Tag Archives: the new york times

Lame Adventure 310: Couch Potato Hero

This year, as in any given year, many high profile people have been dropping like flies – Etta James, Mike Wallace, Whitney Houston, Maurice Sendak, Andy Rooney, Donna Summer, Maurice Gibb, Davy Jones, to name some names.

I have not read the vast majority of their obituaries.  Yet, I have scoured The New York Times obit section for decades.  Around age forty, my trademark paranoia and narcissism kicked into overdrive when I started paying much closer attention to people my age that seemed to prematurely purchase their rainbows.  What I wanted to know most was what caused their demise. If they were wiped out on the Interstate in a freak accident, I would think, “How tragic.”  If it was anything intestinal-related, excluding food-borne illness acquired during exotic travel (I hate to leave Manhattan so I don’t anticipate that problem), I would enter full freak out mode, break into a cold sweat, ignore the fact that I generally feel perfectly fine, and think:

Me: Holy crap, I’m next!

The death that has interested me most thus far this year is that of a relatively low profile man who was many decades my senior, an inventor named Eugene Polley.  In an obituary written by Margalit Fox that was published in The New York Times, she states that Mr. Polley was, “ … an inventor whose best-known creation has fostered blissful sloth, caused decades of domestic discord and forever altered the way consumers watch television … Mr. Polley, the inventor of the wireless television remote control, was 96.”  Hey, my kind of guy.

In 1955 he invented the Flash-Matic.

The start of fat ass-ness. (NY Times image.)

The ad states that pricing for Zenith brand televisions “begin as low as $149.95” or $1,267.40 in today’s dollars.  The set pictured in the ad in the “blond grained finish cabinet on casters” costs $399.95 or $3,380.43 in today’s dollars.  What bargains.  The median salary in 1955 was $4,418 or $37,341.53 in today’s dollars.  Once again Lame Adventures is flaunting its vast educational muscle if one overlooks the redundancy of the phrase, “in today’s dollars”.

Although Mr. Polley’s invention did not fly off store shelves, I doubt that 99% of US households had a single TV in 1955 much less that the average household had 2.24 sets as the households of today.  Since I watch on average two hours of TV a week (exceptions that I avidly tune in: Wimbledon and US Open tennis, the Academy Awards, the Tony Awards, election night results, and on those rare occasions when Saturday Night Live sounds like it might actually deliver), my  eleven-year-old Sony behemoth qualifies as a .24 set.

Sony .24 set circa 2001 (note remotes in foreground).

This is not to imply that I’m a snob that considers TV beneath me. My preferred mode of procrastination is the Internet.

The Flash-Matic allowed the TV viewer to turn the set on, off, change channels and mute the sound of commercials – something that I personally highly appreciate.  Thank you Mr. Polley.  Ms. Fox describes Mr. Polley as “a plain-spoken man who seemed to avail himself of his own internal mute button only rarely”.  His being a chatterbox further endears him to me.  Mr. Polley indulged in whining about  shoddy reporting that often credits his colleague, Robert Adler, who invented a better selling remote, as being the sole inventor of this device.  Not so!

Mr. Polley took pride in his invention proclaiming, “The flush toilet may have been the most civilized invention ever devised, but the remote control is the next most important. It’s almost as important as sex.”

Eugene Polley (NYTimes image).

Therefore, I conclude that the  visage of this founding father of the wireless remote should grace a new coin, at least the two-cent piece.

Lame Adventure 170: “Maahvalous!”

Last week Coco and I attended a preview screening of Bill Cunningham New York.  When my pal was in the third grade, she was assigned to write a Thanksgiving essay about what she was most thankful for.  Unlike her classmates that were thankful for their parents, grandparents and pets, Coco tossed her thanks to Macy’s because they carried Jordache jeans.  Fast forward twenty-odd years later to the present where this grown-up fashionista is so excited about attending this screening, she’s sprouted a rather eye-catching full beard resembling a maroon dyed raccoon.

Coco petting her Abraham Lincoln beard with a studded cashmere Michael Kors glove.

Bill Cunningham is a New York Times treasure, an intrepid man on the street photographer whose On the Street columns (and in recent years, videos) chronicling fashion trends and the New York social scene are reliable highlights of the Sunday Style section.  This is a film made with love, wit and deep respect for this reluctant star.  Directed by Richard Press and produced by his partner in work and marriage, Philip Gefter, this dynamic duo gives the audience an intimate glimpse into the life of an extremely gracious, painfully modest, very active and eternally optimistic artist as he approaches age eighty during the course of filming (Bill’s now 82).

A very private man by nature, even Bill’s closest friends and colleagues admit they know next to nothing about his personal life.  Some facts about Bill are obvious, such as his distinct patrician accent every time he utters his favorite word, “Maahvalous,” betraying that he was born and bred in Boston.  An unanswered question is raised asking if Bill is the product of wealth.  During the q&a Press said that Bill revealed to him that his father worked for the US Postal Service, but did not elaborate further so he had no way of knowing if pere Cunningham was a common letter carrier or the postmaster general.

Bill does possess a very strong philosophy about money that borders on contemptuous.  He refused to accept any payment for his photos published in Details magazine where he worked during two of the happiest years of his life.  He was allowed complete control and was in his bliss.  He reasons, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.  That’s the key to the whole thing.” Fiercely independent, Bill shoots all of his photographs on film and he owns all of his negatives.  He is the last photographer on the Times staff that shoots film adamantly refusing to go digital.  The Times allows him what appears to be complete autonomy, as well as a bevy of assistants he drives crazy.

During the year Press and Gefter followed Bill, he was faced with having to vacate his bohemian utopia, a rent-controlled studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, where he has resided since the early fifties.  Bill’s room is a simple sliver of space (with no kitchen and a shared bath in the hallway) that’s cluttered with metal file cabinets packed with his thousands of negatives.  He sleeps on a narrow cot atop piles of magazines. His clothes hang on wire hangers on the cabinets’ drawer pulls.  His longtime neighbors include his colorful friend, 96-year-old portrait photographer Editta Sherman.  Hopefully, someone will soon film a documentary about her.

This apartment has clearly been the key to Bill’s unique degree of independence.  Very low overhead and paying next-to-nothing rent would be a godsend to all struggling artists and hack bloggers today if this dream option still existed in New York, but it doesn’t.  Therefore, if you’re not born into wealth, you fail to wed a rich spouse, and you’re not on the winning side of a pot of lottery ticket gold, try to find a day job that is not entirely soul-sucking, and when need be, a source of material.

Bill’s never had a life partner but in a very moving scene, he answers some blunt questions about his disciplined personal life.  He doesn’t own a TV, and claims he does not have the time to see films or go to the theater, but admits he does enjoy music.  He gets his fix when he attends church on Sunday.  He has no interest in fine dining and subsists on cheap deli sandwiches and take-out coffee.

As monastic as his private life is, Bill is possibly the hardest working, most inspired member of the Times staff as he navigates Manhattan on his thirtieth three speed bike.  The previous twenty-nine were all stolen, but he has an almost zen-like acceptance about that.  He is not a guy that sweats the small stuff.  The street is where he wants to be as he hunts for subjects.

Almost everywhere he goes, he’s welcomed warmly, but there is a hilarious moment when two identically dressed teens he photographs turn on him, curse him out and threaten to break his camera.  Instead of fleeing in fear from these angry kids more than sixty years his junior, he is entertained, giggling impishly as he pedals away.

A man who thrives on beauty, Bill has an expert eye for detecting trends.  From one of his favorite perches, the four corners of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, often outside Bergdorf Goodman, he waits with his camera poised for prey — anyone stylishly dressed.  The clothes he photographs need not be expensive.  What’s required for a snap from Bill is that a subject looks original.  He takes his photographs with an unabashed enthusiasm lithely chasing objects of his admiration as they cross the street, scampering for a better angle, and occasionally directing a subject.  He is a guy who is most in the zone when he is clutching his Nikon.  He even snaps shots while pedaling from one location to the next.

His work ethic is so dedicated that it borders on obsessive.  Bill’s typical day usually starts around 8:30 am and ends at midnight.  He is also a walking encyclopedia of fashion trends past.  Since he is disinterested in pop culture, and his main focus is clothes, he is equally indifferent to celebrity.  In Paris, during fashion week, photographers swarm fashion icon Catherine Deneuve as she enters her limousine.  Bill stands back with his Nikon at rest.  Later, he matter-of-factly explains that she wasn’t wearing anything interesting.  As he waits to enter another fashion show amongst a horde of press, a minion questions Bill who waits patiently wearing a bemused expression.  When her boss appears, he brushes past the youngster, and gives Bill instant access declaring, “He’s the most important man on earth.”

While in Paris, Bill receives a prestigious award, a chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.  He seems to much prefer photographing the guests, but he does deliver an acceptance speech mostly in heavily American-accented French that he emotionally concludes in English, “If you look you can find beauty in everything.”

As Coco and I left the screening we marveled at Bill’s devotion to his craft and the overall purity of his spirit.  I vowed:

Me:  I’m going to further downsize my life!  I’ll completely commit myself to the written word!  I’ll be the Bill Cunningham of blogging!

Then, we hit a bar where I proceeded to drink my weight in sake.  I screwed off for the remainder of the week and did not publish another post until the following Friday.

Coco, had a more sober reaction:

Coco:  I’m going to hang out at 57th and Fifth every chance I get.

"We all get dressed for Bill," Anna Wintour. "But some way more than others," Lame Adventures Woman.

Bill Cunningham New York opens today for a two week run at the Film Forum in lower Manhattan, and will roll out in major cities nationally.

Lame Adventure 152: Hurry up and wait

“Futurists have long predicted that one day, shoppers will swipe cellphones instead of credit cards to make purchases. At Starbucks stores nationwide, that is about to become a reality … “We’re providing them with the fastest way to pay,” Brady Brewer, vice president for the Starbucks card and brand loyalty, said in a statement.”

The New York Times, Buy a Latte by Waving Your Phone

For the past few years, my brother, Axel, has given me a $20 Starbucks gift card for Christmas.  This Christmas, my sister, Dovima, also gave me a $20 Starbucks gift card.  Add this $40 in Starbucks gift cards to the $3.59 unused portion of the Starbucks gift card I received from Axel in 2009, and it becomes apparent that I am either Mormon or a lifelong tea drinker.

$43.59 Starbucks gift card collection.

In actuality I am a tea-loving atheist, and tea is not Starbucks’ signature beverage.  In fact, Starbucks hot tea tastes rather anemic to me, but that could have been due to it being so hot, I scalded both my tongue and esophagus with such severity I lost my ability to distinguish flavor for three days.

Before my lactose intolerance started registering on the Richter scale, I guzzled many a Frappuccino as well as an occasional latte, but my all-time favorite Starbucks’ beverage was their peppermint hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate.  According to my gastroenterologist, this combination of milk, chocolate, and peppermint is the perfect Bermuda Triangle for someone with guts as fragile as mine, so I’ve quit the Frappuccinos and lattes.  Now, when I think of it, I order the less lethal soy hot chocolate, but since I still have $43.59 in Starbucks gift card credit, this idea has yet to catapult to the forefront of my thoughts.

As for Starbucks new lightning fast pay via smart phone technology that launches today, that’s a great rush hour gimick.  Every time I visit any Starbucks in Manhattan, it’s during the off-peak period so waiting an eternity to pay is not an issue.  What remains an issue is the indecisive customers ahead of me or the barista that transparently hates his or her job.  Both are institutions that remain intact.

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday night, Milton and I went to a Starbucks on Columbus Avenue.  There were only a few customers ahead of us, and they knew what they wanted.  The person working the register efficiently swiped my gift card.  The problem was the lackluster barista.  If this guy had been a car, he would have been a Yugo stuck in second gear – and that was before he mumbled he was out of ice and traveled to Antarctica to replenish the supply.  He disappeared for fifteen minutes.  Since he was the only one making drinks, there were easily a dozen customers waiting for him to return.

Considering that it was 17-degrees and there was a mountain of snow outside, possibly this was the barista’s way of delivering a statement to the icy beverage buyer, a bubbly young woman who weighed about as much as my thumb.

My thumb ready for its close up.

Her posse had already downed their hot lattes by the time she was served her iced variation, but she was vacant enough to find this hilarious.  I would have beaten the barista with a tube sock full of ice.  What annoyed me more was when he did not fill our orders back to back.  He first prepared my crummy soy hot chocolate, and then proceeded to make someone else’s coffee drink.  I blurted:

Me:  Where’s my hot chocolate with whipped cream?

Milton was denied his drizzle of chocolate over his whipped cream in response to that outburst, but my brother footed our tab so my friend did not complain.

Since my career overseeing tile labeling merely pays health insurance and a potato, I can only afford a dumb phone, I have a two year supply of Starbucks gift card credit, and I would sooner belly slide naked on hot coals than visit Starbucks at peak hour.  Paying via smart phone does not impact me, but if it did, I don’t see much advantage to paying quickly if the goods are not delivered quicker.  Even if Starbucks employed baristas on speed, there’s no way they’ll ever eliminate the indecisive customer who is standing at the register holding up the line.

If futurists (a modern name for the they say-ers?) are right and a time comes when paying via cash or credit card is rendered obsolete, the wallet will be replaced by the smart phone, laptops by tablet computers, and obesity eliminated by eat-as-much-of-anything-as-you-want-and-stay-thin pills (the biggest pharmaceutical cash cow this side of Viagra), I am sure that subway commuters will still carry bulky bags and backpacks as they sip their Starbucks during rush hour and the steady decline in the quality of life will continue no matter how fast we pay to get caffeinated.

Lame Adventure 124: Cat Lapping

The Science section of The New York Times has published a story about how cats lap water.

Another mystery solved.

The Times online has also embedded a four minute forty-five second video illustrating “the biomechanics of feline water uptake.”  Translation: see for yourself in slow motion how Cutta Cutta, an M.I.T. engineer’s pet cat, drinks.  While this engineer was having breakfast, he was observing Cutta Cutta lap.  Instead of investing his vast intellect in the direction of global warming, our dependence on fossil fuels, or the rapidity of college student alcohol intake, he focused his attention on his cat delicately darting its tongue into its water bowl at lightening speed.  This seemingly ordinary act of feline nature fired this engineer’s imagination, as well as that of an M.I.T. colleague, and two other engineers, one from Princeton, and the other from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

I have deduced that these four brilliant men of science had an immense amount of time on their hands, and were also under pressure to look busy.  I have experienced a similar situation in my own place of employ, where I oversee the labeling of floor tile.  When there is a lull in my workload, I exploit this opportunity to clean my desk, an act I have performed precisely once in six years much to the astonishment of my boss and colleagues who initially assumed that I was preparing to give notice.  Returning to the topic of the study of cat lapping I suspect this research would have gone in an entirely different direction had that engineer been focused on Cutta Cutta making use of the litter box.

Although I am personally a dog person by default, being deathly allergic to cats, I do have a soft spot for Maru, the superstar box jumping cat from Japan.  While watching the video below, I noticed that I sneezed.

After detailing precisely how a cat laps, the rate of lapping, and the amount of liquid consumed, the Times notes, “To the scientific mind, the next obvious question is whether bigger cats should lap at different speeds.”  To my unscientific mind, the more obvious follow-up question is, “Who the hell cares?”   Why four engineers from some of the brainiest think tanks out there would be prompted to study a cat tonguing a dish of milk baffles me, unless this is just to prove that they’re worthy of collecting a paycheck.  How does knowing how a cat laps, whether it’s my boss’s two calicos, or Leo the MGM lion, or Cutta Cutta, make this world a better place?  Considering that some of our greatest minds are investing their time studying the mechanics of how cats drink assures me that the world is definitely going to the dogs.

We're here!

Lame Adventure 40: The Syrup Locker

It is lunchtime and Ling and I are sitting at our desks eating.  My friend and colleague is having a salad while doing some work-related retouching in Photoshop.  I’m stuffing myself with one of my legendarily crummy sandwiches while inhaling The New York Times Magazine online, a story written by Jon Mooallem published March 29,  2010 about if animals can be gay.  Appropriately, it is titled Can Animals Be Gay? Elsbeth enters our office and stands between our two desks.

Elsbeth:  Ling, can you make a sign asking customers to not touch the syrup locker?  They should ask for assistance.

Ling:  The what?

Me:  Did you say, “The syrup locker,” Boss?

Elsbeth:  Yes.  The syrup locker.

Ling:  Huh?

Me (excited):  Is that our version of The Hurt Locker?  Are you going to get all Kathryn Bigelow, Elsbeth, lead us into historical greatness, be a warrior princess, set  a precedent?

Bigelow in action directing The Hurt Locker.

Elsbeth was not overly impressed with Bigelow’s award winning film.  She gives me a withering glance before returning her attention to Ling.

Elsbeth:  You know [thinking/emphasizing] the locker for the syrups.

Ling looks completely baffled.

Me:  Now that’s a Claritin clear way of putting it.

Elsbeth (relieved):  Good.

Elsbeth leaves and returns to her office.  Ling and I are staring at each other like two doofuses.

Me:  What the hell’s the syrup locker?

Ling:  I have no fuckin’ clue.  I have to see that movie.

Me:  I liked it.  It’s good.  Hey, I’ll Google syrup locker.

I Google syrup locker, but that draws a blank.  Googling each word individually draws what one would expect.

Syrup.

Locker.

Ling resumes eating her salad and doing her retouching.  I resume reading about two female birds nursing an egg together making scientists ponder if these creatures are indeed lesbian.  Reading this fascinating article is the most awake I’ve been all day.

Birds of a feather.

The next morning, Ling and I are sitting at our desks eating breakfast.  She, a bowl of oatmeal and I, a cup of flavor-reduced vitamin fortified wood chips in skim milk.  Ling’s phone rings.  The caller is Stan, Elsbeth’s husband, asking Ling to make a sign for the vintage ice cream syrup dispenser we have on display.  Ling hangs up the phone and pounds out the sign. We both know what that is, having played with it ourselves a few weeks earlier.  The syrups are all empty.  We know, we checked.

The Syrup Locker (with sign).