Sunday, October 28, 2018

our love's in jeopardy

This year, Jeopardy!, the popular "phrase it in the form of a question" game show is celebrating its 35th season. The original version began life in 1964 as just another game show, joining the ranks of Hollywood Squares, Concentration, Password and slew of others on morning 1960s television. Almost immediately, Jeopardy! rose to become the second-highest rated game show on television. It remained at the top if its game for over a decade, until a change in time-slot resulted in a ratings drop. The show, hosted by Emmy-winning announcer Art Fleming, was canceled, making room for a new show called Wheel of Fortune. Four years later, the show returned to the airwaves as The All-New Jeopardy!, once again, hosted by Art Fleming. This incarnation lasted a year.

In 1984, Sony Pictures Television revived the venerable game show as a syndicated nighttime version. The program achieved cult-like status, often being referenced in pop-culture contexts. It was famously parodied many times on SNL as "Celebrity Jeopardy!" and "Black Jeopardy!" Over the years, contestants-cum-champions have garnered their own fan bases, especially Ken Jennings's 74-game run as Jeopardy's longest-reigning champ. Then, there was a novelty contest with Watson, the computer, followed by a number of actual celebrity events, a teachers tournament, a college tournament and a nearly-unwatchable teen series of games. In addition, there have been spin-offs in the form of "Sports Jeopardy!" and "Rock & Roll Jeopardy!" Of course, nearly every trivia-based game show owes a tip of the mortar board to Jeopardy!

The current revival has been hosted by veteran game show host Alex Trebek since its 1984 "re-premiere." At Trebek's behest, he was always introduced as "the host of Jeopardy!," not the "star." He felt that the show was the star and he merely presented it to viewers.

That seems to have changed.

Mrs. Pincus and I have been watching Jeopardy! ever since its mid-80s debut. We are trivia enthusiasts, so we are naturally drawn to the show. We've been there through a multitude of set changes, as well as changes to Alex Trebek's grooming (dark hair, mustache, gray hair, goatee, clean-shaven). We watched every contestant interview, laughing when any of the usually-awkward contenders got in an unintentional zinger or double-entendre during their thirty seconds of personal disclosure.

Lately, however, Alex Trebek has suddenly noticed the spotlight. He mugs for the camera. He monopolizes his interviews with the contestants. He exhibits tense body language towards mutli-day champions that he obviously dislikes. He excessively reprimands players who deliver incorrect answers. He also has questioned what contestants are wearing, ribbed them about their hairstyles and made fun of their little personality-revealing anecdotes.

More recently, Mr. Trebek has adopted a very unusual and upsetting habit. Whenever one of the categories references a foreign language or a foreign country, he announces the title in an overly-affected accent of that particular country. Then, he reads each clue in the category in the same, exaggerated dialect. We've heard cringe-worthy Irish brogues and Jamaican inflections. We have heard him read clues about Italy in a vocal tone that would embarrass Nintendo's Mario. I understand that Alex Trebek grew up in a bilingual Canadian household, but his French is, at the same time, both condescending and mortifying. Mr. Trebek's questionable (and somewhat mean-spirited) behavior is not confined to Jeopardy!, either. He was recently tagged as moderator for a debate between candidates for Governor of Pennsylvania. He dominated the debate, talking for nearly half of it, often about himself, without allowing candidates time to discuss important political issues. He also made surprising and unprovoked remarks regarding the sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church. Alex later apologized for his performance, stating that he misunderstood the role of a moderator.

Alex Trebek's current contract to host Jeopardy! expires in 2020. I hope when the time comes to audition his replacement, the choice will be someone with a little more sensitivity to current climate of tolerance and acceptance.

Someone like Alex Trebek in 1984.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

pretty hate machine

When does hate begin? Well, for me, it began when I was a kid. 

I grew up in a predominately gentile neighborhood. And by "predominantly," I mean you could count the Jewish families on one hand. Now, I don't mean that as a bad thing or an immediate source of hate, but I was surrounded by antisemitism at every corner. I heard it at the bus stop. I heard it while playing in my yard. I heard it while walking down my street. I even heard it from kids who I numbered among my "friends." It's not that the members of my family were particularly observant Jews (we were not), but everyone knew that we didn't have a Christmas tree and didn't put up Christmas lights and we didn't dress up on Easter. I don't think the fact that we were Jews even registered with our gentile neighbors, but more the fact that we believed in different things. Oh, and that we killed Christ.

There were two families on my block, each with numerous kids ranging in age from early teens to preschool. Their houses were a few lots apart and, coincidentally, the families were related. (I think the fathers of each household were brothers or cousins or something like that.) These two families were hotbeds for antisemitism. I would get taunts from the members of both households — young and old, boys and girls alike. In winter, snowballs would come hurtling from their backyards if I would walk past their houses, accompanied by muffled giggling and high-pitched shrieks of "Jew!" In nicer weather, the taunts would be more brazen with some of my dimmer-witted "friends" joining in because they didn't know any better.

Actually, that's the key to all of the hate I experienced as a child. They didn't know any better. This unfounded prejudice was passed down from parents who learned it from their parents. I remember a joke that I heard regularly in my neighborhood. At a time when ethic jokes were perfectly acceptable (Archie Bunker and Johnny Carson would frequently mock those of Polish and Italian extraction and Don Rickles made and entire career of it.), kids in my neighborhood would tell this one, most of them not even understanding its feeble attempt at humor:
Why are synagogues round?
So the Jews can't hide in the corners when the collection plate comes around.
Pretty stupid, huh? Let's analyze just how stupid it is. First of all, not all synagogues are round. Actually, I can't remember ever seeing a round synagogue. The only structures I can think of that are "round," are sports stadiums — and even those aren't truly round. Plus, it's not as though synagogues are built without some consultation with the folks who are going to use it as a house of worship. No one ever, during the design and construction, adamantly insisted, "Now make sure there are no corners so the Jews can't hide." Wouldn't Jews be making those structural design decisions? Makes no sense. Second — obviously, this terrible attempt at antisemitic levity, was made up by a non-Jew who had never, ever set foot in a synagogue, especially during a religious service. Their only frame of reference was their own religious service experience. If they had done the proper research, they would have known that Jews don't pass around a collection plate. Neither do Muslims or Hindus or any number of non-Christian religions. Collection plates or "offertory" are strictly a Christian ritual. 

Of course, this "joke" is an attempt to illustrate the baseless perception that Jews are cheap. In fact, as a group, they are not. Charity is a fundamental part of Jewish life, from pushkes (coin boxes) in traditional Jewish homes, to mourners vowing to make a donation in memory of a lost loved one to Jewish youth group's efforts for raise money for various worthy causes. In Business Week's list of "The 50 Most Generous Philanthropists," fifteen were Jewish. Considering that less than .2% of the world's population is Jewish, that's a pretty good showing.

Had the budding comedian who originally conceived this unfunny joke done a little thinking, they would have discovered that the basic concept and example given in the joke did not make sense, rendering it not the least bit funny. However, the kids in my neighborhood told this joke quite often and it always evoked laughter. They didn't know why they were laughing, but everyone else was laughing and no one wanted to be singled out as the one who "didn't get it."

And that's how hate begins. Hate begins by not knowing.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

nothing compares to you

If you've been paying attention, you probably know how much I love Disney... especially the theme parks. I've been to Walt Disney World in Florida many times and I've been to Disneyland in California many times. When people find out about my affinity for Disney, they just assume that I like going to all theme parks. They assume incorrectly. To paraphrase Sinead O'Connor: "Nothing compares to Disney." I have been to Universal Studios once and that was one time too many. Actually, my experience there showed me why Disney is at the top of the heap and all others in the theme park game aspire to reach "Disney" levels... and, most likely, never will.

After trying (unsuccessfully) to convince my son that our local Disney Store was Walt Disney World, we broke down and made our first trip as a family to Walt Disney World in 1995. Because we are Pincuses with a penchant for the unconventional, we drove to Florida from our suburban Philadelphia home. We loaded up our minivan with luggage and food and activities for the road and headed south on I-95, stopping along the way to see the sights. As we drew closer to the Florida state line, we passed more and more billboards advertising "FREE THEME PARK TICKETS." We already had our Disney World admission, but my 8-year old son — also an avid Nickelodeon fan — was anxious to get an up-close look at the "Kids' Network" at Universal Studios theme park that had just opened its competitive doors a few years earlier. So, after a bit of cajoling, my wife swung the minivan into the gravel parking lot of a small building on a service road, just off the highway in South Carolina. A young lady behind a high counter greeted us with a smile. She explained that, in order to secure tickets to Universal, we would be required to attend a brief seminar at a soon-to-be-opened time-share complex minutes from the Disney compound in Orlando. My wife and I were young and naive, not fully aware of the hard-sell, pressure-heavy experience that awaited us. We excitedly made a reservation for mid-week to tour the complex, with effortless visions of free tickets to Universal Studios clouding our collective thoughts. We hopped back into our van and I tucked the reservations card away with our important papers.

Early one morning, our little family entered the Magic Kingdom, eager to share each other's joy and ride Pirates of the Caribbean a couple of dozen times. Disney, of course, did not disappoint. My son's first taste of a real, live Disney theme park was borderline mind-blowing. We basked in his excitement, as we re-watched familiar sights though a new set of eyes. We were also treated to that signature Disney service. Disney "cast members" filled our day with smiles and friendly words and honest-to-goodness happiness — from ride operators, to restaurant wait staff to the cheerful guy sweeping the walkways. Every Disney employee was willing to bend over backwards to make sure each and every guest had the greatest time.

A reasonable facsimile.
A few days later, we drove down a desolate stretch of Route 192 through Kissimmee until we arrived at the entrance to The Isle of Bali, a construction site with a single tower looming high above the giant piles of debris and dirt-caked bulldozers. The tower, a light brick structure inlaid with an aquatic pattern, was flanked by two in-progress edifices that had not made much progress at all. We found our way to a large conference room that was packed with folks milling about — obviously lured by the promise of free theme park tickets, because no one looked the least bit interested in buying into the sucker-pitch of a time-share. They were all like us — families on vacation. We were directed to a complementary continental breakfast, but no sooner had I begun to smear a lump of cream cheese across a pale, thin bagel than we were interrupted greeted by our day's tour guide. He was a cheerful young man who resembled Tim Meadows before we knew who Tim Meadows was. He shook my hand, tousled my son's hair and led us to a small table covered with a linen tablecloth. Before he began his presentation, he made several persistent attempts at sticking our son in a "kids area" where he would be "more comfortable." When he finally realized that we weren't letting him out our our sight, "Tim" proceeded with the most incoherent pitch I ever heard. We could barely follow what he was saying, as he jumped from tales of overseas vacations to domestic golf courses, to fishing lakes for fishing (I swear he said that!) to the constant mispronunciation of the name of complex itself. He repeatedly called the place "The Bile of Ali." I kid you not! At the end of a grueling two hours (yes! two hours!), we squirmed and declined every single "supervisor" who accosted us after "Tim" failed to lock us into a commitment. Finally, when we just asked for our free tickets to Universal, we were met with scowls and directed to a door. "In there." we were told. I suspected that a blazing furnace lay on the other side on the closed portal. But, no. Inside was a bare room with a bare Formica counter and bored woman in attendance. Without a word, she handed over an envelope with three passes to Universal and sent us through another door that dumped us in a remote area of the parking lot. Whatever.... we got what we came for.

Universal Studios was just okay. We went on some great rides (Back to The Future, ET, Jaws) and encountered typical "theme park" atmosphere (I seem to remember Elroy Jetson and Beetlejuice passing us on a walkway that was dotted with a recreation of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf just a short distance from the fictional, shark-threatened town of Amity). But, to me and my Disney-loving family, there was something missing. Universal was closer to a regular, no-frills amusement park than the magical wonderment that echoed the dreams and imagination of a visionary artist from Marceline, Missouri. The employees (decidedly not "cast members") were not smiling and sort of trudged around like they had better things to do. The place, while certainly impressive, didn't sparkle with that otherworldly, pixie-dust sprinkled enchantment that we had come to expect from "theme parks" of this magnitude. Sure, it was nice, but it wasn't Disney. It was just a big place with rides.

While we waited in line for one of those rides, we suffered the blistering Florida heat along with our fellow day guests. As the crowd snaked its way through the roped maze of the queue line, a uniformed fellow skirted along the outside of the line carrying a vendor's tray stocked with $8.00 cans of beer. He paced slowly along the line, making sure everyone saw his pricey, thirst-quenching wares and he even had a couple of takers. My family took full stock of this scenario.

The next day, we were back in the welcoming arms of Walt Disney World. The Florida heat was not diminished in the least and we found ourselves in a similar situation, waiting in a fairly long queue for a Disney attraction. In an antithetical reflection of the events of the previous day, a cheerful, brightly-clad Disney cast member slowly walked along the outside of the ride line. She had a large water cooler (the kind you see at construction sites) ingeniously strapped to her back. She was filling up paper cones with ice water and distributing them to every single person in line. Every single person. While the majority of the recipients thanked her and were grateful for the free refreshment, the Pincuses took note. This was a perfect example of why Disney is successful at what they do. Sure they want your money, but they also know how to make their guests happy. And they think of everything.

It's been twenty-three years since the events of my little tale unfolded. I haven't been back to Universal Studios since that day in 1995, so I don't know if they stepped up their game. I do know, however, that Disney continues to prove themselves to be "The Happiest Place on Earth." Early this year, I came across this heart-warming photograph taken at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. It rains nearly every day in central Florida. That's why nearly every merchandise store at every Disney theme park showcases a fully-stocked display of overpriced rain gear. I don't begrudge Disney for trying to make a buck. After all, that's really what they do best — make their stockholders happy. But, because they are marketing geniuses, they don't appear to be forcing the foul weather items in your face, rather they are merely offered for sale, if you so choose to make that purchase. But Disney also knows how to make their "guests" feel like actual "guests." As proof of that, I offer this photo of a "Green Army Man" street character silently lending some assistance to a wheelchair-bound guest, who was caught in an Orlando downpour.

This is Disney at its finest. A true depiction of the Disney brand. I hope someone at Universal is taking note.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

a man of means by no means

In the late 1990s, I worked for a local chain of floor covering stores in the Philadelphia area. Among other things, my primary responsibilities were to produce full-page newspaper ads and full-color, multi-page circulars for insertion into the Sunday newspapers, My boss was the owner of the company. He was a soft-spoken, pleasant guy who, due to some extremely wise investments, had  accumulated more money than you or I would ever see in a zillion lifetimes. He founded, and later sold, several well-known retail chains in the Philadelphia market. He was also partners in another business with some of his family members

Did I say he was pleasant? Actually, he was pretty ruthless.

Like most folks in his income bracket, he believed that once you achieved that level of wealth, the rules of society no longer applied. I witnessed him go the wrong way down a one-way street. I saw him park in spaces clearly marked "No Parking." I was present when he negotiated an annual advertising contract with the Philadelphia Inquirer that he had absolutely no intention of fulfilling. He just wanted the rock-bottom price and he got it. As head of advertising for the company, I saw, as the end of the year approached, that we would fall short of our advertising commitment. My boss just smiled and waved me off, explaining that he would just renegotiate the contract in the new year, with no regard for late fees or penalties for non-fulfillment of the contract.

He forged and fabricated documents that were submitted to suppliers for advertising reimbursement. He lied to customers and suppliers about stock, delivery dates and installation schedules. He made up a wild promise to get a local news station to produce a commercial for his stores for no charge.

And, every once in a while, he would stop me from working on an ad that had to hit a deadline, to run out and get him a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

After three years in his employ, I was contacted by a former boss who offered me a position at her current employer. The job paid more money and was thirty minutes closer to my home. I didn't waste a second on my decision to leave my job. I hung up the phone, marched into the office of my boss at the floor-covering company and tendered my two-week notice. He didn't bat an eye. He actually smiled — the smile of a comic-book villain. "Can you give me the weekend to make a counter offer?," he asked with a tone that implied no one ever turned down his offers.

"Sure," I replied, "I can wait until Monday."

So, Monday rolled around and I already made my decision, but I was anxious to entertain his counteroffer. He arrived at the office a few hours after I did. I was busy packing up my personal belongings from my work area, as I knew I would be leaving in two weeks. Once he got settled, I was invited into his office. I came in, taking a seat opposite his large, dark wood desk. He leaned back in his dark brown leather chair and began.

First off, he offered me a considerable raise — an amount of which I had previously asked, but was denied. He wasn't close to finished. Next, he offered airfare for me and my immediate family to Orlando, Florida once a year. He was well aware of my family's affinity for Walt Disney World. Lastly, he offered to pay for my Phillies season tickets. At the time, my wife and I were rabid baseball fans and were the (proud?) owners of three Sunday games seats at the new home of the Philadelphia Phillies Citizens Bank Park. After presenting the final piece of his generous counteroffer, he leaned back in his chair and waited for me to say "Okay."

I did not.

Instead, I felt I had to struggle to keep myself from busting out in loud laughter. Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

I imagined the future of these offers. I would have to beg for the salary increase. This guy wasn't giving up money that easily. I would have to beg for the plane tickets. He wasn't about to buy airplane tickets for a trip he wasn't going on. I would have to beg for the Phillies tickets. I imagined him giving my tickets to his family members or business associates, in order to secure a better deal on product. Oh yeah, I wasn't going to get any of his promises. See, he had forgotten that, for three years I watched him fuck over everyone in his path. I declined his offer and two weeks later, I was working in my new job.

Five years ago, I read that this guy passed away, My wife asked if I planned on attending his funeral. I had no plans in doing such a thing. Mrs. Pincus reminded me of my relationship with him. He had attended my son's bar mitzvah on an obligatory invitation and his wife was a teacher at my son's elementary school. But, I reminded my wife of the callous and heartless boss he was and how he treated his employees on a day-to-day basis. 

I didn't take his counteroffer. I didn't attend his funeral and I didn't have to get him coffee.