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Charlie Hatton
Brookline, MA

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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
If you're a science and/or silliness fan, give it a gander! See you soon!

More Balking, Less Talking

Once again, a computer has shown me how old I’ve become.

Only this wasn’t some fancy age-guessing gizmo or wrinkle detector or snarky ‘Hot or Not?‘ server not progammed to compensate for troubled chicks with unresolved daddy issues.

(Or Joe Piscopo issues, from what I’m told. Or Tim Curry issues, wherever the hell that came from. Or Fozzy the Bear issues.

As a matter of fact, I’m starting to wonder if these Hot-or-Not Bots are actually programmed for anything good at all.)

No. This time, it’s my very own laptop computer that’s pointed out my decrepitude. Not intentionally, perhaps — but it’s highlighted something I’ve long known about us humans: we tend to lose our coolness over time. And mine is dripping out, sloughing off or falling apart on me at an alarming rate. Including this evening, when I thought I was doing something simple on my laptop.

See, I needed to make a little video short. Nothing fancy, just a few sentences of explanation, a couple of jokes, say goodnight, Gracie, and that’s that. Only it wasn’t that. It wasn’t anything, because for the life of me I couldn’t get comfortable staring at the little light next to the laptop’s built-in cam and talking. It simply wouldn’t work.

Now mind you, I’m not one of those people with phobias about speaking in public. Or speaking in private, then broadcasting to the public. I’ve been a standup comic and a radio DJ and acted in a handful of plays. All at the amateur level, of course — but that only further proves my point. If I were actually good enough to get paid for any of those things, then naturally I’d be brimming with confidence about them. The fact that no one’s ever told me to ‘quit your day job’ — except the people actually employing me at my day job, occasionally — and yet still willing to yammer on regardless demonstrates a real lack of fear about public humiliation. Or a really stupid-steep learning curve. Or some unfortunate sad fetish that I don’t want to think too hard about.

(Frankly, I can’t imagine a fetish that involves getting off on publicly sticking your foot in your mouth.

I can imagine all kinds of them that involves sticking your foot in someone else’s mouth. I don’t have any of those fetishes, but I can imagine them. That’s all.

Then again, I’m not a Jets fan.)

The point is, I wasn’t nervous about making this little video. Just uncomfortable, and I couldn’t figure out why — until I thought of my grandfather.

My grandfather was old. At some point, back before I knew him he might have been young, but by the time we were formally introduced — oooooold. He also came from a different time, back before computers and gadgets and newfangled doohickeys complicated the sort of life he was accustomed to leading. And he had the same sort of trouble that I had tonight. Not that you’d have gotten him within thirty feet of a laptop computer. He didn’t have trouble talking to webcams. His problem was talking to drive-throughs.

“I just wanted a damned cheeseburger and maybe some fries, and I wanted them without hearing — again — how my mother’s father climbed a thousand-foot peak barefoot every morning to pick mustard seeds or Horsey sauce or whatever the hell it was he was on about”

Back when and where Grandpa grew up, you talked to people, If someone made you a sandwich, you looked him in the eye, took it from him with one hand and paid him your cash or shook his hand with the other. Better yet, you made your own sandwich — after pitching in to help butcher the meat, make the bread, and pick the vegetables. You helped yourself, and if things weren’t easy, well at least they were honest. You knew who you could depend on, and where those meals were made and who made them and where all the parts came from. You put in hard work, got your three squares a day, and you got up the next day and did it again. And that’s how things ought to be, damn it.

I know all of this because Gramps would tell me so. Constantly. He would also, if prompted, tell the flunky manning the local Wendy’s drive-through window. Where ‘prompted’ means asked, over an anonymous faceless intercom:

Welcome to Wendy’s, sir or ma’am — how about a Junior Bacon Frosty with your meal today?

Only he wouldn’t talk back through the microphone. He’d drive around and deliver his spiel while staring the poor kid down through the spick-up window — as though this sixteen-year-old minimum wager were responsible for the entire drive-through concept. Like the pimply schlub gaping back at him had installed the machine, demanded its use, and sat at the second window like some modern-day Wizard of Oz — pay no attention to the man behind the sliding glass pane! — until Gramps came along to lift the grease-spotted veil from society’s eyes and expose the fraud.

I was always mortified, of course. I just wanted a damned cheeseburger and maybe some fries, and I wanted them without hearing — again — how my mother’s father climbed a thousand-foot peak barefoot every morning to pick mustard seeds or Horsey sauce or whatever the hell it was he was on about. And the kid didn’t deserve this kind of treatment; it wasn’t his fault he wasn’t bright enough to get a good summer job.

But now I understand Gramps’ tirades. It was never about the kids, in particular. He just needed someone to mouth off to, because he wasn’t comfortable talking to a machine. He always told me he didn’t feel right ordering from a ‘squawk box’; more than that, he couldn’t even bitch to one. So he pulled around the corner and laid into the first poor paper-hatted pipsquawk he found. It just seemed to mean more, when there was someone squirming on the other end.

And that was my problem tonight. There are kids out there podcasting and vlogging and waxing poetic to nothing more than a circuit board and a cheap plastic lens — but I couldn’t do it. I’ve gotten old, like Grandpa, and it just didn’t feel right. Oh, I can still order off a video menu screen at a fast food joint — because I grew up with those — but otherwise, I seem to have lost the ability to chat comfortably with no one. I can talk to myself. I can have conversations with the dog. But talking to nobody?

I guess I’m just too old for that.

Still, I had to get this video made, which was a bit of a pickle. I could barely get halfway through it without feeling self-conscious and trailing off, but it was also something I had to do alone. No audience, other than the eventual, over-the-wire kind, was forthcoming. I knew what I had to do.

I pulled out an old family album, found a picture of old Grandpa, and scanned it on my combo printer. (Because I’m not entirely useless with this newfangled gizmo crap, thank you very much.) I blew it up, cropped down to his face, and printed Gramps back out onto a full sheet of paper. Which I then taped to my laptop screen just under the camera, punched ‘Record’ and smoked through my script. Talking ‘to Grandpa’ all the way. I think he might have appreciated being used to get around having to talk to some impersonal cold piece of equipment as a proxy for real listeners.

Either that, or he’d drag me off to Best Buy to rail at some Geek Squad dropout about the very idea of webcams, and how dare the guy expect us to chitchat with a bunch of electronical doohickeys when there are salads to plant and fancy ketchup to harvest and buffalo chickens to feed and slaughter and cook?

That’s Grandpa for you, all right. I know how you feel, old man. I know how you feel.

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Me on Film 'n' Stage:
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30 Facts: Alton Brown
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Eight Your 5-Hole?
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Selected Clips:
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  04/30/05: Goodfellaz
  04/09/05: Com. Studio
  01/28/05: Com. Studio
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  09/06/04: Connection

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  #35: My Spring Break
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