Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Mother of Invention

No, I'm not talking about Frank Zappa.

I got a Facebook message from someone I knew in high school, asking why I didn't invent Facebook. My answer was very simple: I didn't invent it because I didn't need it.

Think about it, we tend to invent, or want to see invented, things that we see a personal need for; and I didn't have a personal need for something like Facebook. At least not from where I sat.

Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, was in a different seat, in a different world. Actually, his seat was in a world that I belonged to almost 40 years ago: that of a college student.

I don't remember what the official name of the 1974 pictorial guide to the freshman class at Syracuse University was called, but I do remember its nickname: The Pigbook, a nickname I heard it got because so many of the girls in it looked like pigs. Many other colleges had something similar, some other version of a "facebook" that was given out to all the freshmen. Back in the 70s, no one could've imagined turning the campus facebook into something you did through the school's computing systems, and definitely no one thought of connecting all the colleges, and even the whole world the same way. The technology just didn't exist. But the 21st century is a far different place than the 1970s, and now the idea behind Facebook seems like a no-brainer.

But still, it's not something that I particularly had a need to invent; because I wasn't a freshman guy trying to find out about that cute girl on page 43 anymore. Heck, the few times I actually tried to meet someone from the SU "facebook" ended up in disaster.

But there are things I would have invented, and actually did invent, because they were important to me.

First of all there's the backpack. Now I know what you're thinking. I can't possibly be taking credit for inventing something that soldiers and Boy Scouts had been using for decades before I was born. And you're right, I'm not. What I invented was using them for carrying books around in. After breaking off the handle of yet another briefcase by carrying too many books in it, I decided that I needed something that could handle all the stuff that this little geek was hauling around. So I went to the Boy Scout department at Muir's (our local department store), and got the smallest backpack I could find. After all, I wasn't going for a week-long hike, I was just carrying books and stuff around East Orange High School.

I was made fun of at first, but within 10 years everyone was using backpacks to carry their school stuff in.

Then there's the Walkman. Yes, I'm actually going to claim to have invented the Walkman...or at least to have come up with the idea behind it. I needed a way to listen to my cassette tapes on choir tour without disturbing anyone else on the bus. So I went out and bought a small cassette player and some large stereo headphones. Worked like a charm.

Sony introduced the Walkman a year later. I swear, someone from choir must've told them about it.

But the one really big thing I would've invented, or at least wanted to see someone invent, came from the fact that my house was being taken over by my collection of almost 1000 45s and a couple of hundred LPs and CDs not to mention 100 or so custom mix tapes by year or artist. Not only were all these records and tapes taking over my living room, but I had no good way to keep track of them. Even my Library Science skills couldn't help me.

Then in 2001 the iPod was introduced. I knew exactly what this was when I saw it. I knew that this would not only allow me to eventually get rid of every piece of vinyl in my house, but it would also allow me to clear out the space that had been taken up by $1200 of stereo equipment. An iPod and a set of $20 speakers from Radio Shack would do the trick.

Forget Facebook, the iPod is the thing I would've invented, not Facebook. Because this was the thing that was important to me.

Besides, with my teenaged history of stalking girls, it would've been just a little too creepy if I had invented Facebook.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Watching Dick Clark

I haven’t watched the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in a long time. It might have been sometime back in the 20th century. Although when I was in college, I remember staying up to see the new year arrive not just in Times Square, but in Chicago too; these days I’m usually in bed before the new year is even official in Nova Scotia.

Which brings us to another New Year’s Eve tradition: Dick Clark.

When Dick Clark first gave us New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1972, it was as an alternative to Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, the band for “old people,” playing Auld Lang Syne. It was a New Year’s Eve celebration for us young people. Well, now, 38 years later, we’ve become the old people, and quite frankly, we wouldn’t mind a bit of Lombardo, when you consider what popular music sounds like today.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Dick Clark is famously known as “the world’s oldest teenager,” and with a nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, many of us surmised that there was a painting hidden in his attic that had seen better days. However, his 2004 stroke may have changed the state of the painting, as he finally began to show his age, and it’s been painful for many of us to watch. In fact, I’ve heard people even mention feeling guilty about watching Dick Clark struggle to get through what used to seem to come so easily for him.

I thought about this a bit, and considered that after more than 30 years as host of American Bandstand, he had decided that it was time to step down and have a younger person host the show – a show that was aimed at young people. Knowing that, it just seemed natural that rather than wanting to become Guy Lombardo, he would realize that at some point he should step down for a younger host. And perhaps he had thought that…before the stroke. But the stroke became a game changer.

Before the stroke, he could simply have announced his retirement, done one last ball drop, and all would’ve been well. After the stroke, everything was different. Now, despite any plans he may have had before, he had to come back next year, just to show that he could do it. And so he does, and so he will…until the day he dies on-camera doing the countdown to the new year. And it’s painful for all of us who stay up late enough to watch.

But there are two other perspectives that I hadn’t considered. The first is the amount of encouragement his post-stroke appearances have provided for other stroke survivors. The second is how much being there on New Year’s Eve means to him personally; he said that he wouldn’t have missed the countdown to 2006 for the world.

There’s one more thing that I hadn’t thought of until just now. Maybe he understands that he has become Guy Lombardo, and not only accepts it, but is proud of it. After all, even though he may not have been cool to us kids, for decades Lombardo was synonymous with New Year’s Eve.

To his credit, Dick Clark has handed off most of the hosting duties to Ryan Seacrest (who I hope will pass it along to someone else before he hits 60), and has pretty much become the voice and face of the midnight countdown; making him our generation’s Ben Grauer.

So rather than feeling guilty or uncomfortable about watching him, or wishing that he’d take himself off the air, let’s wish him many more happy countdowns.

Of course, they’ll still all be way past my bedtime.