Sunday, November 27, 2016

life's no fun without a good scare

I have always been a horror fan. The problem with the current trend in horror is it's too stupid and formulaic. What happened to good writing and clever plot twists? Now it's all jump scares and gory images for the sake of exhibiting someone's special effects skills. Where is the stylized framing of Silence of the Lambs? Where is the suspenseful storytelling of Psycho? Even the original slasher films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and even Friday the 13th had well-conceived back stories before they were milked dry by four hundred inane sequels.

Submitted for your approval.
Since movies were disappointing, I turned to television and there was plenty of promise. When I was in elementary school, I was permitted to stay up to watch the NBC horror anthology Night Gallery hosted by Rod Serling. It was my favorite show (at the time) offering short vignettes featuring a roster of popular television actors in roles outside of their comfort level. Then I discovered reruns of Rod's earlier show, the venerable Twilight Zone. I also watched The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. All of these pretty much followed the same formula — some better some worse — but all satisfied my horror cravings... for the most part. I even enjoyed the 80s revival of The Twilight Zone as well as the theatrical film.

More recently, my television series watching habits have been limited to the unlikely pairing of HBO's brutal and gritty gangster saga Boardwalk Empire and the mindless teen fluff of Nickelodeon's iCarly. Now that both of those series are out of production, I watch whatever is on, rarely going out of my way to catch a "must-see" program.

I saw early ads for a new series on Fox's cutting edge FX network called American Horror Story. It presented a clever concept for an anthology — a core group of performers and a single story per season, with the same group taking on different roles in a different story in subsequent seasons. The initial reception was positive and the show proved popular... no thanks to me, as I never watched. It wasn't until season four that I decided to give it a shot.

May I take this opportunity to acknowledge that I'm in the minority, but, give me my two minutes to bitch.

I settled in on that early October evening in 2014 to see for myself what all the buzz was about. As the opening scenes of American Horror Story: Freak Show began, I waited to be impressed... and to experience the thrill of being scared. A little over an hour later, I was bored, disappointed and a little annoyed. I found that the show relied too much on "looking cool," with its atmospheric shots, grainy filters and stark, creepy-on-purpose sets, and not enough time was devoted to story development. I thought the acting was stilted and not at all compelling. Even multi-award-winning actress Jessica Lange could hold my interest, especially when she delivered a cover of the 1971 Bowie classic "Life on Mars," as the anachronistic episode finale of a story set in 1952. I snapped off the TV and vowed never to watch this mess again.

Well, after skipping an entire season, I decided to give American Horror Story another chance. My son came over and we binge-watched the first two episodes of season six. The series had abandoned its standard TV drama format in favor of the premise of a reality show, complete with in-studio, after-the-fact interviews and reenactments. It was sort of a show within a show within a show with actors playing actors playing real people. I was interested. I found myself enjoying the tale as it unfolded. It was a unique take on the storytelling. I was hooked. Reluctant, but hooked just the same. I watched the next episode in its regular time slot. Three episodes in and I was still enjoying it. My son, however, warned me. He told me that series creator Ryan Murphy has this uncanny knack for losing interest in his shows as they progress. He tends to go in several different directions, never fully resolving all aspects of all storylines.

Sure enough, that observation was spot on

In the following weeks, American Horror Story: Roanoke became a veritable shit show. But I watched. I was committed. I was going to see this fiasco out until the bitter end. Characters were introduced and killed. Characters were introduced and forgotten. And the characters that we got to see on every episode were cartoonish, one-dimensional sketches only serving as a bag full of theatrical blood, ready to explode when the time was right... or not right... or whenever. The series morphed into a shrill, sprawling, mindless, contradicting, aimless mish-mash that I wanted to end. And soon. By episode eight (of a ten episode series), I just wanted it to be done. It became a chore to watch. I counted the minutes until it was over, like I was taking a test in high school. I began recording the episodes, so I could fast-forward through commercials, shortening my time spent watching this shambles. At last, the final episode was broadcast. I watched, emotionless. Numbed. Disinterested. And 41 minutes later, thanks to 4x fast-forward, it was done. I didn't care what happened to any of the characters  — which ones were alive, which were dead, which were in purgatory, which were.... whatever.

This time, I swear, I will never watch that series again.

Now, I'm sure there's a Twilight Zone rerun that needs watching.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

everybody's a good dog

I knew Shaun Fleming before I actually knew Shaun Fleming.

Jim and Tim (or is it Tim and Jim?)
When my son was younger, we loved watching cartoons together. I remember, three days before his fourth birthday, we planted ourselves in front of the television to watch the first glimpses of what would blossom into the phenomenon called "Nicktoons" on the hip kid-oriented Nickelodeon Network. My long-time love of animated entertainment was rubbing off on my boy and I couldn't have been happier. I introduced him to some of my childhood favorites, like Underdog and Hoppity Hooper. Together, we watched some of the newer offerings, like Doug, Rugrats and, much to my wife's chagrin, Ren and Stimpy. Nick's cross-cable rivals, The Disney Channel, wanted in on this animation thing. Sure, they are the undeniable leaders in the animation field, but breaking into the weekly cartoon thing was new territory. They tested the waters with The Proud Family, the first foray into animation produced specifically for The Disney Channel. They followed that with the action-adventure series Kim Possible. My son and I watched Kim Possible, with its cool, angular styles and pun-infused character names (Ron Stoppable, Will Du and of course, the title heroine herself). Among the many characters introduced during its four-season run were Kim's younger twin brothers, Jim and Tim Possible. The pair, while typical annoying siblings, were brilliant and often helpful in their sister's attempts to overcome evil Dr. Drakken, her nemesis bent on world domination. Jim and Tim were voiced, for most of the series's run, by teenage Shaun Fleming. Shaun had previously given voice to young "Tarzan" in the Disney series based on the full-length animated feature, Goofy's son "Max" in the Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas featurette and "Leonard," the owner of an unusual dog in the Disney/Gary Baseman cartoon Teacher's Pet.

Shaun plants one on E.
My son and I also loved to listen to music together. I would play my old favorites for him and, as the years went on, he would expose me to some of the music that he had discovered. (Coincidentally, he stumbled across Queen, my favorite band in my high school days, without any prompting from me.) At a rapid pace, he immersed himself into all things music, seeking out new and unusual bands, and giving close attention to the most obscure of genres. Eventually, he would take his love for music to career level, landing a dream job as a DJ on a local Philadelphia radio station. Through his connections, in 2014, he met a band called Diane Coffee who had come to the station to promote their new album release Everybody's A Good Dog. E., my son, recognized the exuberant lead singer as the drummer for the indie rock band Foxygen. His name was Shaun Fleming. Yep, that Shaun Fleming.  E. sent me the Diane Coffee album and — without sounding too cliche — I was blown away. I had grown up listening to — and loving — a 70s music genre known as "glam rock." This was the collective label applied to a wide range of artists like T. Rex and, more famously, David Bowie. Diane Coffee was an updated homage to all things glam. Plus, peppered throughout the album's tracks were soulful grooves, torchy vocals and funky horns  — all coming together to form a totally unique, yet totally familiar, sound.

It wasn't until almost a year later that I was able to witness Diane Coffee live and in-person. In the tiny Kung Fu Necktie, a club located under the elevated subway in Philadelphia's revitalized Fishtown neighborhood, Shaun and his band Diane Coffee took the compact stage and gave the crowd a show that was jarring, electrifying and totally captivating. Shaun, his face streaked with glittery, 70s style rock & roll makeup, mugged for the crowd and delivered a multi-faceted performance in a multitude of styles and voices. He poured his soul into his every movement and exuded a joy that was palpable. It is a barometer of a show's success when you can see how much fun the band is having on stage. And Diane Coffee was having a whole lot of fun.

When the set was over, a very sweaty Shaun marched right over to my son and gave him a hug. My boy introduced me to Shaun. As he extended a hand, I gushed like a teenager, telling him what a big fan I was of the new album. He smiled. Then, surprisingly, a look of concern took over his face and he asked me, "Were we okay?" and he gestured towards the stage. "Oh my gosh!," I exclaimed, "You were incredible! How could you doubt your performance?" I was absolutely taken by his earnest and his self-doubt, considering what I had just witnessed. He thanked us for coming and then I got a hug, too.

In the weeks following that show, Shaun and I exchanged pleasantries via Twitter until I got to see the band again when they played the WXPN summer music festival. This time, in the festival atmosphere, he played to an audience unfamiliar with his band. Seeing the name "Diane Coffee," they may have been expecting a small girl in a peasant skirt with braided hair and and an oversize acoustic guitar. Instead they got the second coming of The Sweet (of "Ballroom Blitz" and "Fox on the Run" fame) in all their glam-rock glory. At one o'clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Shaun and his bandmates captivated the crowd and, as they say, blew them away. The set, which Shaun and his mates started in faux navy uniforms, quickly morphed, after a surprise costume change, into a full-on spectacle. Once again, after his set, Shaun was gracious and appreciative and just a regular guy.

E. and I got to see Diane Coffee just last week, as their cross-country tour brought them to Philadelphia for a weeknight show. Once again, the place was packed with anxious fans. Just before the band took the stage, my son snaked his way through the dense crowd to say "Hello" to Shaun, who he spotted standing at the side of the stage. When Shaun saw E., he threw his arms around him in, what we have come to know as his standard, warm greeting. Over the ambient crowd noise, I saw E. mouth "There's my Dad" to Shaun and point in my direction. A broad smile reached across Shaun's face and he waved wildly at me. We saw the first five or so songs of Diane Coffee's set (which were terrific), but, due to unforeseen circumstances, were unable to stay until the show's completion. The next day, I saw a tweet from Shaun, thanking his fan base for a wonderful, if lengthy, tour. I replied to Shaun and this was our exchange:

Not yet familiar with Shaun Fleming and Diane Coffee? Well, I can tell you this... he's a really nice guy. 

And a good dog.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

ten, twenty, thirty million dollars ready to be spent

In 1987, The Walt Disney Company began to, literally, print its own currency. For nearly twenty years, various designs and denominations of Disney Dollars have been available for patrons on an "even exchange" basis. In May 2016, Disney announced that they would cease production on Disney Dollars, although they would continue to accept them at their theme parks, hotels and select Disney Stores (meaning not the one you go to). With the convenience of gift cards, the idea of Disney Dollars had run its course. 

However, I maintain, that Disney has been printing their own money for years. Maybe not physically, but figuratively. Their combination of shrewd marketing, exploitation and branding coupled with the captive audience and tourist mentality, has made Disney a veritable money-generating machine.

They are the kings of selling you things you do not need. They excel in convincing you that the prices they place on merchandise and food is reasonable. Granted, most people on vacation (especially the people that Walt Disney World draws) pay very little attention to how much they are spending on a meal, so they will happily for fork over $12 for a hot dog topped with chili. (A chili dog at Sonic costs $1.99, just for comparison). One of my favorite restaurants in a Disney theme park is Redd Rocket's Pizza Port, tucked in a back corner of Tomorrowland in Disneyland. A slice of typical, no-frills, fast-food, no-toppings pizza costs $6.99. I can get an entire pie at a Little Caesar's five minutes from my house for five bucks. A whole pizza at Redd Rocket's is — brace yourself — thirty-three dollars. Go to any of these Disney eateries at dinner time, though. You'll see the lines are long and the place is packed.

Souvenirs is another area where Disney knows just how wide they can open a customer's guest's wallet. My first visit to Walt Disney World was in 1980. I was 19. I purchased a few mementos of my trip — a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, a few pinback buttons. Knowing my limited funds back then, I'm sure I was very careful not to overspend on souvenirs. Of course, in later years, when I was supporting the Disneyana monkey on my back (this one, I mean), I spent money in the gift shops like a drunken pirate on Caribbean shore leave. However, my selections were measured and I was very particular about what was added to my collection. But, Disney was counting on other tourists to spend blindly and without restraint. The fact that no one bats an eye at a $24.99 price tag on a giant faux-velvet Sorcerer Mickey hat shows the effectiveness of Disney's marketing power. After all, there's only one place and one place only you can wear a tall, blue, pointed hat adorned with two enormous mouse ears and not get strange looks. And you're never gonna wear it anywhere else. Ever. When you get home to your normal life and one day it's raining, you're not saying to yourself: "I better grab a hat." and then reach for the two-foot tall, fuzzy, star-spangled head covering to shield you from the downpour. And Disney knows it.

On a summer trip my wife made with her family to Walt Disney World, she bought two water-filled spray bottles, each topped with a small battery-powered fan and embellished with Disney characters, for her nieces, to keep them hydrated during the blistering Florida heat. Those things, available in a non-Disney version for a few dollars, cost $18.00 each. My brother-in-law, fully aware of their price tag (because he wouldn't spring for them for his kids), would not allow his daughters to bring the bottles into the park, for fear they would get lost or damaged. The bottles remained safely in a bag in their hotel room and never saw the light of day since the time of their purchase. As a matter of fact, they haven't been seen since 2012. But, Disney! Disney had a gain of thirty-six dollars for an item that, based on volume, probably cost mere pennies to manufacture.

Look, this is certainly not a knock against Disney. I am a huge fan of the media giant. I admire their creativity, their cleverness and especially their marketing prowess. I marvel at the people who whine and complain about how expensive it is to swing a vacation to Walt Disney World, and then, once they get there, hand over their hard-earned cash with nary a thought. Disney is doing their job and that's answering to their stockholders. It is possible to have fun on a Disney vacation and not come home ready for the poor house. You just have to put a little thought into your planning, stick to a budget, consider purchases with: "Do I really need this?" If you're still moaning about the high prices of admission, food, lodging, and souvenirs... nobody is forcing you to go. Not even Disney. You may think they are, but that's called "marketing."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

vote for me and I'll set you free

Please forgive the rambling nature of this post. I mean more rambling than usual. I wrote this mostly for my own relief, as a carthasis after what I can only describe as a harrowing night. — JPiC
I voted in ten presidential elections and only picked the winner twice. But, honestly, a change in president has only affected my life — my personal life — once. Sure, there have been taxes and inflation, but those things would have occurred no matter who became president. You see, in 1981 under the Carter administration, I was enrolled in a four-year art school on a full, government grant for my first year. Therefore, in the first election in which I was eligible to vote, I cast my ballot for Mr. Carter for purely selfish reasons. He got trounced by Ronald Reagan, who proceeded to take the funds set aside for my art career and use them to purchase a bomb to blow up the Commie that was hiding under America's bed. With no support or encouragement from my parents, at 20 years old, I wandered into a bank and arranged for a student loan to cover my tuition for the next school year. I repeated the procedure a few more times until I graduated. I incurred a debt that I paid off, in monthly installments, over the course of ten years. So, aside from writing a check every month for $81.00, someone new in The White House really hasn't caused any upheaval in my life.

I admit I was a bit wary when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. After all, he was a young, cool guy who wore Blues Brothers shades and played the saxophone on late-night television. He was undeniably different from the forty-one stuffy men that preceded him. Those guys — the Reagans and the Nixons and the Eisenhowers — were my Dad's candidates. They were stiff, rehearsed, humorless guys whose dour visages would look right at home in the center of a piece of currency. But, Bill Clinton had a mischievous smile and a ton of charisma. He was both relaxed and commanding and, with a booming economy, he made the country feel comfortable. However, it was after Clinton's second-term win — when he defeated Bob Dole — that, I believe, things started to go to shit. Bob Dole was the ultimate sore loser. It was uncomfortable to watch Dole's "He's not my president!" behavior. But, again, it really didn't affect my day-to-day life. I still went to work. I was more concerned with the well-being of my family and, as always, just figured politics and the country would take care of itself... as selfish as that may seem.

I watched eight years of a George W. Bush presidency that evoked the good ol' backward-thinking Republican ways of my narrow-minded father and my narrower-minded grandmother. I saw the beginnings of a military conflict that was right out of the pages of George Orwell's 1984 — a battle against an unclear adversary that still rages on to this day. But, again, since a military draft had not been reinstated (besides, there was a huge amount of young men anxious to serve) and, since I was too old and my son was too young for military service, this, too, did not really affect my life on a personal level.

When Barack Obama became president, I truly believed that we had finally broken though and shaken off the clutches of the "old guard." By "old guard," of course I mean the government run by my father's old-white-guy Republican party. I figured that since, finally!, the President of the United States was a guy my own age (President Obama is exactly one week, to the day, older than I am), I was now part of the majority in the country and the president, as it had always been, was a reflection of the majority.

On Tuesday night — Election Night — I watched, in disbelief, as the progressive, visionary America that I saw blossom over the past eight years crumbled under a venomous blanket of hate, bigotry, xenophobia and unfounded fear. There was regular evidence that racism and hatred was alive and well in our country, but I was shocked that it has been allowed to be brought to the forefront by a bullying, prejudiced, uninformed, misogynist con artist. Like the Piper Piper of Hamelin, he played the right notes and stirred up the vermin that was hidden under the rocks and in the dirt. They followed his lead and they heard what they wanted to hear, ignoring the parts they didn't understand or didn't want to examine more closely. Say what you will about Mr. Trump, but the guy knows marketing. He successfully peddled his brand — a smoke-and-mirrors brand of gold-covered shit — and the right people bought it and happily ate it up.

And now the piper will be the next president, undoing everything that was accomplished over the past decade. I am thoroughly disappointed in my country.

Once again, the outcome of a presidential election may not affect me personally, but it will affect a great many people in this country — people of color, Latinos, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ community, women, immigrants, the disabled. Over the past eight years, I have met and become close to people that fall into those categories and it makes me sad for them. So, I take it back. This presidential election has affected me. In my effort to become less selfish, the results of this election makes me feel sorrow, anguish and fear on behalf of some people that I love.

Plus, it makes me embarrassed in front of the rest of the world.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

I buried paul

Thanksgiving at my house always included one timeless ritual. After my mom fussed over the turkey, we all took a seat around that long, utility table that was set up in the living room to accommodate the extra dinner guests. One by one, my mother would bring out each component of the meal — the fried onion-topped string bean casserole, the Mrs. Paul's frozen sweet potatoes piping hot from the oven, the big bowl of canned corn, the hot Pillsbury crescent rolls. My dad would rev up the electric carving knife and slice off thin, but crooked slices from the golden-brown turkey breast. The various serving plates would make their way around the table and each guest would load his or her placesetting with a generous portion of Thanksgiving fare. The meal would begin and, invariably, my dad would soon lift the dish containing a glistening cylinder of dark purple jellied cranberry sauce and, after cutting a chunky piece for himself, point the thing in my direction and, just like every year, say those same words to me: "Do you want cranberry sauce?"

Of course, I didn't. I never wanted cranberry sauce. Ever. I'm not quite sure what it was about the cranberry sauce that made it so unappealing. It could have been the fact that it maintained the shape of the can, even after the can had been discarded. It could have been the color — that dark reddish-purple that gave the side dish a somewhat visceral appearance... sort of like an internal organ. I can't vouch for the texture, though, because that stuff wasn't making it anywhere near my mouth. I would always answer my father's inquiry with: "Have you ever seen me eat cranberry sauce? This ain't gonna be the year I start." As the years went on, I believe my father got to the point where he knew I didn't want any cranberry sauce. He was just taunting me.

Look, I know I was a picky eater when I was a kid. But, I got to be more culinarily adventurous as I became an adult. My wife regularly remarks "Your mother would be proud of you." when I swallowed a forkful of string beans or popped a sushi roll into my mouth. Even the baked beans I avoided as a child have become a required accompaniment to hot dogs (well... the veggie hot dogs I now eat).

Last year's Thanksgiving dinner was the best one in recent memory. It was my son, my wife and me gathered around our beautifully-set dining room table. Just the three of us, something we never had the opportunity to experience in our many years as a family. It was lovely. Mrs. P forwent traditional turkey and made a Tofurky for her two vegetarians. She also made from-scratch cranberry sauce that looked more like this...
... than that slimy-looking stuff that slides out of a can. It looked delicious and it tasted delicious. (I was reminded of a favorite episode of All in the Family from 1975. The Bunkers are having Thanksgiving dinner at Mike and Gloria's house next door. Archie asks his daughter for cranberry sauce. Gloria proudly displaying a bowl filled with something that looks like the photo above, says, "Sure, Daddy. I made it myself." Archie frowns and says, "Don'cha have the real kind that slides out of a can?" Disappointed, Gloria exclaims, "Try it!" Archie, still eyeing the bowl with contempt, replies, "I'll have some later on my ice cream.")

So, a few nights ago, Mrs. Pincus made vegetarian hot "turkey" sandwiches. I have fond memories of them from my youth. My mom would often make the real (re: meaty) thing for our family. My dad, a butcher by trade, would never stand for "pretend meat." But, Mrs. P,, while still a carnivore, will partake of "fake" stuff every once in a while. So, we each covered our plates with two pieces of bread and several slices each of LightLife® Smart Deli™ Veggie Turkey Slices. Mrs. P mixed up and heated a pot of Serv-a-Gravy®, the most meatless of gravies available. (It is, essentially, brown water. But, it is delicious brown water!) While, my wife was busy at the stove, I opened up the cabinet in our kitchen where we keep canned goods and perused the options. I found a can of creamed corn, usually reserved for Mrs. P's corn fritters. Hiding behind the corn, between a surplus can of cannellini beans left from the last time my wife made vegetarian chili and a stack of canned salmon, I found a can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. I stared at the can for a few moments. Then, I extracted the can from its resting place. "How about we have some of this, too?," I said, waving the can over my shoulder in the direction of my wife standing by the stove. She turned to me and laughed. "Really?," she said, smiling, "Oh, your mother would be so proud of you."

I thought of all the things I have accomplished in my life. I'd like to think that eating cranberry sauce would not be lumped together in the "pride department" with graduating high school, getting married, buying a house and starting a family. But, you know... I'll take it.

And, guess what? That thick plug of jellied cranberry sauce was pretty darn good. I actually look forward to having more on Thanksgiving.

To make up for a lot of missed opportunities.

(I realize that I wrote about cranberry sauce around this time last year. You can read it here. Although, the story above contains similar elements to the tale of a year ago, I did not consult my previous blog post before I wrote this one. I suppose cranberry sauce has just weighed heavily on me all these years.)