Ah, the heady days of the early ’90s. Maury Povich strode the globe like a conquering god-king, and all fell at his feet in awestruck worship. Cropped sweaters and high-waisted jeans were all the rage, and, sometimes, even women got in on the action. In pop, C+C Music Factory was up and running three shifts a day, their forges and foundries cranking out unit after unit of high-quality, low-cost dance hits for the grateful masses. (Yes, on occasion the factory line did shut down, as in the famous incident in which workers went on strike when it was discovered that there were some people defying the order that “Everybody dance now!” After some tense negotiations, the union agreed to compromise on its insistence that everybody dance now, allowing the sick and infirm to be given a waiver, provided they promised to dance at some time in the future. With passage of the bipartisan Dance Act, the workers returned and the factory line was soon up and humming again.)
Several months back, I wrote about the shock and shame of encountering a new piece of home theater gear so complex that I was for the first time forced to remove the manual from its plastic bag and, worse, actually read it. Now, in a twist perhaps more ironic than that of Alanis Morissette discovering a black fly in her chardonnay, I find I must actually write a manual.
A recent Internet meme featured a goofy song set to clips from an obscure mid-’70s wilderness “epic” called Buffalo Rider. I watched the whole film and can tell you the title is not a euphemism (thank the heavens); it’s a 19th century period piece about a guy who tames and rides a buffalo (technically the American bison, but American Bison Rider makes for a terrible title). Well, truth is, he kind of tames the buffalo—mostly the poor brute ambles about trying to scrape its rider off on low tree branches, angrily chases after bears, and generally goes about as he wishes and looks decidedly untamed, save for the fact that there’s a guy on his back.
Some people, after purchasing, say, a perfectly serviceable purebred Norfolk terrier feel that on its own, the animal is lacking and needs improvement. So they tinker with it, fashioning a topknot using colorful red bows, or strapping two pairs of elegant spats onto its legs. On Halloween they might wrap up the poor thing in a homemade pumpkin costume and take it out on the town. (The technical term for these people is, I believe, “my Aunt Wilma.”)
The following shocking true story of how my old, forgotten stereo system saved my life contains themes of sex and violence. OK, not sex. And the violence is against birds, but once you get the whole story, I’m sure you’ll come to believe that they deserved even worse.
It used to be such a nice place to live, my house. A modest home in a neat, modest neighborhood with nice, quiet neighbors. And then they moved in. The crows.
In 1943, when Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower received the plans for Operation Overlord from Lieutenant-General Frederick E. Morgan, one thing about this massive, audacious, and immensely complicated scheme must have needled him more than any other. “Damn it, Fred, this thing’s not cordless?!” Alas, no. The invading army of D-Day depended upon tremendous quantities of fuel, and with German U-boats patrolling the Channel, they couldn’t risk shipping it over. Knowing this, the Allies concocted a brilliant solution: an 81-mile cord, or rather a pipeline under the ocean (it was code-named Pluto).
Although I’ve lived a fairly mundane existence, there are several points of mild interest: I was once nearly killed by wasps. I have met Jesse “The Body” Ventura on a number of occasions (I preferred the wasps, for what it’s worth). And I once ate nothing but bacon for 29 straight days. No, I didn’t eat much bacon—didn’t eat much of anything at all—but yes, everything I did eat was bacon. Still, despite these moderately fascinating midlights (highlights is too strong a word), people seem inordinately intrigued by what I consider a biographical detail of little to no importance, something I’ve mentioned in this column before: that is my having had no source of regular TV (i.e., cable, satellite, or over-the-air) for more than a decade. “Why? What happened?!” they say, with the same pitying tone they might ask, “Are you ill? Have you had some sort of brain trauma?” (For the record, I can’t account for every hour I’ve been alive, but no, none that I can remember.)
A few columns ago, I mused on what it must be like for an expert to have to face the staggering amount of misinformation floating around in his or her area of expertise. And yes, all I can do is muse, as the few times I’ve been in the company of experts, the mistake was discovered and I was soon escorted from the premises. Sure, I was acquainted with a woman who made a conscious decision to become the foremost expert on the origin and history of the Cornish pasty (true story). Sadly, throughout my life, this connection has not opened as many doors as you might imagine.
Something huge has recently transpired, something world changing. It happened almost without notice while we were all distracted by other things, but it represents a profound cultural shift. When purchasing a piece of electronic gear, it is now nearly impossible to avoid reading the damned manual.
Back before he started marrying his daughters, Woody Allen used to make funny films. In one of the better of them, 1977’s critically acclaimed Annie Hall, Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is standing in line for a film while the guy behind him pontificates loudly on various things, among them influential scholar Marshall McLuhan. Singer challenges him, and the man pompously reveals that he teaches a class on media at Columbia University. So Allen replies, “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here,” and retrieves him from behind a lobby card. McLuhan retorts, “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.”