Friday, February 29, 2008

Talk About a Big Head!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

When Jet Lag Leads to Pocket Snags and Eye Bags

One of the only things I don’t like about traveling abroad is the jet lag you experience upon arrival in a foreign country. (Not to mention the 2nd round you experience upon coming back home.) And while some people seem to recover rather easily from this type of system adjustment, I find that the older I get, the longer it takes to make the time zone switch.

When I was in London a few weeks ago, I found myself walking around in a fog for the first few days, which ironically had nothing to do with your typical English weather. It was bright and clear, but I was off somewhere, two steps behind everything that was happening in front of me.

Several days later, when I again made a slight time zone adjustment when traveling to Madrid, the lack of clarity brought about a rather unfortunate snatching of my iPod, which was conveniently stashed in my front coat pocket. Conveniently for the thief, that is, who managed to get the coat unzipped during a crowded subway ride. And even though I felt something happening, it still took a few seconds to register before I realized someone was going through my pockets. At that point, the subway door opened and the huge crowd surrounding me suddenly dissipated, leaving me feeling like I’d just missed something rather important.

It wasn’t until the next day that I figured out exactly what that was. My 80GB iPod, filled with music, pictures, movies and more. I was shocked, as I’d only put it in the zippered pocket several minutes before. The theft was a huge disappointment, as the iPod contained several walking tours of Madrid, which I’d planned to take over the next few days. My one consolation is knowing that whoever stole the iPod probably won’t like any of the content, as it mostly consists of horrible pop music and Disney musicals.

Nevertheless, my normally acute knowledge of my surroundings, educated during my twenty-year residency in New York City, had been severely dulled by my lack of sleep. Unfortunately it doesn’t dull the humiliation and sense of violation you feel as a result of falling victim to the pettiest of crimes—pick pocketing. Madrid is apparently notorious for gangs of “gypsies” who work in packs to infiltrate the belongings of the common tourist. (Or so my neighbor Ramona told me.) They target the weary traveler, who may be carrying several suitcases and packages, surrounding them on all sides with a tight grip. This makes it almost impossible for the traveler to move at all, and that’s when they make their move. But before anything can be checked, they are out of sight and onto the next victim.

That being said, you can just imagine for the rest of my vacation how differently I viewed things, and how overly diligent I might have been in my fight against “the gypsies.” I think I even scared a few people in Plaza Mayor when I inadvertently swung around and nearly hit them in the face, their bodies coming uncomfortably close to my zippered pockets. One girl even screamed, perhaps assuming that I might be one of the gypsies myself, my sudden outburst clearly indicative of a bad moral character.

Or perhaps she was horrified by the growing set of luggage under my eye region. Though I tried to catch up on my sleep, the typical bag under my eye had grown to enormous proportions, threatening to convert into a large steamer trunk if I didn’t do something fast. And even though I was finally beginning to feel like myself again, my face apparently hadn’t caught up with the process. It was still in London somewhere, perhaps searching for the next Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

I wish there was an easier way to make the transition from one continent to another. I also wish there was a cheaper way to travel. These days, the dollar is so bad, you can barely get out of McDonald’s in a foreign country without paying twenty dollars. (And that’s just for the Happy Meal.) So while I thoroughly enjoyed my time in London and Madrid, I’m afraid Europe is out of the question for a while. Not until somebody keeps our dollar bill from suffering the same kind of jet lag we suffer when traveling abroad. Because if the dollar ever began suffering from chronic jet lag, it would not be beneficial for anyone.

But that’s just me. How do you react to jet lag?

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Brilliance of the Broadway Bound “Billy Elliot”

Just got back from London for a quick trip with my friend Celia. While we were there, I decided to take in the British smash hit musical, “Billy Elliot” which is based on the critically acclaimed movie of the same name. It was my second time seeing the Elton John/Lee Hall musical, and I was equally impressed upon a second viewing. The brilliance of the book and score, which intermingles the tragic plight of poor mineworkers in a Northern England town with the artistic awakening of a young boy, makes for a very exciting and moving theatrical experience.

But what makes the experience even more fascinating is the unique casting process for the main character. For there is not just one “Billy Elliot” playing the role at any given time, but rather five different boys. So depending on what night you see the show, you might be seeing a slightly different performance. Because while each “Billy” is equally talented, his choreography and individual dance numbers are catered to that particular boy’s strengths, giving the audience a rare glimpse into the life of that particular boy. It also makes each performance unique and exciting, as the rest of the ensemble always has a new interpretation of the character to play off.

On the night I saw it, a black actor was playing Billy. There have also been Asian “Billys” and perhaps even Hispanic, but it matters not. The essence of Billy is in everyone, and by casting talent over authenticity, the producers are wisely capitalizing on the mass appeal this character has.

I believe the training process for the character is pretty long and fairly extensive as well. Potential “Billys” must go through a year or more of dance, vocal and acting lessons before they can even attempt to do the role. (Or some such rigorous timeframe.) And once you see the show, you can understand why. The role is demanding, both physically and emotionally, and the show would not succeed if the performer did not have incredibly strong acting, singing and dancing chops. And for someone so young to be able to perform such a feat is truly amazing. By the end of the show, you have fallen in love with Billy, his family, his dancing coach, and indeed the town itself, and you also leave the theater feeling energized by hope. The juxtaposition of this long-suffering town of mineworkers with Billy’s emergence as a naturally-gifted talent is an incredible piece of theater to experience, and there are moments in the play that will simply take your breath away.

So with that being said, I am both anxious and nervous for “Billy Elliot” to make its debut on Broadway this Fall. I have heard they may change it to appease the American sensibility, perhaps even moving the local from a British town to one in Pennsylvania. To me, this would be a mistake. The charm of the show is that we are viewing a way of life that is foreign to many of us anyway, and by Americanizing it, I think they change the story. I would hope that American theatergoers are not so superficial as to require major rewrites or different accents to make the show more accessible. It is what it is, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

So here’s hoping the Broadway Bound “Billy Elliot” brings as much joy to American audiences as it has to the London theater crowd for over two years now. It is simply Brilliant!
But that’s just me. What did you think of London’s “Billy Elliot”?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Leader of the Quack

Happy Valentine's Day, Everyone!

Scan Wars: A Case of Crazy at the Cash Register

Did you ever have a dream job that had nothing to do with reality? In other words, it wasn’t really an occupation you planned on pursuing, or in any way connected to your career path, but it just looked like a fun job to have.

When I was a kid, my dream job was to manage my own store. At the time, I wanted it to be a comic book store, or something to do with entertainment, but ultimately it didn’t really matter. As long as I had the ability to create the space, set up displays, design marketing materials, and run the cash register, I would be happy. But as there weren’t too many twelve-year-old entrepreneurs in my area, I had to settle for repurposing my bedroom to achieve my goal. And repurpose I did. I spent days setting up the bed, desk and other furniture so the room took on the look of a small convenience store. As people entered the room, they passed a counter that displayed current comic books and movie paraphernalia, as well as a copy of the latest store circular (All printed out by hand).

It didn’t matter to me that my parents were the only ones who ever visited the store; my active imagination dreamed of a day when I could expand beyond the confines of my rather limited accommodations. Perhaps even create a chain of bedroom-inspired boutiques.

Until that time, however, I would have to settle for continually redesigning and reorganizing the same10 x 10 space. My father was always fascinated with what he called my “knack for creating environments,” and even attempted to purchase several items during one of his visits. But this is where a real store and my version differed. I never wanted to actually sell anything I had on display; I just wanted it to look like I was selling items. Which really meant my room was more of a museum than a store, but why quibble?

Yet despite my bedroom’s continuing evolution as a non-commerce venue, the one key ingredient I always lacked was a cash register. And to be honest, the cash register was one of the main reasons I wanted a store. I’m not sure why, but I always found the buttons and noises and rings so fascinating. And even though it was nothing more than a glorified adding machine, there was something almost powerful about the person who got to operate it. (At least in my eyes.) They controlled the money. They controlled the transaction. They controlled the machine with all the bells and whistles.

Like many kids, I thought being a cashier would be a fun job. You got to “play” on the cash register all day, count out lots of money, and talk to all the customers. It seemed like such a cool and powerful position to have. And yet, all during my teenage years, I never had a job that allowed me to work behind a cash register. It wasn’t until college, when I worked at the school bookstore, that I actually had my turn behind the machine. Finally, my “right of passage” into the world of commerce and commercialism had been achieved. And yet after a few months of “living the dream,” I eventually realized my “cash register fantasies” were perhaps a little misplaced.

These days I no longer have the desire to be a cashier, though I sometimes have a slight relapse every time I go to a grocery store checkout. Especially if I get to use one of those self-serve checkout lanes, where you scan the products yourself. I don’t know why, but I love doing it. I love scanning the item, hearing it beep, and then sending the item down the conveyer belt to be packaged by the bag boy. (Which also happens to be me.)

Lately, I’ve even begun to notice a competitive streak that comes over me when I’m at one of these check-outs. As if I’m in some kind of race with the other self-serve lanes, trying to get my groceries down the conveyer belt and into the bags before anyone else. And if I happen to notice someone watching me while I’m scanning, I begin to do little tricks with the items as if I’m putting on some kind of show. (Pathetic, really, as I can’t imagine many people who would ever pay good money to see someone performing grocery acrobatics. Except maybe in Europe.)

But the really weird part comes when I notice a new customer pulling up to the check-out lanes and deciding which line they’re going to stand in. This is when I really feel the pressure to be the best scanner in the store. I begin to sweat as I see them watching me along with the other contestants…er, I mean customers. Which line will they choose? (Pick me, pick me. I’m the best.)

Are they noticing how I find each bar code quickly and run it through the scanner? Are they amazed when I can find a vegetable key code without the use of reading glasses? Are they thrilled when I don’t hold up the line further with a multitude of coupons I must try to stuff into the abnormally small coupon slot? Or are they wondering when the nice men in white coats are going to come and take me away? Whatever their thoughts might be, I get a ridiculous sense of satisfaction when they choose mine. How sad that my sense of self worth can now be measured by a scanner.

But that’s just me. What would your silly dream job be?

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Erratic Evolution of the Eye Exam

Before glasses became such a trendy accessory, many vain people (myself included) turned to contact lenses to create the illusion of perfect vision. By wearing contact lenses, your face was no longer separated into separate units by the presence of a plastic or wire frame. Of course, you had a lot of high maintenance with contacts, including the nightly ritual of cleaning them and soaking them for twelve hours in some kind of bubbly fluid. But since I hated wasting my time on the cleaning process, I usually skipped it in favor of almost anything else.

It’s a miracle my eyes never became infected because of the lack of care I gave my contact lenses. But once I hit 30 or so, I stopped worrying about looking like a geek, and began wearing my glasses on a regular basis. At least in business or work situations, where looking like a geek is often considered advantageous.

When I went out socially, though, I still went through the ritual of putting on my contact lenses. (Vanity, remember?) But since I never wore them that often, a pair of ordinary “daily wear lenses” could last me three or four months. I would just take them out, clean them (hopefully), and put them back in their vile until the next usage. Or until they’d disintegrated or ripped apart on their own.

For a brief time, I experimented with wearing colored contact lenses. This was when they were only available in the hard contact format, and for some reason I felt the need to turn my dark brown eyes to a lighter shade of green. But as I’d never had experience wearing a hard contact before, and I was trying to break them in while vacationing in the blinding Florida sun, I was never able to get my eyes open more than a squint when I was outside. And when I was inside, the severe green color of the contact made me look like a deranged Aquaman. So after a week, I traded them in for a regular pair of soft lenses.

That began a long history of hoarding contact lenses like they were food rations during the Great Depression. I didn’t throw any of them away until absolutely necessary. In this way, I could go years without paying for another eye exam, or having to order a new supply of contacts.

Which brings us to the present, and my need for contact replenishment. As I hadn’t been to an eye doctor in nearly half a decade, I didn’t have a current prescription. And without a prescription, most stores won’t sell you the contacts. I’m not sure why; it’s not like contacts are an illegal substance. But perhaps they’re afraid people will try to wear inappropriate prescriptions to get some sort of visual “high” off the blurriness.

Nevertheless, I needed to get an eye exam in order to purchase new lenses. So one Saturday afternoon I went over to a local Lenscrafters to take care of it. And much to my surprise, the ordinary five-minute eye chart examination had turned into a half hour marathon of machine hopping until they tested every conceivable element of my eyeballs.

A very sweet young assistant took me through the process, which was an obstacle course of machines and contraptions designed to measure and scrutinize my eyeballs from every possible angle. There was a machine to measure the size and shape, a machine to calculate depth perception, a machine to blow air into my face. (At least I hope it was air, and not the Assistant spitting on me.) By the time I was done, Lenscrafters knew more about my eyes than I did. And who’s to say they’re not sending that information to the Government for some kind of mass Eyebank?

I remember when an eye exam consisted of following the red dot on the wall with a flashlight and then looking at an eye chart with one eye covered. When did it escalate into a Las Vegas production of gears and wheels and lights and machines? By the time I’m ready for my next exam, they’ll probably just hook my eyes up to a computer, push a button, and out will pop my first six-month supply.

At any rate, I finally got my contacts and a prescription for new glasses (which is different story altogether.) The process took more than an hour, which also included a special half hour consultation and examination by the staff Ophthalmologist. Or is it an Optometrist? An Optician? I never know the difference. Whoever he was, he seemed to know what he was talking about as he described the various types of contact lenses available for purchase. I eventually decided on the disposable lenses, which was a concept rather new to me. The idea of using something only once and then throwing it away went against everything my Depression-influenced Mother ever taught me. But the idea of not having to clean them every time was also quite influential.

So now I’m a member of the Disposable Generation, and it feels great. I just wish I had a little more disposable income to make me feel completely indoctrinated.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Secret Society of Celebrities

Please click on the link below to watch another humorous report featuring Fritz Freewhenever investigating mysterious celebrity sightings in Plainfield. The link will open up a new window on YouTube. 


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Tepid Taste for Technology

I have always been a little behind the times when it comes to accepting new forms of technology. After all, I’d barely mastered the computer before the Internet suddenly became a staple of our lives. And without any sense of vision on my part, I never thought the World Wide Web “fad” would actually catch on. How wrong I was.

I was much the same way when it came to purchasing a cell phone. For years, I was convinced I didn’t need one, and would never fall victim to this new fangled contraption. But of course, my job soon made the purchase a necessity, because without a cell phone you really don’t exist in the business world. Or anywhere, for that matter. (My ten-year-old niece even has a cell phone, though I can’t even imagine who she might need to call on a regular basis. The Hannah Montana hotline?)

My point is, when did technology become so accelerated that tomorrow’s discovery is already yesterday’s news? How fast do you have to be to actually stay ahead of the curve? Or is that even possible any more?

The reason I bring this up is because I recently needed some accessories for my Sony HD camera, but was having difficulty finding my model number listed on the Sony website. So I called their Customer Service Hotline for assistance, only to discover my camera was already considered an “older model” and therefore no longer listed on the main site.

“It’s not an older model,” I said. “I just bought it last year.”

“Here at Sony, the technology changes so fast,” the Customer Service Rep said with a giggle. “Even if your camera is a year old, it’s already been updated and enhanced so many times by newer versions, that it now falls under the older model classification.”

“Stop calling it old,” I practically yelled. “I bought it last year when it was supposedly the hottest camera on the market. And now you’re telling me that within the space of a year it’s already become obsolete?”

“No. But a year is like a decade at Sony,” the female rep offered. “We’re always on the cutting edge of innovation, so what’s new today is already old by tomorrow.”

I was shocked. Did that mean that every piece of technology I owned is already considered an antique? Could the iPod I bought six months ago already be eligible for Social Security? Maybe I should try and get on a show like “Cash in the Attic” or “Antique Roadshow” to discover just how much these popular relics might fetch in the modern marketplace. (I’m thinking not much.)

Technology has gotten so advanced that the evolution of a product from First Release to Tenth might happen within the space of a month rather than several years. The need to somehow “top” the last version with a whole new set of “bells and whistles” is enough to drive the average consumer crazy. (Or at least me.) How can we possibly hope to keep up? And why do we need to? Is it really necessary for me to see a movie in such crystal clear digitalization that I can spot a nose hair growing out of Jack Nicholson’s nostril? I think not.

(And don’t even get me started on the whole BlueRay BS. I have no desire to purchase one of those, because I know in two years it will be replaced by something even better. And I am not about to start my DVD collection all over again in another format. I already made the expensive transition from VHS to DVD, and I won’t be suckered into that again.)

Manufacturers are supposed to be reliable when it comes to replacing parts for all their models, especially if those products are released within the last five or ten years. But now products are developing so quickly and advancing so rapidly, manufacturers no longer see products as long-term purchases. So the support we once counted on might also become a thing of the past.

As for getting the parts I need for my camera, perhaps I’ll check the local “Big Lots Close-Out Warehouse” to see if any of the accessories have reached the bargain bin yet. Or maybe I should search eBay under “limited editions” or “rare collectibles.” Yet no matter what I do, I know it's not a long-term solution, as my camera’s life expectancy seems to be shortening by the day. By next month, I'll probably have to start searching for its cemetery plot.

But that’s just me. What’s your take on technology?