Sunday, July 18, 2021

walking with a ghost

I am on vacation this weekend, so here is a story that appeared on my illustration block in 2010. It's a pretty funny story. It's is also a true story. Aside from the humorous subject and outcome of the story, it is interesting how much has changed in a mere eleven years. The boy who is the main character just completed his first year of college. I'm not sure if he has overcome his fears, though. My eldest niece, who is referenced three times, is now 41 and the mother of a pretty rambunctious seven-year old. My brother-in-law and his wife have been separated for over a year.  My eight-year old niece is now a high school graduate and is transgender.— JPiC

“A baby is an alimentary canal with a loud voice at one end and no responsibility at the other.”

Several evenings ago, there was a family dinner at my in-law’s house. My wife and I attended, along with my wife’s younger brother, his wife and two daughters, ages… um… somewhere between four and eight… or something close to that. Also on the guest list were my wife’s cousin, her husband and two young sons, both in the approximate age range of my nieces. My thirty-year-old niece was there too, but since she is relatively well-behaved and doesn’t fit into the “child” category anymore, she will merit merely this mention in the story. 

Dinner proceeded like most dinners, with cross-table conversation punctuated by clinking glasses, rattling flatware and my father-in-law rolling his eyes in exasperation and saying, “I can’t hear you.” As usual, the children picked, uninterested, at their meals and bolted from the table early while the adults lingered over their plates. My eldest niece (Hmmm! Two mentions!) stealthily began the preliminary clearing of the table to ready it for dessert. The living room, adjacent to the dining room, came alive with the unruly loudness of four rambunctious young cousins. The noise settled slightly after a visit by one of the parents  impatiently prompted by my father-in-law. Still, the muffled sounds of children’s voices could be heard, though no actual words could be discerned. 

The hushed tones from the living room, it would soon be revealed, was my niece (not the thirty-year old. Jeez! Three mentions!) recounting the legend of Bloody Mary for the benefit of her cousin. The tale of Bloody Mary, for those who never attended camp, never attended a public school or was never a kid surrounded by other kids, is a word-of-mouth ghost story. Although it has various origins and numerous colloquial nuances, the basic story remains. The evil spirit of a woman of undetermined background can be invoked by facing a mirror in a darkened room (usually the claustrophobic confines of a bathroom) and reciting her name  “Bloody Mary”  a specific number of times (anywhere from three to a hundred, depending on whose giving the instructions). My niece, at eight years of age, is a voracious reader, an avid TV and movie junkie and, just like her father at that age, a budding horror fan. Unfortunately, most children are scared shitless by things of that nature, and much to her delight, her slightly older yet very impressionable boy cousin was no exception. And judging by the sly smile spread across her lips, she knew that would be the result. 

As the evening wound down, my wife’s cousin rounded up her family and, as all good mothers are prone to do, insisted that her children visit the bathroom before the long drive home. Her older boy, the recently spooked one, reacted as though he was just asked to ingest a healthy serving of cockroach and broccoli casserole. His eyes widened in terror and his feet remained firmly planted as his mother directed him towards the small powder room just off the dining room. “No!,” he shrieked, his face growing flush, then pale. His parents exchanged bewildered glances. The poor boy shook with real fear as he protested any persuasion to get him to enter that bathroom. My mother-in-law, my father-in-law, his mother and his father (okay, maybe not his father so much) tried to reason with the terrified child, as his younger brother danced with indifferent joy, reveling in the fact that the journey home was being temporarily delayed. “There’s nothing to be afraid of!,” his mother said, “It’s just a bathroom.” My father-in-law suggested they take advantage of the bathroom on the second floor. That was just as bad, because obviously to the frightened boy, Bloody Mary’s portal to the world of the living was any bathroom and he wanted no parts of any one of them. He continued his ear-splitting screams until my niece sheepishly admitted that she may have inadvertently mentioned part of a story that may have implied that an evil, child-grabbing ghost lived inside all mirrors. Bringing it out in the open didn’t help. That kid was not going into the bathroom. He screamed louder, pleading to be taken home “right this instance,” as he put it. Finally, my mother-in-law took the frantic boy aside and leaned over to present her proposal face to face. With his full attention, my mother-in-law produced a large and shiny silver dollar from her pocket. She explained that if he entered the bathroom and completed the task that customarily takes place in a bathroom, this silver minted beauty would be his. He briefly considered, turned on his heels and while unbuttoning his pants, slammed the bathroom door behind him. One tinkle later, he emerged to collect his reward. 

Money, it appears, trumps everything. Even ghosts.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

let it go! let it go!

I love Disney.

For those of you that didn't groan and click to another website, begrudging another rambling post about my love for the multimedia giant, let me further explain. I don't especially like everything specifically Disney. I dislike the majority of the programming on The Disney Channel and their cable offshoot Freeform. Those teen-angst-y, overly hip dramas and overly precocious family comedies, of course, are not geared to me. Although I am a fan of iCarly, Sam & Cat and Victorious (Nickelodeon, in my opinion, have achieved a better result with their writing and casting), Disney's shows have only accomplished a pattern of sameness. Again, I know I am not the target audience, but Disney knows who is... and they constantly and consistently hit their mark.

I don't love every film that the Disney company has produced. Sure, I have my favorites, animated classics like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty. I really like the productions from Disney-owned Pixar Studios, like the Toy Story franchise and Ratatouille. But, Disney's recent acquisitions of the Marvel Comics and Star Wars intellectual properties do absolutely nothing for me. But Disney knows what fans of those particular genres like and they are only too happy to give them what they want... or at least tell them what it is that they want.

My real love is the Disney theme parks. I have been to Walt Disney World and Disneyland countless times. I am never bored, never disappointed and always joyful (That's right! I am capable of joy!) during every minute I spend in a Disney theme park... with the possible exception of Disney's Animal Kingdom. (Oh, I don't care what they say — it's a zoo.) My family and I regularly marvel at the attention to detail Disney has applied to the immersive theme park experience. They set the standard and continue to maintain and even become the standard by which all other theme parks are measured. If not for the concept that Walt Disney thought up as he sat on a bench eating peanuts while his daughters rode a simple merry-go-round, no other theme parks would exist. (For those of you who hate Disney, but decided to stick around past the first sentence — there is where you can direct your disdain.)

But, love them or not, there is no denying Disney's mastery of marketing. I can think of no other company that can dictate, influence and manipulate its customers like Disney. While Apple Computers has a cult-like grip on its loyal users, they are still a niche business as compared to the widespread number of ventures in which Disney has an interest.

Not them. They're too happy... and clean.
The families on either side of them. They're the typical ones.
Disney knows their customer and they market directly to them the kind of enticement they know their customer wants to hear. The interesting thing
— and what makes their marketing prowess so admirable — is there is a wide variety of people that make up the "Disney customer." The most obvious one is the "family." Mom, Dad and their 2.5 children. If you look around at the crowds in Walt Disney World, you will see an overwhelming amount of families that fit this description. Mom, with the unfolded guide map, busily checking off each attraction the family has experienced and noting which ones they've yet to conquer. Dad, silently calculating in his head how much this vacation is costing him per minute and how much overtime he'll have to work to make up for it when they return to the "real world." Brother, sister and baby, whose collective heads are about to explode amid an overload of familiar characters, eleven dollar caramel apples, twenty-two dollar popcorn in a commemorative bucket themed to the latest film release and a barrage of questions regarding the origins of Splash Mountain. This is Disney's prime target, their "bread & butter." The ones who have no problem being coaxed out of their hard-earned money to become the proud owners of a two-foot tall Sorcerer's Apprentice hat that will never ever be worn again once they leave the Orlando Airport. They're the ones who — on Day One — grumble about having to feed a family of five for $125 per meal and — by Day Three — don't bat an eye as they wave their magical Magic Band at the restaurant cashier, where Disney has allowed them to be shielded from the sight of any actual money exchanging hands. These families aren't quite sure why they want to go to Disney World, they just do. Perhaps it's because their neighbor or a guy at work or a well-to-do brother-in-law is taking his family to Disney World. It's the thing to do, you know... go "down to Disney" as they say in my part of the country. Even the most rural-dwelling families — those who wouldn't dare set foot outside of their cocoon-like community — will venture to the "big city" airport to walk down a little tunnel, sit is a padded seat for two hours, walk down another tunnel and poof! — they are in Florida, just a short shuttle ride to the Most Magical Place on Earth.

That is genius marketing.

Disney's other key target audience are the die-hard Disney "purists." These are the folks who know (or sort-of know) the history of Disney World, revealing trivial bits of Disney lore and pointing out hidden secrets to the uninitiated — whether they asked or not. This group will buy nearly anything that has Mickey Mouse or the iconic Disney logo emblazoned upon it. They happily pay the exorbitant food prices on Day One, because they know that's the "Disney Way." They also feel slighted when the Disney company doesn't consult with them before a change is made to a ride or attraction. When Walt Disney spoke the line "Disneyland is your land." in the opening day speech at his California theme park, some people took that literally.

Disney changes things constantly. They make changes for many reasons — advancements in technology, regular maintenance and upkeep, popularity of a particular film, character or property, even reasons they don't reveal because they really don't have to. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), both of these groups — vacationing families and Disney purists hate change. What's interesting is — there are some changes that one group hates, the other is indifferent to. 

Just last week, a popular restaurant in Disney's Polynesian Resort called Ohana's removed a beloved item from their menu. The dish, Pineapple Stir-Fried Noodles, was a secret, go-to concoction that was spoken about in hushed tones by those "in the know." (In reality, it was on the regular menu and could easily be ordered without a secret handshake or a covert nod to the chef.) The internet Disney community called the menu deletion "an outrage," "a disgrace," "a poor business decision," "a big disappointment" and a number of other derisions. After a week or so of angry commentary, an announcement was made informing the noodle-loving world that their precious noodles would be back. (Granted, Ohana's has not yet reopened since the beginning of the global pandemic that shuttered numerous restaurants across the country, not just Disney World. No one has had these noodles since March 2020. No one.) That buzz among potential and return customers is Disney's brilliant marketing at work. Get people talking. That's good marketing strategy.

A few days ago, several theme park guests realized that Walt Disney World had altered the familiar, pre-recorded announcement that precedes the nightly fireworks display in The Magic Kingdom. The words "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls" had been excised, leaving the introduction to begin with "Good evening, dreamers of all ages." A Disney spokesperson explained to a network news source that the decision was made in a broader effort to be more inclusive regarding their guests. The amount of backlash was astounding. Fraught with blatant anti-gay sentiment, the comments posted to official and unofficial Disney websites expressed anger and disappointment. "Who is this offending?" said one person who this decision did not affect. "Disney has gone too far! I will never go there again!," said another person who will surely go to Disney World again, once they have forgotten the reason they said they weren't going. Disney, however, did not back down on this decision and the crowds at subsequent fireworks shows were just as large as they've even been.

Every year, Walt Disney World begins decorating The Magic Kingdom for Christmas during the first week of November. Seven percent of the US population does not celebrate Christmas. Although I include myself among that small percentage, I enjoy seeing the unique decorations. I am not offended by the decorations. To accompany those decorations, Disney releases a sleigh-full of Christmas themed merchandise. I like seeing the merchandise, too. When I collected Disney memorabilia, I purchased a respectable amount of Disney Christmas items to put on display. After a while, Disney mixed in some Hanukkah merchandise with the standard Christmas articles. The stuff was cute, but it appeared (to me) to be a placating afterthought. But to the average Hanukkah-celebrating Disney Fan (I don't consider myself in that group either.), this was a noble and welcome effort on Disney's part to be all-inclusive. In stores in Walt Disney World, however, I have witnessed people pointing and scoffing at the Hanukkah merchandise, some of them holding an armload of red and green colored items and sporting holly-appointed mouse ears. A larger percentage (40%) of Americans do not celebrate St. Patrick's Day. But every year, Disney stocks their gift shop shelves with Irish-themed items to entice those who do celebrate their affinity for the Emerald Isle. I am not offended by these items either, nor to I begrudge anyone who celebrates. In an all-inclusive attempt to be all-inclusive, Disney began offering rainbow-themed merchandise to celebrate Pride Month in June, specifically "Gay Day," an acknowledged, but unofficially sanctioned, event held in Walt Disney World. Disney knows that the LGBTQ community is known as a statistically affluent group with a high percentage of expendable income. "Expendable income" are two words — in that particular order — that Disney loves.

Gay Day, which began in 1991, now draws 150,000 members of the LGBTQ community (including ally friends and family) to the Orlando area the first week of June. Disney rolls out a slew of rainbow colored items — some subtle, some garish — to the delight of those there for Gay Day as well as those who just like rainbows. For some reason (we know the reason), there is an enormous amount of backlash from certain groups of people who consider themselves righteous Americans living their lives with righteous American values. The same ones who sneer at rainbows, will defend Mickey Mouse's right to wear a Santa hat to their dying breath — no matter how exclusive it is. Their battle cry? "Everyone celebrates Christmas!," they will maintain, because as far as they're concerned, everyone does. Even those who don't.

My point is (Oh... I promise you, there's a point here somewhere...) Disney does what it does to make money for their stockholders, first and foremost. That is the main function. That is why they exist. If they happen to bring happiness to someone along the way, that is just a by-product of their function. Every move, every decision, every assessment they make is calculated to bring the biggest monetary return to the company. They know that their customer is loyal, but will complain about a new policy, will threaten a boycott and promise never to give Disney another single red cent... until the next installment of the Captain America story or the next chapter in the Star Wars saga or the next time a football is tossed on ESPN.

Disney knows. 

Oh boy! do they know.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

good company

I spent the day with my son. Here's what we did.

Around 11 o'clock in the morning, there was a knock at our front door. As I approached the door, I could see the top of my son's head. When I opened the door, he was fumbling with a small ring of keys. He explained that he had tried several on the ring but none were successful in unlocking the door. "I guess I don't have a key to your house anymore.," he shrugged. Some time ago, he had lost a set of keys when he hit an errant pothole while biking through center city Philadelphia where he lives. He was happy to come into the house and seemed uninterested in a replacement key.

We left the house in my car, our first stop was an unremarkable visit to get my hair cut. Prior to leaving, I studied my reflection in a mirror and concluded that I really didn't need a haircut. But, I already had a scheduled appointment, so I went. When it was all over, I really did need a haircut after all. My son went off to occupy his time while I sat in the barber's chair. First, he wandered the aisles of a nearby Fresh Market, an outlet in a chain of new-style grocery stores just aching to be the next Whole Foods. This pseudo-artsy, pseudo-funky, all pretentious store held my son's interest for a minimal amount of time. He had just about enough when the first aproned clerk accosted him and loudly introduced herself (despite wearing a very large name badge) asking "Are you finding everything you need?," as though the store sold items hidden behind opaque curtains and there was no signage.

When my haircut was finished, I found my son sitting at a small metal table just outside the entrance of a Corner Bakery, another outlet of the many chain establishments that dot the suburban Philadelphia landscape. An insulated cardboard cup of coffee sat on the table top. I could surmise that my son was indifferent to it, although his eyes were hidden behind the dark lenses of sunglasses. I took the other seat at the table. He turned to me and said, "I'm so glad that there are good coffee places in center city." He extended a finger in the direction of the cup and proclaimed it one of the worst cups of coffee he ever consumed. He went on to describe the events that preceded his occupation of this table. "I ordered a cup of coffee," he began, "and asked the fellow behind the counter if they had non-dairy coffee cream." The fellow replied that they had skim milk, hoping that would satisfy my son's request. Instead of a lesson in how "skim milk" is still a "dairy product," my son just smiled and moved on.

Next on our agenda was a quick stop at a CVS to grab a small pack of tissues to alleviate the sneezing that accompanies my son's severe summer allergies. I was surprised when he came out of the store with a large package of Haribo gummies along with the tissues. Okay, maybe I wasn't that surprised.

Our major planned activity for the day was going to the movies, something I have not done since Christmas Day 2019, when my wife and I subjected ourselves to the uncomfortably grueling Adam Sandler crime drama Uncut Gems. The only thing I remember about that movie was checking my watch every five minutes during the entire 135 minute run time. Then a global pandemic hit, keeping everyone in their homes and movie theatres locked up tight. Now, with abundant vaccinations and COVID-19 cases on the decline, movie theatres are welcoming folks back. 

We had some time to kill before the start time of the movie we had chosen, so we parked and spotted an arcade in the same shopping center as the theater. The concept was pretty innovative. Instead of quarters and change machines, all machines were set on "free play." Players pay a flat rate to play during specific time allotments. For three bucks, my son played a few current and classic video games and pinball machines before the cashier-issued timer sprang to life with a pattern of blinking lights. My son finished defeating the Death Star on the Star Wars pinball game he had selected and we left our little distraction to find a new distraction to eat up more time.

Speaking of "eat," that was exactly what my son suggested. We headed over to hometown favorite Wawa where he ordered the smallest sandwich I had ever seen and I got a cup of coffee. We sat in my car and talked about all sorts of stuff until we figured it was time to venture into the theater. 

The theater had used their time during the pandemic to do a bit of remodeling, specifically they completely eliminated and removed their box office. The now-cavernous lobby now features an array of self-serve kiosks on which tickets came be obtained with a swipe of a credit card and a few touches on the screen... sort of like check-in at an airport. A lone usher — someone in the theater who still has a job — scanned the barcode on my son's phone that served as our tickets. He didn't even bat an eye at the "outside beverages" we were blatantly carrying into the theater. We found the correct theater and sat outside on an upholstered bench until showtime.

We chose The Sparks Brothers as our first foray back into the normalcy of a — dare I even say — post-pandemic existence. (No, the pandemic is not over.) Years in the making, this labor of love from director Edgar Wright tells the tale of Ron and Russell Mael — collectively known as "Sparks" — who have been making incredible, experimental and influential music for 50 years. Never heard of them? I didn't think so. Their career is lovingly chronicled, punctuated by comments from famous fans and fellow musicians. The highlights, the lowlights and everything in between are presented in an engaging format that switches between concert footage, studio interviews, stock film and animation. It's two and a half hours long and I didn't check my watch once. My son and I are both long-time Sparks fans, even having the opportunity to see the band twice. They rarely tour in the United States and I remember at their 2013 show in Philadelphia saying to myself "I never thought I'd ever see this band." When I saw them again in 2015 with the band Franz Ferdinand, I thought the same thing. (My son took me to both of those shows.) We found our seats and when the theater lights dimmed and the film began, we were joined by five more people. It was like a private screening — for all of us. At the film's conclusion, I half-expected an usher to ask, "Did you five folks enjoy yourselves?"

When the film was over and the lights came back on, I informed my son that I needed to use the bathroom for the last hour and a half. Throughout the course of the documentary, each and every one of Sparks' 25 albums are highlighted. I was beginning to panic when I saw they were only up to the albums from the 80s. But, alas... I made it. I realized I have gotten very spoiled by the "pause" button on my cable TV remote.

After the movie, we came back to my house. Mrs. P suggested that we order Chinese food for dinner. My son balked at first, saying he wasn't particularly hungry. However, when dinner arrived, his order of Spicy Szechuan Noodles didn't stand a chance. After dinner, I drove my son home. As he exited my car, he told me he was going to feed his cat then take a nap. It was 9:45 at night. Ah, to be young.

Just a day. But a good day.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

when we was fab

I love The Beatles. I grew up on The Beatles. I certainly understand their influence and contribution to popular music. I am aware of their impact on pop culture and the innovations they introduced to the recording process. They were The Beatles, for goodness sakes!

I also have a sense of humor about pretty much anything and everything. Nothing is sacred — especially the things that you and I hold dear. The angrier someone gets when something they love is made the butt of a joke, the funnier that joke becomes. Exponentially funnier.

If you have followed me on various social media outlets, you are aware of my sense of humor and a series of running jokes which seem to infiltrate my assorted feeds on a regular basis. There's my nearly daily chronicle of Ambrose the cat. There's my documentation of the various food that literally litters the streets of my neighborhood — free for the taking.... while supplies last, of course. And, then there's my on-going disdain for Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.

Peace and luv.
Peace and luv.
I'm not going to explain the origins of my online feud with Mr. Starr. If you have to explain a joke, it immediately ceases to be funny. Just accept it. If you think it's funny, fine. If you don't quite "get it," maybe you will in the future... or maybe you just won't. That's okay. Move on. Maybe something not as subtle or esoteric will make you laugh. My humor runs the gamut from blatant to exclusive (as in "For my amusement only"). I'm sure, if you stick around long enough, you'll find something funny. Or not.

Recently, I reconnected — on Facebook — with a classmate from art school. I have not seen this guy since his graduation (he was a year ahead of me), save for the few times we ran into him at a local flea market where he was hawking used record albums from the confines of a dusty booth in the sweltering summer heat. I remember that he was a huge Beatles fan, Like HUGE! Like no other band mattered. No other band existed! As far as he was concerned, everyone shared his love of the Fab Four and no one knew as much about or cared as much for those four loveable mop tops from Liverpool. According to his recent Facebook posts, that still stands. Except now, it is over half a century since the band's last studio album and two of the band members have passed away. Plus, a lot of music has come out since the demise of the Beatles and an awful lot of people don't really hold them in such high reverence anymore. The ones that do are showing their age and showing the sad grip that they are trying to maintain on a youth that has long passed. They can't be content on just liking The Beatles and remembering the feeling evoked by their music. No, they must badger subsequent generations into loving The Beatles just as much as they do and denouncing the current crop of musicians as vastly inferior. That is their goal, their mission, their function as their own mortality looms large. The fear that no one will be left to carry the Beatles mantle is their motivation.

My new old Facebook friend doesn't like my playful ribbing of Ringo Starr. Not. One. Bit. He has commented with great fervor. He has berated me and justified Ringo's (alleged) talent. He has enumerated the Beatles drummer's numerous (debatable) successes. He has gone back to comment on months-old posts I made, long before we were connected. He had to make sure that every single post about Ringo was addressed and properly disputed.

Happy birthday.
Yesterday (June 18), was Paul McCartney's birthday. Not restricting my jibes to Ringo, I have made it an annual tradition to wish the celebrated bassist a "Happy Birthday" and accompany my greeting with a current photo of actress Angela Lansbury, to which Sir Paul, in his advanced years, bears a striking resemblance. It's funny... at least in my opinion. I have garnered many "thumbs up" accolades to these posts, so, obviously, I am not the only one who sees the similarities in the looks of these two British icons and I am not the only one who finds it funny.

My new old Facebook friend found this particularly offensive. Acting as the self-appointed official Keeper of All Things Beatles, he left a seething comment, in ALL CAPS no less, affording me a hearty "FUCK YOU." He addressed me by my birth name (the one he knew me by when we attended art school together, long before the advent of "Josh Pincus")... and he spelled it wrong.

I almost deleted the comment, unfriended him and blocked his account from seeing any more of my posts. But I didn't.

I couldn't.

This is just too funny.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

let's call this song exactly what it is

Four jobs ago, I used to ride the train every day to downtown Philadelphia. I'd see a lot of the same people at the train station (which is just a few feet from my suburban Philadelphia home). Of course, I didn't know any of these people. They were just commuters, like me, on their way to work. In my mind, I'd make up little stories about them to amuse myself while I waited for the train to arrive. I had a lot of time to let my imagination wander, as the train was rarely on time. 

There was one guy who I saw on an almost daily basis. I don't like to pass judgement on people (who am I kidding? yes I do!) whom I don't know. But, as human nature would have it, I formed an instant opinion about this guy from the moment I saw him... and I didn't like him. He always sported a smirk on his face and swung his large briefcase nervously as he expounded some long-winded explanation to a small group of similarly-dressed men in way-too-loud a voice.

The job to which I referred — the one that was the destination of my train ride — was working at a mid-sized law firm. While my position didn't require me to interact with lawyers regularly, I did have several encounters with attorneys over the course of the dozen years I worked there. Some of them — not all — were arrogant and nasty. The ones that fit into that category all exhibited the same hubris in their conversation, demands and actions. Sure, there were plenty of lawyers who were nice and personable, but still, there was this over-arching air of "I am better than you" that one could feel hanging heavy in the course of any verbal exchange — no matter how brief or lengthy. In my personal experience, I concluded that those who attended law school were convinced that the certificate they received upon graduation assured expertise in the field of law — as well as every other profession. Even ones in which their course of study did not cover. I don't remotely profess to know anything about the legalities of anything, but I have had attorneys point out all the things I was doing wrong in graphic design.

The guy at the train station, I discovered via a long-time friend and travelling companion, was a lawyer. I revealed my instant, though admittedly baseless, dislike of this guy to my friend. My friend vehemently dismissed my assessment of the guy, telling me, "No! You've got him all wrong! He's a sweetheart!" Granted, my friend is an eternal optimist, always seeing the sunny side of pretty much everything. She likes everyone. I can't understand how we've been friends for so long.

Sometime after my friend's reprimanding of me, I overheard the train station guy again. It was tough not to overhear him, as he spoke loudly. Very loudly. Way too loudly for the other person in his conversation. He spoke as though he was addressing the entire train station assembly. Perhaps he was. All he was missing was a podium. He spoke of how he was running for a position on the local school board and talked about all of the plans he had once elected. 

(Get ready for another opinion)

I have lived in my house for 35 years. I love this neighborhood, but there is a very elitist attitude among some of the more  — shall we say  — "affluent" citizens. Their houses are bigger than mine. Those big houses sit on more property than I own. And their "say" in local matters is more influential than mine. This little coterie likes to serve on committees and tell other people what to do. Makes 'em feel important and a contributor to "the greater good" — their own personal "greater good." The train station guy is one of those "I like to serve on committees" people. He won a spot on the school board and, subsequently, became the head of the school board of my district.

I don't take the train to that job anymore. As I mentioned, I have had three jobs since then, so I don't see the train station guy anymore. Until this week.

It's graduation time and, as head of the local school district, the train station guy offered some words of inspiration to the high school graduating class of 2021. Clad in an honorary cap and gown, a pair of comically-large glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, the train station guy delivered a speech in which he quoted — although misinterpreted — from a blog post by an acknowledged hero of his, Professor Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of American History at Boston College. The train station guy related anecdotes about abolitionist Frederick Douglass, saying that Douglass had a "pretty good position" relative to other black slaves.  He also said that his escape to freedom in 1838 was — and I quote — "ridiculously easy." The majority of the student body of the high school is African-American. Murmurs rumbled through the audience and graduates as the words echoed through the public address system. The train station guy is just another white guy in a long line of white guys who don't know when to shut up about things they don't know about. Oh... wait.... there isn't any subject they don't know about.

A very short time after his speech, an official announcement from the school board was released. It explained that the train station guy was stepping down from his position as school board head. It also related an apology for his insensitive expression and inappropriate use of the forum. The story made local, national and international news. A YouTube video of the commencement ceremony was edited and carried a newly-inserted disclaimer at the beginning.
I can't understand how the speech got as far as being actually spoken. Didn't the train station guy run it by a few close friends or family members or colleagues or anyone who isn't white before saying "Yeah, this sounds right. This is what I'll go with."? In all of the wisdom which he flaunted at the train station, couldn't he see the insensitive and hurtful nature of the words he deemed appropriate for a high school graduation speech? I suppose not.

But it looks like my first impression of him was spot on after all.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

easy like a sunday morning

I think I started watching CBS Sunday Morning, the venerable weekend extension of the CBS early morning news program, when my son was in college. We'd wake up early on Sunday and watch together... surprisingly on his suggestion, not mine. I'm not sure why a 20-something year-old would want to watch a show that was obviously geared to an older audience, but, who was I to argue. So, we watched. Together.

At the time, the show was hosted by the avuncular Charles Osgood, who was well into a decade of hosting after taking over the reigns from the equally-avuncular Charles Kurault. Osgood was a friendly, folksy fellow, nattily dressed in a comfortable tweed suit and a hand-knotted bowtie at his throat. He introduced relatable tales of regular folks tending to home gardens or feisty grandparents who had formed a rock group or proud World War II vets being honored by their small-town neighbors with a very homemade-looking parade. It was ninety minutes of a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. There was weather and fun facts interspersed among the stories, as well as a not-too-heavy editorial, a movie recommendation and maybe a humorous piece or recognition of a notable passing. The whole thing was capped off with a nearly-silent bit of footage of some wildlife cavorting in their natural habitat, like coyotes in the desert or penguins waddling across a snowdrift. Credits would roll and I'd change the channel, interrupting a scowling Bob Schieffer as he announced the day's topic of Face the Nation.

Even after my son moved out — first with roommates, then to his own house — we continued to watch CBS Sunday Morning together, making our comments to each other via text messages instead of a nudge on the sofa. We'd offer each other observations about Charles Osgood's piano playing (of which there was a substantial amount) or the antics of prairie dogs popping in and out of holes in the sunbaked Badlands of South Dakota like a real life Whack-a-Mole game. 

Suddenly, Charles Osgood announced his retirement, handing the mantle over to regular correspondent and former NBC Today Show host Jane Pauley. At first, we were, of course, disappointed in the pending departure of Charles Osgood. The guy had served the show well, but he was 83. He earned the pleasure of retirement after a long and illustrious career. As longtime fans of the show, we felt Jane Pauley was a fine choice to continue the tradition of gentle stories to accompany our coffee and (sometimes) schmeared bagels — not that CBS ever asked our opinion. On October 9, 2016, CBS Sunday Morning opened with a smiling Jane Pauley at the helm.

It was all downhill from there.

Within the first few weeks of Jane Pauley taking over as the host of CBS Sunday Morning, the show began to take on a noticeably different tone. Where the program once steered clear of most things political — leaving that subject to be dealt with during the weekday news reports or by the talking heads on Face the Nation — they were now kicking things off with some serious, often trouble-invoking, piece about the turmoil in Washington. The reports would run way too long and way too in-depth and seemed out of place in the Sunday morning timeslot usually reserved for a gray-haired woman offering a lesson in canning your own fruit. or a wizened gent carving bird-shaped whistles from the wood of a tree that grew in his front yard, recently felled by a thunderstorm. I, like most of the audience who tunes in to CBS Sunday Morning, come for a respite from spin doctors and other members of the politico. Soon, even non-political stories took on political characteristics, especially when every new episode led with a story about the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, it was important, but information real, usable information — about the pandemic could easily be obtained by any number of other outlets. CBS Sunday Morning went from being an oasis to being part of the glut.

Then, more changes in mood crept into the program. It took on a very elitist and condescending tone  a very uppity, very exclusive, very clique-y, very white (if you will) attitude. It's target audience was becoming very clear. Sure, I understood who the show was geared towards in the past, but now there was no mistaking the show's intent. It now featured regular cooking segments hosted by the Queen of Out-of-Touch Lifestyle, Martha Stewart. Comfortably sauntering around a kitchen that is bigger than my house, Ms. Stewart offers impromptu instruction for preparing some French-named dish using exotic-sounding ingredients that she grows on her farm — you know, just like the one which you grow your exotic ingredients.

Most of the stories contain interviews with white people by white reporters. If, on the off chance that a person of color is the focus of a report, it is assigned to a black reporter or it is treated like a quaint little novelty, as though this portion of society is something that regular viewers will never ever experience outside of the setting for a movie or, possibly, the very segment they are watching. Steve Hartman does a weekly report — a feel-good story about people just being nice to one another. The subject is usually someone who is down on their luck or suffering from some sort of ailment. I can just imaging the typical home viewer watching and thinking: "Oh, those poor people. I'm glad they don't live near me."

Recently, they brought in Ted Koppel, a one-time respected television journalist. I thought Ted had retired years ago, and, by the content of his reporting, he should have. His reporting style is dismissive and his reports are condescending. He is resting on his thirty-year old laurels and those laurels are no longer applicable to today's issues. But, no one, apparently, has the guts to tell Ted this. Instead, he treats the current story — the one on which he is reporting — like it pales in comparison to the sorts of thing he covered in his heyday. 

Even their lighter pieces carry the same, overarching attitude. Recently, I saw a piece about how Wayne Coyne and his band The Flaming Lips are dealing with the pandemic. Coyne and company have been together, in one form or another, for around thirty years. The band was presented as a bunch of upstarts that CBS just found out about. However, a week later, Crosby, Stills and Nash were showcased as though they are the most relevant band on the planet. (Spoiler alert: They are not.)

All during the pandemic, the Sunday Morning staff felt that America — especially their target audience — craved a weekly check-in with Jim Gaffigan. Gaffigan, a popular comedian who tours regularly, was sidelined during the pandemic, like the majority of his fellow performers. Gaffigan took this time to film his innermost feelings about how much he dislikes his family. This became a weekly thing. A thing I don't believe I asked for.

I will watch pretty much anything on television, including shows I hate — Gilligan's Island, I Love Lucy, Mork & Mindy. Last Sunday, I snapped off my weekly viewing of CBS Sunday Morning in favor of mopping our kitchen floor.

That should explain things fairly well.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

think about your troubles

I live in a small suburb of Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the United States. (We used to be fourth, until people started moving to Houston and Phoenix.) A filled-to-capacity Citizens Bank Park could hold over twice the amount of people who call Elkins Park home. I told you it was small. Elkins Park boasts some of the highest property taxes in the area. Surrounding municipalities have much lower taxes because of the amount of businesses in those areas. Elkins Park, however, has fewer businesses, thus higher taxes are employed to take up the slack. If the overly-discerning "powers-that-be" would allow more businesses to open, then perhaps our taxes would drop to a more reasonable level.

As Hamlet said: "Ay, there's the rub..."

Businesses and business owners in Elkins Park have an uncanny track record. So many have opened, floundered and eventually failed, despite their best efforts.

Wait. Did I say "best efforts?" I meant "no efforts."

In recent memory, it seems every new and hopeful business has followed the same business model. The first decision, after signing whatever necessary paperwork allowing a business to open, is "when should we be closed." There is a small area — catty corner to a train station on the regional rail line — that one would deem a veritable gold mine for any business, but, alas, the can only ring up sales if their doors are open. Most of the stores — a book store, a coffee shop, an Italian restaurant, a clothing boutique and "sort of" co-op — are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. This is not a welcoming sight to those coming off the train after a long day at work, hoping to pick up a quick cup of coffee or a fast browse through the clothing racks  on their walk home. Instead, foot traffic is subjected to locked doors and darkened windows. And these businesses wonder why they fail.

An ice cream store opened in this block adjacent to the train station. It was the perfect spot for an ice cream store. They had a walk-up window where one could order hot crepes along with the standard sundaes and pre-packaged frozen novelties. They had small tables set up on the sidewalk where you could relax while you enjoyed your dessert, perhaps sharing some conversation with a neighbor.

Except, this particular ice cream store opened its doors to customers in the middle of December 2018. Sure that particular winter was light on typical weather, but, nevertheless, opening an ice cream store six months before anyone is thinking about ice cream is not the best business decision. This was followed by more "head-scratching" decisions. Within weeks of opening, the ice cream store decreased its operating hours, cutting Mondays and Tuesdays off of its schedule. This adjustment caused the first blemish on their establishment. You see, the hours were etched into the top panel of their glass entrance door, just below their folksy-looking logo. To convey the change in hours to protentional customers, a blank piece of paper was taped over the top two etched lines of text. It looked terrible. Then, to make matters worse, one day the bottom glass panel erupted in a large spidery shatter with long cracks reaching out towards the metal door frame. The owners made the decision to never fix this.

Soon summer came and they were ready to face the real onslaught of the ice cream hungry public. They still kept their abbreviated hours, despite the change in season. They even began to open later in the day and lock up earlier — sometimes as early as 8 o'clock, right around the time folks would be finished dinner and ready to embark on a stroll around the neighborhood... perhaps for some ice cream. 
They changed their menu often and displayed their bill of fare with the all the elegance and care as someone offering guitar lessons or moving services to the patron of the corner laundromat. It was sloppy and dirty and unbecoming of a place that wants your business. It was a reflection of how much interest the owners really had in appealing to customers and making sure those customers returned often.

As their first summer came to a close, the ice cream store announced they would be closing for the winter. They posted a handwritten sign in their window thanking everyone for their support and a promise of reopening in March.2020. Well, we all know what happened in March 2020. The ice cream store reopened for a week before shutting down again, this time for an amount of time to be determined by a global pandemic. The ice cream store reopened later in 2020, with all sorts of safety measures in place — masks, touchless payments, social distancing, the whole shebang. The even had  a guy playing guitar and singing into a way-too-loud PA system to the two people seated at the sidewalk tables. 

They braved another winter and re-emerged at the start of 2021 with hopes of thriving as the pandemic slowly subsided. Then in April, the ice cream store announced that they would be shutting their doors for good at the end of May — but prior to Memorial Day weekend. They thanked their small loyal fanbase. They also offered the business for sale, promising to keep things  running until the final day.

They didn't. They have been closed since the first week of May, their lights out, their chairs stacked up on tables, their cracked front door locked tight. However, their Facebook page touts new milkshake flavors for this weekend as well as live music. 

The typical prospective Elkins Park business owner thinks owning a business involves opening your front door and watching the customers roll in. They do little promotion, little advertising and little caring. And 
— worst of all — they begrudge customers for not being customers. "After all I did!," they lament.

But — surprise! — they have rescinded their announced closing and will remain open for business. However, after posting their new business hours beginning June 1... their doors were locked tight on that date.

If you are considering opening an ice cream store (or any sort of business), just do the opposite of everything you just read. You're sure to be a success.