eight seconds

blogging, funny, true, Yakima 1 Comment »

When I was in sixth grade, one of the crazes in that myopic little world was for everyone in the class to have a small stuffed Garfield doll.  Guys had them, girls had them, everybody had them.  We didn’t play with them, per se, the thing was just to have one in your desk.  Incidentally, my mom told me a few months ago that with the release of the new Garfield movie, the little stuffed dolls were becoming a craze with kids again, thirty years later.   I never saw THAT one coming.

A more universal craze of the time was the Rubik’s Cube, a maddening brain teaser of a toy that took the country, and indeed the world, by storm when it was released in 1980.  You know, one of these:

I was hooked on it too, and even bought a book on how to solve it.  You start by solving one side, then another, and it all sort of comes into place that way.  The book was full of these arcane strings of formulas with acronyms like, “F L U2 R2”, which stand for Front, Left, Upper 2, Right 2, etc.  Some people just gave in and pulled their cubes apart in order to ‘solve’ them, and some people pulled the stickers off and moved them into place, which I think would be a prohibitive amount of work, and it would make the stickers look crappy once they were back on.  But I digress.

I learned to solve the Cube in record speed.  When they would have national competitions on TV, like this one, from the show That’s Incredible. . .

. . .I would always beat them ‘by a large margin’, as my brother used to say.  I wondered how they got to be on TV and everything, when it took them an eternity—like forty-five seconds!—to solve it.  My hat’s off to you if you sat through that entire piece of crap video, by the way.  The episode of the show is staggeringly boring, and the video ends before we even get to find out who wins the contest.  What a letdown!

The world record for solving the Cube was seven seconds, and I could only whittle my time down to around eight.  When I was in New Hampshire visiting my grandparents, one of their neighbors, upon meeting the eleven-year-old me, handed over his scrambled Rubik’s Cube and said, “If you can solve this, you’re a better man than I am.”  Little did he know what he was in for.  I whipped it around and handed it back to him a few seconds later, completely solved.  He gave me a stunned look, and was actually a bit angry and petulant about the whole thing—although he tried to hide it—which I found hilarious.  I got the feeling he didn’t particularly care for kids, and he wanted to give me something to keep me occupied and out of the way of the adults.  I had my secret skill, however, which foiled his little plan.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was telling a friend about this story on the phone today and afterwards said, “This is probably a blog story.”

“It’s totally a blog story,” he replied.  “You should call it ‘Eight Seconds.’  You can start it like this.”  He lowered his voice in imitation of a melodramatic TV announcer.  “Eight seconds.  That’s not the length of time I can stay on a bull, or the amount of time before I have an orgasm, that’s how long it took me to solve the Rubik’s Cube.”

We both laughed, and then he had to get off the phone and return to work, as did I.  I liked his suggestion for the name, but I obviously took some liberty with (i.e., completely disregarded) his other suggestions.

In the interest of even more disclosure (is that possible, after proclaiming the last disclosure ‘full’?), unlike my skill at playing Ms. Pac-Man, which hasn’t ever really dwindled over the intervening decades, my ability to solve the Cube has completely evaporated.  Sad, I know, but it’s the kind of skill you have to use, or else you lose.  I might still have my old Cube in a box somewhere at one of my parents’ houses.  Amazing how little of that childhood stuff actually survived, and also amazing are the things we adults WISH had survived.  My brother and I do still have a bunch of our original Star Wars action figures, and my little Yoda one is the mascot for my recording projects, to remind me and the people working with me, “Do, or do not; there is no ‘try.’ ”  More than anything, I wish I had my collection of toy cars.  I have a couple of them, but most of them got given away, or lost, or given to Goodwill, or just. . .vanished.  I also wish I had my collection of cassettes from childhood through high school.  My brother and I made tons of cassettes in which we acted out skits, or made up songs, or just recorded ourselves talking and playing with our friends, being our dorky selves.  Those are my favorites.  I still have a couple of them, but we made tons, and they don’t seem to have survived.  The ones that have survived are worthy of their own separate blog entries.

By way of the television industry calls a ‘teaser,’ I’ll tell you that my favorite of the tapes, which has been safely stored away from almost thirty years until I recently copied it onto my computer and digitized the audio, is entitled, “One in a Million,” and it’s quite possibly the best thing ever.  If my brother will agree to it, I’ll write the story out and post the audio on here.  If he doesn’t, then I’ll have to just tell the story minus the audio, which will still be entertaining.

There is more to come.

twelve

music, sad, true, Yakima No Comments »

I had a strange memory the other day, which prompted me to tell this entire long story to a friend. It’s complicated, and a bit sad (not a bit beautiful or funny, but at least it’s true), but it’s important enough that I feel it bears repeating here.

The incident in question happened when I was twelve years old, in seventh grade. I was a band geek even back then, and I’m happy to report that that hasn’t changed one bit. I was an extremely shy person, and on the rare occasions that anyone noticed me, it was usually to make fun of me, so I learned very quickly how to fly low, under everyone’s radar. That’s not a skill one tends to forget, and I still find myself using it to this day. I’m extremely good at not being seen.

Seventh grade is when a lot of changes occur at the same time, the most notable of which is puberty. Suddenly, things that used to be no big deal become overburdened with melodrama. As it happens, there was a girl who had a bit of a crush on me, and she made her intentions known on a band trip. This is not a “one time, at band camp” story, as you’ll see soon enough, but the fact that it happened on a trip is significant, since when people travel, the usual social rules are loosened a bit, and we’re more open to new experiences, which is what makes traveling so much fun. We’re freed of other peoples’ notions and stigmas, and we’re free to reinvent ourselves or try out new personas, if only temporarily. It can be very liberating.

So anyway, back to the girl, who I’ll call ‘Z’ for the purposes of this story. She invited me to sit next to her on the bus, which is the middle-school equivalent of someone sidling up and buying you a drink at a bar when you’re an adult. I’m not stupid; I jumped at the chance and plopped myself down next to her. If memory serves (and occasionally it does), the trip was between Yakima and Seattle, which is three hours if done by normal modes of transportation, but it’s more like four if it’s done by school bus. We settled in and started talking.

My friend Dave, a trumpet player, sat in the seat ahead of ours and turned around the entire time to talk to me and keep an eye on the situation he thought might develop in front of him. He wasn’t going to miss an opportunity for juicy gossip. Since it was early evening when we left Yakima, it was getting a bit late, and Z started to get a bit sleepy, so she nodded off. It was probably around ten o’clock at this point, and we were still a fair distance from Seattle. The fact that Z fell asleep with her head on my shoulder did not go unnoticed by Dave.

The next day, we all piled into the bus to drive from our hotel to downtown Seattle. I seem to recall riding on one of the ferries, but I can’t remember why we would have done that (since all of Seattle’s ferries go between the surrounding islands, and I seem to recall that our destination was Seattle itself) or what the circumstances for that would have been. I also recall going to Pike Place Market on the trip, but that’s right near where the ferry terminal is, so that’s not a surprise, but the fact that we were on the bus again is important. I decided to sit next to Dave this time, but we sat in front of Z and both turned around to talk to her. At some point, she said something to me like, “Sorry I fell asleep, but I was SO tired. Did I have my head on your shoulder?”

Dave couldn’t help but interject, very loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear him. “Yeah, you did, and as soon as you fell asleep, he had his hands running all up and down your body!” That didn’t happen; Dave said it as a joke to tease me. I was mortified, and gave him a look that I thought signified my shock and disbelief, but I also was so shy that I was unable to say that it was untrue, so everyone started clapping and cheering. I was stunned, and Z laughed nervously, but I had no idea how big the consequences of that one little statement would be. It seemed to take the wind out of Z’s sails a bit, and she kept her distance from me for the rest of the trip. I was too young and clueless to realize how much Dave’s comment had spooked her.

Fast forward five or six years, to when we were all juniors in high school. Dave and I weren’t close friends anymore, not because of the incident with Z, but because sometimes school friendships wax and wane, and ours had only lasted about a year before it waned. Each of us had gone our separate ways. I still considered Z a friend, though. We never dated or flirted or anything after the Seattle trip, but I still considered her a friend. I had no idea what she thought until one day when she pulled me aside.

“Hey, remember that trip to Seattle?”

“Errr, yeah.”

“Did that really happen? What Dave said?”

I knew it didn’t happen, and I was still too young to take a conversation like that seriously, so I kinda blew her off. “What do you think? Of course not.”

She wasn’t convinced. “Really?”

I kinda laughed. “Yeah, really. I mean, you and I are friends.

Z still seemed unconvinced but didn’t know what else to say, so she dropped the subject. That was the last time I heard of it, or even thought about it, for six or seven years. Fast forward again. I was working at a video store in Yakima, when suddenly one of my college friends walked in, and Z was with her. It was a pleasant surprise, since I hadn’t seen her since we graduated from high school. We hugged each other and caught up on the intervening years, and then she said, “Hey, can you come outside for a second?”

“Sure.”

“Remember that time on the Seattle trip, on the bus?”

Here we go again, I thought. I can’t believe this is still coming up after all these years. “Yes, of course.”

“Did that happen?”

I was still, at the age of twenty-five, so clueless about these matters that I again blew her off. “No,” I smiled. “We’re friends.” I made a gesture with my hands, as if that was all the explanation that was necessary. “Did it happen?”

She was a bit dumbstruck by this turn of the conversation. “Uh. . .no—?”

“Okay, then,” I said, and we walked back into the video store.

To my eternal discredit, I didn’t have the ability to just say that it didn’t happen, that I would never do that (particularly to someone I considered a friend), and that I was twelve years old, so A) running my hands all over someone’s body while they slept wasn’t something that would have occurred—either then or now—to me, and B) I didn’t have the courage or the perspicacity at the time to refute Dave’s ridiculous comment. I just wanted the uncomfortable conversations with Z to be over, and I had no way of appreciating just how brave she was for stepping up and confronting me about it all. I responded dismissively to her, both times, in exactly the same ways that an actual abuser would have done. I didn’t intentionally do that, of course, but it must have seemed to her that I did. It’s a shame that she had to go through so many years thinking that such a horrible event really happened.

Why am I telling this story now?

I’m not sure, exactly. What I can say is that I remembered all of this the other day and shared it with my friend, who was saddened by it, which made me feel compelled to set the record straight with Z. I don’t know how to get in touch with her (or if I even should), or if we have any SocialNetwork friends in common or anything like that, but I want to apologize to her for my part in what amounts to a practical joke that Dave played on both of us. I want to tell Z that this incident REALLY never happened, and all the various reasons WHY it never happened, and that I wish I could give her back all of the time she’s had to spend thinking about it.

She handled all of it remarkably well. I did not, and there’s a part of me that will never quite be able to forgive myself for that.

the cloths of heaven

funny, music, Yakima No Comments »

When I was in high school, one of my friends had a reputation for being a prankster. Sometimes I found myself guilty by association, and sometimes I was an actual accomplice. He went through a phase during which he liked to find pictures of nude or scantily clad women and post them in friends’ lockers or Pee-Chee folders, so that when the person would open the folder, he’d have a little surprise waiting for him.

He actually got in a bit of trouble when he did that to a girl in our choir. The girl had red hair, you see, and so did the girl in the picture, and the picture was exceptionally lewd, so the girl reported my friend to the teacher. By way of a reprimand, the teacher famously told him, “Now, I like to look at a Playboy every now and then—“, which still makes us laugh, even all these years later. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, my friend thinks that was a cruel thing to have done to the girl, and if he could do things differently, he would. He also has daughters now, and that tends to make people grow up real quick, as well as to make them much more sympathetic to the tribulations that girls often experience in school.

Back then, however, the picture prank was something he did somewhat regularly. Once, he went to the library and found a National Geographic magazine with a story about Tahiti, which was full of half-naked women, so he pulled out a page and kept it for his own nefarious purposes. We sat next to each other in choir class, which meant that we shared a music folder. On that fateful day, when we sang the song “The Cloths of Heaven,” I opened the music and found the picture of a half-naked Tahitian woman. Ha ha. Then, when we finished the song, we put the music and the picture back into the folder, never to be looked at again, since the two of us learned and memorized music faster than most people. I only mention that fact because it’s apropos to the story. We had the song memorized from that day on, so we didn’t use the music anymore.

Three or four months later, our choir drove to a college an hour or so away, in order to participate in a somewhat prestigious regional music festival. I don’t remember much about the trip, to be quite honest with you (it’s been almost twenty-five years now), but I do remember that we did well enough during the afternoon performance to qualify for the finals later that evening, and one of the songs we performed was “The Cloths of Heaven.” At some point between the afternoon show and the finals, a couple of people came up to my friend and me, saying, “That wasn’t funny, you guys,” or, “Not cool.” We were mystified, and had no idea what they were referring to.

That night at the finals, it was our choir’s turn to take the stage. We filed onto the risers in our robes and awaited the announcer, who walked out a moment later. “Interesting story about this next choir,” the announcer told the audience of several hundred. He explained to them that the judges got quite a shock when they opened the music for “The Cloths of Heaven” and found a picture of a half-naked Tahitian woman inside. Our choir director was unaware that this had happened, but he had no doubt about who was to blame for this disgrace. He glared furiously at the two of us as we realized what had happened and tried unsuccessfully to suppress our giggles. Our surprised choirmates turned to each other, saying, “Who did that?” and others turned to us and asked, “Was it you guys?” as the entire audience erupted into laughter.

Our director was really angry, and after our performance he pulled my friend and me aside into a rehearsal room. He was convinced that we had done it on purpose, to prank the festival. We had to explain to him that no, this was just a private thing, and that we hadn’t used the music for months. We’d long since forgotten about the Tahitian. Out of the seventy numbered music folders our choir used, each one of which contained one or two copies of “The Cloths of Heaven” (our folder had two, one for each of us), the teacher’s aide had unluckily grabbed OUR numbered folder, and THAT copy, to turn in to the judges. I don’t think the director believed us at first, but eventually he had to admit that the circumstances were pretty funny, and we got off with a Well, Don’t Do It Again.

Oh, and our choir won the competition, by the way, so there you go. Apparently, sex sells.

homemade Pac-Man

funny, pictures, true, Yakima No Comments »

In the early 1980’s, the longest-lasting and most revolutionary new product was not the Rubik’s Cube, the tiny stuffed Garfield doll, or even MTV—it was the personal computer that would go on to change the world.  A closely related product that was also created around that time was the video arcade game. Home video games, like the Atari 2600, or even the quaintly archaic Pong, had existed for a number of years by then, but video arcades were a new and exciting phenomenon. Pinball was for old people; video games were for us kids.

The grocery stores near our house both had a couple games each, but the nearest serious video game parlors were Pizza World (which at the time of this entry is the current location of El Portón, an excellent Mexican restaurant) and Nob Hill Lanes, a bowling alley with a smaller but more unusual lineup of games, including a 2-player Ms. Pac-Man console, which was—and still remains—my all-time favorite video game.

I loved Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man so much that I bought the ‘strategy guide’ books about how to beat the games.  I even carried my little red portable cassette recorder to the arcade with me and recorded myself playing the games.  I took the tapes home and listened to them in headphones, imagining how the game play went, and trying to re-enact it in my little mind’s eye.

One day, we got a new refrigerator, and it came in a gigantic cardboard box. When it stood on end, it was the size of a video game, which gave me and my brother a brilliant idea: LET’S MAKE OUR OWN PAC-MAN MACHINE.  That’ll be great, we thought. Now, all our friends in the neighborhood won’t have to go to Pizza World or Nob Hill Lanes to play, they can just come to our front yard. And we’d be rolling in money!  Yakima wasn’t anything like Silicon Valley (either then OR now, quite frankly) and besides, I was ten and my brother was six, but at least we had imagination and determination.

The contraption we made is one of the things I really wish we taken at least one picture of.  It was absolutely ingenious, but surprisingly difficult to describe.  Follow me closely.  Here’s the type of original Pac-Man machine we were trying to emulate.

We stood the refrigerator box vertically, and then drew a Pac-Man maze screen in magic marker on the top half of the box. I think my brother drew the side panels, and we collaborated on the name plate that said, “PAC-MAN” on it. Directly underneath the ‘screen’, we placed a smaller cardboard apple box, which was for the joystick and coin slot. We cut a slot for people to insert quarters, and we sculpted a heap of clay into a joystick and plopped a golf ball on top of it.  Voila!

So now it looked good, but it didn’t do anything yet; we had to figure out how to bring it to life. We knew that one of us would have to be inside the box, but we struggled to come up with a workable solution. I think it was Mom who had the idea of using a box knife to cut a rectangular ‘track’ hole along a section of the maze we had drawn, and then we could stick a magic marker through the hole and tape a cardboard Pac-Man to the end of it to move him through the maze.  So that’s what we did.  The Pac-Man kept falling off the end of the pen, though, so it took a while to figure out how much electrical tape to stick him on with.  For the machine’s sound, I had all those cassettes I’d been making for weeks, so I put some batteries in the cassette player and brought it in the box with me.

We were ready to go.  We ran up and down the street, yelling, “Pac-Man!  Play Pac-Man!”  We cajoled everyone to give it a try, and somehow they all went along with it.  When someone put in a quarter, I would press the Play button on my tape recorder and the introductory song would play, followed by the sound of game play.  The person would grab the golf ball joystick and move it around as best they could, and I would move the marker with the Pac-Man on the end of it through the maze route, randomly.  Some people actually played this thing multiple times, but most realized right away that they weren’t actually able to control the Pac-Man at all, and that they’d spent the same amount as if they’d played the real game.  I think the box lasted only a few days, until the novelty wore off, both for us and for our friends.  But, like I said, I would dearly love to see a picture of that bizarre homemade contraption.

Since we’re on the subject of Pac-Man, once when my brother and I were at an arcade playing the game, a slightly younger kid we didn’t know (or maybe we did; I don’t quite remember) came up and said, very quickly and dramatically, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was this maze?  And there was all your favorite food and you just couldn’t resist?  And then you CHASE it?  And then when you get there, you EAT it?  That’d be awesome.”  My brother and I stifled our laughter and kinda said, “Sure, yeah. . .awesome—” and turned back to our game.

Portland has a ‘vintage’ arcade down in Old Town, and every once in a while, I like nothing better than to plunk a couple of quarters down and spend an hour or so in an attempt to get the new high score on Ms. Pac-Man, and occasionally I even get it.  You’ll know if I do, by the way, since I like to use the pseudonym Mr. T, so if you see ‘MRT’ on the high score list, that might very well be me.  Be all that as it may, I was very glad when that arcade opened, because that meant that all those skills I’d honed as a kid weren’t going to lie dormant anymore.  I would hate to think I wasted all that time on frivolous endeavors.  I can rest assured, though, because there’s still something to be said for hand-eye coordination, and running through a maze with your favorite food that you just can’t resist.

There’s also something to be said for the old video games from the ‘golden age’ of the early to mid-1980’s.  Despite their simplicity, they were captivating in a way that more modern games absolutely are not.  If you  haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing them, I urge you to arm yourself with a handful of quarters (most of these games, if they’re still around, still only cost a quarter to play, amazingly) and give some of them a try.  I know you’ll be glad you did.

finally, a bolus

funny, true, Yakima No Comments »

When I was a kid, even well into my teens, I didn’t like very many foods.  These days, I eat and enjoy pretty much anything from any part of the world, but it wasn’t always so.  Peas and cole slaw were my two least favorites.  The first grade school I went to had notoriously nasty peas.  I don’t know what they did to them, but I’ve never tasted anything like them either before or since.  It was a Catholic school (despite the fact that my family wasn’t Catholic; that’ll be a story for another day), and one of the nuns would stand over you and force you to finish everything on your plate.  It was nightmarish.

Ironically, the same school had one dish that was a hit with everyone, and we always looked forward to it when it came up on the menu.  It was called Hamburger Gravy Over Rice, and I’ve never seen that anywhere else either.  I somehow talked my mom into making it at home once, but it wasn’t the same.

I’ve grown to like peas, particularly the ones in the pods, but cole slaw still remains elusive to me.  The other day, my friend made some that was delicious, and that reminded me of a story that has become famous in our family.  Not long after Mom and Dad split up, when I was about ten, Dad took Brother and me to ColonelChicken for dinner.  We sat in the ‘terrarium’ room, with the fountain and leafy plants.  I ate my chicken and mashed potatoes, and even my biscuit, but I left the dreaded cup of cole slaw untouched on the table.  ColonelChicken’s was the worst.  Dad told me that we weren’t going to leave until I ate the entire thing.  I balked, and he got angry, so I picked at it and ate it as slowly as possible, washing it down with water as I did so.

The minutes ticked away, and Dad was getting irritated.  “Come on!” he yelled.  “You could eat that whole thing in one bite!”

“No I can’t,” I said, “I’ll gag.”

Do it,” he said sternly, wrinkling his forehead in the way that signified genuine anger.  “All in one bite.”

“Okay, but I’m gonna spit it out.  It’s so gross!”

“I don’t care.  Eat it.  Now!”

“Okay, but don’t be surprised by what happens.”

I dipped my spork into the cup until I had the entire contents resting on it.  I held my breath and slowly moved the spork to my mouth.  I had to breathe, eventually, and as soon as the smell hit my nostrils, I had to fight back my gag reflex.  Dad was still giving me The Look, so I had no choice but to ease the spork into my mouth.  It was the worst bite of anything that I’d ever tasted.  I chewed a little bit, but I could feel my gag reflex about to happen.  I reached for the water glass, but it was too late.  My body rebelled, and the disgusting bolus (I love the word ‘bolus’, and finally have the opportunity to use it!) exploded from my mouth all over the table and floor.  Dad was furious, and he grabbed a bunch of napkins and cleaned it all up.

“See?  I told you that would happen,” I said, unable to stop myself from laughing.  Dad couldn’t even look at me, he was so mad.  I sat in the chair and laughed as he mopped the floor.

That was the last time I ate the cole slaw at ColonelChicken, and quite possibly the last time Dad ever forced me to eat anything.  I guess he learned, albeit the hard way, that my warnings had merit.

These days, the tables have turned.  I got my mom to eat sushi for the first time two years ago, which is funny because she actually lived in Japan for a couple of years before I was born, but never tried sushi because she was afraid of it.  I told her that was hilarious.  “It’s good enough for them; good enough for you.”  She said that on the air force base, food would sit around for a while, sometimes, and if I’d ever smelled some of the things that were in storage, I’d be afraid of sushi too.  Fair enough.

As a bookend for this story, here is the secret recipe for the cole slaw in question.  I will pass, thank you very much, but please report back to me if you actually make it and enjoy it.