Remember When You Didn’t Have to Swerve Around People on Bicycles?

I was coming home from the gym and hoping I didn’t get pulled over for driving while wheezing.  As I was coming around a bend and searching with one blind hand for my “coming home triumphant” mix compact disc, there on the right side of the road, yellow shirt aglow in the late summer twilight, was a man on a bicycle.  This guy had the whole get-up.  The helmet.  The shirt.  The shorts.  The shoes with the metal cleats.  The little dentist’s mirror shooting out the left side of his helmet.  The water bottle lashed against the powerful crossbar of the bicycle’s finely tuned structure.

I’ve always prided myself on being a friend to cyclists everywhere.  So it was not a problem for me to drive 15 miles per hour behind the cyclist for the next few legs of our journey to give him plenty of road to enjoy his ride.  I didn’t care about the line of cars behind me.  Sharing the road means making sacrifices.

After a few miles I noticed through the honking that the cyclist was waving his hand at me in a circular motion, almost as if he wanted me to pass him.  I thought he was just commending my respect for his bike riding, and I went on thinking this until the cyclist side-armed his water bottle at my car, and turned off into the adjacent wood.  While I was in the body shop getting an estimate on the damage caused by the impact of a hurtling polyethylene projectile holding 24 oz. of water, I meditated upon the natural end of the war of the roads.     

The cyclists, with their pro-environment image and greater amounts of sweat, will gain a greater and greater portion of the road.  Eventually they will win their own stage of the traffic light-changing.  At four-way intersections, the traffic signals will go through a whole cycle of green/yellow/red for the cyclists, while the cars must all stay at a complete stop, their operators presumably spending the time wisely by searching around for something in their cars.

The car owners, relegated to a smaller and smaller portion of the road, will become agitated and allow the interiors of their cars to become even more cluttered.  The car owners organize, and begin a series of attacks on the well-being of cyclists.  They publish reports of favorable biking weather when the report is really for a hurricane.  They go to sporting goods stores and mix up all the water bottles, so that bottles without BPA intermingle with bottles that have questionable amounts of BPA.  They follow cyclists at a slow pace when there is plenty of passing room.

The cyclists do not take this treatment sitting down.  They organize as well, and begin attacking the well-being of the car owners.  They start giving misleading hand signals.  They start wearing more biking accessories.  They start riding really slowly on narrow roads.

At some point the tension boils over and the two groups meet at a battlefield, like Gettysburg, or the Somme, or the parking lot at Best Buy.  The cyclists and car owners line up at opposite ends of the field, and their leaders meet in the middle.  The leaders of the cyclists cycle up, take a sip of water from their polyethylene bottles, and remove their helmets.  The leaders of the car owners drive up, do a few three-point turns so that they’re all parked at the same angle, and stare ahead at the leaders of the cyclists, while a blind hand goes looking around for things inside their cars.

The leaders agree that it is in everyone’s best interest to resolve the dispute peacefully.  The solution is the carcycle.  The carcycle has the body of a car but instead of an engine, there are pedals connected to the axles.  So you drive the carcycle just by pedaling.  The jokes about the Flintstones go away after a few months, and both cyclists and car owners adopt the carcycle as the preferred mode of travel.  

 And there is peace throughout the land, until the people who ride on those stand-up scooters start clamoring for their share of the road.

Remember When Playgrounds Were Dangerous?

The playgrounds of today do not look like the playgrounds that I played on, when I ran around with my jacket unzipped and in blissful ignorance of the fact that I would one day have more conversations with Time Warner Cable than with my parents.  Gone are the monkey bars, the jungle gyms, the pieces of metal welded together in the shape of something that was at the same time a slide and a medieval torture device.  No longer can children test their courage and their parents’ coronary strength by climbing to the summit of iron structures, where one slip would send a child pinballing down to an unforgiving concrete surface in an indifferent universe.

Playgrounds today are made of single pieces of plastic, their summits so low that children can eat on them without having to sit on telephone books—not that there are any telephone books left to sit on.  The concrete ground has been supplanted by rubber foam, and the swings are allowed a maximum swing of five degrees in either direction, and even that much requires clearance from air traffic control.

Look hard and you will see the city of wood and metal that once was there.  See the tiered wooden maze with splinters and exposed nails.  Run your hand over the rubber ground, and you will feel the sea of pebbles that once washed over Velcro sneakers, and drove little rocks into the soles of little feet as those feet dropped from the monkey bars.  Sniff the air, and you will smell the charred pieces of wood that littered the playground, with which the children would draw pictures of bison and of teachers they despised, just like their ancestors did on cave walls some 40,000 years ago.

And along the perimeter of the southeastern quadrant lay a line of giant rubber tires, each one the width of three children, or one and a half of the children we have today.  The tires had been implanted into the pebbled earth on their sides, forming a tunnel that the children could crawl through, and catch their Champion sweatshirts and scratch their rosy cheeks on the wires that protruded from the tires as a testament to the thousands of miles that those tires had traveled before being retired to the playground where they could bring joy to all children.

Crawl through that tunnel of tires.  You are led to a three-story rusty metal cylinder in the shape of  rocket.  Children climb up to the top of it with only cold metal rungs to keep them from falling to death or paralysis.  At the top of the rocket there is the opening to another tunnel.  This tunnel is horizontal and is made of the same wooden planks as the charred and splintery maze.  In that tunnel three stories above the world, a boy can meditate on what it means to be young, and dream of one day having a television in his room.

Listen!  Hear the cries of a child who slipped off a giant metal sea horse placed on a spring.  The child split his lip when he hit the pebbles, and he leaves a trail of blood as he is led to the nurse’s office.  The other children observe a moment of silence out of respect for their fallen comrade, and after that moment go back to their wanton cruelty.

Here, in this playground whose spirit will not leave, is where blood was spilled and teeth were lost, knees scraped and ankles sprained, skin pierced and lockjaw contracted.  And where heroes were born.

Remember Being 13 and Drunk?

My wife and I were dining at a popular Italian restaurant the other night.  As I worked through my third bowl of salad, I learned from my wife, who in college had minored in eavesdropping, that the girl in the booth next to us was 13 years old, and had accidentally been served an alcoholic beverage.  She was with her mother, who was standing up and looking around as if waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  The girl was fanning herself and looking like she wished she hadn’t said anything.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be 13 years old and consume an alcoholic beverage.  I became Bar Mitzvah at 13, and after the ceremony one my peers became inebriated by consuming several of the plastic thimbles that the congregation used to sanctify the Sabbath.  He spent the next few hours pretending he was a helicopter.  I think he does something with computers now.

The mother at the Italian restaurant, however, was clearly not at any Bar Mitzvah.  Eventually someone came and talked to her, a manager-type dressed in plainclothes and who looked like she was in the position to authorize free meals.  She looked to be about 25 years old.  She spoke to the mother while the teenage daughter fanned herself and tried to piece her life back together after a few sips of a weak strawberry mojito.  After a few minutes the manager left, and I figured that the woman would probably get a free meal out of the deal.  Good for her, I thought, as I signaled for another strawberry mojito.

Then another manager came and talked to the woman and her drunk daughter.  “Probably trying to get a dessert to go out of this, too,” I mused as the front-end loader lowered my entrée onto the table.

I was absorbed in stuffing my face for a few minutes, and forgot about the underage drinking at the adjacent booth.  But when I came up for air from my lasagna-cum-linguine alfredo-cum-chicken parmigiana, I saw that the mother and her daughter were still there, and that the mother had moved over to her daughter’s side of the booth, so that both were facing in my direction.  I was a little surprised they were still there, since at this point the girl must have been sober enough to drive.

Then the first manager came back and spoke with the mother for some time, and then the mother and her daughter got up and I figured, “Okay, that’s really it then.  The manager was just making sure the girl was sober and did not sustain the kind of damages that would lead to diminution in future earning capacity.”

Then a police offer walked through the front door.  And then another police officer.  I couldn’t see what the officers were doing, but I imagined it was not choosing two of the four listed sides on the menu.

I didn’t see the ambulance pull up in front of the restaurant, but we passed it on our way to the parking lot.  As we walked by, the back doors of the ambulance opened and the mother, her daughter, and a man with a button down shirt and a clipboard alighted.  I took the man to be a doctor or perhaps an adjuster from the insurance company.

My eyes locked with the mother’s eyes for a moment.  In that moment I tried to communicate all my respect for a parent who was so concerned about her child that for even a few sips of alcohol arranged for two sheriffs and an ambulance.  I tried to tell her that she was the embodiment of the rugged individualism that made this country great.

And in return, her look said to me, “Go eat your salad.”  Only not in those words.

Remember When You Could See Around Most Vehicles?

We’d come to the end of another Saturday lunch at P.F. Chang’s, and I was chewing gum so that if I got pulled over at a police checkpoint my breath wouldn’t smell like gluten-free ginger chicken with broccoli.  I turned the ignition, adjusted the rearview mirror, released the emergency brake, popped in my “Drive Time Gaelic” compact disc, and put the car in reverse.  And then I realized I couldn’t see to my left because we were flanked by a van that had plunged my gluten-free sedan into night.

“How am I supposed to see around this thing?” I asked my wife who was gazing into a compact mirror by the light of her smartphone.  The van had a sticker on the rear right passenger bay window.  It said, “I brake for large objects.”

Then I remembered a scene from the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan.  I asked my wife for her compact mirror.  Then I took the gum out of my mouth and stuck it to the back of mirror.  I affixed the mirror and gum to the snow scraper that had been lying idle on the floor of the backseat, opened my window, and stuck the whole apparatus out and angled the mirror so that I could see around the van.  It was the most use the scraper got all season.

“I think I can pull out after this Honda and Panzer tank,” I said.

“Okay, Field Marshal.  But you’re buying me a new mirror.”

I got pretty handy with the scraper-scope.  Any time I needed to see around a Suburban or Avalanche or Hummer, I just stuck the scope out the window and ignored the birds that came to perch.  Sure there were stares from passerby, and even a few inquiries from police officers who wanted to know which facility I’d escaped from.  But soon everyone recognized me, like you recognize that guy who drives around with a flag on his antenna that says, “Make Lemon Bars, Not War.”

Then one day I noticed other people with scraper-scopes.  Except they didn’t all use scrapers and compact mirrors.  Some used dentist’s mirrors.  Others used shaving mirrors with metal accordion extenders.  I even saw someone who had trained his dog to stick its head out the window, carrying in its mouth a long bone that had been wrapped in reflective foil.  We the oppressed…we the downtrodden…we the great unwashed masses of coupe-, sedan-, smart-, and zip-car drivers were united in our quest to behold the other side of sport utility vehicles.  When we passed on the highway we would waive to each other with our scopes.

It was another Saturday afternoon and I was in my car, savoring the interplay of the gluten-free “Buddha’s Feast” with the flourless chocolate dome.  As usual my car was in eternal night thanks to a Dodge Durango and a minivan with seven gables.  I stuck out my scraper-scope, angled it to see what I could see, and just happened to focus the mirror on the mirror of another scope sticking out of a Civic three spaces down.  The two mirrors instantly produced an infinite number of smaller and smaller reflections inside each other, ending in a point of light so blazing that I was unable to see for a few moments.

And when the purple splotches finally cleared from my vision, there was nothing left of the compact mirror but some smoldering dust.

“Well, that’s it,” I said to my wife.  “That was our only hope of getting out of here.  Now we’ll have to wait until our sun becomes a super nova and swallows up all the SUVs on Earth.”  I started looking for something good on the radio.

“Is that all?” she asked me.

I thought for a few seconds.

“Or I guess I could always back out slowly.”

Remember When You Didn’t Have to Worry About Identity Theft?

Note:  It was exactly one year ago that I came up with the idea of starting a blog where each post would begin “Remember When” and would discuss another technological change, pop culture death, or safety scheme by which I chart my age, much like the rings of a tree.  Metaphysics tells us that time is an illusion.  If that’s true, than it is one of the funnier illusions out there.  I hope that my meager efforts here have at least pointed that out, and I sincerely thank everyone who has been patient enough to read these efforts, and those kind enough to say something nice.

The 21st Century has midwifed a number of routines into my life.  There is the routine for organizing my garbage into categories of biodegradability.  And there is a routine for corralling the power cords and chargers into a pile that can be seen from space.  But the routine that has had the greatest effect on my life is the routine of annihilating each and every slip of printed material that contains my social security number, address, or name.

When I was first put on notice that “[t]hou shalt not steal,” I pictured thieves taking loaves of bread, or a misguided youth absconding with someone else’s bicycle, or a particular sibling eating another particular sibling’s Halloween candy without permission and shamelessly leaving a pile of wrappers underneath the sofa.  I never pictured crystal meth addicts diving through dumpsters in search of credit card statements and receipts.

But I picture it now.

My first shredder was advertised as being able to shred six sheets at a time.  It cost $25, fit neatly underneath my desk, and worked fine for about two days.  Then I tried to shred one of those credit card offers, around three inches thick, and the poor shredder seized up somewhere around the gummy adhesive for the fake card with “Your Name” on it.

The second shredder cost $50, was a stronger and shinier model, and was able to handle ten sheets at a time, plus credit cards, compact discs, and fresh mozzarella.  And it would have worked out fine had I been able to keep up with all the identity-theft worthy correspondence that arrived in my mailbox.  All I would have had to do was quit my job and spend sixteen hours a day shredding.  But life being what it is, I let the junk mail pile up beside the shredder, another pile among piles.

My wife, of course, got sick of seeing all of the paper piling up, and would just tear the pages in half and throw them in the trash along with the chicken bones.  Tearing the pages in half!  You may as well FedEx your identifying information directly to the identity thieves.  So I would find myself picking through the trash, like a cat, pulling out the halves of the documents with my name and scraping off congealed chicken grease.

Then I would take the stained halves of personal documents and put them in the shredder.  The first few pages would go through all right, and I would relax a bit, but then the congealed chicken grease would clog up the blades and the shredder would seize up with a mechanical cough.  The halves that I was shredding would protrude from the shredders locked-jaw like Steve Buscemi’s legs at the end of Fargo.

In addition, the halves and other documents that I did not get to place into the shredder are left in a pile, a pile that my wife later re-throws in the garbage, triggering another retrieval by yours truly, another ad hoc lecture by yours truly about the identity thieves lurking just outside the windows, and another trip by yours truly to the customer service line at Staples.

They say that third time’s a charm, and that is certainly true with respect to the shredders in my life.  Sure, shredder number three set me back $200, takes up half of the basement, and when in use makes the house shake and lights dim.  But it handles thirty sheets at a time, even those thick envelopes full of credit card offers and those airline promotions that look like real airline tickets to everyone except TSA workers.  The blades are titanium and are arranged in a criss-cross pattern that virtually pulverizes whatever I run through them, including the large electric bill I’ve been getting every month.

And the poor, poor identity thieves are left with nothing but a cloud of paper molecules…and whatever they can find on the Internet.

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 Car Headlights Weren’t Blinding?

Remember when car headlights were not blinding?

I do.

I have never held myself out as the greatest driver in the world. But I believe I am a very safe driver.  At least that’s what I tell my insurance agent.  As such, I know that headlights are very important.  I try to keep my night driving to a minimum, typically only when I have to go to the supermarket or the convenience store for toothpaste or something.

Also, having taken physics in high school and gotten like an 85, I know that the more light that is projected, the better one is able to see.  And be seen.

But at some point the headlights of the other cars become so strong that it actually becomes harder to see at night.  Have you seen some of the headlight that have lately?  The other night I was driving to the store for some Cheerios and suddenly my rearview mirror filled with a bright white light.  I pulled over the side of the road and waited for the Terminator to come through from the future and demand my clothes and car.  But it was in fact just another sport utility vehicle with fancy headlights.

How did mounting lighthouses onto the front of cars past safety tests?  Probably because the tests were done from only the perspective of the driver.  The engineers in their white coats did not do the tests from the perspective of bespectacled drivers on their way to get Cheerios in the dark of night.  Maybe they did not have enough money.

And so I try to avoid driving at night, not because of the dark, but because of the light.

Remember When Only Infants Had to Ride in Car Seats?

Remember when only infants had to ride in those specially-made car seats?

I do.

Actually, what I remember is riding in a car.  I have no memory of riding in a car seat.  That is because only infants had to ride in car seats.  By the time you were old enough to remember something so humiliating, you no longer had to do it.  Nature’s built-in protection.

Even the seat belt was an imposition.  In the back seat in some of the older cars the belts and buckles would get stuck in the crack, and you would rip that thin layer of skin that cover the base of your fingernails trying to extract the belts.  Your hands would be covered in crumbs and unidentifiable grime by the time the safety device was located.  And wearing the belt was uncomtable.  The lap belts cut into my abdomen, and the shoulder belts cut into my neck.  I didn’t know why we had to wear these uncomfortable belts.  We hardly ever got into accidents.

I heard that today the hospital staff will not let the parents take a baby home unless they verify that the parents have the appropriate car seat installed.  My parents took me home in a laundry basket.  This was during the energy crisis and they wanted to double up on errands – do load of laundry, pick up newborn.

Today, some states, like New York, require that an child ride in a car seat until age 8.  I distinctly remember being in the first grade, riding in the back seat of the car wearing jeans and one of those life preserver jackets Marty McFly wore in Back to the Future, and wanting to look cool by sitting with one foot up on the seat so that my bent knee was pointing straight up at the ceiling.  I would not have felt very cool doing this in a child car seat like the one pictured above.

But they say that the child car seats are necessary because kids, being smaller, can slip out from underneath the regular seat belts.  I guess kids today just aren’t eating enough.  If they were more obese they wouldn’t slip out.  Then they would look cool.

Remember When Playgrounds Were Not Made of Plastic?

Remember when playgrounds were not made entirely of plastic?

I do.

The playground at my elementary school was made of wood and metal and old tires.  It had a number of sections.  There was a multi-story maze made entirely of wooden planks.  Many of these planks were splintered and charred as if someone had tried to burn them.  The charred pieces that fell to the ground were good for writing with.

The designer of the playground had taken eight or ten large rubber tires – like monster-truck-size tires -cut them in half, and placed them in a row inside the playground so that a child could crawl underneath them like a tunnel.  You could also run on top of them and jump on passerby.

In the southeast quadrant stood a three-story rusty metal cylinder in the shape of  rocket.  Children could climb up to the top of it with only cold metal rungs to keep them from falling to death or paralysis.  At the top of the rocket there was the opening to another tunnel.  This one went horizontal and was made of the same wooden planks as the charred and splintery maze.  Sitting in that tunnel three stories above the world was the only moment of zen I knew in K through 5.  I don’t remember what the other end of the floating tunnel connected to.  Maybe nothing but a certain death.

You are probably imagining the playground as having a the stereotypical concrete floor.  But the designer was not that sadistic.  Instead, the playground was filled with millions upon millions of little beige pebbles.  These pebbles were supposed to make the playground soft to play on.  The pebbles felt especially soft when they got into your sneakers, and you dropped from the monkey bars, driving the pebbles upon impact into the soles of your feet.

That playground has since been torn down and replaced with a colorful playground made of plastic and resting on rubber.  No charred splinters of wood.  No rusty metal.  No stray nails.  No pebbles.  No tires.  I am sure that the kids are much safer when they play on it during the day.  And I am sure that their parents sleep much better at night.

But I wonder…had I spent my formative recesses on the safe and colorful playground instead of the dangerous splinter trap, would I still remember it today?

Remember When You Could Pass a Stopped School Bus?

Remember when you could pass a school bus that had stopped to pick up or drop off children?

I do.

Getting stuck behind a school bus was such a pain in the neck.  It would go so slow through the neighborhood.  Whenever I got stuck behind a bus, I would go, “Ugh!  I’m stuck behind a stupid bus!”  I would look for any opportunity to get around it.  The bus making a stop provided such an opportunity.

Then we started hearing about kids who got squashed because they ran out of the bus and crossed the street without looking both ways.  I remember being excited when I got off the school bus.  But looking both ways before you cross the street was one of those things they taught you early on.  When I heard these tragic stories I said to myself, “Well, they should have looked both ways.”

Obviously some people did not agree.  Because now school buses have a stop sign appended to their left side that swivels out whenever the bus makes a stop, cautioning drivers from both directions to stop until the bus moves away and retracts the sign.  If you get stuck behind a bus like that you’re going to be late to wherever you’re going.

I guess it’s safer this way.  I guess tragedies have been averted, and that is much more valuable than the time drivers lose by having to stop for stopped buses.

But I wonder if these kids grow up thinking that all buses come equipped with retractable stop signs?