Sunday, September 24, 2023

this is cracker soul

Mrs. Pincus and I got married in July 1984. For our honeymoon, we drove to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida — foreshadowing what would become a nearly annual trip for us and the eventual extended Pincus family. The drive was a real adventure for the newly-wed Pincuses. As Mrs. P sat behind the wheel of our little maroon Datsun, I studied the map provided by AAA and acted as navigator for our route down Southbound I-95. We stopped at outlet stores and roadside stands offering useless souvenir tchotchkes of whatever locale we were passing through. As we ventured deeper and deeper into the uncharted southern states (well... uncharted for us anyway), we came upon some establishments we had never seen before. We ate our first dinner as husband and wife (aside from the one we had at our wedding — a meal which we both actually skipped), at a place called Aunt Sarah's Pancake House, adjacent to the hotel at which we stopped on our first night. Aunt Sarah's was once a small but thriving chain in the southern United States, content with its status and not threatened by national chains like IHOP. Just as long as Aunt Sarah kept slinging pancakes within a specific area, everyone would get along just fine. (After 17 years of "playing nice," Aunt Sarah's has sadly gone out of business.)

Hitting the road again on the morning of Day Two, we visited our share of Stuckey's, the granddaddy of roadside rest stops. Stuckey's, dating back to the 1930s, once boasted nearly 400 locations across 30 states. Over 4000 billboards nationwide announced the distances to the next store to weary travelers. It was a place to get gas, stretch your legs, visit a rest room of questionable cleanliness and purchase a variety of Southern-style treats like boiled peanuts and pecan log rolls. It was also a window into a culture that a Northerner who had never crossed the Mason-Dixon Line had ever experienced. The flagpole in the parking lot usually flew a large Confederate flag and among the hand fans, sunglasses and snow globes, one could easily find a selection of items depicting "playful" racist sentiment amid images of kerchief-wearing "Mammies" and sinewy, overall-clad African-American children eating watermelons. In 1984, still many years away from the disappearance of such items from Stuckey's shelves, Mrs. P and I marveled at their stock in uncomfortable silence.

Somewhere in North Carolina, we chanced upon our very first Cracker Barrel. We had passed several billboards promising an "old country store" experience, its message illustrated with the help of a friendly-looking country gentleman in a rocking chair leaning on — what else? — a cracker barrel. Up ahead, set back a bit from the six-lanes of I-95, was a rustic little building with a long front porch outfitted with a line of high-backed rocking chairs. Mrs. P veered the car onto the small service road that connected the highway to the parking lot. We parked, walked across the crunchy gravel that covered the lot and stepped up on the porch towards the big wooden entrance doors. Between a few of the rockers were cloth checkerboards on barrels and an array of red and black checkers in position and ready for a new game. The front doors opened to the sound of a tinkling bell, purposely placed to evoke visons of ol' Mr. Drucker or reliable Nels stationed behind the counter of Oleson's Mercantile. 

With beauty shots of fried chicken and fresh sunny-side up eggs splashed across forty-foot billboards, we were of the understanding that Cracker Barrel was a restaurant. But once inside, we were momentarily startled, believing we had mistakenly entered the annual Mayberry Church Bazaar, half expecting to find Aunt Bee and Clara Edwards duking it out over a box of Christmas decorations. Cracker Barrel offers the best of both worlds for the typical vacationer traveling by automobile. There's a roomful of pseudo-country crafts, knick-knacks and clothing along with a large selection of snacks, condiments, beverages and cast-iron vessels in which they can be prepared. Tucked in a nearly-obscured corner is the entrance to the actual restaurant — a large, open, plank-floored dining room with tables attended to by a battalion of gingham-and-denim dressed young ladies just trying get enough money to get through the next semester of college. 

Let me tell you something, as a person descended from the group of people who fought on the non-bigoted side of the Civil War, I was a wee bit uneasy meandering around the faux-homey displays in the Cracker Barrel retail area. As a person who was raised Jewish — albeit a very casual and minimally observant version of Judaism — my feeling of uneasiness was heightened. There was just something about the place that made me feel I didn't belong. From my standpoint, Cracker Barrel is not for everyone. Sure, on the surface, it appears very welcoming and very hospitable — a comforting oasis on the road to one's vacation destination. But, there's an underlying feeling of scrutiny and a palpable air of non-Heimisha that permeates Cracker Barrel. I can't quite explain it, but ask one of your Jewish friends (assuming you have at least one). They'll know what I'm talking about. They'll know that you shouldn't dare ask for a bagel to accompany your country breakfast plate. (As the kids say: "IYKYK.")

Over the years and through many journeys down I-95, my family and I stopped at Cracker Barrels. We noticed that locations began popping up more frequently and closer in proximity to one another. We even ate in Cracker Barrel's dining rooms one or two times, often finding it very difficult to find an entrée (or even a side order) that fit into the criteria of a family that keeps Kosher (like mine). A lot of Cracker Barrel's victual offerings are proudly, if not stealthily, cooked in or with some sort of fat rendered from an animal that doesn't possess a cloven hoof or chew its cud. (You have the internet. Google the "rules of kashrut" and settle back for a wild read.) Pancakes or eggs were a safe bet, but corn muffins and hash browns were inexplicably prepared with bacon fat. After a while, the Pincuses wised up and stopped elsewhere for meals along the 900+ mile trip. We still stopped at Cracker Barrels here and there, just not to eat.

Just last weekend, Mrs. P and I attended a collector show in Maryland, a couple of hours drive from our suburban Philadelphia home. The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with some pressing family issues, have kept us grounded for the past few years... more specifically, keeping my wife from engaging in one of her favorite activities — road tripping. Mrs. Pincus loves to drive. Loves it! Almost as much as I hate driving. In our nearly forty years of marriage, we've driven to a lot of places. (Well, she's driven. I just sat in the passenger's seat and gazed out the window like a puppy.) But Mrs. P loves tooling along, window down, wind blowing, fiddling with the radio buttons and taking in the whole carefree experience. On our way home from Maryland, we found ourselves on familiar I-95 in the once-familiar position of looking for a place to have dinner... harkening back to those long-gone days of checking a AAA TripTik for rest stops. Of course, the TripTik has gone the way of the dinosaur in these instant gratification days of the internet. Now I just merely Googled "restaurants near me" and, with the mobile GPS coordinates emitted by my phone, the glorious internet guided us to a selection of chain and local restaurants available at the next exit. One of those places was a Cracker Barrel. Mrs. P lit up. "Hey, let's give Cracker Barrel a shot!" (We had briefly decided on Red Robin, but weren't committed.)

Mrs. Pincus steered the car off the highway and followed the posted directional signs to Cracker Barrel. A narrow road looped around the parking lot of a Hampton Inn where, nestled behind a bank of landscaped trees and bushes, was the familiar rustic porch of Cracker Barrel. The rocking chairs on the porch were now constructed with some poly-carbonite-neo-fiber-wood-like alternative, but their appearance brought back memories circa our honeymoon trip. We entered the building and were immediately transported back decades. The store stock was the same. Sure, things were a bit updated, but there were still plenty of knurled wood plaques with "WELCOME" painted in distressed pink letters. There were displays of smiling Christmas snowmen and rural-looking Halloween witches side-by-side. There was a toy section filled with quaint "Wooly Willys" and wooden trains, along with trendy electronic devices and Barbie-themed items. Near the dining room entrance, there was a large area with shelves full of candy and chips and unusual bottled sodas. Mrs. Pincus picked up a few candy packages in hopes of bringing back a little surprise for her parents. She began scanning the packages for a symbol indicating Kosher certification. (This has been a common practice for us. I hope you Googled  "rules of kashrut" like I suggested.) I told her not to bother. Even though we have entered the 21st century and more and more businesses are doing their very best to accommodate the needs of those with specific food aversions, allergies or dietary restrictions based on religious, philosophical or environmental beliefs, Cracker Barrel is still a Southern company with Southern values and, if it weren't for recently-passed laws, would still be flying the ol' Stars and Bars right below Old Glory on their flagpole.

We were seated in the restaurant by a very attentive young lady who handed us menus and returned quickly to fill our coffee mugs. I noticed that Cracker Barrel now offered Impossible™ sausage, the trendy new plant-based meat substitute, alongside their standard fare of pork sausage, pork bacon and pork pork. (Plant-based foods have been a boon for those who keep kosher [Mrs. P] and follow a vegetarian diet [me].) I remember when Cracker Barrel announced that they would be adding plant-based sausage to their menu. The uproar on social media was incredible. Folks (who I was surprised could operate something more complicated than a lawn mower) posted tweets and Facebook comments, expressing their anger with Cracker Barrel's decision. "How dare they buckle to the needs of these "woke" people!" "Keep this plant-based bullshit off the menu! I want my bacon!" "We don't need this crap on our menu! Vegetarians can eat somewhere else!" were just some of the disgruntled sentiment I read. I expected to see someone asking that string beans be removed from the menu, too, " 'cause I don't like string beans!" Cracker Barrel's regular customers are very protective of their beloved rest stop. They want to keep it free of infiltrators with their new-fangled, plant-based, progressive-thinking healthy food and all-inclusive ideals.

After dinner, we paid our check via a sophisticated-looking terminal at the front counter. With our credit card inserted into a slot beneath the tiny screen, we were offered the option to leave a tip in one of three "pre-figured-out for you" dollar amounts. The clientele, however, looked like they would be paying their bill by bartering with provisions from their dirt farm. On my way out the door, I passed a rack filled with CDs by classic country singers as well as Jason Aldeen. There may have been a Confederate flag rolled up in the corner.

Cracker Barrel is an interesting diversion from real life. Try the pancakes. You get your own little bottle of syrup...and maybe a judging glance, if you're lucky.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Sunday, September 17, 2023

so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye

In 2008, I was at a concert with my son. At the show's conclusion, the lights went on and the satisfied crowd began to make their way toward the exits. In the shuffle, I ran into my friend Kasten, a fellow artist, whom I had not seen in a while. We talked for a few minutes before Kasten asked me if I was on Twitter. Now, I am twenty years older than Kasten and the question sort of jarred me. Was "twitter" some sort of new illicit substance that "the kids" were experimenting with? I sheepishly replied that I didn't think I was "on Twitter." Kasten laughed and clarified her inquiry. She explained that Twitter was a new phone "app" that allowed for immediate, real-time communication and interaction between users and essentially every subscriber to the so-called "twitterverse." Intrigued, I investigated this "twitter" thing and soon I was hooked. And so began my love/hate relationship with Twitter.

Over the past fifteen years, I have had a ball on Twitter. It became another outlet for self-promotion of my artwork. I'd regularly post links to new illustrations, gaining new followers and connecting with some of my contemporaries. Through my love of all things Disney, I connected with a global faction of other Disney lovers, leading to discussions about recent theme park trips and related news and developments regarding the media giant. My interest in taphophilia — that's a fascination with cemeteries and death rituals to you and me — led me to yet another group of folks who share my vison of a perfect afternoon that includes traipsing through a graveyard.

I have even had my share of celebrity interactions, thanks to Twitter. Perhaps you remember my 2013 back-and-forth encounter with Arlene Van Dyke, the spouse of the renowned and beloved actor/dancer. I have even picked up a few celebrity followers throughout my tenure on Twitter, including singer-songwriter Paul Williams, sitcom actress Lydia Cornell and the one-and-only Heinz Doofenshmirtz, arch-villain of "Perry the Platypus" on the Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb (one of my proudest Twitter moments). I still can't figure out why or how these celebrated public figures found me.

There have been down sides to Twitter. At one point, I got thrown into "Twitter Jail" for a period of 24 hours. I made a smart-ass comment on an out-of-town news feed that — in the most remote of interpretations — could have been construed as "threatening." I got into some fierce interactions with people who have been offended by my drawings, my opinions and my opinions of their opinions. All in all, Twitter was a hoot and I was there for all the "hootin'."

Recently, I have found myself leaning more towards Instagram and Facebook as my social media outlets of choice. These are more visual platforms and, as an artist, I'm more drawn towards visuals (Ha-ha! "Drawn!") Earlier this year, I began selling t-shirts through the TeePublic website and Instagram and Facebook are the logical choice for promoting my wares.

New owner of Twitter... er.... X
Suddenly, in a scene reminiscent of a comic book storyline, an evil, twisted genius set his sights on taking over the world — beginning with Twitter. Not content with being an elitist in the field of automobile manufacturing, this Lex Luthor wannabe was hellbent on purchasing Twitter. First, he balked. Then the deal collapsed. Then it was back on until the purchase finally went through. Immediately, he turned Twitter from the circus it was (from a Barnum & Bailey standpoint) into the real circus it was to become — as though it was one of those foreboding abandoned carnivals depicted on episodes of Scooby Doo.  Under the new ownership, Twitter was rampant with hate speech, homophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism — if there was a hate group anxious to spew an unfounded, vitriolic message, they were offered a welcome home and ready platform on Twitter.

Fuck this guy
Other changes were a-brewing at the new Twitter. First, there was the name change. The worldwide brand  was changed to the ominous "X." The globally recognized bluebird icon was replaced by the 24th letter of the alphabet. The word "tweet" - whose addition to the lexicon took it from the sound a bird makes to an entry on a renowned microblogging web presence - became meaningless upon the name-change. The new owner has proposed the elimination of the "blocking" feature, opening an individual's feed to anyone, including those with whom that individual may not desire an interaction. Then, he started reinstating formerly banned users... including a hate-spewing, malevolent, lying, disgraced, twice-impeached, four-time indicted former president who has been charged with 91 criminal counts.

This was the last straw. I was finished with Twitter... or X.... or whatever it was calling itself this week. 

I'm still on Instagram and Facebook. I'm even on Threads, Mark Zuckerberg's foray into the microblogging universe. Threads enjoyed a flurry of activity upon its launch. It looked as though it was a formable contender in toppling Twitter's.... I mean X's.... stronghold on social media. However, the popularity of Threads has seemed to have waned and I find it to be an afterthought when posting on social media. Oh yeah.... Threads. I interacted with Eve Plumb ("Jan" on The Brady Bunch) on Threads recently, so there's that.

Nevertheless, I'm done with Twitter.... or X. My 543 followers can find me elsewhere, if they are really interested. 

I'm talking to you, Doofenshmirtz.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

oh say can you see

On Tuesday, I went to my first general admission concert since the world went into seclusion from the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. I went to a show in July, but this was at a reserved seating venue, where staying in your seat (or at least by your seat to do a little awkward dancing) was strictly enforced by the staff of flashlight-wielding, credential-wearing martinets employed to patrol the aisles and keep order. 

But Tuesday's show was different. It was held at Philadelphia's beautiful World Café Live, a two-stage venue that I have been to many, many times since its opening in 2004. I've seen a wide variety of musical acts there, as well as special movie screenings and a fair share of dance parties sponsored by the radio station that employs my son (which is, by chance, housed in the same building). While a handful of shows at WCL offer reserved seating, most are general admission, allowing attendees to stake out a spot on the large open space in front of the stage or in the smaller area surrounding the bar at the rear of the venue. I have seen shows that were poorly attended, with sad little clumps of patrons gathered haphazardly on the floor. Conversely, I attended a free performance by 80s icons The Pretenders where the audience appeared to be doing their best approximation of a sardine can. 

To be honest, I would prefer a sparsely attended show. I don't like crowds. I don't like the way crowds behave. Large groups of people tend to think that concerts are interactive events where they are free to scream and try to engage the performers in one-on-one conversation. Others feel that the music is merely background noise for their very important conversations, often raising their voices above the volume of the PA system in order to tell their partners what they had for lunch that day. Then there are those who seem to think they are in a room all by themselves for a private recital with a band, regardless of how many or how few other people are there to see the same show. These folks roam freely, flailing their arms in joyful dance and regularly obscuring the view of the stage for a number of well-behaved concert-goers.

The Baseball Project - Scott McCaughey (bottom left),
 Linda Pitmon (center) Steve Wynn (bottom right),
Mike Mills (top left) and Peter Buck (top right).
On Tuesday, my son and I saw The Baseball Project, a so-called "supergroup" currently on a multi-city tour promoting their latest release Grand Salami Time, the quintet's first new album in nearly a decade. What? You've never heard of them? Well, the band is comprised of members of other bands. There's Steve Wynn, guitarist and leader of 80s indie rockers The Dream Syndicate. On drums is Steve's wife Linda Pitmon, who has kept a strong driving backbeat for The Filthy Friends as well as Alejandro Escovedo's band. Also on guitar is Scott McCaughey, who plays with his other bands The Minus 5 and Young Fresh Fellows. Scott has popped up on and contributed to recordings from everyone from Liz Phair to The Monkees. He was a studio and touring member of alt-rock darlings R.E.M. Rounding out the band are Mike Mills and Peter Buck, both former members of R.E.M. and proud inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These five musicians joined up over their common love of rock and roll and the National Pastime, producing four albums (and a couple of EPs) of baseball-centric tunes that are decidedly different from the standard novelty songs of the past like "I Like Mickey" and "Talkin' Baseball." I've seen The Baseball Project several times (including a show in — very fittingly — Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame). They are fine musicians and songwriters and always present a rollicking (and informative) evening of entertainment.

Following a quick dinner of tacos, my son and I entered the near-empty World Café Live around fifteen minutes before showtime. I secured a spot at the back of the main floor while my boy ran up to the bar to grab a beer. Returning quickly, he handed me a tall cold can of something called "Liquid Death," which, despite its foreboding name, turned out to be plain water. (I don't drink alcohol and he knows it.) He placed his beer on the line of tables immediately behind us. I chose this spot specifically so there was no chance of anyone standing behind us, thus eliminating the possibility of getting pushed forward by some overzealous fan "caught up in the moment... maaaaaan!" As showtime ticked closer, the venue began to welcome more guests, but, it was - by no means - anywhere near its capacity of 700. Not even close. I had high hopes of a well-behaved crowd who would optimistically keep their distance.
The lights dimmed and the band members filed out to the stage, grabbing their instruments and acknowledging the crowd with waves and smiles. Linda, seated behind the drums, shouted off a traditional "1-2-3-4" and the band launched into "Erasable Man," a rocking ode to the legacy of Negro League powerhouse Josh Gibson. The crowd bobbed their collective heads and pumped their collective fists and made all the other patented actions executed at concerts by old, uncoordinated white guys. Of course, the darkened audience area was dotted with the glow of raised cellphones, snapping a few photographic souvenirs for perusing and showing-off at a later date. In my peripheral vison, I could see a hulking, white-haired gentleman cradling a small digital camera (not a cell phone) in his palms and aiming in the direction of Peter Buck. Buck was the only member of the band not outfitted with a microphone. He stood silently and nearly immobile for the entirety of the show, plucking his guitar of choice and staring down his bandmates. He rarely, if ever, turned his glance towards the audience. The white-haired gentleman to my left was on a mission to capture every move — or in this case non-move — that Buck made (or didn't make).

Now, don't move.
As the show progressed and The Baseball Project tore through their musical catalog, I noticed that the white-haired photographer was inching his way towards me with each new song. By the time "The Voice of Baseball" (a loving tribute to late Dodgers announcer Vin Scully) began, the white-haired gentleman was right in front of me. I mean right in front, the back of his head a mere inch or two from my nose. Without regard for anyone around him — specifically me — he focused his camera in his raised arms, blocking my once-clear view of the stage even more. Because I was close enough to him (by no fault of mine), I noticed the image in his camera's viewfinder never changed. It was centered on Peter Buck. Exclusively. He did not move to snap a photo of any other band member. He just took photo after similar photo of Peter Buck. And Peter Buck rarely changed position. He switched guitars a few times, removing and replacing an instrument in a nearby rack, only to return to the exact same position on stage left (his right), just behind the energetic Scott McCaughey, who bopped and swayed to the rhythm of each new tune. Nevertheless, the white-haired budding Ansel Adams continued to take what was essentially the same fucking picture while relentlessly encroaching on my personal space. I turned to my son, pointing at the oblivious white-haired gentleman and miming a shrug with my upturned, outstretched palms. My son laughed, leaned into me and said, "Did you miss going to concerts?"

Fifty or so minutes into the show, the band announced a quick break (that they identified as the end of the first game of the double-header). They would be returning for a second set and the house lights brightened in the meantime. Surprisingly — and even betterthankfully, the white-haired gentleman exited the venue and did not return for the second set. I suppose he captured every non-movement that Peter Buck didn't make to his satisfaction. Perhaps he was just one of the many devoted R.E.M. fans in attendance, still hanging on to the vivid memories of the band and trying to relive the Athens rockers' glory days. Perhaps he was gathering research and reference material for a proposed tribute to the R.E.M. guitarist in the form of a painting or even a sculpture. Perhaps he was a member of the extended Buck family, tasked to provide a pictorial chronicle of the celebrated cousin/brother/uncle on the second wave of his stellar career.

Or perhaps I was just happy that I could see the stage again.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

teacher, i need you

School is beginning for a lot of students across the country. I haven't concerned myself with the "first day of school," as my son is long past those days. However, I was reminded of a story that I have told on my illustration blog. This story is from the time I started high school. My brother has confirmed most of it.

I entered George Washington High School in the Fall of 1975, just a short summer vacation after my older brother, Max, took his diploma and his reputation and headed off to college (as a commuter, but college just the same). Max was smart, athletic, good looking, a very good student and quite popular. I was… um…. an awkward former eighth-grader. It was not unlike the time Tommie Aaron replaced his power-hitting older brother, Hammerin’ Hank, for a brief period in the 1962 Milwaukee Braves lineup. I’m not saying that my brother’s departure and my arrival had the same significant impact as that baseball scenario, but there was a vague comparison that could be made. But, I digress. 

My first day as a high school freshman was very hectic and a little overwhelming. I had to become accustomed to a huge, confusing maze of hallways and staircases. I needed to familiarize myself with the location of my classrooms, as determined by the computer-printed cardboard roster I was issued while half-asleep in my homeroom. After lunch in a lunchroom that was triple the size of any school cafeteria I’d ever seen, I navigated my way to the last scheduled class of my day — English. 

I found an empty desk in the second row and sat down among a roomful of unfamiliar students my own age. As the clock ticked past the appointed class start time, there was still no teacher to lead the assemblage. Suddenly, the classroom door swung open and what appeared to be another student crossed the threshold. However, she approached the large desk at the front of the room and deposited the unruly stack of papers and folders she cradled in her arms on its surface. She was an up-to-date reflection of the “Charlie’s Angels -pre-disco” fashion of the time, wearing a tight-fitting jumpsuit with the full-front zipper undone well below an appropriate level. She had long, dark, feathered hair that fell down her back, cascaded around her shoulders and framed her face – a face that boasted a thousand-megawatt, pearly-white smile. She introduced herself to the class as “Mrs. Shacker” and Mrs. Shacker was pretty fucking hot. 

Mrs. Shacker shuffled through the papers on her desk and produced a class attendance sheet from the pile. She took a seat on the edge of the desk, seductively swinging her leg while she took roll. She announced each name in a sensuously low, throaty timbre. Upon declaration of “here” or “present” or the Philadelphia-centric “yo!” from the student in question, she made a quick check-mark of confirmation in the proper column on the attendance form. She wended her way to the end of the alphabetical list and when she called out “Pincus”, she stopped — and her previously wide smile widened even more. Her dark eyes scanned the room until she spotted me in the second row, my hand timidly raised in hesitant acknowledgement. 

“Are you Pincus?,” she asked. 

“Yes,” I replied, “Josh Pincus.” 

She eased her derriere off the desk and sauntered towards me in languid, deliberate strides. I gulped. 

“Are you Max’s brother?,” she cooed, emphasizing my sibling’s name and bringing her face closer to mine. 

“Yes.,” I gulped again. 

A dreamy look captured the gaze in her heavy-lidded eyes and she sighed, “Tell him I asked for him.” She turned and started back towards her desk, her hips swaying as though adrift on an ocean. She finished roll call and began the first lesson of the school year. The first English lesson, that is.

At quarter-to-two in the afternoon, classes were dismissed and I headed home. Once through the front door of my house, my mom assailed me with a barrage of “how-was-your-first-day-of-school” questions. I described the vastness of the building, my varied classes and the population of unfamiliar students. I also told her, in the most homogenized, detail-free way possible, about Mrs. Shacker and her message to my brother. Max was in the next room, home for several hours and enjoying the far more leisurely schedule of college. He overheard our discussion and, upon the mention of his name, entered the room to join us.

Shacker? That name doesn’t sound famil…” My brother stopped in mid-sentence as a new thought popped into his head. “Oh!,” he remembered. His face lit up and he snapped his fingers, “Blum! She was ‘Blum.’ She got married over the summer.”

My mother rolled her eyes as a memory surfaced. When Max was in his freshman year he was having a bit of difficulty in his high school English class. The problem seemed to be a lack of focus and this was very unusual for my otherwise academically-proficient brother. My mom arranged for a meeting with his teacher, the mono-syllabic “Blum” — as he dismissively referred to her — pronouncing her surname like the sound of a boulder dropping to the ground. One afternoon, long after student dismissal time, my mom entered Blum’s classroom. It was 1972 and Miss Maxine Blum (the future Mrs. Shacker) was dressed in a flowery, nearly see-through blouse, a micro-mini skirt and leather go-go boots and she was four years younger and four years hotter than she was now. “Well,” my mom thought to herself as she gave this pitseleh the once-over, “no wonder a 15-year-old boy can’t pay attention in this class.”

Sometime during my next week of ninth grade, Mrs. Shacker was discussing syllables, a typical subject for a freshman English class. She talked about how some words, even names, pair up nicely — even poetically — based on the same number of syllables in each.

“As an example,” she began, “If my husband had a single syllable name, people would use my nickname to introduce us. Say my husband’s name was Max,” — and she looked right at me when she said “Max” — “we’d be introduced as ‘Max and Max’ … y’know short for ‘Maxine’.” Mrs. Shacker slowly strolled among the students seated in the room while giving her lesson. As she finished her sentence, she lightly brushed my shoulder with her hand on her way past my desk.

Several weeks later, just before the long Thanksgiving weekend, Mrs. Shacker announced to the class that she had a visitor earlier in the day. She explained that a famous wrestler stopped by to say “Hello.” Again, she looked right at me as she informed the class that one Max Pincus, a member of Temple University’s wrestling team, had paid a visit. The class expressed their disappointment, hoping that a rousing tale of an encounter with Andre the Giant would follow. But, Mrs. Shacker wasn’t really interested in the class’s reaction. She just winked at me and flashed a smile.

The story of Max’s relationship with Mrs. Shacker continued to unfold through further investigation. After extensive questioning and maybe a little bribery, a few of my brother’s friends seemed to remember an incident at a school dance (perhaps a prom) where Mrs. Shacker (then Miss Blum) cornered Max and planted a pre-graduation kiss square on his lips. A claim of the inclusion of tongue is unsubstantiated and, to this day, still fervently debated.

Mrs. Shacker didn’t make it to my senior year. As a matter of fact, she didn’t return after I advanced to sophomore. She may have transferred to another school, moved to another locale or perhaps, even more likely, she left to give private instruction to a young Mary Kay Letourneau.

The story you have read is true; the names have been changed to protect myself from broken bones.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

sisters are doing it for themselves

My wife and I have lived in our house for the past 37 years. We have seen our share of neighbors come and go... I suppose. Honestly, I have never had much to say to our neighbors. Sometimes, I don't even recognize our neighbors. It's not that I am not friendly (well.... maybe it is), it's just I don't feel that just because my house is on the same block as your house, we are automatically friends. I have a — shall we say — cordial relationship with my neighbors. If I recognize a neighbor, I might — might — wave or nod. But, for the most part, I don't do anything. I don't mean to be rude, but I'd rather not engage with someone I know nothing about. For the past few years we have had an annual yard sale. Potential customers come and say "Hello" and I say "Hello" back, just to be polite — having no idea that this person lives a few houses from my house.

Within the first few years of our moving in, I noticed that a woman who lives three or four houses away had twins — two little girls. They were a few years younger than our son and they kind of kept to themselves. As the years went on, I couldn't help but notice the twin girls growing up. I saw them running around on the front lawn of their house. Sometimes, I saw them get out of the car, each carrying a small bag of groceries. Other times, I would see them waiting on the corner for the school bus as I drove past on my way to work. Once in a while, my wife and I would pass them on the sidewalk, My wife would give them a big, friendly, neighborly "Hello." I would say nothing, deciding that my wife's greeting should be taken for the both of us. The twin girls would lower their glance in shyness and mutter something unintelligible  or — more often — say nothing.

Just a couple of years ago, as I pulled into my driveway, I saw one of the twin girls emerging from a car parked in front of their house. The car had a big sign attached to its roof identifying it as a vehicle from a local driving school. I mentioned to Mrs. Pincus, when I came into our house, what I saw, adding "Boy, those twins down the street are really growing up." Mrs. Pincus looked at me funny. "Twins?," she questioned "Who has twins?" I was confused. Surely, she knew to whom I was referring. She must have seen them over the past three decades. I pointed in the direction of the twins' house. "The twin girls who live three or four houses away. The twin girls.," I pressed. Mrs. P narrowed her eyes. "Triplets," she said, "They are triplets. There are three of them."

I thought my wife was joking with me. She was not.

"What?," I asked, as though I was just seeing the twist ending of The Usual Suspects for the first time. "There's three of them?" I needed confirmation. Mrs. P assured me that there are indeed three nearly identical young ladies living in the house in question.... and that there always have been. I was dumbfounded. Mrs. P was ready to debate the "founded" part of that.

From that point forward, I don't believe I have ever seen the three girls — these alleged triplets — together. I usually see two of them or one of them, but never three of them. I don't know if the two I have seen together are the same two each time. I also don't know if, when I see one of them, it's always the same one.

Last night, my wife and I took the train into center city Philadelphia to meet our son and his girlfriend for dinner. I noticed on our return trip to the suburbs, that two of the alleged triplets were in our train car. As the train slowed and came to a halt at our station, the two-thirds of the alleged triplets exited the train from a door at the other end of the car. My wife and I began walking to our house (the train station is at the end of our block). The two girls were creeping up behind us, chatting quietly to each other. We moved aside on the sidewalk to let them pass. They said nothing to us.

I concluded that if there are indeed three sisters, only two of them get along. The third one (if there really is a third one) prefers to keep to herself. She has a different group of friends and has a totally different set of interests. These two stick together as though they were twins, sharing friends, interests and maybe even a secret "twins" language. They shun and maybe even ignore the third sister. Perhaps the third sister is just fine with that.

That is.... if there really is a third sister.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

sixty years on

I recently... celebrated? .... let's go with "acknowledged" my 62nd birthday. It's a pretty inauspicious milestone. Too young for retirement (as though I could actually retire). Too old to check those survey boxes that list "35-59" as an age demographic for marketing purposes. But as a new 62-year old, I am happy to report that I have outlived some pretty significant folks. Sure, these people accomplished way more than I ever dreamed of, but I have surpassed them in time on Earth, thus offering more time for achievements equal to or perhaps even greater than theirs.

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, as well as the youngest American astronaut. After a career at NASA, Sally was a professor of physics at USC-San Diego. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 61.

Ernest Hemingway was a Nobel-winning author, widely regarded as one of America's greatest writers. In addition, he was a noted war correspondent, covering The Spanish Civil War and World War II. He was pretty handy with a shotgun, using one to take his own life in 1961 at the age of 61.

Anthony Bourdain was a chef and an adventurer. His legions of fans lived vicariously through Bourdain's travels and endevours across the globe. He lived a life of chances and risks, eventually taking his own life in 2018 at the age of 61.

Aisin-Gioro Puyi became Emperor of China in 1908 at the age of two. He mostly served as a puppet ruler, carrying out atrocities on his country at the behest of the Japanese government. He was eventually jailed by the manipulative and powerful authorities in Japan. He died of cancer at 61, expressing deep regret for his actions.

Sergei Prokofiev was a celebrated pianist and composer, best remembered for his ballet Romeo & Juliet and his "symphonic tale for children" Peter and the Wolf. He composed seven complete operas, seven symphonies, eight ballets, five piano concertos, two violin concertos, a cello concerto, a symphony-concerto for cello and orchestra, and nine piano sonatas before his death in 1953 at the age of 61.

Cynthia Myers was a popular Playboy Playmate in the 1960s. A copy of her centerfold was secretly smuggled aboard the 1969 flight of Apollo 12. Cynthia made frequent appearances on the TV series Playboy After Dark and later served as a spokesmodel for Schlitz Beer. She was an early vocal witness of Bill Cosby's illicit behavior at the Playboy Mansion, as later related in a 1994 interview. Cynthia died in 2011 at the age of 61.

Roderick Toombs adopted the name "Roddy Piper," based on his proficiency of the bagpipes. He gained worldwide popularity for his antics in the wrestling ring and, despite his villainous persona, he was a fan favorite. Roddy dabbled in film and television and made regular appearances at conventions where he mingled with his fans. He died in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 61.

Billy Martin was a second baseman but gained his notorious reputation as a manager. Billy served as manager for several Major League Baseball teams, including five separate stints with the New York Yankees. Despite 5 World Series Championships, Billy regularly butted heads with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Following a dismissal at the end of the 1988 season, Billy was killed in a single-car accident on Christmas Day 1989. He was 61.

Huddle Ledbetter, better known as "Leadbelly," was a multi-instrumentalist who introduced a number of compositions into the American songbook, including "Goodnight, Irene," "In The Pines," "Midnight Special" and "Cotton Fields." He sang and wrote about topical subjects including politics and racial issues. He often advised his black audiences to "stay woke," in one of the earliest known uses of the term. Leadbelly died in 1949 at the age of 61.

Peter Lawford was an actor and cohort of Frank Sinatra in the illustrious Rat Pack. He was a constant companion of the singer. Peter married JFK's sister Patricia, giving politically-connected Sinatra an "in" with America's so-called "first family." But a politically-charged falling out with Lawford led to an end of their friendship. Peter popped up on television throughout the 60s and 70s without Sinatra's help. After years of various substance abuse, he died from a heart attack at 61.

Goru Suzuki was born on a ship in en route to Japan. Although they were residents of Oakland, his parents wanted their son to be born in Japan. Goru lived in Oakland until his family was sent to an interment camp in Utah during World War II. With a leaning toward entertainment and hoping to avoid Japanese prejudice, Goru changed his name to the more Chinese "Jack Soo" and worked as a stand-up comic and singer in a Cleveland nightclub. He appeared on Broadway and many guest roles in television before landing the familiar role of "Detective Yemana" in the sitcom Barney Miller. Jack died during the fourth season of the series at the age of 61.

I don't expect to manage a baseball team or fly into space or write a symphony or rub elbows with political figures or appear in a sitcom or write the "great American novel," but at least I have time ahead of me to accomplish at any and all of those.

I guess...

Sunday, August 13, 2023

overnight sensation

I have always liked oatmeal. Yeah, I know… most kids didn’t. Most kids were forced to eat oatmeal. “Eat it!,” Mother would jeer through clenched teeth, “It’s good for you!” Well, that’s all a kid needed to hear… that something was good for them! They would instantly balk and frown and turn their noses up at it. But not me. I liked oatmeal and I remember that my mom cooked it – yes! actually, cooked it in a pot on the stove – on random weekend mornings. 

Comedian Shelley Berman did a routine about finding a black speck of something in a glass of milk. In this particular routine, he alluded to oatmeal just being comprised entirely of black specks, therefore he avoided it. Character actor Jack Gilford would put his trademarked “rubber face” to use in his impression of a pot of oatmeal boiling on the stove – blinking his eyes, puffing out his cheeks and opening and closing his mouth to simulate the surface activity of cooking the breakfast staple. Both of these comedy bits made me laugh, probably because I liked oatmeal… and probably because they were funny. 
When instant oatmeal was introduced, I was able to make it myself. I’d fill our tea kettle with water, flick on the burner. In a few minutes, the built-in whistle would alert me that the water within was boiled and ready to add to an envelope of instant oatmeal. I had breakfast and my mom was able to sleep a bit longer on a weekend morning. 

I have always enjoyed all-you-can eat buffets, especially breakfast buffets, usually experienced in a hotel lobby after a one-night stay while driving from Philadelphia to Florida. Larger, more expansive breakfast buffets were availed on the many cruises I have taken with my wife. The buffet is my favorite part of cruising, the breakfast buffet especially. The choices are nearly endless, with large platters of scrambled eggs, pancakes, waffles, hash brown potatoes, along with various meat options for the carnivores. Somewhere among the breakfast offerings is a selection of hot cereals, each in a shiny metal cylinder with a long-handled ladle at the ready. There’s always oatmeal, as well as cream of wheat (another of my favorites) and grits (a Southern corn-based specialty that I have enjoyed from time to time). I usually supplement my overly-laden breakfast plate with a bowl of oatmeal topped with a helping of brown sugar… eating it as sort of an appetizer to my cruise buffet breakfast mish-mash. 

Every so often, my dear Mrs. P will break out a pot and a cook oatmeal for the two of us, stirring up memories of when we were still kids in our respective kitchens or sailing on a giant ship in the middle of who-knows-where. 

Game changer.
If you are a regular reader of this blog (if it even has regular readers) or if you know me IRL (as the kids say), you probably are familiar with my disdain – that’s right! seething disdain! – for the overuse of the mawkish superlatives that have overrun our everyday conversation, specifically in our collective online personas. Words like “amazing” and “game-changer,” and their regular misuse, make me cringe. I have often railed against the use of the word “amazing” applied to situations that are clearly not amazing. Your kid passing a spelling test is not amazing. No one has ever prepared and consumed a grilled cheese sandwich or a piece of cake that was amazing. There has never been a movie or television show or concert or any other form of entertainment that was amazing. However, on the off-chance that there was one of these that could possibly qualify as “amazing,” chances are you didn’t see it and you didn’t witness eight of them… in the same week. Sure, there have been good food and good movies and good performances in academics, but “amazing?” Come on… Organ transplants are amazing. Discovering a cure for polio is amazing. Sending astronauts to work and live on a space station floating somewhere way up in the sky is amazing. The fiftieth steak that some French guy cooked in a restaurant…. Amazing? Really?

Do you want to know what a “game-changer” is? The shot clock in basketball. In 2018, the NBA implemented the 24-second shot clock and that changed the game. In 2022, Major League baseball decided, in an effort to speed up boring baseball games, to start each half-extra inning, after the regulation nine have been played to a tie score, with an automatic runner in scoring position on second base. Just this season, a regimented pitch clock has been installed to force pitchers to stop fucking around on the mound and throw the goddamn ball already. Those are game changers. You know what’s not a “game-changer?” Putting salt on caramel or adding a rinse aid to your dishwasher. 

I’m not sure when I first heard about it, but I have become aware of a thing called “overnight oats.” Now, I don’t profess to be a chef of any sorts, but the concept of “overnight oats” sounded pretty simple. Just follow the recommended quantities for cooking oatmeal, but instead of combining everything in a pot on the stove, you just mix it all up in a bowl, cover it and stick it in the refrigerator for – guess how long? That’s correct! Overnight! When you wake up, you can be treated to a healthy, filling nutritious breakfast… that is, if you don’t mind cold oatmeal. (Some recipes do suggest heating the concoction up in the microwave, but the general consensus of folks who have jumped on the “overnight oats” train eat it cold.) 

I have seen a number of online posts singing the praises of overnight oats. People have labeled overnight oats “game changers” and “amazing.” Closer to real life, one of the more vocal advocates of overnight oats is my brother-in-law (no, not that one, the other one). A self-proclaimed authority on pretty much everything, he has been making overnight oats for quite some time. He has told Mrs. Pincus (his sister) how “amazing” overnight oats are and how she and I should try its magical properties ourselves. He has not recommended this to me directly since I have not personally spoken a word to him in over a decade. (And that, my friend, is a story for another blog post!) Nevertheless, always looking for another option for breakfast, I decided to give overnight oats a shot. 

...and liddle lamzy divey
On a recent Sunday evening, I prepared a lidded Tupperware bowl with a cup of dry oats, a cup of almond milk and the amount of brown sugar I would normally add to a bowl of hot oatmeal. I thoroughly mixed the ingredients together and snapped the lid shut. I found a little spot in the refrigerator in which the mixture could congeal or ferment or do whatever it is that takes place over eight hours in cold confines. A few recipes proposed adding peanut butter, jelly, nuts, chia seeds (ch-ch-ch-CHIA!) or other enhancements, but I stuck with what I was used to for my initial run. I closed the refrigerator door. Technically, I was cooking. 

My alarm went off on Monday morning and I hopped out of bed at 5:30 with the start of another work week ahead of me. I went downstairs to the kitchen and flicked on the Keurig coffee maker. But, instead of removing a bowl from the cabinet above the sink and filling it with Honey Nut Cheerios like I have done a zillion times before, I went to the refrigerator to get, what I anticipated would be, a brand-new revelation in breakfast at the Pincus house. 

The bowl was right where I left it, on the shelf in the refrigerator. I popped open the lid. No elves had come to dance and sprinkle their magic. No visible chemical reaction had taken place. The oatmeal appeared to be oatmeal. Cold, but still oatmeal. I made a cup of coffee and took my breakfast upstairs to watch the remaining minutes of a fifty-plus year old episode of Dragnet and an older one of My Three Sons before leaving for work. 

Before scooping up the inaugural first taste, I stirred the thick mélange to reincorporate the components. I dunked my spoon below the lumpy surface and brought up a generous helping of overnight oats… and into my mouth it went. 

It was cold. 
And bland. 

And it had a weird texture and, to steal a phrase from many a program on The Food Network, it had an unappealing mouth feel. 

It tasted like cold oatmeal. Like oatmeal I had made and forgotten about. 

A dramatization.
Mrs. Pincus always says that I’m a “good sport.” I will do things I don’t really care to do. I will go to places I don’t really care to go to and I will eat things I don’t really care to eat. And I will not complain about it. Well…. Maybe I’ll complain about it a little. (Does writing a lengthy blog count as a “complaint?”) I ate the entire bowl of overnight oats. It was not good. I did not enjoy it. I ate it knowing that it would not be the last meal I would ever eat. With each bite, I swigged some coffee to mask the unpleasant taste until the bowl was empty. 

On Tuesday, I had a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast. Overnight oats will not darken my refrigerator ever again. 

My game was not changed, nor was I amazed.