Sunday, February 17, 2019

I know what I like

When I was a kid, going out to a restaurant was not that big of a deal because my family did it a lot. I'm not talking about an extravagant, fancy place that required my dad to wear a tie and my mom to call ahead and make a reservation. My family most frequently ate at the Heritage Diner, an unassuming establishment just outside the confines of my Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. My father — a staunch traditionalist, very set in his ways — ate breakfast there most mornings and it was always the same. So much so, that the waitresses knew what to bring without even taking an order. Two scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. Never — I repeat never! — would his breakfast platter ever include "home fries," as the sight of potatoes in the morning made my father nauseous. Fifteen cigarettes before 7 AM were just fine, but potatoes.....

Besides my father's solo, potato-less breakfasts, my family would often have our dinner at the Heritage Diner. The Heritage had standard diner fare — a menu the size of a small novel and a two-sided, typewritten page of "Daily Dinner Specials" that included soup or salad, choice two vegetables, bread and butter, a beverage and a limited selection of desserts — all for one low price. (Or so I imagined. The price of dinner didn't matter to me. I was a kid, after all. My dad was picking up the check.)

Eating at The Heritage during the week, the unspoken rule was to order a hamburger or a tuna sandwich or maybe an omelette. The "Daily Dinner Specials" were reserved for weekends, specifically Sunday. We had Sunday dinners at The Heritage probably twice a month. Those were the times when we were permitted to order off the "Daily Dinner Specials" menu. I would scan the two sides of that poorly typed sheet, reading each and every entry — even the ones I had no intention of ever ordering... which was most of them. I was always intrigued when my mom — after reading those enticing offerings — would tell the waitress that she would like liver. In my little mind, I would think to myself: You can have anything you want! Why would you order liver in a restaurant? That's like punishment! Once, I actually asked my mom why she always gets liver. She smiled and explained that she loves liver, but no one else in the family does (not even my dad — who was a butcher by trade). So restaurants presented the only opportunity she had to get liver. And she didn't have to cook it! Made perfect sense — even if the end result was a plate of liver.

I, however, usually ordered one of two entrees — alternating on alternate Sundays. Sometimes I would get roasted turkey because it reminded me of Thanksgiving. It came with a salad, which I would automatically slide over to my mom just as the waitress set the plate in front of me. It also included a baked potato, which I would eat (except for the skin) and (at my mother's insistence) string beans, which I would stare at. Alongside the mound of sliced turkey drenched in that unnaturally-yellow gravy, was a small souffle cup containing a dollop of cranberry sauce, which I also never ate. My other "go to" dinner was fried flounder, which was essentially a giant fish stick. It, too, came with a second salad for my mother, a serving of French fries and a liquidy bowl of cole slaw which I stared at like it was a bowl of string beans. One time, I think I may have asked for, as my two side orders, French fries and a baked potato.

For me?
The choices of available vegetables that the Heritage offered to accompany their "Daily Dinner Specials" read like "Nixon's Hit List," if it was compiled by an eight-year old. String beans, broccoli, a mixture of broccoli and cauliflower, peas, carrots, a mixture of peas and carrots, a mixture of peas, carrots and string beans, apple sauce, creamed spinach, French fries or a baked potato. This was food for old people. I suppose that was the target audience for the "Daily Dinner Specials." I guess whoever decided what would go on the "Daily Dinner Specials" each day presumed that any children along for the ride would order from the special children's menu (with its entrees whimsically-named in honor of cartoon characters and storybook heroes, presented along with a 6-pack of crayons and a ready-to-be-colored place mat). They knew darn well that no kid was asking Mom if it was okay to order creamed spinach.

But a funny thing happened. I grew up. And I grew up to surprise myself.

Lately, I found myself actually ordering broccoli in a restaurant. Broccoli! Me! Little Josh Pincus! Imagine! I have done this more than once, too. I have ordered peas and carrots. I have ordered cole slaw. I have even ordered string beans and eaten them. I honestly can't believe that so many foods I shunned as a child have become some of my favorites. I don't even pick the lettuce off of my (veggie) burger! Me! And I'll eat the skin from a baked potato. My mom was right! It is the best part.

I became a vegetarian in 2006. (Not a vegan, a vegetarian. If I was a vegan, you'd know it. Every blog post would be about me being a vegan.) Since then, I have eaten more vegetables than I ever had in my entire life. I've even become more adventurous, venturing out into the world of succotash, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, Harvard beets, artichokes.... and enjoying every one of them. Okay, maybe not Brussels sprouts so much. Because I am a vegetarian, I won't order liver in a restaurant, but, I no longer pass the salad off to someone else.

My mom would be proud.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

mary, mary

In December, with a house full of out-of-town guests, Mrs. Pincus and I were unable to fulfill our Christmas tradition of going to the movies followed by a dinner of Chinese food. We did, however, make it down to our son's house to feed his cat while he and his girlfriend celebrated the holiday with her family. But, alas, we missed our chance to see the highly-touted and highly-anticipated sequel to Walt Disney's 1964 Oscar-winning film Mary Poppins.

Until last night.

Nearly two months after its release, and with most of the excitement passed, my wife and I ventured out on a weeknight to see the film. We were enticed by an offer of five dollar admission — something we just couldn't turn down. When we arrived at the theater, it seemed that a lot of folks are not swayed by admission prices knocked down to below half off. The place was empty. That's not a compliant. Actually, that's a preference.

In 1964, my Aunt Clara took me to my first movie in a theater... and that movie was Mary Poppins. I loved it. It was bright and colorful, filled with cheerful songs and funny characters. Although I  was 3 years old, I actually remember standing up in my seat and clapping. In subsequent years, I watched Mary Poppins on television and later on a video tape that I purchased. I knew every scene and every song. My wife and I watched it with our son, who came to love it as much as we loved it. It was a bonafide, multi-generational family favorite.

So, when I first heard about the proposal of a sequel to Mary Poppins, I was very, very skeptical. Over fifty years had passed since the beloved original film. Many of the original cast members were too old to reprise their roles. Others were retired from acting while others were deceased. Of course, the new film would be recast. A new story would have to be written. And, with one of the celebrated Sherman brothers — the original's prolific composers — gone, recreating those infectious tunes would be a tall order.

When our opportunity to see Mary Poppins Returns at Christmas did not arise, I wasn't really that disappointed. I really didn't want to see it. I feared that it would tarnish the sparkling memories of the stellar original. But, when a five dollar admission to the movies presents itself, you don't think twice.

At the theater, Mrs. P and I sat through a number of trailers for forgettable films we decided we have no intention of seeing... not even when they are available on Netflix. Then the sparsely-occupied auditorium darkened and the familiar Disney Studio "castle" insignia filled the giant screen. 

I am happy to report that Mrs. P and I were held spellbound for the next 130 minutes. I wanted to dislike Mary Poppins Returns. I really did. But I couldn't. It was irresistible. It was a love letter to the original, loaded with nods and winks and subtle references. It was perfectly cast with the unflappable Emily Blunt capably filling the poised shoes of Oscar winner Dame Julie Andrews. Fresh from Broadway and settling nicely into his role as cheeky "Jack the Lamp Lighter" was the positively magical Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose put-on British accent wasn't nearly as distracting as Dick Van Dyke's attempt 54 years earlier. The supporting cast was spit-spot on. The sets were beautiful. The direction was snappy. The choreography was inspired (well, inspired by the original). The songs were jubilant when they had to be and sad when that was a requirement. Even the animation sequences were artistic homages to the style and characters of a Disney that wasn't out to sell you a time-share.

I seem to be gushing and you seem to waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sorry to disappoint, but not this time. I genuinely loved this movie. No snide remarks. No sarcastic asides.

No spoonful of sugar needed.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

leave those kids alone

My ten-year old nephew loves, lives and breathes basketball. He talks about when he goes pro, not if, as though it is already decided. He plays on a traveling basketball team with other ten-year olds, some of whom exhibit moves on the court that belie their years.

A few weeks ago, I got to see my nephew's team play against another team of ten-year olds. The kids took to the court and each one played their little hearts out. They looked to be having a great time passing and dribbling and shooting and blocking and scoring. The excitement was infectious and the fun was palpable. As the youngsters ran up and down the court, their teammates on the bench cheered them on and their coaches sporadically shouted out direction and words of encouragement.

But, from the bleachers side of the game, it was a different story.

I sat with my wife and my nephew's parents. Nearby were a few gentlemen that behaved as though this was the crucial series-deciding game of the NBA finals. Their entire existence hinged on this game. I don't know who's parents they were, because these few fathers were calling out strategy to everyone on the team, not necessarily just their kid. There were determined yells of "Block that!" and "On your left!" and "Behind you!" Some of the call-outs were louder than the coach's instructions, distracting the young players' focus from the game. These same fathers grumbled and stamped their feet against the wooden slat seats when a referee blew his whistle against the home team. Some even vocalized their displeasure with the rulings. At the end of the game, with a lopsided score, one second left to play and no chance of a comeback, I heard a few of the parents giving audible snickers.

It was embarrassing. I never played sports as a child, (Who am I kidding? I never played sports as an adult, either!) but, I always heard stories of frustrated "stage parents" living their failed sports dreams vicariously through their children, however witnessing it made my blood run cold. Their self-serving actions undermined the fun and sportsmanship that these games are supposed to nurture. After the game, some fathers didn't even congratulate their budding athlete. 

Can't these kids just have a little fun without your shortcomings entering into it?  Come on... they're only kids once. You had your chance.