Sunday, December 30, 2018

where to now, st. peter?

It was inevitable. I'm just surprised it took this long.

On Wednesday evening, December 19, members of the Elkins Park community gathered with members of the board of the Creekside Co-op and voted to close the struggling business at the end of the day on Saturday, December 22 — three days before Christmas and six years after it first opened its doors. Everyone in attendance was sad. After all, this was the death knell for a community experiment that many looked upon with great hope. However, as I had mentioned in a previous blog post (from three years ago), it was destined to fail from Day One.

Please! Don't misunderstand me! Despite my negative attitude towards the co-op, I really wanted it to succeed. I did. But, it couldn't. It was run by a group of folks whose heart was in the right place. Until, of course, that heart shifted to be come a chip on its shoulder.

The co-op floundered because it couldn't quite decide what it wanted to be. Did it want to be a gourmet market? A community gathering spot? A convenience store? It wasn't sure. I do know what it wasn't. It wasn't a co-op. Sure, you could become a member, but, unlike a true co-op, no one was required to put in a certain amount of work time. Membership fees entitled members to the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are supporting a business that is poorly run. Oh, and once a month, you could choose a day to receive 5% off of your shopping order. Aside from those meager "benefits," the co-op offered nothing of substance to members. The place was chock full of salaried employees who didn't necessarily live in the community, something that sort of defeated the purpose of the co-op's mission. Plus, and perhaps even more astounding, at the conclusion of the meeting that decided the co-op's demise, a collection was established to help meet the final week's payroll for the co-op's forty-five employees. Forty-five! That place should have run comfortably and effortlessly with less than half of that staff. I feel bad that folks were losing their jobs in the thick of the holiday season, but, if the co-op management had been more realistic, their final decision would have affected far fewer people.

But that was the problem with the co-op. The whole deal wasn't fully thought out. Before they sold their first jar of sun-dried tomatoes or smashed their first avocado, the co-op board purchased the building, instead of renting. Once the doors finally opened (after a lengthy, delay-filled three years), the co-op chose to stock some of the same products one could pick up for less money at one of the three supermarkets within close competitive distance. They opened for the business day well after the foot traffic had passed their locked front doors on their way to the train station, thereby losing potential "grab and go" breakfast business, as well as missing the boat on commuters picking up something to take to work for lunch.

In the six years of the co-op's existence, I never received a flyer, a coupon, a sample, or any sort of enticement letting me know that they were open for business. Twice, I remember stepping off the train after my evening commute and spotting a young lady in a co-op apron offering a tray of tiny tidbits to my fellow riders. After two consecutive days, she was never seen again. On the handful of times I reluctantly breached the co-op's doors to pick up a small container of milk to tide me over until I could make it to an actual supermarket, I was never asked if I was interested in becoming member and never told how beneficial a membership would be.

I never found the co-op welcoming. I never found the employees friendly. I always felt like I was an outsider at a party where I was not on the guest list. Well, now that the party's over, visitors to the co-op's Facebook page are already speculating on what's going to move into the vacant space. While they are making many wild and totally unrealistic suggestions, a few have proposed that another local co-op — a successful one —  absorb our co-op.

And that, my friends, is why the co-op closed.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

in my midnight confession

I grew up in a Jewish household. To me, that meant we didn’t drag a tree into our living room every December, we didn’t dress up in our finest clothes on a late Sunday in April, and we didn’t believe that Jesus was "Our Savior" — whatever that meant. (Who thought, at four years old, I needed saving?) Despite the majority of my friends and classmates also being Jewish, we weren’t denied participation in Christmas card and gift exchanges at school and dyeing Easter eggs every spring. It also didn’t stop me from enjoying another practice associated with my communion wafer-munching friends — the visit to Santa Claus. 

I have vivid memories of accompanying my Mom to one of several large department stores in the pre-mall days of the 1960s. The store's toy department was jammed with all the latest offerings to fulfill a child’s appetite whetted by Saturday morning commercials and the thick Sears Wish Book. Just past the aisles of colorful playthings was an area gaily decorated with twinkling lights and pine garland and speckled with oversized red velvet bows and piles of fake snow. In the center sat a raised platform covered with more fake snow surrounding a great throne on which sat the seasonal fat man himself. Several holly-decked pylons connected by candy-striped rope designated a queue line. Excited children chatted and fidgeted as they waited their turn to greet St. Nick and impart their requests for gifts. 

My mom directed me to join the line while she made arrangements with the "elves" operating the huge tripod-supported camera for a photographic record of my encounter with Santa. (Although I’m sure he did, I don’t recall my older brother joining us for these yearly excursions. Obviously, he got wise to this scam at an earlier age than I did.) I patiently waited for my chance to tell Santa what I wanted. I knew that we didn’t celebrate Christmas, didn’t have a Christmas tree and especially didn’t have a chimney or fireplace, but I never made the connection. All I knew was: if you wanted presents, this was the guy to ask. A smiling little girl in white tights and a plaid coat climbed down from Santa’s lap and happily skipped away. A college-age young lady in full elf uniform waved me in. My moment in the spotlight had arrived. My mom stood by the platform's exit ramp and beamed. I’d fix that in a few minutes. 

The kind-faced Santa looked down at me perched on his red-flocked lap and asked if I had been good this year. My four-year old mind assessed the question. As if any four-year old would fess up, I answered that I not only had I been good, I’d been very good. Then, he asked the most important question, the one I was preparing for. 

"What would you like for Christmas?," he smiled. I wrinkled my brow and bent my tiny mouth into a frown at the "Christmas" reference. But then, I raised my head proudly, cleared my little throat and replied. 

"My very own roll of Scotch tape." 

Santa stared, perplexed. "What?" he asked in a puzzled tone. 

”I want my very own roll of Scotch tape.,” I repeated. (Okay, I thought, the guy's old. Maybe he didn’t catch me on the first go-round.) Santa looked over my shoulder at my mother. My mother frantically looked around for a place to hide. She glanced back at Santa with a "that-is-not-my-kid-on-your-lap" look on her face. Santa looked at me again and saw the I-am-not-shittin’-around look on my face. With disbelief, he stammered as he echoed my request. 

"A roll of Scotch tape?" 

 I confirmed. 

"Nothing else?," he asked, somewhat hopeful. 

I stared back at Santa with my own disbelief. "Nope.," I said. Why on earth would I want anything else, I thought. I’m talking Scotch-fucking-tape, my chubby friend! Do you have any idea how much fun I could have with my very own roll of Scotch tape? 

The bewildered Santa smiled, nodded, handed me a candy cane and sent me on my way. I joined my mom who was busily trying to hide her embarrassment from the other mothers."Did you just ask Santa for a roll of Scotch tape?," she asked. "Yep. Of my very own." 

Mission accomplished. My mom and I continued walking through the store.
I'm dreaming of an adhesive Christmas.
This story originally appeared in a slightly different form on my illustration blog in December 2010.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

looking here and there, looking everywhere

Every year, for the past thirty-three, my wife and I have hosted a dessert party the evening before Thanksgiving. The gathering is warm and friendly and the guest list has evolved considerably over those three-plus decades. The only people who have been in attendance at every one are Mrs. Pincus and yours truly. 

In preparation for the annual event, Mrs. Pincus bakes everything that is served to our guests. Everything. By herself. Occasionally, I have been asked to retrieve a canister of flour from a high cabinet or to run down to the basement freezer for another bag of chocolate chips. Otherwise, I am a spectator in the kitchen. Mrs. Pincus is like a fine artist and a warm oven, a Kitchen-Aid mixer and a counter full of ingredients make up her palette. She spends an entire day (and sometimes a few hours the morning of the party) whipping up a vast array of the most tempting baked goods this side of Sara Lee.

Among the pies and tarts and brownies (two kinds), Mrs. Pincus will include her old stand-by and perennial favorite – gingerbread men. Except Mrs. P makes 'em in the shape of bears instead of humans. However, she doesn't use a cookie cutter. She uses a cardboard template that actually predates our holiday parties by a few years. Mrs. P rolls out the homemade dough, lays the thin cardboard bear on top and, with the point of a sharp paring knife, follows the perimeter of the guide until she meets the point at which she started. She removes the stencil and places the bear-shaped dough on a cookie sheet alongside his previously-cut dough pals. (This year, I got to decorate the pre-baked treats with chocolate chip eyes, noses and buttons.) Then, they get popped into the oven for a secret amount of time and come out as deliciously-whimsical tawny cookies.

In the down time, while several pies are in the oven, Mrs. Pincus and I adorn our house in a overlay of Thanksgiving embellishment. We have a big plastic bin filled with earth-toned table runners and mantle scarves and little themed knick-knacks depicting pilgrims and Native Americans. There are twinkly light sets and rustic plaques and every year we place them in the same spots around the first floor of our home. At the risk of tooting my own horn (of plenty), our house looks very attractive and inviting in late autumn, especially when enhanced by our collection of holiday tsochkies. A house full of people have let us know how much they enjoy this yearly soiree – at least that's what we think they have told us. It's hard to understand some folk when their mouths are stuffed with two kinds of homemade pumpkin pie.

After the last guest has left, we begin the tedious task of cleaning up. We have thankfully received help from some friends who hang around later, but the wrapping of breakables and gathering of the tiny novelties is reserved for Thanksgiving morning, when Mrs. Pincus and I have the house to ourselves. This year, I picked each and every little figurine from the fireplace mantle, along with fistfuls of felt oak leaves and stashed them in the dedicated bin with the coiled light sets and die-cut place mats. At the end of my collecting, I had a wad of tissue and an empty box lacking one Hallmark Donald Duck dressed in a black frock and a silver-buckled Puritan hat. I looked every where... and I mean everywhere.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, Mrs. Pincus was rifling through her recipe box for her trusty bear template. And it was nowhere to be found. She scoured the shelf in our kitchen coat closet where the recipe box resides when its not being employed to dispense the secrets of pecan pie or Bubbie Elka's pinwheel cookies. Mrs. P frowned – not unlike the missing bear's expression – and said, with a great deal of disappointment "Someone stole my bear!"

"Oh, come on," I reassured, "who would want to take that?"

Realizing that she was accusing one of her guests of the theft of something they probably didn't know existed, Mrs. Pincus continued her futile search. After too long, we abandoned the hunt. In the days and weeks following Thanksgiving, however, my wife still casually opened drawers and looked behind things that she had looked behind a million times. Nothing. No bear.

November turned into December and the weather has become increasingly colder. This morning, I decided to finally forsake my denim jacket-and-hoodie ensemble in favor of my heavy pea coat and knit gloves. I opened the coat closet in the kitchen and began scanning the various specimens of outerwear stored within. I passed a few coats I still wonder why I am hanging on to until I came across the navy blue woolen ulster that I hadn't seen in nearly a year. I put the coat on and closed the closet door.

It wouldn't close snugly.

I opened the door again and assessed how I had disrupted the arrangement of hangers. I adjusted  and readjusted them and tried the door again. It still wouldn't close correctly. A little more rearranging was necessary and maybe I had to kick my winter boots to the rear of the closet floor. I looked down at the errant boots. Suddenly, against the side wall of the closet interior, I spotted the AWOL bear, its forlorn face staring at me in silent relief. I crouched down and picked the bear off the closet wall. I placed it on the kitchen counter where Mrs. Pincus would surely see it later when she came downstairs.

Now that one mystery in the Pincus house is solved, I will move on to the next one.

If you were at my house the night before Thanksgiving this year... and you took my Donald Duck, please bring it with you next year. No questions asked. There may even be some pie in it for you.

Or a gingerbread bear.

My annual Christmas music compilation is available as a FREE DOWNLOAD at for a limited time. 

 This year, it’s a whopping 82 minutes of pure Christmas wonderment that'll have you wondering why you downloaded it in the first place. But, as long as you did, why not share it with your family and friends. It's guaranteed to make sure they don't overstay their welcome. 

 You get twenty-eight eclectic Christmas selections featuring a mix of obscure artists giving up on their dreams of stardom and popular artists committing career suicide. These holiday tunes run the gamut from weird to really weird plus a custom full-color cover with track listings – all for you and all for FREE!
(That’s right! FREE!)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

and all that it's supposed to be

Back in the summer, I won free tickets to a couple of shows in the area by spinning a big carnival wheel that was set up by a concert promoter at the Xponetial Music Festival (presented by Subaru). In September, Mrs. Pincus and I used our first set of free tickets to see 60s holdover Arlo Guthrie at the venerable Keswick Theater in the nearby hamlet of Glenside, where he delivered a surprisingly entertaining performance. He and his band did all the songs you'd expect Arlo Guthrie to do ("City of New Orleans," "Mr. Customs Man," that pickle-motorcycle song and a sprawling recitation of "Alice's Restaurant," complete with video accompaniment) and turned in a pretty good show. And, of course, it was free, so... no complaints.

Last night, Mrs. P and I went back to the Keswick, to see Rufus Wainwright on the 20th Anniversary tour of his first two albums. I can name two songs by Rufus Wainwright (maybe three, if you count covers) and I own none of his albums. I didn't even know that his debut was released twenty years ago. But, I don't dislike him. I just wouldn't call myself a "fan." And free tickets are free tickets, so...

First, let me offer a bit of a confession. Two days before the Rufus Wainwright show, I went to see guitarist JD McPherson bring his holiday show to the somewhat grungy Underground Arts in North Philadelphia, a venue that is more "underground" than "arts." JD and his band are touring in support of his stellar new release, a rocking Christmas album that would stand as a great record on its own, even without the sardonic Christmas references. I have seen JD McPherson several times before and at the conclusion of each show, I still can't figure out why this guy isn't a huge star.

So, in the satisfying afterglow of Wednesday night's concert, my wife and I filed through the metal detectors at the Keswick and were guided to our seats by one of the attentive ushers, all of whom would look more at home behind the counter of a Woolworth's in 1940. The Keswick opened its doors on Christmas Day 1928 and a lot of the staff appears to have been present as witnesses to that big event. The theater is currently undergoing a tediously-slow renovation, so the plain plastered walls and bare-bones stage are a bit of a stark distraction. I'm sure the place will be beautiful thirty years from now when the improvements are completed.

My wife and I were in the definite minority, as the crowd showed great enthusiasm for Rachel Eckroth, the opening act. Rachel, a member of Wainwright's band, served up a group of atmospheric tunes played on an array of synthesizers. The voice distortions and otherworldly noises emanating from her musical instruments likened her performance to a kid who just got a Casio keyboard on Christmas morning and was learning all the cool stuff it could do. Plus her songs were boring.

This picture is not blurry.
You're falling asleep.
After a short break, Rufus Wainwright and his band took the stage and busted out "April Fools," the opening track from his self-titled 1998 release – and one of the two songs I knew coming in. Well, I thought, this may not be too bad. I have been to many, many concerts where I was not at all familiar with the artist's catalog and still had a great time. (A September 2017 show by Austin indie rockers A Giant Dog comes to mind.) Rufus soon departed into the sleep-inducing mire of a slew of draggy, wordy, mid-tempo songs, all delivered in the slurred vocal styling that has become his signature. I found myself dozing, only to be awakened sporadically by the thunderous applause of the local Rufus Wainwright fan base – people who probably paid for their tickets – showing their approval.

Rufus's stage banter wasn't exactly riveting either, as he first acknowledged two young boys sitting stage-side and related an incoherent anecdote about taking his own daughter to concerts. Then, he stammered out a story about touring with his mother (the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle) with a very loose reference to being in Pennsylvania and the pay-off being an insult to fans of folk music.

The band returned to the stage after a brief intermission. They enthusiastically launched into "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," the other Rufus Wainwright song I knew. Then, Set Two took the same path we saw in Set One. It sunk back into that familiar dirge-y ebb, each line of each song dispatched at the oozing pace of an overturned jar of molasses. Mrs. Pincus and I exchanged silent, eyebrow-raised glances in the darkened theater. At the conclusion of the next song, we quickly gathered our coats and made a break for the exit under the camouflage of a standing ovation.

In my forty-plus years of going to concerts, I can say, with some level of confidence, that this was the single most boring show I have ever attended. Not a complaint, mind you, because the tickets were free.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

hey joe

I would categorize myself as a "casual Three Stooges" fan. I don't hate the Three Stooges, like a lot of people. I actually like the Three Stooges. I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to study the TV listings to find when the next showing of a Three Stooges short would be, but, If I came across a Three Stooges short while scanning the channels, and I knew there wasn't anything else on (like The Andy Griffith Show)... I'd watch it. However, I don't quote the Three Stooges. I don't argue about how funny they were. I don't call anyone "Porcupine" or say "Soitenly!," but I've enjoyed the Three Stooges in my day.

You know what I don't like about the Three Stooges, though? Joe Besser. I can't stand Joe Besser! 

After joining his brother Moe and friend Larry Fine for a second stint with the famed comedy trio, Shemp Howard died unexpectedly in a taxi cab on his way home from attending a boxing match. Although the Three Stooges were now into their third decade of slapstick merriment, the boys were not ready to hang up their monkey wrenches. According to the contract he signed with Columbia Pictures, Moe had approval of any new addition to the group. Actually, he pitched the idea of just he and Larry continuing as "The Two Stooges," but Columbia executives had other ideas. They recruited studio contract player Joe Besser to round out the threesome. Besser was already an established comedic actor, with roles in feature films, as well as part of an ensemble of actors on The Jack Benny Program and The Abbott and Costello Show on the radio. As the newest Stooge, Besser made the decision to refrain from imitating Shemp or the beloved fan-favorite Curly. Instead he relied on his established character of the high-strung, easily-irritated, tantrum-throwing whiner that had proved popular throughout his career. Besser also had it written into his contract that he would accept limited physical abuse from the other Stooges. Since "cartoon violence" was a staple of the Three Stooges repertoire, Larry Fine graciously offered to take the brunt of Moe's wrath. Besser's tenure with the troupe lasted two years. 

After his departure from the Three Stooges, Joe Besser tended to his ailing wife, but soon joined the cast of The Joey Bishop Show, a sitcom that ran on NBC. Besser played Joey's inept and excitable superintendent for four seasons, a role that, by no means, expanded on his minimal talent. Besser moved on to guest roles in many sitcoms and eventually lent his distinctive voice to animated cartoons. He passed away in 1988 at the age of 80.

I never understood Joe Besser's appeal. His character was more annoying than funny. Okay, maybe someone thought he was funny, but that type of negative character didn't have a long-term, endearing quality of — say — mischievous Harpo Marx or childlike Lou Costello. Joe Besser was brash and disruptive and... not funny. 

Before both members of the "Joe Besser Fan Club" launch an all-out attack on me, I cite "Stooge-a-Polooza" TV host Rich Koz (otherwise known as horror-move host "Svengoolie"). Koz often apologized on the air before showing Three Stooges shorts featuring Joe Besser. During the show's tenure, Koz received more than a few letters from viewers expressing their outrage over his airing them.

Find me one person — even a rabid Three Stooges fan — who likes Joe Besser. You can't! And if someone claims they actually enjoy Joe Besser's work — well, they're just craaaa-zy!

My annual Christmas music compilation is available as a FREE DOWNLOAD at for a limited time. 

 This year, it’s a whopping 82 minutes of pure Christmas wonderment that'll have you wondering why you downloaded it in the first place. But, as long as you did, why not share it with your family and friends. It's guaranteed to make sure they don't overstay their welcome. 

 You get twenty-eight eclectic Christmas selections featuring a mix of obscure artists giving up on their dreams of stardom and popular artists committing career suicide. These holiday tunes run the gamut from weird to really weird plus a custom full-color cover with track listings – all for you and all for FREE!
(That’s right! FREE!)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

the next voice you hear

At the end of the summer, my wife's trusty Toyota 4Runner finally gave out. After sixteen years of reliable, nearly maintenance-free service, it just couldn't proceed anymore. With over 160 thousand miles tallied on its odometer, accumulated on countless journeys, it was the final few miles of a return trip from Slaughter Beach, Delaware that finally did the dependable vehicle in. The non-specific "check engine" light glowed ominously until our mechanic revealed the old workhorse was in need of a new transmission, a costly repair for a car that was pushing two decades on the road. Totally taken off-guard, we made the reluctant decision to purchase a new car. 

Jane! Stop this crazy thing!
On Labor Day, we drove over to our local Toyota dealer, the same one where we purchased our last three cars, including my 2004 RAV4 that sat almost dormant for the 12 years I took the train to work. Once in the showroom, we were approached by the same salesman that sold us our Previa minivan when our 31-year old son was a toddler. The salesman, in typical salesman fashion, told us he remembered us. (He did not.) My wife had done some online research prior to our arrival and reserved a 2018 RAV4 (in red) for herself. Our salesman led us out to the lot and we all climbed inside this shiny-new, pumped-up version of my car – fourteen years newer and chock full of technological enhancements that weren't even considered when my car was easing its way down the assembly line. There was a back-up camera and blind-spot indicators and beeps and dings and other assorted noise that alerted the driver to critical circumambient happenings, as though it was the command center on a NASA rocket launch.

We made our purchase, signed and initialed a bunch of papers and soon, Mrs. P was presented with a giant plastic key fob emblazoned with the Toyota logo. It was explained that the car did not require a key to start the engine. The dashboard sported a lighted button that fired up the engine when pushed, as long as the driver had the fob somewhere on his or her person. My wife joked that she went from driving the Flintsone's car to driving the Jetson's car.

The most important update on the hulking dashboard, of course, was the sophisticated sound system. This computer-operated, digital-displayed system integrated Bluetooth technology, HD radio and the Sirius XM satellite subscription radio. With 30 optional pre-set stations and a large screen displaying a wide variety of information, this system was, at first, overwhelming to those of us who considered an in-dash cassette deck to be hot stuff. Although it wasn't officially presented to us, we found out that with our purchase, we received a free, three-month, trial subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio. Sure, it was cool, but we really only listen to one terrestrial radio station in the Philadelphia area – the one that, bias aside, employs our son. However, free is free, so we gave it a cautious shot. First we discovered a channel that plays only big band and swing classics from the 1940s. My wife and I are huge fans of the music of that era. A little more scouting around unveiled a channel that played only Beatles tunes. Then one that plays early New Wave songs from the early 80s. Then a Billy Joel only channel, hosted by the Piano Man himself. Then, Mrs. Pincus stumbled upon the Grateful Dead channel and it was as though the red carpet to the Pearly Gates were just rolled out for her. A scenario that included twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week of Jerry Garcia and his psychedelic pals was the clincher. Mrs. P was officially spoiled.

After enjoying weeks and weeks of Sirius XM, the pending end of the trial period loomed large. The regular price of continuing the service was outrageous, as was affirmed by a number of emails reminding us of the termination of the free subscription. However, the longer we waited to make a decision, the sweeter the deals became. First, Sirius started dropping the price a little bit with each email. Then, the length of time of the proposed subscription was extended. Then, a combination of lower price and longer time period. Sirius didn't want us to leave, so they finally took a page from the Don Corleone playbook and made us an offer we couldn't refuse. My wife opened an email that enticingly put the price at fifty bucks for six more months and they'd throw in a free Amazon Echo Dot, something with which were were only vaguely familiar and were pretty sure we didn't need. But, we took the offer and we took the free Echo Dot and within two days I found myself setting up this little lighted hockey puck that plugged into the wall.

Talk to me.
Two years ago, we made a major leap into the world of advanced entertainment technology. We bought – not one – but two high-definition flat-screen televisions and signed up for the magical X1 service from Xfinity Cable. The new system came with a sleek black remote control that would respond to voice prompts. I felt kind of stupid talking to a piece of plastic, especially if I was asking to see the latest episode of Sam and Cat. I use the feature infrequently, as there are many other options to make the television do the exact same thing. Honestly, I feel more comfortable pressing a series of buttons than telling the remote what I want to watch... especially when I am by myself. Now, we have a new gadget in the house that is operated by voice commands. Granted, it was essentially free, but we still felt obligated to use it. (Actually, Mrs. P wanted to sell it on eBay, but I thought it would be cool and convinced her to keep it.)

The future is now.
Following the brief, simple set-up, our new Amazon Echo Dot was ready to heed our every command. According to write-ups and explanations about the Echo Dot's capabilities, it could control our television, control our house lights, operate and set our burglar alarm, lock our doors, adjust the heat, see who is knocking at our front door, answer our phone and a plethora of other time-saving duties. But, none of those things in our house are compatible with or equipped for the state-of-the-art technology of the Echo Dot. Instead, we are limited in its potential. Disappointed that our home was not immediately transformed into the Monsanto House of the Future (on display in Disneyland from the late 50s until the late 60s), we were relegated to having the Amazon Echo Dot perform a few amusing tricks. At this point, it was a novelty, like a little trained seal that can do a bit more that balance a beach ball on its nose. Activated by starting each command with "Alexa" (the so-called "wake word"), we get a daily report on the news, the weather, what are our choices for the evening's television viewing and other basic information. We have asked "Alexa" various trivia questions like who played a particular character in a movie or in what year did a certain event occur – questions that could easily have been answered by a few taps on our omnipresent cellphones. We have installed several "skills" (Echo's version of "apps") that allow "Alexa" to tell us daily celebrity birth and death anniversaries. We can also have "Alexa" provide musical entertainment via WXPN (our favorite radio station) or even through our new Sirius subscription. We discovered that "Alexa" can tell jokes, sing songs and recite poems all in her pleasant, weirdly-inflectioned, otherworldly female timbre – somewhat unnervingly reminiscent of HAL 9000.

"Alexa, hi."
To be honest, we are enjoying our time with "Alexa." For the first week, my wife was determined to change "Alexa"'s name to "Janet," after the adorable and obedient android on the quirky TV series The Good Place, to no avail. (The device is pre-programmed to respond to either "Alexa," "Computer" or "Echo" exclusively.)

Resigned to the fact that a name change is impossible, Mrs. Pincus is now focused on trying to get "Alexa" to say "fuck."

Sunday, November 18, 2018

it's beginning to look a lot like christmas

Here it is, the week of Thanksgiving and The Hallmark Channel is deep in the throes of its annual Christmas celebration. 

In 2001, greeting card giant Hallmark decided to enter the cable television business. The fledgling network continuously gained viewers with its decidedly "family-oriented" programming. As of 2015, Hallmark Channel reaches approximately 73% of homes that own at least one television. Their programs are definitely skewed to lure viewers away from the Lifetime and the OWN Network (mighty media mogul Oprah Winfrey's foray into cable television).

In 2010, Hallmark produced a series of six original Christmas-themed movies and broadcast them, appropriately, around the weeks leading up to the late December holiday. More recently, their output of Christmas movies has increased exponentially each year with 2018 offering nearly two dozen made-for-Hallmark movies. In addition, they show all of the movies from past years – all day, everyday – kicking off their "Countdown to Christmas" promotion long before anyone in their right mind actually begins counting down to Christmas. It seems to start just as most people are tossing their last empty bottle of sunscreen into the recycling bin.

While I haven't seen a single one of these films in its entirety, Mrs. Pincus has. Every. Single. One. I have seen a few minutes of each one, however, because they are on at least one television in our home, seemingly from the second week of October until well after the New Year. Mrs. P loves 'em. They are, for her, what some folks refer to as "a guilty pleasure." I dislike the term "guilty pleasure" because it implies that you try to hide your affection from friends and family for fear of embarrassment (like my affinity for "The Night Chicago Died"). Mrs. Pincus enjoys these movies as a mindless escape. They are joyful distractions from the everyday grind of dealing with unreasonable eBay customers, people who double-park at the post office and tedious family issues. She does not hide the fact that she likes and watches these movies, just like I don't hide the fact that I still watch reruns of "iCarly." We like what we like.

I have seen bits and pieces of a number of these movies and, honestly, I cannot tell one from another. They are literally cookie-cutter productions that borrow unashamedly from other, more famous, stories. The films are usually set in some charming, soap-opera looking hamlet called "Paradise" or "Hollyland" or "Mistletoe" or some other blatant Christmas-y reference. They star either Jennifer Love Hewitt or Candace Cameron Bure or Lacey Chabert or grown-up Winnie from "The Wonder Years," or some other attractive actress who looks like one of those aforementioned actresses. Oh, and there's the celebrated Brooke D'Orsay, a veteran of numerous Hallmark Christmas movies for several years now. (Don't ask me what else she's been in.) The male co-stars are usually some rugged-looking, pleasingly-scruffy hunk who looks like the second runner-up in a Blake Shelton look-alike contest. The revolving plots usually focus on a disillusioned young woman who returns to her quaint small town to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas after becoming jaded and cynical by life in bustling New York/Chicago/St. Louis/Los Angeles (all shot in some Canadian big city doubling as a United States metropolis). Some of them tell the story of a hapless young woman finding out that she is a distant relative of Santa Claus and must help the venerable holiday figurehead overcome a time of great distress. Others throw together an unlikely couple who, at first dislike each other, but, in two hours time (plus commercials) experience the magic of Christmas and live happily ever after (and after and after in countless annual re-broadcasts). And, of course, there are the bald-faced rip-offs of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and reworkings of Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life." Every so often, one of these movies features a sad appearance by a noted actor whose career hasn't quite taken the path they envisioned. A grizzled Tom Skerritt showed up, playing second fiddle to Candace Cameron Bure. Cantankerous Brian Doyle Murray was Santa Claus in one and Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine appeared with Sex and the City's Kristin Davis in another. 

The Hallmark Channel Christmas movies usually find their way to our bedroom television late at night. For years, my wife and I have always had a television on all night in our bedroom. I've gotten so used to it that, if it goes off (due to a cable or power outage), I wake up from the silence. Now, I am slowly lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of some of the worst dialogue delivered by some of the worst actors I have every heard. But, I have to thank The Hallmark Channel. I have had some of the most restful nights of sleep during the marathon broadcasts of their Christmas movies. And If I ever decide to really investigate the intricate plot twists and turns, Hallmark has graciously published a series of novelizations based on a selection of their movies. 

Happy "Eight More Weeks of Christmas Movies on Hallmark." Sweet dreams.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

boy, you gotta carry that weight

I am fascinated by technology. I remember when we got our first color television, the annual network showing of The Wizard of Oz took on a whole new excitement. When I was in high school, my family got a VCR complete with a hard-wired remote that my father would monopolize, as he fast-forwarded the boring parts of DeathWish 3 to watch Charles Bronson shoot the bad guys over and over again.

In the late 80s, I was totally awed when my boss at the small graphics studio where I worked purchased a fax machine. Oh my God! This was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Way cooler that a Xerox machine. Little did I know, that facsimile technology would be obsolete before too long. Then came computers and modems and flash drives and on and on and on. But just this week, I discovered a piece of technology that is so ingenious that all of those aforementioned things pale in comparison.

I found out long ago.
It's a long way down the holiday roast.
Thirty or so years ago, when Mrs. P and I moved into our house, we purchased a chest freezer. To this day, I'm not sure why it was an immediate purchase for our new abode, but it proved pretty convenient as it sat nestled in a corner of our basement next to the washing machine. We stocked it with all sorts of stuff. We had a few free turkeys obtained by collecting supermarket receipts around Thanksgiving time. We had a big box of fruit-flavored sherbet that came in little fruit-shaped serving dishes. I'm pretty sure we lost interest in eating them after two or three, but at least we had a giant freezer in which they were kept rock solid. We had just purchased a number of difficult-to-find Gardein® vegetarian holiday "roasts" and when I went to put them in our old reliable freezer, I noticed that the bottom was covered with a wall-to-wall sheet of ice about an inch thick. A few frozen chickens that my wife had been storing where imprisoned in the ice, telling me that it had thawed and refrozen a few times. Well, after thirty-plus years, it appeared that our trusty, workhorse freezer — silently and without warning — gave out.

My wife began searching the internet, as it was without question, that we needed a new freezer. We had become spoiled (as spoiled as those thawed chickens) by having an additional fifteen cubic-feet of frozen storage space in our house. She settled on a smaller model and we ventured out to a nearby Best Buy to make our purchase.

Mrs. Pincus spoke with a sales representative (who, curiously, didn't budge from his chair behind a desk), while I opened and closed the doors of several $2600 refrigerators on display, wondering if a $2600 refrigerator keeps food colder that the one we had at home. Mrs. P picked out a freezer, paid and arranged for free delivery for the weekend and we left. The whole transaction took about twenty minutes. We returned home and cleared a path in the basement to make removal of our old freezer easier for the delivery crew. I remember when Freezer Number One was delivered, the delivery guys were exasperated by the steep, narrow steps that lead from our backyard to our basement, with those steps ending at an even narrower doorway.

For reference only
Well, Saturday rolled around and, at the appointed time, a truck pulled up in front of our house. Two guys (one who looked like veteran character actor Hector Elizondo and a younger fellow who looked like my friend Steve's son Peter) bounded out. Hector came up to our front door clutching a clipboard. We instructed him that the only access would be through the outside basement door. He walked around back and I went downstairs to meet him at the basement door. He assessed the layout, smiled, nodded and went to fetch his partner. The first task would be to remove our out-of-commission freezer. They quickly returned. Within seconds, Hector had our wooden basement door off its hinges. Peter began arranging an unfamiliar apparatus around his shoulders and torso. The two-man team slid two long cloth straps underneath the freezer. Hector took up the slack and hooked the ends of the straps in a similar fashion around his shoulders. With little to no effort, the two men lifted that enormous freezer up off the floor. They easily guided the dead appliance up the narrow stairs with nary a kvetch or a grunt, effortlessly guiding it lightly with their hands so it didn't hit the walls. The freezer just barely swung in its little hammock suspended between these two men. In a few minutes, they returned with our new freezer, snugly fitted into its little cloth harness. They had it down the steps and placed in its waiting basement corner in under two minutes. Mrs. Pincus signed on the dotted line to confirm delivery and Hector snapped a picture on his cellphone confirming the same.
Happy lifting!
Those straps, I later discovered after a Google search, are called "shoulder dollies" and are readily available for purchase on Amazon. The many listings for them show Mr. and Mrs. Average Couple easily hoisting a huge clothes dryer with this thing threaded over their shoulders. They both are smiling as though they are holding a puppy. Best of all, this clever invention costs under thirty bucks and requires no electricity or lengthy set-up. Just a few twists and wraps, and you can lift (as Hector informed us) up to 700 hundred pounds. Technology doesn't always have to involve an internet connection, a three-prong electrical adapter or even a set of multi-blade screwdrivers. Sometimes it's a simple "why didn't I think of that?" solution to everyday challenges. But, honestly, I don't know if the need for "shoulder dollies" will ever present itself to me.

But I am glad I know about them.... just in case.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

keep 'em separated

The events of this past week made me sad and angry. I began to think of how I was raised. I was raised to treat everyone with equal respect, regardless of race or religion. That came from my mother, a wise, progressive and open-minded woman. What she was doing with my narrow-minded, bigoted father is beyond me. Regardless, I am a product of those polar opposites. Luckily for me, I took to my mother's way of thinking.

My mother passed away in 1991. The events of this past week would have made her sad and angry, too.

Here's a story about my mother that is just as relevant now as when it actually happened in 1959. It makes me happy.

My mother's parents ran an antique store not far from their home at Fourth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia. In the summer months, they operated a bath house on the boardwalk in the seaside resort of Wildwood, New Jersey. In addition, eighteen years separated my mother from her oldest sibling. Needless to say, "family time" was a rare event. While the three older brothers were out doing "adult things," my mother and her older sister were left in the very capable hands of Minnie Ellis, or as my mother affectionately called her "My Minnie." Minnie was technically "the housekeeper", but she was much, much more. She was cook, baby-sitter, playmate, disciplinarian, teacher and friend. With my grandparents' overwhelming responsibilities of running one business (and five months out of the year, two businesses), Minnie was the perfect parental supplement. She earned the love and respect of my mother and her family, so much so, that she was viewed as part of the family herself.

One day, my mother at around eight or nine years old, arrived home after school. She found Minnie in the kitchen preparing that evening's meal. My mother spoke right up and caught Minnie by surprise.

"You're black," my mother said.

"Am I?," answered Minnie, not at all flustered by my young mother's assertion, "Who told you that?"

"A boy at school. He said that you're black and I'm white.," my mother continued.

Minnie produced a bleached white, cotton dishcloth and draped it across my mother's arm. "Hmmm," she began and stroked her chin, "this rag is white and you don't look white. You look pink to me." 
Then Minnie took off one of her shoes and aligned it with her own arm. She continued, "I sure don't look like the color of this black shoe. I look brown."

My mother observed the demonstration and understood Minnie's message of how ridiculous the statement was. She momentarily felt ashamed, but then hugged and kissed Minnie and went on her way.

Years later, when my parents were dating, my mother met her future in-laws. My paternal grandparents were two textbook bigots, pure and simple in their ignorance and disdain for all people who they saw as "different." After my parents' wedding and brief honeymoon, they visited my father's parents for the first time as husband and wife. Over dinner, they talked about the wedding and the guests. Then, my grandfather — my mother's new father-in-law — said to my mother, "How could you bring yourself to kiss that..." and he used a horrible word, one that was at one time excised from copies of Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer  but features prominently in the lyrics of many current rap songs. A word that is euphemistically known as "The N Word." A word that made my mother cringe and nearly throw up. She looked at her father-in-law, staring at him with eyes like twin lasers, and through clenched teeth, slowly and deliberately seethed, "Don't you ever speak about 'My Minnie' that way. Ever!" She pronounced each syllable as though each one was its own word. My grandfather, that ignorant man, got the point loud and clear. My mother had little to say to him (but plenty to say about him) for the remaining fifteen years of his life.

In 1959, two years before I was born, my parents and my brother drove to Miami, Florida for a vacation. They loaded their packed suitcases and traveling provisions into my father's brand new orange and white, tail-finned sedan and made their way South on Route 1. (For years, my mother joked that my brother stood up in the back seat for the entire trip.) The journey predated the sleek concrete highways of Interstate I-95. Route 1 snaked though tiny, quaint burgs along the eastern seaboard. The pre-Josh  Pincus Family eagerly sampled the simple offerings of a culture that moved at a slower pace from the big-city bustle of Philadelphia. One afternoon, they pulled the car into Jessup, Georgia, as my mother was intrigued by the promise of authentic Southern cooking advertised on a sign several miles back. Since the area of commerce was fairly small, locating the eatery was easy and the Pincuses went in and prepared for a Dixie feast. According to my mother's recollections, the "authentic" Southern cuisine consisted of small, dried-out pieces of chicken, canned vegetables and Pillsbury biscuits (recognized by Mom since she had made them countless times herself). During the meal, a large spider descended from the ceiling on a single strand of web and wiggled its many legs just inches from my mother's nose.

Her appetite ruined, my mom sought salvation in the fresh air. My father unhappily paid the tab and followed my mother and brother to a gas station across the street. Figuring he'd fill the tank, he parked the car adjacent to one of the pumps and asked the attendant to "fill 'er up". My mother spotted a water fountain by the station's office and felt a cleansing drink would wash away the remnants of the awful lunch. She pressed the button on the spout and leaned down, bringing her lips closer to the stream of water. Suddenly, a scream pierced the air.

"What are you doing???" A windburned man in overalls was rushing out of the office and yelling at my mother in a dry Southern accent.

"What am I doing?," she asked, bewildered, "I'm getting a drink."

The man pointed to the base of the fountain, specifically to two lines of words stenciled on the front. "That's for colored only," he said.

My mother stepped back and — sure enough — in large white letters, the words "Colored Only" were painted on the tank, reinforcing the same angry, hateful directive that the gas station man initiated. My mother was horrified. Horrified that this situation existed in her world. She said nothing as the man watched her back away from the fountain. She joined her family in the car and sat silently in the passenger's seat for a good portion of the drive.

These incidents stayed with my mother her entire life and she related these stories quite often as lessons to my brother and me. The most important lesson my mother taught me was not to waste time giving an audience to stupidity.

This story originally appeared on my illustration blog in 2011.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

our love's in jeopardy redux

This year, Jeopardy!, the popular "phrase it in the form of a question" game show is celebrating its 35th season. The original version began life in 1964 as just another game show, joining the ranks of Hollywood Squares, Concentration, Password and slew of others on morning 1960s television. Almost immediately, Jeopardy! rose to become the second-highest rated game show on television. It remained at the top if its game for over a decade, until a change in time-slot resulted in a ratings drop. The show, hosted by Emmy-winning announcer Art Fleming, was canceled, making room for a new show called Wheel of Fortune. Four years later, the show returned to the airwaves as The All-New Jeopardy!, once again, hosted by Art Fleming. This incarnation lasted a year.

In 1984, Sony Pictures Television revived the venerable game show as a syndicated nighttime version. The program achieved cult-like status, often being referenced in pop-culture contexts. It was famously parodied many times on SNL as "Celebrity Jeopardy!" and "Black Jeopardy!" Over the years, contestants-cum-champions have garnered their own fan bases, especially Ken Jennings's 74-game run as Jeopardy's longest-reigning champ. Then, there was a novelty contest with Watson, the computer, followed by a number of actual celebrity events, a teachers tournament, a college tournament and a nearly-unwatchable teen series of games. In addition, there have been spin-offs in the form of "Sports Jeopardy!" and "Rock & Roll Jeopardy!" Of course, nearly every trivia-based game show owes a tip of the mortar board to Jeopardy!

The current revival has been hosted by veteran game show host Alex Trebek since its 1984 "re-premiere." At Trebek's behest, he was always introduced as "the host of Jeopardy!," not the "star." He felt that the show was the star and he merely presented it to viewers.

That seems to have changed.

Mrs. Pincus and I have been watching Jeopardy! ever since its mid-80s debut. We are trivia enthusiasts, so we are naturally drawn to the show. We've been there through a multitude of set changes, as well as changes to Alex Trebek's grooming (dark hair, mustache, gray hair, goatee, clean-shaven). We watched every contestant interview, laughing when any of the usually-awkward contenders got in an unintentional zinger or double-entendre during their thirty seconds of personal disclosure.

Lately, however, Alex Trebek has suddenly noticed the spotlight. He mugs for the camera. He monopolizes his interviews with the contestants. He exhibits tense body language towards mutli-day champions that he obviously dislikes. He excessively reprimands players who deliver incorrect answers. He also has questioned what contestants are wearing, ribbed them about their hairstyles and made fun of their little personality-revealing anecdotes.

More recently, Mr. Trebek has adopted a very unusual and upsetting habit. Whenever one of the categories references a foreign language or a foreign country, he announces the title in an overly-affected accent of that particular country. Then, he reads each clue in the category in the same, exaggerated dialect. We've heard cringe-worthy Irish brogues and Jamaican inflections. We have heard him read clues about Italy in a vocal tone that would embarrass Nintendo's Mario. I understand that Alex Trebek grew up in a bilingual Canadian household, but his French is, at the same time, both condescending and mortifying. Mr. Trebek's questionable (and somewhat mean-spirited) behavior is not confined to Jeopardy!, either. He was recently tagged as moderator for a debate between candidates for Governor of Pennsylvania. He dominated the debate, talking for nearly half of it, often about himself, without allowing candidates time to discuss important political issues. He also made surprising and unprovoked remarks regarding the sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church. Alex later apologized for his performance, stating that he misunderstood the role of a moderator.

Alex Trebek's current contract to host Jeopardy! expires in 2020. I hope when the time comes to audition his replacement, the choice will be someone with a little more sensitivity to current climate of tolerance and acceptance.

Someone like Alex Trebek in 1984.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

pretty hate machine

When does hate begin? Well, for me, it began when I was a kid. 

I grew up in a predominately gentile neighborhood. And by "predominantly," I mean you could count the Jewish families on one hand. Now, I don't mean that as a bad thing or an immediate source of hate, but I was surrounded by antisemitism at every corner. I heard it at the bus stop. I heard it while playing in my yard. I heard it while walking down my street. I even heard it from kids who I numbered among my "friends." It's not that the members of my family were particularly observant Jews (we were not), but everyone knew that we didn't have a Christmas tree and didn't put up Christmas lights and we didn't dress up on Easter. I don't think the fact that we were Jews even registered with our gentile neighbors, but more the fact that we believed in different things. Oh, and that we killed Christ.

There were two families on my block, each with numerous kids ranging in age from early teens to preschool. Their houses were a few lots apart and, coincidentally, the families were related. (I think the fathers of each household were brothers or cousins or something like that.) These two families were hotbeds for antisemitism. I would get taunts from the members of both households — young and old, boys and girls alike. In winter, snowballs would come hurtling from their backyards if I would walk past their houses, accompanied by muffled giggling and high-pitched shrieks of "Jew!" In nicer weather, the taunts would be more brazen with some of my dimmer-witted "friends" joining in because they didn't know any better.

Actually, that's the key to all of the hate I experienced as a child. They didn't know any better. This unfounded prejudice was passed down from parents who learned it from their parents. I remember a joke that I heard regularly in my neighborhood. At a time when ethic jokes were perfectly acceptable (Archie Bunker and Johnny Carson would frequently mock those of Polish and Italian extraction and Don Rickles made and entire career of it.), kids in my neighborhood would tell this one, most of them not even understanding its feeble attempt at humor:
Why are synagogues round?
So the Jews can't hide in the corners when the collection plate comes around.
Pretty stupid, huh? Let's analyze just how stupid it is. First of all, not all synagogues are round. Actually, I can't remember ever seeing a round synagogue. The only structures I can think of that are "round," are sports stadiums — and even those aren't truly round. Plus, it's not as though synagogues are built without some consultation with the folks who are going to use it as a house of worship. No one ever, during the design and construction, adamantly insisted, "Now make sure there are no corners so the Jews can't hide." Wouldn't Jews be making those structural design decisions? Makes no sense. Second — obviously, this terrible attempt at antisemitic levity, was made up by a non-Jew who had never, ever set foot in a synagogue, especially during a religious service. Their only frame of reference was their own religious service experience. If they had done the proper research, they would have known that Jews don't pass around a collection plate. Neither do Muslims or Hindus or any number of non-Christian religions. Collection plates or "offertory" are strictly a Christian ritual. 

Of course, this "joke" is an attempt to illustrate the baseless perception that Jews are cheap. In fact, as a group, they are not. Charity is a fundamental part of Jewish life, from pushkes (coin boxes) in traditional Jewish homes, to mourners vowing to make a donation in memory of a lost loved one to Jewish youth group's efforts for raise money for various worthy causes. In Business Week's list of "The 50 Most Generous Philanthropists," fifteen were Jewish. Considering that less than .2% of the world's population is Jewish, that's a pretty good showing.

Had the budding comedian who originally conceived this unfunny joke done a little thinking, they would have discovered that the basic concept and example given in the joke did not make sense, rendering it not the least bit funny. However, the kids in my neighborhood told this joke quite often and it always evoked laughter. They didn't know why they were laughing, but everyone else was laughing and no one wanted to be singled out as the one who "didn't get it."

And that's how hate begins. Hate begins by not knowing.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

nothing compares to you

If you've been paying attention, you probably know how much I love Disney... especially the theme parks. I've been to Walt Disney World in Florida many times and I've been to Disneyland in California many times. When people find out about my affinity for Disney, they just assume that I like going to all theme parks. They assume incorrectly. To paraphrase Sinead O'Connor: "Nothing compares to Disney." I have been to Universal Studios once and that was one time too many. Actually, my experience there showed me why Disney is at the top of the heap and all others in the theme park game aspire to reach "Disney" levels... and, most likely, never will.

After trying (unsuccessfully) to convince my son that our local Disney Store was Walt Disney World, we broke down and made our first trip as a family to Walt Disney World in 1995. Because we are Pincuses with a penchant for the unconventional, we drove to Florida from our suburban Philadelphia home. We loaded up our minivan with luggage and food and activities for the road and headed south on I-95, stopping along the way to see the sights. As we drew closer to the Florida state line, we passed more and more billboards advertising "FREE THEME PARK TICKETS." We already had our Disney World admission, but my 8-year old son — also an avid Nickelodeon fan — was anxious to get an up-close look at the "Kids' Network" at Universal Studios theme park that had just opened its competitive doors a few years earlier. So, after a bit of cajoling, my wife swung the minivan into the gravel parking lot of a small building on a service road, just off the highway in South Carolina. A young lady behind a high counter greeted us with a smile. She explained that, in order to secure tickets to Universal, we would be required to attend a brief seminar at a soon-to-be-opened time-share complex minutes from the Disney compound in Orlando. My wife and I were young and naive, not fully aware of the hard-sell, pressure-heavy experience that awaited us. We excitedly made a reservation for mid-week to tour the complex, with effortless visions of free tickets to Universal Studios clouding our collective thoughts. We hopped back into our van and I tucked the reservations card away with our important papers.

Early one morning, our little family entered the Magic Kingdom, eager to share each other's joy and ride Pirates of the Caribbean a couple of dozen times. Disney, of course, did not disappoint. My son's first taste of a real, live Disney theme park was borderline mind-blowing. We basked in his excitement, as we re-watched familiar sights though a new set of eyes. We were also treated to that signature Disney service. Disney "cast members" filled our day with smiles and friendly words and honest-to-goodness happiness — from ride operators, to restaurant wait staff to the cheerful guy sweeping the walkways. Every Disney employee was willing to bend over backwards to make sure each and every guest had the greatest time.

A reasonable facsimile.
A few days later, we drove down a desolate stretch of Route 192 through Kissimmee until we arrived at the entrance to The Isle of Bali, a construction site with a single tower looming high above the giant piles of debris and dirt-caked bulldozers. The tower, a light brick structure inlaid with an aquatic pattern, was flanked by two in-progress edifices that had not made much progress at all. We found our way to a large conference room that was packed with folks milling about — obviously lured by the promise of free theme park tickets, because no one looked the least bit interested in buying into the sucker-pitch of a time-share. They were all like us — families on vacation. We were directed to a complementary continental breakfast, but no sooner had I begun to smear a lump of cream cheese across a pale, thin bagel than we were interrupted greeted by our day's tour guide. He was a cheerful young man who resembled Tim Meadows before we knew who Tim Meadows was. He shook my hand, tousled my son's hair and led us to a small table covered with a linen tablecloth. Before he began his presentation, he made several persistent attempts at sticking our son in a "kids area" where he would be "more comfortable." When he finally realized that we weren't letting him out our our sight, "Tim" proceeded with the most incoherent pitch I ever heard. We could barely follow what he was saying, as he jumped from tales of overseas vacations to domestic golf courses, to fishing lakes for fishing (I swear he said that!) to the constant mispronunciation of the name of complex itself. He repeatedly called the place "The Bile of Ali." I kid you not! At the end of a grueling two hours (yes! two hours!), we squirmed and declined every single "supervisor" who accosted us after "Tim" failed to lock us into a commitment. Finally, when we just asked for our free tickets to Universal, we were met with scowls and directed to a door. "In there." we were told. I suspected that a blazing furnace lay on the other side on the closed portal. But, no. Inside was a bare room with a bare Formica counter and bored woman in attendance. Without a word, she handed over an envelope with three passes to Universal and sent us through another door that dumped us in a remote area of the parking lot. Whatever.... we got what we came for.

Universal Studios was just okay. We went on some great rides (Back to The Future, ET, Jaws) and encountered typical "theme park" atmosphere (I seem to remember Elroy Jetson and Beetlejuice passing us on a walkway that was dotted with a recreation of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf just a short distance from the fictional, shark-threatened town of Amity). But, to me and my Disney-loving family, there was something missing. Universal was closer to a regular, no-frills amusement park than the magical wonderment that echoed the dreams and imagination of a visionary artist from Marceline, Missouri. The employees (decidedly not "cast members") were not smiling and sort of trudged around like they had better things to do. The place, while certainly impressive, didn't sparkle with that otherworldly, pixie-dust sprinkled enchantment that we had come to expect from "theme parks" of this magnitude. Sure, it was nice, but it wasn't Disney. It was just a big place with rides.

While we waited in line for one of those rides, we suffered the blistering Florida heat along with our fellow day guests. As the crowd snaked its way through the roped maze of the queue line, a uniformed fellow skirted along the outside of the line carrying a vendor's tray stocked with $8.00 cans of beer. He paced slowly along the line, making sure everyone saw his pricey, thirst-quenching wares and he even had a couple of takers. My family took full stock of this scenario.

The next day, we were back in the welcoming arms of Walt Disney World. The Florida heat was not diminished in the least and we found ourselves in a similar situation, waiting in a fairly long queue for a Disney attraction. In an antithetical reflection of the events of the previous day, a cheerful, brightly-clad Disney cast member slowly walked along the outside of the ride line. She had a large water cooler (the kind you see at construction sites) ingeniously strapped to her back. She was filling up paper cones with ice water and distributing them to every single person in line. Every single person. While the majority of the recipients thanked her and were grateful for the free refreshment, the Pincuses took note. This was a perfect example of why Disney is successful at what they do. Sure they want your money, but they also know how to make their guests happy. And they think of everything.

It's been twenty-three years since the events of my little tale unfolded. I haven't been back to Universal Studios since that day in 1995, so I don't know if they stepped up their game. I do know, however, that Disney continues to prove themselves to be "The Happiest Place on Earth." Early this year, I came across this heart-warming photograph taken at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. It rains nearly every day in central Florida. That's why nearly every merchandise store at every Disney theme park showcases a fully-stocked display of overpriced rain gear. I don't begrudge Disney for trying to make a buck. After all, that's really what they do best — make their stockholders happy. But, because they are marketing geniuses, they don't appear to be forcing the foul weather items in your face, rather they are merely offered for sale, if you so choose to make that purchase. But Disney also knows how to make their "guests" feel like actual "guests." As proof of that, I offer this photo of a "Green Army Man" street character silently lending some assistance to a wheelchair-bound guest, who was caught in an Orlando downpour.

This is Disney at its finest. A true depiction of the Disney brand. I hope someone at Universal is taking note.