Friday, June 28, 2013

everyone's gone to the movies, now we're alone at last

I love movies, I just hate going to the movies. It's not because of the expense – and don't get me wrong, it is indeed expensive – it's because of people. People have ruined the movie-going experience.

Mrs. Pincus and I went to the movies twice this week. Twice! In the same week! Two consecutive days, as a matter of fact! Before that, the last time we went to the movies was nearly two years ago. And I know what kept us away. People. People who don't know how to behave. I'm not talking about children (although I will in a minute). I'm referring to adults. Adults who don't know the proper way to behave as a member of society.

My wife loves Superman. All things Superman. She read Superman comics as a kid. She watched the campy TV series starring poor, pigeon-holed George Reeves. She loves the big-screen film series, featuring hunky Christopher Reeve, that made us believe a man could fly. She was an avid fan of the revival series Lois and Clark, starring Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain, despite Mr. Cain's weird pronunciation of "Shooperman," when referring to his character's name. She even enjoyed the ill-conceived 2006 Superman Returns, featuring an embarrassed Kevin Spacey and a wooden Brandon Routh. So, when word came out that a high-tech big-budget reboot of the Superman story was hitting theaters in the Summer of 2013, it was understood that my spouse and I would be there – front and center. After raking in a whopping 42 million dollars, Man of Steel looked promising – even for someone who is not particularly a "superhero movie" fan... like me.

I arrived home from work around 5:30 on Wednesday. We picked an early evening, mid-week show in hopes of a small audience for a movie that had been released two weeks earlier. We found a parking space at the theater pretty quickly. That offered encouragement of a light crowd. We bought our tickets (eleven and a half bucks each!) and entered auditorium number 22 of 24. The place was fairly empty with a few popcorn-munching families and couples scattered throughout the high-backed, stadium-style seats and focused on the pre-show commercials flickering on the screen. We selected a pair of seats in the last row (so as not to get repeatedly kicked by a nervous patron with Restless Leg Syndrome, as past experience has taught us), just under the projection window. At the end of the row in front of us, was Dad and Little Billy. Little Billy was conducting some sort of pre-movie, under-seat inspection in random rows. Then, he began running up and down the steep access aisles that flanked the middle section of seats. Then, he knocked over his giant bucket of popcorn. Suddenly, Dad – who up until now was totally motionless – sprang up and jogged down a side aisle, soon returning with a replacement container of popcorn. Little Billy continued his activity until the lights dimmed.

In between the trailers for upcoming films, the screen was awash in lighthearted but firm warnings prohibiting cellphone use during the movie. The message was clear – no calls, no texting. At least, it was clear to me and Mrs. P. Despite the sentiment being repeated numerous times, several members of the audience felt that they were somehow exempt from this admonition.

The movie began and so did the conversation. At regular volume, as though people were in their living rooms viewing an On-Demand selection from Netfilx, able to be paused at will. Other conversations took place on the aforementioned cellphones to parties not able to join us at this evening's feature. Then, Little Billy took this time to engage an uninterested Dad in a lengthy "Question and Answer" session. Little Billy proposed his queries from several feet away, since the fact that a film was being shown to other paying customers wasn't a hindrance to his up-and-down-the-steps workout.

"Who's that guy?" "Where's Superman?" "What are they doing?" all came from Little Billy, at top volume and in rapid-fire succession, in addition to the out-of-context "What's the lady's name on True Blood?" and a few more non-sequiturs.

"This," I cautiously whispered to my wife, " is why I hate going to the movies." And then I added, "And why I hate people."

On Thursday, we were invited to a special advance screening of the new film The Lone Ranger, the highly-touted Western epic boasting the re-teaming of director Gore Verbinski and the irrepressible Johnny Depp, trying to reignite the magic and success they brought to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. When we arrived at the theater, the specially-hired security staff announced that cellphones and other similar electronic devices were strictly verboten and should either be returned to your car or checked at the door. Patrons were additionally "wanded" to flush out anyone who wasn't forthright in their answer to the "any cellphones tonight?" question.

Once seated (again, in our usual last-row, "no kicking zone" spot), Mrs. P and I talked quietly as the theater filled up. A man in his fifties, accompanied by a much older man, took a pair of seats to my left, leaving a courtesy buffer seat between us. The older man, in ill-fitting shorts, his bony knees noticeably adorned with an abundance of wrinkled Band-Aids, began a loud speech about the previous night's Phillies game. Okay. The lights were still on and the movie hadn't started (and the Phillies are pretty disheartening right now), but he was only talking to the man next to him and his voice could easily be heard by those on the other side of the room. He picked at and rubbed the bandages absentmindedly as he spoke.

A member of the security staff addressed the crowd and repeated the warning about errant cellphones. He mildly threatened to remove anyone who produces one during the film. Then, the room slowly lost its lighting and the film began.

The old man said, "Here we go!" and chuckled.

The dark screen was startlingly illuminated by the familiar Disney castle logo.

Suddenly, the bandage-kneed old man next to me muttered, "Hmm! Walt Disney! It's a Walt Disney movie!"

In the darkness, my eyes met Mrs. P's eyes and we rolled them in exasperated unison.

A title card opened the film. It read "San Francisco."

The old man said, "Hmm! San Francisco!"

Then, the date "1933" appeared.

The old man said, "Hmm! 1933!"

A sepia-toned scene of a fairground came into focus, with crowds bustling in and out of Ferris wheels and balloon vendors. Small boys in cowboy hats shuffled and danced along the winding dirt paths.

The old man said, "There's the Lone Ranger right there!" and he chuckled again.

My "SHHHHHH"s fell on deaf ears, as the screen presented a close-up of a massive buffalo and the old man announced, as a service to all within earshot, "Buffalo."

"You gotta be fucking kidding me!," I thought, "Is this asshole gonna narrate the whole fucking picture to me?"

The Lone Ranger clocks in at a hair under two and a half hours. The old man possibly fell asleep (or perhaps died) during its run, because the commentary eventually ceased. Though, towards the film's climax, he chimed in with a "silver bullet" remark and promptly dozed off again.

I am astonished by the behavior of adults. I am astounded by blatant acts of impoliteness, disrespect for other people's feelings and total disregard for rules. I am reminded of a line from Bob Goldthwait's (yes, that Bob Goldthwait!) brilliant, if ham-fisted, film God Bless America, a biting, astute commentary on current trends in society: "Why have a civilization anymore if we no longer are interested in being civilized?"

See, you can learn from movies – if you would only shut up.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke

With the Rolling Stones dragging their ancient carcasses through Philadelphia this week on the final dates of their 50 and Counting Tour, I found myself thinking about a particular Stones performance from the past.

In late August 1989, the mighty Rolling Stones, once again, toured the United States after an eight-year hiatus from performing live. The schedule named Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium as the kickoff venue for The Urban Jungle Tour, in support of the band's recently-released Steel Wheels album. The Stones were a hot news topic, with stories of in-fighting between founding members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The possibility of a tour cancellation loomed heavy from day to day as the official start date approached.

Just two weeks prior to the start of the tour, Mick and company gave a surprise show at the tiny Toad's Place in New Haven, Connecticut. The astounded audience of 700 were shocked and rocked by an hour of classic British Invasion. Word of the impromptu performance spread quickly and rumors were flying about other unannounced concerts before the tour officially started. Of course, with less than two weeks until showtime, those rumors made a beeline down I-95, headed right for The City of Brotherly Love.

My ex-sister-in-law Wendy was an old-school rock and roller. At 30, she still loved and embraced the music she loved and embraced in high school. News of a Rolling Stones tour excited her in a way that it didn't excite me. (Honestly, with the exception of a few songs, I was never a Stones fan. In 1989, I was still hanging on to Elvis Costello, while going through a Run-DMC/LL Cool J phase.) Wendy, however, was aware of my love for live music. So, when the rumor mill churned its way in her direction with "reliable source information" of a super-secret Stones show at Philadelphia's Chestnut Cabaret, she took it as rock and roll gospel. It seemed that the three local bands scheduled to play the Chestnut on August 29 – Runner, Keiper Union and The Blenders – were just a front for a much bigger show. Wendy was unshakably convinced, and she did her very best to convince my brother-in-law (my wife's younger brother, not Wendy's husband) and me to join her in – what promised to be – the event of a lifetime. We went. Begrudgingly. My wife stayed home with our (then) two-year old and we three siblings-by-marriage set out for a club in West Philly.

The Chestnut Cabaret was a tiny dive bar on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. It was nondescript in its decor, boasting bent-wood chairs and rickety tables randomly strewn throughout its narrow, dark interior. However, in its storied past, it has hosted the likes of John Lee Hooker, The Ramones, Blondie, Ice-T and his controversial band Body Count and many other cross-genre acts. I saw an early career performance by They Might Be Giants (then, just a duo playing along to recorded music) and several intimate shows by the late Warren Zevon during his brief residence in Philadelphia. But tonight, Wendy assured us that we were going to see the biggest band of them all.

Several hundred other people apparently got the message, too. The place was jammed. Bodies were pushed up against the minute stage. The closeness of the crowd and the Chestnut's lack of air-conditioning in the late summer heat made for a pretty uncomfortable atmosphere. When the first band, Keiper Union, took the stage, displaying the musical prowess of first-graders hesitantly tripping their way through a guitar lesson, the comfort level dropped even more. After a few excruciatingly-bad songs, the lead singer hinted at an "upcoming surprise" and winked after mentioning "I know why you're all here."

Runner, the next band, wasn't any better. Their chintzy strobe-light enhanced set was on the verge of giving the audience a collective seizure. I downed glass after glass of water and glared at Wendy. She returned a half-hearted smile and shrugged. My brother-in-law who, at six-foot-four, had the best view of the two awful bands, shook his head with disappointment.

As the hours ticked away, the crowd grew more and more restless. The venue MC continued to tease with between-act banter sprinkled with blatant Rolling Stones references. We thought of the possibility that "The Blenders" could be a fake name, since none of us had heard of them. Wendy ran with that.

"Yeah," she said, "they're probably really The Stones!"

The Blenders made their way to the stage. They were The Blenders.

As for The Rolling Stones.... they spent the evening at the Four Seasons Hotel, sampling the finest gourmet food Philadelphia's top chefs had to offer. After all, they had to rest up for the first show of their tour.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

keep on using me, until you've used me up

Stop it, goddammit! Just stop it already! Stop saying "utilize" when you mean "use." Those two words do not mean the same thing! I don't know when the corporate world deemed those words interchangeable, because they are not!

Use is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (the modern electronic version of that big book from which you copied your vocabulary words in fourth grade) as "the act or practice of employing something." To simplify things, I'll provide an illustrative sentence: "I will use this umbrella to protect me from the rain." See? The primary purpose of an umbrella is to shield one's self from the failing rain. Therefore, employing an umbrella for its intended function is the definition of "use" in its purest form. Use. USE! It's a great word and a familiar concept.

Utilize, as explained by that virtual Merriam-Webster tome, is a little tricky. The concept of "utilize" is to make use of something for other than its intended purpose. As an example (and sticking with the scenario of adverse weather conditions): "I'm going to utilize this folded newspaper to protect me from the rain." See the difference? A newspaper's intended purpose is to deliver a convenient, printed report of current events. However, employing a newspaper as a makeshift umbrella when a conventional one is unavailable, that, my language-challenged friend, is the proper time to take advantage of "utilize."

Somewhere in the tangle of corporate meeting catch-phrases like "low-hanging fruit" and "within our wheelhouse," "use" and "utilize" became casualties of war. Pencil-pushing desk-jockeys with a hard-on for face-time with their middle-management comrades twisted the definition of these two innocent, well-meaning words, with the sole purpose of making their feeble speech sound more intelligent. They carefully and deliberately eliminated the pedestrian-sounding "use" from their communication, in favor of the more important tone of "utilize."

Well, using the wrong word is just that — wrong. And it makes you sound like the idiot that you are. If you are going to go out of your way to consciously use an incorrect word, then, for Chrissakes!, go for it! Instead of "use", you might as well say "fellate". It's equally as colorful and just as wrong.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

we've been sailing with a cargo full of love and devotion

People on vacation fascinate me. I mean, you're on vacation! It's a time to let the thoughts of the real world disappear. Don't think about work. Don't think about school. Don't think of "how on earth are we gonna pay for this fucking trip?" Just relax - in whatever form your relaxation takes. My wife can sit in a lounge chair by a pool for hours and hours. She can also sit in front of a slot machine for hours and hours. I, however, do not have a lot of patience to sit and do nothing or to sit and tap the "SPIN" button on a slot machine for much longer than fifteen minutes. If I am on vacation, I want to be active and entertained. Hang on a second! I don't mean jogging or some kind of – yeeeesh! – sport. I mean watching some sort of activity, like a show, or participating in a game (a not-too-strenuous game, mind you). Or eating. I like to eat.

Mrs. Pincus and I went on a cruise the final week of May. It was my first and Mrs. P's second. (Last year, she went on a 9-day adventure with her extended family. Despite being not invited to go along, I maintained there wasn't a ship big enough to get me to join that expedition.) I wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea of cruising, what with all of the recent horror stories of on-board fires, collisions with sandbars and power losses resulting in shit-clogged hallways, but I consented for the sake of my spouse.

We were picked up by a hired shuttle bright and early. During the two-hour trek to New York's Pier 88, we were treated to the life story of the family seated in front of us. Mom and Dad were taking little Billy on a cruise, as he had just graduated from college with a double major and a triple minor in who-gives-a-shit. We also learned that little Billy had Tourette's. (We did not ask, notice nor care.) Then, everyone had to say "Goodbye" to Mom-Mom via cellphone and remind her to feed and walk the dog. (Yes, the ride was only two hours.) I thought, "If this is any indication of what the next seven days will be like, just drop me off on the New Jersey Turnpike. I'll walk home."

Once through luggage drop-off and security, we were forced to pose for the first of many "professional" photos and we boarded the ship – a vessel that resembled a skyscraper laying on its side. We wandered around the upper decks (where we found Waldo). An announcement was made informing boarding vacationers that their cabins were not yet ready, but that the buffet was. So we ate. And ate. And ate. The quantity and availability of food was obscene. One morning, we came out of the breakfast buffet, took eight steps and they were setting up for lunch at an outdoor buffet – and people were already queuing up with plates poised at the ready.

Much to my pleasure, we were entertained nightly by either a slightly-hokey troupe of singers and dancers or some sort of participatory activity (trivia contests, karaoke, Pictionary). On one particular evening, I was awarded the top prize of a shitty bottle of champagne for telling the best joke. (THIS ONE, as a matter of fact.) Adding to our entertainment, Mrs. P and I met a trio of ladies who were jointly celebrating their 40th birthdays and a sweet couple who were young enough to be our children. At one point, they actually fought over which night we would join them for dinner. Two of the three women were indifferent towards the couple, but C. (my wife's newly-adopted gambling companion) dismissively referred to the pair as "Oklahoma and The Blond Girl."

The highlight of the week occurred one evening as my wife and I headed to the main dining room for dinner. We stopped briefly to peruse the hundreds of photographs taken at various points throughout the ship and now on display in cases near the main lobby. Suddenly, screams pierced the low murmurs of the dinnertime crowds. A couple was blocking the entrance to the duty-free gift shop and yelling at top volume. The man, his face screwed into an angry knot, spat obscenity after obscenity at his wife. She returned the volley with words carefully chosen to match his verbal salvo. The longer their fracas lasted the more heated it grew. The surrounding crowds slowed their pace as they neared the quarrelers, but they were oblivious, instead focusing their full attention to the most profane insults they could muster. All I could think was, "They are on vacation. They are in 'relaxed' mode. What's their home life like?" It was another evening's entertainment for me.

Oh, and Nassau is a shit hole.