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The Lost Art Of . . .

For this special feature, Metroland staffers and contributers lament the decline of customs, rituals, habits and manners of years passed. Some of these laments are sweetly nostalgic; others are just plain grumpy; and some are, well, a little out there (can you really train a cat to use the toilet?). We hope you enjoy it, and we hope some of you will be inspired to send us Lost Arts of your own (Metroland, 419 Madison Ave., Albany, NY 12210; metroland@ metroland.net).

 

Dressing up for travel

When I was 7, my grandmother took my mother, my sisters and me to New York City on a tour bus. We girls got new pants suits for the day. Mine was mint green. The vest’s pattern was different from the pants, but the pieces complemented each other. I loved my outfit. Everything felt special: going with Mom and Grandma, leaving for the Big Apple. Would it be like James’ Giant Peach?

Other memorable exits—leaving for college, going to Europe, embarking on a road trip—don’t seem like events. Could it be because I wasn’t so nattily dressed?

Dressing for an occasion fixes a marker in your mind. My mother talks fondly about the clothes she selected to wear en route to her honeymoon. Wedding gowns, communion gowns, cap and gowns: These garments mark the transition from one place in our life to the next, and help carry us metaphorically on that journey.

In December my family will travel to Seattle. What if I dress us all smartly? Picture my husband and boys in button-down shirts and ties. I dare you. Picture me in a kilt and a car coat. I’ll wear white gloves. Will our journey seem less blurry, memorialized by careful dressing? I’ll report.

—Amy Halloran

Using a watch to tell time

It’s hard to find a college kid wearing a watch. I’ve experienced folks who cannot tell time on a clock face with dials. Sure, the cell phone is an all-in-one-package these days, but how do people realize time is passing if they can’t see a second hand sweeping on a watch face? I don’t know if some people today even know that there are 60 seconds in a minute or 24 hours in a day.

—Martin Benjamin

 

Making mix tapes

It’s been a long 10 years since High Fidelity. We can blame the times for this one: The death knell for the mix tape was first sounded around the turn of the century, as more and more home computers were shipped with compact-disc burners installed. Then, Internet connection speeds revved up, the Web became clogged with free music, and everybody got iPods. Heck, when’s the last time you even made a mix CD?

But what’s lost is personality. Back in the day, a mix tape was not only a way to justify buying that Warren G album (when all you wanted was “Regulate” anyway), but also a form of expression. For many a young lover, the mix cassette was a way to tell your crush everything your emotionally stunted, pot-addled brain couldn’t put into actual words. Bonus points if you figured out that putting Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” at the end of side B would pretty much guarantee you’d get to third base.

Besides the romantic possibilities, mix-tape-making was also an artistic endeavor. Anyone could throw a dozen songs on one side of a 90-minute TDK, but a true craftsman might have recognized that the end of “Supreme Fashion” by the Figgs would segue seamlessly into the guitar lead from Heart’s “Magic Man.” You could design your own artwork—those J-card inserts were perfect for the budding felt-tip artiste. And without exception the finished product would be the result of a solid afternoon of work: Long gone are the days of spreading your vinyl albums out on the living room floor in search of that perfect cut; now you just drag a bunch of files into a folder and . . . whatever. Turns out home taping didn’t kill music after all—it was the Hype Machine.

—John Brodeur

 

Setting the table

We have a family friend who’s an antiques dealer, and when I poke through her collection of 19th- and early-20th-century silverware, it’s like a trip through the props department at a Merchant and Ivory film set.

Were we really once a society in which people gave bouillon spoons and lunch forks (as opposed to dinner forks) as gifts to other people who actually knew how to use them at a well-appointed table?

Yes, we were, and I think that was nice. I believe in setting the table for dinner. It signals a slowdown at the end of the day, a transition from work and deadlines into the evening.

No one I know ever bought sterling silver flatware when they got married. Dining rooms have evolved into all-purpose open “eating areas,” and setting the table these days often means stacking some dishes on the kitchen counter.

But I still believe in setting the table, and this has nothing to do with moralistic opining about the decline of the family dinner hour in modern America. I’m actually not so sure that “the family dinner hour” was ever all that it was cracked up to be; I know way too many adults who have hellish memories of the dinner hour from their childhood.

No, my reasons are far simpler: I just like the way a nicely set table looks, and I like the ritual of ushering in the evening. In another era, I would have lit the lanterns and candles all through the house. In 2010, I set the table.

—Darryl McGrath

 

Counting back change

Your total comes to $12.29. You hand the clerk a twenty. He enters that into the computerized cash register, and “$7.71” flashes on the screen. Assuming he entered the numbers correctly and the computer hasn’t malfunctioned, that is how much change he owes you.

Now comes the stupid part.

He reaches into the register for $7.71 and proceeds to count it for you. “Five, six, seven, seventy-one.” As if you didn’t know how to count yourself.

On the first day of my teenage job at Friendly restaurant, my manager went through the proper method of counting back change with me several times to make sure I had it down. It’s simple, but it does something for the customer that simply counting the change doesn’t: It reassures him that the numbers have been entered and subtracted correctly. It’s like a basic mathematical proof. You start with the total bill—in this case, $12.29—and use the change to count upward to the amount paid. You give the penny first, then the dimes, then the quarters, then the bills. “Twelve twenty-nine, thirty, forty, fifty, seventy-five, thirteen dollars. Fourteen, fifteen, twenty.”

Of course, this won’t matter at all when we no longer have cash transactions. I suppose it really doesn’t matter now. But for some of us who remember when “customer service” meant a lot of little things that added up, this is just one more little thing that has been subtracted.

—Stephen Leon

 

Customer service

Nothing makes me feel like the world’s youngest old curmudgeon faster than bad customer service. Like most anyone who pursued a career in writing and theater, I spent my share of time in the service industry. The tenets of courteous customer service were drilled into me early on. So when my purchase is interrupted by a cashier—who never even said “Hi” or made eye contact with me—stopping to answer a text message, it makes my blood boil.

If I ask for help finding something, a vague point across the store’s expanse and a mumbled “probably in housewares” is not only rude and unhelpful, it assumes I was too dim to try looking there myself before taking 10 frustrating minutes to find the elusive employee. Just last week I was volleyed across a store four times by four separate workers who each indicated a different far-flung corner would be the Mecca of fabric glue. And the one time I asked if someone could help me bag groceries while my sleeping daughter was slung across my chest, I got a shrug and a headshake and did it myself.

Surely this erosion of service stems from corporate distance from customers. More often than not, proprietors of independent businesses still take pride in representing their products with courtesy and care, which is reason enough to eschew big boxes for the personal touch of local shops.

—Kathryn Guerin

Creating one’s “social network” by going out and meeting people in person, conversing and learning real things about each other

It used to be that a “social network” was your group of friends—real friends that you had real experiences with that took time to develop and come by. You kept friends by being there for them, by having important experiences together, by learning about each other and developing a real bond. Now you can get a “friend request” and in an instant click a box to accept them. It used to be you had to earn a friendship, not solicit it or accept it with keystrokes.

—M.B.

 

Writing thank-you notes

Dear Grandma Goldene,

Thank you for the slippers. I like the color of them and they’re nice and warm. School is fine, but I’ll be glad when we have vacation soon.

I hope all is well with you.

Love,

David

I wrote something very much like that to grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends when I was growing up. Writing thank-you notes was nothing that came naturally to me, nor does it to any child. I wrote them because my parents told me to, and they also taught me how to do it. It’s quite simple, really.

Some people may not think about it when a thank-you note is not received, but they certainly notice when one does come to them. A phone call or an e-mail is fine for acknowledging a package’s arrival, but nothing betters a card in the mail. Thank-you notes can be artful, but more important, they need to be done.

—David Greenberger

 

The in-store lunch counter

Remember sitting down mid-shopping-excursion for a cold bubbling soda, served up in a paper cone? Spinning on a chrome stool waiting for a freshly grilled sandwich while your mom loaded up on household necessities?

Most in-store lunch counters are so long gone they’re only a faint and cozy oasis on the farthest outskirts of my memory. But what a treat it was to sidle up to a Formica counter or slide a resin tray along the metal rails to snag a stemmed parfait glass brimming with cubed Jell-O jewels, topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. A pretzel and a bottle of Coke from the Target snack bar just can’t compete.

—K.G.

 

The salutation in digital correspondence

Why does typing an e-mail absolve one from being courteous or polite?

And does “Hi,” “Hey” or “Hello” fill the bill? Recently, while working in a foreign country for an extended period of time, I noticed every e-mail to me was started with “Dear . . .” How refreshing that someone would be polite enough to take the extra four seconds to type 10 characters, a space and a comma to start a communication in a respectful and courteous manner!

—M.B.

 

Knowing your neighbors

If you Google the phrase “knowing your neighbors,” the first site the search engine finds is a national sex-offender registry. Gone are the days of the Welcome Wagon, or even meeting your new neighbor’s eye.

Of course, there are neighborhoods where the block captain comes over with a firm handshake and a list of rules and regs on lawn length and sidewalk cleaning.

Usually, though, you buy a house and the people who lived there before you behaved badly. Left their needles on the front stoop. Were very vocal late at night with the windows open. You, the new home owner, are thrilled by your purchase, so when the people across the street ignore your friendly wave, thinking you are going to leave your needles on the sidewalk too, kaboom.

Do you 1) bake the apple pie you wanted them to bake you and deliver it with a smile 2) become the block captain and develop a list of rules and regs, or 3) wait it out?

The answer is No. 3. Eventually, there will be things to discuss. Fires. Accidents. Mayors. You may never play bridge and raise highballs, but disasters are terrific human glue.

—A.H.

 

Handwriting

I recall struggling in handwriting classes. Like so many other things in life, my mark was distinct each time because of its complete unpredictability and lack of discipline. I thought my name sounded regal and deserved a Kingly sort of script—a swooping royal “K,” a tall, proud “i,” a sharp “n,” and an absolutely artistic yet regal “g,” with a tail to underline my entire name. But that isn’t what I got. Instead, I got a computer, delivered to my house by my rocket-scientist uncle before any other kids on the block even owned a Nintendo. I surfed Prodigy and played Commander Keen and Monkey Island rather than practicing my curlicues.

My grandmother had the crispest script I have ever seen. I would peer at her lists, the notes she took on the books she devoured, with admiration, almost in awe of how she could make sense of what she wrote. “How handy it must be to be able to catalogue your thoughts and refer to them again without lugging around a PC,” I thought.

But now I often wonder how credit-card companies would even know if someone were forging my signature. When I take notes during my journalistic pursuits it is mostly for show; I always have a recorder handy to make sure I don’t end up depending on my chicken scratch. And how terribly unfunny it is when people joke, “You must be a doctor with this kind of handwriting,” because, 1) I earn a journalist’s salary, and 2) being a journalist, I am supposed to be able to read my own handwriting.

—David King

 

The neighborhood pharmacy

My grandfather and his father were proud, Albany-grown pharmacists. Lange’s Apothecary Shop opened its doors on the corner of Dove and Lancaster in 1911; Lange’s Pharmacy moved to serve Clarksville and the surrounding hilltowns in the late ’50s, back when pharmacists earned the mortar and pestle on their sign.

Unlike today’s chain dispensaries, your neighborhood pharmacist mixed salves and tinctures by hand, measured doses into capsules, even extruded suppositories from a hand-cranked machine (this contraption’s similarity to a Play-doh fun factory made it a favorite of family kids). The contents of glass bottles molded with “Lange’s” down the side nursed people to health for decades. Proprietary blends of shampoo and “skin food” were tested and refined until they deserved to be stamped with the family name.

Like so many mom-and-pop shops, the neighborhood pharmacy struggled to compete with the big chains, and so a century of relics—bottles and beakers and pestles, delicate scales and vibrant show globes, advertisements for lice powder and cocaine—were retired to museums, and their proprietors to memories.

—K.G.

 

Getting lost

There was a time when getting turned around in Pettigrew, Ark., meant arguing with your girlfriend over whether or not you knew where you were going, blaming each other for losing that page of the atlas, using the sun’s position to orient your course toward where the highway ought to be, finally stopping at Dick’s Country Oasis to ask for directions from a palsied mechanic who may or may not be offering you meth only when the needle on your fuel gauge becomes an indicator of your last remaining will. You cursed your carelessness, made secret pacts with exotic deities, and felt tremblingly present and alive. Back on course, it seemed like the whole universe, not just a GPS, was conspiring in your favor. You’ll tell that story for the rest of your life.

—Josh Potter

 

Playing lead guitar solos

When Guitar Player magazine asked on the cover of its September 1997 issue, “Is rock guitar dead or does it just smell funny?,” the decades-old art of the wailing electric guitar solo—a flashy instrumental break covering the entire chord structure of either the verse or the chorus of a song—made the musical endangered species list. Its decline began with Kurt Cobain, who in his rebellion against what he saw as heavy metal’s sexist lyrics, tossed the baby out with the bathwater by downplaying guitar solos in his tunes. Green Day followed suit, and although highbrow exceptions like Dream Theater can be found, rock lead guitar is still largely AWOL.

So, it seems, is the incentive to resurrect it. Why bother learning all that hard technical stuff like movable scale fingerings, how to create a fancy riff that jives with the underlying chord of the moment, or how to gain speed and accuracy with the pick when you can just play Guitar Hero or Rock Band? It’s a lamentable state of affairs for anyone who remembers the towering triumphs of six-string slingers like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Randy Rhoads, and Eddie Van Halen.

—Glenn Weiser

 

Sign painting

Vinyl photo billboards—and now their LED counterparts—long ago superseded the bold and endearing graphics of hand-painted and hand-pasted advertising displays. But wending down alleys or on the back streets behind the printed and neon facades advertising main-street establishments, you can still spy the hand-lettered proclamations for “Ivory Soap,” “Heinz 57 Varieties,” “Canned Herring,” or “Shoes and Uniforms, Made and Repaired,” fading into the brickwork. A friend’s father used to reproduce movie posters, by hand, for the theaters. Nostalgic collectors eagerly snap up one-of-a-kind shingles touting homemade ice cream or five cent cuts from Barney’s Barbershop. The singular creations gave towns a distinct flavor and lent artistry to the mundane. 

—K.G.

 

Maintaining personal boundaries

The Victorians got a bad rap. They may have lived in the golden age of epidemics, labor exploitation and prostitution, but they knew how to mind their own business. A colleague and I have, on occasion, observed with admiration the reticence of the Victorian gentleman with regard to personal matters.

While I am resigned to people asking personal questions (“How are you?,” ugh), I refuse to accept the idea that you should be able to impose your life on me. Please consider keeping most matters private. If you have to discuss your sexual relationships, parenting mishaps, diseases of the mind or body, recently deceased relatives or tax problems, do not discuss them—either on your “smart” phone or with another person—within 20 feet of me. Teach your children to do the same. And if you need a “hug,” ask someone else.

—Shawn Stone

 

Idle time

Whatever happened to a kid just shooting hoops in the backyard, going to the swimming hole or walking a trout stream and fishing for the afternoon—or just plain having time for idle and meditative thoughts with no deadline or schedule in mind, just putting technology aside and using imagination? What about just using imagination to figure something out—instead of Google or Wiki?

—M.B.

 

Teaching your cat to use the toilet

This and the 1956 Atlantic Records release Pithecanthropus Erectus are generally considered to be Charles Mingus’ greatest work. But while Mingus’ vast catalog of jazz has found its way into the American canon, his potty-training methodology can only be found on websites that look like they might give your laptop Internet STDs.

But the system is simple and dignified. Put your kitty litter box next to your toilet. Over several weeks, slowly raise the box up to the level of the toilet seat. Put the box on the seat. Cut slats in the box. When your cat is ready, remove the box entirely. Your cat will appreciate the equal level of civility you’ve afforded him, and you’ll appreciate not having to scoop his poop.

—J.P.

 

Remembering phone numbers

If I don’t think about it too hard, I can tell you the phone numbers of all of my high-school friends. They are etched forever in my brain’s hard drive, and when I can no longer remember what I had for breakfast, I’ll still be able to remember dialing 447-7276 on the rotary phone and asking Chris’ mother if he was home.

We all know why this has changed, but as I write this, I pause and ask myself a question: Is it a problem that, should I misplace my BlackBerry, I won’t have a clue how to reach either of my oldest sons on their cell phones?

—S.L.

 

Writing a letter

For much of my early adulthood—from the ages of 15 to 30—I was always composing a letter in my head. I carried distant friends close in my mind, narrating my day first to myself as I lived it, and then to them, once I got pen to paper.

My letter writing has since diminished. Blogging has somewhat replaced the impulse, but the common logic that blames the rise of e-mail for the fall of the letter is flawed. So argues historian David M. Henkins, who chronicled the rise of the U.S. Post Office. “America was not a nation of thoughtful, patient letter-writers back when communications media were simpler and slower,” he recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. Henkins also noted that e-mail is replacing interactions that used to be oral, and suggested that e-mail is, in a sense, reviving letter writing.

Hmm. I am typing more. But am I tenderly toting friends with me through my days, recording the thoughts I’ve thought just for them, and putting them physically in the world? I think not. The U.S. Post Office wants to say sayonara to Saturday mail delivery, much as I said so long to my letter-lived life. I knew you well.

—A.H.

 

Writing an e-mail

Adolescents and college kids aren’t even using e-mail any more for most of their communication, b/c texting is so much more immediate. Heck, you don’t even have to write out sentences or even complete words. Let’s face it, it is a great tool, but it is a dumber and less polite way to communicate.

—M.B.

 

Lion taming

I blame Siegfried and Roy. It used to be a threat to say you were going to run away and join the circus, live a life of fire-breathing, high-wire walking and human cannonballing. It was a time when wild beasts ran free over the land, and it was up to top-hatted, mustachioed gentlemen to ward them off with a wooden chair and a whip. Then make them perch on a ball or jump through a hoop. Oh, how the bearded ladies would cheer.

Now, it’s all feline Xanax and sequined unitards. Wildlife preserves and anti-whip legislation. Man vs. Wild, never wild beast. Just try that circus threat next time you break mom’s china teapot and find yourself grounded; she’ll probably jump at the chance to finally get you out of her basement and find you a cheap ticket to Vegas on Kayak.

—J.P.

 

Keepin’ it real

Oy, the fakeness. Kids these days are phony. Frontin’. They probably wouldn’t know what the realness was if it walked right up and got authentic all over them. Probably think it was some kind of cute verisimilitude. Some kind of thing they thought they saw in a movie somewhere once. Something old school. Something to snicker and blog about.

We didn’t stand for that kind of forgery back in the day. Keepin’ it real was our 9-5. Chillin’ like Bob Dylan on penicillin. Fighting the spurious with the true. You remember, right? Right?!

—J.P.


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