Sunday, November 22, 2020

you better shop around

Since the beginning of the global pandemic, our shopping habits and procedures have changed considerably. Going to buy groceries used to be a regular occurrence for the Pincuses (Pinci?) and sometimes, Mrs. P and I would find ourselves at the supermarket a few times during any given week. Now, we (and by "we," I of course mean my wife) go to pick up our groceries from a list compiled online. Our pre-picked, pre-bagged, pre-paid grocery order is delivered by a masked employee right to the cargo area of our SUV. Simple. Convenient. Annoyance free.

Yeah. Right.

There ain't nothing that is annoyance free, especially in a world occupied by humans. Humans always seem to ruin a perfectly good plan, either by saying something inappropriate or stupid or both. Or by doing something that blatantly goes against the policy of the company for whom they enjoy employment. Or they don't do something they should be doing. Or any combination of the above.

Our first choice for groceries is Walmart, the mighty global retail giant that stocks nearly everything. Their prices on most items are so ridiculously low, it makes one wonder how they can sell things so cheaply and why other stores sell the identical item for much more money. Oh... I know the reason! It's because, in order to take advantage of the great prices, you are forced to go to Walmart. Our weekly trips to Walmart started off great. After the first couple of weeks, their ranking dropped from "great" to "pretty good," as the accuracy decreased and product substitution increased. Soon, Walmart's status was at a solid "okay," with the foreseeable potential of dropping further. Right now, thirty-plus weeks into this shitshow, Walmart is holding steady at "adequate." Lately, our orders have been missing items, requiring a return trip. Once, they forgot an entire bag of groceries. We had to go back to the store, well after their curbside pick-up hours had ended for the day. We had difficulty finding someone — anyone — who would venture into the now-closed grocery department to retrieve our errant bag. Now, for subsequent orders, we have begun to perform an inventory before we leave the parking lot.

We have also frequented Target for grocery pick up. Target, while still a discount store, is a noticeable step above Walmart. In the pre-COVID-19 days, when we still went in to stores, Target was always cleaner and more orderly than Walmart. And their customer base was well-versed in the art of tucking in a shirt. These days, Target seems to have a better, more-efficient handle on the "curbside pick-up" procedure. Walmart requires customers to book and secure a time slot in which to arrive. Target will happily accept your online order and merely asks for the time you will be in their parking lot (in a newly-delineated area installed since the pandemic began). When you arrive, you log into their website, enter the space number in which you are parked and within a minute or two, a friendly red-and-beige clad employee will appear with your order — sometimes including a free sample product along with the requested items. (Once, we got a fruit rollup. Another time, we got a small box of Cap'n Crunch!) But, even Target isn't perfect. Just this week, Target experienced its first Achilles' heel. As part of our order, I asked for two bottles of Johnson's Baby Shampoo. (Yes, that's what I wash my delicate scalp with, you got a problem with that?) According to the website, it was available, but we were only permitted to place 'one" in our virtual shopping cart. Just before our selected pick-up time, we were informed, via email, that the shampoo was unavailable. "Really?" I exclaimed, to no one in particular, "There's not a single bottle of baby shampoo in that entire store?" No one in particular remained silent. My wife and I headed over to our nearby Target. We parked and notified the store that we were there to accept our order. However, the option to enter your parking spot was unavailable. Someone was required to actually go into the store. Mrs. Pincus donned her mask and gloves, a practice that has become second nature at this point in time, and grudgingly set off for the front entrance. A few minutes later, she returned, holding a plastic Target shopping bag. While at the "pick up" area, she asked about the shampoo, explaining its alleged unavailability. The employee shook her head and said that baby shampoo is with baby items, not health and beauty. Another employee was sent out on a mission and returned with three bottles of the shampoo. I have a hard time understanding how just one person in Target holds the secret as to the location of baby shampoo... and it's not the person filling the online orders. Is Target slipping? Oh, say it isn't so!

There's one more place that Mrs. P goes for groceries, but visits have been reduced to approximately once per month. I'm talking about BJ's Wholesale Club. BJ's Wholesale, if you are not familiar, is like Costco and Sam's Club, selling common grocery items in quantiles far too big for the average family to fully consume before some of it spoils. They also stock giant-size containers of things that you would normally purchase one of in a lifetime — like nutmeg. Does anyone who doesn't operate a ski lodge need a hundred and twelve ounces of nutmeg? Mrs. Pincus has graciously been doing the shopping for her parents, as well as for us. So an infrequent stop at BJ's Wholesale can be beneficial for stocking up on large containers of orange juice or cereal or other items that we know we'll use in a reasonable amount of time (no... not nutmeg). On my wife's most recent trip to BJ's Wholesale, her purchases were actually pretty modest. A bunch of bananas, a couple of heads of lettuce, a case of Polar seltzer for our son and a couple of big bags of Hallowe'en candy that may or may not be distributed — the jury is still out. When Mrs. P began placing her items on the conveyor belt at the check out, the cashier felt that it was fully within her rights to comment on my wife's purchases. "Boy, you sure have a big order," she announced. 

Now, if you've ever been to a BJ's Wholesale (or Costco or Sam's Club), I'm sure you've seen folks dragging flatbed carts behind them laden to overflowing with cases and cases of various commodities like soda, bottled water, bulk packages of potato chips, giant glass jars of pickles or jalapeno peppers. Sometimes, you'll see people guiding several overstocked carts through the aisles — as though they are replenishing the staples of a small convenience store or sandwich shop. As a matter of fact, some of these people are doing just that. Independent businessmen and women come to BJ's Wholesale often — a few times a week sometimes — to buy what they need to help keep their businesses running. Believe me, they are buying way more that eight bananas and a gallon of orange juice. Heck, there were people in the checkout line with triple the order size as Mrs. Pincus's. Why this cashier chose to marvel at a few bunches of produce and a few bags of candy is beyond me.

Oh, we will get through this dark pall that is hanging over us. COVID-19, I mean. Stupidity we're stuck with.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

that's me in the spotlight

I know some famous people. Some are local celebrities whose fame — whether or not they acknowledge it — only reaches to the very real boundaries of the Delaware Valley*. Others have achieved widespread nationwide success — even worldwide in a few well-deserved cases. These people fall into many categories. Some are singers. Some are actors. Some are media personalities. However, I will not divulge the names of any of them. I don't want to brag. I don't wish to use my acquaintance with a famous person in an attempt to impress you. (Some of them, I will admit, are far from impressive.) I won't do this, because it was done to me many years ago. And I was not impressed.

When I was in elementary school, I was pretty close friends with a boy named Mitchell Rosencrantz. Mitchell was a nice kid. He was somewhat awkward and quirky and not one of the "cool" kids. Well, neither was I, but I was able to ingratiate myself among that clique-y, elitist group without much backlash. Mitchell, however, was not so savvy. He experienced his share of bullying. He was the unfortunate target of schoolyard epithets on a fairly regular basis. It was sad, but I was his friend because I thought he was a nice guy, not because I felt sorry for him.

Mitchell and I hung out at recess with a few other kids who didn't fit in with the top tier of the popular hierarchy either. But that was okay. We had just as much fun. We discussed our favorite television shows, often debating the logistics of actually kissing Marcia Brady. We traded baseball cards that we collected, although none of us was really that interested in the actual sport of baseball. Mostly, we ran around and did "kid on the playground" stuff until the bell rang and we filed back into our classrooms. Every once in a while, on a weekend, I would go to Mitchell's house or he would come to mine. (To be honest, he would rarely come to my house, because that would've required my mother to straighten things up and possibly vacuum... and she wanted no parts of that.) At Mitchell's house, we'd do almost the same things that we did in the schoolyard except it was just the two of us.  (I remember that Mitchell had a little brother who was the spitting image of Mitchell. He also had a little sister who looked like Mitchell with pigtails.) After a few hours, my mom would pull up to Mitchell's house in her giant station wagon. I'd say "goodbye" and "thank you" to Mitchell and my mom would nudge me until I remembered to thank Mrs. Rosencrantz as well.

There was one thing that Mitchell did in an concerted effort to be accepted. He bragged about knowing a celebrity. He would find an opening in the conversation to remind everyone that his father was the manager of a celebrity. Now, we all knew that short, balding Mr. Rosencrantz was a lawyer. With his pen-filled plastic pocket protector, he looked nothing like any of the managers we saw on TV, like the guys in sequined-covered suits who escorted hulking professional wrestlers into the ring or the often-harried but coolly-coiffed Reuben Kincaid who called the financial shots for The Partridge Family. Granted, the celebrity that Mitchell talked about wasn't Adam West or Bobby Sherman or Karen Valentine. Hell, it wasn't anyone we even heard of. But he swore up and down of his celebrity status, so who were we to argue. We weren't worldly and we knew it. Mitchell insisted that his father represented the one and only Eddie Holman in all things show business.

That's right. Eddie Holman.

New York-born Eddie Holman moved to Philadelphia with his family as a teen ager. At 16, he recorded his first song. It was heavily influenced by the so-called "Philly Soul" sound. He continued to record eventually hitting big in 1970 with "Hey There Lonely Girl," which was a reworked cover of a song originally released by Ruby and the Romantics in 1963. The tune hit Number Two on the prestigious Billboard Hot 100 chart. It sold over a million copies, however, Eddie Holman never had another hit.

Mitchell talked about Eddie Holman as though his popularity and recognition rivaled The Beatles. Mitchell's friends would nod politely as he expounded on the vast reaches of Eddie Holman's fame. He got misty-eyed as he spoke of Eddie Holman's talent and renown. Honestly, in 1970, I was 9 years old. I don't remember hearing "Hey There Lonely Girl" on the radio. Granted, the AM pop stations that I listened to were unjustly segregated and featured predominantly white artists. I don't recall seeing Eddie Holman perform on the ubiquitous Ed Sullivan Show, the barometer by which true fame was measured — at least in my young mind. If Ed Sullivan welcomed you to the stage, you were somebody... even if you were somebody I never heard of. I don't believe Eddie Holman ever graced the stage at 1697 Broadway in the Big Apple. But, as far as Mitchell Rosencrantz was concerned, Eddie Holman was celebrity enough to impress his friends.

As the years passed, I still remained friends with Mitchell Rosencrantz. We moved on to a new school after elementary school and the name "Eddie Holman" rarely breached conversations anymore. 

Soon, many of my classmates were anxious and excited about upcoming Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Invitations were sent and the buzz was constant about how elaborate plans would be. Sometime in the autumn of 1974, I attended Mitchell Rosencrantz's Bar Mitzvah.

The day began early in the morning, as I fidgeted in my seat at a synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia. I tugged at the necktie that my dad so expertly knotted around my skinny neck and thumbed through the Hebrew-printed pages of the prayer book some bent-over old man with three teeth in his head shoved into my hand as I entered the sanctuary. I adjusted the complementary satin yarmulke on my head (I think the old man plopped that on the back of my skull as well) and whispered to my seatmates that I recognized from school. I'm sure I also ogled the young female guests, marveling how they all looked well beyond their thirteen years, some wearing make-up for the first time and appearing waaaaay prettier than they did in any math class. Mitchell was barely visible at the lectern, peering over the top of those big wooden disks that kept the sacred Torah scrolls properly corralled. We could hear Mitchell's voice stammering out some tuneless chant. We giggled covertly each time his maturing vocal chords hit an unintentional sour note. When the grueling marathon service was over, we adjourned to a banquet room in the synagogue building that was decorated for an adults' version of a children's party. There were people who, though strangers, resembled members of my own extended family. There were two multi-tiered fountains, situated on a table — side-by-side — surrounded by large platters of unidentifiable hors d'oeuvres. One fountain dispensed wine, the other a tamer grape juice. Of course, my friends and I tried to sneak the wine, only to be scolded by a stern-looking older woman in a beaded dress, her mass of hair all done up for the occasion. Some of us danced with unwieldy moves to the typical hired band — a four-piece combo comprised of two accountants, a department store salesman and a guy who sometime, somewhere was passed over for his shot at stardom. Some of Mitchell's friends even mustered up enough nerve to ask one of the girls to dance.

Once Mitchell's friends were finally seated at the long table reserved for the younger set (and far removed from the rest of the tables at which more important guests were seated), Mr. Rosencrantz hijacked the microphone from the tuxedoed band leader. He delivered a solemn double-shot of HaMotzi and Kiddush over a hefty loaf of challah and a full goblet of wine. Then, he cleared his throat, waved his hand and, through a wide smile, announced a "very special guest" of the afternoon. The double doors at the rear of the room opened and a tall, handsome African-American man appeared — impeccably dressed in a maroon velvet tuxedo, his barrel chest festooned with contrasting powder-blue ruffles. He smiled and waved to the guests as he made his way to the microphone offered by Mr. Rosencrantz. The man accepted the mic and, after warmly embracing Mitchell's dad, began to sing in a smooth tenor. His selection? Why, that 1970 near-chart topper "Hey There Lonely Girl." As he serenaded, whispers carried through the room. "That's Eddie Holman!," was the general consensus. 

Mitchell sat at the center of the long table with his arms crossed and a satisfied smirk on his lips. He was surrounded on both sides by his school friends and he beamed! I mean visibly beamed! Finally, he must have thought, everyone will see that I really know Eddie Holman. It really didn't matter that his friends still didn't know who he was. By the thunderous applause at the song's conclusion, Mitchell was fully convinced that he knew a celebrity. 

And that was all that mattered.

*A colloquial term for the area surrounding Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey and the tip of Northern Delaware.

This is a fictitious name. Don't bother trying to figure out who it is.

I did not have a formal, traditional Bar Mitzvah. The explanation for that can be found here

Sunday, November 8, 2020

best thing I never had

According to the signs posted outside of Joe Italiano's Maplewood Inn, you are looking at a plate of the "World's Best Spaghetti." Think about that for a minute. The world's best spaghetti. The best spaghetti in the entire world — out of all of the restaurants on this planet that offer spaghetti as an entrée on their menu. This is the best! Stare at it. Bask in its glory. The. Best. Spaghetti. In The. World.

My wife and I have been traveling to Atlantic City for a good portion of our lives. First as children, chauffeured by our parents on family vacations to the famous New Jersey shore destination. Then as adults with our son to create our own beloved memories of the storied seaside burg known as "America's Playground."

In more recent years, Mrs. Pincus and I would drive from our suburban Philadelphia home to Atlantic City to... enjoy?.... encounter?.... experience all that the Harrah's Casino Resort has to offer. For a time, Mrs. P was a favored patron in the eyes of Harrah's. She was showered with gifts and trips and free rooms and complimentary meals, as well as literally hundreds of dollars in "free play" for use in their casino slot machines. We traveled to Atlantic City several times a week to take advantage of all of the perks that came our way... until it ended, of course. Yep, one day, the marketing algorithms caught up and Mrs. P was cut free. Until, of course, it picked up again. In hopes of recouping some lost income due to closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Harrah's apparently dug deep into their mailing list and suddenly Mrs. Pincus was back in their good graces. She began receiving offers to come down and collect a modest gift card or household appliance of some sort. These offers were made to encourage folks to gamble a bit while they were there to get their free gift. But they don't know my wife very well. We took the ninety-minute trip, Mrs. P ran in (properly masked and gloved while I — also masked — waited outside), got her gift and we left. We spent approximately fifteen minutes at Harrah's including the walk from the parking garage. Mrs. P didn't drop a single nickel in a slot machine. Oh, they'll cut her off soon. Don't you worry.

So, while we are still on Harrah's "good list," we have found ourselves Atlantic City bound on that two-lane blacktop road that bisects the rural-looking communities of South Jersey more often than we ever figured. Considering how often we traverse Route 30, colloquially known as "The White Horse Pike," I still marvel at how it still seems unfamiliar and its landmarks very forgettable. The landscape is dotted with a smattering of weather-worn, single-story houses that — I am convinced — all have one of those brick-walled dry wells in the basement, like Buffalo Bill's house in Silence of the Lambs. I'm also sure that they each contain a senator's daughter pleading for her life. Oh, there are a small amount of recognizable businesses along the way, too — like local supermarket chains and big-box stores like Wal-Mart. (I think we pass three.) But, for the most part, it is a repetitive tableau, like the one Fred and Barney pass as they tool through Bedrock. There are dozens of car repair places, their yards piled high with rusted husks of years-old vehicles in various stages of disassembly. There are numerous strip centers with empty stores. There are a number of restaurants, some looking closed at the dinner hour, some lit up with no customers. But among those restaurants, shining like a beacon, its parking lot jammed with cars, is Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn.

An otherwise nondescript building situated in a cleared lot along an unremarkable stretch of the White Horse Pike in Hammonton, Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn has something its competitors (if any) are lacking. Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn has the world's best spaghetti. They even have two signs proclaiming the title. The most noticeable is perched on the roof of the building, backlit at night, reinforcing what the world (in the aggregate mind of Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn) already knows. If you are in search of the best spaghetti in the entire world, search no more. Within this unadorned brick structure, your quest has come to an end. The great pasta salons of Rome, Venice and Bologna have resigned themselves to the fact that despite centuries-old recipes and preparation processes, a little red masonry structure in the tiny hamlet of Hammonton, New Jersey has bested them all. The best! In the world! Wow! Just wow! They don't have enough room on their signs to spell out Joe's first name in its entirety, but damn! — they need the space to alert the 14,000 residents of Hammonton and beyond that within these walls the best spaghetti in the world can be found. There are highly regarded restaurants and establishments boasting the coveted third star from the revered Michelin Guide. They are concocting delicate gourmet recipes from exotic ingredients to tantalize the discerning palate. But, when it comes to spaghetti — forget it! They hang their collective heads. Because, as we know now, none of them serve the world's best spaghetti. That, of course, can only be gotten from the kitchen of Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn. 

During the pandemic, Mrs. Pincus and I are being very cautious in our actions. Yes, I know. Going into a casino seems like the last place we should be going. But, Mrs. P is diligent in her precautionary measures... and when my wife is diligent about something, watch out. In the meantime, we are eating all of our meals at home and we have not ordered from a restaurant in eight months. When the time comes when we feel it is safe for us to venture out and re-enter the world of "dining out" again, will we make a beeline to Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn for a sampling of the world's best spaghetti?


Sunday, November 1, 2020

happy place

Vanessa Hudgens is a popular (I guess?) singer and actress who rose to her level of fame as part of the young ensemble cast in Walt Disney's celebrated High School Musical. As a teenager, Vanessa became a staple among the prepubescent set via a generous, though well strategized, push from the mighty Disney publicity machine, much in the same way as Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears. And, like them, Vanessa has done her very best to bust out of the safe and wholesome confines of the "Disney brand." First of all, she is 31, hardly an age that would appeal to any pre-teens. But, still, she has adopted a more sultry and sophisticated persona in hopes of being recognized as an adult and taken seriously by an adult audience.

In her quest to maintain a career, she has done some good things and done some bad things — just like any one of a zillion actors trying to "make it" in a cut-throat business. She costarred in some box-office successes as well as some failures. She stayed in the positive headlines by dating her High School Musical co-star Zac Efron. She caused a bit of controversy when she carved her initials into a rock and posted the photo on her Instagram account, proudly displaying her handiwork to her nearly forty million followers. The US Forest Service wasn't among those lauding accolades on the young celebrity. The rock, you see, was in Coconino National Forest and she was ordered to pay $1000 in damages.

Well, Miss Hudgens is at it again. She posted a photo on her Instagram account for which she received a good amount of criticism. Unjust criticism, in my opinion and the opinions of some of my death-obsessed pals across the internet... and there are a lot of us. On October 10, in a time where most Hallowe'en celebrations have been stifled by the global COVID-19 pandemic, Vanessa offered a bit of the dark holiday season to her followers. She posted an artful, black & white shot from a recent photoshoot that took place in a cemetery in the storied New York burg of Sleepy Hollow. Vanessa is pictured in a clingy black dress (and accompanying face mask) cavorting among the headstones. She originally captioned the image as "my happy place." Immediately, the post was hit with a barrage of angry comments, as the internet is want to overreact to pretty much everything — including: “Why would you pose in a cemetery and post ‘happy place?’ Bruh.," “Um am I the only one who finds that disrespectful?," "Ur happy place is a cemetery?," and my personal favorite - "What's wrong with you?"

Some folks came to her rescue, noting that — at one time — a great many cemeteries were park-like places that welcomed family picnics. However, the overwhelming response was negative. Vanessa did not remove the post, though she did revise the caption to read: "Searching for that headless horseman" - a reference to Washington Irving's beloved tale that takes place in the otherwise quiet little town of Sleepy Hollow. 

I know that "the internet" is very judgmental and awfully quick to jump all over those who are deemed "objectionable." That means everyone at one time or another. But, just because something seems strange to one person, someone else could — and often does — find that same thing thoroughly enjoyable. Skydiving, getting a tattoo, eating octopus, liking the Dallas Cowboys — all of these things are both joyful and repulsive. It all depends on who you ask. Which is why I found "the internet's" initial condemnation of Vanessa Hudgens's photo so... so... offensive!

I have been visiting cemeteries for years. Years! They are fascinating, interesting and informative. In addition, I find them to be both majestic and peaceful. They are not merely storage places for the deceased. They are three-dimensional history lessons for the living. Grave markers are works of art, sometimes engraved with personal sentiment or loving memorials to the person buried beneath. Many graves are adorned with statuary, commissioned by the surviving family to honor their loved one. The grounds are usually pastoral areas of rolling lawns and shady trees, offering a tranquil retreat in which to reflect.

Or it's a cool place with dead people.

However you feel, there are a lot of people who like cemeteries. I regularly peruse the Find-a-Grave website to plot out my next cemetery field trip. I find myself craning my neck for a better look when we pass a cemetery while out running errands. Vacation destinations would often include a side trip to a nearby cemetery, much to the chagrin of my family. (They love me, so they humor me.) I belong to a private Facebook group called "The Death Hags" — a darkly humorous name for a bunch of folks who share my love of cemeteries and all things death. Before you start passing your self-righteous judgement, the group boasts eleven thousand members. So, your neighbor, your boss or even your spouse might be one of us... so watch it.

As far as Vanessa Hudgens's little jaunt through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.... I was there in 2014. It's a beautiful spot and a local tourist attraction. It is the final resting place of some pretty notable names like Walter Chrysler, Elizabeth Arden and, of course, Washington Irving. You can visit vicariously through this link.

I am really not that familiar with Vanessa Hudgens's work and I believe I am way out of her target audience. But.... she's okay by me.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

scary monsters... and super creeps

Halloween is approaching. It's the time for tricks and treats. Well, because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, most communities across the country are figuring out creative — and safe — alternatives to the traditional, door-to-door, decidedly anti-social distancing trick-or treating. Watching scary movies is a good way to get into the Halloween spirit (pun intended!).

I love scary movies. I have loved scary movies since I was a kid when I would park myself in front of the television on a Saturday afternoon for a marathon broadcast of  horror films that were made decades before I was born. Local Philadelphia UHF station Channel 17 showed "Mad Theater" back-to-back with "Horror Theater," both hosted by the pseudo-frightening, always campy "Dr. Shock." The good doctor would entertain his mostly pre-pubescent home audience with magic tricks and hokey skits during breaks in the film. I even got to meet Dr. Shock when he made an appearance at a carnival in my neighborhood. It was a thrill... if I remember correctly. It was on Dr. Shock's show that I had my first exposure to Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolf Man, along with a creepy parade of monsters and witches and zombies and ghouls and all kinds of things that go bump in the night. The only problem was.... they didn't scare me. I was drawn to these characters. I was fascinated by them. I marveled at them. I just wasn't scared by them... and that's what I was looking for. And so began my life-long quest for "the big scare"... the movie that would finally give me that scare I craved.

I have seen hundreds of horror movies, from the classics of the 30s to the low-budget thrillers of the 50s and 60s, to the blood-saturated gorefests from Britain's Hammer Studios in the 70s to the cookie-cutter slasher films of the 80s. Recently, I have watched movies that have been recommended by self-proclaimed aficionados... all to great disappointment. 

In fairness, I enjoyed the initial entry of a number of horror "franchises." Films like "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Friday the 13th," "Halloween" and even the venerable "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," in my opinion were all entertaining, but — Jesus! — do we really need eleven sequels that essential tell the exact same story over and over again? I think not.

The current crop of horror movies are either more concerned with giving the viewer a front row seat to an autopsy or offering a flimsy, nonsensical plot as an excuse to splash gratuitous nudity across the screen. I know that I am in the overwhelming minority, based on the disciple-like attendees I have seen packing the aisles at horror movie conventions. (Yeah, I used to go to them when I collected celebrity autographs.)

I watched the Netflix series Stranger Things based purely on the buzz it received among friends and on the internet. I was not entertained. Yeah, yeah... I got all the references and jokes. I just didn't think they were as clever as the writers thought they were. I actually watched all three seasons of the series, hoping I would "get into it" as it progressed. I did not. I found myself constantly checking my watch and wondering how much longer it would go on. The acting was good. No complaints there. I felt the story was limp and took too long to tell. And when it was finally told, I didn't care. And I certainly wasn't scared.

Glutton for punishment that I am, I am currently in the throes of the HBO series Lovecraft Country. I was intrigued by the dichotomy of the subject matter — an examination of the oppression of African-Americans coupled with the supernatural. I am not a fan of science fiction, comic books, suspension of belief or stories that end with the cop-out of deus ex machina. I hate that. It's as though the writers just couldn't be bothered with thinking up an ending. I have watched Lovecraft Country and did not enjoy it. Oh, I watched the whole thing — all ten grueling episodes, just to see how everything wrapped up, but the storytelling is clunky and sprawling and disjointed. And I felt it's beneath the talents of the compelling cast. Yes, I realize that I am probably not the target audience. I knew that going into it, I already have a disinclination for the genre. But I gave it a shot anyway. I shouldn't have. I want to reiterate that the production and acting of this limited series was terrific, but with the exception of a few scenes, I did not find it scary. Just long-winded.

Yesterday, I watched a movie called Trick 'r Treat. Again, this film has maintained a cult following and a lot of praise since its awkward release in 2007. It is an anthology story comprised of several stand-alone tales linked by a single character that appears in each one. I have enjoyed this format in films in the past. I found Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie and even a few of the 70s examples featuring Peter Cushing (like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors) to be entertaining. They didn't scare me, but I liked them. Trick 'r Treat was awful. It was doing its very best to look cool for the cool kids. It was run-of-the-mill, uninspired, unnecessarily gory and not nearly as clever as it thought it was. As far as scary....? Uh.... nope.

Look, monsters aren't scary. Guys with big knives aren't scary. Aliens aren't scary. Ghosts aren't scary. Gallons and gallons of blood and entrails aren't scary. Messy, yes.... but not scary.

Please. I'm not asking for a whole lot. I just want to be scared. I want a movie to scare me. I want to see a movie so goddamn clever and so goddamn frightening that I wont forget it for years to come. Honestly, I have seen only two horror movies that have come very close to legitimately scaring me. Psycho, the original 1960 Hitchcock tour-de-force and Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Both films were beautifully shot and impeccably executed. Both of these films featured a despicable villain that was not — by outward appearances — a monster. Both films elicited nerve-wracking suspense and both films — thanks to great performances and thoughtful directing — made the viewer root for the bad guy. That is scary.

Halloween will be here soon. We are all stuck in the house with a lot of free time. What's a guy gotta do to get scared around here?

Sunday, October 18, 2020

i am the eggman

A little over a year ago, Mrs. Pincus and I decided that it was time to stop eating like ten-year-olds at a birthday party and start eating like adults. We eliminated all sweets and desserts and began a self-imposed diet regimen centering around a large salad for dinner. 

This is a stock photo.
Each evening, we stand side-by-side at our kitchen counter and prepare our leafy evening meals together. We each have our specific jobs in the preparation. I extract the various components from the different storage areas of our refrigerator and place them on our kitchen counter. Our fridge is regular stocked with fresh salad ingredients like lettuce, red cabbage and scallions (or green onions — the jury is out on which of those we actually use). I pile the items on the counter and Mrs. P chops them or slices them or slides them into a blade on a mini-mandoline slicer — whichever utensil or portioning method is appropriate for the particular element. While my wife adds things to her salad that I would never eat in a million years — like cucumbers and tomatoes — I begin my own customization process. I add jalapeno peppers, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and bread & butter pickles (that's right, I like pickles on my salad! You wanna make something of it?). It is also my unofficial job to open a can of salmon for each of us. We have gotten used to including salmon on our salads and the salads seem incomplete without it. Sometimes, Mrs. P  makes fresh salmon and, believe me, it is much better than the canned stuff. Once topped with our personal choice of dressing (low-fat thousand island for Mrs. P and whatever is in the refrigerator for me), we accompany our salads with a baked potato and another fresh vegetable (usually broccoli or my new-found favorite cauliflower) and we're all set. We have been eating the nearly-identical dinner every night since February 2019 and we haven't tired of it yet. As a matter of fact, almost every night, one of us will remark how good the salad is and marvel at how it can be so delicious night after night.

Just for the sake of variety, we switch things up every so often. Instead of a baked potato, we will have a bowl of pasta made from shirataki, a Japanese vegetable. Or sometimes, we have a bowl of soup and Mrs. P will sauté a bunch of peppers, onions and mushrooms in garlic and oil for something she likes to call "Peppers, Mushrooms and Onions in Garlic." (Although it plays an integral part in the recipe, the oil is unjustly left out of the name of the dish.) We also look for other things to add to the salad. We have tried sun-dried tomatoes and French-fried onions. More recently, sliced hard-boiled eggs have become a regular part of our salads and I have become quite the hard-boiled egg aficionado. (Yes, it has been added to my resume just under my skills with PowerPoint.)

This is a stock photo.
Once a week, I dutifully fill an enamel pot (my wife showed me where we keep it) with water from the tap, just enough to cover a single level of eggs that will be placed at the bottom. I place the pot on the stove and turn on the flame, just like Mrs. P showed me. (I am not exactly Mr. Kitchen, so I appreciate the guidance.) Then I carefully add the eggs to the pot of water. I inspect each one for cracks before placing it in the water, sometimes turning them over several times and even holding them up to the light. Then, I wait until the water boils. When it does, I kill the heat, put a lid on the pot and I'm done.... until my favorite part.

Peeling off the shells.

This is also a stock photo.
I don't know exactly what it is, but I find peeling the shells from hard-boiled eggs very therapeutic. At first, it was sort of a challenge. I found myself pulling small chunks of the hardened albumen away with the tiny fragments of shell. I realized that there was a thin, almost invisible membrane that is between the shell and the egg white. I had to remove that membrane as well as the shell in order to keep the white in tact. After a while, I discovered different techniques with which to successfully remove the shell and be left with a perfectly smooth hard-boiled egg. I even watched a few YouTube videos showing several vastly different methods to attain the ultimate goal of the unblemished egg white. Some prescribed adding the eggs to already boiling water. This, as the video claimed, would prevent the membrane from creating a strong bond to the solidifying egg. Another suggested peeling the egg under running water or — better yet — submerged in water. I read an article on the internet about the subject (this is what my life has come to), including one that insisted on chipping away a quarter-sized opening in the shell on the wide end of the egg, then forcing a metal teaspoon into the opening and rotating it around the circumference of the egg. The promise being that  this action would force the membrane to separate and the hard-boiled innards would just pop out with no resistance. This has yet to be tried by me. There are other procedures that include adding vinegar or salt to the boiling water, but I think I will pass on those.

This is why I use stock photos.
I have found a technique that works well, using a little bit of several of the techniques I learned. I peel the eggs over the sink with a constant, fairly forceful stream of cold water running from the tap. I crack the egg fully on the edge of the sink and roll it around until the entire outer surface is covered with a spiderweb pattern of fractures. Then, it seems, that the shell is easily removed and the egg is left glistening, its exterior uncompromised.

So, what have we learned? Well, we learned that I have an awful lot of free time on my hands and that, given the opportunity, I can write four full paragraphs about hard-boiled eggs.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

loose lucy

You know what I did this week? I watched television. So, let's talk about television... okay? I haven't talked about television in nearly two weeks. Specifically, I want to talk about the unofficial Queen of Television — Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball is so beloved by so many, they even named her first TV series I Love Lucy. But, guess what? I hate Lucy. Not the show. The actress. But, wait.... I'm jumping ahead. I used to really like Lucy. Back when she was one of Hollywood's top "glamor girls," Lucy was a delight. She was beautiful like Gene Tierney. She was feisty like Barbara Stanwyck. And she delivered snappy dialog like Rosalind Russell. She starred in some film noir, in which she totally nailed the part. She acted alongside Ginger Rogers, Red Skelton and even the Marx Brothers — always able to hold her own. She appeared in musicals, like Best Foot Forward, playing an unobtainable "screen version" of her glamorous self. She even auditioned for the coveted role of "Scarlett O'Hara" in Gone with the Wind (along with a zillion other actresses). But, something happened to Lucy and I'm not sure what is was. Maybe it was her rocky marriage to Desi Arnaz, the dashing and charming band leader, whom she met on the set of the 1940 musical Too Many Girls. Desi was an out-of-control womanizer, as well as a chronic drinker. Despite his unsavory behavior, Lucy and Desi married in 1940 and nearly ended it four years later when Lucy realized that Desi couldn't be trusted. However, Lucy reconsidered and stuck with Desi. In 1948, Lucy began a CBS radio comedy called My Favorite Husband, in which she played the zany wife of a bandleader. The show, which co-starred actor Richard Denning, was a hit and CBS asked Lucy to develop the show for the fledgling medium of television. At first, the network balked at her proposal of casting her real-life husband in the role of her character's band leader spouse. CBS executives were convinced that the TV viewing public was not ready to see an All-American redhead married to a Cuban. After much discussion, the network relented and added I Love Lucy to their lineup, based on the wild success of a recent Lucy-Desi live performance tour.

Funny folks to the right, please.
I Love Lucy
featured a much, much different Lucy. This was not the elegantly poised beauty who seductively sashayed across the Silver Screen for nearly two decades. This was a whining, conniving, lying, deceitful, spiteful, silly, embarrassing, unpredictable, madcap harpy who got tangled up in complicated dilemmas of her own doing. I have seen every single episode — all 181 of  'em — and I just don't find Lucy even remotely funny. Desi, as the beleaguered yet energetic "Ricky Ricardo" was funny. The under-appreciated Vivian Vance, as Lucy's loyal friend and landlord "Ethel Mertz," was funny. Even William Frawley, as a perennially-cantankerous "Fred Mertz," was funny. The recurring troupe of supporting players, like Gale Gordon and Frank Nelson, were funny. The only cast member who wasn't funny was Lucy. She was the buzzkill for every scene, every situation, every joke. I cannot — for the life of me — figure out how anybody thought she was funny. She spent nearly every episode trying to sneak her uncoordinated, off-key-singing, talentless self into her husband's professional and rehearsed nightclub act. Somebody thought this was funny! So funny, that the show has been running regularly somewhere, in reruns, since its cancellation 63 years ago. 63 years!! 

Actually, Lucy had hoped that having Desi around the set daily would allow her to keep a watchful eye on his potential infidelity. Well, that didn't stop Desi at all. Their marriage only lasted a few years after the demise of I Love Lucy. As a result of their divorce, Lucy bought out Desi's interest in Desilu Productions, which produced such popular series as The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible, making her the first woman to run a major television studio. Lucy continued to make movies (She was considered for the Angela Lansbury role in the 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate), but hoped to return to television. CBS reluctantly agreed to a solo Lucy project in 1962. The network, for which Lucy was so successful, was not convinced that Lucy could carry a show by herself. So, with the addition of co-star Vivian Vance, The Lucy Show premiered October 1, 1962. The Lucy Show carried over the same annoying antics that Lucy employed on I Love Lucy. She meddled into situations where she didn't belong or wasn't wanted. She lied to her boss, played to slow-burn perfection by the reliable Gale Gordon. And, of course, she treated her long-suffering pal Viv like shit. 

Vivian Vance was a sport. She agreed to come to her friend's rescue on the new series — providing her character be named "Vivian." She stated that, for seven years, she constantly had people greet her with "Hi Ethel!" and she was sick of it. But, after three years and growing tired of commuting between Los Angeles and her New York home, Vivian left the series. So did a number of cast members... and three writers. The show was revamped and soon re-emerged as a showcase for Lucy's many show-business friends. Their appearances were worked into preposterous scenarios, including possible Vivian Vance replacement Ann Sothern as a countess that was friendly with Lucy's "Mrs. Carmichael." Big stars like Dean Martin, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, as well as popular TV stars like Barbara Eden and Bob Crane, made weekly appearances on The Lucy Show, regardless of how much sense the plot made. As soon as The Lucy Show ended its run, Here's Lucy began. It was essentially the same show, except Lucy was now supported by her real children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., in addition to Gale Gordon as Lucy's irascible brother-in-law. Oh, and the front door to Lucy's house was on Stage Left instead of Upstage Center. This show was just as absurd as its predecessor. Yet, it ran for a incredible six seasons. 

In 1985, Lucy received rave reviews for her touching portrayal of a homeless woman in the made-for-TV movie Stone Pillow. But just when things were looking brighter for her career, she attempted the sitcom genre once again. This time as a widowed grandmother in Life with Lucy. It was cancelled after a mere eight episodes and ranks as one of the worst sitcoms of all time.

I don't want to you think that I have nothing nice to say about Lucy. I do, in fact. Lucy was instrumental in getting the original Star Trek series to the airwaves. 

The opening for Here's Lucy featuring the little Lucy animated puppet, was adorable. Sometimes, I would tune in just to watch that and then switch to something else.

And, we obviously have Lucy to thank for inspiring Divine and so many other drag performers for years to come.

Sometime in the 60s, when Lucy was still pretty popular, she made an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, a national talk show that was filmed and produced in Philadelphia. While she was in the area, she made a stop at the set of a beloved children's program that was broadcast locally on a CBS affiliate station. Accounts of her visit describe Lucy's demeanor as "belligerent," "demanding," and "nasty." She did, however, send the host a thank you gift and note expressing her pleasure during the visit. 

This statue in Lucy's hometown of Jamestown, New York sums things up pretty well. It looks nothing like Lucy and Lucy's career looked nothing like comedy.