Living In Record TV Time

The ’60s was when people first became concerned about television. Social scientists and commentators railed against the “idiot box” that was turning our brains to mush and converting formerly active, intelligent, inquisitive people into soft, slack-jawed shmoos soaking up whatever mind-numbing offering might appear on their TV set.

Those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow survived our constant exposure to the TV set that had a prominent place in our living rooms. But I’ve got news for you, folks: when it comes to TV, the ’60s was nothing compared to where we are right now. As The Hollywood Reporter noted yesterday, the number of English-language scripted TV shows that are available for viewing in the United States hit an all-time high last year. Across broadcast, cable, and streaming services, in 2021 559 English-language shows were available. That’s 13 percent more than in 2020 and 5 percent higher than the previous record in 2019. And consider this astonishing statistic reported in the THR article: “The total number of scripted shows has more than doubled in the last decade; in 2011 there were 266 scripted series.” What’s more, that 2021 record number doesn’t include any of the non-English-scripted shows that people are watching, like Squid Game or Money Heist.

In short, Americans are literally saturated with TV these days. Unlike the ’60s, when there were only three broadcast channels and one or two snowy UHF options, all of which terminated their broadcasts at some point in the early morning hours, you now could watch programming 24 hours a day, every day–and not even scratch the surface of what is available for viewing. And in the COVID era, it’s become increasingly easy to ditch the masks, slouch back on your couch, and immerse yourself in TV, rather than going out to do anything. I’m sure that part of what is driving the TV production boom is the fact that so many worried people are choosing to stay home rather than venture outside into the scary potential omicron infection zone. Rather than take that risk, why not just camp out and watch the latest hot streaming series?

As I mentioned, those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow avoided the confident predictions that we would become a bunch of brain-dead zombies–at least, I think we did– and hopefully that will prove true, again, in the aftermath of the current TV-soaked period. But it is concerning that TV shows have become such a huge part of our lives, to the point where our voracious appetite for programming is driving the TV production industry to new heights. We’d all be better off if we decided to get off the couch now and then, turn off the TV or computer, and get outside to interact with other living human beings.

Sound Effects

How much do sound effects add to movies? Consider the Three Stooges shorts. Those of us who had our sense of humor shaped (our mothers might say “warped”) by the antics of Larry, Moe, Curly, and Shemp understand the deft comedic impact of an apt sound effect. Whether it’s a horn beep sounding when a nose gets bonked, the coconut sound of two heads colliding thanks to Moe, ripped fabric when Larry’s hair gets pulled out, or one of many other sound effects used in the shorts (many of which are found in the video clips above), the sound effects unquestionably add to the hilarity.

My favorite Stooges sound effect is the violin string pluck used when eyes get gouged by Moe, which you can hear in the clip below. Why do plucked violin strings work as a sound effect for an eye gouge? I don’t know–they just do.

The Three Stooges never won an Academy Award, although one of their early shorts (Men in Black, in 193) was nominated for Best Short Subject–Comedy. There wasn’t an award for best sound effect or best sound editing in those days. It’s too bad, because the Stooges deserved one. The sound effects were a key part of the whole Stooges experience.

A Baker’s Reward

I think holiday baking is a lot of fun. You have to follow the recipes, and pay attention to time in the oven to make your cookies don’t get burned, but even a failure means you can just start over without terrible consequences. In the meantime, it’s a great time to listen to your favorite holiday music. And baking requires enough attention that it inevitably takes your mind off of your “work work,” and you get to do fun stuff like rolling out cookie dough and cutting it into shapes and then decorating what comes out of the oven.

In a lot of ways, baking Christmas cookies is kind of like an updated kindergarten class for adults. To be sure, you’re working with cookie dough, not Playdoh, but you’re still cutting stuff out, using rudimentary tools, and adding color to things. The main difference is that, at some point in the process, you don’t have a teacher instructing you to roll out your towel onto the floor and take a nap with the rest of the class–although that’s not a bad idea, come to think of it.

But for me the best thing about holiday baking is the aftermath, after you’ve cleaned up the kitchen and boxed your cookies and sent them off. It’s when you start to hear from your family and friends who received the cookies, telling you how much they enjoyed the cookies or–even better–asking for the recipes of their favorites. Knowing that you helped to make someone’s holiday season a bit more tasty and festive and merry is a baker’s best reward.

Down To The Last Monkee

One of the tough things about getting older is seeing your childhood heroes fall by the wayside. For example, it was hard to read that Michael Nesmith, one of the Monkees, died yesterday at age 78. Michael Nesmith was the “smart Monkee” who always wore a stocking cap with the ball on top; he was the favorite of the cerebral kids. Davy Jones and Peter Tork have already gone to the great beyond, so Nesmith’s death means that Mickey Dolenz, who was my favorite Monkee, is the only surviving member of the group. That just doesn’t seem possible. After all, the Monkees’ theme song said they they were the young generation, and they had something to say. So how can they be dying of old age causes like heart failure?

The Monkees were an interesting phenomenon, and in some ways a precursor for a lot of what has happened in popular culture. They were the original “fake group”–put together to be on a Beatles-knockoff TV show and also serve as the faux front band for music produced by studio musicians. As a kid, I didn’t understand how weird and groundbreaking this was: the Monkees had a TV show that I thought was funny, they drove around in a cool car, and I liked their records. (We faithfully bought all of them.) And the first record said on the back that each of the Monkees played specific instruments and sang, and you could hear their voices on the records. That had to be true, right?

Later I realized that the Monkees were in fact different from groups like the Beatles, because the Beatles actually wrote their own songs and played their own instruments and were accomplished musicians. But the realization that the Monkees were faking it didn’t change my appreciation of the Monkees’ records. We played their songs when I was in college, and I still listen to them. In fact, in recognition of Michael Nesmith’s passing, we listened to some of the Monkees’ songs last night at a gathering with friends and enjoyed them.

The difference between the Monkees and the other fakes that followed was that the creators of the Monkees didn’t scrimp; they got real songwriters (like Neil Diamond, who wrote the classic Monkees’ hit I’m A Believer) and real musicians to play the instruments, and also experimented with some cutting edge sounds that fit right in with where popular music was going at the time. My all-time favorite Monkees tune, Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day, is a good example of how bringing all of that together created something really good.

After the Monkees heyday ended, Michael Nesmith went on to have an interesting career and helped to usher in the era of MTV and music videos, but of course he was always identified with the Monkees, as his New York Times obituary linked above reflects. He seemed to be at peace with his role in the popular culture of the ’60s. Those of us who enjoyed the Monkees TV show and still love the music wish him well.

Back In The Bobby Era

When I was a kid, our standard Christmas decorations included Santa cups for every member of the family. Each of the kids had his or her own mini-cup, suited to small child hands and carefully labeled in festive red ink with our names, and Mom and Dad had cups that were larger, about the size of a coffee cup. The Santa cups went out in a line on the dining room credenza and then were put in front of our place settings at holiday meals. Mom loved to put out M&Ms for birthdays and holiday occasions, and I think she may have filled the cups with those little chocolate candies.

Amazingly, the cups survived years of excited Webner family Christmas celebrations without being broken, although my Santa cup has its paint rubbed off here and there. When Mom moved out of the family house years ago, she distributed the labeled cups to each of the kids, and now it is one of the Christmas decorations we put out in our house.

Of course, in those long-ago days I was called Bobby by everyone in our extended family. That was fine with me until I got to be 11 or 12, when I concluded that “Bobby” sounded childish and I asked everyone to start calling me “Bob” instead, which sounded a lot more grown up and adult. For some reason, it seemed very important to make that change at the time. Since then, I’ve gone by Bob, so there was a clear line of demarcation between the Bob and Bobby eras.

Now, looking at the Santa cup always makes me smile and reminds me of the long-lost Bobby days, when things were simpler and more innocent, and the appearance of a set of Santa cups on the dining room credenza was part of the build-up for the excitement and fun of a Christmas to come.

A Winter Etching

Russell and Betty are back up in Stonington. Winter comes early up there.

Stonington is located on the far eastern edge of the Eastern Time Zone, so the sun sets much earlier there than it does in Columbus, which is on the western edge of the same time zone. Once Daylight Savings Time ends, total darkness comes to Stonington during the afternoon hours. For example, my weather app says the sun will set over Stonington at 3:56 p.m. today, whereas the sunset in Columbus won’t come until more than an hour later, at 5:06 p.m. During the winter months the sun’s daily path through the sky also nudges closer to the horizon, which makes for longer shadows and less direct overhead sunlight.

That means conditions are just about perfect for the natural ice art shown in the picture above, which Russell took after he arrived. That’s a photograph of ice covering some of the rocks in our down yard. Accumulated rainwater froze over, and then the water under the ice layer evaporated while the ice remained, unmelted by direct sunlight. The result looks like an etched, frosted pane of glass that you might see in a doorway during the Victorian era.

If I recall my childhood winters accurately, that ice is just waiting for a bundled up kid in a stocking cap to step through and shatter with a satisfying crunch. I kind of wish I was there to do it.

A Song Selector’s Promise Of The Future

When I was a kid growing up in Akron, I really liked going to Bob’s Big Boy. Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take UJ and me there for lunch. I was a roly-poly kid who enjoyed a good cheeseburger, so I identified with the statue of the jolly, tubby boy in checkered overalls with lacquered hair who obviously was overjoyed to be holding a cheeseburger.

The statue was great, and so were the cheeseburgers and french fries and Cokes, but what I liked most about the Big Boy was that it had those tabletop song selectors at every table. They were just about the coolest, most futuristic thing ever. The song selectors were highly polished, gleaming metal, like all futuristic objects such as rocket ships were supposed to be. You could use a dial to flip the pages of available songs back and forth–which was fun in and of itself–to find a song you liked, read the selection code, and punch in the number right at your table. Your song then played on the big jukebox in the corner, which meant everyone in the whole place was hearing your song. My favorite choice was Nat King Cole’s rendition of The Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.

In those days, the tabletop song selector seemed like extremely impressive technology, as mysterious in its inner workings as TV sets with their rabbit ear antennas and transistor radios that somehow pulled images and music out of the very air around us. But that was all to be expected, because we were on a relentless march into the future, and the future was going to be a wondrous place, just like the New York World’s Fair and the Disneyland World of Tomorrow ride promised.

Now, almost 60 years later, the future that has come to be is a pretty wondrous place in some respects, when you reflect on it. I’m listening to music that I’ve selected using an app on a phone that also serves as a camera, calendar, newspaper, library, mailbox, and message sender, among countless other functions, and fits easily in my pocket, to be carried anywhere and everywhere. I’m typing this entry into a laptop computer that will transmit my musings into the ether, where they will be published for anyone in the whole world to see. I’m pretty sure the little kid who marveled at the song selector at Bob’s Big Boy would marvel at those devices, too–but of course we tend to grow out of our sense of wonder, and eventually take these things for granted. That doesn’t make them any less amazing.

Thinking about this, I’m glad my laptop has a gleaming metal finish, because my youthful self would have expected that of such a futuristic item. And the next time I buy a cell phone I might check to see whether they’ve got an aluminum case, too.

Confirming The Obvious

Sometimes you have to wonder why certain medical studies get done in the first place. They don’t seem to do anything but confirm what should be obvious truths about personal health and well-being.

For example, you’ve known since you were a kid that going outside and getting some exercise is good for you. You probably first learned that when your Mom walked past the family room, saw you and your brother sitting cross-legged on the floor watching cartoons, and marched in, turned off the TV, and told the two of you in no uncertain terms to go outside, “get some fresh air,” and play with your neighborhood friends for a while. And in this, as in all things, motherly wisdom was unerring: cartoons were great, but messing around outside with your friends and playing football or riding bikes or exploring the neighborhood was even more fun.

And. not surprisingly, Mom was right about the benefits of getting that “fresh air” and exercise, too–as a new medical study confirms. The study looked at the impact of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay at home orders first took effect. It found that people who spent more time sitting during that time period–because they weren’t walking to their workplaces, or their cars, or conference rooms for in-person meetings, or to lunch with their officemates–were more likely to have higher symptoms of depression. And, of course, the depressive effect is in addition to (although possibly correlated with) the rise in obesity during the more sedentary work from home days of the pandemic.

The researchers of this latest “confirming the obvious” health study recommend that people working from home focus on getting off their duffs and finding ways to build some walking and outdoor time into their days, such as by taking walks before their workday starts, at a designated lunch hour, and after the workday has ended. It’s exactly the kind of instruction your Mom would have given.

The Upside Of Masks

The latest City of Columbus mask mandate lingers on as we approach the two-month mark–so much so that people are wondering when the heck it’s finally going to be lifted. As the article linked above reports, even though the rate of cases in Columbus is dropping steadily, and has decreased by more than half since it hit its high point on September 21, we’re not even close to the likely termination date. The Columbus city administration has indicated that Columbus remains a “red”-designated area by the CDC, and the mask order won’t be lifted until the city’s rate falls enough for the CDC to put the area into the “yellow,” or moderate, transmission category for four consecutive weeks.

So, those of us in Columbus will have to deal with the mask mandate for a while longer–even though many other parts of Ohio, which also fall into the “red” category, are ignoring the CDC’s guidance and cavorting in buildings and bars without a mask to be seen.

But enough with the complaining! It’s time to see the benefits of masks, besides whatever effect they may have on transmission of COVID-19. I thought about this recently when I was in a masked meeting and couldn’t fully stifle a yawn–and then realized that, thanks to the mask, no one could see it and conclude that I was rude or bored, or both. For that one moment, at least, I was grateful for the mask.

I’m sure there are other positive aspects of mask-wearing, besides disguising cavernous yawns. During my pimply-faced, metalmouth adolescent years, I probably would have been relieved to wear a mask that would cover the latest skin eruptions and unsightly braces or the pathetic, wispy moustache I was trying to grow. And, if you think about it, masks also allow you to cover up reactions other than yawns. How may mask-wearers have responded to a colleague by sticking out their tongues, blowing a raspberry, or engaging in some other satisfying mouth-oriented expression behind the safe covering of a mask? And masks also can serve as facial banners that allow you to advertise your allegiance to a sports team, or offer your colleagues an inspiring “we can get through this together!” message. The sale of masks–as a new product that no one bought before–probably have had a positive impact on the economy, too.

Still, I’ll be quite happy when the mask mandate finally ends, and I can walk to the coffee station to get a cup without masking up.

Defending America’s “Town Of Motels”

Is Breezewood, Pennsylvania getting a bum rap? The little town off an exit ramp of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where travelers pass a half mile of motels, truck stops, gas stations, and souvenir stands before connecting to the highway that takes them toward Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, has become a social media meme through the above photo. In the meme, Breezewood is presented as ugly, chaotic, and loud–a prime example of tackiness and American wretched excess.

That photo doesn’t exactly depict a garden spot. But now Breezewood’s defenders have risen to respond to the harsh criticism–as in this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The defenders argue that the sneering dismissals of Breezewood reflect a cultural snobbishness about seeing the exposed machinery of American life: the gas stations that must exist to power American car culture, the hotels that are needed to house travelers that are the mainstay of the American tourism business, and the assorted rest stops and restaurants that service the needs of those travelers. And, of course, all of those businesses shown in that photo provide people with gainful jobs, and have allowed Breezewood to continue to exist when other American small towns have withered and died.

My own memories of Breezewood are different from the contemptuous prevailing meme, too. When UJ and I were kids Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take us on driving trips from Akron, Ohio to spots on the east coast, like Washington, D.C. or the Jersey shore. We would climb into the back seat of Grandpa’s Oldsmobile 98, try not to fidget while he carefully navigated the car along the growing network of American highways, always obeying the speed limit, and wait until we reached Breezewood where we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn close to the Turnpike exit ramp. In those days, a sign announced Breezewood as the “town of motels,” and we were always glad when we saw that sign because it meant we could get out of the car, go for a swim in the hotel pool, eat dinner, and visit Crawford’s Museum next door to the hotel–a “museum” of stuffed animals and curiosities that was basically designed to stir the imaginations of a young kid. The next day we would wake up, have breakfast, and continue our leisurely journey.

In short, I liked Breezewood and have fond memories of it. I’m glad there is pushback against the Breezewood meme. It shows that reality is always more complex and nuanced than a photo and a few words that convey a smirking putdown.

The Great Screw Top Status Shift

Recently I was out at our neighborhood wine shop, looking for some interesting bottles to try. As I surveyed the racks and boxes and shelves for likely candidates, I realized that one of the factors influencing my decision was whether the bottle was corked or capped—with the balance tipping toward capped. And there were plenty of appealing choices in the screw top category, too.

That’s a pretty significant change in perception and product packaging from the days of my youth. For years, screw top wine was the realm of MD 2020, Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, and Thunderbird, consumed exclusively by winos and high school kids who were just starting out their drinking careers and didn’t know any better. Reputable wineries offered only corked bottles because wine connoisseurs expected fine wines to come with a cork and thus insisted on it.

But, as has happened in so many other areas, the availability and perceptions of screw top wines have radically changed. Whether it was cork shortages in Portugal, articles in wine magazines arguing that modern screw top caps are more protective than corks, a general awareness that capped wines were becoming more available, or trying a screw top bottle somewhere and finding it was indeed potable, public opinion shifted. And after that happened, and people like me began gingerly giving it a try, we realized that capped wine is a lot easier to open than wrestling with a corkscrew and running the risk of cork explosions and failure and the cursing that inevitably accompanied it. With the screw top, it’s a quick twist, some satisfying metal cracking, and you’re in. Once people got over the perception hump and tried it, they realized it had some advantages—and in America, convenience and speed is always going to be a selling point.

The shift always begins with people laying aside their settled views and being receptive to a different approach.

Memories By Maude

My maternal grandmother, Maude Neal, had a remarkable memory. Locked in her brain were hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, sayings, and song lyrics that she could summon and quote at will on any occasion. Her repertoire ranged from silly ditties she learned as a kid (“Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”) to sayings about hard work, fortitude, love, family, death, and just about any other topic.

Back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s Mom decided to sit down with Grandma, have her deliver some of her sayings, and make careful note of them. Mom then carefully typed the poems and sayings (with a few typos and strike-throughs) and assembled the pages in a handmade booklet, decorated with stick-on flowers and held together by yarn. All of us kids got a copy. We still have my copy, decades later, and keep it on a table in our upstairs study. It’s a cool piece of family memorabilia that reminds me of Grandma Neal and Mom whenever I see it.

And while I lack Grandma’s facility with remembering and quoting poems, I remember her reciting some of the poems in this little booklet. Like this one, which I first heard as a little kid when I came home and made some complaint about something trivial:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Or bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock-strewn road.

Give me such courage and I can scale

The hardest peak alone.

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone.

Grandma’s poetic message was clear: suck it up, kid! It’s still good advice.

The Browns Via Radio

Our TV and internet connection at our German Village house is on the fritz, so yesterday I needed to find an alternative way to follow the Browns game against the Houston Texans yesterday. I decided to try catching the game on radio by tapping into the Browns radio network on the internet and listening through my phone. The feed was pretty good, and the Browns won, so I’d call the whole experiment a success.

Listening to a football game on the radio is a different experience, and in this case it brought back some memories, too. When UJ and I were kids growing up in Akron, the Browns home games were routinely blacked out, so we would listen to them on the radio. We listened to Indians games on the radio, too, because they were never on TV, either. And every kid of the pre-ESPN era remembers coming up with ways to illicitly listen to the radio and follow the World Series games, which were always played during in-school hours. The radio was how Americans got most of their sports in those days.

Sports on the radio requires some imagination, and you’ve really got to pay attention, because there are no replays. Unfortunately, my radio imagination is pretty rusty, so I couldn’t really quickly picture the guys going in motion, or the formations being described. But the crowd seems like much more active participant in the game on radio, where you can tell by the surge in noise, or the sudden silence, whether a play went well for the hometown boys. And the excitement in Jim Donovan’s voice as he describes a Nick Chubb TD burst definitely adds something to the game experience. Doug Dieken, the long-time color analyst, is pretty entertaining, too.

I’m hoping to get our bundled internet and TV fixed this week, so I can watch the Browns on TV from here on out. But if they aren’t on—Columbus stations often have to choose between showing the Browns and the Bengals—it’s nice to know that old reliable radio remains an option.

Chalk, And A Blank Slate

We have a piece of slate and a stand in our kitchen, and plenty of chalk to go around. It makes for an irresistible combination that lures everyone to try their hand at a little calligraphy.

Of course, chalk reminds me of elementary school and standing at towering, wall-to-wall chalkboards, being handed that piece of chalk, and being instructed by Mrs. Haddad, my third-grade teacher, to solve a math problem or spell Mississippi or make the perfect cursive capital E, like the one on the cardboard example thumbtacked above the board. In those days, when you were handed a piece of chalk, the pressure was on, and if you didn’t perform your sorry effort would be swept away by a dusty eraser as you went slinking back to your desk.

These days, the piece of chalk isn’t quite as intimidating. In fact, it’s kind of fun to try your hand at a little printing that might meet Mrs. Haddad’s exacting standards. And we welcome the forgiveness inherent in erasure, which gives us a chance to fix those little mistakes.

Death Of A UHF Pitchman

Ron Popeil has died. The inventor/developer/popularizer of countless weird products and the star of ever-playing infomercials, Popeil was 86.

If you got anywhere near a TV during the ’60s and ’70s, you knew the name Ron Popeil. He was the guy who sold many of the products that were featured on commercials on the “UHF” channels on your TV.

(I realize as I write those words that many people alive today have no idea what a “UHF” or “VHF” channel was, or how they were different. Here’s a primer. The VHF channels were numbered 1 through 13, were on the VHF dial on your TV with clearly demarcated slots for the stations, and accordingly were easy to find and came through on your TV much more clearly. The three networks and their local broadcast stations were always on one of those VHF channels. The UHF channels, on the other hand, were on a different dial that didn’t have specific channel indicators, so if you wanted to watch a UHF station you first had to switch to the UHF dial, then carefully turn that dial incrementally, with the precision deftness of a brain surgeon, to find the best signal for channel 43 or channel 61, manipulate your rabbit ears to further enhance signal quality, and put up with some “snow” on the screen and fading in and out. Nevertheless, becoming a master of UHF channel tuning was an essential skill for any kid who wanted to watch Three Stooges shorts, Star Trek reruns, bad horror movies, and the other enticing mainstays of UHF programming. The UHF stations eventually became a lot more accessible when cable TV became widespread.)

The first Ron Popeil/Ronco product I remember was the Veg-o-Matic, which allowed you to put a peeled potato on a kind of wire screen below the top of the device, depress the top, forcing the potato through the screen, and thereby produce french fries that were ready for the fryer. The Veg-o-Matic always seemed to me to be of limited usefulness, but it sure would come in handy if french fries were a staple of your diet. And of course the Veg-o-Matic was only one of a host of odd Ron Popeil products. There was the Ronco Steam-A-Way, a gun-like device that allowed you to steam out the wrinkles that appeared in your clothes while you were traveling. There was the Buttoneer, which appeared to replace thread with plastic stays to keep buttons attached to their fabric forever, and which was known mostly because its commercial the same phrase countless times as frustrated people dealt with lost buttons: “The problem with buttons is . . . they always fall off!” We can’t forget the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, a fold-up fishing product that allowed avid anglers to always be ready to set a hook and drop a line into any brook or pond they happened to pass by (although I don’t think bait was provided). And finally Ron Popeil brought us Mr. Microphone, a cordless microphone that could tie in to the frequency of your car radio and allow you to broadcast annoying comments to passersby. The smooth ’70s character with the bad haircut shown in the photo above uses Mr. Microphone to deliver the deathless line: “Hey good lookin’. Be back to pick you up later!” (That one has become a standard catchphrase in our household.)

It’s strange, and kind of scary, to think of how all of these Ron Popeil items, and their related commercials, have become so firmly lodged in my brain synapses that I can easily recall them, decades later–but that’s what repeated watching of UHF TV will do for you. RIP to the Master Pitchman and his menagerie of products.