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.