Sunday, June 28, 2020

dig a little deeper

When my son was little, I would read to him every night before bedtime. I was a big fan of introducing him to classic children's stories and even those that were geared toward those a bit beyond his age group. But, — and this is not a brag — he was way more "on the ball" than a lot of his peers. I read Roald Dahl's lesser known works, as well as the original, non-Disney-fied, versions of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I also read the original Tales of Uncle Remus that white author Joel Chandler Harris collected and compiled in 1881. These are the stories upon which Disney based its notorious 1946 animated/live action musical amalgam Song of the South. However, in the version we had, the stories were ultra-sanitized versions of the post-Civil War folk tales. For most of the stories I read to my son, I made up and "performed" a number of funny voices for each character in the books. He loved those books and we read them often throughout his early years. Were they problematic? In hindsight, I suppose they were. 

If you are a regular reader of this stupid blog (and why would you be?), you know that I am an avid Disney fan. I have written about various trips to Disney theme parks and other Disney related anecdotes. I went to Walt Disney World for the first time with my friends just after I graduated from high school. We had such a good time that we returned again the next summer. (Actually, we were so drunk during our first trip, we went back to see what we missed the first time.) My wife and I went on our honeymoon in 1984. We went back again in '85 and ventured back one more time at the end of 1986, when Mrs. Pincus was pregnant with our son. After he was born, we put our Disney trips "on hold" for a while. Once we could no longer convince my son that The Disney Store in a nearby mall was "Disney World," we had no choice but to plan a family vacation to the central Florida resort... which we did in the summer of 1995. My son was so familiar with all things Disney that he was more prepared to experience the magic of Disney than any other guest — child or adult. Of course, everything was new to him, but there were plenty of attractions that had popped up since my wife and I were there almost a decade before. One of those was the elaborate "E-Ticket" experience called "Splash Mountain."

Splash Mountain has an interesting genesis. It started life as part of a massive project that never made it past the planning stages. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, Imagineers (the guys who conceive and design the rides) decided not to build an east-coast version of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, so popular in California's Disneyland. They didn't think a pirate-themed ride would interest Floridians, since so much "pirate lore" exists in and around Florida. Instead, they planned a sprawling experience that featured a cowboy-and-Indian themed boat ride (to pacify the "Pirates" fans) and a wild Western-themed roller coaster through a prairie town. The ride, christened "Thunder Mesa," was troublesome from the start. While still on the drawing board, its size and proposed technology was a logistic nightmare. It also promised to send its budget far beyond original limits. When guests started asking: "Hey! Where are the pirates?," Disney rethought their decision and scrapped the "Thunder Mesa" project. They turned to Imagineer Tony Baxter, who was brainstorming an attraction to fill out Disneyland's fairly sparse Critter Country. He came up with a variation of the standard "flume ride," so popular in other amusement parks. Tony's vision was to incorporate some of the Audio-Animatronic figures from the recently-shuttered America Sings and theme the whole thing to the film Song of the South. Although the Oscar-winning song from the film, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," was a Disney staple, Song of the South was a strange choice on which to base a ride in the 1980s. It was not particularly popular and had only been re-released four times to lukewarm reception since its initial run in 1946. By the time construction on Splash Mountain began, Song of the South had completed what would be its final theatrical release three years earlier, amid growing controversy over the depiction of racial stereotypes. Nevertheless, Splash Mountain opened in Disneyland in 1989 and its Florida counterpart followed in 1992. From the very beginning, the ride was one of the most popular in its respective park. The Florida version clocks in a nearly 12 minutes as it takes guests on a whirlwind — and often wet — journey through the world of the villainous Brer Fox in his pursuit of the happy-go-lucky, mischievous Brer Rabbit. Hulking hapless Brer Bear, along with a cheerful menagerie of anthropomorphic swamp critters, entertain riders with a selection of tunes woven around the main "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" theme. At the ride's conclusion, riders often discuss their unfamiliarity with the songs and the characters, as the overwhelming majority of Disney guests have never seen Song of the South. Yet, for nearly thirty years, Splash Mountain boasts long lines and wait times upwards of an hour on any given day.

The first time I rode Splash Mountain, I loved it. It was both exciting and charming. I remember wishing that the ride moved a bit slower, because I think I missed a lot of the subtleties scattered throughout individual tableaus as the story unfolded. I even felt the same excitement the first time I conquered the smaller. leaner, slightly altered Disneyland version of the attraction. However, after riding both versions, I was uncomfortable in spending the rest of my day in damp clothes. Oh yes... you may get wet. Getting wet should only be the biggest issue with the ride. The hard truth is, just like the film that is its basis, Splash Mountain is fraught with derogatory imagery and mocking dialects that really have no business being glorified in a family-friendly theme park.

Just this week, in the wake of a long overdue awakening to racial injustice, racial inequality and old-fashioned prejudice, Disney has announced plans to re-theme Splash Mountain — ditching the racially-insensitive characters from Song of the South. The curently-unnamed attraction will feature characters and a story line from Disney's 49th animated full-length feature The Princess and the Frog, a 2009 release that was (mostly) praised for spotlighting Disney's first (and so far, onlyAfrican-American princess. Disney made the announcement on various social media and news outlets. Being the greatest marketers on the planet, Disney made no mention of reasons for the change and made no mention of the characters from the current Splash Mountain ride. The press release was purely forward-thinking, excitedly written and enthusiastic in its descriptive vision.

Disney has made numerous changes to their theme parks over the years. Some rides were changed or removed so quickly, you probably forgot they ever existed (The Tomorrowland Phantom Boats, a Disneyland "Opening Day" attraction, wasn't around to see its one year anniversary.) But die-hard Disney fans get very protective and very defensive when it comes to their most beloved rides at their theme park. And a ride being changed based on hurtful racial issues — acknowledged or not — does not sit well with a contingency of spoiled-rotten, uninformed, oblivious, insensitive, elitist, privileged white people that, unfortunately, make up a good chunk of Disney's fan base. 

I first saw the announcement on the official Disney Parks Blog, where the new, reimagined ride was lovingly described. It was accompanied by an artist's rendering, approximating a still-unrealized scene from the ride. The timeline for construction was vague, as Disney parks are currently closed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, with tentative opening dates still "iffy" as new cases spring up every day. Disney's goal in making this announcement was two-fold. First, it needed to address the "elephant in the room," righting a wrong that should have been addressed years ago, but also to inject a bit of optimism into its current stagnating situation. The company hoped to evoke visions of bright, shiny new enticements on the sketchy horizon. The news was met with reaction, both favorable and disappointed. The favorable ones offered praise and excitement. The disappointed reactions were vicious, filled with selfish complaints, racist sentiment and indifference to the fact that more that just you visit Disney theme parks. Some cite their own love of the ride as a valid reason not to change it. Others dismiss any notion of offensiveness because it doesn't offend them. What these narrow-minded, self-appointed defenders of Disney forget is what Walt Disney, the man himself, said: "Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." He also said: "Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future."

They also forget the current philosophy of the Disney Company — and that's the "cha-CHING!" of a cash register.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints

I really try to steer away from politics and controversial issues, but I will make an exception. The current climate of racial tension has weighed heavily on me. I know, I know, I'm an old white guy. I'm very aware of the fact that I have enjoyed "white privilege" my entire life. There are people who I know that have been the victim of systemic racism their entire lives. I understand that as best as I can, but I am still in the process of getting the education I didn't know I needed.

My dad
This country seems to be getting a long-overdue education as well. White people, who have made the rules and policies for years and years, are slowly discovering that their rules and policies suck. Some progress has been made over the past week. Some. Statues of revered Civil War luminaries and known slave owners have been toppled and even dumped in lakes in cities across the country. In my own city of Philadelphia, the reviled statue of racist mayor Frank Rizzo was spirited away under cover of night after protesters defaced it and demanded its removal. (My father, who passed away in 1993, was a huge fan of Frank Rizzo. He shared Rizzo's narrow-minded view of minorities and relished his public display of bias. My father was smitten when he saw the blustery Rizzo on a TV news report, attending a formal function with a night stick jammed into his cummerbund like a sword. If my dad was still alive today, I would most likely, not be on speaking terms with him.) It was a long time coming. Too long, as matter of fact. And there's still a long way to go.

The story I will relate here has stayed with me for years, but only now, do I understand that, under different circumstances, it would have resulted in a much different outcome.

In the early 80s, I was a student at a Philadelphia art school. My parents made it very clear to me that If I chose to further my education, I was on my own. They were not going to supplement any sort of tuition in any sort of way. So, to earn money, I worked at my cousin's health food restaurant, the same one where I met the woman who is now my wife (the esteemed Mrs. Pincus). Three evenings a week, I dished out food from behind the cafeteria-style set-up and made friendly chit-chat with the customers. At the end of the night, I'd lock the front door and, along with a co-worker, break down the steam table and cold foods, storing stuff that could be put out the next day for lunch and discarding the unsalvageable. Tony, my co-worker, would retire to the second-floor kitchen to wash the pots and utensils, to the accompaniment of some of the greatest music I ever heard. (Tony introduced me to the awesome sounds of The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash.) I would stay in the first-floor dining room, where I would stack the chairs on the tables, fill up a wheeled bucket with hot water and some kind of industrial cleaning agent, and mop the floor as quickly as I could, doing the shittiest job possible. (Hey, I wanted to get home!)

Over the few years that I worked at the restaurant, I got to know several of the neighborhood regulars, including the policeman whose "beat" was the two blocks that included our address. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evening, the officer would pop in to the restaurant to say "Hello" or sometimes just give a friendly wave, as he made his way up Spring Garden Street. He'd patrol the north side, headed west, then, I suppose, he'd reverse at some point and return on the opposite side of the street. Sometimes, I'd only see him once a night. Sometimes, twice.

One Friday night, on a particularly humid summer evening, I was just finishing up the mopping. I opened the usually locked door to relieve the stuffiness as I completed the strenuous final task of my closing ritual. When I finished, I dragged the bucket towards the back door, carefully controlling the random splashes of dirty water. My destination was the parking lot behind the restaurant, where I would kick over the heavy bucket, spilling its contents along the cement gutter that ran around the perimeter of the lot. The bucket was awkward and required a few kicks until it landed on its side, releasing a flood of brown mop water. When it was completely empty, I grabbed the handle and guided it back through the back door and into the restaurant...

...where I was met by our police officer, with his gun drawn and his arms and legs locked in the "I mean business" Weaver shooting stance.

I froze. I'm surprised I didn't crap my pants. When the policeman recognized me, he relaxed his arms and slowly holstered his gun. He wiped his arm across his forehead and said, "I saw your front door wide open."

"I-I-I was dumping the mop bucket out back.," I somehow managed to stammer. 

I confirmed that everything was okay. He bid me a "good night." He descended the front steps and continued down the street. I watched from the door way for a while, as his figure disappeared and reappeared in the distance between street lights. And I caught my breath.

I'm sure, later that night, I told my parents or my girlfriend about the incident and we got a quick laugh. But, now that I reflect on it thirty-seven years later, I have come to the painful conclusion that — if I had been black — I would not be typing this story right now.

I'd be dead.

And that's wrong.

This link, highlighting black-owned business, was sent to me by a reader. Perhaps it will be a resource that you can use. I have not researched any of the businesses that are mentioned, I am merely posting this as a request. I do not endorse nor am I connected to any of these businesses. Thanks, JPiC

Sunday, June 14, 2020

a hundred million miracles

I love watching old movie musicals. I can sit and watch most of them over and over again... and, for some, I have. I've lost count at around a zillion on viewings of Singing in the Rain. Same goes for Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun (although I still wince at Betty Hutton's shrieking style of singing). If I am going to be honest, I have never been able to stay awake through the entire 153 minutes of West Side Story

I used to look forward to the annual Fourth of July showing of Yankee Doodle Dandy on Turner Classic Movies, but I haven't watched it in a while because I have a difficult time with the "blackface" scene. Sure, the TCM host will introduce the film with a solemn, almost apologetic, disclaimer, stating that it is "historical" and "a product of its time." As much as I love the movie, I would prefer that it never see the light of day again (along with Holiday Inn, Babes on Broadway and The Littlest Rebel for the same reason.).

Juanita Hall
Recently, I watched a musical that I had never seen before. It's Flower Drum Song, the 1961 Rogers & Hammerstein take on Asian culture, specifically Chinese traditions. In its initial release, as well as its broadcast on TCM, the film was touted as being the first Hollywood film with a majority Asian cast. Yes, there had been plenty of films with Asian themes, but all of the lead roles were played by white actors in heavy, so-called "yellowface," make-up, including all of the "Charlie Chan" and "Mr. Moto" detective series and the cringe-worthy Dragon Seed, a chronicle of the Second Sino-Japanese war starring (gulp!) Katherine Hepburn, Walter Huston and Agnes Moorehead. Flower Drum Song did, indeed, showcase an Asian cast for its story about a traditional Chinese arranged marriage and the "Americanization" of the culture. However, of its four main leads — James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo and Nancy Kwan — only Kwan is of Chinese ancestry. While an "all Asian cast" was commendable, there was absolutely no regard for which specific Asian nationality the actors represented. The role of wise "Madame Liang," originated on Broadway by African-American actress Juanita Hall, was planned for Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (possibly to make up for her been passed over for the lead in The Good Earth in favor of white actress Luise Rainer). Wong died suddenly before production began and the part was reprised by Hall. The rest of the supporting cast were Asian, but of a wide variety of Asian races.

Miyoshi Umeki and James Shigeta
The songs in Flower Drum Song are typical Rogers & Hammerstein fare. Where the songs in Oklahoma! focused on using every Western, cowboy and prairie reference the celebrated songwriting pair could muster, the songs in Flower Drum Song were fraught with condescending — and downright racist — lyrics that proliferated stereotypes, presenting its subjects as quaint, little curiosities as though in a circus sideshow. Don't get me wrong. The cast was terrific and the musical numbers — while uncomfortable on the surface — were executed beautifully. Nancy Kwan was stunning in her solo performance of the blatantly sexist and subservient "I Enjoy Being a Girl," although her modest singing voice was dubbed by the white B.J. Baker, who "sang" for "Wilma Flintstone" in The Flintstones. (My wife pointed out how this song seemed eerily similar to "How Lovely to Be a Woman," as sung by Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie.) It was particularly difficult to watch her deliver the self-mocking lyrics of "Grant Avenue." Jack Soo was endlessly endearing as the hot-shot Chinatown club owner. His rendition of "Don't Marry Me" was delightful, despite the song's obligatory racist jabs. Miyoshi Umeki displayed a beautiful singing voice that was sadly hidden in her secondary role as "Mrs Livingston" on the hip 60s sitcom The Courtship of Eddie's Father. And poor, hunky James Shigeta. He was once told by a Hollywood agent that if he wasn't Asian, he would be a huge star.

I watched Flower Drum Song to the very end. It was very uneven. Lively and engaging in spots and monotonous in others. I was glad I finally got to see it, but because of the hurtful and exploitative treatment of its cast, I probably will not watch future showings. (And there will be future showings.) I was sad to learn that the next Hollywood movie featuring an "all Asian cast" was The Joy Luck Club, released 32 years after Flower Drum Song. 

Hollywood still has a lot to learn.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

baker street

See those bagels? Look good, huh? Well, they wereVery good, as a matter of fact. And my wife baked them from scratch. Here's how they came to be.

Ten weeks into this worldwide coronavirus quarantine, we are running out of things to do. We watched all the television shows. We watched all the movies. We went on all the walks. Every day. Every single day until the days began to run into each other, one indistinguishable from the next. 

In between these mundane and repetitious time killers, Mrs. P and I spend a good amount of time on social media... even when there is not a pandemic going on. Under the current circumstances, we find ourselves staring at small screens and large screens for long periods of time. I post my drawings and, lately, a succession of screenshots from old televisions shows featuring a well-known actor or actress in a very early role. (I figured I should put my excessive TV watching to some constructive use... if you call that constructive.) Mrs. Pincus checks Facebook to keep in touch, catch up and commiserate with friends. A few days ago (it may have been a week ago... or maybe a month), Mrs. P came across a simple recipe for bagels. At this point, it appears that everyone is baking some sort of bread or bread-type concoction. I see the pictures on Instagram. There are beautiful, rustic masterpieces of oven-browned works of art. Some have intricate designs etched into the outer crust. Others are deftly braided and glistening with an egg-washed shine. Then there are some that can only be identified as "bread" by the accompanying caption. 

Mrs. Pincus is an accomplished baker, turning out bakery-caliber specialties that have brought her regular praise at our annual "Night before Thanksgiving" dessert party. She mostly concentrates on baked goods of the sweet and dessert-y variety. The closest she comes to anything remotely bready is her renowned kamish broit, which is sort of a cookie biscotti... but not really. Kamish broit is sometimes called mandel broit or mandel loaf and it is a traditional Ashenaszi dessert with origins among Ukrainian peasants. Aside from flour, sugar, eggs and oil, additional ingredients can include almonds, walnuts or candied fruit. Mrs. Pincus loads hers with semisweet chocolate chips and they have been known to cause riots if there is not enough to go around.

Mrs. Pincus often gathers recipes that pique her interest, hoping to eventually make some a permanent addition to her repertoire. Baking bread has never interested her. She couldn't be bothered with yeast and proofing and rising and kneading and resting and all those other steps. (Yeah, I took the self-guided tour at the Boudin Sourdough Bakery attraction in Disney's California Adventure, so I know those terms have something to do with bread baking.) The bagel recipe, however, seemed to pride itself on being comprised of just five simple ingredients — flour, salt, baking power, Greek yogurt and eggs. Actually, since the eggs are just used for a topical egg wash, the number of actual "mixed-in" ingredients are reduced to four. All of the traditional methods associated with the age-old process of bagel-making are dispensed with! No yeast! No mixers with a dough hook attachment! No boiling! Mrs. Pincus was game.

Sunday afternoon, we gathered in the kitchen. Mrs. P allowed me to assist, an appointment that I took very seriously. In the two days in November that Mrs. P works tirelessly to crank out an overflowing table full of tempting desserts, no one is permitted in the  kitchen, lest they interrupt — or worse, get trampled — amid the baking ballet that my spouse has perfected.

I collected a canister of flour, a can of baking powder and a box of coarse salt from the cabinet. Mrs. Pincus extracted two eggs and a recently-purchased-just-for-the-occasion container of plain Greek yogurt from the refrigerator. She added a small pouch of sesame seeds and a shaker of "everything bagel" seasoning to our last grocery order. We were ready. A cup of flour was measured. Two teaspoons of baking powder were added. Three-quarters of a teaspoon of the coarse salt followed into the bowl. In a separate measuring cup, Mrs. P spooned a heaping spatula of Greek yogurt, adding small amounts until the level reached the "one cup" marking on the glass. While Mrs. Pincus blended these unlikely bread ingredients, I got my first on-the-job-training in cracking an egg. Following verbal instructions from my wife, I gingerly held the egg with the tips of my fingers and began awkwardly tapping it on the edge of the sink until a crack spread across its surface. I carefully pulled the crack wider until the yolk and cloudy albumen dropped into a waiting glass bowl. Then, with a fork, I whipped the yellow and white contents together and waited further instruction.

By now, the four ingredients in the mixing bowl had melded miraculously — and against all explanation — into a dead ringer for bread dough. Mrs. Pincus rolled a chunk of dough — by hand — into a rope and then attached each end to form a circle. She repeated this several more times until a greased baking sheet was evenly arranged with nine bagels awaiting their time in our oven. I brushed the top of each one with the beaten egg and then sprinkled them with bagel toppings — six with "everything" seasoning and three with sesame seeds only. 

After a twenty-five turn in the oven, Mrs. P donned a quilted mitt and withdrew a pan of golden bagels. They were beautiful little examples of baked nirvana (the blissful state, not the band.... unless your idea of bliss is Kurt Cobain's mournful growl, then, by all means....). She placed the baking sheet on our kitchen counter for the recommending cooling time. As the temperature dissipated, we marveled at the little round, sesame and poppy-topped comestibles. When a suitable cooling period has passed, my wife broke one of the bagels in half and handed me a piece. I popped it in my mouth. It was absolutely delicious! I am not just saying that because my wife baked it. It was sincerely delicious! It was on a level of any commercially-produced bagel I had ever eaten. Seriously! While we enjoyed outr first taste of their magical bready goodness, my wife quickly mixed up another batch and and placed them in the oven. I called my son to tell him how good they were. My wife put five on a plate to bring to her parents. Plans were already in the works for the next time these bagels would be made. We saved the remaining bagels to accompany our dinner over the next few nights.

After dinner, we settled in front of another screen — the television — to find something to watch for the evening. As per usual, we settled on something that would not need our undivided attention. Mrs. P scanned Facebook, proudly posting pictures of the bagels that she had baked, explaining that they only required five ingredients. Well, the internet being what it is, its never ending mission to outdo anything you may have just read, someone else posted a recipe that only uses two ingredients! How can this be possible? We were doubtful that bagels could be made with five ingredients considering that none of those ingredients were yeast! But, come on, two ingredients? This is nuts! Mrs. Pincus clicked the link and read on. Within a second or two, she emitted a disappointed exhale. It seemed the two ingredients are plain Greek yogurt and self-rising flour. And what exactly is self-rising flour? Why, it's flour that already contains salt and baking powder! Oh, the internet!

Anyway, here's the recipe that we followed. And, no, this has not become a baking blog.

Five Ingredient Bagels
1 cup (5 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour (whole wheat or gluten-free mix can be used)
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt (kosher salt)
1 cup non-fat Greek yogurt (not regular yogurt, but non-dairy Greek yogurt can be substituted)
1 egg white, beaten (a whole egg can be used)
optional toppings:
everything bagel seasoning, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried garlic flakes, dried onion flakes

Preheat oven to 375°F. Place parchment paper on a baking sheet. Spray parchment with oil to avoid sticking. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt and whisk well. Add the yogurt and mix with a fork or spatula until well combined, it will look like small crumbles. Lightly dust flour on a work surface and remove dough from the bowl, knead the dough a few times until dough is tacky, but not sticky, about 15 turns (it should not leave dough on your hand when you pull away). Divide into 4 equal balls. Roll each ball into 3/4-inch thick ropes and join the ends to form bagels. (or you can make a ball and poke a hole in the center then stretch it slightly) Top with egg wash and sprinkle both sides with seasoning of your choice. Bake on the top rack of the oven for 25 minutes. Let cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.  (We made smaller bagels and got nine out of this recipe.)

I guess we'll be churning our own butter next.