it’s not there, and he’s not saying anything.  And the people behind me are getting impatient.

A woman offers her card.  “Oh, no,” I say, wondering how much protest is appropriate before I save three dollars under the name of this kind stranger.  I even put up one hand while using the other hand to fish around in a pocket I know is empty.

“No, really,” she says, “It’s all – “

“Well, okay,” I say.  The woman offers her card to the cashier.

“Um,” says the cashier, “I’m really not supposed to do this.”

I’m an adult buying Puffins and getting red tape from someone who probably takes cigarette breaks to watch Lord of the Rings on his cell phone. He repeats that he’s “not supposed to do this” and, after some pleading from everyone on the line and my sworn affidavit that I’ll never do it again, he lets me use the kind woman’s rewards card.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I cared about the discount that much.  Had coupons still been the dominant discount vehicle I would have paid top dollar for my Puffins without batting an eye.  Perhaps I’ve been wrong about these rewards cards.  Perhaps their purpose is not just to track the consuming practices of an unsuspecting public.

Perhaps rewards cards are meant to bring impatient strangers closer together.

Thanks to Jennifer Albright for the topic.

Remember When Memory Was Not the Hottest Topic Around?

Remember when memory was not the hottest topic around?

I do.

A few months ago I saw a segment on 60 Minutes about people who remember the details of every day of their lives, such as what they had for dinner and whether it was a night to put out the regular garbage or the paper garbage.  And yesterday I read a review of a book on the U.S. Memory Championship, where mental athletes compete to see who can recite the most digits of pi and the most items off of the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

The whole world knows about these people and their high-powered memories. But what the world probably does not know is that I was the memory champion of my college fraternity. The primary data I had to recall was which actors had been in movies with Kevin Bacon, and where certain brothers were last seen wearing pants. But there was one incident where my mnemonic powers came in especially handy.

It was believed at that time that one of the best ways to extend the warm embrace of brotherhood was to make the pledges get the brothers food from the dining hall. At college, food was purchased with cards instead of cash to train us for life in the real world. And it came to pass that one day during my pledge term, one of the brothers handed me his ID card with an instruction to toilet paper the dining hall and then bring back a turkey club.

In those days the students’ social security numbers were written their ID cards, something that now sounds like my parents telling me about the days when no one locked their doors. On the walk to the dining hall I memorized the brother’s social security number. Like a modern memory champ, I used the expert technique of rubbing my temples and imagining the digits involved in lewd acts with other ASCII characters. By the time I had returned with the sandwich, I knew that brother’s social security number better than I knew the casts of JFK and Flatliners.

It was nearing the end of the semester and was time to register for the next round of classes to sleep through. Registration was easy; it was all done by computer. And to make sure that students signed up for only their own classes, a social security number was required. In a stunning display of perfect recall, I used Brother Turkey Club’s social security number to sign him up for a series of classes that I thought he would find interesting. It was always possible to go back into the system and change the classes, and so the prank would come to its hilarious denouement when the brother signed in to the system to sign up for his classes.

My anticipated punchline, however, had been based upon the assumption that Brother Turkey Club would remember to sign up for classes. That assumption turned out to be wrong. A week into the following semseter, when I was a brother myself and could send my own pledges for turkey clubs, even though I did not care for turkey clubs, I overheard the victim of my prank talking about how he was stuck taking organic chemistry, advanced Hebrew, and a seminar on gender issues and amphibians. Word soon got out—as it usually does when alochol is mixed with speech—that I had been the mystery registrar, and how I had performed my feat. The brotherhood was impressed. I still get requests to recite that brother’s social security number, and the numbers roll off my tongue as easy as pi.

I am still waiting for a call from 60 Minutes.

Remember Your First Answering Machine?

Remember your first answering machine?

I do.

In the days when I was still watching new episodes of Thundercats, if someone called and no one was home, or if someone was home but was in the shower and did not hear the phone ring, or if they did hear it ring but were afraid of getting electrocuted by picking up the phone with a wet hand, then the phone just rang and rang until the caller got tired of hearing the phone ring and went off to do something more productive with his or her life.

Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine what it was like not being able to record a message with your voice on it. Imagine the inconvenience. Imagine the missed opportunities. Imagine the bliss.

Answering machines were marketed upon the assumption that you wanted to receive telephone calls. But not all calls are wanted. If you don’t pick up your phone and the caller leaves a message, you have no recourse. When you don’t return the call or do what was asked, the caller can say, “Well, what you mean you didn’t return the 500 fake birds and tree branches we ordered for my baby shower? I left you a message.”  You can run, but you can’t hide.

Before answering machines, however, you could let the phone ring, and ring and ring and ring, and with each ring sense that the caller was getting tired, like a boxer hanging against the ropes in the tenth round, and would eventually go away. And when the phone stopped ringing, that was it. You could continue watching the Flintstones Meet the Jetsons or whatever, safely insulated from any constructive knowledge that you were supposed to call someone back or perhaps even do something for someone.

And then one day it all ended. They invented these machines upon which you would record a message.  I remember my band director’s answering machine played a steel drum band version of the theme from “Peanuts” that I heard about fifteen times when I tried to tell him that I was going to miss the Memorial Day parade because my cat was stuck behind the dryer.

My father’s greeting was robot-style. “I can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave your name, tel-e-phone number, and brief mes-sage after the tone. Here is the tone.” And true to his word there would be a tone.

My grandparents called leaving messages “talking into the machine” and they would shout into it as if the answering machine was hard of hearing, just like all of their neighbors at Westwood 21 in Ft. Lauderdale.

People today are so used to leaving messages that they speak onto the digital medium just as if they were talking to me in person. That is why I have no trouble ignoring them.

Thanks to Maria for the topic. She does a great treatment of it here.