UNDER WOOD

Scientists have been heard to say

machines will rule the world some day.

But do not fear those big computers,

we’re already the subjects of other neuters.

Our daily lives are largely guided

by what cabinets and bureaus have decided.

A ruling from the bench, it seems

can change our future, puncture dreams.

A motion to the chair from the floor

has been known to lead to civil war.

And many a strong heart turns to flannel

when confronted by an angry panel.

Who has such bold conceit

that he holds no awe for the County Seat

or does not bend his will in accord

with the edicts of his township board?

Electronics and plastics are all very good,

but our world is already ruled by wood.

And who are the controllers of wood, the takers?

Why the joiners of course and the platform makers.

HISTORIC INVENTIONS # 57

We tend to take the common chair for granted. Actually it’s one of the most important inventions and has contributed as much to the advancement of civilization as the wheel, indoor plumbing, vel-cro, Tupperware and beer, to name a few of the great scientific breakthroughs.

Without the chair, mankind (and womankind) would become exhausted a few hours into every work day and too pooped to figure a way to reach the moon, invent the Internet and improve our healthcare systems which, by the way, would be overburdened with bunion, sacroiliac and varicose vein cases.

We don’t know who invented the chair. It might have been the same ancient ancestor who invented the wheel, the intellectually gifted Cro-Magnon (Let’s call him or her “Aah!”) who realized it was easier to roll a log into the cave than carry it. After a long hard day in the forest competing with sabertooth tigers and gigantic bears as a hunter, and possibly as a huntee, Aah! came home and plopped down onto that very same historic log. Suddenly, Aah! understood it was a much better perch, even with the painful splinters, than the cold, sharp edgy rocks of the cave floor. Aah! spread the word and log seats began to be rolled into all the neighborhood caves.

We owe a great deal to Aah!. Imagine a chairless world. There you are, dressed in you best, dining on the polished oak floor of a 4-Star restaurant or standing in a Broadway theater during a two-hour performance.

Imagine impatient patients pacing wearily in chairless doctors’ waiting rooms, reading old magazines with blood pressures rising. Strap-hanging would be the only option on trains, planes and buses. Those too short or otherwise unable to grasp a strap, would be, for safety’s sake, fastened somehow to the walls of the vehicles or the aircraft and, during cross-country flights, would miss the feature movie and the included peanuts snack.

Automobile drivers would be standing at their steering wheels like Ben Hur during his chariot race. This brings to mind the ancient Romans who, according to historic movie scenes, preferred to dine while reclining sideways on their couches even though chairs were available. What messy meals they must have had! Could this odd unacceptance of chairs been a factor in the eventual fall of the Roman Empire?

THE TOASTMASTER

His throat was as dry as an old cigar

as he walked into the noisy sports bar.

“What’ll ya have?” the barmaid roared

above the TV as the home team scored.

“I’d really enjoy an ice cold beer

and make it a large one please, my dear.”

A burly type sauntered up, grinning.

“Stranger you’ve arrived at a crucial inning.

We boys are drinking to our favorite team.

This year’s pennant is our fondest dream.

Please tell me pal,” he said with a sneer.

“What’ll you drink to with that big glass of beer?”

“What will I drink to? Why my usual, I guess.

Each day at this time I drink to excess.”

As he hit the floor, he expressed his regrets.

“I see by your cap , sir, I should have said ‘Mets’.”

MULTIPLE FLASHBACKS

The pointy-elbowed sumo wrestler on my right was beginning to cross the perimeter of my narrow coach seat as the Weight Watchers dropout on my left placed her large Coach bag on my armrest. The airline had promised “Friendly Skies” and, as I looked out the window over the huge bag, the skies actually did look friendly. There were no enemy fighters in sight as we flew over Akron, Ohio.

Suddenly, the NFL linebacker seated in front of me decided to take a nap and lowered his seat into my lap. I was firmly packaged and, although we’d been thumping through deep air pockets for a half hour, I just had to walk off the agonizing cramp in my left calf. As I rose, with a friendly nod to the sumo wrestler, I was accosted by an angry cabin attendant. “Never, ever leave your seat when the seatbelt sign is on!” he howled. At that moment I had a flashback.

It was to a similar moment on a very different airplane in 1949. I was one of seven Air Force hitchhikers aboard a B-25 bomber flying from Georgia to New York. This might have been one of the 16 Billy Mitchell bombers in the Jimmy Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo soon after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

The standard crew on a B-25 was five, so we passengers were crammed into the gunners’ space in the waist, sitting on bucket seats while we bounced through the storm clouds at about 9,000 feet. I overheard the comment of a nearby officer wearing bombardier’s wings. “I hate to go up in a B-25 in bad weather like this,” he said.

Suddenly I had a flashback within a flashback! As a Jersey teenager in 1945 I’d played hooky and took the ferry to New York to visit the Empire State Building which, a week before, had been hit by an Air Force bomber that was lost in the fog and crashed into the 80th floor. Oh my gosh!. That was a B-25!

Trying to calm down and needing to stretch I crawled through the short tunnel to the tailgunners’ bubble. What a wonderful, enthralling place, like flying backwards on a magic carpet at 200 miles an hour past towering thunderheads and high over brightly lit cities and colorful farmlands.

Eventually I became a little uneasy about being out of touch with the passengers and crew. What if everybody had left while I was back here? I crawled back to the waist and saw my barracks buddy, Sergeant Worjickowski, the flight engineer. “Newman!” he shouted above the roar of the twin engines. “Where the #@! * have you been and where is your parachute?”

“I took it off, Sarge, so I could crawl through to the tail.”

“Never, ever take off your parachute in a B-25, good weather or bad,” he growled and I noticed the bombardier nodded in agreement while holding what looked like rosary beads. We landed safely in Long Island an hour later.


MISCAST PLAYERS

Shakespeare had it right: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Our lives are a lot like Broadway productions and movies with their crises, climaxes and denouements and with a refreshing dash of comedy relief thrown in from time to time.

Although we’re given some control of the production, in a very critical area we’re hardly ever consulted. We have so little to say about the casting for the Story of our Life. I have no complaints about the leading players, but the selections of some of the supporting cast members and the walk-on parts have caused periods of distress and frustration.

Celestial Central Casting made a big mistake near the beginning in selecting my kindergarden teacher. I was hoping for someone like Snow White or Mary Poppins. Instead, they sent Cinderella’s nasty stepmother. My poor Mom had to drag me to school every day, kicking and screaming.

My first boyhood job was as a drug store clerk. If the pharmacist had been a friendly, talented medic like Dr. Kildaire, I might have gone on to become a dedicated physician, but he was more like Frank Burns, the bumbling, scheming surgeon in M*A*S*H and I’ve had “pharmaceutical phobia” ever since.

Think about the characters that fate has tossed across your path recently. Can you see how important the supporting cast is to the tone of your life? There was my waitress last Friday evening. I was trying to unwind after a rough week and hoping for friendly, good-natured service. A little inefficiency would have been okay as long as it came with a smile. A Rachael Ray type as my waitress would have been perfect, but even Phyliss Diller would have worked. I needed a few laughs. However, the maitre d’ sent out Judge Judy and I sat stiffly at attention during the entire meal trying not to upset her.

The first person you meet on the way to work each morning, maybe a bus driver or the security guard at the building, can impart a certain amount of tranquility or irritability to your demeanor that lasts until your coffee break. Is your first morning person more like funny Jerry Seinfeld or grouchy Frank Costanza?

When I last took my car to the inspection station I hoped for an easy-going type of officer like Oscar Madison of The Odd Couple. Instead, I got Felix Unger and I was rejected because of dirty bumpers. Officer Tim Conway reached in to scrape off my old sticker, slipped, and slashed my padded dashboard.

I try to be realistic. There are not enough Merle Streeps and Gregory Pecks to go around so they’re not going to put star quality types in minor roles, but they should try for closer matches. Why did my first date look more like W.C. Fields than Sally Field? How come the nurse at the last blood drive laughed like Bela Lugosi ? Why is it whenever I need expert advice on a comlicated problem I end up dealing with Inspector Clouseau?

I have many more examples, but I have to stop now. The Three Stooges just arrived to fix my water heater.

BEING MACHO @ THE MEDICO’S

One of the few places left for most of us old guys to put on a brave front is in the medical arena. We’ll probably never get the chance to stare down an escaped circus lion or capture one of the desperados on the FBI’s most wanted list. Shucks!

My earliest memory of trying to look macho during a medical procedure was as a 7-year old. I’d been knocked down by a slow-moving truck and was taken to the hospital to have my head wound stitched up. I tried to put on a brave front in the O.R., but I think my rapid pulse gave me away. I was strapped onto a table and told to count backwards from 100. We hadn’t been taught backwards counting in the second grade yet so this was a challenging mathematical exercise for a little kid. Fortunately I didn’t have to go below 96 before reaching dreamland.

Three years later I was back on the same table waiting to have my appendix removed. My feigned bravery was unconvincing again and Joe Cool was soon firmly strapped down, but I got the count all the way down to 92. I bragged about this later to a nurse, but she said the record was set at 65 the day a surgeon dropped the scalpel and they had to find a sterile replacement.

About eight years later I was one of 60 Air Force rookies being herded into a dispensary to get the required battery of inoculations. I guess, since they didn’t know where each of us would eventually be stationed, we were being protected against every known contagious disease on the planet.

I tried to look unintimidated by the sight of all the hypodermic needles. My usual practice when being punctured like this was to look the other way and fake a brave grin, but we were getting shot in both arms at once, and looking forward didn’t work either because the guy in front of me was passing out. He hit the deck pretty hard. They carried him out and I never saw him again. That’s the closest I came to combat. There should be a medal for “Bravery in the face of needle-bearing medics”. I didn’t get a Purple Heart, but I noticed later that day I had two purple arms.

I’m now the victim of something they call the “White Coat Syndrome”, where the blood pressure monitor* sees right through my bravado and prints out the evidence. The syndrome is described as “a temporary hypertension that occurs in a medical setting”. Once the patient leaves the doctor’s office his systolic and diastolic readings drop down to normal. But the poor guy doesn’t know this and he’s carrying a prescription for expensive blood pressure medicine.

*The clinical name for this monitor is sphygmomanometer. There are numerous pronunciations depending on which medic you ask and the condition of his or her dentures.

BYGONE TOPPERS

Once upon a time hats were an important part of our daily lives. Men and boys wore berets, boaters, derbys, fedoras, homburgs, panamas, porkpies, trilbys and even coonskins. The ladies, God bless them, tantalized us guys with their fancy bonnets, veiled pillboxes and feather and flower-bedecked creations. Life seemed more stylish and interesting then. You could tell a lot about a hat wearer’s personality and attitude.

There are photos of the Yankee Stadium grandstands in Babe Ruth’s time where 99 percent of the fans wore some kind of formal toppers. The only baseball caps were worn down on the playing field.

Hats were more than mere head protectors. They were personal symbols and artifacts in polite society. Men tipped them to greet ladies and ladies wore them to church and luncheons and decorated them to attract men. They were the subjects of many of our metaphorical sayings: His hat’s in the ring…..My hat’s off to you…..Keep this under your hat…..With hat in hand, I apologize. We don’t hear these saying much anymore. The younger generation probably thinks they’re old hat.

While baseball caps have become part of our boring modern uniform along with overpriced ragged jeans and designer sneakers, a very few unique hats have survived to designate vocations or rank. The chef’s toque, the bishop’s miter and the military officer’s decorated peaked cap are examples, but we should have a much larger selection with 7.8 billion heads in the world to work with.

Some policemen wear baseball caps now instead of their time-honored peaked caps. During emergencies we need to be able to identify those in charge so we can take orders . If a policeman tells me to leave a crime scene area, I’ll make the necessary U-turn immediately. But if he wears the hat of a Mets left fielder they’ll be a slight delay until I see the badge.

That’s part of our problem. If we’re all baseball-hatted, we’re basically anonymous as we move about in public. Our neighborhood strolls would be much more interesting if we could identify the occupations or professions of passersby. Easily recognizable would be goggled aviators, railroad engineers, safari guides, Keystone Kops, convicts, cowboys, matadors and court jesters. The fellow in the bicorn hat is most likely a lunatic with a Napoleonic delusion, but we could just give him and the escaped convict double the social distance.

GETTING PO’d

Planned obsolescence (PO) is a brilliant business strategy or a larcenous conspiracy, depending on which side of the sales counter you operate. At a corporate marketing strategy meeting it might be described as “A policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and require relacement. This is acheived by frequent changes in design, limited spare parts availability and the use of non-durable materials.”
Consumerism critic Vance Packard defined PO otherwise as “The systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.”
Technical PO has forced us to junk our 8-track tapes in favor of cassettes which were later replaced by CDs. Our VHS machines were superceded by DVDs which are now being threatened by Blu-Ray. The computer I’m using to type this blog probably became obsolete before I got it out of the box.
Next year, cell phones which can now make calls, provide GPS service, take us online for texting, Emailing and browsing, and which replaced our now discarded cameras and camcorders, may be upgraded to instruments that can send powerful electric rays to painfully punish scammers and melt the innards of robo-calling machines. (I’ve suggested this upgrade to Apple and await a reply. My patent is pending.)
Planned fashion obsolescence requires the cooperation of the buyer, usually female, who has an inner fear of appearing in “retro” attire. Wearing a perfectly serviceable item of clothing is not enough. There is a compulsion to replace it with something having the currently approved contours, color and length.
After a few years, the fashion designers, assuming the so-called outdated garments have been devoured by moths or donated to charity, will reintroduce that exact style as being the only logical choice for a woman who plans to go out in public that year.
This PO doesn’t work as well with men’s fashions. You can tell by watching 1940’s movies. Suits worn by Clark Gable and Cary Grant back then would not raise any eyebrows on the street today. The average guy doesn’t care much about lapel widths or pleats. During World War II men didn’t complain about losing pants cuffs. Millions of troops needed millions of yards of material for millions of uniforms. Cuffs had been a nuisance anyway, always catching things we dropped and gave up for lost, like bus transfers, small change and sometimes carelessly flipped glowing cigarette butts. There was a song back then that went something like, “Can’t get stuff in your cuffs cause you ain’t got the cuffs to get the stuff in.” It was a big hit for a few weeks.
Also, men have favorite clothing items and will wear the same jacket or suit for several days in a row because it’s comfortable, whereas a woman will say, “But everyone has seen me in this.”
I have a favorite bulky cardigan sweater, a treasured Christmas gift from yesteryear, which is nearing the end of its road as a PO victim. I checked, there are no available spare parts for cardigan sweaters and Bulky’s moth holes are now competing with his armholes. I just can’t toss this old friend in the trash. Who knows? Bulky’s style and even his condition may become fashionable. Just yesterday I saw women strolling through the mall wearing very expensive brand new faded jeans with their knees peeking out through shredded denim. Hold on Bulky. There’s still hope!

CAVEAT APPARATUS!

Most of us guys attribute human traits to the contraptions we have to deal with, especially the troublesome ones. “That blasted water heater has it in for me,” a frustrated homeowner will moan, as if the inanimate arrangement of wires and plumbing actually has a personal grudge against him. Well, maybe it does.
I’m beginning to believe there’s something to it after a recent weird experience which made me rethink my recollections of past struggles with uncooperative appliances and assorted machinery. My toaster got testy one recent morning. I’d push down that little knob and it would jump up immediately. Eight or nine tries and a violent shaking of the little beast brought no results. I won’t repeat my foul language here. That’s just between me and the toaster, but I began to speak to it in a low, threatening tone. “You’ve heard that noisy garbage truck outside,” I said. “That loud screeching you sometimes hear is the last cry of a naughty toaster being crushed before it’s taken to a foundry and melted down in a fiery furnace. I’ve heard all useless toasters end up as minor parts in smelly dumpsters.” Just then I heard a loud click, pushed the knob down and I was back in the breakfast toast business.
I’d only been venting and didn’t expect a response. When I think back now about similar situations with similar results, I get an odd feeling. I might have become an appliance whisperer!
Eating dinner one night long ago, after a hard days work, my wife remarked, “Dear, before you turn in, please fix the refrigerator.”
“Fix the refrigerator? How does one fix a refrigerator?” I asked. She replied it had stopped humming and cooling several hours previously. “So there must be a reset button someplace or other,” she said and left to do the dishes.
So there I was, peering into the dark bowels of the fridge. a screwdriver in one hand and a flashlight in the other, searching for the mythical button and making random vile threats sotto voce so the kids wouldn’t hear. “You’ve outlived your usefulness, you traitorous villain.” I hissed. “My family’s food supply is going bad in your belly now. I won’t forgive you for this, you disloyal brute. Your recycling begins tomorrow.” I gave it an angry poke with the screwdriver, saw a spark and heard a promising rumble.
“It was just a hung-up solenoid I explained offhandedly to my wife later, hoping she didn’t know what a solenoid was either.
Then there was the experience with the sulky Studebaker, our second car, the unreliable one. Traffic was bumper to bumper on Route 280 one morning. We were inching down a steep hill in West Orange and I was talking through clenched teeth to Stoody. “Of all the hundreds of drivers in this creeping downhill jam, I’ll bet I’m the only one trapped inside a traitorous machine that has suddenly decided to shut down. If you’re not mobile by the time we get to the bottom of this hill, I’m having you towed directly to Tony’s Junkyard. On one of my recent visits for parts for unreliable Studebakers , Tony told me he can tell, depending on where he sends the hulk of an untrustworthy car, what its ultimate fate will be. I’ll have him guarantee you’ll end up as a Port-a-John.” Sulky Stoody suddenly shuddered, kicked in and started purring. Yes, purring.
I realize now I’ve had similar satisfying encounters with a misbehaving mower, a petulant PC and a wishy-washy washing machine. With proper professional handling I think I could be the hardware version of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer and have a similar TV show. But with the vocabulary needed with my methods, a great deal of bleeping will be necessary.