Saturday, April 30, 2016

that's entertainment

Television is not evil, no matter what George Orwell or anybody says. I grew up watching television and I grew up loving television and I turned out okay.

We had a big black & white TV set in our den that my family gathered around to watch programs like Bewitched, The Flintstones and my parents' favorite, Gunsmoke. On Sunday evenings, like most Americans, we'd watch The Ed Sullivan Show. On Saturday mornings, I'd plop down on the floor with a big bowl of Froot Loops and watch cartoons. Later in the afternoon, my brother would commandeer the set to watch wresting, so I'd just go upstairs to our shared bedroom and watch the smaller television that we shared as well. We had televisions all over the house!

When I was in 9th grade, my mom won a color television in a sales contest at her job. This pleased and excited the whole family, especially my father, who was relieved of the thought of shelling out a portion of his hard-earned salary for a new TV. A color television opened up a whole new world. We marveled at Jeannie's Arabian costume in its full, hot pink glory. We "oohed" and "ahhed" at Lucy's bright red hair. And, during the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opened her front door after the twister set her down, the beauty of Oz finally made sense. (Before this, Oz looked a lot like Kansas.)

In the early 1980s, home entertainment took on a new dimension. My parents broke down and bought a VCR, the first piece of advanced modern technology that my father purchased since buying a car with an automatic transmission. Now, we were in full control of what the Pincuses would watch and when we would watch it. We recorded shows and watched them at our convenience. We could fast-forward through annoying commercials and rewind to hear dialog we may have missed. Plus, we could rent and watch theatrical movies (including pornography that my father would sneak in when the house was empty). This was the future and it was happening right now! 

When my wife and I bought a house in the suburbs of Philadelphia, our first order of business was arranging for cable television service. In 1986, cable was not available within the city limits, despite its abundance in the suburbs for over a decade. As movers carted boxes, bureaus and beds into our new home, a technician ran wires and tightened connections to bring us the likes of MTV and the debut of QVC. We also purchased a giant, state-of-the-art VCR, complete with an imposing, multi-button remote control, most of which we never used (or understood).

As the years went on, we supplemented our two televisions with several more, including a TV/VCR combination for our son's room, a 13" TV that nestled next to the printer in my wife's third floor office and a huge, 32" monster — with the enormous, ass-end of the picture tube protruding from the back like the posterior of a hippopotamus — for our newly-renovated basement. That thing weighed a fucking ton and has not moved since the day it was set upon its stand. And that's how the entertainment status remained for years in the Pincus household.

Until recently.

My (much younger) co-workers always joke with me about my television-watching habits. When I start to tell them about movie I saw on TV, they immediately interrupt, asking if it was in color. When asked if I own a flat-screen, high-definition television, I reply, "What's the point? Everything I watch is in black & white and everyone in the cast is dead." But, in an effort to reduce our outrageously high cable bill, my wife called our "pals" at Comcast for a little chat. After a few minutes of automated answering and rerouting of our call, Mrs. P finally got to talk with a real live person. he explained — in perfect nonsensical Comcast logic — that our bill could be lowered if we upgrade our service to their signature X1 platform. Upgrade service to lower the bill? Typical Comcast. Nevertheless, we agreed and after a few service and equipment replacements (and mishaps), we were up and running with the entertainment miracle that is X1. 

The first thing we noticed was that the new cable boxes were automatically switching, whether we liked it or not,  to high-definition (HD) channels. We do not own HD compatible televisions. We still had our our old reliable, giant-backed, picture tube-equipped models — and those tubes were displaying a very blurry picture. So, here we were with brand-spankin' new service paired up with our stone-age TVs. There was only one thing to do. We bought a 43" LG HD flat-screen smart TV for our den and a 32" Samsung version for our bedroom.

Oh. My. God.

43" baby!
I don't know how I manage to leave the house. It's a TV watcher's dream. Bright, vivid colors. Clear, crisp images that are so real you can count the blades of grass on a baseball field, see the few hairs that are left on Matt Lauer's head and examine every pore and imperfection on everyone's face. (Proactiv commercials are the best... I mean the worst!) Not only that, but the new system allows you to stop and rewind live broadcasts. You can start an already in-progress show from the beginning. And, best of all, you can talk to the remote! That's right! Just like the Jetsons! (The Jetsons was a cartoon in the 1960s that..... oh, never mind!) Just push the little "microphone" button and say "Watch Channel 6" and it goes to channel 6. (Actually, it goes to channel 806, the HD version of our local ABC affiliate. It's that smart!) You can also tell the remote to find specific shows by name. This is pretty cool, although as a 55 year-old man, I feel weird asking the remote to watch iCarly. (I think the show is funny. Go fuck yourself.) The system has an expanded and extensive channel guide featuring actors' bios and related viewing, as well as a cool "last channel watched" feature that logs the previous eight channels that were viewed, even from the last time the TV was turned off. It is truly a marvel of entertainment and technology. (This from someone who was instantly fascinated by the now-obsolete fax machine.)

And The Andy Griffith Show never looked better.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

any colour you like

Earlier this week, the United States Treasury Department announced plans to remove the portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, from the twenty-dollar bill and replace it with the image of Harriet Tubman, the courageous and defiant freedom fighter and fierce proponent of the Underground Railroad. Andrew Jackson, who has only graced the monetary note since 1928, was the owner of over 500 slaves. He fought and won the bloody Battle of New Orleans in which 285 British troops were killed and nearly 500 hundred were captured. Unfortunately, The Treaty of Ghent — that ended the War of 1812 — had been signed several weeks earlier. He started wars with many tribes of Native Americans and, as President, he signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcing tens of thousands of Native Americans off of their land.

When the news of the redesigned twenty-dollar bill was made public, Twitter and other media outlets lit up like a bunch of racists igniting Southern-purchased fireworks on the Fourth of July. I could not believe the amount of blatant, unbridled bigotry I was seeing in my Twitter feed. There were feeble references to "tradition" and "respect" regarding Andrew Jackson coupled with flat out insults and historical unfamiliarity and misinformation in reference to Harriet Tubman. It made me think that all of the talk of "equality" and "opportunity" and "inclusion" and "freedoms" are just bullshit as far as a lot of people in this country are concerned. I see textbook examples of those types of people during highlights of every "Donald Trump for President" campaign rally. Those people, waving their flags and throwing punches at anyone who doesn't look like they do, are the voice of the racism and prejudice that exists in our great nation.

The thought of bigotry makes me nauseous. Partly because it's just wrong to arbitrarily discriminate against people because of their skin color, national heritage or religious beliefs. Partly because my father and grandmother regularly discriminated against people because of their skin color, national heritage or religious beliefs. It was something I grew up with, something I knew was wrong and something from which I promised to distance myself.

So, after a full day of monitoring my little corner of the internet spew its racist opinions about something as insignificant as whose picture is on money, as though a change will disrupt the delicate balance of..... whatever,* my work day ended. I boarded my train and came home. My wife met me at the train station. As I got into her car, she told me that she had sold a large Little Tykes climbing structure that my nieces had outgrown. Mrs. P had listed the piece on a local Facebook "yard sale" page and it sold almost immediately. The toy was in my in-laws' backyard and a couple were coming to pick it up shortly.  She needed some help maneuvering the awkward and bulky piece to a more convenient spot near the driveway. Once we got to the yard, we decided to take a shot at disassembling the structure and we were successful. When the buyers showed up — right on schedule — they were happy to fit each piece in the back of their SUV.

The toy had, in reality, belonged to a friend of my mother-in-law. A very nice woman that I know well. At least I thought I knew her well. After the transaction was completed and the happy buyers were on their way, my mother-in-law called her friend as were gathered around the kitchen table for a quick dinner. Although the phone was cradled and pressed close to my mother-in-law's ear, we easily heard both sides of the conversation. My mother-in-law explained that Mrs. P has sold the piece and the method through which the sale was made. We could hear squeals of approval and a few questions about the condition of the piece and the about the buyers  — including one question that made me bristle.

"Were they white?," she asked. We heard it clear as crystal.

I was dumbfounded. The purchase was made and the buyers were happy. I couldn't understand what their race could possibly have to do with.... with..... anything. The only color that mattered was that their money was green.

That's really the only concern that anyone should have with whose picture is on it.

*Hey! Remember when quarters began sporting different state imagery for over a decade? Didn't destroy us, did it?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

wouldn't it be nice

As I write this, my wife is out being nice.

Mrs. Pincus is the nicest person I know. She will do anything for anyone at any time, even if it inconveniences her. She rarely, if ever, says "no" to a favor. She has offered rides to various destinations, as close as the local post office to as far as Florida. Seriously. She offers assistance in moving, packing items for mailing, feeding your dog, watching your kids  — you name it. She has proposed accommodations at our home to visiting friends, relatives and even passing acquaintances who would be passing through our area, much to my disapproval. Can you name someone as reliable and consistent? I didn't think so.

Last night, as Mrs. P and I were exiting a movie at a quarter to midnight, a friend of hers sent one of those "this needs more information" texts asking for a call, if it's not too late. Of course, Mrs. P called. 

Her friend owns an antique store five minutes from our house. My wife, who has run a successful eBay business* for over a decade, frequents this woman's store and has made a few purchases — some for resale, some for our own home decor. It seems this woman had placed listings for a number of items in her store on several local Facebook "yard sale" pages with the enticement of "$20 Blowout Sale." All evening, while Mrs. P and I suffered through Batman vs. Superman, the antique dealer received countless inquiries regarding the items she was offering. Shaken by the out-of-the-ordinary amount of attention her merchandise was getting, she turned to my wife — the reliable, level-headed, business-minded, voice of reason. She asked if Mrs. P could come to her store on Sunday morning, as she was expecting a Black Friday-like crowd to be banging at her door, hungry for bargains. She felt she needed help wrangling the expected crowds and knew that Mrs. Pincus, with her years of experience running her family's busy retail store, would be the perfect choice. Of course, my wife agreed. I wouldn't have. But, I'm not nice.

Bright and early (for a Sunday), my wife went to the antique store. No one came. No one. The owner and Mrs. Pincus sat and talked for several hours, totally uninterrupted by customers. Resigned to the fact that her panic was for naught, she relieved my spouse of her duty. She came home, but not before offering her services again. Because she is nice.

When I tell my wife she is the nicest person I have ever known (and I do often), she quickly protests. "I complain," she says. I explain that complaining has nothing to do with being nice. Complaining is a part of human nature. Everyone complains. It's an outlet of frustration over the imperfect world in which we live. Everyone complains, but not everyone complains and completes the task anyway and continues to be nice. Only the nice people. Most people don't even make the offer to be nice. But, my wife is nice. I'm one of those other people.

You know the old expression: "Opposites attract?" Well, me and the Mrs. are living proof.

Isn't that nice?

No, she's not gonna sell your stuff for you. Nobody's that nice. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

at the late-night, double feature picture show

The experience of going to the movies has greatly improved at the same rate that the movies themselves have declined. When I was a kid, in the 1960s, going to the movies meant paying a buck for admission to a theater jammed with other screaming kids on a Saturday afternoon. It meant buying a giant bucket of popcorn — some to be eaten, some to be thrown. It meant a shitty sound system with barely-understood dialog pumped through ancient, crackly speakers. And the movie? Well, in my neighborhood, we had to wait several weeks until the big Hollywood productions made their way out of the ritzy, downtown theaters and into the twin-screen cinemas in the so-called "Greater Northeast," a section of the city that, while geographically was "northeast" of Philadelphia, was, by no means "great." So, our entertainment was provided by a movie that the rest of the world saw a month earlier or a years old, third-rate K. Gordon Murray twisted child fantasy. Nevertheless, it was a memorable experience. 

By the time I reached high school, the first-run policy had been relaxed and movies would premiere just a short drive from my house, in theaters that had been expanded to accommodate up to four separate screens. Most times, this was accomplished by splitting existing auditoriums in half. Economically, this made perfect sense for the theater chains, but the viewing experience was akin to watching a movie in a bowling alley. The ticket prices increased, of course, to subsidize the renovations, but the seats seemed more comfortable and the concession stands seemed to offer a wider and better selection of food.

Although I love movies, I stopped going when the ticket prices skyrocketed and the quality of the actual films diminished. There was that glut of big-screen versions of television shows — mostly miscast and filled with contrived premises. Then there were the plotless action films with more attention paid to explosions than to an actual script. So, I stayed away. Also, thanks to the advent of home video,  people just flat out forgot how to behave in the company of other people. They'd talk loudly, text incessantly and parade up and down the aisles regularly. Some even brought screaming children to inappropriate films. My son and I watched a couple wander into a theater pushing, not one, but two strollers for a 9:15 PM showing of Hellboy. Really, Mom and Dad? Hellboy?

Then theaters began installing stadium seating and sophisticated, state-of-the-art sound systems. Concession stands were stocked with menus featuring deli-style sandwiches and side orders like french fries alongside the M&Ms and popcorn. The auditoriums were even cleaner. Shoes no longer stuck to the floor while walking to a seat. It was slowly becoming a welcoming experience again, albeit very slowly. My wife and I, however, could still categorize our movie-going frequency as "infrequent." 

Last night, Mrs. P and I took in the pinnacle of the movie-going experience. A local branch of the innovative theater chain Movie Tavern opened in late 2015 a mere twenty minute drive from our house. I had heard about how great it was, with a full-service bar, restaurant and movie theater combined into one big, convenient conglomeration. Not content with a package of Twizzlers and a bathtub-size cup of Sprite? Well, how about sweet potato fries, Margherita Flatbread pizza or a 1/3 pound bacon cheeseburger while you watch your choice of films on your choice of eight screens? Remember John Travolta's revelation in Pulp Fiction as he explained about getting a glass of beer in a movie theater? Well, Movie Tavern makes that reality. Yes sir, someone was doing some thinking and they hit upon a concept so simple, I'm surprised it took so long.

Mrs. P and I were led to our reserved seats by Kyle, an overly-friendly and overly-attentive server. Kyle answered all of our procedural questions without once mocking us for behaving as though we had never been out of the house. He showed us the control to make the deep-cushioned seat recline to almost a flat position. He showed us the magical "call button" that would summon him at a second's notice. (Mrs. P immediately tried it out while he was still going through his explanation.) We ordered dinner and I anxiously pondered how disruptive the food delivery would be. Soon the theater darkened and, as coming attractions splashed across the enormous screen, a warm bowl of spinach-artichoke dip silently arrived at our seats. This was gonna be great! The main feature began. (Despite horrible reviews, we were seeing Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I hate superhero movies. My wife loves superhero movies, I love my wife, ergo...) Our main course arrived just as stealthily as our appetizer — a hefty and delicious roasted vegetable wrap for me and a grilled portobello mushroom "burger" for the Mrs. In the dark, we exchanged approving nods for the food, the seats, the service and the theater. We agreed that we may never go to another movie theater again. If we can get them to serve Chinese food on Christmas, this place could be as close to Heaven as one could get.

The movie, however, was another story. Jam-packed with convoluted sub-plots, faux-profound dialog, relentlessly lengthy fight scenes and a plethora of unnecessarily menacing characters (not to mention Ben Affleck's ligneous acting), it's no wonder this 151-minute mish-mash tanked in its second week of release. Even Mrs. P — who still enjoys 1983's misguided Superman III — shook her head in disgust at this mess.

Current movies still suck, but, damn!, if Movie Tavern don't got it goin' on.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

you say it's your birthday

Who doesn't love a birthday? Some of my fondest memories surround birthdays, either my own or someone else's. I remember birthdays when I was a kid. My mom would allow me to invite three friends to go miniature golfing and then out for pizza. It was so much fun, I did that several years in a row. One year, I took the same three friends to a small, year-round amusement park not too far from my house. We spent the afternoon riding unsafe rides and later we sat at a picnic table and had the cake that my mom brought.

As I got older, birthdays, while still fun, were much different. In high school, my best friend Alan planned my one and only surprise party. I was led to his basement under false pretenses, only to discover a room full of people screaming "Happy Birthday" when Alan flicked on the lights. He even was thoughtful enough to invite the girl I was dating while my girlfriend was away at overnight camp. I actually had the whole thing figured out prior to descending the basement stairs, but it was still a great time. 

My twenty-first birthday was pretty uneventful, although I vividly remember my twenty-second. I went to a bar on Philadelphia's hip South Street and the bouncer didn't even ask for ID. I realized then that it was all downhill from here.

My son was born three days after I turned twenty-six. Birthdays took on a new and exciting quality, as my wife and I celebrated vicariously though our child. Mrs. P baked themed cakes and we decorated the house with colorful balloons and pictures of our son's favorite things — Thomas the Tank Engine, Power Rangers, Mickey Mouse. One year, he asked for an "Underdog" themed party, as he had become a fan when Nickelodeon began showing the same cartoons I watch as a child. In the middle 80s, "Underdog" party goods were kind of tough to come by. Later, my boy celebrated two different birthdays at Disneyland and had his first legal alcoholic drink at Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills. He was disappointed, however, when, as a new twenty-one year old, he wasn't carded.

Through my 30s and 40s, birthdays became less and less important. The excitement they held in my youth has dissipated with each year. I usually went to work on my birthday if it didn't fall on a weekend. I usually never told my co-workers that it was my birthday. It was just another day. My wife and I don't exchange gifts for any occasion (not for religious or moral reasons, we just don't), so birthdays were usually acknowledged by a dinner out with our son. Since our son moved out of our house and into his own, birthday dinners have been reduced to just the two of us. Don't get me wrong. I'm not sad or upset. Birthdays are just not a big thing for me.

My in-laws both turned 80 this year, their birthdays just a month apart. My wife's cousin called to ask if we had any plans to celebrate what undeniably qualifies as a "milestone." My wife said that she really didn't consider anything and thought about calling her siblings to bounce around a few ideas. Instead, she just called her parents and offered them a few suggestions. Just as I had predicted, they dismissed almost every idea — parties, trips, big dinners with lots of guests. Instead, they conceded to a small breakfast gathering following the morning service at their synagogue. This, evidently, is how 80 year-olds party hard.
Rest assured. The cops did not have to break things up and nobody passed out. 

At least not from drinking.

Happy birthday.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

get me out of FLA

My brother Max just celebrated the last birthday of his fifties. (Perhaps "celebrated" isn't the best choice of words.) He has mentioned to me, on several occasions, his desire to retire at the first available chance. He works in a state job and a major benefit of his position and tenure is a pension that the good people of New Jersey have unwittingly — and unwillingly — subsidized. Max hopes to take his retirement when he reaches the age of 63 — just a few short years from now.

One morning last week, Mrs. Pincus met my sister-in-law (Max's wife) for a cup of coffee. They chatted about family stuff and my sister-in-law repeated my brother's plans for retirement. This time, however, the plan was elaborated upon, with a detail that was, heretofore, unmentioned. A detail to which my poor sister-in-law expressed her displeasure. It seems that my brother's grand dreams of retirement all take place in Florida.

I first became enamored with The Sunshine State as a teenager. I took my first vacation sans parents in 1980. Three friends and I descended on Walt Disney World and a better time could not have been had. We all agreed that this was the place to be. Soon we realized that the only reason we felt the way we did was because we were on vacation. We understood that if were were to actually live in Florida, we'd have to get jobs and find permanent housing and it would become our lives. The novelty of a carefree vacation would soon disappear. But, the thought stayed in the back of my mind.

"Before we all lived here in Florida"
After a few years of wedded bliss, my new bride figured out that we could purchase a house for a little more than what we were currently paying in monthly rent at our little townhouse apartment. She took me to house after "on-the-market" house until we chanced upon the three-story, six bedroom dwelling that we now affectionately call "Pincusland." At the time, I was, as they say, "between jobs," This did not, however, stop us from applying for a mortgage. As we waited impatiently for an approval from the good folks at Chase Mortgage*, I made a proposal to Mrs. P. I told her if we get turned down for a mortgage, we will pack our belongings and move to Florida, specifically the Orlando area. I had it all planned. I would get a job in the Design or Marketing Department of the Walt Disney Company and Mrs. P would abandon her teaching position (she was a nursery school teacher when we met, a story for a future blog) and find employment at one of Disney's theme parks. My brother isn't the only Pincus with dreams! Lucky for us, Chase had faith and granted us a mortgage. Thanks to a long succession of increasingly better employment opportunities, we were able to pay off that mortgage before the agreed-upon thirty year deadline. I say "lucky," because after numerous visits to Florida, I came to discover that a move to that state would have been a huge mistake. While the tourist business certainly has been a boon for the local economy, there also seems to be an inordinate amount of empty buildings, stalled construction projects and shuttered businesses. On every subsequent trip to Orlando, my teenage fantasy world faded a little more. I saw another closed restaurant and another shopping center sitting empty... while, curiously, another shopping center was under construction just a few feet away. The sprawl and dereliction was a strange and unnerving dichotomy. It smacked of erratic instability.

So, instead of moving, we stayed in Philadelphia. I always managed to find a new and better job (all twelve of them!). Our family increased by one with the arrival of our son soon after settling in our new house. Dreams of moving to Florida became less and less of an aspiration and more of a silly childish pipe dream. To me, it revealed itself to be a frivolous, irrational thought associated with impetuous, unthinking youth.

I can't discount Max's dream of retiring and moving to Florida. After all, it has gained a reputation as the old Jew's equivalent of the elusive "Elephant's Graveyard." Perhaps, though, Max's wife will talk some sense to one of those elephants.

*At the time. Our mortgage was sold at least five times during the past thirty years.