Sunday, January 29, 2017

all through the day I me mine I me mine I me mine

Last week, a half million people descended upon Washington, DC in an effort show their collective dissatisfaction with the newly-inaugurated president and the path on which he proposes to lead the country. Similar marches and gatherings erupted throughout the United States and across the globe. After several months of looming uncertainty and immanent anguish, this worldwide assembly was a glimmer of hope, of redemption, of camaraderie.

I followed the event as it unfolded, through my various connections on social media. Via Twitter and Facebook, I am connected to many folks across the country. In addition to the crowds in my home town of Philadelphia, I saw photos from marches in New York City, Austin, Little Rock, Los Angeles — even as far as Honolulu. Every picture featured groups of women (and a contingency of supportive men) hugging close together and mugging for the camera. Many donned the event's signature knit pink "pussy" hats. Many displayed clever signs to voice their stance and opinions. Many were accompanied by their children. All in all, the photos emanated a feeling of strength, love, and a common cause. Each was a touching glimpse of fractions of a huge movement assembled peacefully, united for a single principle.

Except for one person.

Among the hundreds of sentiments and personal accounts I saw during the day — outpourings of togetherness and benevolence and care for fellow humans — I read one sentence that truly disturbed me. It was the selfish words of a narcissistic person who totally missed the point and significance of where she was. On a day that exuded fellowship and partnership, one person in the thick of the crowd gathered near the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, felt it was most important to inform the world via this mobile Facebook post:
"29,877 steps on my Fitbit, 12.4 miles and, for other reasons, truly historic day."
There's a joke my son always tells when we go to concerts. Sometimes, after a band's first song, the vain lead singer will approach the microphone and angrily gesture to the poor fellow operating the venue's sound controls. He'll point to his ear and announce, "Can I get a little more me in the monitors? A little more me, please."

Y'know, sometimes, it's not all about you.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

drinking wine spodee-odee

I don't drink alcohol. It's not that I have any moral conviction or I'm some latent temperance advocate. I just don't. I don't like the taste of it and I don't handle alcohol consumption well. As a teenager, I drank. When I was 18, the legal drinking age in New Jersey was 18. Lucky for my friends and me (or maybe unlucky), the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border was a mere twenty minute drive and a ten-cent bridge toll away. Back then, we drank cheap beer by the pitcher and drove home drunk in the middle of the night. I know. I know. Dumb. Really dumb. It's a part of my life of which I am not especially proud,

As the years went on, my drinking tapered off to nearly non-existent. I remember on a family vacation to Cooperstown, New York, our then-young son marveled as my wife and I each downed a bottle of the newly-introduced Mike's Hard Lemonade at a small café. We were within walking distance of our weekend accommodations and, as we strolled the main street, my worried son repeatedly asked, "Are you drunk?" When my wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas, our son (at this point, of legal drinking age) watched his otherwise tea-totaling parents share one of those alcoholic "slushies" that are so popular on The Strip. (Ours was from a little stand outside of the Paris resort and the container was shaped like the Eiffel Tower... filled with frozen booze.) This time, he didn't have to ask his question, as our state of sobriety was quite apparent. (Re: we were shitfaced.)

Last weekend, Mrs. Pincus and I drove down the eastern seaboard to visit Cousin Juniper in Virginia Beach. Our plan was to visit a few wineries in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Williamsburg vicinity. I have been to the area a few times. I've actually seen the beach once. I've seen Historic Williamsburg twice — but neither time was it during a visit with my wife's family. But, I was up for a little road trip.

The roads and scenery in the geographic designation called "Hampton Roads" all look the same. It's one twisting, turning cement highway after another, accented by one nondescript strip mall after another. Every intersection looks identical with each of the four corners sporting a supermarket, a gas station, a convenience store (either 7-11, Wawa or a local version of those two) and several outlets of the many fast-food operations that blanket the southeast Virginia landscape. I'm glad Juniper knew the route, because the surroundings are bland enough to confuse a GPS.

Our first stop was Saude Creek Vineyards, located... um... somewhere in a wooded area in Virginia (I'm sure that's on some map). We drove along a narrow gravel road to a small parking lot flanked on one side by a barren field filled with the trellised remnants of skeletal grapevines and, on the other, a dark wood chalet-like building perched atop a grassy hill. We parked and climbed the winding stairs to the building. Patios and porches jutted out from the structure at different levels, making for a interesting example of Southeastern Virginia architecture... I suppose. We found what seemed to be an entrance and we let ourselves in.

The room was wide with a soaring ceiling and a stone hearth containing a roaring fire to the far right. There were a few high tables and low-slung sofas, all occupied by warmly-dressed patrons, busily talking and stuffing themselves with cheese and fruit and selections from the barbecue restaurant that had a concession set up in the far corner near the three-sided bar. The air smelled simultaneously of burning hickory and burning porcine. Mrs. P, Juniper and I took a spot at the bar, our backs to the vessels of cooking flesh, and ordered up a tasting session for each of us. A nice woman placed a wine glass before each of us and a small bowl of oyster crackers was set within reach. It was explained that the crackers were to cleanse our palates between each new wine flavor, of which (we were informed) there would be seven. The woman produced a dark bottle of wine from below the bar and poured a splash into our glasses. She expounded the history of the wine or the grapes or something as we politely sipped our samples. Actually, Juniper and my wife politely sipped. I downed it in one quick shot, a move I learned from the drinking scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The next six samples followed a similar pattern — a splash of wine and a brief informative spiel about the wine-making process, My cohorts listened attentively. I, on the other hand, slammed back each tiny liquid portion, along with a handful of crackers as a chaser.  At this point, I had not let alcohol pass my lips in nearly eight years. And, I was never much of a drinker anyway. I felt myself getting light-headed. I continued to make smart-ass comments about the wine. Our hostess was cordial, but I could tell that she had just about enough of my stupid jokes and snarky asides. She also seemed a bit irked when we all waved off her attempt to give us a souffle cup of pulled pork as a "nice pairing" with wine number three (or maybe it was four?). I tried to explain that I am a vegetarian and I don't drink, so I wasn't sure what I was doing here in the first place. She managed to turn one corner of her mouth into a half-smile of understanding, but it was a poor attempt. After the tasting, I followed my companions to the door, my gait a little swervy and unsteady. We piled into Juniper's car and headed to winery number two, a newer place called Gauthier Vineyards. Once back on the narrow road out, we passed this scene from, what appeared to be, a holiday version of The Blair Witch Project.
I'm not sure how far Gauthier Vineyards is from Saude Creek Vineyards because the seven wine samples put me in a fog. The last thing I needed right now was seven more samples of wine. We arrived at Gauthier Vineyard and entered the small, plain white building. It looked more like a roadside store than the majestic and welcoming building at Saude Creek. The single room was small and sparsely furnished, with just a few tables and chairs haphazardly placed. We took a spot at the bar and were obligingly greeted by an older man who addressed us as though he had better things to do. Again, we asked for the wine tasting experience (two of us more enthusiastic than the third — I'll let you guess). The man set up three glasses and poured a smattering of wine into each one. It smelled like something you'd find in your medicine cabinet to brush on a skin abrasion before applying a Band-Aid. By sample number three, I was finished. I waved off the next four pours and stuffed my face with crackers until Mrs. P and Juniper were done. The man's explanations of his various wines were short and vague and, a few times, contradictory of the nice woman at Saude Creek. We concluded our session, paid and found an empty table upon which we spread our afternoon snack of fruit, brie, crackers and crudités that we brought with us. The man at the bar was less than thrilled with our monopolizing a table without purchasing a full bottle of wine (the purpose of the tasting). He strolled past our table a few times and shot us a scowl with each pass.

Once I had some solid food in me, the murky feeling in my head subsided. The cheese and broccoli and carrots canceled the taste of the medicinal-tasting wine. We finished up our lunch and dutifully cleaned up after ourselves, the man keeping an eye on our every move and casually inspecting our janitorial efforts. Much to his delight, we left.

Back in the car, Juniper asked if I was up for another tasting at another nearby winery.

I didn't answer.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

give a little bit

Believe it or not, I'm a pretty charitable guy. You'll just have to take my word for it because one of the most sincere and most meaningful forms of charity is anonymous contribution. And that's exactly how I contribute to the worthy causes that I support — organizations dedicated to furthering the greater good. 

On a personal level, I don't mind helping people, but I do have specific criteria. I will not give money to someone begging on the street. Ever. I see them every day on the bustling streets of Philadelphia and I don't trust any of them. I don't believe their sob stories, their tales of woe or whatever you want to call them. There are facilities set up to help these unfortunate individuals so they do not have to resort to sticking their intimidating empty hand in the faces of passers-by. I believe there are always more options to investigate before giving up and panhandling. But, most people (perhaps dictated by human nature) choose to take the easiest and laziest option. Maybe that's how they ended up in this situation to begin with. And, if you do need to beg for money, you better not have a dog by your side or a cigarette in your mouth. If you are so destitute that you need the assistance of your fellow man, you need to give up luxuries (and they are luxuries). My wife and my mother-in-law have employed a method of not just blindly handing over cash to a total stranger. They have, on several occasions, offered to purchase a meal for someone who has asked for money. Sometimes, the offer is accepted and other times further negotiations ensue... and then, the ungrateful recipients are just looking a gift horse in the mouth, thus (in my opinionated opinion) revealing their true level of poverty.

A slight level up from the poor folks huddled in a tattered jacket with hands extended in silent need, are those who have taken advantage of the recent GoFundMe preference. GoFundMe, established in 2010, is an internet fundraising website, allowing users to create a "campaign" to raise money (usually with a goal) for a specific purpose. Independent bands use it to self-finance a record, offering perks and rewards to supporters at different levels of contribution. Organizations have kicked off efforts to send an athlete to the Olympics. Individuals have hoped to raise funds for victims of floods, fires and other life-changing disasters. Community groups or extended families pushed for money to save the elderly from home foreclosure. All worthy causes, I suppose, but there's always someone who comes along and ruins a good thing. Someone whose laziness and selfishness skews their self-awareness so much, they see themselves as a poor victim.

GoFundMe has become the internet spot for panhandling. An acquaintance, who has been out of work for a few years, was hung out to dry by a stream of veterinarian's bills from on-going procedures for her aged dog. Now, let's analyze that for a second. She's been out of work for years and can barely pay her month's financial obligations. Her dog is old. (I won't even go into the fact that she shouldn't have a pet if she can't support herself.) The vet bills were crippling financially. So instead of A.) looking for a job or B.) eliminating all of the unnecessary spending in her life, she chose the GoFundMe route as her first option. I know a young lady who wanted to take an educational trip overseas. Her family is in no position to pay for said trip. Instead of making an attempt - any attempt - to raise money on her own (baby-sitting; dog walking; car-washing) she chose instead to start a GoFundMe page and then plopped her ass down on the sofa to fool around with Snapchat while the dough rolled in (it didn't). I've seen GoFundMe pages for honeymoons, baby showers and birthday parties. All set up by the people who would reap its benefits.

Most recently, a campaign was started to purchase a failing local farmer's market that, at one time, housed my in-law's business. They closed their place ten years ago and we expected to see the place shutter for good soon after. It limped along for nearly a decade, but now, it's up for sale by the off-site, out-of-touch owner for seven million dollars. A starry-eyed market patron, with no clue how a business operates, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money. His pitch, while fraught with spelling errors, was an erratic and non-nonsensical plea that veered into berating territory. Upon a second read, it was actually a pretty compelling testimony for why the market should close. My wife composed a rather lengthy inquiry email to the guy asking if he had considered the cost of regular maintenance to the building, in addition to pay for the staff and other expenses like paving the parking lot and taxes and insurance. However, she decided that her comments would be wasted on someone who was not aware of what is involved in running a business, so she did not send the email. To date, the guy hasn't raised a cent.

I'd like to think that GoFundMe was not established for those folks who think that their problems are the world's problems. These are the people who emphasize the "me" in GoFundMe.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

hesitation blues

Right around the week of Christmas, I accompanied my wife on her regular late-day run to the post office. I had a day off from work (one of those "use-it-or-lose-it" days that all seem to clump together at the end of the calendar year) and I was getting a little bored with watching reruns of  Match Game from 1974. Most everyone on the panel — Tom Bosley, Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, Richard Dawson — was dead and I had had it with their lame and dated double entendres about Dumb Dora. I was looking for a good excuse to get out of the house. So, when Mrs. P offered to pick me up on the way to drop off a load of pre-Christmas shipments from her eBay store, I jumped at the chance.

We found a parking spot at the post office and I helped my wife carry the shipments, now stuffed awkwardly into large tote bags, inside. Since they were all pre-paid, thanks to eBay's print-at-home system, we merely dropped the bags off at the front counter, sidestepping the queue line, and waited for a postal clerk to collect, empty and return our bags. I, however, needed stamps, so I got into line. Mrs. P. went off to choose a greeting card from the small Hallmark concession relegated to a lonely corner of the post office service area.

A man, several customers behind me, was trying unsuccessfully to get Mrs. P's attention. "Susan, right?," he loudly questioned. Mrs. Pincus looked up and tried to identify the man, while attempting to conceal a puzzled expression. Instead, he identified himself. He was the father of a boy that was a student in my wife's class when she taught pre-school nearly a lifetime ago. The fact that he was able to recognize her after all these years (and it is many years), is a testament to her youthfulness. I still maintain that my wife looks exactly as she did the day I met her. I, on the other hand, have aged considerably and not with any particular grace. 

Mrs. P politely asked how he is and how his children are. And this guy launched into a deeply personal ramble about ill-feelings among members of his family. About how there was resentment and animosity between his sons' spouses and their mother (this man's wife). He elaborated on scenarios that should have remained within the private lives of only those members of his immediate family and those personally affected... not a bunch of people waiting to buy stamps and pick up registered letters.

When we finished at the counter, the man met us at the exit door, stepping aside so as to continue his uncomfortable conversation. As he finished up his convoluted personal tale, he half-heartedly asked if we have children. My wife proudly offered information about our son, a DJ on a local public radio station. The man, whose head sported a knit cap embellished with an embroidered "Hot Tuna" patch, interrupted Mrs. P's sentence to begin a new rambling about The Grateful Dead. Using my son's radio station as a segue, he reminisced about a decades-gone-by broadcast allegedly featuring the Dead playing songs for a dollar-a-minute as a station fundraiser. My wife and I covertly exchanged glances, silently acknowledging that this story was complete fabrication. Still going off on a tangent, he expounded on the various Hot Tuna shows he has seen over the years, emphasizing his close relationship with founding band members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. He went into excruciatingly minute detail about going backstage and delivering a camera and talking to Jorma's wife. He paused several times to confirm that we were indeed familiar with Hot Tuna, their origins as an offshoot of Jefferson Airplane, their contributions to the world of meandering hippie-space rock and Jorma Kaukonen himself. His story was endless and disjointed and pointless. He held us, though, positioning himself so as to block our access to the door. He needed to finish this saga and, as far as his captive audience was concerned, we needed to hear it to the end! His description rattled on aimlessly for what seemed like another twenty minutes until Mrs. P glanced at her non-existent wristwatch and announced, "Sorry to cut you off, but we have an appointment to get to." He halted midway through a sentence about Native American jewelry (I don't know how that subject breached this one-sided conversation). We smiled and quickly said our goodbyes, inching towards the door.

We scurried to our car, hoping to outrun our loquacious captor. Behind us, though, we still heard him saying something about some long-closed venue and some long-ago performed concert. Mrs. P gunned the engine and we made our getaway.

I often wonder who listens to radio stations with a "classic rock" format. You know, the ones that repeat the same fifteen songs from the middle 1970s. Hang around the post office at closing time. You'll find out.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

fame, fame, fame, fame...what's your name?

2016 was a rough year for celebrities. Or was it?

I have been tracking celebrity deaths for years. It all started back in 1981, when my brother's roommate at the time burst in to their apartment with the utterly hilarious statement: "The password is 'dead'." Of course, he was reporting the death of noted game-show figure and long-time host of the show Password, Allen Ludden. From there, I took my cue and, considering my slightly skewed sense of humor, there was no turning back.

I attended a small but respected art school in the early 80s. Every morning, before classes began, I would peruse the newspaper with several of my classmates. One morning, in 1983, while we sipped our coffee and pored over the printed accounts of events from the previous day, I stumbled across an obituary for Junior Samples, the hefty, overall-clad bumpkin comedian, famous for his slow delivery and dimwitted demeanor on the syndicated country music variety show Hee Haw. Samples. a former race car driver, carpenter and radio comic was a fixture on the show for fourteen seasons, bumbling his way through flubbed lines and corny jokes. When he died, my demented friends and I tacked his death notice on a school bulletin board, along with the caption: "The world has lost a great man... a great BIG man" alluding to his considerable girth. The joke, while it amused a small contingency of my colleagues, was met with a less than favorable reaction from the rest of the students and faculty. They also didn't care much for our sacrilegious treatment of the passing of singer Ethel Merman almost a year later. (That story is a classic in bad taste. See for yourself HERE.)

After I finished art school and entered the workforce, I encountered a few co-workers who, curiously, shared my absurd view on celebrity deaths. We created a sort-of informal contest to see who could report on the death of a celebrity before anyone else. As the years went on, and the internet and social media entered the equation, I gained a reputation as The Grim Reaper of sorts. Through a network of sources, I have made tracking celebrity deaths an on-going hobby, joining my other macabre pastime of visiting cemeteries. I have compiled an annual "Death Pool" in the final week of every year since 2009, listing a dozen or so celebrities who I think will meet their maker in the new year. I hang on to every minute of every news report wrap-up and award show's "In Memoriam" segment, paying close attention to those who are included and those who are unjustly snubbed. I regularly note celebrity passings on Twitter and Facebook, even becoming a confirming source for other celebrity death watchers (and, oh, there are others).

Which brings us to 2016 and the bad rap it's taken as the most unforgiving year for celebrity deaths. This malevolent notoriety is undeserved, as society's — and even my own — definition of "celebrity" has evolved over the years. "Celebrity" used to apply to movie stars, athletes, politicians, singers and regulars on television shows. Now, anyone with access to a computer and a YouTube channel is a "celebrity." People who were voted off the show on Week One of Survivor or The Bachelorette are considered "celebrities." I, myself, am guilty of foisting "celebrity" status on such folks as the guy who invented the plastic Red Solo cup and the woman who was featured in television commercials for Prince Spaghetti. Of course, my motives are strictly tongue-in-cheek. However, more people have heard of them than have heard of me, so, based on that alone, they are a celebrity at some level.

Also, consider my age. I was born in 1961. I am of a generation that bridges two generations that are significant in the roles they play in pop culture. My generation is a transitional generation. It comes at the tail end of the so-called "Golden Age of Hollywood," as well as the heyday of television hitting its creative stride. Some of the top names that graced the "silver screen" in huge Hollywood productions were now in the twilight of their careers and taking roles in television series in an obvious "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" career move. Screen sirens like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell were now reduced to roles in weekly dramas with skimpy production values. I would see people from my parents generation pop up on The Tonight Show and I'd have to ask my mom to explain their claim to fame. There are but a handful of stars from that long-gone era who are still with us. Doris Day, who will disputably turn 94 in 2017, Jerry Lewis, who will turn 91 early next year. and Olivia de Havilland, who will pass the century mark next summer, come to mind. When their ultimate time comes, will it matter to anyone under the age of 50? Will anyone from my son's generation even know who they were?

On the other end of the "fame" spectrum, I saw The Beatles transition into the Jackson 5 into New Kids on the Block into Britney Spears into Miley Cyrus. Is Katy Perry's impact on music the same as, say Frank Sinatra's? I would say "no," but someone thirty-five years my junior, with no clue who Sinatra was, would be quick to argue. Will the eventual loss of Lady Gaga elicit the same level of sorrow as the death of Ray Charles or George Harrison? Perhaps not to members of my generation, but how about two and three generations after mine? "Celebrity" and "fame" are relative terms and they have different applications to different generations. I don't think that Ringo Starr's passing will have the same worldwide impact as Paul McCartney's. And I don't know how the passing of Justin Bieber will rate. Not that I am wishing for any of those... well, not actively, anyway. There is also a whole crop of actors and actress and athletes that I don't know. Names from Netflix shows and internet series and a slew of obscure reality shows that I don't watch. There are men and women from sports that I don't follow, not to mention singers whose music I have never heard. But, some fan of theirs, somewhere, years from now, will be upset when they die.

Good riddance.
Sure, some pretty big names died in 2016, but if you look at each one individually, they aren't really that jarring. David Bowie was 69, and while it was definitely a shock, he was sick (although he hid it from the public). Plus, he was a drug user and cigarette smoker for a good portion of his life. Prince, at 57, was discovered to have had a long addiction to opioids. Merle Haggard undoubtedly, led a hard life. William Schallert, George Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and John Glenn were all in their 90s and, whether or not we care to face reality, old people die. Then, there were accidents, like the one that claimed the life of actor Anton Yelchin. Consider all of these situations coupled with the ever-widening label of "celebrity." So, while these deaths were indeed sad, they were not circumstantially extraordinary, 

Unfortunately, I can predict with a fair amount of certainty, more "celebrities" will die in 2017.