Sunday, July 26, 2015

it's not easy being green

Yesterday, I emerged from the train station stairs at 16th Street and was handed two bottles of V8 Heathy Greens® by a young lady manning a large, gaily-decorated cooler. A swarm of my fellow commuters and fellow members of the Philadelphia workforce surrounded the young lady, all with eager hands extended. Obviously, most humans like free things. Pretty much anything, as long as it's free. Grab it while you can! Don't worry, there will be time later to give it a careful examination to determine if it is of any merit. If it's something of value, great! You just scored it at no cost. If not, it can always be tossed. No time wasted and no harm done. So, I grabbed a couple of the free, brightly-labels bottles and crossed the street to my office. Once at my desk, I fired up my computer, set the bottles aside and went to work.

I have been a vegetarian for nearly ten years (you can read that stupid story here). Over the past year, however, I took a good, hard look at my food intake. I cut out all forms of sweets — cookies, candy, ice cream, cake. I have made a conscious effort to include more fruits, vegetables and nuts in my regular diet. I began snacking on trail mix (without chocolate chips or M & M's) and banana chips instead of my usual Reese's Cups. I rarely drink soda, choosing to quench my thirst with flavored sparkling water. I have gotten more adventurous, actually eating string beans and broccoli and even the trendy kale — stuff I would have never previously touched in a zillion years. 

As the noon hour rolled around, I glanced away from my computer screen for a second and caught a glimpse of the two bottles V8 Heathy Greens® that I had shoved off to the side this morning when I sat down at my desk. I picked one of the bottles up and scanned the ingredients panel. It included such healthful ingredients as "yellow carrot juice, cucumber juice, celery juice, green bell pepper juice" and other vegetables that I was not aware has a single drop of juice in them. Less appetizing components of the product were "spinach water and romaine lettuce juice." To make the combination more palatable, it also contained apple juice and pineapple juice, two actual juices that I have had (and enjoyed)  before.

Green is the color
of my true love's juice.
I filled a cup with ice from our office's communal ice dispenser and returned to my desk. I popped the lid of one bottle and poured the contents over the ice. The opaque label had concealed the true color of the product. It was the color of some liquid that, if discovering it on your driveway, you'd be prompted to have your mechanic give your car a thorough inspection. Cautiously, I raised the cup to my lips and took a hesitant sip — probably too big a sip for something I was unsure about in the first place.

It tasted like old peas — cold, withered, left on a forgotten dinner plate in the sink.

I looked at the cup, now only partly filled with the dark green liquid. The more I looked at it, the more it resembled antifreeze. Old antifreeze.

I reread the ingredients, trying to identify the various vegetables by the aftertaste on my tongue. I couldn't pinpoint a single one. Instead, the full combination left my mouth with the flavor of a freshly-cut lawn. I wondered about a possible meeting of the Research and Development Department in the V8 Divison at Campbell's Soup (V8's parent company). "Hey," I imagined a food scientist declared, "I think I have the perfect combination!" As the other members of the team sampled the prototype, someone must have commented on the color and taste — only to have the criticism shot down by a supervisor. "No, no! It's fine! Who cares about the color of a drink anyway? Especially not the health nuts that are in our target demographic! Besides, Coca-Cola is the color of shit, and look how that stuff sells!"

I got up from my desk, walked to the sink near the office coffee machine and dumped the remaining V8 Heathy Greens® down the drain. I poured myself a cup of cleansing water and took a healthy swig.

Water is healthy, too.... right?

Monday, July 20, 2015

from a park you can hear the happy sounds from a carousel

Early on Sunday morning, Mrs. P and I hopped in the car and headed up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Somewhere along the way, we must have driven through a time portal. That was our conclusion when we pulled into the expansive, grass-covered parking lot of Knoebels.

Does your theme park have a giant cake?
Tucked away in a pastoral wooded area known as "Peggy's Valley" when it first opened its gates in 1926, Knoebels is something of an anachronistic anomaly. It hearkens back to a time when families would pack a wicker picnic basket filled with sandwiches, potato salad and big jug of lemonade for an al fresco meal in a tree-lined grove. When little kids would get excited to ride on a beautifully carved and painted wooden horse to the soundtrack of the calliope, breathlessly churning out an "oompah oompah" rhythm. When older boys and girls would race to grab the coveted first car of the roller coaster, then dare each other to loosen their grip on the safety bar as they "wooshed" down the rickety hills and thrilling curves. Well, that still exists at Knoebels, despite the advancement in amusement ride technology and engineering and the sprawl of modern theme parks.

Does Disney
know about this?
However, Knoebels very existence is a real head-scratcher. Parking at Knoebels is free and there is no admission charge to pass through the entrance. The park still uses paper tickets for rides and each ride is individually priced. The roller coasters and similar thrill rides cost a mere three dollars to ride. A spin through the award-winning* Haunted Mansion will set you back two dollars and the kiddie rides (a lot of 'em and they all looked looked like a whole lotta fun!) are just a buck! From the sounds of squeals and screams, riders seemed to be having the time of their lives.

As we strolled through the oddly-configured walkways, we saw smiles everywhere. Smiling parents. Smiling teens. Smiling children. This is a notable contrast to the anger-filled Dad berating his crying children at the entrance to Disney's Magic Kingdom. ("Do you know how much this goddamn trip is costing me? Stop that goddamn crying RIGHT NOW! You're gonna have a good time if I have to beat one out of you!" Happiest Place on Earth, indeed.)

Penny candy? What year is this?
We saw a couple of free shows — a hokey ventriloquist telling lame jokes, and later, a delightful improv fairy tale, featuring costumed narrators and enthusiastic audience participation. We watched kids ride on kiddie rides that we rode on as children. An arcade attendant set us up with a few free games of Fascination, an old-time arcade game with rubber balls and flashing lights, sort of like Bingo. We won a pair of licorice whips and a plastic dinosaur. I bought a soft pretzel and my wife bought a handful of penny candy from a huge display, the likes of which we had not seen since we were kids. The posted prices for food were so incredibly cheap, I thought they may have been misprints. We were quite content to meander along the winding paths that transverse the self-proclaimed "America's largest free admission amusement park," and I decided that this place was for people who have never heard of Walt Disney World. And, unlike that famous Florida theme park, we spent a grand total of four dollars over the course of our five-hour visit. (We opted not to go on any rides.)

This actually defies explanation.
In these days of bigger and better, theme parks plan and devise ways to outdo their competition. With 3D simulators whose seats vibrate to triple-looping roller coasters to ultra-themed attractions that immerse the rider into the middle of their favorite movie, TV show or comic strip, industry heavyweights like Disney, Universal and Six Flags constantly vie for increased attendance and increased income.

So, is there still room in this world for a place like Knoebels?

Well, the abundant smiles and laughter told me: "yes."

*It has been named a favorite for over 10 years by Dark Ride and Funhouse Enthusiasts. There's an organization for everyone!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

tell me something good

I entered the working world a little over thirty years ago, when I graduated from art school. I worked in a small composition house for a while, then another small composition house, then another and another. After nearly ten years, I landed a job in the corporate world — the sterile land of cubicles and departments and a multi-tier system of management hierarchy. It was a far cry from just me and a typesetter doing paste-up and taking turns making coffee. It was structured and regimented and everyone knew his or her place and set of responsibilities. I did however come to appreciate the corporate atmosphere — its rules and its protocol — and I eventually found it pretty amusing.

In my first job, my boss was the owner of the business. She was very nice, but clueless when it came to design. I guess that's why she hired me and she seemed pretty pleased with my work. Over the five years that I worked for her, I was awarded several increases in salary, although not with any regularity. Desktop publishing was just coming into fashion, but it was becoming the industry standard at a lightning pace. The small composition house had become a dinosaur in a short five years and, sadly, closed. (Even more sadly, they closed while I was on vacation.) 

At my next job, my supervisor left on maternity leave, never to return. I took it upon myself to do her work, as the other idiots in that place would have banged into the walls without any sort of guidance. Based on the amount of extra work I was doing, I asked the owner for an increase in salary. The owner hesitated, hemmed and hawed and finally replied, "No one got raises this year." I corrected her, clarifying that I was not asking for a raise for everyone. I was just asking for me." She said she would consider it. My next paycheck included the slimmest of increases and I promptly went on the search for another job.

I dove head first into the corporate world when I was hired to do layout for a national publisher of legal periodicals. For the first time in my career, a computer would be my sole piece of work equipment. My primary responsibility was the layout and production of 45 newsletters — some monthly, some weekly. My work was assessed by my boss annually and I was given an increase in salary accordingly. Such is the way, I would come to understand, in the corporate world.

I eventually left that job (participating in that other corporate ritual — the "exit interview") and soon found myself in the marketing department of a large, after-market auto parts corporation whose mascots are three cartoon guys, one of whom smoked a cigar until 1990.* Once again, my progress and accomplishments were annually reviewed by my superior. After a couple of years, the novelty of the review process wore thin. I found out that, based on an edict from the executive powers above, managerial staff was expected to be extra critical of employees in their review, sometimes required to make up faults and setting unreachable goals to show that there is no such thing as a "perfect employee."

At review time, I was usually very busy and under tight deadlines. Any break in my daily routine would set my work behind schedule. So, when my boss announced that it was time for my review, I said, "Look, I'm really busy. How about I save us both some time. I'll tell you what you're gonna tell me, okay? I'm a hard worker and a conscientious worker. I'm opinionated and I've got a big mouth. Anything you'd like to add?" He looked at me. He looked at the printed pages in his hand. "Nope," he said, "that just about covers it." He went back to his office and I went back to my actual work.

Where the magic happens.
I have been at my current job for eight years. I have had the same boss for eight years. She knows me pretty well — my strengths, my weaknesses, my quirks and, most important, all of my schtick. I guess she knows me very well. Just this year, my sub-department (how's that for "corporate-speak?") has been shuffled and rearranged and whittled down to my boss and me. So, when review time came, I lumbered into my boss's office. She sarcastically said, "Okay. Let's get this bloodbath over with." I replied, "Seriously, what are you gonna tell me that you haven't already told me in eight years?" I silently read the printed assessment of my achievements over the past year. We discussed my job for approximately three minutes and then "bullshitted" for the next twenty. The corporate world requires that she submit a detailed review of her employee's performance. Whatever.

My raise kicks in Friday.

* Have you figured out which company I'm talking about?

Monday, July 13, 2015

gotta feel for my automobile

I woke up around 6, pretty much like I do every morning. I poured myself a bowl of cereal, made a cup of coffee and brought them upstairs to watch a little television before getting dressed to go to work. This is how most of my days begin.

As I was forcing my feet into my boots, I glanced out the window. Since I take the train to work — and have for the past eight years — my car is always parked in front of my house. I rarely move it, except for short trips to the supermarket or dry cleaners. Actually, for fear of losing my convenient parking spot, I will often take my wife's car on those quick errands. She parks in our driveway, so I know that the space will still be available when I return. However, if I do move my car, invariably, someone will have parked in my space within the few minutes that I was gone. I don't know what it is about that parking space, but it is a prime and sought-out location on my block. 

Looking out the window, I spotted something under the windshield wiper on the passenger's side of my car. I hurriedly gathered my wallet, train pass and keys. I kissed my still-sleeping wife "goodbye," and hastily went out the door. I lifted up the wiper and grabbed this small sheet of paper before the wind could whisk it away.

Hey, I have as good a sense of humor as the next guy, but what the actual fuck?!?

It was a generic-looking document, trying its very best to look official and imposing. I'm sure you've seen them before in joke and novelty stores. Someone purchased this for the sole purpose of pissing me off. And it worked. Mission fucking accomplished.

Look, it's fairly obvious that a lot of things piss me off, but this really pissed me off. A lot! I don't talk to a lot (almost none) of my neighbors. Not because I'm not friendly (which I'm not), but because... because... well, I just don't. On one side of my house, I have a woman who is a fucking inconsiderate, selfish asshole. She regularly sorts her recycling at 5 in the morning while singing show tunes at the top of her lungs. She also fights with her son at all hours, also at the top of their collective lungs. Plus, nearly every day, I find — and pick up — trash that has made its way from her overturned trash cans to my lawn and driveway. On the other side of my house, I have a family of renters who scream at their child so loudly that we can hear it right through the common fire wall that separates our individual dwellings. I try to be a good, cooperative neighbor, but I also keep to myself. I shovel my sidewalk when it snows. I take my trash out on the designated day and bring the empty receptacles back within the time period specified by the township ordinances. In the summer, I pay a guy to mow my lawn on a regular basis. I pay my property taxes on time... and in my particular township, those taxes are a bit high, if I may say so. But, I digress.

So, who the fuck feels it is their duty? obligation? right? to tell me where and for how long I can park my fucking car? Who has the fucking nerve to put a note like this on my car — to actually touch my car — and do it anonymously... dare I say, cowardly? Which one of my fucking, self-righteous neighbors is keeping a timer on how long I park my car in front of my own fucking house?

I hope whoever left that little note on my car is reading this. And I hope everyone else is listening carefully.

Gee, did that come off as "angry?" I sure hope so.

Okay... on second thought... I guess it was pretty funny.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

say my name, say my name, say my stupid name

When I was a kid, we only bought nationally-advertised, brand name groceries. Although it was never openly discussed or mandated, store-brand products were for poor people or worse — old people. At least that was what I gathered from my mother's supermarket purchases. Heinz ketchup, Hellman's mayonnaise, Campbell's soup — those were the names that received unwavering loyalty in the Pincus household. 

Recently, I radically changed my eating habits. For years, like 31 million other Americans, I skipped breakfast, opting instead for a cup of coffee to carry me through the day. Last year, I began eating a bowl of cereal every morning. As much as I wanted, I forced myself to avoid childhood favorites like Cap'n Crunch and Froot Loops*. Instead, I chose the more sensible Cheerios family of cereals, specifically Honey Nut Cheerios, the most popular of the many Cheerios varieties and the most popular cereal in America for several years running. Despite not having a cool prize tucked within the inner product bag, the cereal itself is pretty good. Not too sweet and not nearly as bland as the plain Cheerios that my son teethed upon as a baby. 

Under my newly-adopted eating regimen, I noticed that I was going through a big box of Honey Nut Cheerios approximately every ten days. At nearly five bucks a pop, this was getting pretty costly. So, the next time my morning meal supply was running low, I decided to try to be a little more frugal with my choices.

At Acme Market (known as Albertson's in some parts of the country), I compared the price of the national Honey Nut Cheerios to that of the store-branded "Essential Everyday" lengthy but closely-named "Honey Nut Toasted Oats." It was considerably cheaper. I know that "cheaper" usually translates to "inferior quality," but I was willing to risk it for a nearly two-and-a-half dollar savings. The next morning, I poured myself a bowl of generically-named, yet similar-looking Honey Nut Toasted Oats and doused it with milk. It was not bad. It was not Cheerios, but it was not bad. I didn't gag. I didn't toss the bowl's contents down the garbage disposal in disgust.** As a matter of fact, it tasted pretty good. Satisfied, I ate a bowl every morning until the box was empty. I could definitely taste the difference, but it wasn't so different that I wasn't able to eat and enjoy it.

I decided to try the offerings from other stores and other store brands. Guess what? Every store has their own brand of cereal that is comparable to the mighty Cheerios... and they all carry a considerably smaller price tag. As far as their taste, they are all pretty good. Hell, at 6:30 in the morning, my taste buds aren't fully awake anyway. As a humorous bonus, they all boast unimaginative and innocuous names, so as not to prompt a lawsuit from the good folks at General Mills. My personal favorite is Walmart's Honey Nut Spins. (They could have gone with "Loops" or "Hoops" or "Wheels" or even "Circles," but they chose "Spins" even though the little oat morsels remain perfectly still from the box to bowl and all through the breakfast duration. I watched. Not a single spin was detected.) Walmart, it should be noted, is the undisputed king of nearly-homophonic store-brand names, with their upstart line of sodas like "Dr. Thunder" and "Mountain Lightning" taking on national competitors. I think you know which ones I mean. 

Ancient? No thank you.
So, against everything my mother taught me about grocery shopping, I have stopped purchasing name-brand cereal in favor of the store-brand counterparts. I have even expanded beyond breakfast, choosing store-brand bagged salad over Dole or Fresh Express and store-brand pickles over brands like Vlasic. There's one place I draw the line, though, when it comes to food. I don't care if it has an affiliation with a national trusted brand or not, I refuse to purchase and consume any sort of food that proclaims its contents are "ancient." I mean aren't these things supposed to have an expiration date? 

*Studies have shown that Froot Loops are not now, nor have they ever been, made with real froot.
** Don't throw cereal down the garbage disposal anyway. Trust me on this. Your plumber will thank you.

Monday, July 6, 2015

wake me up before you go-go

Like most Americans who live near a large body of water edged by some sort of beach. Mrs. P and I spent the long July Fourth weekend at the location that fits that description nearest our home. In this case, we chose Atlantic City — the one-time jewel of the  Jersey shore, now showing more tarnish than shine in the aftermath of four shuttered casinos in the past year. My wife's casino activity has dwindled to non-existent over the past year, but I think that it is pure coincidence and she is not to be blamed for those closures. Nevertheless, we found ourselves with a weekend starting on a Friday and 72 hours of free time ahead of us. 

I don't know if I ever mentioned it before, but I hate the beach. I hate everything about the beach. First off, I dislike the misnomer of "beach." Face it. It's dirt. That's right. D-I-R-T — Dirt! And don't even talk to me about the (shudder!) ocean. I marvel every time I see someone gingerly wade into that fucking cesspool. And those that cheerfully splash around in that giant piss puddle with their kids! Yeesh! They should be brought up on charges of child abuse. But, I love my wife. And my wife loves the beach. So, I put my disgust for the beach aside for a few hours and sit beside her. Happily. Well, as much "happily" as I can muster.

On Friday, at a time when I am normally at work, Mrs. P and I made our way across the Atlantic City beach, laden with folding chairs, a couple of towels and some snacks and drinks. The Mrs. had plans to soak up some early summer rays. I had plans to cover my thinning pate and stick it out time-wise for as long as she could. 

We found a suitable spot and set up our temporary camp. Mrs. P leaned back and began her sunning process. I draped a large towel over my head and tried to pretend I was anywhere else but on a beach. I closed my eyes. With the murmur of a gentle wind and low whisper of the nearby surf, I began to doze. Hey! Whaddaya know! I was actually relaxed and  — dare I say  — enjoying this time on the beach. I drifted off in to a deeper sleep.

Suddenly, I was jarred awake by something akin to broken fingernails dragging the length of a blackboard. I shot up and fumbled for my glasses that I had folded and hooked in the neckline of my T-shirt. 

At first, I looked around for the source of the disturbance. It was shrill and grating. "Ooooh!," it wailed, "The Grateful Dead are playing this weekend in... in... somewhere!" Ugh! That voice! It squealed in an annoying raspy creak. I raised the towel up and my eyes adjusted to the sunlight. The voice continued, "I saw The Grateful Dead at Veterans Stadium the day before they tore it down."

About twenty feet away, a woman in a tie-dye beach cover-up was addressing a group of people spread out in their own beach campsite. Her unkempt hair blew about her in all directions as she related her story in a loud tone, too loud for the close proximity of her chosen audience. Her voice was at a volume more suited to clearing the area because of a fire or an impending air raid. As a matter of fact, her voice had the same tonal quality as an air raid siren.

Well, now I was awake! And mad. Mad because I was unnecessarily awakened, especially when I was just getting used to fact that I had spent more than five consecutive minutes on a beach. And mad because I hate when people dispense wrong information. I don't mean a mistake for which they will soon correct themselves, I mean flat out wrong information that they insist to be right and proclaim as gospel. Let's start with the fact that The Grateful Dead never played Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. They did, however, play, what turned out to be the final show at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, "The Vet's" neighbor. Six days after Jerry Garcia and his bandmates played JFK in 1989, the crumbling, sixty-six year old venue was condemned by the city. It was demolished three years later. Veterans Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles for thirty-three years, was imploded in 2004, twelve years after JFK Stadium bit the proverbial dust. While Veterans Stadium was host to numerous concerts, The Grateful Dead did not number among them. But the inflection in this shrew's voice told otherwise, especially when she drove her point home with a smug sneer and a defiant folding of her arms across her tie-dye swathed chest.

Plus, she delivered the misinformation in that voice!

I hate the beach after all.