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Thursday, January 22, 2009



In the late seventies, I decided to give myself a college graduation present. Back then, cable television was not available where I lived. There was no Blockbuster, no internet, no DVD’s, no NetFlix. There was not even a video rental store of any kind. There were three networks and one UHF station in my broadcast area. I was earning five dollars an hour, a huge salary for a 22-year-old, which I got because I was sleeping with the boss. Yet after the rent was paid and the food was bought, there wasn’t a lot left over for entertainment.

Nevertheless, I saw that as no reason why I shouldn’t be the first on my block to own a video cassette recorder. I bought the RCA model on sale at Maas Brothers’ department store in Tampa for $995 plus tax. Come to think of it, it wasn’t on sale, but the deal was, if you charged it with your Maas Brothers credit card, you could finance it interest-free for three months.

$1000 then equates to two thousand, eight hundred 2007 dollars. Blank VHS tapes went for $24.95 (seventy 2007 dollars) for 4-hour tapes for $17.95 (Fifty 2007 dollars) for 2-hour tapes. Mercifully, the machine came with two of each, because after liquidating all my assets to buy the machine itself, there was no cash left to buy tapes. I used those tapes for several months before I invested in an additional tape. At least I guessed the correct coin toss and bought VHS format instead of the Sony Betamax, God rest its soul.

I carried tremendous clout with my VCR. People would be amazed when they came over on a Sunday night only to find me watching the previous day’s Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Hour, when the only choice for them was 60 Minutes.

I had a friend who lived out by the university who had HBO. Steve informed me that HBO would be broadcasting Woody Allen’s Love and Death, and he invited me over to tape it. Since this was new technology and because I wanted it taped in color, and Steve only had a black and white TV, I realized this would be a huge undertaking. To insure I got what I wanted, I borrowed a van, packed up my VCR along with my enormous 25” console television in a Mediterranean style cabinet and drove to his place two hours before the broadcast so I could hook everything up to his cable box and do some test recording before the movie started. Afterwards I owned my first uncensored movie. People would come from near and far to watch it, in color, in the comfort of my living room. People were sooo jealous of my home theatre. I felt very grown up and aristocratic.

The VCR was a top-loading analog beast that weighed as much as an 18-year-old (which equates to an 8-year-old 2007 child.) It had a corded remote that was too short to reach the couch. The remote was generic: Play, Pause, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind. Setting up the VCR to record a show while you were gone required an MSEE from MIT and considerable time sitting in front of the box. You couldn’t program from the remote. More often than not, you ended up recording video snow.

We all know what happened to the VCR. A year later they were selling front loaders with multiple function cordless remotes for $495. Today you can buy one on eBay for a penny. But for that one year, I was The Man. I could watch anything broadcast on ABC, NBC, or CBS any time I wanted. I could be watching last week’s Mork and Mindy when the only thing available to everyone else at that time was a test pattern.

Times change, but consumerism only gets worse. Last week the Apple iPhone was released to a stampede of gotta-have-its. Apparently, in order to have a successful product these days, you have to name it with a lower case vowel followed by an upper case consonant. eBay, iPod, iPhone. iGuess you convince people that you’re revolutionary and cutting edge by showing them that you don’t have to follow the rules of grammar. Swarms of 22-year-olds are now shelling out five or six hundred 2007 dollars for a freakin’ combination telephone and MP3 player. Cattle milking attachment sold separately. And if it’s anything like the iPod, more billions will be spent on shimmering accessories, like the $49.95 licensed glue and glitter kit. Spell your name on your device and make it shine! The benefits of the iPhone are many. You now don’t have to carry two battery powered devices on your belt. Your music and your yakking device are housed in one easily-stolen piece of hardware. Furthermore, you can now watch videos of skateboarding bulldogs on your phone. And you can call someone just by sliding your finger over an address book and touching the name of the person you want to call.

Big deal. My grandmother had that luxury on top of her desk next to her black rotary phone. It was called an Autodex. It was a metal, spring-loaded book, hinged at the top, with a lever that pointed to all letters of the alphabet. Position it to the “S”, then press the button on the bottom, and the door would spring open and display all those people you knew whose last name started with “S”. I used to play with it for hours, because it doubled as a catapult. The door would spring open with such force that you could fire pennies, erasers, Crackerjack prizes or Barbie heads across the room with it. I loved office supplies when I was a kid. One of the best Christmas presents I ever received was a brown Swingline stapler, even though I received the half-strip stapler instead of the requested full-strip stapler. At least my mother wasn’t so cheap as to buy me the Tot stapler. What a useless piece of crap that was. Just like a non-iPod MP3 player, the pinky-sized Tot stapler was the Loser paper fastener. Smaller staples meant more jams and fewer pages bound. Another Christmas, I was gifted with a hole puncher, which kept me quiet and amused for years to come.

I know that for a year or so, the gotta-have-its will be creating jealous rage in their friends who have to wear their multi-media and communication devices separately on their belts. So taxing, that. And I’m just waiting for the first iPhone theft that results in a murder. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet. After all, the phone’s been on sale for three days already.

I was 22 when I learned my lesson about emerging technology. If you’re patient, something better and cheaper will come along, rendering your piece of hardware second rate, while making you look like an idiot for paying so much for that so-last-week-piece-of-crap-outdated-relic. I never made that mistake again. Today’s eye-opener is tomorrow’s snoozer.

I am still one of the few hold-outs who has never owned a cell phone. And I still have, and prefer to use, one of the three rotary phones I have in my house. As I age and slow down and become more like my grandma, the sound and the feel of a rotary phone seems to make more sense and satisfies my inner Ernestine.

I don’t know, though. If they ever come out with a cellular flip phone that opens with the same force of my grandmother’s Autodex, you might run into me at a shady park one day, launching Barbie heads from it.

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