Copies of Memories of Copies

“If anyone wants a piece of crap, four head VCR, I just tossed mine in the trash can outside.”

This was the announcement my friend Rae had made from the open doorway that lead to the computer arts room. There were five or six of us in there at the time so I didn’t waste a moment. In vein, I attempted to not look too eager, as I lunged at the black barrel that sat in the hall and reaching past the debris of cut off bits of foam core and mat board, I nabbed the unit it and gave it a quick look-see.

“It wasn’t cheap, actually.” Rae had followed me after I had bolted past her to snatch up the failed bit of technology before someone else decided to break it apart and make a mobile out of its guts. This was, after all, an art school, so the danger was real. “It worked well for a while but then it just stopped playing or recording tapes correctly. If you can fix it, it’s yours.” After a pause, she added, “Actually, it’s yours even if you can’t. Either way, good riddance.”

Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I’m a totally unrepentant scrounge and at the time, a four head VCR recorder was nothing to sneeze at. They were fairly pricy and for a college student who routinely checked under the cushions in the common areas for loose change (The trick was to beat the other guys to the cushion mining expeditions) so that he might order a horrible, little pizza from Dominoes, this was a huge win. Well, a potential win at any rate.

I’ve always loved taking things apart. Mechanical things, to be specific. Getting into some critter’s innards in biology class never made me feel sick, but it didn’t get me very excited either. That’s probably a good thing since I doubt seriously that I have the mental aptitude for professional science and so if I had that gory interest… well, it would lead me to decidedly creepier waters. A good thing all around, for all parties involved, so far as I’m concerned.

Gore? No.

Gears? OH, YES, PLEASE!

I loved finding free technology to vivisect. My feeling has always been that if it was already broken, then there wasn’t much for me to loose. The possible gain was worth the time tinkering around with screwdrivers, soldering guns and pliers. In this particular case, I got lucky. Within moments of opening the case, I spotted the main drive belt, stretched and distorted as it snaked through various pulleys in the VCR.

I replaced it with a large rubber band, and oddly enough, it worked perfectly.

What this got me was not only the satisfaction of getting a new VCR for the price of a rubber band, but also the ability to inflict… I mean “share” a newfound insanity with my classmates.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, the concept of viral marketing was virtually unknown. If you wanted to get your product, TV show, or what ever, to go over big then you needed big corporations to shepherd the way. There was no other real way to break through.

Then came MST3K.

The show had nothing to do with Mystery, Science, or the number three thousand. The theater part though, oh… it had theater. The premise of the show was simple and bizarre. A guy is shot into space by two mad scientists. He is a prisoner on the “Satellite of Love” with a variety of strange little marionette style robots and each week, he and the robots are forced to watch bad movies.

No. That’s not quite right.

HORRIBLE movies. Movies that people wish had been forgotten… and here, I’m talking about the people IN the movie. These movies often redefine the word, “ghastly” or at least set the bar that much lower.

When you watch the movie, you watch it with the prisoner/astronaut guy and his robot friends. They will appear as little silhouettes at the bottom of the screen and mock the actors, the plot (if any) and anything else through the length of the entire thing.

This, in essence, was college humor gold.

Here’s where the marketing comes in. MST3K, as it was lovingly known, started out as an “on the cheep”, cable access show out in the Minnesota. If you didn’t live near by, there was no way to see it… except for the tapes.

There was no way, back then, that any major broadcaster was going to touch MST3K with a ten foot antenna and video streaming over computers was not even close to on the horizon. If they wanted distribution, it was going to have to happen the hard way. Knowing their audience, the minds behind the show not only turned a blind eye to taped copies being handed around campuses all over the nation, they actually promoted it! In the end credits, a message appears reading, “Keep circulating the tapes, guys!”

Talk about appealing to your fan base! When it came to marketing, these guys were at least fifteen years ahead of the game.

So, with my new VCR, I happily introduced MST3K to the dormitory and, as expected, it went over as well as you’d expect juvenile and often esoteric humor would on a college campus. No. BETTER! We’d sit up late at night watching, “The Cave Dwellers”, “The Phantom Creeps” or “Manos, The Hands of Fate,” all the while laughing our heads off at the cutting remarks made by the professionals in the front row. It was great!

Eventually, we all moved on. College ended, jobs were found, connections with old friends were lost and MST3K, which reached its zenith by finally being picked up by Comedy Central and then briefly, the Sci-Fi network, ended its time on TV and as most shows are, was finally canceled. To all good things…. Ah, well.

A funny thing about technology today is that it often seems to all be focused on ordering our lives. We, as a culture have become obsessed with keeping track of everything that we have or will encounter, be it friends, appointments or nostalgia. Facebook has reconnected me with many individuals whom I thought I might never again speak to. My computer calendar attempts (and mostly fails) to keep me apprised of when I should be doing something I scheduled and, as I have just discovered, Hulu and Netflix have brought me back MST3K.

So, I sat down this evening with my laptop to see if the old magic was still there. The verdict? Hmm.

It’s not quite like I remember it. To watch it again all these years later, and this time in a crisp, clean resolution was a little… odd. The shows that I recall were grainy to watch and the sound was often distorted as well. The tapes had been copied so many times, that to have the show fail for a minute or two was not unheard of. It was even expected, to a degree. This time, it was so… so… perfect. Too perfect. The lack of a room full of drunk or otherwise decision impaired college friends also dragged the laugh-o-meter down a bit. It may have something to do with a change in my own tastes as well, I suppose.

Still, the fun (at what ever level) is there to be had and if you’re in the mood for some seriously horrible cinema, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the way to watch it.

In my basement, somewhere, no doubt in a very dusty box, sits my old and neglected VCR tapes. Among them is my own ancient collection of bootleg Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows. Copies of copies of copies, in all their blurry finery. Somewhere, I might even have that old VCR player as well. Who knows? The overall lesson though seems to be that some memories are best left as just that.

It’s great to reconnect with friends and relive some of the good times over a beer or three, or even over a computer if that’s the only way you have available, but I think I’ll leave it at that. Someday, I might just get around to tossing out all that old stuff saved for years for God knows what reason. We’ll see. It’ll wind up at the local dump here and perhaps, just PERHAPS, someone will find it and think, “SCORE! I can’t believe someone just threw this all out! I’ll go get a box!”

Yah…

I doubt that too.

Facial Stubblery

Perhaps it’s because I’ve made a job change recently. Maybe it’s because I craved some other change. Possibly, it’s because I’m an idiot, but I’ve done something that I swore I never would attempt. I’m growing facial hair. A small beard to be specific. Possibly, too small.

The men in my family have never been a terribly hairy lot. Mercifully, most seem to have held on to the growth on the top of their heads but as far as actual hairiness goes, we’re a pretty smooth skinned bunch. In my youth, my Dad did have a mustache when that was the law, apparently, but other than that, all the men I’m related to by blood have been smooth faced. When it comes to lack of facial whiskers in the family though, I am the zenith. I had a fair shot of bucking the trend with the genes supplied to me by my Mom. The French, the English and especially and specifically, the Sicilian gave me an even shot at a lifetime of shaving and you’d think the Sicilian would be the trump card when it came to doling out the facial hair, but Great Grandpa Giovanni’s people didn’t count on one thing. The perfect foil for their Mediterranean fuzziness.

North American Indian.

The American Indian is naturally a pretty scruffless individual, though there certainly are exceptions. A friend of mine who is obviously closer to our mutual deerskin clad family ancestry than I am, sports a full and perfectly reasonable goatee and ‘stash. This is more than I could ever aspire to. When I was a very young man and just entering the fun filled pit of despair that the call puberty, I did not get the choice whether to grow or shave any appearing face fuzzidge. My chin and lip stayed just as smooth as always and remained so for many years.

shaving

When I moved on to college life, I was the butt of much teasing and god natured ribbing about the lack of any shaving equipment in my ditty bag. In fact, it was far more reasonable to follow the practice of my native heritage and simply pluck out the few hairs that dared to show themselves. This way they tended to be gone for longer than if I shaved them and since they were so scarce, lathering up and dragging a razor over my face seemed like a titanic waste of time just to whack off the dozen or so whiskers. As the years went by, the teasing from my dorm mates changed from, “You still don’t shave?” to a more jealous, “You mean you still don’t HAVE to shave?” Apparently, the shine had worn off the morning ritual for them and now it was just one thing they had to do each morning that I got to skip. Most of the guys had noticeable facial hair and needed to attend to it daily, lest they look scruffy. One friend of mine, Kirk, was a facial ape man. More so, when I think of it, since apes really don’t sport much in the way of beards and mustaches. Kirk’s body must have put at least ten percent of its energy into producing hair. By noon, Kirk had a five o’clock shadow. By evening, he looked like a red headed hobo. Kirk had become resigned to this and took the only enjoyment out of it he could and changed his look about twice a week. Monday, he’s be clean, by Wednesday, it would be a handlebar mustache and sideburns. Friday, he would have gone for the full beard and on Sunday, he’d appear with a bright red Captain Ahab.

mustache

I can only imagine how much he spent in razor blades. Unlike Kirk, I graduated school with a smooth and unshaven face and remained that way for a long, long time. He graduated too… just hairier.

As time went by, more and more whiskers seemed to emerge. Unfortunately for me, they didn’t seem to have any sort of a plan as to where they would call home. One side of my chin started to fill in about the time I turned twenty-five. My upper lip needed razor attention too, although the middle bit under my nose remained smooth and hairless. Likewise, the sad little patches on my upper lip have never met the colony on my chin witch to this day only travels down one side of my neck. My chin, at least is covered completely. Well, almost. I had to give up plucking the hairs when the process became too painful and goofy. I had enough to warrant buying a razor now and have been using it daily ever since.

A few months ago, I sold my business and changed my life to one of child watching and house fixing and with this change has come a disruption in my routine. Where I used to get up, bathe, shower, dress and head out the door to work, I now have a much more haphazard morning than I’m used to. The day usually starts with Short Stack hopping into bed with us, followed by a frenzy of breakfast making, clothes getting and walking out little man to pre-school. By the time I’m home again, Lulu Belle is falling asleep on my back and needs to take a nap. I’ll get her down and then dive into some quiet project. The shower gets put off until later. What this has done is given me a closer look at my face with stubble, and you know what? I think I have enough to grow something contiguous!

So, last week, I stopped shaving my chin. The upper lip had to be done, lest I look like a fifteen year old with “My First Mustache™” but the rest is growing in pretty well. Here I am, in the middle of my life and only now do I have enough facial stubblery to have a shot at growing something that could pass for “normal looking.” To be fair, it’s actually pretty early on to call it “normal looking” but hope springs eternal. It’s one of the last rites of passage into the adult, male word. What I have found out is that it’s more time consuming to carefully shave around my little patch of whiskers that it was to quickly zip it off and also I can no longer shave in the shower since a mirror is now needed. I’ll have to see if having a small beard can beat out my inherent laziness. In the mean time, I’ll let it get longer and try to assess if it looks good or like I dribbled food down my chin.

Action Girl says she likes it, but no one else has said anything yet.

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Back to School Shopping

The air is cool and heralds the end of summer. Trees are still green, but it’s the deep, dark color of overly mature leaves. Soon they will be sucked dry of life and thrill leaf-peeping visitors in lethargic motor homes as they back up traffic for miles on the winding New England roads.

I’m waiting for my first meeting that could possibly bring me back to a decision I made a long, long time ago. To teach. I had made up my mind that I wanted to teach back when I was in high school. Other than the fact that my mother was a teacher, I’m not sure why I thought it would be the right place for me to make my career. I had never been a stellar student and to be honest, always viewed school more like prisons with desks rather than a place of learning. I would rather have been doing my own thing than listening to someone else’s.

The funny thing is, my own thing often consisted of researching topics I was interested in, building projects that I thought were fun or drawing and painting. The idea of sitting on the other side of the big desk in the classroom and teaching the INTERESTING stuff appealed to me. When it was time to go off and get my bachelor’s degree, I had picked Art Education as my direction.

I had always been artistic and it was easily one of my favorite classes. The other possibility that tempted me had been history, however since my mother was a history teacher, going into that particular field felt… too obvious, some how. Also, I had watched the piles of homework she brought home and had to grind through on Sunday nights. Art’s workload looked better to me.

Four years later and degree in hand, I got to see the cold hard fact that my advisors had been warning me about for the last four years. The job market was hideous. Unless, that is, you were an art teacher. Then it was HORRIBLY hideous! Although I was able to teach grades Kindergarten through high school seniors, the jobs just didn’t exist in any real numbers. If you think about it, most schools have one, maybe two art teachers. They were hired twenty years ago and now that they had the job down cold and tenure, there was no way that they were leaving any time soon. Schools too, were rather caustic when it came to art programs. Though it is very difficult to actually let an art teacher go once they have established them selves, there was nothing to stop them from closing the position once they retired or moved on. Bottom line, art as a subject wasn’t being expanded then and isn’t now. It wasn’t looking good.

So, I did what all hopeful and unemployed teachers do. I subbed. When I say, “subbed”, what I mean is that I awoke to the phone at six in the morning with a call from the school secretary, telling me that there was a school that needed a punching bag in a half an hour. I would fish out a shirt and tie and bring them with me to hang up in the bathroom in the hope that the the steam from my shower would smooth out some of the wrinkles. In the blur of the early morning, I would arrive at an unfamiliar school, look for an unfamiliar class room and then try as hard as I could to both decipher the missing teacher’s lesson plan for the day and not get taken advantage of by the students. What ever happened, you can’t show fear. Forth graders can smell fear and if they do, well… I’d just prey for a swift and painless death.

To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. Close!… but not that bad. What I did learn was that I loved the little kids! I had always envisioned myself teaching art in a high school somewhere and had done my student teaching at that level. What I discovered was that I should have been a kindergarten teacher. To pass on dealing with sullen teenagers who know it all and are utterly unimpressed, if not out right dismissive of what you are trying to teach them, for the wide eyed enthusiasm of a five year old learning a new song was something I found out after I had assumed I was done with college. Unfortunately, I didn’t peruse the change to being a Kindergarten teacher. It would have meant going back to school again to get another degree and I was still twitching from my last round of finals a few years before. After years of mornings like this, I was getting crispy from the subbing and loosing interest and any hope of being an art teacher. Rather than going back for the second teaching degree, I looked away from education and moved into the world of business. It’s been ten years of that now… and I’m getting crispy again.

A few weeks ago, Action Girl and I took the kids to the local school playground for some fun. The new school year was due to start in just one week and as Short Stack played on the garishly colored plastic jungle gyms; I peeked through a window of the building. Hands cupped on the sides of my head and nose against the glass, I looked in on a first grade classroom ready for action. Desks neatly lined up, black board cleaned, bulletin boards decorated and everything needed for learning, neatly tucked into cubbies an baskets just waiting for little hands to fish them out. In the middle of my chest, I felt the pull again. I wanted to be behind the big desk. I wanted that to be my room!

So, I’ve made a decision. I’ve put my business up for sale and will be stepping away form that. It’s time for a change. As I wait for my appointment with the director of the education department, I’m watching the other young students walk down tiny paths on their way to another class. I remember being them and hope they are enjoying what they study. Life can be a long and strange road and you never know where it will take you. It might be away to unforeseen places. It may be leading you where you never expected to go and wouldn’t pick now if you did. Or, like the path might be for me, circular. Having shown me some amazing vistas and overlooks along the way, it could lead back to the place I started at so long ago. I’ll have to wait and see.

The thing is, to enjoy the walk.

An Enjoyable Vice

The glass door is opened and I step into the small room. The atmosphere is moist and the temperature is warm. Just right. It’s a tight space and I’m happy to have it all to my self. Another visitor would make things too difficult to properly scan the boxes. It’s been a while since I’ve done this and it takes a few moments before I start to feel comfortable enough to begin making a decision.

“I remember these. Hmmm. Did I like them?
I read the tiny labels carefully.
“Ah, HA! Perfect!”

A box of Griffins cigars.

I am not a smoker. Well, not of any measurable quantity at any rate and never a consumer of cigarettes. A good cigar though? That’s a different story entirely.

I shall refrain here from discussing all the issues and health risks involved with smoking since they are very well known and called into question only by those making money through tobacco sales or by folks so hooked that they feel the need to delude themselves into thinking that breath after breath of burning leaves does no damage. I admit, I am happy when ever I see the smoking areas disappear from eating establishments. It means that I can enjoy my meal and actually taste it as well. I reserve my smoking habits to one type of tobacco product and the out doors. Even then, It’s only about six to seven times a year. For me, it’s a treat, and one that is best enjoyed with good friends.

Growing up, smoking in my house only happened when I was very young. Too young, actually, for the memory to take root. My Father smoked, as did most folk’s dads, it seemed. He was a company man and cigarettes and gin and tonics were part of the corporate dress code. He had smoked for years, though not heavily. As the story was related to me, one day after work, my Father came home, went into the bed room and started to switch into work clothes. His three piece suit was hung up and the pockets emptied out onto the bed, their contents to be set aside for tomorrow. While he was in the closet rummaging for a hanger, his two year old son quietly meandered into the room, spotted his father as well as the items on the bed.

“Look, daddy!”

My father turned around an saw his only child, his toddler, standing there smiling at him, with a Marlborough sticking out from between his lips. He carefully removed the cigarette, smiled at his son and as soon as he was out of sight, crushed the little white cylinder, the rest of the pack and threw it in the garbage. He never bought another pack again. He told me that quitting was one of the hardest things he ever did, but he was a non-smoker from then on. I never started, until one day at college.

I never liked the smell of cigarettes so avoiding the habit wasn’t hard. I’m also pretty much immune to peer pressure since I like to do what I want to do. If pressured, (C’mon! We’re all trying it! You should too!) my contrarian nature tends to raise it’s head and I just dig in my heals that much harder. I have an odd habit of making my mind up using logic and personal preference and letting the rest of the world do what it pleases.

So, away we went to college. For the first time, kids who had found it necessary to furtively smoke behind the maintenance shed had the chance to smoke openly, and with gusto. There is nothing like an eighteen year old who has decided that they are a smoker. Their discolored fingers were like badges of adulthood. I still had no interest in the little white sticks and left them to it.

Final exams. They were over at last! As an art major, that meant that the long hours spent burning the three AM oil finishing piece after piece, the mating and framing followed by the instructors critique the next morning, was finally over. We had finished our art work for the semester and it was time to celebrate. Too young to legally buy booze we trooped down to the smoke shop to purchase something new and different. Victory cigars!

I knew nothing of what to buy. Actually, none of us did. As we crowed into the small humidor someone made a ground rule. “Nothing under two bucks!” This seemed like a good idea. We might not know what were were looking at, but keeping the price at this level solved many problems. This way, no one could cheep out and buy something that smelled like a immolated raccoon, we had a better shot of picking something that was actually good and most importantly, being poor college students, we were assured that we wouldn’t be able to afford this as a habit. With our purchases tucked in tiny bags or shirt pockets, we went home to try them out. We had mixed success.

Some were good, some were awful, others smelled a bit… raccooney. Over the next four years, I found my favorite, Griffins. I have tried many, many others over time. When spending time outside the U.S. and its deranged trade embargo, there are a few Cuban varieties which I enjoy very much. I own a pipe as well, though it hasn’t been lit in years, the tobacco drying out after only one or two dips into the bag. I just don’t smoke it often enough to warrant the expense, and that’s fine. Good, probably.

With my college friends long since moved away and my rarely seen brother-in-law being the only other guy I know who will seek out a good cigar, I just didn’t buy them anymore. That is, until the day that seemed to demand it. It was a cool March morning and I was sitting on the steps of the hospital making phone calls. My son was two hours old and you couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face with a floor polisher. Then it hit me. Cigars! I need cigars!

A quick walk down the street brought me into the local smoke shop. I found the humidor, walked in and after a moment of feeling overwhelmed, found my old favorite. I had never bought an entire box before and the cost made me pause. Did I really need to spend that much? I hesitated. Yes! When else was this going to happen? Purchase in hand, I strode out and back to the hospital. My prize Griffins were handed out over the next few days.

Naturally, I did the same thing for Lulu Belle when her day of arrival came along and though empty now, I have saved the neat little wooden boxes and written their birthdays on the bottom. I’ll give them to my kids later on to keep what ever they please in them. It took over two years to get through the remainders of the two boxes. I hadn’t handed them all out at the time of my children’s births and still others were politely refused. It was nice to have a good cigar handy when going to the shooting range or on the front lawn with friends while playing boule. I enjoyed how they enhanced the experience of these moments.

The last two were memorably smoked. At his request, my Father and I waked down to the sea shore, sat on some rocks and enjoyed them as we talked and solved the world’s problems. Before he lit the cigar, he informed me that this was his first time for him since the day he threw that pack away so long ago. It was rather odd to see him puffing away, my ex-smoking Dad, but then again, it must have been doubly strange to watch his son do the same.

I never bought them very often and now, even less, but sometimes it seems like the moment just calls for it. I doubt I’ll ever buy another box but I’ll pick up the odd single here and there. Who knows, some day, that might be me, sitting with my son or daughter, sharing a thoughtful moment and a good cigar as we watch the waves roll slowly to shore. I hope they have the taste to get something devoid of “Parfum de Raccoon.”

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