Lost Art Of . . .
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).
up for travel
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 vests 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?
memorable exitsleaving for college, going to Europe,
embarking on a road tripdont seem like events.
Could it be because I wasnt so nattily dressed?
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
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.
Ill wear white gloves. Will our journey seem less
blurry, memorialized by careful dressing? Ill report.
a watch to tell time
hard to find a college kid wearing a watch. Ive 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 cant
see a second hand sweeping on a watch face? I dont
know if some people today even know that there are 60 seconds
in a minute or 24 hours in a day.
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, whens the last time you even made a mix CD?
whats 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 couldnt put
into actual words. Bonus points if you figured out that
putting Led Zeppelins Thank You at the
end of side B would pretty much guarantee youd get
to third base.
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
Hearts Magic Man. You could design your
own artworkthose 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 didnt kill music
after allit was the Hype Machine.
a family friend whos an antiques dealer, and when
I poke through her collection of 19th- and early-20th-century
silverware, its like a trip through the props department
at a Merchant and Ivory film set.
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
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.
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.
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. Im 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
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.
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 hasnt malfunctioned, that is how
much change he owes you.
comes the stupid part.
into the register for $7.71 and proceeds to count it for
you. Five, six, seven, seventy-one. As if you
didnt know how to count yourself.
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. Its simple,
but it does something for the customer that simply counting
the change doesnt: It reassures him that the numbers
have been entered and subtracted correctly. Its like
a basic mathematical proof. You start with the total billin
this case, $12.29and 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,
this wont matter at all when we no longer have cash
transactions. I suppose it really doesnt 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.
makes me feel like the worlds 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 cashierwho never even said Hi
or made eye contact with mestopping to answer a text
message, it makes my blood boil.
ask for help finding something, a vague point across the
stores 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.
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.
ones social network by going out and meeting
people in person, conversing and learning real things about
to be that a social network was your group of
friendsreal 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.
you for the slippers. I like the color of them and theyre
nice and warm. School is fine, but Ill be glad when
we have vacation soon.
all is well with you.
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. Its quite simple,
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 packages arrival, but nothing betters a card in
the mail. Thank-you notes can be artful, but more important,
they need to be done.
in-store lunch counter
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?
in-store lunch counters are so long gone theyre 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 cant compete.
salutation in digital correspondence
does typing an e-mail absolve one from being courteous or
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!
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 neighbors eye.
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.
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
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?
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.
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 scripta
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 isnt 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.
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.
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 dont 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 journalists
salary, and 2) being a journalist, I am supposed to be able
to read my own handwriting.
and his father were proud, Albany-grown pharmacists. Langes
Apothecary Shop opened its doors on the corner of Dove and
Lancaster in 1911; Langes Pharmacy moved to serve
Clarksville and the surrounding hilltowns in the late 50s,
back when pharmacists earned the mortar and pestle on their
todays chain dispensaries, your neighborhood pharmacist
mixed salves and tinctures by hand, measured doses into
capsules, even extruded suppositories from a hand-cranked
machine (this contraptions similarity to a Play-doh
fun factory made it a favorite of family kids). The contents
of glass bottles molded with Langes 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
so many mom-and-pop shops, the neighborhood pharmacy struggled
to compete with the big chains, and so a century of relicsbottles
and beakers and pestles, delicate scales and vibrant show
globes, advertisements for lice powder and cocainewere
retired to museums, and their proprietors to memories.
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 suns position to
orient your course toward where the highway ought to be,
finally stopping at Dicks 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. Youll tell that story for the rest
of your life.
lead guitar solos
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 soloa flashy instrumental break covering the
entire chord structure of either the verse or the chorus
of a songmade the musical endangered species list.
Its decline began with Kurt Cobain, who in his rebellion
against what he saw as heavy metals 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.
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?
Its 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.
photo billboardsand now their LED counterpartslong
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 friends 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 Barneys Barbershop.
The singular creations gave towns a distinct flavor and
lent artistry to the mundane.
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.
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 themeither on your smart
phone or with another personwithin 20 feet of me.
Teach your children to do the same. And if you need a hug,
ask someone else.
happened to a kid just shooting hoops in the backyard, going
to the swimming hole or walking a trout stream and fishing
for the afternoonor 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 outinstead
of Google or Wiki?
your cat to use the toilet
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.
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 youve afforded him, and youll
appreciate not having to scoop his poop.
dont 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 brains hard drive, and when I can no
longer remember what I had for breakfast, Ill still
be able to remember dialing 447-7276 on the rotary phone
and asking Chris mother if he was home.
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 wont have a clue how to
reach either of my oldest sons on their cell phones?
much of my early adulthoodfrom the ages of 15 to 30I
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.
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.
I am typing more. But am I tenderly toting friends with
me through my days, recording the thoughts Ive 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.
and college kids arent even using e-mail any more
for most of their communication, b/c texting is so much
more immediate. Heck, you dont even have to write
out sentences or even complete words. Lets face it,
it is a great tool, but it is a dumber and less polite way
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
its 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
moms china teapot and find yourself grounded; shell
probably jump at the chance to finally get you out of her
basement and find you a cheap ticket to Vegas on Kayak.
the fakeness. Kids these days are phony. Frontin.
They probably wouldnt 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.
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?